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The End of Thinking?

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Francis Fukuyama revisited his influential "End of History?" article recently and told readers of the Wall Street Journal (on June 6) that he was right after all. Twenty-five years ago, as communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe, Fukuyama claimed that "we may be witnessing ... the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fukuyama has looked around again and once more sees only inferior alternatives to this liberal democracy -- for example in China, Russia, and Iran. He might have looked in some other places.

History did not end in 1989, but for too many of the people who bought into Fukuyama's claim, as well as the related conclusion that capitalism had triumphed, what ended then was thinking.

And what triumphed then was balance. While the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were utterly out of balance, with so much power concentrated in their public sectors, the successful countries of the West maintained a sufficient balance of power across the three main sectors of their societies: public, private, and what can be called plural (civil society, community-based). This includes the United States, which arguably experienced from 1945 to 1989 the greatest period of development -- social and political as well as economic -- of any nation ever.

But a failure to understand this has been throwing the U.S. and many other countries out of balance ever since, on the side of their private sectors. The consequences of this can be seen in the degradation of our environments, the demise of our democracies, and the denigration of ourselves, who these days are often treated as "human resources" more than human beings.

Read about trade pacts that have allowed global corporations to sue sovereign states for, among other things, trying to curb their citizens' use of tobacco; the games that Facebook et al. play with their clients' information; the "level playing field" of globalization that pits the New York Giants against some high-school team from Timbuktu. Note how Adam Smith's invisible hand in the marketplace has become a visible claw in the U.S. Congress, as corporate entitlements escalate while corporate taxes decline. America is having a tea party, all right: It's being hosted by private institutions, under the slogan "No taxation with representation."

Almost two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville identified the genius of America as "self-interest rightly understood." Now the country is dominated by self-interest fatefully misunderstood. Consider the evidence that has been come out about conditions of life for so many Americans, for example in the epidemic of obesity, the escalation of income disparities, the world's highest rates of incarceration and use of illicit drugs. Most surprising, the country's greatest claim to fame, social mobility, now ranks well behind some other developed countries. If these are the consequences of "liberal democracy," then no wonder people in so many places are questioning it.

There is a great deal of political turmoil right now. Like many other prominent commentators, Fukuyama discusses it but hardly explains it. Indeed, he dismisses it as temporary, warning the reader not "to get carried away by short-term developments," not to judge the performance of a political system "in any given decade." The problems discussed above have been festering for a lot longer than that.

There may be various reasons for this political turmoil, but one that needs to be faced head-on is that many people in the world -- left and right, north and south, east and west -- have had it with social imbalance. And that includes a "liberal democracy" seen neither as liberal nor as democratic as authorities in the West would like to believe.

Capitalism has been a significant force in helping create and fund enterprises that supply us with many of our goods and services. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all of our human existence, let alone, as we are finding out in short-sighted stock markets, even an ideal way to fund business enterprises themselves.

The alternative that Fukuyama failed to see can be found in countries that function closer to balance. This requires a strong private sector, to be sure, but acting responsibly, not only with regard to pollution but in how private power is used to influence public policies. It also requires respected governments in the public sector to give significant attention to collective needs for protection, including regulations to curb the excesses of private institutions, global as well as domestic. And reinforcing this, as a third pillar of a balanced society, has to be robust communities in the plural sector, from which come many of our most important social initiatives, for example in the alleviation of poverty, the improvement of education, and campaigns to reverse global warming.

A number of the developed countries, including the United States, were closer to this before 1989, and some do retain it to a considerable degree. Germany, for example, has one of the most vibrant economies in the world, together with high wage rates and, for decades, significant worker representation on the boards of its corporations. Brazil, despite its problems, has perhaps the most vibrant plural sector of any country, with people engaged in all kinds of novel social initiatives, many as cooperative efforts across the sectors. A most remarkable example is how the country dealt with its HIV/AIDS crisis.

Francis Fukuyama has looked back economically. The rest of us need to look forward socially, with eyes wide open, to understand what has been happening in this world, for better and for worse. Then, perhaps, we shall be able to use our human resourcefulness to avoid what could be the end of our history.

Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, has posted an electronic pamphlet entitled Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Right, and Center on and is preparing it in book form.