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(Illustration by Michael Daley)


There are two kinds of prophets: prophets of victory and prophets of defeat. As the carnage of the First World War abruptly ceased, Oswald Spengler transfigured the German defeat into a global catastrophe with his Der Untergang des Abendlandes. (The title was translated as The Decline of the West, but Untergang really means “downfall”.) As the West was winning the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published his essay “The End of History” in the summer of 1989. It was followed in 1992 by his book The End of History and the Last Man, elevating the triumph of liberal democracy onto a grander, teleological level. Of these two 20th-century seers, which has proved more reliable?

A century after his magnum opus appeared, Spengler is still read and debated; by common consent, he is still worth reading. Who, though, now reads Fukuyama? Outside the academy, does anyone see him as a guide to the present, let alone the future? Fukuyama is a footnote to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The End of History man is now history himself.

Not that Fukuyama has been idle. His books now fill a sizeable shelf. He is a distinguished scholar, with a chair at Stanford and an enviable accumulation of accolades. He is the very model of a modern intellectual, omnipresent in the public sphere. But his hyperactivity cannot disguise the impression that he is constantly catching up with events. True prophets are usually without honour in their own lands. After failing as a school teacher, Spengler never had a proper job, let alone the academic kudos that now attaches to Fukuyama’s name.

Yet we still worry about Spengler’s question mark over the fate of Western civilisation — is it in decline and destined to fall? Fukuyama can’t even decide whether his thesis — that we have reached the end of history because liberal democracy has triumphed — should have a question mark or not. The original article in the journal The National Interest had one; the subsequent book did not. He has since reinstated it. Nobody else really cares.

After writing worthy tomes on everything from neoconservatism to biotechnology, Fukuyama has now settled on a new theme to explain our present discontents: identity. His new book has two titles, one for each side of the Atlantic. Here in the UK we have a book entitled Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. But inside the dust jacket we find the American title: Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.
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