The End of the End of History:
Politics in the Twenty-First Century
by alex hochuli, george hoare, and philip cunliffe
zer0, 208 pages, $19.95
About a decade ago, I would go to a party, get drunk off the kind of alcohol that’s sold in plastic bottles, snort up some dubious research chemicals, and then discover to my horror that I’d just spent the last hour talking to a complete stranger at a high clip about the labor theory of value. I was into politics, which made me a weirdo, and into radical left-wing politics, which made me an embarrassing weirdo to boot. Maybe it would have been better if I were at least some kind of activist, but I wasn’t: I just had weird opinions and talked about them at length. I didn’t care about protesting; I cared about workers’ revolution—which meant I didn’t really have to do anything at all.
Back then, it was not normal for young people to define themselves politically. My friends were fond of making grand statements like “I’m bigger than feminism” or “Politics is for little minds.” The millennial generation wasn’t stereotyped as preening, moralistic, or oversensitive: We were all supposed to be boozy nihilists, uni lads or frat bros. Back then, the problem with the voting public wasn’t misinformation, or extremism, or that we were all at each other’s throats—it was that we couldn’t even be bothered to vote.
This was the age of technocracy, when nothing you said or thought really mattered. In the 1990s, governments across Europe had made their central banks independent, effectively putting monetary policy outside of democratic control. The power to regulate the economy was given over to panels of unelected experts. But after the 2008 crash, these experts started swallowing up government itself. In Italy, the flamboyantly corrupt government of Silvio Berlusconi was replaced by an unelected technocratic cabinet fronted by Mario Monti, a Goldman Sachs advisor and former chairman of the Trilateral Commission. In Greece, the center-left government gave way to a grand coalition headed by Lucas Papademos, previously the vice president of the European Central Bank and also a member of the Trilateral Commission. We were in the middle of a global financial crisis: Governments needed competent people who could do what needed to be done, not demagogues or utopians. Even the political slogans of the time were strangely nonpolitical. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government’s favorite phrases were “We’re all in this together” and “There is no alternative.” And the opposition Labour Party seemed to agree; they just thought they should be the ones who got to push the buttons.
The rule of these technocrats was uniformly harsh. After the crash, the experts had urged governments to rescue stricken financial institutions with injections of public money. In 2009, the front page of Newsweek proclaimed that “we are all socialists now.” Socialism, in this context, had nothing to do with workers: It meant a massive state payout to the ruling class. These bailouts stabilized the markets, but at the cost of putting entire countries in enormous debt—and many of them, especially in southern Europe, simply couldn’t afford to pay. Suddenly, the official narrative was about wasteful state spending; we’d all been too greedy, getting fat off government swill. Populations had to be disciplined. In Greece, spending cuts shrank the national economy by a quarter, and thousands of public sector employees endured “negative salaries” in which they had to pay to keep their jobs. In the U.K., one study linked austerity policies to 120,000 excess deaths.
There were a few people who kept insisting that there was an alternative, but it didn’t make much difference. Eventually, even I got involved, marching with a few thousand other miserable dead-enders through central London, shouting anti-austerity slogans, achieving nothing. Eventually it would start to rain, and this mass of revolutionary communists, dedicated to the violent overthrow of all existing society, would simply pack up its signs and lope back home.
Last year, my first real social outing after a long winter in lockdown was another party with some old university friends. We were all sliding haphazardly into our thirties, respectably employed, thinking about kids—and everyone only wanted to talk about politics. Specifically, we were talking about late capitalism. Everyone was sick of late capitalism, which was controlling every aspect of our lives and making us feel sad. It was a surreal experience. Ten years ago, I was ambiently depressed that these very people didn’t share my political obsessions. Now they were all chatting to each other in the specialized terminology of orthodox Marxism, and I felt more alone than ever.
Being into politics is not like being into a band. You don’t get any points for liking an ideology before it was cool; if you have niche politics, you should desperately want them to go mainstream. But the mainstreaming of politics doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like a nightmare.
Late in 2021, the New York Times produced a report on the state of Generation Z. “The 37-Year-Olds,” their headline reads, “Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them.” Afraid, because young people want everything in the world to reflect their progressive values, and they simply won’t take no for an answer. As one millennial capitalist put it:
You talk to older people and they’re like, “Dude we sell tomato sauce, we don’t sell politics,” said [Gabe] Kennedy, co-founder of Plant People, a certified B corporation. “Then you have younger people being like, ‘These are political tomatoes. This is political tomato sauce.”
Today, everyone has to behave exactly like my awkward, speed-addled, late-teenage self. In New York a year ago, I saw a man screaming into the faces of strangers on Fifth Avenue about how the Democrats were keeping child sex slaves in their Congressional offices. He was unwell, obviously, but millions of perfectly sane people do broadly the same thing online; it was just an echo of the madness of our times. Even pop stars and celebrities must broadcast their political opinions, and if they refuse it’s taken as evidence that they’re some kind of secret fascist. Everything is always about politics. Is all this really the work of a few twenty-three-year-olds with big hearts and serious minds?
Strangely, this wave of politicization has failed to unseat the actual managers. Insurgent populists briefly took political power in a few minor outlying nations, like Greece and the United States of America—but the administrative centrists are back in charge almost everywhere. In response to the pandemic, they funneled vast amounts of state funds directly into the pockets of ordinary people: If you’d suggested this in 2015, you’d have been written off as a far-left lunatic; now, it’s common sense. The austerity wars are over. I was right all along; the economists and experts were wrong. But it doesn’t feel like anything’s been won. Nobody on the right wanted to admit his failure, and most of the left was now busy begging everyone to listen to the experts and wear a mask.
When people say that tomato sauce is political, what do they actually mean? In most cases, they’re not talking about the migrant laborers who pick the tomatoes, or workers in the canneries. They want the tomatoes to affirm that black lives matter. Like my younger self, they’re not trying to achieve anything in the world; the object is to be a certain type of person. This is how street movements like BLM can mobilize millions of people for an urgent and righteous cause and change nothing. No reduction in poverty or police violence, just a new kind of corporate branding. Food might be political now, and sitcoms, and novels, and every conversation with everyone you’ve ever known, but the sole exception seems to be politics itself. Today, being obsessed with politics is just apathy by other means.
What happened between then and now? The End of the End of History: Politics in the Twenty-First Century is an attempt to answer this question. The authors, Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Philip Cunliffe, are also the cohosts of the excellent “global politics podcast” Aufhebunga Bunga. For the uninitiated, Aufhebung is a notoriously untranslatable German word used by Hegel to describe the process in which something is simultaneously negated and preserved in its negation. Bunga bunga is the name Silvio Berlusconi gave the infamous sex parties at his private villa. (A little Berlusconi-goblin smirks from the front cover of the book.) We’re somewhere between philosophy and scandal; possibly the best thing about the Bunga hosts is that they know how to tell the difference. They treat serious things seriously, and unserious things flippantly—no mean feat, in a time when most people seem intent on doing the opposite.
They also have a specific definition of what they mean by “politics,” and it’s certainly not the kind of thing that can be expressed by a tomato. He is not cited directly in the text, but their understanding is heavily indebted to Jacques Rancière, the octogenarian bad boy of French political philosophy. For Rancière, “The essence of politics resides in the modes of dissensual subjectification that reveal the difference of a society to itself.” In simpler terms, politics is, per the Bunga boys, “a dynamic, one which upends the normal way of doing things.” Most of what we tend to think of as politics—elections, budget committees, whatever—is something else, a wrangling over who gets what within a given system. But real politics is the moment when all certainties are dissolved, and we can collectively decide on a new social order for ourselves. It’s what the masses do. And according to the book, the masses are starting to do it again.
The book’s main argument is that when Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “end of history” in 1989, he was actually on to something—until he suddenly wasn’t. Fukuyama’s thesis was much derided, but as the authors point out, many of his critics simply hadn’t understood what he was saying. Fukuyama didn’t mean that there would be no more historical events after the end of the Cold War. There would still be technological progress and geopolitical tensions, and people with different ideas would still come to words or blows. But there was only one way of organizing human life: liberal market capitalism. With the collapse of the Soviet dream, real politics was no longer possible.
This thesis was less triumphal than it seemed. The End of History “would be enervating and not energizing,” dominated by “privatized consumerism, hedonism and even nihilism.” It was a closed world; one cybernetic feedback system would govern the state, the economy, and culture, on a global scale. What this meant, though, was that when this system fell into crisis, the crisis came from within.
Hochuli, Hoare, and Cunliffe pinpoint three milestones in the end of the End of History. In 2008, the global economy collapsed, kicking off the breakdown of the neoliberal order. For a while, this breakdown was confined to the economic sphere, but in 2016 it erupted into the realm of politics with the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump. Finally, in 2020, “the world slipped out of control” as the pandemic spread and “politics fluctuated wildly.” Neoliberalism is no longer an automatic consensus; anything can be challenged. As Marx promised all those years ago, we have “a world to win.”
The End of the End of History is a very insightful and very entertaining text. Most of all, it’s a book that manages to make sense of the transformations of the last decade. I spent a good chunk of the 2010s as a professional political commentator, which consisted of trying to grab hold of each new absurdity as it appeared, and watching them all slip through my fingers. But the Bunga boys manage to take all the disparate strands of our era and weave them into a coherent story about the world. Still, I'm not entirely convinced by this conclusion. And to be honest, I'm not sure that the authors are either.
The 2010s were dominated by what the authors call “anti-politics”—movements focused on “inside” and “outside” more than left or right. Inside is the managerial elite, the corrupt nexus of business and politics, the Deep State, the Establishment, the dead consensus at the End of History. Outside is—well, what?
Anti-politics is what happens when the old order is crumbling, but there simply isn’t anything to replace it. You get undirected expressions of anger and spite, a rejection of all institutions and all forms of mediation or representation. This can give rise to some strange and morbid symptoms. For instance, the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was previously the star of a TV comedy in which he played an angry outsider who unexpectedly becomes the president of Ukraine.
The authors lay out all the weaknesses of anti-politics, but they still insist that “anti-politics can be politicizing”—that by reengaging the masses and putting the whole system in question, it opens the way to a genuine politics. Except there’s nothing to suggest this is actually happening. If anything, I finished the book less convinced than when I began. Instead of a challenge to the End of History, anti-politics looks like its last line of defense.
Take Brexit, which was essentially a protest, a well-deserved stick in the eye against preening Europhile elitists like myself. But it was followed by years of utterly tedious trade negotiations, most of which didn’t seem to be going anywhere at all. The Brexit-voting majority had delivered a clear no to the neoliberal managers in Brussels, but it hadn’t issued a unified yes to any particular notion of what a post-Brexit Britain would actually look like. Still, it had to look like something, and without any countervailing power it was left to the Conservative government to supply their own vision. Brexit voters wanted popular sovereignty; the Tories want to turn the UK into a low-wage business utopia, a “Singapore-on-Thames.” More neoliberalism, gussied up in populist drag.
The most glaring example is obviously Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump won in part by promising voters in post-industrial regions that he’d abolish NAFTA—“the worst trade deal ever made”—and bring back good industrial jobs. This panicked the liberals, who all started clucking about the worthiness of free trade, but Trump was right. NAFTA didn’t just hollow out American industry; it had also disastrously flooded Mexican markets with subsidized U.S. corn. Millions of Mexican smallholders could no longer compete; they abandoned their farms and crossed the border in desperate search of a decent life. It was a nightmare for everyone involved, except the ruling class. Ripping up the treaty was a very good idea.
And Trump kept his promise—sort of. In 2018, the North American Free Trade Area was officially abolished, to be replaced by a new trade bloc called USMCA, which was functionally identical in every respect. Trumpism simply contained no viable alternative; for all his supposed threat to the liberal order, he actually managed to make it more palatable to his populist base. When it came to a vote, only ten Senators rejected the USMCA; one was Bernie Sanders.
Speaking of Bernie Sanders, though—what about the other great development of the last decade, the rise of millennial socialism? For a while, these figures and parties—Sanders in America, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece—seemed to express a genuine wave of mass opposition. In 2016, I thought—like all my comrades—that the center had collapsed for good, and the near future would be a final apocalyptic conflict between the far left and the far right, preferably in the streets, with rocks. Liberals, choose your side! Somehow, that apocalyptic moment never came. Instead, one by one, the left-populist movements lost their class base and withered away.
The case of Syriza, the only one of these movements to actually seize state power, is significant. In 2015, Syriza leaders were elected on a promise to save Greece from austerity. A few months later, the IMF and the European Central Bank instructed Greece to raise the retirement age, abolish “solidarity grants” to poorer pensioners, and slash taxes on corporate profits. Syriza held a referendum on these demands, and a firm majority of the public voted no. They were willing for Greece to default on its debts and drop out of the Euro; anything was better than this. Armed with this popular support, Syriza immediately caved to the IMF and the ECB, on terms even harsher than their original ultimatum. The party spent its next four years in government miserably enforcing the exact same neoliberal policies it had once so furiously opposed.
I don’t think the problem is simply that Syriza lacked courage. The no in their referendum was a pure no: It rejected the conditions set by the bankers, but—like Brexit—it couldn’t say anything about what should replace them. It opened up a space of possibility, but there was still nothing else out there to fill that space. No organized working class anymore, thanks to three decades of atomization. No active political masses, not the nation or the church, no politics—just the End of History, which popped that little space like the bubble of air it was.
There’s a Talmudic koan about a rabbi who travels to Rome to seek the Messiah. He finds the Messiah at the gates of the city, squatting in the filth with the lepers, tying and untying their bandages. Our rabbi approaches the Messiah and asks him: “When will you arrive?” The Messiah answers: “Today.” The return of politics is the same. It’s always arriving, any moment now, even today, but it’s never quite here.
In the end, Hochuli, Hoare, and Cunliffe never seem entirely convinced by their own thesis. Sometimes, as the blurb has it, “politics is back.” At other points, politics isn’t back quite yet, but we can see, in hazy outlines, the door through which it might come. “Perhaps there is an opening for a new socialism.” Well, perhaps. The present crisis “should be a prompt for the masses to seize the mantle of political authority themselves.” Yes, it certainly should. The Bunga boys are unfazed by the collapse of the Sanders and Corbyn projects, which they see as obstacles on the path to working-class self-government; they have faith that something better is coming to replace them. Unlike me, they’re not ready to collapse into sheer pessimism. But we’ve been here before. In 1993, before the Soviet Union had even gone cold, Chantal Mouffe was already declaring “the return of the political.” It didn’t arrive then. What if it doesn’t arrive now?
There are already signs that the ideological frenzy of the last few years might be starting to die down—that the end of the End of History is itself coming to an end. The managerial order has managed to digest its own crises and contradictions, which was always capitalism’s greatest trick. Things that might have once threatened it, like anti-austerity or Brexit, have been defanged. What’s left is only the hard rind of anti-politics, ineffectual, unserious, or unhinged. Warmed-over nationalism; the rattle of empty forms. There have been some strike movements, which I wholeheartedly support, but the main mode of workplace activism is simple resignation. The turbulence that followed the 2008 crash has been safely rerouted away from mass movements and into political sitcoms, political sandwiches, and political tomato sauce. Now, it might simply evaporate. People are quietly, guiltily removing the pronouns from their email signatures. Last Thanksgiving, there were fewer articles about how to hold your own uncle personally accountable for three hundred years of American racism. Next time, they might stop altogether.
The End of the End of History suggests that Italy might be “the country of the future.” With the loss of its traditional mass forces—the Communist party and the Catholic Church—Italy has spun into a kaleidoscopic decline, as clownish populists scramble over the corpse of state neutrality. But as we all know, the future—like everything else—is made in China. China’s twenty-first-century history doesn’t get much mention in the book, but recent developments can show us where we’re headed. Starting in 2010, China experienced a wave of wildcat strikes. For a moment, the country seemed to be on the edge of genuine crisis—but today, that militancy has almost entirely vanished. Once again, populism stepped in to help neuter the people.
The Xi Jinping administration has been marked by the return of the slogans and symbols of the Mao era. They’re singing The East is Red again, but this populist mood is only the set dressing for an all-encompassing technocracy. The main form of opposition in China is not enthusiastic political activism, because enthusiastic political activism is the new language of the state. Instead, it’s tǎng ping, or “lying flat.” Young people simply refuse to get involved in anything. Instead of striking for better wages, they choose to work less, live with less, and passively allow things to happen. An online manifesto for the movement is still circulating, despite government censorship. “I can just sleep in my barrel enjoying a sunbath like Diogenes, or live in a cave like Heraclitus and think about the Logos.” It doesn’t sound so bad.
There will still be a few political weirdos in the new decade we’re entering, and there will still be plenty of outrages and injustices to galvanize them. Against my better judgment, I will be one of those weirdos. If you’re reading this, odds are that you will too. You might be my enemy, but we have this awful thing in common. We will talk about politics at parties long after everyone else has given up. We will write our little articles. We will continue hoping for the next crisis, the next rupture, the next sudden break that puts everything back into question, the next dawn of a different world. And maybe it will happen, some day. But not today.
Sam Kriss writes from London.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?