Reviewed by Dan Taylor
‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. So wrote an Irishman a century ago, a meditation on the difficulties of establishing a revolution in political and cultural consciousness out of the wreckage of dead traditions, war, disappointments and the endurance of conservative reaction.
Revolutionaries have long been concerned with temporality; what to do when the luggage and garbage of the past litters the present, diminishing the possibilities of collective freedom in the future; what to do when time runs out or history stops, or when you’re living too late.
It’s been the end times for a long time now. Once it was postmodernism, late capitalism and ‘New Times’; a generation later, capitalist realism and that line about the end of the world. These days, clairvoyants have taken to reading the tea leaves in Gramsci. Perhaps one day someone will write a PhD on the second life of one line over the 2010s and 2020s: ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
That’s if there’s still time. What belies that bittersweet Gramscian optimism is the assumption that our crisis must give way to a different future. As Adam Tooze has recently posed, what entitles us to have such confidence in the view that there is a new world, waiting to be born? As earnest young scholars have been trained to do since the days of Derrida, an etymological peek at the Greek krisis is instructive: the ‘turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death’. Socialism or barbarism; two ways to choose a razor’s edge.
Recent years have been punishing for many of us on the left. Despite the febrile political atmosphere after 2010, various anti-austerity and left populist movements have at times come close but failed to take state power. The lone exception, Syriza, served as a lesson that national sovereignty wasn’t enough to withstand the hostility of international capital, while in the UK, Brexit and the demise of Corbyn’s Labour project have contributed to a new sense of discord, manifested by dreary Twitter beef wars. Now climate change has compounded that crisis of temporality, as the ‘end of history’ comes crashing against the end of humanity. The future has become difficult to imagine, beyond images of wildfires, sulphate white skies and John Connor in a bunker, hiding from the Terminator.
Aimed at a left-leaning, curious but general audience, The End of the End of History is a brilliant little guide to this moment. Pugnacious and sparky, it’s shaped by a deep internationalism, commitment to working class socialism and a wickedly irreverent humour that takes no prisoners.
Its three authors are behind the podcast Aufhebunga Bunga, established in 2017. The book is the distillation of a worldview developed over hundreds of episodes. Central to its position is that a period called ‘the end of history’ – Francis Fukuyama’s declaration in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union and a sense of triumph of western liberal capitalism – has come to an end, on or around June 2016. Brexit and Trump put paid to a prevailing centrist liberal common sense underscored by the politics of ‘Third Way’ technocracy that sought to exclude mass democratic participation in politics (here, the authors nod to Colin Crouch and Peter Mair). Yet despite the unique opportunities for a new socialist politics, an increasingly middle-class dominated left has fallen under the sway of trendy horizontalism, misanthropic pessimism or priggish moralising. In the process, the left has become alienated from the working class around the world, the very force that makes history through its collective agency and demands for equality and freedom.
This book sets out that argument. Though preoccupied with pot shots at a liberal left whose counterrevolutionary power is overestimated and with whom some common cause might be found, the book makes an incisive, well-informed and entertaining case for understanding the current political crisis. As contemporary history goes, and when stacked against more familiar examples like the recent films of Adam Curtis, the book is peerless. While it is not likely to make the authors friends with adherents to an increasingly mediatised performance of personality brand politics on the left, it’s an invigorating call to begin again with working class political participation, democracy and power.
At the centre of the book is a story. In 1990, after Fukuyama declared the end of history, politics spiralled into decline. Managerial elites rolled back democratic power and participation, and trade union and party membership crumbled. This was marked in popular culture by a sense of deflation, nihilism and apathetic consumerism. The 2008 global financial crisis brought this to an end, plunging millions into poverty and unemployment, calling into question the legitimacy of the neoliberal order, which has ever since been in a slow, protracted breakdown.
The failure to reform economies or political systems or punish wrongdoers contributed to a new ‘anti-politics’, a sense that all politicians and politics are corrupt and hostile to public interests. For the authors, anti-politics is ‘a rejection of the political establishment and its managerial approach to governing society’ (16). This gave way to the now familiar populist movements. It coincided with a new tendency on the left toward middle-class radicalism removed from working class culture, concerned instead with identity politics and posturing. This new (new) left is not much interested in collectively organising and taking state power, but instead fussing over an individualistic, consumerist kind of activism of moral righteousness and lifestyle choice.
While parts of the tale are familiar, the book differs from other treatments in making such scattered phenomena hang together in a highly readable way. Rave culture, Berlusconi, Covid-19, Islamic fundamentalism and the TV show Jackass (which the writers give an unfairly hard time) are often discussed in the same breath. The international, comparative attention to politics in Italy, Brazil, South Africa and Eastern Europe raises the analysis above the more common parochial tendency to focus on the US or UK. The authors portray a new kind of post-pandemic scene, marked by the terminal breakdown of neoliberalism, anti-politics and the failure of the mainstream liberal left to mobilise an effective opposition.
Central to where the book is coming from are the concepts of history and politics. By history, the authors understand not merely a succession of prior events but, after Hegel, ‘the fundamental organizing principles of collective life’ (34). By politics, they understand not merely the exercise of power or specific institutions, but ‘the demand for reordering statuses and upending hierarchies’, particularly through the demand for equality.
These definitions become clearer when contrasted with their opposites. The ‘end of history’ came about when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the struggle ended between competing ideological systems over the best means of organising human society. Liberal democratic capitalism had ‘won’; as control of economies were captured by banks and multinationals and control of politics came under technocratic, centrist politics, so an era of depoliticization and acquiescence followed. Likewise, post-politics can be defined by the exclusion of popular claims to defend or challenge hierarchies which become pathologized, ridiculed or dismissed; ‘the rules of globalization are set in stone and they work for everyone; if you fail, it is your fault’ (53). Similarly anti-politics, a phenomenon said to underpin the left and right wing populist movements since 2011, is not so much the effort to reorder statuses as a refusal to engage with politics altogether: ‘To declare that “they are all corrupt” is possibly the most essential instance of anti-politics today. Its nature as a politically ambivalent complaint is of a piece with the post-ideological times of the post-Cold War world.’ (77) This inadvertently leaves unchallenged the power of global capital and its defenders.
Indeed, in a gloomy but plausible forecast in the final chapter, the authors speculate that a new form of state-managed, post-neoliberal conservatism has appeared. Moving left economically on issues like regional inequality, and right culturally on issues like crime and immigration, it is likely to become hegemonic after the pandemic. The liberal left is meanwhile further destined for obsolescence, made up of a professional-managerial class tied to defending a failed neoliberal order of globalisation, open borders, and technocratic management of the ‘ignorant’ public.
While a certain strand of the middle class liberal left does dominate media commentary, this analysis maps less well onto the more prosaic but common daily grind of trade union, community and campaign organising, in which other practices of processes of democracy in working class communities do endure. In its gloomy estimation of the left’s weak position, it may if anything overestimate the nous and popularity of the conservative centre-ground, which, in the UK at least, seems committed to austerity policies that will undermine support in the Red (and Blue) Walls.
Readers may also wonder why the account has little to say about environmentalism or Black Lives Matter, which in different ways have energised some recent working class participation in politics. The analysis here would suggest that they are a kind of middle class dominated sideshow, lacking an organised working class membership and leadership. But such a view doesn’t do full justice to the multifaceted nature and agonistic challenge of these movements, or the difficulties of even speaking of (let alone acting as) the working class. The wry analysis throughout would have benefited, at times, by being more embedded in what it dismisses.
But elsewhere, the book touches on the possibilities of what a new working class democratic movement might look like. It would involve collectively envisioning and demanding new frameworks for democratically organising societies in a future that benefits all. Its politics would be rooted in ‘the material interests of the masses’ (148), and would be concerned with achieving a new sovereign, mass and national politics of working-class self-determination.
Such a prospect seems remote at the moment. With the working class disorganised, defeated and without political representation, we’re left with daily bickering and fully automated pipe dreams. So it’s interesting to contrast our moment with another time, at the end of the end of history (or after Year I, Vendémiaire). E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class sets out clues as to how weavers, artisans and the Luddite cropper fashioned a new kind of working class activity and consciousness in years of counter-revolutionary clampdown, church and king mobs, automation and diminishing worker power. Rooted in the traditions, vernacular and mores of everyday life, such a politics began, as all radical politics should, from the principle of democracy. In very different times, The End of the End of History insists upon the same.
7 September 2021