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25 May

The Arab Spring and The Last Man

In 1989, the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, published an essay in which he claimed that mankind’s ideological evolution had come to an end with the universalization and ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy.

In The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama argued that the end point of humanity's socio-cultural evolution and the final form of human government was accomplished with liberal democracy. Many were skeptical of his claim, cultural relativists in particular, and since then his thesis has been the subject of much critique especially when it became equated with a neo-liberal version of American supremacy.

I don’t buy into what I believe to be a widely held misunderstanding of Fukuyama’s point, but I do however believe in the supremacy of Fukuyama’s argument and I believe that we are seeing the validity of it today.

The supremacy of liberal democracy and Fukuyama’s thesis is important to study, particularly in relation to the events taking place in the Arab world. Fukuyama argued that all humans have a need to be respected, to have self-esteem and self-respect. What a man can be, he must be.

This forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need pertains to what a person’s full potential is and realizing that potential is incompatible with a totalitarian and suppressing regime but fully compatible within a liberal democracy. It is within such a realm that human nature seems to flourishes best and the world is starting to realize just that.

But hang on. Don’t the contemporary movements in the global power struggle and the rise of emerging markets reflect that the Western model of free market liberal democracy is loosing ground to a more appealing authoritarian growth-model? Take China as an example. China’s governing model of authoritarian state-capitalism has become increasingly appealing to the developing world.

Given the choice between western-style liberal democracy and market-authoritarian capitalism with high growth rates, stability and rising living standards, many developing countries are choosing the latter that is; welfare for the masses under the strict guidance and control of the central government.

However, the Chinese leadership, along with the resource-rich oil states in the Arab world must continuously satisfy demands for ever-higher growth rates and living standards from a generation whose social and economic demands and knowledge of the world outside is increasing by the hour. Is it reasonable to presume that in the long run it is more likely that China and other authoritarian countries will have to reconsider core assumptions about their form of leadership than the leaders of the West will retract fundamentally from the ideals of liberal democracy?

In the light of the recent uprising in the Middle East and North Africa, it would seem as if the answer is yes. In time, the rest of the world will conform to liberal democracy. And it might be sooner than we think.

In the spring of 2009 I did an internship in Beijing. I had previously lived, worked and studied in many parts of the world including USA and Australia, but from the moment I arrived in China I knew that I had entered a country different from any other place I had ever been. A country that still hadn’t aligned with the liberal democratic tradition of the West. Or so I thought.

After having worked at the internship I rested for the summer in the parks and swimming pools of Beijing trying to shake off the externalities of the Chinese motor engine. At one of the local swimming pools, I made a rather interesting observation, because that is what you do when you are in China. You observe. You observe the people of this rising nation and you observe the internal tensions of the ideology and strong authoritarian rule that hold this nation and its people together. And then you try to make something of the observations.

What I made of my observations that sizzling hot day in Beijing was that liberal democracy is coming to China as well. At the pool, all the women were wearing old-fashioned bathing suits from the 50’ties. I thought to myself. These people might not dress like us Westerners and they sure don’t look and talk like us, but they do drink, smoke, party, do business, tweet and indulge in the vast pleasures of globalization like the rest of us. In a way, they practice a relatively liberal lifestyle as long as they keep to themselves and don’t question the legitimacy of the regime.

My guess is, that if I return to the swimming pool in say, ten to twenty years time, the women will be dressed like westerners in promiscuous bikinis. And the regime might look very different by then.

Sure, China is different from the Middle East and then again not. Author and New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman argues that, China’s new cultural revolution will be driven from the bottom up by podcasters with Apple’s little white I-pods, not from the top down by Maoists with little red books. The same could be said for the young people in the Arab world.

The Arab Spring that erupted in Tunisia and escalated further into Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, has now come to Syria where it is faced with its toughest test yet in the shape of Bashar Al-Assad. It was bound to get much bloodier than the relatively peaceful overthrow in Egypt and Tunisia, and it surely has.

However, what the Arab Spring teaches us is that the rest of the world is slowly conforming to the liberal democratic tradition the West for generations has come to cherish, defend and occasionally suppress on other nations. But this time the transition is happening without outside mediation and by own initiative. They may occasionally need our assistance as in the case of the revolts in Libya, not to mention a possible future uprising in Iran, and we will be there to support them, no questions ask.

But generally, they seem to be handling things on they’re own and that is a very good thing. No one ever really believed that you could implement liberal democracy from outside and turns out we may not have to. The forces of globalization have opened the eyes of the rest of the world to the attractiveness and appeal of liberal democracy and finally it seems as if the people are ready to make the move.

I for one am extremely confident and optimistic about the outcome of the Arab Spring and although I am not naive in the sense that occasionally the revolt might suffer serious setbacks like the one we are witnessing in Syria at the moment, in the end, the people will have their freedom and liberal democracy will reign supreme along with the prediction of Fukuyama. The End of History is here…

Last modified on Friday, 25 May 2012 10:24
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Martin Petersen

29 year old globetrotter and recently graduated cand.soc with special focus on American domestic politics.

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