It is 25 years since the end of history. Twenty five years since the Berlin Wall came down, since the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia, since Ceaușescu died serenading Romanians with communist rule disintegrated across the region.
As with the death of any good cinematic villain, there remains the question of whether the evil nemesis is really dead, and while in Romania perhaps this involves periodically checking the stake hammered through Ceausescu’s chest, elsewhere it is mainly about remembering the past. In Prague there have been rallies and educational events commemorating the protests and strikes that brought down the communist government and even the codes to some coffee shop toilets have been changed to “1989.”
One more permanent reminder of the defeated Goliath is a series of statues installed at the foot of Petrin Hill, not far from the castle. This “memorial to the victims of communism” depicts the way in which men were broken apart under totalitarianism. First the complete man, proud and whole, at the base. Then the gradual carving away of his body, through five further stages, each one a step up from the last, but strangely, always facing away from, rather than in the direction of the ascent of “progress.”
This man will never make it up the hill. Over seven torturous steps, he loses the parts of himself, until he is just a shattered torso, still standing, but absent his head, his arms, and significantly his chest. Completed by sculptor Olbram Zoubek in 2007, the installation is “dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Our lives today in the “free world” are no doubt better than those in communist Eastern Europe. We are not victims, and our freedoms, however threatened we may feel them to be, still have safeguards. At the same time though I find Zoubek’s representation of the backward progression of man, from living and whole to dismembered torso at the highest level of “progress” to be worryingly familiar.
If one thinks of the famous Bronowski sequence of the ascent of man this literal deconstruction of man seems like an almost complete reversal of the ascent up the ladder. Indeed, what I would like to argue here is that in a subtle but real way something similar is going on today: men are being taken apart; masculinity is being dismembered one limb at a time in a slow death by a thousand cuts.
Thymos: the third part of Plato’s soul
If that seems like an exaggeration, I’d like to invoke Francis Fukuyama, the man who announced the end of history, to help me make my case. Actually, the “end of history” was Fukuyama’s original 1989 essay. Soon after he published a book re-titled “the end of History and the Last Man.” In it he argued that capitalist liberal democracy had won history’s ideological war. There might continue to be socialist or other regimes in the future, but these would be aberrations, destined to fail for the reason that only liberal democracy could satisfy the human need not only for material well-being but for Thymos, the platonic need for recognition.
Fukuyama’s argument involves an idea of historical progress similar to but antagonistic to Marx’s, although both share an origin in the work of Hegel. But while Marx considered man to be alienated from himself under capitalism, Fukuyama argued that the struggle for recognition which drives history can only be met within liberal democracies that provide recognition for all.
By this reading, history begins with a primordial struggle of recognition: a fight of man against man which ends either in death for the loser or in his submission as slave. While he may be grateful for his life, it is the slave rather than the master who, embittered by his status, propels history forward through his work.
It is the slave who, dreaming of the possibility of freedom, invents tools, molds nature to his purpose, drives forward science, and of course ultimately produces the “progress” which promises to free him of his shackles. But why? Not for any material or physical need. But rather because the struggle for recognition remains the root of history and politics.
For Fukuyama, socialism identifies the problem but comes up with the wrong solution. Unlike liberal democracy the history of communism has shown it cannot meet our fundamental need for individual recognition whether we seek to be equal to or better than others. “Socialism foundered,” says Fukuyama, “because it ran into the brick wall of human nature….All the characteristics that were supposed to have disappeared under socialism, like ethnicity and national identity, reappeared after 1989 with a vengeance.”
The Last Man: Men without Chests
But what of the last man? The man scorned by Nietzsche for having given up the desire to be superior (megalothymia), who no longer “seeks out struggle, danger, risk, and daring” but seeks only comfortable self-preservation and equality (isothymia). For if the struggle for recognition is what drives history can we really be satisfied if in the process we become, in the words of CS Lewis, men without chests?
Fukuyama is convinced that liberal democracy can balance such tensions. But in a fascinating retrospective written years later he questions many of the conclusions in his book. It is less Nietzsche he worries about, but rather those who, taking Nietzsche seriously, seek to unpick that part of the Platonic soul (megalothymia) that delights in glory and competition. Those utopian engineers whose colossal projects came crashing down in the winter of ‘89 aren’t quite dead after all. They’re just working on a different project.
He was wrong about the end of history he says because his argument depended on two conditions: that human nature must remain constant and that science would not change the game beyond recognition. Centrally planned state socialism is indeed incompatible with a post-industrial society, but technological progress now permits the pursuit of the utopian project in far more sophisticated ways, and masculinity is now a specific object of its concern.
This later essay entitled “the last man in the bottle” specifically references Big Pharma’s investment in pathologizing masculinity as something associated with aggression. The natural exuberance of young boys, pathologized as ADHD, is now routinely medicated away through the mass prescription of Ritalin, just as women’s self esteem is artificially boosted with SSRIs such as Prozac.
The net effect is an androgynous one. Boys’ brains are less exposed to dopamine, making them less boisterous and competitive while women’s brains now marinate in above normal levels of serotonin. He observes that in nature male chimps who’ve risen to alpha status enjoy a serotonin high. In our medicated society it seems so do women.
The effects of drugs are not hereditary, but in the future gene therapy offers the possibility of hereditary changes. Science, that ultimate tool of Hegel’s nature-mastering slave, could easily be directed towards more radical, even permanent solutions. And if that happens, as now with drug interventions, it will be advanced as a health issue reflecting the values of the day.
Real and necessary advances may be difficult to distinguish from more questionable ones. Preventing dwarfism may be difficult to distinguish from selecting an ideal height, and more seriously if competitiveness is seen as aggression why not simply remove the biochemical cause of the disease?
Technology is not about to stand still. That’s a good thing, but it also means that the battle for the future will depend more than ever on a struggle for values. At present masculinity is being systematically pathologized and, like Zoubek’s statues, the bodies and minds of men are being broken apart one piece at a time. In both communist Eastern Europe and in the 21st century west, the ideal man is missing both head and chest. The only way to change that is to make the case for why masculinity is the way forward and not the way back.
Read More: The Abolition Of Man