Essays Philosophy

Kojève, Herder, and the “End of History”

With the deafening thunder of Napoleon’s canons filling the air at Jena, the romantic story goes that a middle-aged university professor and philosopher by the name of Georg W.F. Hegel was riding away busily making revisions to his explosive philosophical work, Phenomenology of Spirit. In the aftermath of the thunder and lightning that struck across the Sale River on that October morning, the conventional (but ultimately apocryphal) story goes that Hegel declared “the end of history.” Libertéégalité, and fraternité—irrespective of how it was particularly manifested—was the movement of all history and human desire.

Alexandre Kojève is arguably the most consequential modern interpreter of Hegel. There is no reason to enter the petty bickering over his analysis of Hegel and how much of it is Kojève’s projection onto Hegel contra Kojève’s analysis of Hegel qua Hegel. Instead, Kojève’s brilliance lies in his use of Hegel to offer his own end of history: the universal homogenous end-state of mass consumerism and happiness.

The universal end-state society, Kojève argued, was the society in which any individual could attain what he desired with ease and without opposition: an equality of consumption and the happiness it brings for all persons. Until we have equal outcomes in our consumeristic desires, we cannot have the mutual recognition we all seek. Freedom is to be free from all barriers and constraints to our consumeristic desires—the barriers and constraints of supposedly arbitrary cultural and social distinctions, and, especially, the barrier imposed onto humans by nature. Kojève, in this respect, is very much the Enlightenment philosopher par excellence in the tradition of Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes, where the task of philosophy should not be to discover the truths of nature to help man imitate nature (as in the classical paradigm of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, which was subsequently theologized by Christianity) but, rathre, to help man master nature and improve the quality of his material life in this world.

In this move, we can begin to understand why technology, especially modern technology (and technology monopolies throughout the United States and broader world), is so fervently liberal in the French Revolutionary tradition: The power of technology is the key spirit for humanity’s homogenization into the common pot of libertéégalité, and fraternité. Technology liberates us from the barrier of natural hardship, which prevents our choosing to be what we desire. Technology also aids in the conquest of nature and the end of poverty, hardship, and scarcity, bringing about cheap abundance from which we all benefit from as consumeristic animals.

Perhaps scandalously to many so-called conservatives, Kojève said that America was far and away the most communist country in the world—back in the 1950’s:

“If the Sovietization of Russia and the communization of China are anything more and other than the democratization of Imperial Germany (by way of Hitlerism) or of the accession of Togo to independence, or even the self-determination of the Papuans, they are so only because the Sino-Soviet actualization of Robespierran Bonapartism compels post-Napoleonic Europe to accelerate the elimination of the numerous more or less anachronistic reminders of its pre-revolutionary past. This process of elimination is already more advanced in the North-American extensions of Europe than it is in Europe itself. It might even be said that, from a certain point of view, the United States has already reached the final stage of Marxism ‘communism,’ since all the members of a ‘classless society’ can, for all practical purposes, acquire whatever they please, whenever they please, without having to work for it any more than they are inclined to do so.”

Progress necessarily demands the end of the old and the ushering in of the new: that universal state of easy equal consumption—mutual recognition of desire and dignity in the pursuit of one’s wants is the end state. In no place besides the United States was this life of easy choice and consumerism so manifest.

I wish to draw out what I perceive to be the underlying impetus of Kojève’s end of history which has us all in its grips, knowingly or unknowingly. The end of history for Kojève has several implications that are playing out today, especially in the United States, which is still far and away ahead of Europe in the realization of this millenarian dream.

First is the ease and equality of consumption. The United States—with its increasingly urbanized society, high levels of consumerism, and ease of consumption—prefigures the future urbanization of the whole world with mass chains and corporate services as the means to the end of peaceful consumption and happiness.

Second is the logical demand that all people be seen as dignified consumers—homo economicus—first and foremost, as well as that the desire of homo economicus is an easy life of high consumption afforded by the power of technology (itself derivative of the Enlightenment mentality). This also demands the erasure of all cultural and social distinctions that serve as barriers for the consummation of the desire of homo economicus. To deny anyone the desire of their consumeristic spirit is to forcibly impose a hierarchy over people; it is to deny them what they seek most. To quote a famous American political consultant, James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid!” In the revisionist Hegelian terms used by Kojève, to deny people their consumeristic desires (and forcibly impose arbitrary barriers that restrict economic mobility and choice) is to deny humans the very recognition they crave.

Kojève himself believed that “[France] will end, fatally, by being politically absorbed by the Anglo-Saxon Empire, which stands to become a Germano-Anglo-Saxon Empire.” According to Kojève, this Anglo-Saxon Empire is an empire of consumerism where people attain the happy life with relative ease and, as a result, can choose to be whatever they want. In the emergent years of the Cold War, Kojève was astute to the reality that humans (as economic animals) would be absorbed into the empire of microwaves, television, and washing machines instead of the socialist revolution. The empire of comfort was more appealing than the empire of revolutionary fire. Moreover, the empire of comfort would allow individuals to have more choice as to who they were and were to become. Perhaps Kojève would not be surprised that identity politics is such a fad in hyper-consumeristic societies.

Third, the logical exhaustion of homo economicus as the homogenous understanding of humanity is what is at the heart of “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism is not really about the celebration of the diversity of cultures but, rather, the eradication of the past socio-cultural distinctions which prevent, for all practical purposes, the non-European peoples of the world from the easy and equitable life they seek: the free-going, comfortable, and easy life already acquired by Europeans and their diaspora descendants. The elimination of the supposedly artificial barriers and distinctions erected by culture must occur for the end-state to be reached and human desire to be recognized and actualized.

The United States—with its rapidly dissipating Northwest European Protestant heritage and culture, alongside its universal “creedal identity”—again leads the way in prefiguring the future of the communistic end-state Kojève envisioned. A classless society is also a cultureless society. Cultural distinctions serve as barriers imposed over humans to the equitable life of easy consumerism and happiness that comes from such a life. Hence why, today, it is the European-American culture that must be dismantled—not to replace it with another but to dismantle it so all cultural and social distinctions are swept away in the tidal wave of universalizing progress and the homogenization of all into a universal culture of dignified consumerism and infinite free choice.

Of all the philosophers to shout stop against the tidal wave of the end of history, an obscure but nevertheless important German stands against the tide of history more so than any other figure. Johann Gottfried von Herder was one of the most important transitionary figures in German philosophy between Immanuel Kant and Hegel. Herder, in fact, significantly influenced Hegel, but that is neither here nor there.

The heart of Herder’s philosophical vision is what is the restless discontent plunging the Western World into the throes of its crisis. It is a crisis not begotten by a few bad politicians but the very schizophrenic struggle of human nature: man as a cultural, or historical, animal vis-à-vis man as an economic animal. This dual—and dueling—spirit inside humanity twists and turns in a chaotic conflagration pulling in both directions. According to Herder, the end of history necessarily means the end of culture with prosperity for some and comfort for all. But this comes at the detriment of the “spirit of life” (Lebensgeist).

Herder believed that language, the ur-sprache, was the basis of culture and at the heart of the Lebensgeist: “It was the life breath of God, wafting air, which the ear snatched up, and the dead letters which they painted down were merely the corpse in which reading had to be ensouled with the Lebensgeist.” From language came all the wonders of cultural phenomena that unite us and give us life: art, literature, philosophy, law, etc. Bound up in cultural phenomena are the seeds of a true community: the community of cultural understanding and particularity…

Read the rest of my essay here: America at the End of History (Merion West, 15 October 2020)

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