The End of History? Liberal Democracies in a Post-Coronavirus World


In ‘The End of History’, an article released back in 1992, Francis Fukayama argued that nation-states globally were heading towards liberal democracy. This argument is predicated on an assertion that liberal democracies do not possess any innate ‘contradictions’ and that the entire course of historical development has been moving unidirectionally towards this form of socio-political structure. Liberal democracy in Fukuyama’s eyes represents the final, ultimate form of political governance. In other words, it is what he believes to be ‘The End of History’. However, the current Coronavirus pandemic has opened up the wounds of this ‘ultimate’ form of governance and exposed the crippling contradictions that lie at its heart. This is not to say that the problems that the Coronavirus pandemic have unearthed are completely novel. In fact, they pre-date this crisis. Coronavirus has merely highlighted the pre-existing problems inherent to a liberal democracy.

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced some global leaders to confront liberal democracy’s shortcomings. Most notable among these people include French President Macron, who addressed the current system’s disregard for environmental issues. Elsewhere, this moment of crisis has forced many liberal democratic governments to re-evaluate the importance of public services. In many cases, the pandemic has exposed chronic under-funding in many areas of civilian life, which has become rife in many modern liberal democratic states. Coronavirus has illustrated to the world the enormous schism between what liberal democracies are supposed to be, and what they truly are in their current form.

The Social Contract

One of the founding principles of liberal democracy is its duty to protect its citizens, through upholding certain rights and freedoms. This state-civilian relationship, termed by Hobbes and Rousseau as the ‘social contract’, is granted to citizens by a governing body. However, what good are civil rights and freedoms if liberal democracies neglect and under-fund public services that support these rights? If these rights are not being upheld, are liberal democratic governments failing to truly protect their citizens? Are liberal democratic governments today fulfilling their responsibilities as part of their ‘social contract’? Does a liberal democratic government’s own interests and actions impact the security of their own citizens? If so, does this represent a contradiction within the liberal democratic system?

Liberal democracy’s status as the ‘ultimate’ form of political organization is certainly under criticism following the recent Coronavirus outbreak. What this crisis has demonstrated is not only the extent to which underfunding public services endangers society; the pandemic has also demonstrated that funding healthcare systems, housing the homeless, and decreasing carbon emissions, among other things, are much more essential to upholding the social contract than once believed to be.

This demonstrates how liberal democratic governments have neglected the ‘social contract’. They are no longer a guarantor of an individual’s security. Rather, they a threat to it. When economic prosperity within liberal democracies comes at the expense of an individual’s rights, it becomes evident that an alternative system of governance must be explored. The question then becomes: can this problem be rectified within the current system?

In ‘The End of History’, Fukayama states that a contradiction within any political system ‘would lead to a revolutionary situation that would bring down the entire structure.’ Fukuyama was referring to the structure of communism in the USSR in ‘The End of History’. Yet, this is also the junction at which liberal democracy currently finds itself. Although an upheaval of the entire system isn’t necessarily required, a re-prioritization of needs and a re-articulation of what success resembles in liberal democracies certainly is. 

A Re-Prioritization of Needs

A re-prioritization of needs within the liberal democratic structure means that states should begin to merge the gap between the state’s economic goals and the rights of its citizens. Even during this crisis, this gap has proven to be difficult to close. ‘Economic necessity’ continues to be the driving force behind the end of lockdowns in many liberal democracies. The liberal democratic state Brazil has avoided lockdown entirely. Despite experiencing an exponential rise in reported Coronavirus cases, the country remains adamant in keeping the Brazilian economy open. While these actions serve to sustain the country’s economy, they simultaneously continue to compromise an individual’s right to security, health, and overall well-being.

There are other liberal democracies, such as those in Scandinavia, which have demonstrated that a successful balance between human rights and liberal economics can be reached. In a post-Coronavirus world, failing liberal democracies must seek to follow the example of states that have managed to create an alternative socio-political system and fulfill their responsibilities in the ‘social contract’. 

A Re-Articulation of Success

Central to the re-prioritization of needs in a post-Coronavirus liberal democracy is the re-articulation of success. Economic prosperity has long since acted as the yardstick to measure success in liberal democracies. However, economic prosperity can no longer function as a true measure of success. Time and time again, economic prosperity has not coincided with the preservation of an individual’s rights and freedoms. Therefore, success in liberal democracies must no longer be articulated in terms of economic growth. The success of a public service must not be measured by how efficiently it runs. Rather, it must be articulated by the quality of the service. After all, what is the purpose of any public service if not support the health and wellbeing of a state’s citizens? Gauging success in this way may aid a liberal democratic government in fulfilling its ‘social contract’. 

Similarly, a re-articulation of the importance of ‘green new deals’ in a post-Coronavirus society must become a key component in environmental policy. Macron alluded to the importance of implementing green policies, stating that “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air.” This sentiment was echoed by the President of the European Commission, who declared that “we will not hold onto yesterday’s economy.” These statements are an encouraging example of the type of re-prioritization that liberal democracies must undergo in a post-Coronavirus world. It demonstrates that improving both public and environmental health will be a priority in the post-Coronavirus world. However, this re-prioritization of needs must be complemented by a re-articulation of success. Environmental policies must no longer be guided by their economic potential, but rather by their capacity to reduce emissions, thereby improving the health of citizens around the globe.

The End of the ‘The End of History’?

A re-prioritization of needs and a re-articulation of success in liberal democracies are a requisite for the survival of what Francis Fukayama once deemed the ‘ultimate’ form of political organization in ‘The End of History’. A re-prioritization of needs should shift a liberal democracy’s raison-d’etre from its wealth to its citizens. As well, it is crucial that liberal democracies re-articulate the meaning of success and shift the focus of success from financial gain to quality of service. Continuing to use economic growth as the yardstick of success risks perpetuating a world system that does not uphold Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s concept of the ‘social contract’. Without making these adaptations, liberal democracies will continue to be a hindrance to the health and well-being of citizens. History may not end until a more sustainable form of liberal democracy is unearthed.

Luke Entwistle

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