Good things happening in Taiwan

By David Pendery  / 

Fri, Mar 09, 2018 - Page 8

Published in 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man had a significant impact on the political and social thinking at the time. Fukuyama’s thesis was that humanity had reached the “end” of its sociopolitical development, due to the then widespread adoption of free, liberal political orders and the fall of the USSR.

Democracy had, seemingly, supplanted any alternative political structures, including monarchical, authoritarian, fascist/totalitarian, communist/socialist, theocratic, aristocratic and absolutist (marginal theories like feminism, communitarianism or libertarianism are given short shrift in the book).

Free, liberal political philosophy was the endpoint of a universal, developmental history in which humanity had for centuries searched for the ideal polity to govern and justify itself.

Such essential ideas about the value of liberal political orders and freedom are relevant to life in Taiwan.

Taiwan is far from the oldest free, liberal democratic order in the world — it is one of the newer — but the essential ideas have become ingrained in the Taiwanese mind.

With the “end of [political] history” and the existence of the “last [political] man,” humans have found self-mastery and true sovereignty in their polities. In such a state, humans “are aware of their own true natures, and are able to fashion a political community that exists in conformity with those natures,” Fukuyama said.

I sense that Taiwanese feel exactly this.

At heart, Fukuyama’s thesis was that the “desire for recognition” — that is, recognition within one’s society of one’s humanity, basic human entitlements, dignity and worth, right to freedom and equality in relations — has led to the adoption of free, liberal politics, and this “motor of history,” would put an end to a “master/slave” mentality that had dominated political history for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Related to this was a given “violent battle” in which a person would be willing to risk their lives, proving “beyond any shadow of a doubt to themselves and to their fellows that they are free.” They were thus truly independent human beings.

The idea was hinted at by major liberal thinkers in the past like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, but was not established until Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel introduced it.

For Hegel, “an individual could not become self-conscious … aware of himself as a separate human being without being recognized,” Fukuyama said.

Taiwanese engaged in a contest like this from the late 1970s, when they launched a drive toward freedom and autonomy. Many Taiwanese indeed gave up their lives during this battle and many others their freedom — and this to say nothing of those who did the same during the long White Terror era.

Taiwanese have proven themselves worthy, and this has resulted in a free and independent polity, which grants each person recognition of their civic selves and self-command.

Related to this is the idea of human thymos, the ancient Greek term for “spiritedness,” the willingness to risk one’s life for better ends, and a given jealousy of one’s own and others’ dignity.

Thymos is the motivator for the search for, and ultimately the granting of, recognition in public life.

Here again we see a Taiwanese reality, and one senses that the people in this land, in a thymotic turn, grant each other recognition as decent human beings and are deferent to many different political beliefs. This might even be at the heart of the legendary genial, welcoming qualities of the Taiwanese.

A thymotic search, and the ultimate granting of decent recognition to one’s fellows is more than simply desire for goods. Liberal economic orders have long been closely associated with liberal political orders, and some have believed that it is the eager search for material gain that is behind humans’ adoption of democratic, liberal politics.

Fukuyama dismisses this conception, writing that a purely economic analysis of political development would be “radically incomplete.”

Although capitalism and liberal democracy are closely intertwined, the quest for more material goods was not what drove humans to develop their best political orders and to be sure such desirous, covetous aims do not account for the vigorous, even-handed conception of dignified recognition.

In a word, free government “exercises a positive pull of its own” and “recognition allows us to recover a totally non-materialist historical dialectic,” Fukuyama said.

Some might argue that Taiwan is different from what is described here. The economy and material gain seem to have had a strong pull in Taiwan since its development from the 1950s on. Are Taiwanese simply economic men, acquisitive souls that want nothing more than “more”?

There might be some truth to this, as one would expect to see in a developing economy, but just as well, free political thought and action have had a strong impact and positive pull in life here.

Taiwanese young and old have taken to the streets in energetic fashion since the late 1970s — and using such methods have managed to pull down an authoritarian apparatus and replace it with a free democracy. That, to be sure, is a lot more than just the search for material gain.

Needless to say, such methods exist to the present, with the recent Sunflower movement, and many protests and demonstrations surrounding issues like labor, taxes and international affairs.

Fukuyama’s thesis has often been criticized.

Jacques Derrida wrote that violence and inequality are rife in the world, and that these factors have often stemmed from the very political orders Fukuyama celebrates.

“Let us never neglect ... sites of suffering: No degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before … have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the Earth,” Derrida wrote.

Even Plato wrote: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.”

These thoughts might be worrisome in their way, but the actuality in this land is very different. Modes of suffering, subjugation, starvation or extermination are far from the reality in Taiwan and such pessimism seems inapplicable to life here.

Taiwan is a prosperous, generous, healthy and dynamic country that seems to be enjoying the best fruits of its political choices.

Another challenge to the “end of history” thesis is the growth in the economic and political power of China — an essentially autocratic state, nearly a polar opposite of the democracy in Taiwan.

To be sure, our neighbor to the west offers a radically different political view — and the People’s Republic of China has had its own successes that cannot be ignored.

Is socialism with Chinese characteristics a viable alternative to what we have examined here? Not a few people have said so, and this could represent a very different end than that posed by Fukuyama. Or it might be simply the existence of more than one alternative — and not an “end” at all.

This question might be a toss-up for the time being, although I suspect that a more likely outcome will be China adopting free, liberal politics in the future, following the global trend.

And so, in this light, has Taiwan reached the end of its own history and are its last people walking the ground of its free polity?

In the end, probably not — and Fukuyama would agree, writing that “we are not at that point now,” and our culmination is “provisionally inconclusive.”

I do not suspect that Taiwan will be backsliding into authoritarianism anytime soon, but the relationship with China is a very, very big historical development that awaits a conclusion.

This is the subject of another essay, but whatever happens, I feel that Taiwanese will be making good things happen, exercising and expanding their free commonwealth and liberty in ways that I can hardly imagine.

And get ready China, for, as George Washington said: “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”

David Pendery is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Business.