The Enlightenment ushered in the era of reason and rationalization. In contrast to the world of mysticism, religion, and superstitions, the Age of Enlightenment proclaimed its values in science, progress, and freedom. It signaled the beginning of the “modern era.” Michel Foucault considers “envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history” (39). It means that while it signals the break with the past, the present is regarded with great attention. As a result, the people have inquiring minds and encourage their curiosity about the world. However, the most important feature of the modern era is an appreciation of and a desire to have freedom. Even though freedom is a positive notion, in terms of society it is difficult to exercise one’s own freedom without violating someone else’s freedom. With the advent of Industrialization it became evident that capitalism can meet the need in a relevant freedom of choice. Current global system started by capitalism to provide enough markets to sustain itself seemed as an end of the evolution of humanity because it could satisfy all human needs in prosperity and equality. However, such notions as capitalism, liberalism, and democracy are no longer connected in people’s mind due to the recession and a defeat of democratic freedoms in some countries. On the contrary, capitalism comes full circle and has to prove its validity for mankind again.
While ‘modern’ means something that refers to the present time and is separated from the past, the term ‘modernity’ and the beginning of the ‘modern era’ date back to the post-medieval period (slightly different for each country), when the break with tradition occurred. Modernity is the product of the Enlightenment. Upon announcing the break from church and tradition, philosophers and other men of letters relied completely on the accomplishments of rationalization, rather than faith and dogmas. On the early stage of the Enlightenment, philosophers believed that people are rational by nature and such fact made any authority in rational matters unnecessary. In Was ist Aufkluerung?, Emanuel Kant offers his interpretation of the term “Enlightenment” as ‘a way out’ meaning that people no longer need to be immature. On contrary, they can use their abilities to think and they should educate themselves on different issues without any help from spiritual advisors, scholars, and other people (Foucault 34).
Such belief in people’s rationality is inherent to the early stage of the Enlightenment. Upon rejecting the old model of the world as a place with enigmatic processes governed by some higher power, man was ready to explore the world by the means of one’s reason and mind. “[D]isenchantment of the world” brought unprecedented growth of wealth and production, as well as development of the art and science (Larrain 30). The ideals of the Enlightenment held it that “the arts and sciences would not merely promote the control of the forces of nature, but also further the understanding of self and world, the progress of morality, justice in social institutions, and even human happiness” (Habermas 45). However, a century of the supremacy of reason yielded negative results. The horrors of the twentieth century with the Two World Wars, Holocaust, and nuclear bombing revealed that man could hardly be deemed good by nature.
It was what Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned about. Rousseau voiced a presupposition that human nature is not as one-dimensional as earlier philosophers wanted to think. Rousseau believed that man was not born neither good and rational, as the Enlightenment philosophers wanted to think, nor bad. People are susceptible to the influence of the environment. The political and sociological situation during one’s lifetime affects people more than their innate qualities. Therefore, in order to reveal the best features in people they should live in the best conditions that are possible only with legitimate laws. In order to return to equality and freedom that all people are innately inclined to, Rousseau suggests that the only rule that people should be subjected to is “the sovereign power” of themselves. According to Rousseau, people should unite into a civil society where each strives for the “common good” of all (Rousseau 18). In such case, they would obey the rule and laws they impose on themselves and it would be a sign of freedom.
Freedom is one of the principles of the Enlightenment and modernity. In the realm of thought, such principle could be exercised through an inalienable human right to think. Meanwhile, in the sphere of economics it meant that people have a freedom of choice to pursue their own interests. Such possibility could be best of all represented in the capitalist system. However, the principle of individual freedom has a contradiction within itself. Theoretically, society should strive to reach the common good, whereas each member of society should exercise his/her own subjective freedom. In any case, in real life it is often difficult to reconcile. Capitalism contains such contradiction. While it seems one of the best possible systems to give people an opportunity to pursue their own interests, it has a number of shortfalls, for example, a large division between the rich and the poor. On the other hand, capitalism contributed to the common good through a rise in standards of living, better health, lower infancy mortality, etc.
Due to Industrialization and an expansion of production, an establishment of the free market became possible. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe… It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production” (Marx & Engels 37-38). Inasmuch as the emergence of the global market facilitated the trade, militarization and arms race together with other reasons resulted in the two World Wars and a rise of fascism and communism. Thus, the supremacy of reason that had to unite the world according to philosophers of the Enlightenment was seen as a departure of the ideals of the Progressive Era.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, European thinkers singled out two major economic systems: capitalism and socialism. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx advocated socialism as an economic system that would abolish private property and assure equality (22). However, the Soviet Union’s experiment with the utopian communism failed and revealed an inadequacy of the idea in its pure form. In the battle between capitalism and socialism the former wins because the appeal of the consumer culture is irresistible. That is the reason why China, which resorted to the communist model of the government, rejected the idea of central planning and allowed a part of its market to be free (Fukuyama 14). Other countries also feel the pressure to “liberalize both [their] economy and political system” (Fukuyama 13).
The demise of the Soviet Union and the waning of other socialistic regimes in Europe revealed that capitalism is one of the best of the existing systems. Under the influence of socialism, capitalism improved its treatment of social rights. At the same time, the development of the world market makes it possible for capitalism to live long. In fact, the Soviet Union’s antagonism against capitalism gave opposite results and capitalism managed to reform itself and made ‘correction of mistakes.’ The shortfalls of capitalism named by Marx in The Communist Manifesto could be successfully solved, at least partially. Overproduction can be resolved by “the increase of internal demand and the establishing of a kind of social market” (Hersh & Brun 106). The contradiction between capital and labor are successfully solved through a classless society in the USA. Even though it does not eliminate the problem of racial prejudice in America as the legacy of slavery, it offers relative equal condition for its citizens. Francis Fukuyama says about the American society:
The root causes of economic inequality do not have to do with the underlying legal and social structure of our society, which remains fundamentally egalitarian and moderately redistributionist, so much as with the cultural and social characteristics of the groups that make it up, which are in turn the historical legacy of premodern conditions (Fukuyama 11).
The idea of the world market and democracy, as a major political system, seemed so appealing that in 1989 Fukuyama wrote about “the end of history” (1). According to Fukuyama, the ideology had been chosen once and forever because democracy seemed the best form of government and all countries would want to have the goods it provides. In the dissolution of the Social Union and the end of the Cold War Fukuyama saw the confirmation that “social democratism” had been trampled down by liberal capitalist democracy (Hersh & Brun 106). Fukuyama’s position was similar to Marx’s belief that the victory of communism is inevitable because they had nothing to lose (Marx 34). In case of Fukuyama, he believed that even if communistic countries showed their adherence to capitalism through their involvement in consumerist culture, liberalism and its values would be victorious in the future. Fukuyama says, “[T]he end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama 2).
However, it is early to proclaim the victory of capitalism. In the 2000 article “The Globalization and the Communist Manifesto,” Jacques Hersh and Ellen Brun argue, “What the world may be experiencing with the implementation of the neo-liberal project of ‘globalization’ is not the end of history but a return to a déjà vu phase of capitalism – the liberation of capital from social and political controls and constraints” (Hersh & Brun 105). Globalization helped capitalism to survive and prolonged its life. Furthermore, there is a pressure for participants such as working classes, minorities, young people and others to embrace globalization under the pretext that it is inevitable (Hersh & Brun 107). It is logical because the market should be expanded for accumulating new wealth. If an expansion of the market is hampered, a crisis arises. Therefore, capitalist players do all possible to prevent crisis and constantly expand their markets. Hersh and Brun indicate the colonizing tendencies of capitalism when not only countries but also people are involved in the “process of colonization” (107). Apart from the capitalist mode of production, capitalism involves people through the increased “consumerism and the commercialization of so-called ‘free time’” (Hersh & Brun 107).
According to Fukuyama, the signs that hinted at the impending victory of liberal capitalism were as follows: Marxism-Leninism discredited itself as an economic system; Gorbachev announced perestroika and his loyalty to marketization in the Soviet Union; China was also interested in the free market; even though Islamic countries could be a threat to the hegemony of liberalism, their influence of Islam was not appealing to non-Muslims. However, now a quarter of the century after Fukuyama’s text about the end of history, it is obvious that history is far from its end and the victory of liberalism did not happen. China proved that it is not necessary to exercise freedom and be rich simultaneously. The USA is in the phase of another Cold War with Russia, as a successor of the Soviet Union, who craves to dominate the world political and economic arena, while not possessing means for it except for nuclear weapon. Moreover, the belligerent intentions of Islamic states show that religious fundamentalism cannot be ignored, as well.
However, during the last decade many things changed. First of all, the recession occurred and many people saw that capitalism is not the best way to prosperity. In the article “It’s Still Not the End of History,” Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee argue that “the connection between capitalism, democracy, and liberalism upon which Fukuyama’s argument depended has itself been broken.” Free markets did not meet people’s expectations and during the recent recession people became poorer than they used to be. The recent actions of Russia reveal a readiness of the country to return to the times of Stalinism and communism. Islamic ISIS also does not favor civil freedoms and the rule of democracy. Thus, it occurs that the values of freedom, liberalism, and democracy are not non-negotiable absolutes for all people as it might seem.
Now capitalism as the global system has to prove that it is still the best system for humanity. Simultaneously with solving the problems of pollution and waste it creates, capitalism should argue how it can assure its values of freedom and liberty. The argumentation cannot be taken from the past. It is not valid to reason that if capitalism was victorious previously, it will remain the same in the future. So far, the humanity returned to where it started at the beginning of the twentieth century. It turned out that not all people need, or are reluctant to have, liberal values. Therefore, similar to Rousseau and other philosophers of the Enlightenment who explained why and how people should exercise their freedom, modern philosophers and men of letters should continue their attempts to call people to order.
Nowadays, the mankind demonstrated that it is not possible to change. Having experienced many terrors of the twentieth century, many countries and people behave as if they did not learn a lesson from history. Therefore, people do not seem considering the current global system as a means. Moreover, people do not know which direction they can move from the point where they are now. To such extent, humanity is said to come to an end. Despite the fact that it is not an apocalyptic end and life continues, new political and economic systems are not likely to appear in the nearest future.