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ValuesQuest

20/06/2013 16:43 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST

In 1989, the American political economist Francis Fukuyama published a seminal paper in a specialist journal called The National Interest. Titled 'The End of History?' it created seismic ructions among political philosophers and social theorists by arguing that, with the collapse of the Eastern bloc and demise of Communism, we had arrived at the end of humanity's socio-cultural evolution.

Fukuyama's point was not that time itself would cease to march forward, but that human development now had nowhere else to go: it had reached its apogee with the (soon to be) universal adoption of liberal capitalist democracy. The decades would continue to unfold ahead of us but, Fukuyama implied, humanity would be forever confined to a kind of treadmill of time.

Three years later, Fukuyama expanded his thesis into a book and the critics pounced. They said he'd failed to account for the resurgence everywhere of petty nationalisms and tribal warring, for the rise of Islam and re-birth of the old empires of China and Russia - all of which, they agued, proved that history was still on the move. They argued, too, that Fukuyama was a Christian eschatologist in the mould of Hegel. For what else was the end of history than a re-casting of Hegel's 'absolute world spirit'?

The fact that end of the 20th century was fast approaching, sparking a good deal of apocalyptic excitement - and not a few firework displays: think of Waco, the Oklahoma bombing, Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attacks in Tokyo, the pathetic self-annihilation of Heaven's Gate - seemed to seal the case. For if history had ended, then surely we were poised on the doorstep of the Millennium?

This was the context in which I wrote my book, Living at the End of the World, which set out to explore the ways in which apocalyptic thinking had threaded itself through so much of our fin de siècle self-understanding. Cultish excesses were the least of it - a fringe affair. But the end of history? That affected us all.

Not least, it was another death knell for the grand narratives of the 20th century ¬- communism, feminism, socialism - to which, like countless others, I was very much attached. It seemed to me that if we consigned such narratives to the dustbins of history then it would get that much harder to cast out a hook and rope and haul ourselves up towards a set of widely cherished ideals: equality, diversity, universal justice, a respect for difference and for freedoms given, not just taken.

Amid all the fuss over Fukuyama, it is often forgotten that when he turned his paper into a book, he re-titled it The End of History and The Last Man. He did so in order to suggest that the blanket triumph of liberal capitalist democracy was not necessarily a desirable thing. The last man, of course, is that sorry creature who prowls the post-historical landscape in search of meaning. Only that search is doomed, since without any socio-political evolution there is nothing left to aspire to; there is no 'becoming, only 'being.'

The last man is a useful philosophical construct because he gives us a handle on what life might really be like in the Millennium of apocalyptic lore. And it's no eternity of bliss. Forever fated to circle back on himself, the last man only ever encounters mirrors: when everybody wants the same, everybody is the same.

Here, then, is a counter-Millennium of boredom not bliss. There is no real individuation, no striving, and no exertion, only last men, numbed by the masterless slavery of rational consumption and preciously preoccupied with self-preservation. Starkly put: there's little left at history's end beyond shopping and the gym.

A decade or so into the new century, we can see that Fukuyama was a bit wrong, but also a lot right. That even if history hasn't ended, we still behave as if it had. Our grand narratives are well and truly exploded. Instead of political ideologies, we have managerialism; globalization has engendered mass homogenization, passive consumption substitutes for cultural participation; and in the wake of feminism we've seen the rise of retrosexism.

I welcome the Club of Rome's ValuesQuest agenda, because it challenges this deficit of aspiration. And because I'd like to see more 'becoming' and less 'being'; more people putting themselves on the line and less shoulder-shrugging. Apolcalypse (yet another grand narrative) might be defunct, but it has one abiding virtue. It invites hope because it nurtures ideals. And if putting up with history - its bloodshed, its folly - is the price we have to pay to keep our aspirations in sight, than so be it.

The alternative is bleak. We'll remain stranded in 'death's other kingdom', like T.S. Eliot's Hollow Men - men who cannot dream, who talk nonsense and whose heads are stuffed with straw.

Marina Benjamin participated in the ValuesQuest strand of talks, a project of the Club of Rome and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation ARC, at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival.