Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Trouble With Names

What should we name this new era?

Naming our new era leads to a conundrum: All the interest­ing choices are inaccurate in some way, while the accurate ones are already cliches. Historians have often named previous ages after wars, like the "pre­-World War I" or "interwar" periods. Since a remarkable absence of large-scale war characterizes our age, it would be inappropriate to choose a conflict as a reference point.

Other ages have been named after prominent political leaders (the "Wilhelmine" or "Victorian" eras). But our age has notably lacked states­men of the stature of Roosevelt, Stalin, or Churchill. Future generations of schoolchildren are unlikely to spend much time learning names like Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, or Kiichi Miyazawa. Politics and politicians have become less important as a source of social change. There is broad consensus that capitalist liberal democracy is the only viable model for countries that hope to be modem, and that politics and social engineer­ing are inappropriate routes to social justice and prosperity.

If not politicians, how about other famous individuals? Madonna, Michael Jordan, and Bill Gates have all achieved an astonishing degree of global name recognition in our celebrity-drenched culture. But celebrity status is not the same thing as being the time representative of one's time, and none seems close to fitting the bill.

Naming our new era leads to a conundrum: All the interest­ing choices are inaccurate in some way, while the accurate ones are already cliches. Historians have often named previous ages after wars, like the "pre­-World War I" or "interwar" periods. Since a remarkable absence of large-scale war characterizes our age, it would be inappropriate to choose a conflict as a reference point.

Other ages have been named after prominent political leaders (the "Wilhelmine" or "Victorian" eras). But our age has notably lacked states­men of the stature of Roosevelt, Stalin, or Churchill. Future generations of schoolchildren are unlikely to spend much time learning names like Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, or Kiichi Miyazawa. Politics and politicians have become less important as a source of social change. There is broad consensus that capitalist liberal democracy is the only viable model for countries that hope to be modem, and that politics and social engineer­ing are inappropriate routes to social justice and prosperity.

If not politicians, how about other famous individuals? Madonna, Michael Jordan, and Bill Gates have all achieved an astonishing degree of global name recognition in our celebrity-drenched culture. But celebrity status is not the same thing as being the time representative of one’s time, and none seems close to fitting the bill.

We could name the era after the United States –"Pax Americana" or the "Age of American Hegemony." Few historical periods have seen such disparities in power between the leading great power and those in the sec­ond or third ranks, with respect to military prowess, economic might, or culture. But "hegemony" is far too strong a term. The United States has been a rather hesitant dominatrix of the world scene, using its power in relatively obscure conflicts like Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, and shying away from introducing large structural changes in the world order. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, American power has been used more to annoy other countries than to reshape them in an American image. Besides, the 20th century was supposed to have been the "American Century." Here we are already in the 21st; is it the "American Century II"? If so, what dis­tinguishes the current century from the previous one? Perhaps very little?

Having rejected wars, individuals, or countries as sources of identity for our age, we come to more promising territory: economics and technology. In many ways, the "Age of Globalization" would be a far more accurate label than anything political. World politics today revolves around the global economy. The major interna­tional fault lines fall not between civilizations but between countries that accept globalization and those that either reject is (such as Afghanistan or North Korea) or are for one reason or another unable to play by its rules (like Russia and Ecuador).

Like never before, the world’s center of political gravity is almost impossible to locate in any one of its parts. Economists will point out that globalization is nothing new, and that world trade as a percentage of world output was just as high at the beginning of the 20th century as it is today. Much of the world was on the gold standard in 1900 and then, like now, national governments were unable to control capital flows and exter­nal financial shocks. But contemporary globalization is far different from what occurred 100 years ago; it is driven by technology, particularly by cheap communications technology, that makes national borders pervious to ideas, culture, and images as well as financial capital. While financial globalization may affect only a top tier of elites in a restricted number of countries, the globalization of ideas and information has touched villages and hunter-gatherer tribes in the most remote parts of the world.

Since globalization is driven by technological change, we might call our age the "Information Era" or some such label referring directly to technology. Indeed, technological advances have brought about pro­found changes in the nature of work, society, culture, and politics. Yet, the term "information revolution" is one of the most overused and self­-conscious cliches of our time. Among information technology gurus, there is a "year zero" mentality that would like to start renumbering human history in the year that the Internet was invented.

What truly unites the world (and hence the age) today are tech­nology and economics, but the purveyors of information technology and globalization have so relentlessly marketed themselves that one is already tired of hearing the words. Meanwhile, there are no over­arching conflicts or political conditions that characterize the world as a whole. Perhaps this was always true — the "Age of Exploration" made sense only if you were a European, not an American Indian ­but like never before, the world’s center of political gravity is almost impossible to locate in anyone of its parts.

Faced with the dilemma of accuracy versus cliche, we could try to join together some of the leading candidates, and call this new era the "Age of American Global Technological Hegemony," but that is clearly too much of a mouthful and sounds more like a political slo­gan than a historical epoch. So I propose a simple solution: Let’s just call it the "End of History."

Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute and author of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.

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