The Origins of Political Order

Where do political institutions come from? How do they develop, and what makes them work? These are the questions at the heart of Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Readers should not be misled, though, into thinking that Fukuyama's intention is merely to give us a historical treatise. This weighty new tome (which is, moreover, only the first half of a two-volume work) is an impressively erudite work of history, but it is also something more. If it continues to advance Fukuyama's now familiar thesis, first expressed in his famous 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, that "liberal democracy as the default form of government became part of the accepted political landscape at the beginning of the twenty-first century," this new work simultaneously expresses a certain concern, and indeed a certain anxiety, about the health of particular liberal democracies, most especially the United States. Ultimately, the hope of The Origins of Political Order seems to be that looking backward is going to help us, in a dark time, discern the way forward.

 

Questions about the genealogy and proper functioning of political entities are easy to ask and notoriously difficult to answer. The political systems and institutions that shape the world in which we live have been in existence for some time and are pervasive in their effects on our lives—so much so that it is quite difficult to see them for what they are: the temporal and contingent results of unpredictable, frequently unstable historical processes. Moreover, basing normative claims on historical data is always risky at best. Knowing what did happen is not enough to establish what would have happened had some factor or other been different—a fact that should inspire a certain minimum level of skepticism with respect to any effort to read philosophical or ideological lessons from historical facts.

 

Fukuyama is not unaware of these difficulties. His strategy is to begin at the most fundamental starting point, with human nature itself, in order to determine just how human beings went from being organized in terms of tribes to dividing themselves up among organized political states. (He does not, on the other hand, see himself as having to explain how we went from no social organization at all to tribal organization; in his view, human beings are essentially social creatures, and there was thus never a time during which we were not social.)

 

Fukuyama's approach emphasizes the role of ideas in political development. (In this and many other ways, he follows the lead of his acknowledged predecessor Samuel Huntington.) "It is impossible," he writes, "to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths." This will seem like common sense to anyone who is even shallowly acquainted with the history of philosophy, but as Fukuyama notes, it is not uncommon for social scientists to deny the profound causal role ideas have had on human history and to claim, instead, that "their rational utility-maximizing framework is sufficient to understand virtually all forms of social behavior."

 

Particularly important, in his account, are ideas having to do with the fundamental equality of all human beings, and the question of how that equality ought to be politically recognized—a line of thought that leads to the social contract conception of political authority, and hence to modern ideas about the accountability of government to its citizens. "There is a very short distance," he correctly notes, "from [the philosopher John Locke's] Second Treatise on Government to the American Revolution and the constitutional theories of the Founding Fathers."

 

But the history that leads to that moment is long and complex, and, as Fukuyama is careful to insist, it is a mistake to assume that there must be one single well-defined path leading from pre-history to liberal democracy. Nor is it the case that the various goods manifested by modern liberal democratic systems—rule of law, political accountability, and high per capita levels of economic productivity, for instance—must necessarily come as a unified package, or even in a certain specific temporal sequence: the Chinese example is sufficient to show otherwise. Many centuries ago, Fukuyama argues, China invented modern bureaucracy and, in essence, the modern state. "But it created a modern state that was not restrained by a rule of law or by institutions of accountability to limit the power of the sovereign."

 

China, then, is an exceptional case in so far as it succeeded in attaining some characteristically modern elements very early on, while managing throughout its entire history to avoid certain others. Europe, in Fukuyama's view, is also exceptional, and in certain ways surprisingly akin to China:

The process of Chinese state formation is particularly interesting in a comparative perspective, since it sets precedents in many ways for the process Europe went through nearly one thousand years later. Just as the Zhou tribes conquered a long-settled territory and established a feudal aristocracy, so too did the Germanic barbarian tribes overrun the decaying Roman Empire and create a comparably decentralized political system. In both China and Europe, state formation was driven primarily by the need to wage war, which led to the progressive consolidation of feudal lands into territorial states, the centralization of political power, and the growth of modern impersonal administration.

Europe's progression to modernity turns out to be highly idiosyncratic in its own way, due to the influence of Christianity, a socially and politically potent religion with no real analogue in Chinese history. The Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire were soon converted to Christianity by the Catholic Church, with the result that a shift from kinship to individualistic contract-based relations occurred much earlier in Europe than elsewhere. From this Fukuyama concludes the following:

The reduction of relationships in the family to "a mere money relation" that Marx thundered against was not, it appears, an innovation of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie but appeared in England many centuries before that class's supposed rise. Putting one's parents out to pasture in a nursing home has very deep historical roots in Western Europe. This suggests that, contrary to Marx, capitalism was the consequence rather than the cause of a change in social relationships and custom.

For a variety of complex reasons, these and successive developments happened even earlier and more quickly in England than in other parts of Europe, with the result that that country became, in effect, the birthplace of modern liberal democracy.

 

There is a good deal more in volume one of The Origins of Political Order, and a good deal more to come in volume two; a brief review can only skim the surface of what is here, and indeed cannot even skim the entire surface. As mentioned above, though, it becomes clear by the end of volume one that Fukuyama's intent is not merely to write history. Rather, he wants to draw lessons from history that can be usefully applied in the present day. Like a lot of his fellow countrymen, he is concerned about the United States' current situation and future prospects:

And then there is the United States, which has been unable to seriously address long-term fiscal issues related to health, social security, energy, and the like. The United States seems increasingly caught in a dysfunctional political equilibrium, wherein everyone agrees on the necessity of addressing long-term fiscal issues, but powerful interest groups can block the spending cuts or tax increases necessary to close the gap. The design of the country's institutions, with strong checks and balances, makes a solution harder. To this might be added an ideological rigidity that locks Americans into a certain range of solutions to their problems.

More than once he compares the contemporary American situation to the France of the ancien régime, a society that was prevented from implementing badly needed reforms by institutional calcification and resistance from the country's privileged elites. "The ability of societies to innovate institutionally," as he writes elsewhere, "depends on whether they can neutralize existing political stakeholders holding vetoes over reform. . . . This is, in effect, the essence of politics." That passage leads, in turn, to a statement that will thrill some readers and deeply disturb others: "Violence is classically seen as the problem that politics seeks to solve, but sometimes violence is the only way to displace entrenched stakeholders who are blocking institutional change."

 

It should be said that Fukuyama's aim, even here, is as much descriptive as prescriptive: in part he is simply supporting his claim that, historically speaking, violence is the main motivating force both for state formation and for political progress. Still, the somewhat casual reference to the necessity of violence is at least a bit disturbing, and if Fukuyama does not explicitly cite Thomas Jefferson's famous statement that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," it is hard not to feel Jefferson's sentiment lurking behind those words. On the other hand, Fukuyama's remarks regarding the current state of affairs in the U.S. are undeniably perceptive. For someone who once identified himself as a neoconservative, he displays a refreshing lack of antipathy for taxation and an admirable skepticism about extreme libertarianism, dryly observing at one point that "many parts of sub-Saharan Africa are a libertarian's paradise," and pausing at another to remark that "even in today's mobile, entrepreneurial capitalist economy, rigid defenders of property rights often forget that the existing distribution of wealth doesn't always reflect the superior virtue of the wealthy and that markets aren't always efficient."

 

In a broader sense, his diagnosis of America's current situation and his forecasts for its future are hard to evaluate. This is so not only because we have only the first volume of the total work before us—a work whose historical account comes to a halt over two hundred years ago—but also because historical comparisons and future prognostications are inevitably simplifications that attempt to render an impossibly complex array of empirical facts down to a small set of graspable and conceptually palatable theses. The parallels between ancien régime France and the contemporary U.S. are striking, but the differences, too, are deep, and whether it is the parallels or the differences that will determine our fate will itself be determined not by historians but by history.

 

Fukuyama himself does not expect the current American crisis, as challenging as it is, to erupt into a twenty-first century version of the French Revolution. Still, one senses, by the end of the current book, a certain pessimism on its author's part as to whether the United States will be able to overcome its present difficulties without considerable hardship for its people. Fukuyama's pessimism (some would simply label it realism) will not, I hope, dissuade anyone from reading this book. Indeed, whatever one may think of its particular claims and predictions—and there is surely something for everyone to disagree with here—The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution is an extraordinary achievement and a work of considerable brilliance.

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