Review. The Origins of Political Order
The Origins of Political Order:
From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
By Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 585 pp, 2011
The Arab Spring -- that grab-bag of street protests, popular uprisings, and outright civil war that has flared across parts of the Middle East since early March -- was greeted with no small measure of excitement by observers in the West. After a post-9/11 decade spent worrying that places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were infested with terrorist cells or training camps, their governments poised to fall into the hands of Islamist radicals, the idea that the citizens of these states might rise up against the autocrats in the name of secular values of freedom and democracy came as a tremendous, magnificent surprise.
One undercurrent to the ecstasy was a subtle but distinctily Whiggish sense that, well, it was about time. While the most of the rest of world had spent the last few centuries going through the expected evolution in liberty, prosperity, and representative government, the Arab states remained stuck at a medieval level of tribal politics. But the tribal despots are teetering at last, and the final jump to liberal democracy is surely now just a matter of a quick game of political hopscotch.
Yet if Francis Fukuyama is anywhere close to right, our hopes for these revolutions should be dramatically scaled back. Fukuyama's new book tries to answer the question, Where does political order come from? Or more concretely, Where does a virtuous, modern political order come from, one that combines a strong state with the rule of law and political accountability?
The Origins of Political Order is a deliberate attempt at updating the analysis in Samuel Huntington's 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies. It is a hugely ambitious work (this book stops at the French Revolution, the forthcoming second volume will take us up to the present day), combining the high-level theorizing of Huntington's work with the sort of fine-grained historical detail that made S.E. Finer's classic work on the subject close to unreadable.
Fukuyama argues that there are a handful of attributes that give human political development its distinctive character. These include kinship ties and reciprocal altruism; the capacity to invent, and be moved by, ideas (including superstitions, religious belief, and political ideologies); a strong tendency towards rule following and to treat entrenched norms as intrinsically valuable; and finally, the desire for recognition, the granting of which serves as the foundations of political legitimacy.
The default mode of human social organization is the band and the tribe, and they are held together almost entirely by the forces of kinship ties and reciprocal altruism. Fukuyama calls this fundamental tendency to favour family and friends "patrinomialism," and to a large extent the book's fulcrum is the lengthy account of how the transition from tribalism to the modern state is the story of a fight against the gravitational pull of patrinomialism. The argument is both historical and comparative, and some of the most enjoyable sections in the book explore the various mechanisms that have been used to hold patrinomialism at bay. The most common solution was to make it so that large numbers of the ruling cadres could not have children -- hence the extensive use of eunuchs in China, and the innovation of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. The most incredible, though, is the Ottoman innovation, where Christian boys were effectively kidnapped and raised as military slaves or bureaucrats and forbidden from having children. While Europeans regarded the Ottoman practice with horror, the sheer lunacy of enslaving foreigners and then elevating them to high positions in government suggests that the Ottomans recognized just how much of a threat patrinomialism was to the interests of the empire.
Within this general framework of how various human societies have managed (or mismanaged) the transition from tribe to state, Fukuyama tackles a swath of subsidiary problems, including the development of the rule of law and political accountability, the intensely conservative character of political institutions, and conditions under which states can experience political decay. There's no way, in a review of any reasonable length, to even pretend to sketch out how each of these is treated, but some points merit a brief discussion.
Fukuyama repeatedly emphasizes that, despite what modernization theorists have long supposed, the modern state doesn't have to come as a package deal. Indeed, he sees Qin-dynasty China (circa 221BC) as the first “modern” state, insofar as it features a merit-based military leadership and a bureaucracy selected on the basis of ability rather than family connection. But to this day, China has never really developed either the rule of law or political accountability. Similarly, he points out that many states have accountability of one form or another, to the extent that the rulers are answerable to a given collection of political actors, but they do not necessarily have the rule of law. Indeed, the more Fukuyama piles on the comparative details, the more the European countries, especially Britain, start to look like anomalies.
One of Fukuyama's sharpest insights is the recognition that there is far more to political accountability than the big threatening state being held in check by "the people." As he points out, a strong yet accountable state involves a delicate balance: a too-powerful state is a definitely a problem, but so is a state that is too weak, especially if that weakness renders it unwilling or unable to defend the masses against the aristocrats and the gentry. As Fukuyama puts it: "The miracle of modern liberal democracy, in which strong states capable of enforcing law are nonetheless checked by law and legislatures, could arise only as a result of the fact that there was a rough balance of power among the different political actors within the society. If none of them was dominant, then they would need to compromise."
The paradox, then, is that what made Europe so unique, and what made its state-building exercises so relatively successful, is that they occurred much later than in other parts of the world. In Europe, "states were formed on top of societies in which individuals already enjoyed substantial freedom from social obligations to kindreds." That is, European social development preceded political development. In England in particular, social individualism was well-entrenched by the seventh century, which meant that solidarity took a political rather than social form. The always-threatening regress to patrinomialism was thus never really an issue by the time the English got around to building a modern state -- the extended family had long since been extinguished as a political force.
What is particularly remarkable is the way that the basic institutional operating system of a state, once installed, tends to assert itself over the course of centuries, in the face of what appears to be substantial, even revolutionary, change. (The recurrence of economic crises in Latin America, thanks to structural flaws imported from Spain centuries ago, is especially telling in this regard). But notwithstanding the extreme conservatism of state institutions, the most casually ominous passages in the book come towards the end, when Fukuyama asserts that there can be "no general presumption that political order, once it emerges, will be self-sustaining."
Just as the blind watchmaker of biological evolution occasionally finds itself in dead ends from which it cannot escape, so does human institutional evolution. Institutions are created to meet the challenges of a very specific competitive environment, and political decay can occur when the institutions are not able to adjust to new environments and new challenges. The most salient example here is the French ancien regime, which had been utterly captured by a coalition of rent-seeking elites. Unable to reform itself, the problem was solved only through the extreme violence of the revolution.
This isn’t a question of mere historical interest. The American constitution was designed specifically to restrain the power of the executive, at a time when Royal despotism was seen as the greatest threat to freedom. Yet as Fukuyama writes, “Accountability does not just run in one direction, from the state to society. If the government cannot act cohesively, if there is no broader sense of public purpose, then one will not have laid the balance for true political liberty.” The relevance of this to the current political deadlock in the United States over the debt ceiling won’t escape even the most casual reader.
What lessons, if any, can we draw from this regarding the revolutions in the Arab world and -- only slightly more generally -- for the nation-building exercises in which we have been engaged in places like Afghanistan?
At the very least, it means we need to substantially ratchet down our expectations. The necessary balance between competing political interests that could serve as the foundation for a liberal and democratic state is not something that can be simply imposed by fiat. Despite countless lessons to the contrary, naive liberal internationalists (and their equally ideological counterparts, the naive neoconservatives) never seem to give serious thought to the fact that there is more to democracy than simply kicking out the despots and holding some elections.
In Afghanistan, the nation-building efforts there have been undermined by an even more obnoxious haughtiness, which is that the constitution that was imposed on the country was designed more to serve the interests of the Americans than to do justice to the actual balance of powers in the country. As the Harvard professor Thomas Barfield put it in his recent history of Afghanistan, when the Afghan state was being rebuilt after the Taliban were chased out in 2001, there was some debate over whether power should be concentrated in Kabul, or whether a federal state was more appropriate. The diverse character of Afghan society, and the growth in regional autonomy over two decades of war, argued for a decentralized state. But the international community, led by the U.S., sided with their clients in the Kabul elite to implement a powerful president and bureaucracy, which gave the central government broad powers over taxation, appointment of provincial governors, and responsibility for the provision of local services. This concentration of power in Kabul might have seemed like a good idea from the perspective of neo-colonial administration, but for legitimacy and stability it has been a disaster. It will come as no surprise to readers of Fukuyama's book that what has emerged in Afghanistan is the worst of all worlds – a Pashtun-based patrinomial elite at the controls of a centralized but unrepresentative and unaccountable bureaucratic state.
The political institutions Afghanistan has been given are so inappropriate to the relationships between the actual political actors in the country that the constitution might have to be junked and rewritten from scratch. That is, if some sort of civil war doesn’t break out first. In the meantime, the best we might hope for is that the revolutionary energies currently being expended in the Middle East, and the dollars showered on Kabul and the bloodshed throughout the country, might help create the space in which a healthy political balance might assert itself organically, and allow -- slowly, eventually -- the emergence of a political order that is stable, legitimate, and accountable.
For all its depth and detail, there are a few spots in the argument of The Origins of Public Order that call out for more theoretical elaboration. In particular, it would be nice to see some reflection on how the Whiggishness that courses through Fukuyama’s groundbreaking book The End of History squares with the much more contingent picture of political development in his latest work. While he focuses on the role of warfare as the driver of institutional evolution, there is virtually no discussion of technology. Furthermore, despite flagging our innate tendency towards rule-following as one of the most distinctive characteristics of human political organization, Fukuyama has little to say on how that tendency underwrites moral authority. The discussion of how the only real checks on the Chinese emperor from the Zhou dynasty onward were moral constraints would be usefully informed by a reading of philosopher Joseph Heath’s neglected 2009 book Following The Rules.
But these would be additions to the book’s argument, not renovations. Fukuyama has only taken us as far as the French Revolution, he’s already given us the most comprehensive account of what we know about how the modern state came about. The second volume can’t come soon enough.
Andrew Potter is a public affairs columnist with Maclean's magazine, and a features editor with Canadian Business. He is the author of Authenticity Hoax and, with Joseph Heath, The Rebel Sell.