Francis Fukuyama’s “The Origins of Political Order”

April 8, 2011

The history profession is today dominated by small minds studying small topics. Specialists trade in abstractions, taking refuge in tiny foxholes of arcane knowledge. It was not always this way. In the 19th century, men like Leopold von Ranke, George Macaulay Trevelyan and Frederick Jackson Turner used the past to try to understand the present. Their ideas were big, and sometimes too were their mistakes.

Francis Fukuyama is at heart a Victorian. As he admits, he wants to revive a “lost tradition” when historians were big thinkers. In “The Origins of Political Order,” his topic is the world, his starting point the chimpanzee. He charts how states evolved, in the process explaining why, despite humans’ common origin in Africa perhaps 50,000 years ago, great political diversity exists today. While this is only the first volume of two (ending on the eve of the French Revolution), it is nevertheless impressive to see such a huge and complicated topic covered in such an accessible and engaging fashion.

The central question that troubles Fukuyama is why some nations behave like Denmark, but most do not. A successful liberal democracy, he argues, combines three essential elements in perfect balance, namely the state itself, the rule of law and accountability in government. Central authority is strong, but it is bound by a transparent system of law and is subordinate to the will of the people. As he maintains, “this balance constitutes the miracle of modern politics, since it is not obvious that they can be combined.” Often, the conditions that encourage the development of a strong central authority militate against the formation of institutions to limit that authority.

A stable liberal democracy is, therefore, an aberration, the product of good intent and good fortune. The most common condition among states is for Fukuyama’s three elements to exist in disharmony. This results in dysfunction, but not necessarily disorder. Weird anomalies evolve. Thus, in China, a stable, socially mobile and increasingly prosperous society exists within an authoritarian state, while in India democratic institutions are powerless to overturn hierarchical traditions that hinder social mobility. Thus, it could be argued that the democratic Indians enjoy less freedom than the tyrannized Chinese.

Fukuyama is fond of the adage that “he who knows only one country knows no countries.” That seems a clever dig at insular Americans who assume that the world should behave like America. Fukuyama, who has studied many countries, has come to the conclusion that liberal democracy is not the “default position.” That, in turn, implies that authoritarian nations cannot easily be transformed into stable democracies with help from benevolent friends. Though he insists he does not want to seem deterministic, he provides a wealth of evidence to suggest that nations are prisoners of their pasts. China today behaves a lot like China of 3,000 years ago. Ditto India. Ditto Afghanistan.

The more countries one knows, however, the harder it is to form comprehensive theories of political development. Western philosophy is reductive, based as it is on a Greco-Roman heritage foreign to most of the world. China, in other words, has not played according to the rules of Rousseau. The evolution of political order is affected by geography, climate, war, agriculture, language, religion and myriad other determinants, thus explaining the great diversity. As Fukuyama admits, “The prospects of producing a predictive general theory out of this soup of causal factors and outcomes seems to be very slim indeed.”

“The Origins of Political Order” is, then, a corrective to the liberal philosophy peddled by Rousseau, Kant and Locke. Out of their ideas grew the Whig view of history, which holds that the growth of liberty, prosperity and democracy is inevitable. Progress, argues Fukuyama, can lead as easily to Chinese authoritarianism, Russian corruption or Nigerian perfidy. Everything depends on that soup of circumstances. While the title of this book is appropriate, it could easily be titled “The Origins of Political Disorder.”

Though Fukuyama never admits it, this book also seems a corrective to his “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992). That book arose from the post Cold War euphoria about the triumph of liberal democracy. As he wrote back then, “We may be witnessing . . . not just the end of the Cold War, [but] the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” That cozy certitude, always tenuous, came crashing down with the Twin Towers.

The basic assumptions about liberal democracy which underpinned “The End of History” still seem valid, but progress and inevitability do not. The world seems much more complicated than it did 20 years ago. Autocratic China surges on, while the United States is, as Fukuyama argues, “gridlocked” by too much democracy. “The Origins of Political Order” tries to make sense of the complexity that has cluttered the last two decades. It is a bold book, probably too bold for the specialists who take refuge in tiny topics and fear big ideas. But Fukuyama deserves congratulation for thinking big and not worrying about making mistakes. This is a book that will be remembered, like those of Ranke, Trevelyan and Turner. Bring on volume II.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the author of “The Sixties Unplugged.”

THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER

From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

By Francis Fukuyama

Farrar Straus Giroux. 585 pp. $35

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