‘The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution’ reviewed by Peter Stone

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2011. 585 pp., $35.00/£25.00 hb
ISBN 9780374227340

Reviewed by Peter Stone

About the reviewer

Peter Stone is Ussher Lecturer in Political Science (Political Theory) at Trinity College Dublin. …


Francis Fukuyama is best known for his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he argued that history had come to an end. He came to this conclusion via the philosophy of Hegel, as interpreted by Alexander Kojève. Fukuyama’s new book, The Origins of Political Order, is just as ambitious as its predecessor. And like its predecessor, it is a very Hegelian book – incredibly ambitious in its scope and full of interesting insights, but not quite able to live up to its ambitions. Fortunately, however, Fukuyama’s Hegelianism extends only so far, The Origins of Political Order is an easy read.

The first installment of a projected two-volume treatise, The Origins of Political Order seeks to explain the emergence of the modern political system, which Fukuyama believes is characterized by three features – the state, the rule of law, and accountability (15). Fukuyama adopts a Weberian understanding of a modern state, “an organization deploying a legitimate monopoly of violence over a defined territory”, which is “subject to a rational division of labor, based on technical specialization and expertise, and impersonal both with regard to recruitment and their authority over citizens” (450). Such an organization is difficult to develop and sustain over time. After all, most of the world did not develop modern states satisfying this definition until the past few centuries, significant parts of the world are struggling to build such states today, and even well-established states are hardly perfect embodiments of the ideal. (Describe U.S. climate change policy as reflecting a “rational division of labor, based on technical specialization and expertise” with a straight face. Go on, I dare you.)

The reason why state development and maintenance proves so difficult is that it requires restraining some of the most deeply ingrained parts of human nature. Human beings, Fukuyama notes, are deeply social, not individualistic, at heart. We are designed by natural selection to live in small-scale extended family units. Within these units, cooperation is sustained through the mechanisms of kin selection (I cooperate with you because we are related) and reciprocal altruism (I cooperate with you because you have cooperated with me in the past, and may do so again in the future) (30). We have inherited these mechanisms from our predecessors in the animal world, and so our earliest ancestors lived in family groupings not dissimilar to theirs. But no vertebrate animal associates with other members of its species in societies numbering millions, as the modern state makes possible. This is not a coincidence. For the impersonal administration of the modern state works directly against the mechanisms of kin selection and reciprocal altruism. When sentencing a defendant, the members of a jury should not ask questions like, “How closely related am I to this guy?” or, “What has he done for me lately?” Needless to say, this impersonality is often a very desirable part of social institutions.

Modern states thus use mechanisms of cooperation very different from those employed in more small-scale forms of social organization. In a sense, these new mechanisms are “quite unnatural” (44), but it would be more accurate to say that they structure human interaction differently, thereby overcoming the parts of our nature that can stand in the way of the full development of our potential. In this respect, the modern state functions much like the scientific world. The rules followed by scientists (double-blind experiments, the demand for replication, the sharing of data, etc.) are intended to counteract certain natural human cognitive biases (the confirmation bias, for example). Those biases are useful in certain circumstances; they make it possible for us to act quickly and decisively in situations where careful deliberation would prove dangerous or counterproductive. But those biases impede the sustained accumulation of reliable knowledge, and so there is a need for institutions which control them. And like the modern state, the scientific community is devilishly hard to get off the ground, which is why its emergence took so long a time in coming. (Its future may seem more secure than that of the modern state, but that’s only if you ignore the Michele Bachmanns of the world.)

Modern state formation, then, is all about overcoming “patrimonialism”, or “the natural human propensity to favor family and friends” (17). Patrimonialism powerfully resists efforts to create states governed by impersonal rules, and it constantly stands ready to reassert itself if those states should falter (e.g., after the collapse of the Roman Empire). Fukuyama takes to task those who fail to understand the nature of this problem. For example, he criticizes those on the Left who glorify stateless communities governed by “mutual aid” (Kropotkin comes to mind). Far from embodying the realm of freedom, such communities offer their own form of tyranny – the “tyranny of cousins,” in which one’s entire life is controlled by the expectations of family and friends (the phrase originates with Ernest Gellner) (54). Even worse are those who attempt to create cooperative communities without recognizing the need for kinship selection and reciprocal altruism to sustain them. In effect, this is what Mao did when he “forced millions of unrelated peasants into collective farms” with tragic results (65).

But Fukuyama is just as critical of the Right as he is of the Left. “Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa,” he notes, “are a libertarian’s paradise” (13). The right-wing dream of eliminating the state – as embodied in Grover Norquist’s wish to shrink the U.S. government to the point where it can be drowned in a bathtub – does not magically lead to a world governed by market relations. At best, it leads to the tyranny of cousins in small communities, which at least has the virtue of being semi-egalitarian. At worst, it leads to the domination of the weak by the strong, as less powerful tribes are constantly under threat of death or enslavement by the warlords of more powerful ones. (An unkind observer might suggest that this is precisely the kind of world Norquist really wants.) “Political institutions,” Fukuyama writes,

are necessary and cannot be taken for granted. A market economy and high levels of wealth don’t magically appear when you “get government out of the way;” they rest on a hidden institutional foundation of property rights, rule of law, and basic political order. A free market, a vigorous civil society, the spontaneous “wisdom of crowds” are all important components of a working democracy, but none can ultimately replace the functions of a strong, hierarchical government. (13-14)

Restraining the modern state is indeed essential for real freedom, but it is equally essential for there to be a modern state in need of restraint. Neither condition can be taken for granted.

The modern state does not naturally generate such restraint. As Fukuyama notes, “many of the elements of what we now understand to be a modern state were already in place in China in the third century B.C.” (19), and yet the Chinese state also provided the model for so-called “Oriental despotism” (93). True political success requires a modern state tempered by both “the rule of law” and “accountability”. Fukuyama’s account of these two features of modern political development is not always clear, but essentially both function to “limit the state’s power, first by forcing it to use its power according to certain public and transparent rules, and then by ensuring that it is subordinate to the will of the people” (15). Achieving this requires a civil society that is strong and well-organized, but not so strong as to overwhelm and overpower the state. If the latter occurs, the result is repatrimonialization, as well-organized private groups manipulate the state to benefit themselves. Fukuyama summarizes this conclusion as follows:

successful liberal democracy requires both a state that is strong, unified, and able to enforce laws on its own territory, and a society that is strong and cohesive and able to impose accountability on the state. It is the balance between a strong state and a strong society that makes democracy work, not just in seventeenth-century England but in contemporary developed democracies as well. (479)

The Tea Party’s ravings notwithstanding, the primary threat to contemporary developed democracies is not state tyranny, but state weakness, “contemporary democracies become too easily gridlocked and rigid, and thus unable to make difficult decisions to ensure their long-term economic and political survival” (482).

The broad outline of this story is quite compelling, and Fukuyama explores a vast range of national cases – China, India, the Ottoman Empire, England, France, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Russia, even Denmark – to make his point. But can he convincingly account for all these examples? On the one hand, he claims that “A very simple model can explain this variance, which has to do with the balance of power among only four groups of political actors” – the king, the nobles, the gentry, and the middle class or “Third Estate” (422). “The outcome”, he continues, “of these struggles depended largely on the collective action that any of these major actors could achieve” (424). But on the other hand, Fukuyama continually complicates his own story, introducing more and more factors influencing the development of political order, so that in the end the big picture becomes increasingly hazy.

The resulting narrative makes huge political changes hinge on extreme contingencies. Early modern Russia developed an absolute monarchy. Early modern Hungary and Poland grew weaker and weaker, until their neighbors simply carved them up like turkeys. What accounts for this difference? It’s hard to say. Fukuyama does point out that “the growth of a powerful state in the principality of Moscow was aided greatly by the fact that the founding dynasty consistently produced male heirs up through the end of the sixteenth century. Hungary, by contrast, faced repeated succession struggles due to its short-lived dynasties and the foreign origin of many of its kings.” This required each Hungarian would-be monarch to make concessions to the nobles; these concessions built up over time until the monarchy’s residual power was virtually nil (380-1). But ten pages later, Fukuyama writes, “Here, then, is one critical difference between Russia and Hungary. In Russia, the middle service class was recruited to work directly for the Muscovite state, whereas in Hungary it was incorporated into the noble class. This choice was probably sufficient to determine the subsequent paths of centralization and decentralization taken by the two societies” (391). What’s really driving this story? It’s very hard to tell.

In the end, what Fukuyama offers “amounts to something less than a predictive theory of political development. A parsimonious theory of political change, comparable to the theories of economic growth posited by economists, is in my view simply not possible” (23). This is a perfectly sensible thing to say; one doesn’t need to read Hegel to know that life is complicated. But it makes plain just what The Origins of Political Order can deliver. It cannot, and does not, provide a clear story explaining just how the modern world got to be the way it is. But it can and does identify a number of critically important causal mechanisms that impact the way human institutions develop, sustain themselves, and die out. Those who are ignorant of these mechanisms have caused an enormous amount of suffering, and so anyone seeking to build a better world would do well to take them into account. This is a valuable enough lesson to justify reading even a book as large of The Origins of Political Order. It’s probably not a grand enough lesson to impress Hegel, but then again Hegel didn’t deliver everything he promised either.

5 February 2012

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