The Origins of Political Order: Review of Francis Fukuyama’s impressive history of the state

July 29, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Ricardo Fuentes has been raving about this book for months, so I packed it in my holiday luggage. Actually it’s twoFukuyama I books – The Origins of Political Order takes us from pre-history up to the French Revolution/American Revolution, and the subsequent Political Order and Political Decay brings us up to the present day. They each weigh in at around 500 pages, so hope you won’t mind me taking two posts to review them.

Fukuyama is notorious for his ‘End of History?’ post-Cold War triumphalism, but he’s older, wiser and considerably more nuanced these days. The ambition of the two books is astonishing – nothing less than a history of the birth, evolution and current condition of the state worldwide, with fascinating potted histories of the states both obvious (China, England, Germany, US) and less so (Hungary, Poland, Nigeria).

The starting point is that ‘Poor countries are poor not because they lack resources, but because they lack effective political institutions. It asks (and tries to answer) wonderfully big hairy questions like:

  • why are some countries (eg Melanesia, parts of Middle East) still tribally organized?
  • why is China historically centralized, while India isn’t?
  • why is East Asia so special in its path of authoritarian modernization?
  • what explains the contrasting fortunes of the US and Latin America?

Fukuyama’s big idea is that political order is based on three pillars: effective centralized states, the rule of law and accountability mechanisms such as democracy and parliaments. ‘The miracle of modern politics’ is achieving a balance between them, which is difficult both to achieve and then to maintain, with many states having one disproportionately stronger than the others, while others achieve it, and then lose it. Its achievement is often accidental, rather than deliberate. Analysing each state’s unique combination of the three pillars helps us understand the strengths, weaknesses and historical trajectories of different countries and empires.

His big concluding paragraph:

‘The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to the rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the end of the 18th Century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena (1806) involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones. Communism aspired to do this in the 20th Century but has all but disappeared from the world scene in the 21st.’

There is some soul-searching on the sequencing of these three. Successful democracies got the strong state first, then opened up the franchise. If you start with democracy in the absence of an effective state, a spoils war rapidly ensues – as has happened in many countries in Africa, in Fukuyama’s view. But history is not destiny and anyway, telling people who want democracy that they should first demand an undemocratic state is unlikely to wash. Fukuyama finds comfort in the history of the US, which achieved mind-boggling levels of patronage and corruption in the 19th Century, but sorted it out (more or less) over a 50 year period to the 1930s.

The dance between these three components is superimposed upon something even more primordial: the underlying

Nobody expects the Eastern Depot.....

Nobody expects the Eastern Depot…..

tension between the construction of effective states and the human bonds of kinship – states go through periods of effectiveness, but then ‘neopatrimonialism’ reasserts itself, and political decay ensues as people try and secure jobs, power and wealth for their families and kin. History resembles centuries of whack the mole, as states try to prevent reemergence of kinship and erosion of their control, and they went to some pretty extreme lengths to do so, for example by ensuring there were no families to favour in the first place:  ‘By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), there were an estimated 100,000 eunuchs associated with the palace. From 1420 on, they were organized into an Orwellian secret police organization knows as the Eastern Depot.’ The eunuch battalion’s job was to root out corruption or disobedience among state officials.

And if you think reverting to kin-based and patronage systems is merely of historical interest or confined to today’s developing countries, I have two words for you: Bush v Clinton.

The focus on understanding China is central to the book – China, not Rome or Greece, is the first effective state with a uniform, multilevel administrative bureaucracy, and it achieved it almost two millennia before the US and Europe. But Fukuyama argues that China’s Achilles’ heel is its failure to develop Rule of Law or accountability mechanisms, leading to an extraordinarily top down system that was always vulnerable to the ‘Bad Emperor’ problem (some of the early versions make Mao look like a pussy cat).

Two other threads are worth teasing out: the roles of violence and religion. Religion, it seems, played a central role in the creation of at least two of Fukuyama’s three pillars. It promoted the idea that there were rules and sources of authority above and beyond the ruler of the day, which eventually transmogrified into the rule of law (China’s lack of a transcendental religion is one explanation for its continuing law-lessness). In Europe, ‘‘Two of the three

Pope Gregory VII, driver of change

Pope Gregory VII, driver of change

basic institutions that became crucial to economic modernization – individual freedom of choice with regard to social and property relationships, and political rule limited by transparent and predictable law – were created by a premodern institution, the medieval Church. Only later would these institutions prove useful in the economic sphere.’ You’ll have to go to the book for the fascinating basis of that claim (page 275).

On violence, Fukuyama extends Charles Tilly’s claim that in Europe ‘war made the state and the state made war’ to much of the rest of the world, particularly China, where the original centralized state of the Qin dynasty (3rd Century BC ) was born out of extraordinary bloodshed. Violence or the threat of violence is often necessary to break the hold of incumbents who are blocking social or political change. War drove the rise of nation states in Europe, as conquest and amalgamation both reduced the number of polities from over 500 to today’s couple of dozen, and prompted the creation of strong states to raise taxes and conscripts for war.

That raises an intriguing problem – has the decline in war and violence since the mid 20th Century, which in any other sense we should be celebrating, closed off a vital driver of change? I’ll return to that tomorrow.

July 29, 2015
Duncan Green