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

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

By Francis Fukuyama

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 608 pp.

Francis Fukuyama shot to fame with a 1989 essay called "The End of History?" which he expanded into a 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. His thesis was a reworking of the "end of ideology" argument propounded in the 1950s by Daniel Bell and others, with an even more emphatic twist. "What we may be witnessing," Fukuyama declared, "is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." The argument seemed hubristic, a product of the era's American triumphalism.

Two decades later, Fukuyama has revisited the question of political development in another, more sophisticated book, The Origins of Political Order -- the first of a projected two volumes, with the initial one running from prehistory to the French Revolution and its successor planned to take the story into the present and the future. Fukuyama still believes in the virtues of Western liberal democracy but now asks where it came from and how it might be sustained. At 608 pages, the first volume is long and dense, even though written with great fluency, and few are likely to read it cover to cover. But they should, since it is a brilliant book demonstrating great independence of mind and an astonishing breadth of knowledge.


Fukuyama starts by asking why only a few nations behave like Denmark. That small Scandinavian country, he notes, combines three elements essential to political freedom: an orderly and efficient state, the rule of law, and government accountability to the people. The "miracle of modern politics," he argues, is the balancing of a powerful, effective state with a transparent legal system and representative assemblies. As he demonstrates in a survey of political regimes across history, the combination of all three components in a stable liberal democracy is a rarity, generated by long and winding historical paths and much good fortune. 

Fukuyama's emphasis on an orderly and efficient state is notable and represents just one of his deviations from standard liberal theory, with its emphasis on free markets and small government as the recipes for progress and liberty. Fukuyama loves to take on opposing arguments, politely laying them out before declaring that, unfortunately, they bear no relation to reality. Against social contract theory, for example, he writes, "Human beings never existed in a presocial state. The idea that human beings at one time existed as isolated individuals, who interacted either through anarchic violence (Hobbes) or in pacific ignorance of one another (Rousseau), is not correct." 

As for that economic favorite, "the tragedy of the commons," in which commonly held property supposedly stifles individuals' drives to improve it, he calls it a myth. There is no evidence anywhere, he says, that an absence of private property rights has been a problem for economic or political development. Nor must the legal protection of property rights be absolute for development to occur; such protections must only be good enough, as they were in early modern Europe or contemporary China. (He might have benefited here from the work of the political scientist Jean Oi and the sociologist Andrew Walder, who usefully write about the contemporary Chinese case by considering property rights as a "bundle," including rights to control property, derive income from it, and transfer it.) 

Such forays against utilitarianism make Fukuyama a card-carrying sociologist, and sure enough, the influence of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber (although not Marx) is clear and acknowledged. He does not refer to Karl Polanyi (that will probably come in the second volume), but his text offers emphatic support for Polanyi's notion, taken further by recent economic sociologists, that market economies are not natural but rather always embedded in social structures. 

Weber also seems to have inspired Fukuyama's argument that the main enemies of the efficient, orderly state are the patrimonialism, cronyism, and corruption of family, kin, and tribal networks that protect their privileges and exact rents. He calls this "the tyranny of cousins," since it stifles economic and political development, and he devotes much space to examining how various regimes have sought to combat it. China developed competitive examinations for its scholar-gentry bureaucrats to avoid letting jobs go to the kin of power holders. The Abbasid caliphs and the Ottoman Turks used abducted slaves (the Mamluks and the Janissaries, respectively) as officials and soldiers, since the slaves lacked blood ties to any local tribes and could not pass on their offices to their children. And the medieval Catholic Church under Pope Gregory VII introduced celibacy for priests in order to avoid kinship cronyism. Reliance on cousins and tribalism, Fukuyama suggests, remain the default modes of political organization for humans when things go wrong -- as they often do.

If Fukuyama is at his most insightful and original when discussing the need for an effective, orderly state, he is also sharp in stressing the need for the rule of law and accountability to substantial numbers of citizens. Here, he sees precolonial India as a counterexample to early China. China developed a strong state that protected citizens against the tyranny of cousins but left them open to the tyranny of the state itself. The Indian caste system produced a strong civil society that protected subjects from state tyranny but exposed them instead to cousins writ large in the form of castes. A combination of the two countries' traditions, he notes, would have provided a "better form of freedom," for that "emerges when there is a strong state and a strong society, two centers of power that are able to balance and offset each other."

Moving effortlessly from ancient global history to its modern European counterpart, Fukuyama discusses "weak absolutism" in Spain and France, "successful absolutism" in Russia, "failed oligarchy" in Poland, and, finally, "accountable government" in England, which, after 1688, became the first society to establish all three elements of his secular trinity. Other western European countries influenced by the Reformation, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, "also succeeded in putting together the state, rule of law and accountability in a single package by the 19th century."

Thus, he argues, the three elements of modern political order had evolved separately in different premodern civilizations: "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." Aware that this sounds a bit like Whig history or British triumphalism, he qualifies the argument by emphasizing the role of contingency. Development, he says, was "complex and context-specific." For example, the decline in importance of extended families in early modern Europe resulted in part from the power of the medieval church. This meant that "an emerging capitalist economy in Italy, England, and the Netherlands in the sixteenth century did not have to overcome the resistance of large corporately organized kinship groups with substantial property to protect, as in India and China." 


Religion and ideology play an important part in Fukuyama's story. Where they establish a power base independent of the state, he claims -- as have Hinduism in India, Islam in the Middle East, and Christianity in Europe -- the rule of law develops most. Thus, he rejects reductionist attempts to explain political and social institutions as mere reflections of underlying economic or technological structures: "It is impossible to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths." And in his account of the consolidation and expansion of states through the ages, military factors also often play a more important role than economic ones. Indeed, my chief criticism might be that Fukuyama tends to give too little prominence to economic power relations in general. But this is hardly a dramatic failing, since the book manages to cover such an enormous range of subject matter and approaches. 

Another concern is that Fukuyama's attempt to ground social structures in sociobiology is unsuccessful; listing supposedly innate attributes of human beings does not help explain their social and political institutions. For example, he points to a putative human propensity for violence and war, citing the work of the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley and the archaeologist Stephen LeBlanc, who have argued that virtually all primitive and ancient societies repeatedly engaged in warfare. But their conclusions have been challenged by other scholars who emphasize the enormous variability of warfare across early societies, the surge in warfare that accompanied the rise of sedentary agricultural societies, and the great variability in war proneness across regions in more modern times.

Thus, Europeans were involved in wars in nearly 75 percent of the years between 1494 and 1975 and never went 25 years without fighting somewhere. In contrast, East Asia witnessed a 300-year period of peace between the 1590s and 1894, broken only by defensive engagements against barbarian incursions and five fairly small two-state wars. During the preceding 200 years, China had been at war only once. Yet in the period from about 750 BC to AD 200, as Fukuyama notes, the Chinese fought at least as many wars as the Europeans later did. The Chinese leopard changed its spots -- as did the European leopard after 1960. The point is that warfare, although extremely important in some social contexts (such as when building up states and empires), is not invariant. It derives not from human nature per se but from certain types of societies and cultures with certain characteristics. Fukuyama himself, in fact, seems to recognize the limitations of sociobiology, since he never actually applies it to any historical context. 

In any work of such breadth, there are bound to be some nits to pick. Thus, Fukuyama seems to believe the sizes of armies given in early Chinese sources, which are almost certainly vastly overstated; he writes that Denmark had representative government before 1800, when it still had an absolute monarchy; and so forth. But these occasional slips are trivial compared with the larger feat he has managed to pull off in covering so much diverse material so accessibly.

Fukuyama's method is not to cite an enormous quantity of historical scholarship but rather to rely on prominent scholars in each area. He has chosen these scholars well and is careful to present their positions accurately. It is downright refreshing to read a book of such breathtaking scope that manages to do so little violence to the work of the innumerable specialists whose insights it inevitably relies on. The bottom line is that Fukuyama's basic thesis is persuasive and he reveals good historical and sociological sensitivity throughout. The book is a great intellectual achievement and leaves one hungry for the next installment -- which may be more of a cliffhanger than readers of his earlier work might assume. 

Over the last two centuries, Fukuyama writes, liberal democracies have managed to discover a resilient political equilibrium, balancing state power, the rule of law, and accountability to citizens. But he warns that past results are no guarantee of future success. Continued legitimacy for today's democracies will depend on their "being able to maintain an adequate balance between strong state action when necessary and the kinds of individual freedoms that are the basis of . . . democratic legitimacy and that foster private-sector growth." Comments at the start and the end of the first volume show that he is deeply worried by the current political situation in the United States, and his recent article in these pages elaborated on that theme. The future of History might be a bumpy ride after all.

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  • MICHAEL MANN is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Sources of Social Power and other works.
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