Review - The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
A return to the beginning of history recasts the story of modernisation. Frank Furedi is enlightened.
We are only halfway through the story, but Francis Fukuyama has already taken the reader from prehuman times, through to the emergence of tribal societies, and to the rise of the liberal democratic state. Although this first volume of his history of political order ends on the eve of the French Revolution, it raises fundamental questions about the viability and future of liberal democracies. The author of the enormously influential - and controversial - 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man has obviously been reflecting on the unexpected manner in which the post-Second World War political order has unravelled. Although the future trajectory of China is a question lurking in the background, Fukuyama is concerned mainly with the sense of political stasis haunting many liberal democracies. “A society that is successful at one historical moment will not necessarily always remain successful, given the phenomenon of political decay,” he warns.
Since the beginning of history, thinkers have attempted to grapple with a series of questions associated with the problem of political order. Questions such as “What is the origin of society and of the state?”, “Why do some societies succeed and others fail?” and “What makes people cooperate and obey their rulers?” have exercised the imagination of philosophers for thousands of years. As Fukuyama shows, this is a good time to revisit these unanswered questions.
By adopting the vantage point of the early 21st century, he succeeds in providing a story that runs counter to many of the ideas associated with traditional theories of modernisation. He takes the view that our “understandable focus” on developments of the past 200 years has diminished our capacity to comprehend the dynamics of history in the pre-modern past. He calls for a rethink of the way that modernisation is conceptualised. He argues that not only are there different patterns of modernisation, but also that its diverse attributes do not always go together.
Political, economic and intellectual development often occur according to different timetables. Time and again, Fukuyama points to the very early growth of the modern state in China and its very late embrace of economic modernisation to illustrate his claim that the “different dimensions of development need to be separated from one another”. For Fukuyama, the continued absence of the rule of law and democracy more than 2,000 years after the rise of a modern state in China offers a striking example of the multiple and contextual links between the different dimensions of development.
Unlike most Western studies of the origins of political order and the state, Fukuyama’s work focuses on China rather than Greece and Rome. Through a comparative exploration of the history of the state, the rule of law and accountable governments in China, India, the Middle East and Europe, this study offers unusual insights into the process.
One of the key themes Fukuyama emphasises is the potential tension between a person’s duty to the emerging state and to the family. This was particularly striking in relation to China, where, the author argues, “there has been an inverse correlation between the strength of the family and the strength of the state”. Following a line of analysis pioneered by Max Weber, Fukuyama regards the freeing of the state from patrimonial influences as critical for the development of modern impersonal institutions. Moreover, he posits the repatrimonialisation of these institutions through the favouring of family and friends as one of the main sources of political decay.
For Fukuyama, the family - or rather its demise as a source of political power - serves to account for the exceptionally early modernisation of Europe. He claims that Christianity eroded the power of kinship groups and the family as far back as medieval times. As a result, European society was disposed towards individualism at a very early stage. The ascendancy of individualism before the consolidation of the European state meant that ideas about individual rights pre-existed the imposition of legal order.
From this perspective, the dating of the transition to modernity is pushed back from its conventional association with the 16th and 17th centuries. According to Fukuyama, what is exceptional about the European pattern of modernisation is that “social development preceded political development”. What emerges as a key influence in the way that Europe modernised is the relatively early development of the rule of law. Because it preceded the rise of the modern state, it helped to foster a political culture hospitable to the emergence of modern democracy.
Talcott Parsons, in his classic 1937 study The Structure of Social Action, characterised the problem of order as the key theoretical question facing sociology. First explored with utmost clarity by Thomas Hobbes, the question was revived in the 19th century by social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer. Spencer and his co-thinkers sought to harness the insights of biological theory to explain why people cooperate and subordinate their self-interest to shared norms and rules. At times here, Fukuyama comes across as a 21st-century Spencer. In line with the contemporary fashion for evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, Fukuyama adopts a naturalistic account of the human striving for order. He claims that cooperation occurs naturally and insists that human sociability is “hardwired into human nature”.
The “recovery of human nature by modern biology”, Fukuyama contends, is “extremely important as a foundation for any theory of political development”. In his case, biology provides the intellectual resources for the construction of a myth of cooperation. Just as Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited a state of nature where people were either violent or harmonious towards one another, Fukuyama offers a myth where “human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms and rules”.
Fortunately, Fukuyama is far too sophisticated to take his own evolutionary biology too seriously. He understands that gaining obedience and the institutionalisation of norms and rules is not a task that can be taken for granted. Indeed, what The Origins of Political Order demonstrates is that political development is just that - political and not natural. In this spirit of openness to contingency, Fukuyama offers a future that is refreshingly open-ended. “Ultimately, societies are not trapped by their historical pasts,” he writes. Clearly, the author of The End of History has moved on.
Possibly the most interesting theme addressed here is the different historical forms assumed in the drive to legitimise a political order. Fukuyama argues that the power of a state is “very much affected by legitimacy”. That is another way of restating the problem of order. Towards the end of the book, the author attempts to engage with the workings of legitimacy in a more explicit form.
Although he does not quite say that his historical enquiry of the different forms of development has led to the positing of legitimation as the fundamental question facing the current era, that is more or less the conclusion that can be drawn from this study. Legitimation is the precondition for institutional accountability. In turn, accountability assists the process of institutional adaptation and hence the prevention of political decay. In his discussion of “what comes next”, Fukuyama appears troubled by the capacity of liberal states to adapt to new circumstances. So is there a future for a strong, democratic and authoritative state? Hopefully this question will be tackled in the next volume of this important work.
published by Times Higher Education, 19 May 2011