Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order: Why hasn't liberal democracy swept the planet?

Reading between the lines.
May 2 2011 6:45 AM

How To Get to the End of History

Francis Fukuyama turns to, well, history to chart the way.

Francis Fukuyama is one of the giants of post-Cold War political thought. His essay "The End of History," published in 1989 just before the Berlin Wall came down, provided the perfect framework for thinking about a new world order in which the old face-offs between competing ideologies were ending and liberal, capitalist democracy was sweeping the planet.

Twenty-odd years on, though, we continue to live in a world where democracy, prosperity, and law and order are unevenly distributed, and in his latest book, The Origins of Political Order—the first of a planned pair—Francis Fukuyama asks the obvious question: Why?

The answer, he suggests, lies not in philosophy, which drove so much of the argument of "The End of History"—expanded into a book, The End of History and the Last Man, in 1999—but in history itself. And lots of history: This book is extraordinary in its breadth, ranging from the Qin dynasty in third century B.C. China to the eve of the American and French revolutions some 2,000 years later. Along the way, Fukuyama takes in the history of ancient India, the medieval Mamluks, and the Ottoman Empire, the anthropology of Africa, the politics of Papua New Guinea, and plenty more besides. It is a tour de force.

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At the heart of this remarkable book is the idea of "getting to Denmark." By this, Fukuyama means creating stable, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and honest societies (like Denmark). As in his "End of History" essay, Fukuyama treats this as the logical endpoint of social development, and suggests that Denmarkness requires three things: functioning states, rule of law, and accountable government.

The problem, though, is that this trinity cannot simply be willed into existence. As we have seen in the last few months, overthrowing authoritarian rulers (such as the ones who have cursed the Middle East for so long) does not instantly unleash open societies. Fukuyama suggests that if politicians outside the West are to lead their countries toward Denmark, rather than toward somewhere like Iran, they need to understand—and replicate—the processes that have worked in the past. And that means understanding the history of political order.

Fukuyama is surely right about this, and The Origins of Political Order provides a much-needed primer to this history. He argues that "depatrimonialization"—basically, getting kinship out of politics—is the key to development. The complex societies of antiquity and today's tribal societies, Fukuyama points out, have one thing in common: patrimonialism. Rulers treat the state as an extension of their family, sharing out the important positions among their relatives. Patrimonialism, Fukuyama insists, closes off the road to Denmark.

The first recognizably modern and depatrimonialized state, he argues, was China under the Qin dynasty in the third century BC. While fighting a series of brutal wars against neighboring patrimonial states, the Qin First Emperor (he of the famous Terracotta Army) separated government from the royal family, creating an awesomely powerful state with an efficient bureaucracy. However, the First Emperor was famously unaccountable, burying scholars alive and chopping people in two as the mood took him, and recognizing no law other than his own triumphant will.

By contrast, Fukuyama suggests, we might look at ancient India. Here, where warfare played a smaller role, the rise of Brahmin priests embedded kings in tangled networks of religious obligations—but at the price of preventing governments from centralizing enough power to function properly. India and China, he insists, are not parts of an undifferentiated "orient." Each followed a different path of state formation, getting one part of the package right but the rest of it wrong; and the consequences of these differences persist to this day, in China's over-mighty state and India's chronic chaos.

Some of the most fascinating sections of this book are Fukuyama's comparisons of China and India with the neglected but important societies of medieval Islam, but his argument really gets going when he turns to medieval Europe. Here, he suggests, the Concordat of Worms that ended the long struggle between popes and emperors in 1122 created a unique balance between royal power and religious tradition. This enmeshed states in networks of accountability to nonstate actors, just as had happened in India, but it also left states strong enough to function—like those in China. Western Europe began getting the best of both worlds; and the rise of common law in England gradually added rule of law, the third ingredient in the modern mix, to a unique European blend. By the 17th or 18th century, Western Europe was well on the way to Denmark (as it were).

Fukuyama is content to leave a question mark over the reasons for Europe's uniqueness, emphasizing "historically contingent circumstances of European development" and "the extreme fragmentation of power in Europe." But whatever the causes, he argues, the great empires of Asia never managed to bring the three vital ingredients together. As a result, all saw power being repatrimonialized by the second millennium A.D., as pushy aristocrats and royal relatives took over pieces of the state and turned them into private fiefdoms. By the 1770s, Fukuyama concludes, the West was very different from other parts of the world, and poised for the political and industrial revolutions that will form the subject of the second volume of his work.

He tells a fascinating story—and a very different one from the older, more familiar tale that sees the Greeks inventing democracy and good government in the fifth century B.C. and then, with Roman help, passing them down to modern Europeans and their overseas colonists.

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