Fukuyama’s Grand Vision

Issue Date October 2011
Volume 22
Issue 4
Page Numbers 165-171
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The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 608 pp.

With the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the last major regional exception to the “third wave” of global democratization has fallen by the wayside—or has it? The transitions in Tunisia and Egypt (the first two regional “dominoes” to fall) are still in their early stages. In the Middle East as elsewhere, moreover, the ultimate outcomes of even successful transitions remain in doubt as liberal-democratic practices in such countries often remain tenuous and sorely limited at best.

This uncertainty should hardly surprise students of political development. Initial versions of modernization theory believed that the good things of modernity would tend to go together, as societies followed a fairly predictable path leading from the development of capitalism, through the evisceration of traditional social structures and norms, to the emergence of liberal democracy. As early as the 1960s, however, it was becoming clear that many countries were getting stuck along the way. They might have experienced economic development and rapid social change, but ended up with political problems rather than political progress.

The most influential explanation of this phenomenon came from Samuel P. Huntington, who argued in Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) that it was much easier to break down traditional structures than it was to build modern ones. To understand why so many developing countries were trapped in violence, corruption, and instability, he noted, it was critical to recognize how hard it was to establish effective political [End Page 165] institutions. Huntington performed an invaluable service in highlighting the importance of institutions in political development, but he had little to say about where those institutions came from or how they worked together to produce a successful outcome. It is this gap that Huntington’s former student, Francis Fukuyama, seeks to fill in this massive, sweeping study of The Origins of Political Order.

About the Author

Sheri Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College. Her works include Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019) and The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (2006).

View all work by Sheri Berman

Both Fukuyama’s theoretical ambition and the empirical scope of his project are breathtaking: This first of two projected volumes begins with the prehuman apes and runs through the French Revolution, examining in between political development in places as diverse as China, India, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Muslim world. Fukuyama argues that understanding something as important and complicated as “where basic political institutions came from” (15) and how they shape political outcomes requires a deeply historical and broadly comparative methodological approach, and the tour de force that he has produced makes the vast bulk of contemporary social science seem trivial and shallow.

No short review could possibly engage all the book’s arguments, but three of its central features command attention. The first is Fukuyama’s analysis of the “three components of political development that together constitute modern politics” (275). Much ink has been spilled, in the pages of this journal and elsewhere, in attempts to describe the nature and development of liberal democracy. Fukuyama goes straight to the heart of these debates, arguing that liberal democracy rests on three institutions: a strong and effective state, the rule of law, and political accountability. Only when all three exist together is liberal democracy possible, he writes. Then he shows just how rare an occurrence this has actually been.

Today, for example, it is fairly common to find countries that have accountable governments but lack a strong state or a rule of law. Ranging more broadly through history, however, Fukuyama finds examples of almost every possible permutation. China was the first country to develop a true state—a central government with a fairly sophisticated bureaucratic and military apparatus ruling over a delimited territory—yet it never moved on to develop either the rule of law or political accountability.

Fukuyama might have benefited here from a consideration of the distinction that Michael Mann, in his seminal 1984 article on state power in the European Journal of Sociology, makes between “infrastructural” and “despotic” power. The former type of power stems from legitimacy, from a relationship between the officials and the citizens of a state that is defined more by cooperation than by conflict. Mann defines such power as the “capacity of the state to penetrate civil society, and to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm.” A state with infrastructural power can extract huge amounts of resources from society with very little overt violence. Despotic power, on the other hand, requires little cooperation or legitimacy; it is the power of state authorities over [End Page 166] [not with] society. Or, as Mann characterizes it, despotic power refers to “the range of actions which the elite is empowered to undertake without routine institutionalized negotiation with civil society groups.” China has had much despotic but little infrastructural power—a circumstance that may help to explain why it has had trouble developing the other two institutional pillars of liberal democracy besides a strong state.

In India and much of the Muslim world, by contrast, something like the rule of law developed early, but strong state institutions never followed. It was only in parts of Europe, Fukuyama argues, that all three of the institutional components of modernity came together, with the rule of law emerging first, followed much later by the emergence of modern state institutions, and with accountable governance (rule by consent) added only after these two were in place.

The sections of the book that describe the evolution of the three institutional components of modernity will probably not satisfy historical or regional specialists, as Fukuyama himself notes, but should prove immensely valuable to political scientists and other generalists who know little about the exceedingly complicated and interesting patterns of political development that have emerged across time and space.

These passages also offer an implicit rebuke to contemporary theories about the development and nature of democracy that focus on this or that component as the key. History offers numerous examples of countries that acquired one of the three but not all, says Fukuyama. No single component is a panacea, nor will acquiring one necessarily lead to the acquisition of the others. Whether it is the camp that focuses on voting and elections in the belief that the other components of liberal democracy will follow, or the rival camps which insist that a strong state or the rule of law must come first, Fukuyama has a warning for them all.

Identifying these institutional components and tracing their development is a major contribution, but Fukuyama seeks to go further and to explain their origins and trajectories as well. This second feature of the book is in some ways even more interesting than the first, but also a bit overwhelming, as he invokes a dizzying range of variables in multiple combinations. Some variables, such as the importance of war as a spur to state-building, will be familiar, even if Fukuyama covers lesser-known cases such as those of ancient China (lots of war, lots of pressure for state-building) and India (less war, less pressure for state-building). His explanations of state building also include less commonly invoked variables such as cultural and linguistic diversity (India had more and China had less, with state-building hence proving easier to accomplish in the latter). And then there is religion.

The discussion of religion is one of the most original aspects of the book, with Fukuyama arguing that a powerful nonlocal religion has historically been the key force breaking down kinship and tribal ties. Where such a religion has been missing, as in China, kinship and tribal ties have [End Page 167] remained important up through the modern era; where translocal religion was present, as in Europe, such ties disintegrated fairly early.

He also argues that religion has been crucial to the development of the rule of law. In places as diverse as India, the Middle East, and Europe, powerful religious authorities proclaimed laws that even rulers were supposed to follow. In China, however, such religious authorities were lacking—a circumstance that made state formation easier but also made it more likely that any state which did form would prove despotic and unconstrained. For Fukuyama, then, religion is the key to understanding the different challenges facing India and China today—development of a strong central state for the former, and development of the rule of law and accountability for the latter.

Only in Europe, he says, did religion drive not only the rule of law but state formation and accountability as well. Christianity, in Fukuyama’s view, broke down kinship and tribal structures early in much of Europe and bequeathed to much of the continent a strong tradition of law-based rule. The eventual acceptance of a division between secular and religious authorities paved the way for the development of states constrained by law.

The third feature of the book meriting mention is Fukuyama’s macro-historical and broadly comparative approach. The Origins of Political Order makes clear the immense strengths of such a perspective and showcases just how much political science has lost by abandoning it. Fukuyama’s approach allows him to suggest considered answers to truly big questions about political life, the kind that today’s temporally and conceptually cramped scholarship rarely even perceives, much less tackles.

But the “go big” approach has its drawbacks as well. One is what Fukuyama calls the “turtle problem,” from the old story about the person who insisted that the Earth rested on the back of a turtle, and who replied, when pressed about what that turtle rested on, that it was “turtles all the way down.” “The turtle one chooses as an explanatory factor,” Fukuyama notes, “is always resting on another turtle father down” (438). Macrohistorical analysis leads inevitably to the quest for a truly independent variable, Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.” Thus, Fukuyama makes an excellent case for the critical and underappreciated role that religion has played in political development. Yet reading his analysis, one cannot help but wonder why Europe got a religion with Christianity’s characteristics, the Middle East got Islam, and India got Hinduism. Demonstrating religion’s importance as a variable, in other words, leads to follow-on questions about why “religion” (the mysterious genus to which so many widely varying species belong) has assumed such different forms in different places and times.

Fukuyama’s approach also raises questions about structure versus agency, since like all broad-brush theories it is better at explaining continuity than change. Fukuyama the historian is too honest to deny [End Page 168] that countries occasionally undergo major shifts in the path that their development takes. And Fukuyama the theorist is too wise and subtle to peddle simplistic or deterministic causal explanations. But the result is a series of intellectual holes large enough to drive a truck through. After all, how potent can the structural variables that Fukuyama likes to stress really be if in fact other variables can come along to deflect or overwhelm them? Europe had all the favorable institutional conditions in place for political development—yet in the twentieth century it became the scene of gigantic wars and mass-murdering despotisms. China sat mired in communism for decades—then quickly pivoted toward capitalist economic practices and some of the fastest growth the world has ever seen. India too has awakened from its socialist slumber in recent decades and may be on its way to great-power status.

What explains such jumping of tracks? Has history—perhaps with a big boost from technology—somehow sped up in the last couple of centuries, making the old constraints less constraining? Are there new variables at work? If so, what are they, and how do they interact? Inquiring minds want to know—but they may have to wait for the second volume of Fukuyama’s magnum opus to find out.