The Origins of Political Order

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama, Profile, RRP£25, 608 pages

Where governments come from, what they’re for, who gets to form them – these questions have long fascinated philosophers. Hobbes saw a truce in a “war of all against all”. Rousseau described a “social contract”. The Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama believes we can do better than that. In the wake of Darwin and the great 19th-century anthropologists, we can move beyond parables and speculation. We can build a theory of the origins of government from what we know about biology and history.

Fukuyama’s latest book is sober but scintillating. The first of a projected pair, it describes political systems as they existed until the French and American revolutions. Fukuyama has in mind an update of Political Order in Changing Societies, the 1968 survey by his late mentor Samuel Huntington. But that book was written for a west that still believed in progress – the world’s and its own. As is natural for a westerner of the early 21st century, Fukuyama is fascinated with political decline, or “decay”, as he calls it.

Decline is Fukuyama’s claim to fame. In 1989, as a young policy analyst in the US state department, he wrote the essay “The End of History”, a first stab at making sense of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. Considering that the Berlin Wall was still standing at the time, Fukuyama’s analysis was impressive. Just as Hegel saw Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1806 as marking the victory of French revolutionary principles over monarchical ones, Fukuyama declared that the end of the cold war was closing off alternatives to liberal capitalism. Fukuyama meant, for instance, that Soviet economists were suddenly flattered to be compared to Milton Friedman. He stressed that the end of history in this Hegelian sense “does not by any means imply the end of international conflict”. But every Balkan massacre or African uprising since has occasioned snorting at Fukuyama’s expense. Never has an essay been more thoroughly misrepresented by those who have not read it.

Fukuyama missed some things, of course. He did not see that capitalism would be a considerably more robust component of the post-cold war world than either liberalism or democracy. He was optimistic that US power could accelerate some of the positive trends he described, a view he repented a year into the Iraq war. One now reads in his writing signs of his own country in decline.

There are two things Fukuyama wants us to know about human nature at the outset. First, man is a social animal, who doesn’t require a social contract to interact with others. Second, man prefers to interact by favouring relatives and friends. Any serious political order, as Fukuyama describes it, will be a triumph over man’s tendency to nepotism and cronyism. The process is not pretty. Our first record of such a triumph comes from the Qin “Legalists” who briefly united China and laid the groundwork for a meritocratic bureaucracy two millennia before the west’s. The tyrant Shang Yang abolished the Confucian agricultural system that bound farmers to their families and families to one another, leaving them naked and defenceless before an all-commanding state.

On the other hand, China was – and in Fukuyama’s view remains – backward in the matter of accountability. Confucianism provided a moral accountability – a sense that “power ought to be exercised in the interest of the ruled”. But the Legalists mocked it and China had no formal accountability such as existed in India. There, Brahmins were guardians of a law that preceded kings, and to which kings were subject – a check on totalising ambitions that has always made India freer or less governable, depending on how you look at it.

To start with China and India instead of Greece and Rome would be an unusual choice for a western historian – but Fukuyama is a political scientist. His job is to lay out a taxonomy of possible state forms, not a genealogy of our own. The basic challenge of government is the same in eastern as in western lands anyhow: to protect the state’s authority from the nepotists and tribalists who would subvert it. The most ingenious solution was the “military slavery” practised in 13th-century Mamluk Egypt and 16th-century Ottoman Turkey. Under the Ottoman devshirme system, authorities travelled to non-Muslim (usually Christian) lands, enslaved the handsomest, most capable boys they found there, carried them back to Istanbul, committed them to celibacy and trained them to run and defend the state, as bureaucrats and janissaries. (A parallel system to bring girls as wives and concubines operated through Balkan and Russian slave markets.)

Fukuyama is unsentimental. Very often in the course of the book, one gets the impression that he considers governments “advanced” to the extent that they are bureaucratic and hierarchical. But he does not assume the advance of governing capacity means an advance on other fronts. This becomes clear when he lays out how the western system of accountable government – democracy – came to pass.

For Fukuyama, democracy’s foundations lie in “pockets of local resistance” to centralising authority. Conflicts between states and their adversaries play out in different ways. In Russia, the peasant masses were overrun by an upper class in alliance with the state. Result: absolutism. In Britain, Protestant outrage against the catholicising Stuarts, bolstered by an attachment to the Common Law, made it impossible for kings to dent parliamentary solidarity, as they had done elsewhere. Result: liberty. “No taxation without representation” is not a moral principle but a demand based on a calculus of power. Fukuyama’s view runs counter to a lot of clichés. His democracy is a rearguard ideology, not a vanguard one. Old hierarchies, loyalties and even bigotries are the sand that forms the democratic pearl.

Fukuyama’s grimmest message, though he never puts it quite so bluntly, is that moral and cultural progress might signal political and civilisational decay. Any system that is not defended ruthlessly will retribalise itself – or re-familialise itself – from within. In the 16th century, the Ottoman janissaries managed very quickly to do just that. First the ban on marriage in service was lifted, then a hiring quota for sons of janissaries was established, and then the devshirme system was abolished altogether. Ultimately, the most implacable enemy of all rulers is human nature.

Christopher Caldwell is an FT columnist

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