Francis Fukuyama – The Origins of Political Order (2011)


Explaining history on a grand scale has in itself a long and somewhat checkered history.  Excluding pre-scientific efforts, names like G.B. Vico (1688–1744), Edward Gibbon (1734–94), Karl Marx (1818–83), Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943), Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) and Fernand Braudel (1902-85) refer to some of the elucidations on offer. For good reasons, Fukuyama does not delve into the works of his predecessors. He only pays homage to Samuel Huntington, his teacher and mentor.

Without an implicit or explicit value frame you cannot make sense of the past but then you are open to accusations of “whiggism”, the tendency to perceive a purpose or a direction in history. For Fukuyama, the modern democracies provide the self-evident perspective of the historical process. Amen to that.

For historians the problem of proximate versus ultimate causes is more acute than in, say, physics or biology. Fukuyama has settled on a firm middle ground. By comparing the deep political history of a representative selection of major countries, he has come up with illuminating insights in the mechanisms of the rise and decay of political structures.

Rent-seeking patrimonialism

The extended family, the tribe and the clan comes across as the fundamental driving force of statehood. Alas, it also became the bane of good government in huge societies like China and India. Like original sin, family and friendship relations tend to infiltrate the state machinery, eroding public and personal morale. By hook and by crook generations of magnates amass property and political power, which is bequeathed to their descendants or kin and retinue. Eventually the headmen of these clans turn into a ruling class of indolent rent-seekers, corrupting the whole state in the process.

Patrimonialism, as Fukuyama calls it, can assume many shapes. In China the emperor often had to rely on court eunuchs, who for obvious reasons had no dynastic ambitions. Occasionally they had the temerity to gang up on the ruler and take over the government. In India the Brahmins monopolized religious rites and established themselves on the top of a highly stratified society, based on caste discrimination.

The struggle between the central power and ambitious viziers or warlords is a recurrent theme in history. The Turkish sultans were particularly adept at keeping their barons at bay, for example by founding special corps of Janissary and Mamluks. These were slaves transformed into dependable soldiers, isolated from mainstream society. In due course the brotherhoods turned their weapons against the masters (the Mamluks ruled Egypt for 250 years under the formal suzerainty of the sultans)

Patrimonialism was rampant in the West, too, but found less exotic expressions. More importantly, the Catholic Church could in the Middle Ages establish a rule-bound, institutional presence. Notables with no issue could testament their property to the Church, instead of seeing it divided by their rapacious kin. Due to the celibacy imposed on the priests, they could have no legal offspring and were incapable of founding family fortunes. Ecclesiastic patrimonialism was killed in the bud.

The exceptional West

Many other influences came together to usher Western Europe on a unique trajectory of political organization. The reformation and pluralistic Protestantism, the Enlightenment, the rise of science and global trade are well-known way stations on the road to modern democracies.

Fukuyama digs deeper by analyzing the divergence of the major European powers including their colonial offshoots. France, Britain and Spain are compared with interesting asides on Russia, Poland and Denmark. The history of Hungary is presented in more detail. It shows how the lack of a central authority is inimical to freedom and prosperity.

In this first volume, Fukuyama takes us up to the French (and American) Revolution. It was a pure pleasure to read his free flowing and well organized text, enlivened by numerous tidbits from the depth of historical sources. The second volume will no doubt provide further insights on the development of democracies, as well as their competitors and adversaries. As the author approaches the present, crucial questions of historical exposition will come to the fore.

Fukuyama affirms the important role of religion. Does religious faith somehow preordain history by prescribing the meta-rules of the game? Can the value frame survive if faith is diluted or evaporates? What are the roles of capricious chance and stark necessity? In other words, how much real freedom do we enjoy? And finally, what can history tell us about the future?

In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper vehemently denied the possibility to forecast the future of human societies by interpreting history or otherwise. This may be an exaggeration, provoked by the inane Marxist determinism of the day. The main point is that the future is essentially open and malleable. Thus we can learn from the lessons of history. Every citizen in a democracy is not only free but also responsible for our future. There is nobody else to blame.