The Origins of Political Order: Review of Francis Fukuyama’s impressive history of the state

Ricardo Fuentes has been raving about this book for months, so I packed it in my holiday luggage. Actually it’s twoFukuyama I books – The Origins of Political Order takes us from pre-history up to the French Revolution/American Revolution, and the subsequent Political Order and Political Decay brings us up to the present day. They each weigh in at around 500 pages, so hope you won’t mind me taking two posts to review them.

Fukuyama is notorious for his ‘End of History?’ post-Cold War triumphalism, but he’s older, wiser and considerably more nuanced these days. The ambition of the two books is astonishing – nothing less than a history of the birth, evolution and current condition of the state worldwide, with fascinating potted histories of the states both obvious (China, England, Germany, US) and less so (Hungary, Poland, Nigeria).

The starting point is that ‘Poor countries are poor not because they lack resources, but because they lack effective political institutions. It asks (and tries to answer) wonderfully big hairy questions like:

  • why are some countries (eg Melanesia, parts of Middle East) still tribally organized?
  • why is China historically centralized, while India isn’t?
  • why is East Asia so special in its path of authoritarian modernization?
  • what explains the contrasting fortunes of the US and Latin America?

Fukuyama’s big idea is that political order is based on three pillars: effective centralized states, the rule of law and accountability mechanisms such as democracy and parliaments. ‘The miracle of modern politics’ is achieving a balance between them, which is difficult both to achieve and then to maintain, with many states having one disproportionately stronger than the others, while others achieve it, and then lose it. Its achievement is often accidental, rather than deliberate. Analysing each state’s unique combination of the three pillars helps us understand the strengths, weaknesses and historical trajectories of different countries and empires.

His big concluding paragraph:

‘The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to the rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the end of the 18th Century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena (1806) involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones. Communism aspired to do this in the 20th Century but has all but disappeared from the world scene in the 21st.’

There is some soul-searching on the sequencing of these three. Successful democracies got the strong state first, then opened up the franchise. If you start with democracy in the absence of an effective state, a spoils war rapidly ensues – as has happened in many countries in Africa, in Fukuyama’s view. But history is not destiny and anyway, telling people who want democracy that they should first demand an undemocratic state is unlikely to wash. Fukuyama finds comfort in the history of the US, which achieved mind-boggling levels of patronage and corruption in the 19th Century, but sorted it out (more or less) over a 50 year period to the 1930s.

The dance between these three components is superimposed upon something even more primordial: the underlying

Nobody expects the Eastern Depot.....
Nobody expects the Eastern Depot…..

tension between the construction of effective states and the human bonds of kinship – states go through periods of effectiveness, but then ‘neopatrimonialism’ reasserts itself, and political decay ensues as people try and secure jobs, power and wealth for their families and kin. History resembles centuries of whack the mole, as states try to prevent reemergence of kinship and erosion of their control, and they went to some pretty extreme lengths to do so, for example by ensuring there were no families to favour in the first place:  ‘By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), there were an estimated 100,000 eunuchs associated with the palace. From 1420 on, they were organized into an Orwellian secret police organization knows as the Eastern Depot.’ The eunuch battalion’s job was to root out corruption or disobedience among state officials.

And if you think reverting to kin-based and patronage systems is merely of historical interest or confined to today’s developing countries, I have two words for you: Bush v Clinton.

The focus on understanding China is central to the book – China, not Rome or Greece, is the first effective state with a uniform, multilevel administrative bureaucracy, and it achieved it almost two millennia before the US and Europe. But Fukuyama argues that China’s Achilles’ heel is its failure to develop Rule of Law or accountability mechanisms, leading to an extraordinarily top down system that was always vulnerable to the ‘Bad Emperor’ problem (some of the early versions make Mao look like a pussy cat).

Two other threads are worth teasing out: the roles of violence and religion. Religion, it seems, played a central role in the creation of at least two of Fukuyama’s three pillars. It promoted the idea that there were rules and sources of authority above and beyond the ruler of the day, which eventually transmogrified into the rule of law (China’s lack of a transcendental religion is one explanation for its continuing law-lessness). In Europe, ‘‘Two of the three

Pope Gregory VII, driver of change
Pope Gregory VII, driver of change

basic institutions that became crucial to economic modernization – individual freedom of choice with regard to social and property relationships, and political rule limited by transparent and predictable law – were created by a premodern institution, the medieval Church. Only later would these institutions prove useful in the economic sphere.’ You’ll have to go to the book for the fascinating basis of that claim (page 275).

On violence, Fukuyama extends Charles Tilly’s claim that in Europe ‘war made the state and the state made war’ to much of the rest of the world, particularly China, where the original centralized state of the Qin dynasty (3rd Century BC ) was born out of extraordinary bloodshed. Violence or the threat of violence is often necessary to break the hold of incumbents who are blocking social or political change. War drove the rise of nation states in Europe, as conquest and amalgamation both reduced the number of polities from over 500 to today’s couple of dozen, and prompted the creation of strong states to raise taxes and conscripts for war.

That raises an intriguing problem – has the decline in war and violence since the mid 20th Century, which in any other sense we should be celebrating, closed off a vital driver of change? I’ll return to that tomorrow.

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8 Responses to “The Origins of Political Order: Review of Francis Fukuyama’s impressive history of the state”
  1. Tomas Bridle

    Seems to me that war today wouldn’t have the same role as driver of change because its a different kind of war. The European wars required mobilizing large numbers of trained men, complex logistical planning, devotion to some conceptual notion of a state and the financial resources to pay for the whole hugely expensive enterprise. All that requires a capable state as Tillly and Fukuyama point out. But the conflicts, violence and “small wars” that are more common today – while they may be equally or even more horrific – is not fought out by states with mass mobilized armies but by smaller specialized units, often not connected with any state or organized as irregular militias whose existence and connections is denied by the sponsoring state (see: Russia in Ukraine) or who belong to shadowy security forces, or by affiliated but mostly autonomous groups organized as networks but with minimal central control. When a state goes to war now its more likely to be against its own citizens, or to defend against those irregulars, who often have some sympathy in the population. Those kinds of wars are more likely to destroy state functionality than build it up. (And of course developed countries fight their wars with professsional soldiers or bombing raids or just use drones… which some would argue is also corrosive to state and social cohesion.)

    • Duncan Green

      Great comments Tomas, and I think you’re right – war is looking less useful as a driver of change, and new options are emerging. Fukuyama highlights growth and increasing globalization as two of them. I would add shifting norms on citizenship and rights, and universal literacy. Any others?

      • Tomas Bridle

        I wish I knew. I guess I share a lot of Fukuyama’s pessimism. Economic growth and globalization seems to have done more to concentrate economic and political power and create coalitions of new and old elites with a common interest in building pliable “isomorphic” institutions that they could control. and suppressing any potential reform. There seems to be a very resilient sweet spot for the late democratizers: you want economic and political institutions just good enough not to set off alarm bells with the internationals, but still pliable enough that you can enrich yourself and your allies, build up your patronage networks, manipulate election results and ensure that judicial decisions come out in your favor. The real key to this system is actually not the political side, but the fact that it discourages any independent economic activity – anyone with entreprenurial ambitions sees more future in emigration – so that you never get that middle class reformist constituency. Opposition is left to aging intellectuals, human rights cranks and if you’re lucky maybe a few courageous young people. Maybe the place to start is not by asking what will drive reform, but by looking at the role we play as donors and the development community – are we thinking about ways to curb that system’s impact and it’s grip on power, at least in the sectors where we’re working? Or are we just going along with it so we hit our project indicators, and pretending that the systemic impact doesn’t matter. If there’s optimism its because that’s become much more a poart of the development discussion now than it used to be.

  2. Chris Alford

    Nice review Duncan. I’m on the final chapter of this book (the first tome) – it’s taken me a while to get through, but has been worth the time spent. I found the parts on China and the Ottoman empire’s institution of military slavery the most interesting – it was fascinating to read how such distinct societies devised with similar strategies for dealing with the problem of patrimonialism and it’s threat to state building. Also really enjoyed the part on the role of Christianity in the development of the rule of law, as well as the different political and institutional configurations in Europe that led towards, or not towards, the development of political accountability. Certainly lots of juicy stuff in this book for development today (institution building, thinking & working politicallly strategies, etc.). Will definitely be reading his next volume, but may try something a bit more easy-going for my next read (Cesar Hidalgo’s new book on information, networks and economies looks fascinating so think that one will be next!)

  3. Huma Siddiqi

    What kind of coloured glasses prompted Fukuyama to say “Religion, it seems, played a central role in the creation of at least two of Fukuyama’s three pillars. It promoted the idea that there were rules and sources of authority above and beyond the ruler of the day, which eventually transmogrified into the rule of law (China’s lack of a transcendental religion is one explanation for its continuing law-lessness)” ….. They used the same rhetoric during the cold-war against USSR and communism , while most recent history shows that religion and USA’s own perception of itself as some kind of custodian of God’s authority explains USA invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and its lawlessness towards the rest of the world especially Asia.

    • ian

      A SPOT-0N summary “most recent history shows that religion and USA’s own perception of itself as some kind of custodian of God’s authority explains USA invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and its lawlessness towards the rest of the world especially Asia.”
      The Challenge will be to bring that under control [US-UK grassroots action required to ‘educate’ ] and to FIX THE FLOW of Commercially-created or Fed-created or QE Money to bring them more automatically for thorough Eco-Enveloping and minimising fossil-fuel by ceasing the waste of energy – currently a waste, along with consumerism and dependency on “growth” across the board. Needs a Contraction [and Convergence – see Aubrey Meyer’s stuff] brought about by personal responsibility – considering that FOR EVERY £stg, US$, Euro spent or invested THAT’S 1LB [A POUND-WEIGHT {0.454KG MASS}] OF CO2 INTO THE ATMOSPHERE !!

  4. Mikael

    Professor Fukuyama’s book is impressive. However, it, I think deliberately, has ignored renowned African states such as The Aksumite Kingdom which were formed millenias ago. He quotes Herbert in page 123 and says “the transition from a tribal to a territorial conception of power with clearly conceived administrative boundaries of the sort that existed in Europe did not take place
    (in Africa). This is crap. The Aksumites established a state with a well defined territory, a currency, and a writing system two thousand years ago.
    And he mentions in the book (pages 116 and 117) that the Arabs were never conquered due to the harshness of their environment. This is another deliberate mistake. The Aksumites had conquered southern Arabia, present day Yemen, before the Prophet Mohammed united the tribes. They conquered Yemen not for agriculture but to control both sides of the Red Sea.
    Though the book is very good in theoretical explanations, it, I believe deliberately, has left out exceptional histories of Africans.

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