Book Review: The Origin of Political Order


Fukuyama, Francis (2011), The Origin of Political Order: From Pre-human Times to The French Revolution, New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux

Book Review by Dan Seng Lawn

Context, intellectual milieu and key concerns of the Book

Post cold world war witnessed the American triumphalism. Phrases such as ‘unipolar moment’, ‘unipolar world’ and ‘Pax America’ floated around in the academic debates of international politics. Initially Francis Fukuyama himself was exuberantly elated by the fact that Western liberal democracy came out victorious of a more than four decades long fierce ideological struggle between USSR and USA. In the ideological battle communism is no more since the Soviet Union, the symbol of sanctity of communism, crumbled into pieces. He thus argued in his book, ‘The End of History and The Last Man (1992),’ man has reached to the final destiny of political development. Thus was the jejune enthusiasm with which America entered into Post Cold World War era. The same enthusiasm coupled with stupendous capabilities fostered to undertake a number of nation-building projects in ‘Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.’ Fukuyama himself actively participated in such projects.

In retrospect he realises that enthusiasm and capacity alone were not sufficient to undertake social-engineering projects. Mere transplantation of the democratic institutions to alien societies did not guarantee whether the system will work in a particular society. Why was it so? This question leads him to look at the genealogy of the democratic institutions namely state, rule of law and accountability. How did they evolve? What are the conditions under which these institutions can thrive and grow? The other important question, rather a rethinking of his deterministic view on history, is that is the political development a linier process? In considering the question he finds solace in his mentor Samuel P. Huntington’s concept of ‘Political Decay.’ In fact this book itself, as he candidly confesses, is a revisit to the major theme Huntington raised in his book ‘Political Order in Changing societies.’ He has thus concluded in this book that the political development is not necessarily linear. It can at time be backsliding due to ‘political decay.’ However it may not be directionless. In any way, the end is liberal democracy.

Structure, style, format and summary of the Book

The book is divided into five parts which are further divided into thirty chapters spanning across 585 pages. Relatively it is a thick book. Nevertheless, as usual Fukuyama’s literary style is lucid, explanatory and comprehensive. The flow of his narration is smooth and easy to follow. Perhaps his long experience of professorship lets him not to leave anything unexplained in his book. There is an abstract, in every chapter, which underlines the key questions of the specific chapter. This writing style gives the readers a sense of direction throughout the journey of the book. The beauty of the book lies at the ability of Fukuyama in explaining complex ideas in a simple language. The length of the book is justly compensated in its explanatory power. Therefore, unlike other books on such daunting topic, The Origin of Political Order is entertaining.

Part I

Before The State

The first part of the book covers the pre-state evolution of political order. This part includes five chapters. In essence this chapter sets the stage for the book elucidating the key research questions the author seeks to answer. Where and when did modern political institutions originate?  In what conditions they evolved?  How? Once established can these institutions be susceptible to collapse? As the author tries to set the stage, he traces back to the state of nature as the starting point for political development. He discusses three social contract theories of Hobbes, Lock and Rousseau. He rejects all of them on the ground that they are ahistorical. He maintains that man never exists in pre-social stage. Instead, he starts his query with two important biological sources of cooperation viz. kin selection and reciprocal altruism. He then traces human evolution form family upward to state-level society. In this part, he shows how one stage of evolution was superior to the earlier: band-level organization was better organized thus more powerful than family level and tribal organization vis-a-vis band-level organization, and the like. He also talks about the nature of property, justice and war in tribal society. And discusses how patron and clients system grew out of tribal society and set the stage for evolution to state level society and further discusses the differences between tribal societies an state-level societies such as state has centralized sources of authority, state is territorial rather than kin-based, and the like.

Part II

State Building

This is the longest of all comprising eleven chapters. It attempts to study the different models of state-building in China, India and Ottoman Empire and more important why they collapsed. China started from tribalism: starting from Yanshao period till Han period, the transition from a tribal to a state-level society was a gradual process. Chinese State traces its origin to the Eastern Zhou period (770-256 B.C) which was marked by incessant wars among states.  Among six warring states, Qin, the most unlikely contender to supremacy, came out victorious: among other factors, the key reason was Qin’s legalist policy of establishment of meritocratic bureaucracy. Thus, China is legitimately the first inventor of modern rational bureaucratic system or state.

Qin’s legacy continued throughout Han period. But in the later Han period saw institutional decay due to the recapture of the State by different patrimonial elites and the consequent weakening of the central government. As a result Han dynasty collapsed in 220 AD. With one brief exception, i.e., Jin dynasty, no unified Chinese state existed for the next three hundred years. However the legacy of strong centrailised state of Qin and Han remained throughout Chinese political history.

However Indian development model was different from China. From the start, unlike China, religion overshadowed politics in India due to the rise of Brahmanic religion. The transition process of tribal to state-level society in India did not differ much from that of China: both societies were initially orgainsed as federations of agnatic clans, both worshipped ancestors, and both shifted to greater hierarchy, hereditary leadership and the like. However, the evolutionary process of Indian politics diverged from the Chinese pattern dramatically around the time of the emergence of the first real states on the Indo-Gangetic Plan. Unlike China, India did not pass through a five-hundred year period of warfare on an increasing scale. As a result the nature of Indian state was less vigorous than that of China, thus it did not develop a modern, impersonal centralized state. Under the influence of Brahmanic the warrior class was subdued under priestly class. The law in Indian tradition did not spring from political authority as it did in China; it came from a source independent of and superior to the political ruler. That was the beginning of rule of law limiting the power and authority of the state in a way that has no counterpart in China. India was a weak state but a strong society. Maurya empire contemporary of Qin lacked the attribute of modern state. Recruitment to state administration was completely patrimonial and sharply limited by the caste system. India, particularly in the north, experienced political decay after the decline of the Mauryan Empire. Tribal politics reappeared. In the south, local chiefdoms evolved into kingdoms. Nation building was attempted by Gupta dynasty subsequently with little success. No political innovations with regard to state institutions. Foreign invaders Muslims and British succeeded in some degree by bringing new political institutions but society remained intact.

Ottoman Empire on the other hand developed the military slavery institution, which was invented in the Arab Abbasid dynasty because the Abbasid rulers found they could not rely on tribally organized forces to hold on their empire. The system of military slavery emerged as a brilliant adaptation designed to create a strong state-level institution against the backdrop of one of the most powerfully tribal societies on earth.The institution of military slavery anchored Muslim power in Egypt and Syria for three hundred years, from the end of the Ayyubid dynasty in 1250 up to 1517, when the Mamluk sultanate was defeated by the Ottomans. And finally there were the Ottomans themselves, who perfected the institution of military slavery and used it as the basis for their rise as a world power. In all three cases, military slavery solved the problem of creating a durable military instrument in what were fundamentally tribal societies. But in the Ghaznavid and Egytian Mamluk cases, the institution declined because kinship and patrimonialism reinserted themselves within the Mamluk institution itself. Moerover, the Mamluks, as the most powerful social institution in Egyptian society, failed to remain under civilian control and succeeded in taking over the state in a manner prefiguring the military dictatorship of 20th century developing countries. Only the Ottomans saw clearly the need to banish patrimonialism from their state machinery, which they did for nearly three centuries. They also kept the military under firm civilian control. But they too began to decline when patrimonialism and the hereditary principle reasserted themselves from the late seventeenth century onward. Ottoman institutions were far more sophisticated than those of many contemporaneous European polities in the fifteenth century.

The one area in which the Ottoman state and its Arab precursors differed from China was in the existence of a lawmaking religious establishment that was, theoretically at least, independent of the state. How much this limited the centralization of state power would come to depend, in the end, on the degree to which religious authority was itself institutionalized

The central menace all these three societies faced was how to overcome the menace of kinship ties or what Fukuyama calls it ‘tyranny of cousin.’ The reemergence of kinship ties in the form of patrimonialism tended to cause the destruction of the state these societies had built with enormous difficulties.It was however unique in the case of Europe. European societies were not kin-based but individualistic, due to Catholic Church marriage pattern and inheritance law. From the base of this social setting Europe begun its state-building project.

Part III

The Rule Of Law

Part three includes five chapters. The main thesis of the portion is to show that religion and rule of law are inextricably connected to each other. In Europe rule of law was deeply rooted in Christianity. Since eleventh century onward Catholic Church in Europe began acting more and more like a state. It had acquired state-like attributes through its concept of a single canon law. To manage its affairs, the Catholic Church established a modern bureaucracy. Thus, the emergence of the Catholic Church as a modern bureaucracy and its promulgation of a coherent canon law in the twelfth century had germinated the evolution of modern rule of law in Europe. Comparatively rule of law developed in India and the Middle East but not in China. In the case of India it was the emergence of Brahmanic religion responsible for evolution of rule of law. It subdued warrior class below priestly class. On the other hand, in the Middle East there were preconditions for rule of law to evolve: ideas like supremacy of God, authority of written scripture and the separation of caliph and Ulema prevailed. Nevertheless, in China religion never evolved higher than the stage of ancestor worship resulting in absence of rule of law. Emperor was always above the law.

Part IV

Accountable government

In total there are seven chapters. The central theme is the evolution of accountable government. Accountable government means that the rulers believe that they are responsible to the people they govern and put the people’s interests above their own. This tradition is unique European development deeply rooted in European experience. Europe’s late state building faced far greater resistance than any other. The condition thus forced rulers to seek allies and compromises.

He then discusses the experiences of France, Spain, Latin America, Hungary and Russia in terms of establishing absolutist state and accountable government. All of them failed in one way or the other due to menaces such as rank seeking, patrimonialism. Absolutist triumphed more completely in Russia than in other parts of Europe. The sources were found in Mongol occupation. However, England was successful in all three cases viz. state, rule of law and accountabiligy. Why? It was because British parliament was strong and powerful representing not just aristocrats, but all walks of people. First, solidarity in English society was from a very early point more political than social. Second, the Common Law and English legal institutions were broadly regarded as legitimate and gave property owners a strong stake in defending them. Finally, religion, while bitterly dividing the English throughout this period, gave Parliament a strong sense of transcendent purpose that it would not have had were the contest with the king simply over property and resources. The Glorious revolution 1688-89 marked as the triumph of parliament over the monarch.

Therefore by the end of 18th century all these institutional buildings have been completed. 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. However England’s route to political development is not the only way, for example the case of Denmark was different from England but more successful than it.

Part V

Toward A Theory Of Political Development

This part in a way is a summing up of the whole book. Biological foundations of politics namely that human beings never existed in a pre-social state, political systems evolve in a manner roughly comparable to biological evolution which is based on two principles, variation and selection, and the like.

Then he maintains that the conditions of political development had changed dramatically since 1800 due to industrial revolution. Pre 1800 era is termed as ‘Malthusian world’ in which population growth outpaced productivity. Politics in such a world will be marked by ‘predation’. The conditions of political development in contemporary world have been discussed. It shows that there is a close correlation between state building and economic growth, between rule of law and growth, between economic growth and stable democracy, between economic growth and social development, between social mobilization and liberal democracy, and between democracy and rule of law. What course modern day political development would take? We cannot divine. However one thing for sure is that dimensions of political development—state-building, economic growth, social mobilization, democracy, legitimacy and rule of law—indeed tended to fortify each other.

Critical Appraisal of the Book

A book with such eloquence and magnitude is surely a rarity. Sobriety of thought, complexity of methodology and the depth of analysis are remarkable. Indeed, only a handful of scholars could make such an epic academic journey. The theme of the book is urgently relevant in such a time when the very notion of nation-state has been being shaken severely in the form of extremism, terrorism, ethnic rebellions, civil wars, catastrophes and so on. The scope of the book is also global in nature by including China, India and Middle East as it tracks down the origin of modern political institutions.

However, in social sciences certainty is by its very nature nothing less than a sin: a sin which is innate. Some may aspire to call it ‘original sin.’ Fukuyama, being a descent of ‘Adam’ called Social Sciences, cannot be free from this original sin. First, his gravest sin is his Hegelian view of history. It is rather deterministic in nature. He is in a way repeating, in a different form, his old argument—that mankind has reached the end of history ideologically speaking. Though he may trace the origin of modern political institution from China onwards, his end point is Western world, for practically purpose let just say ‘Denmark.’ In a way though he does not prescribe rigidly which way countries may take to reach ‘Denmark’, the end remains the same namely Denmark. He does not attempt to answer or perhaps he even refuses to ask the question—can there be any other alternative down the line?

Secondly,   his usage of Huntington’s concept, ‘political decay’, on the one hand and that all political systems are subject to political decay while he is depicting liberal democracy as the end reach of political development is paradoxical. He has shown that different societies had solved the problem differently: in the case of China meritocratic bureaucracy, Middle East military slavery institution, and Europe strong parliament. Nevertheless, at one point of time they all fell with the reemergence of patrimonialism. Then we have only one element to think of, that is to say, the social setting of a particular society, whether individualistic society or kinship society. It is a subjective question to ask which one is better. Fukuyama safely assumes that individualistic society of Europe is far more superior to the others for it is free from ‘the tyranny of cousin’ or ‘patrimonialism.’ This assumption is quite misleading. To patrimonialism reemerge the society needs not necessarily to be kin-based. Mere corruptions practiced by administrators or the like can do damage to the whole system. Not surprisingly such kind of act is universal. Western liberal institution is not an exception in that case. Therefore, Fukuyama’s attempt to prove the superiority of liberal institution is not so convincing.

Finally, his notion of accountability as a unique development of Europe is problematic. Further, his definition of accountable government that “the rulers believe that they are responsible to the people they govern and put the people’s interests above their own,” is questionable. If it is so then all governments are accountable governments as well as irresponsible governments at the same time. In theory even the crudest despotic government would say that they are all for the citizen, let alone democratic ones. But in reality, at times in one way or the other even the most democratic ones fail to discharge public good.

Nevertheless, it is not the job of social scientist to claim the certainty of his argument for the very lifeblood of social science is its falsifiability. In this light, Fukuyama’s work deserves a universal applause for making such a gigantic work legible and digestible even for the lay readers.


March 15, 2014

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