Reviewed by Steve Dobransky
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374227340, 2011, 608 pp., $35.00.
Francis Fukuyama does a pivot from his famous The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and goes back in time to discover the foundations and evolution of political order in civilization. Fukuyama, however, plays it safe in his in-depth analysis of how humans established different versions of order throughout history. He analyzes and evaluates the various characteristics of order formation from the beginning of human civilization to the French Revolution (noting that he is working on a sequel from the 1800s to the present). Unlike many other studies, Fukuyama examines not only Western European states but also China, India, and the Ottoman Empire, among others non-European political organizations.
Fukuyama takes us an historical journey on how, when, and why political order was formed and under what particular circumstances. He stresses that political order has three essential ingredients for overall success: 1) a strong and stable government; 2) the rule of law; and, 3) accountable government. He points out that many governments lacked one or more of these key variables, which becomes critical in the eventual success or failure of these regimes. Ancient China, for example, had a strong and stable government at various times in its history but lacked the rule of law and accountability. India, on the other hand, had a weak state (resulting from a strong society) but maintained the rule of law and, over time, developed some degree of accountability.
Fukuyama provides us with a very enlightening epic of humanity’s quest for the ideal order, let alone a decent, functioning system. Much of what he writes on has present-day and future applications. By starting his research at the dawn of civilization, his delivery is exquisite in setting the tone for the rest of the book. Human nature in a competitive finite world all come in to play. Fukuyama presents a very concise and understandable historical documentation of early human history from the band and tribal levels to larger and more sophisticated forms of political organization. He notes the similarities as well as the differences of peoples, times, and locations. His global perspective throughout the book makes this a very Homeric-like story of the human travails of seeking political order.
Fukuyama is intent of demonstrating the utility of his three-tiered framework on political order. He enters the realm of religion by arguing that the Christian church was critical to establishing the rule of law and some degree of accountability in European civilization. He is critical of Islam in its inability to promote the (secular) rule of law in its political area, especially during Ottoman rule. He points out that Islam (and other religions like Hinduism) lacked a powerful religious hierarchy and autonomous organization to stand up to the state and encourage the general adherence to the law. Of course, mixing Islam with the Arab, Seljuk, Ottoman, et al. empires are dicey, since there is the religious rhetoric and the political realities of ruling an authoritarian empire. And, there are more than enough cases showing that the Christian church looked the other way and violated many times the rule of law. So, being selective in making a point over one thousand-plus years is open to debate. Fukuyama makes a magnanimous attempt at being diplomatic and scholarly, although he opens up himself (once again) to possible debate and criticism. This is a natural product of covering such an extended time period. There are always some cases that make a counterpoint. Fukuyama stresses the major surge toward or away from the rule of law, while understanding that there are some outlying cases. In other words, Fukuyama argues that there were many more valuable successes in Europe while there were major and blatant deficiencies in other places like the Ottoman Empire.
Fukuyama crosses the globe and even delves into the South Pacific. He examines the Melanesians, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and their tribal traditions, and he states that many of those practices still exist to this day. He focuses on the issue of private versus public property and he compares the various Melanesian societies. It is interesting since Fukuyama claims that this is a case of an undeveloped political order, since there are few laws written down and property is communal.
He portrays the West as being much more civilized based upon its massive amounts of written laws and private property. Yet, he does not seem to question why the Melanesians have been able to maintain their form of political order and happiness for thousands of years while the West has had massive amounts of wars, destruction, and political collapses, let alone domestic crime, in such relatively short time periods. Fukuyama just assumes that a huge amount of laws and government documents equal civilization and he never wonders if it is actually (dare I say) just the opposite. Why would anyone need such political monstrosities of legal paperwork and structures unless a very sizeable portion of the population was considered to be untrustworthy, violent, and uncivilized? The West’s institutions and laws seem to presuppose a very fallible human nature that is backed up with thousands of years of Western history.
The Melanesians, on the other hand, appear to have proven that human nature can be good and orderly if people are treated well and are given a reasonable amount of resources and land. The West’s mass inequalities suggest that its system may be unnatural and that both the major beneficiaries and losers of the system are the greatest threats to political order and well-being and, thus, the need for extreme political structures and laws to maintain the existing system. It is an intriguing line of thought that Fukuyama, unfortunately, does not go down. Does his vision of political order really mean the containment of mass uncivilization caused by a very unnatural and unequal political, economic, and social order? It is yet to be answered.
Overall, Fukuyama gives us a very refreshing and distinct approach to one of the major questions in history: the formation and sustaining of political order. During these times of major political, economic, and security challenges, this book raises the question as to how political order can be maintained over the long term, if not permanently. Are we on the verge of a systemic collapse? How many political orders today will still exist in the next 50-100 years? Fukuyama’s next book is sure to address more modern issues and questions on political order, but his initial framework does more than enough to stimulate very provocative questions as to whether political order and the end of history are one and the same.
Perhaps Fukuyama will spend more time on the popular foundations of political order in his next book. Governments come and go but the people often remain much longer, with order at different levels. With governments today falling or on the verge of falling throughout the world, one has to wonder if political and popular societal orders are two distinct areas. Fukuyama never seems to answer fully this question, as well as others such as: Does the will of the people and their expectations and demands for reasonable order and well being the decisive variable in order? And, are strong and stable governments, the rule of law, and an accountable government more of the means and not the ends of a good society? In many cases, if and when a government is no longer capable of providing sufficient order and well-being or shows a serious and endemic decline, then the people or a portion of the elite with the support of the people likely will replace the ruling coalition (violently or peaceably). Then, the necessary fundamental changes to the system can take place and long-term political order can be assured. Fukuyama would be wise to bring the people to the forefront of his political order equation and put less focus on governments and status quo political elites, especially when covering decades and centuries. Governments have always collapsed and there does not seem to be anything changing in that global equation for the rest of this century.
Fukuyama’s book is highly recommended for the scholar and anyone else interested in reading a very encapsulating approach to the foundations and evolution of political order since the beginning of human history up to modern times. Since many of Fukuyama’s findings can be applied to today, there is great real-world value to his book. The lessons of a successful, comprehensive political order can be extrapolated from Fukuyama’s exciting journey along the global “highways” of history. His sequel is eagerly awaited.