A review of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama's sweepingly ambitious book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, is a major achievement. Through it, he continues his longstanding project: the creation of a Universal History of mankind, demonstrating that human social and political life does in fact progress toward liberal democracy. Such a history could presumably contribute to human social development by laying out a plausible path to a democratic future.

Although Fukuyama, best-known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), still believes that humanity is collectively headed for liberal democracy, he has far more to say than in his earlier writings about forces standing in the way. Origins begins with a story of failed democratization. When Australia granted independence to Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, it established a "Westminster" style parliamentary government with multi-party elections. Voters in such systems are supposed to make choices based on ideology and policy—whether they want a stronger welfare state or a freer market, for example. In Papua New Guinea, however, society is divided into numerous tiny tribes, nestled in isolated mountain valleys, speaking languages incomprehensible to the neighboring tribes with whom they compete. The Big Men who lead these tribes achieve their position through their ability to distribute pigs, shell money, and other resources to members of the tribe. So when a Big Man makes it to parliament, he uses his position to direct resources back to his narrow base of supporters. Political parties are insignificant in this context, as is any sense of common national destiny.

Such pork-barrel politics looks chaotic and corrupt to us, but from the standpoint of Papua New Guinea's traditional tribal system, the Big Men are simply doing what they've always done. The only difference, as Fukuyama points out, is that instead of pigs and shell money Big Men now distribute revenues from mining and logging concessions.

Here, in a nutshell, is a fundamental challenge to the "end of history" thesis that made Fukuyama famous at the end of the Cold War. Fukuyama's core argument is that the collapse of fascism and Communism as plausible ideological competitors to capitalist democracy has ended our deeper conflicts over the best form of government, leaving democracy as the world's "default" political option. As he puts it: "Very few people around the world openly profess to admire Vladimir Putin's petro-nationalism, or Hugo Chavez's ‘twenty-first-century socialism,' or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Islamic Republic." China's model of authoritarian capitalism defies description, much less emulation. All that, says Fukuyama, leaves democracy as the world's only remaining governing model both widely admired and, at least in theory, replicable in a variety of social and economic circumstances.

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But what if the real alternative to democracy isn't another abstract ideological model at all? What if democracy can be challenged, hemmed in, and even undermined by a collection of powerful particularisms? Fukuyama has written The Origins of Political Order, in part, to better understand why cultural particularism and personalized politics such as we see in New Guinea impede the expansion of democracy.

His larger goal is to lay out the complex social prerequisites for democracy, highlighting how nearly miraculous it was that these elements came together in proper balance to produce liberal democracy in the first place. We take the very existence of the state for granted, although the global proliferation of failed states has reminded us that democracy cannot succeed where a functional state is weak or non-existent. Rule of law and accountable government, the more obvious prerequisites of liberal democracy, are both difficult to achieve, and more difficult still to harmonize with an efficacious state, since their purpose is to restrain its power. By tracing the development of the modern state, then showing the millennia-long process through which rule of law and accountable government managed to moderate state power in a very few places, Fukuyama aims to produce a deeper appreciation of all that democracy requires. He also intends his history to be a kind of sourcebook for developing countries now negotiating hurdles previously encountered on history's first long march to democracy.

The result is a brilliantly conceived attempt to reveal the underpinnings of human political organization across the ages. In an era of retreat from "grand theory," when the sheer mass of specialist knowledge makes world-scale historical sociology nearly impossible to pull off, he has revived the long-defunct tradition of global historical synthesis, exemplified by thinkers like Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in sociology, Lewis Henry Morgan in anthropology, and Henry Maine in law.

The critical question is whether Fukuyama's newly heightened appreciation for the barriers to democratization does justice to the full dimensions of the problem. Origins is ultimately an attempt to put the author's earlier claims of irresistible democratic evolution to their sternest test, by boldly confronting all in history and culture that has stood opposed to such progress. The result, from his perspective, is an educated and measured optimism about the prospects for democratic development, at least over the long term.

But does that synthesis hold? Has Fukuyama's acknowledgment of the culture problem effectively qualified his end of history thesis into practical irrelevance? On the other hand, has Fukuyama perhaps underestimated the deeper barriers to development, so as to keep his dream of universal democratization alive? Or has he found the golden mean? In my judgment, Fukuyama has failed to overcome the core of the culturalist challenge, while nonetheless producing one of the most creative and important contributions to the study of culture in some time. To explain this paradox, we need to consider his conception of human nature.

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The End of History and the Last Man draws on Hegel's philosophy as interpreted by the 20th-century French philosopher Alexandre Kojève. In fact, Fukuyama lets the reader know that when he says "Hegel," he is actually referring to a sort of composite philosopher who might be called "Hegel-Kojève." The End of History bases its argument on the claim that the prototypical human situation, and thus the motor of history, is described by Hegel's dialectic of master and slave famously discussed in the Phenomenology of Spirit. At the beginning of history, one man becomes a master, and another a slave, when the former, risking his life in battle for pure prestige, subdues the latter. The slave, valuing life above prestige, submits to the master and acknowledges his conqueror's superiority. Yet the master's ostensible triumph turns out to be hollow, since the recognition obtained from the slave is a debased compliment from a debased admirer. Through a series of transformations, both the master and slave eventually discover that only mutual recognition of their equal dignity achieves authentic self-respect for each. In Kojève's view, this core human dynamic prefigures, and is destined to produce, a universal egalitarian state.

Hegel's master-slave dynamic usefully explains the emergence of democracy from Communist tyranny, but it is a flawed basis for understanding the world's traditional societies. Traditional hierarchies are not so much master-slave relationships as they are by-products of group solidarity. Real solidarity is impossible without a leader who embodies the honor and interests of the group. Traditional societies thus tend to distribute recognition widely within a hierarchical group, with "hierarchy" here meaning not a master's domination of a slave, but a leader's embodiment of a larger and mutually dependent collective. In this analysis, the group is prior to the individuals who compose it. All of which suggests that human beings are naturally social creatures as well as naturally free and equal individuals. The unfolding of history reflects the interplay between these different facets of human nature.

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In Origins, Fukuyama offers a broadened vision to supplement his neo-Hegelian dynamic of the master and slave, to better account for the traditional solidarities of kinship-based societies. He now postulates a fundamental human capacity to generate social norms and religious beliefs that heighten group cohesion. Though recognizing that it is instrumentally important, he still regards this capacity as fundamentally irrational. For example, he sees tribal societies (by which he means societies organized around extended systems of kinship) as held together by the irrational worship of dead ancestors. What he misses is that ancestor worship affirms and symbolizes the enduring, constitutive nature of traditional kin groups, whose customary obligations outlast and constrain its leaders. Drawing on sociobiological theory, Fukuyama also now posits a general tendency for human beings to favor kin with whom they have previously exchanged favors. This biological urge to help close relatives, sometimes extended to non-kin, explains the tendency of modern state systems to fall back into narrow favoritism, as in New Guinea.

The problem is that neither a largely irrational religious reflex nor a biological urge to favor relatives does justice to the power and complexity of man's social nature. In the end, both devices allow Fukuyama to retain the individualism he derives from Hegel and ultimately Hobbes. That explanatory framework leads him to underestimate the appeal and staying power of traditional social solidarities.

According to Origins, human history has passed through several distinct but overlapping phases. In the earliest phases of evolution, human beings lived in small bands. Leadership in contemporary band societies (our most important clue to the past) is based on group consensus. Rather than saying, "Do this!" leaders in band societies say, "If this is done, it would be good."

After the discovery of agriculture, says Fukuyama, humans assembled into larger groups organized by extended kinship connections. He calls this the tribal phase of history, and it is characterized by what he terms the "tyranny of cousins." Now hierarchies emerge, but Fukuyama emphasizes that there is nothing natural or inevitable about this tribal system of hierarchy. If anything, the more egalitarian and consensual bands in which human beings first evolved represent our natural condition.

In Fukuyama's view, the shift to states, the next phase of history, was an even greater setback for human freedom. At bottom, he sees the creation of the state as an only slightly revised version of the Hobbesian contract, in which tribes, rather than individuals, trade away their freedom in exchange for security under a sovereign's rule. But Fukuyama misses the way in which the tribal nature of the participants in the earliest state—making "contracts" changes the bargain, putting the social side of our nature at the center. He discerns how the modern liberal democratic state recaptures the relative equality and the consensual nature of life in early band societies, but he fails to appreciate the degree to which the hierarchies of traditional tribes and states draw upon the collective side of social life at humanity's point of origin.

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The great paradox of Origins is that it is resistant to cultural issues while also being one of the finest, most ambitious analyses of the origins of human culture in years. This is possible because Fukuyama's account of the rise of ancient states from earlier tribal systems is a tale of tradition transcended. Yet it turns out that history doesn't leave the past altogether behind. As nascent states struggled for social supremacy with traditional tribal forms, a compromise of sorts was struck everywhere, one whose details turn out to be a central determinant of the character of the world's great civilizations. Though Fukuyama's story is told from the standpoint of progress, of the emerging state looking back on an incompletely transcended tribal past, his tale of the struggle between these dueling social models is tremendously revealing.

Take his highly original analysis of China. Using Max Weber's criteria for identifying social modernity, Fukuyama shows convincingly that, contrary to Weber's own view, ancient China was actually the first fully modern state. Under the pressure of constant war, early Chinese proto-states could only survive by adopting modern bureaucratic organization, mass conscription, and the dismantling of the traditional tribal leadership strata. Military self-protection forced Prussia to adopt essentially the same reforms after its defeat at Napoleon's hands at the battle of Jena in 1806. This is the moment Hegel first identified as the "end of history," because it represented the actualization in Europe of the French Revolution's core principles.

Yet if China's state was effectively modern a good two millennia before Europe, it matters that the result was not democracy but a remorseless dictatorship. Western democracy rested on the existence of a prior reverence for the rule of law, which tamed the power of the newly modern state. In contrast, ancient China created a powerful bureaucratic state long before the other prerequisites of democratic governance could emerge. This "all-powerful" Chinese state struggled for centuries with a periodically renascent tribal tradition, however. The result was the staffing of China's precociously modern state with bureaucrats imbued with Confucian family morality. Fukuyama shows how Confucian norms of social virtue, wielded by the bureaucracy, acted as de facto checks on the theoretically unlimited power of China's emperor.

Here is where things get tricky. Fukuyama makes the point that the emperor was constrained by his need to maintain, through virtuous action, the Confucian "mandate of heaven," whose rationale Fukuyama never takes seriously in its own right. In the Confucian view, the emperor is father and mother of the people, and thus obligated to hew to the principles of proper familial morality. Loss of heaven's mandate is conceived, not as a violation of Hobbesian individual rights, but as a dereliction of familial duty. Against the trend of his own account, however, Fukuyama insists on analyzing the Chinese emperor's power as a variant on Hobbes's social contract.

Hegel saw the Chinese emperor as the ultimate despot at the beginning of history, a single great master ruling a nation of slaves. Now it turns out that the ancient emperor's despotic powers were actually a function of China's precocious bureaucratic modernization, while such restraints on his rule as existed were traditional in character, grounded not in universal rights but in the social nature of man.

Despite these problems, Fukuyama's analysis of Chinese political development is stunning. Again and again, he produces rich and fascinating parallels between the traditional Chinese state and its modern communist successors. Chairman Mao's attacks on Confucianism were prefigured in China's long authoritarian past. Chinese culture was formed by the distinctive blending of the first truly modern state and a weaker yet still significant tradition of familial morality. Fukuyama may give too little attention and credit to the underlying appeal of Confucian familism, but his striking analysis of what emerged from the tension between the first great modern absolutism and its traditionalist tribal nemesis is a significant achievement.

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The same strengths and weaknesses are evident in Fukuyama's fascinating account of Muslim state-building at the height of the Ottoman Empire, a topic with important implications for our understanding of the Middle East today. He tells the story of the Janissary corps, an elite slave caste of warriors and bureaucrats forcibly seized as children from the empire's Christian subjects, raised as Turkish-speaking Muslims, trained to the highest standards, and forced into lifelong celibacy. He shows that in Ottoman times, as today, the extraordinary power of tribe and kin in Muslim society made it difficult to recruit bureaucrats based on merit and then prevent them from becoming corrupt. The Janissaries—plucked from their parents and forbidden to have families of their own—were the solution, the functional equivalent of ancient China's merit-based bureaucratic examination system.

Fukuyama presents the Janissaries as real-life counterparts of the guardian class in Plato's Republic, leaders whose absolute loyalty to the state was assured by their isolation from the private family. In time, the Janissaries grew powerful enough to stage coups and capture the state. Fukuyama draws convincing parallels between this turn of events and the outsized governing role of the military in today's Middle East. As with the Janissaries, modern Muslim armies represent a relatively meritocratic exception to the tribal social rule.

The unusually intense in-group solidarity encouraged by Muslim kinship practices not only helps explain why the Janissary system was needed as a way out, but has a good deal more to do with current controversies over the Middle East than one might expect. Fukuyama's initial response to 9/11 was to minimize the impact of the event. He saw the terror attacks as a rearguard action, an ultimately doomed protest emanating from a traditional part of the world threatened by modernity but lacking the resources to derail social progress for more than a brief historical moment. That argument, of course, had the effect of protecting Fukuyama's end-of-history thesis.

As the significance of the terror war persisted, however, Fukuyama took another tack, arguing that Islamism was not a true product of Muslim religion or culture, but a strictly modern phenomenon. In this view, Islamism is a Muslim-tinged variant of European fascism, whose chief appeal is to urbanized Middle Easterners and Middle Eastern immigrants in Europe severed from their cultural roots. By treating Islamism as a pseudo-traditional phenomenon, Fukuyama minimizes the tensions between civilizations described by his mentor, the late Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Yet traditional Muslim cousin marriage persists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the kin-solidarities it produces weaken the state and enable our adversaries. Similarly, cousin marriage has been one of the core barriers to the assimilation of Muslim immigrants in Europe, and thus has much to do with the rise of Islamism in the West. Islamism develops tradition, while also depending upon it.

In short, Fukuyama's study of the tensions between modernizing states and traditional systems of kinship and tribe illuminates the inner dynamics of the world's great civilizations. Yet Fukuyama consistently underestimates the deepest barriers to democratization—as embodied in kinship and tribe—and the social side of human nature upon which those barriers rest.

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The most striking part of Fukuyama's account of democratic development in the West is his focus on the medieval Church's role in breaking down extended kinship systems, thereby creating the individualist world democratization requires. Here Fukuyama stresses the Church's interest in gaining property as a motive for its prohibitions on cousin marriage. Although the Bible does not prohibit such unions, marital choice is a logical outcome of the Christian tradition's emphasis on the relationship between the individual believer and God. Material gain was far from the Church's only motivation here.

Fukuyama's treatment of democratic evolution in the West is filled with potential lessons for developing countries today. Yet the most important lesson of all may be that getting rid of your kinship system is the surest foundation for modern liberal democracy. The fact that no country could take such a recommendation seriously, except as a multi-generational commitment, suggests that history won't be ending any time soon. Fukuyama promises to show in the second volume ofOrigins that the industrial revolution, and modern science generally, have enabled far more rapid political change than in the past. Even so, the scope of the kinship-based challenge to democratic development is formidable enough to resist these forces indefinitely.

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What, then, remains of the end of history thesis? Fukuyama himself qualifies it in various ways. Though he suggests that China's growing prosperity could bring demands for democracy from its rising middle class, for example, he also acknowledges that China's authoritarian capitalism could persist for some time, given its cultural roots and present success. He also suggests that entrenched interest groups could block any solution to the massive fiscal challenges confronting Western democracies, leading to "political decay."

Even without discussing our current fiscal woes, Fukuyama's own study of biological engineering, Our Posthuman Future(2002), explained the possible re-starting of history in the West. The root of the fiscal crisis is the growing number of old people, to whom promises have been made, relative to the shrinking cohort of young people, who will be expected to make good on those promises. That demographic shift, in turn, depends upon the scientific discovery of reliable birth control. Modern biological science, it would seem, has already kick-started history.

Combine Fukuyama's own analysis with a more culturalist view of the Islamist challenge, and the world begins to resemble the future sketched out by Samuel Huntington, with rising demographically-based challenges to the West from East Asia and the Middle East. The complexities of human nature and the innovations of military and biological science may be more than sufficient to counterbalance the democratic yearnings of an ever-expanding global middle class as motors of history. Although we cannot exclude the possible emergence of liberal democratic politics as the universal destination of humanity in the distant future, Fukuyama's vision seems to have receded to the point where it has lost its present policy relevance.

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Toward the end of America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (2006), Fukuyama expresses support for democratic elections in the Middle East, even at the risk of bringing extremists to power. He favors this policy, he emphasizes, not because it will solve the problem of terrorism, but because it is desirable in its own right. Here, I suspect, we touch something fundamental.

In The End of History, Fukuyama advocated an American foreign policy centered on promoting democracy. It has become increasingly evident since then that his ever-receding historical predictions have a utopian aspect. Democracy promotion—even to the point of risking the election of Islamist dictators—is advanced in the name of a dubious and distant future.

When he broke some years ago with American policy in Iraq, Fukuyama criticized his neoconservative colleagues for underplaying cultural barriers to democratization. Yet his less militarized posture on foreign policy still underestimates the power of tradition in the non-Western world. He and his more hawkish former colleagues have also increasingly adopted the stance that a degree of chaos in the present is an acceptable price to pay for the dream of Arab democracy generations hence. No present misfortune can undermine so distant a policy goal. Yet as Origins shows, this utopian stance can accommodate vast sophistication about the barriers to democratization in the here and now.

In the end, Fukuyama's loyalty to the utopian hopes he shares with his intellectual ancestors has determined his policy goals, even when their relevance for the present United States is highly questionable. He is skeptical of nationalism, which he dismissed in The End of History as a fundamentally irrational form of group-based recognition destined to pass with time. Fukuyama's patriotism is for the imagined universal human state of the future instead. That is a fearsome nationalism.