‘The Origins of Political Order’ Is Delightfully Bipartisan and Sure to Raise Eyebrows

[20 October 2011]

By Christopher Holden

Francis Fukayama has long been pegged, somewhat unfairly, as a darling of the right wing. The political scientist is most famous for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which argued that liberal democracy was the natural endpoint to political history. In the post-Cold War era, the argument was quickly picked up by neoconservatives eager to spread democracy across the globe, whether the globe was ready for it or not.

But Fukayama’s beliefs have always been more nuanced than an easy “liberal” or “conservative” summary. Since The End of History, he has had a falling out with neoconservatives over their handling of the Iraq War, to the point that he endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. And his new book, The Origins of Political Order, is delightfully bipartisan, in that there are plenty of arguments sure to irritate people on both sides of the political aisle.

The book is nothing if not ambitious. The first in a proposed two-volume set, The Origins of Political Order aims to analyze the development of human governance from our hunter-gatherer days up until the end of the French Revolution. Such a long-term view inevitably means that the book is not as detailed as some specialists might like, but Fukayama does an excellent job making sharp, succinct arguments for each period in political history while still keeping the pace of the text relatively brisk.

Still, even a quick glimpse at the variety of political systems over the past 10,000 years is a daunting prospect for any scholar, especially because there are so many other fields to consider. Though not a expert, Fukayama does an adequate job integrating scholarship on religion, anthropology, biological evolution, cultural history, economics and sociology. Rather than proposing a one-size-fits-all theory of political evolution, he instead tries to address why certain civilizations adopted certain kinds of government, and why these governments succeeded or failed. In doing so, Fukayama has plenty of disagreements with Marx, Rousseau, and other famous political theorists, throwing out their all-embracing theories for far more focused arguments. He goes to such lengths to emphasize the idiosyncrasies of different civilizations that at times it is almost hard to see the similarities at all.

But there is a thread running through The Origins of Political Order that helps tie everything together: Fukayama is a firm believer in the idea of “human nature” as a biological characteristic if not a cultural one. Time and time again, he addresses mankind’s propensity toward certain traits, then connects those traits to specific political developments. One of these “human” qualities is that of kinship; he asserts that mankind has always lived tribally and cared for one’s family, using his book as an opportunity to critique Rousseau’s idea of mankind’s “natural” state of isolation.

Fukayama takes great pains to point out that his arguments are not deterministic, and that there were and are thousands of ways in which that human history could have taken a different path. This is refreshing to read, but it also feels a bit like he’s taken pre-emptive action to avoid the criticisms of a “grand narrative” that usually occur after the publication of a book like this. His point is an important one, but perhaps laid on a little too thick. As it stands, the book does a far better job pointing out historical peculiarities (such as an excellent section describing how the strange institution of Ottoman slavery helped give the empire a boost) than it does in really addressing similarities between historical nations.

The book’s choice of subjects is interesting. Fukayama is bound to raise some eyebrows when he announces at the beginning that he will not be talking about ancient Greece or Rome, deeming them to be too focused on city-states to really qualify for the large nation-states he wants to address. The book instead begins with ancient China, going through India and medieval Muslim governments before arriving at Catholicism and Europe. The narrative smoothly transitions, as he takes each step as an opportunity to address what a particular government did differently, and how it addressed perennial political problems.

But again, the book tries a bit too hard to sidestep the “grand narrative” criticisms. After 500 pages of addressing how other states failed, Fukayama finally addresses England’s parliamentary democracy with a shrug, admitting that while England had the correct requirements for a working democracy, no one is quite sure why that happened there first and nowhere else. His stated “recipe” for this kind of democracy is interesting, and it’s nice to see he’s starting with the evidence and working backwards, rather than creating a political theory and trying to fit states into this model. But while the book successfully explains why certain chains of events played out in such a way, it does not always address how these chains were set up in the first place.

Fukayama calls this the “turtle” problem, after an old story that if one believes the world rests on the back of a turtle, the next question is what this turtle rests on. The glib answer is “turtles all the way down.” He’s smart enough not to claim to have mapped out the chain of turtles, but at times the book feels like it has results not necessarily commensurate to the radical ambition of the stated title premise.

However, Fukayama’s restraint in this regard make for a remarkably readable text, and one that challenges both liberal and conservative political views with each page. His attacks the conservative notion of the “self-made man” from the start, arguing that human beings have been intertwined with larger social projects since the dawn of history. But hea also makes the case that strong property rights are incentives for nations to be successful, promoting Western capitalism against any kind of socialist or communist alternatives. Fukayama is no longer an ideologue if he ever was, and the book attains the impressive feat of evincing both liberal and conservative talking points without merely parroting them; both sides will find vindication and condemnation of some of their core beliefs.

In the end, this kind of political thinking is what makes The Origins of Political Order worth reading in this day and age. Apart from the excellent writing, basic enough for the amateur while peppered with enough footnotes for the hardened scholar, the book also provides a refreshingly unique view on politics that fails to adhere to strictly partisan thinking. Fukayama combines conservative capitalism with liberal belief in a strong government, and manages to do so without being contradictory.

The Origins of Political Order is dense yet readable, straightforward but challenging, political without being partisan. It’s the rare scholar who can write a book this complex without leaving the public behind, but Fukayama has managed to appeal to the scholar and the armchair political scientist. Anyone with an interest in politics will find much of interest in this book, and much to disagree with. It’s a rare scholarly work that has the public anticipating its sequel, but The Origins of Political Order will leave the reader excited for the second installment.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149445-the-origins-of-political-order-by-francis-fukayama/