Reviews

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

The esteemed political scientist's latest book provides a thought-provoking look at the political history of past civilizations, and is sure to offer plenty of fodder for conversations about the present.


The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 585 pages
Author: Francis Fukayama
Price: $35.00
Format: Harcover
Publication date: 2011-04
Amazon

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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