The Origins of Political Order: Review of Francis Fukuyama’s impressive history of the state

July 30, 2015

Another good idea from ODI – regular ‘scans’ of hot topics like resilience

July 30, 2015

Fukuyama’s history of the State, Book 2: Political Order and Political Decay

July 30, 2015
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Yesterday I reviewed Volume 1 (from pre-history up to the French Revolution), but before reviewing Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of Francis Fukuyama’s monumental Fukuyama 2history of the state, it’s probably worth asking, why bother?

Because whether providing/denying services, freedoms or functioning markets, the state is the most important institution underpinning development, and yet people in the foreign policy and development world operate with hazy and simplistic understandings of where states came from and how they evolve. Another example of historical amnesia, alas.

That blindness was epitomised by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the US government ‘seemed to think that democracy and a market economy were default conditions to which the country would automatically revert once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed.’ Oops.

According to Fukuyama that is a particular problem because ‘If there is a single theme that underlies many of the chapters of this book, it is that there is a political deficit around the world, not of states, but of modern states that are capable, impersonal, well organized and autonomous.’

The second volume picks up from the late 18th Century (French and American Revolutions) and brings us up to the present day. It feels both dryer in style and more fragmented than Volume One, hopping between discussions of the spread of democracy, geographical determinism, political Islam, the role of the Middle Classes and the experiences of various continents and countries in the developing world, before returning to Fukuyama’s two overriding interests – will China’s rise continue, and will anything arrest the US’ ‘political decay’? So instead of trying to identify a single thread, here are some highlights/insights:

The importance of sequencing: ‘Those countries in which democracy preceded modern state building have had much greater problems achieving high quality governance than those that inherited modern states from absolutist times. State building after the advent of democracy is possible, but it often requires mobilization of new social actors and strong political leadership to bring about. This was the story of the United States.’

Clientelism is an early form of democracy:  ‘Clientelism should be considered as an early form of democratic accountability and be distinguished from other types of corruption – it is based on a relationship of reciprocity and a degree of democratic accountability between the politician and those who vote for him or her.’

A broader discussion of how countries emerge from clientelism: All modern societies began with patrimonial states. Those that escaped did so through two routes: military competition (ancient China, Prussia, Japan); or peaceful reform based on coalitions of social groups (often new ones created by economic growth) interested in having an efficient, uncorrupt government (Britain, US).

More detail emerges in a fascinating comparison between the construction of effective states in the US and UK:

Maybe an effective state would help?

Maybe an effective state would help?

‘Britain and the US started the 19th Century with patronage-laden governments. In Britain, an aristocrat-dominated, patronage-laden civil service was reformed over a brief 15 year period and replaced by highly educated professional civil servants [in response to failures in the Crimean War and challenge of colonising India]. In the US, patronage was deeply entrenched and took much longer to eradicate: the two political parties, Republican and Democratic, had evolved around the distribution of jobs in the civil service and resisted tenaciously the effort to replace political appointees with merit-based civil servants. It took two generations of continuing political struggle stretching into the early 20th Century to fix this system.’

Part of the explanation of the difference is back to sequencing: ‘the US, by opening up the franchise to all white males a good 60-70 years earlier than Britain, not only pioneered the development of mass Political Parties but also invented the practice of clientilism. Britain by contrast remained a restrictive oligarchy throughout much of the 19th Century and could thus reform its civil service before mass Political Parties were ever tempted to use public office as a currency for buying votes.’

What does all this mean for contemporary development? ‘The widely varying contemporary development outcomes among Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America  and East Asia were heavily influenced by the nature of indigenous state institutions prior to their contact with the West. Those that had strong institutions earlier were able to re-establish them after a period of disruption, while those that did not continued to struggle…. The least developed parts of the world today are those that lacked either strong indigenous state institutions or transplanted settler-based ones.

In Singapore, the British created not just a port where none had existed before, but also a crown colony and fukuyamaadministrative structure designed to support their interests throughout Southeast Asia. In India, they created a British Indian Army and a higher civil service, institutions that were bequeathed to an independent Indian republic in 1947 and still exist. In Africa, by contrast, they created a system of minimal administration that went under the title of ‘indirect rule’. In so doing, they failed to provide post-independence African states with durable political institutions and laid the ground for subsequent state weaknesses and failure.’

Fukuyama accepts that the lessons of history can be pretty discouraging for today’s reformers wondering what to do next when ‘most modern contemporary bureaucracies were established by authoritarian states in their pursuit of national security’, but argues that the US and Britain offer more optimistic and relevant experiences because ‘for better or worse, most contemporary developing countries do not have a realistic option of sequencing [first state, then democracy] and, like the US, have to build strong states in the context of democratic political systems…. No country can realistically try to imitate Prussia, building a strong state through a century and a half of military struggle.’

The book ends with musings on violence, China and the fate of the US:

On Violence: ‘Violence was important in incentivizing political innovation as a historical matter, but it does not remain a necessary condition for reform in cases that come later. These societies have the option of learning from earlier experiences and adapting other models to their own societies.’ Fukuyama argues that economic growth has largely replaced violence and war as a driver of change, because it accelerates the emergence/eclipse of new social and political players. In addition, today’s ‘societies have the option of learning from earlier experiences and adapting other models to their own societies.’

On China: ‘The central issue facing China today is whether, a mere 35 years since the initiation of Deng’s reforms, the Chinese regime is itself now suffering from political decay and losing the autonomy that was the source of its earlier success’

On the US: Fukuyama is in despair about the gridlock of US politics, which he sees as exemplifying the tendency of all political institutions to decay over time. In the US, this has resulted in a ‘vetocracy’ where the country’s traditionally weak central state (designed that way by the Founding Fathers) is unable to budge Congress, subject to rule by the Courts, and unable to adjust to the changing world all around it. He has come a long way from ‘End of History’ triumphalism.

As for its main rival among ‘Big Books on the State’, I found Fukuyama far more nuanced and thoughtful (and less crudely propagandistic) than Why Nations Fail (although both books argue backwards from the desirability of liberal democracy). If you want to see a fairly acrimonious exchange between the authors of both, read Fukuyama’s review of WNF and its authors’ response to the review.

6 comments

  1. Many thanks for these two interesting reviews.

    I just wondered if Fukuyama had referred to Dani Rodrik’s Trilemma (The Globalization Paradox] i.e. global markets, nation states and democracy are mutually incompatible; you can have any two but not all three.

    What’s happened to Greece makes me think the Trilemma is real and that it’s democracy that is always going to lose out.

  2. Duncan, still not getting the notifications of new posts sent to email. Just thought I’d let you know.

  3. Francis Fukuyama was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War. I just cannot possibly take his unhappiness about US politics seriously. In all truth, I can’t take the idea that he is qualified to do anything more intellectual than be Assistant Manager at Powell’s* seriously.

    *…which sounds like a fine job, don’t get me wrong.

    1. That’s an odd thing to say considering that Fukuyama wrote a whole book explaining why it was a mistake to support the Iraq war and extensively critiquing the underlying neo-conservative philosophy. I think they have it at Powell’s. It should be a good deal with the employee discount.

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