The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay

By Brad Keister

Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2011), 608pp.

Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014), 672 pp.

A guest review by Brad Keister.

In this massive two-volume history, Francis Fukuyama, a Fellow at the Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, lays out a broad perspective on the origins, growth, life, and, in some cases, demise, of political systems across the globe. Taken together, these books weigh in at more than 1200 pages — not light reading, as Fukuyama does his homework by considering many cases in detail. But there are some persistent themes that bind this work into a whole.

Fukuyama rose to fame with an earlier work, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that American democracy is the end point toward which all other forms of government are inexorably evolving. He became the darling of the neo-conservatives in the US during the early millennial years. A few years after the US invasion of Iraq, Fukuyama withdrew his earlier support for this military action and reanalyzed his views. This two-volume set presents that analysis.

In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama argues that political order in a state depends upon three elements: strength of the state itself, the rule of law, and accountability. While Americans may conflate the three as being inextricably linked, Fukuyama points to countries that have one or two of these elements, but not all three. For example, India is a democracy but has a weak central government. China has a strong government, but more a rule by law than rule of law, and less government accountability.

Fukuyama also argues that modern states have not emerged without breaking what he calls the kinship bond: the tendency of rulers to favor those who have the greatest DNA overlap. In a kinship society this could be called taking care of one’s own, but in a meritocracy it acquires labels like nepotism, not to mention corruption. Without a strong government, states often lapse back to the kinship bond.

Turning to the role of religion in states, Fukuyama argues that commonly held beliefs can be a powerful constraint upon rulers beyond their own personal power. He also notes that celibate priesthoods tend to break a kinship bond that can lead to church dynasties.

In Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama makes the case that there is no such thing as a failure-proof political system. Each system is founded upon principles that seem robust and resilient at the time of their founding, but can become brittle if it does not adapt to new challenges. A key example: the USSR lasted seven decades — a rather short period in historical time. The United States experienced division to the point of civil war in less than a century.

While Fukuyama still sees Western democracy as a goal to be sought in the development of states, he has no illusions that states will reach that goal soon — if at all. Turning to the United States, he sees a government that was founded on principles designed to prevent tyranny at all costs. So far that outcome has been prevented, but perhaps with an unintended cost that its government cannot move efficiently to address challenges in the twenty-first century that the founders never anticipated. This can be seen especially in the political gridlock of recent years. America may need to adapt in new ways if it is to survive.

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