Francis Fukuyama – The Origins of Political Order

Francis Fukuyama, the esteemed political scientist best known for his work The End of History, has a new book coming out in April, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. This new work is featured today in the Nicholas Wade’ New York Times article, From ‘End of History’ Author, a Look at the Beginning and Middle.

This book is sure to prompt plenty of discussion among anthropologists, as he is taking on the sweep of history and proposing a theory for the rise of complex societies, in particular the origins of the state. He does that by combining human evolutionary biology and archaeology’s band/tribe/chiefdom/state division with a theory of how political order can work both with and against some innate predispositions humans have. Here is Wade’s description:

[Fukuyama] explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare.

Because of this shared human nature, with its biological foundation, “human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures,” he writes. It is these worldwide patterns he seeks to describe in an analysis that stretches from prehistoric times to the French Revolution…

The book traces the development of political order from the earliest human societies, which were small groups of hunter-gatherers. The first major social development, in Dr. Fukuyama’s view, was the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to tribes, made possible by religious ideas that united large numbers of people in worship of a common ancestor. Since a tribe could quickly mobilize many men for warfare, neighboring bands had to tribalize too, or be defeated.

Warfare also forced the second major social transition, from tribe to state. States are better organized than tribes and more stable, since tribes tend to dissolve in fighting after the death of a leader. Only because states offered a better chance of survival did people give up the freedom of the tribe for the coercion of the state.

Much of Dr. Fukuyama’s analysis concerns how states develop from tribes. This transition, in his view, is affected by geography, history, and in particular by the order in which the different institutional components of the state are put in place.

Against this background, Fukuyama proposes how to create the necessary loyalties and beliefs to make for functioning states, rather than reverting back to favoring kin and tribe. He is really focusing on how we might think about political progress over time, without assuming that such progress naturally happens. He is also interested in how political culture – or a society at a larger level of organization than the local – works.

In a broad sense, he is interested in civilization, and his views on how successful civilizations come to be works as a rebuttal to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which focuses largely on material and ecological causes. Fukuyama places culture at the center of how historical change happens.

“We take institutions for granted but in fact have no idea where they come from,” he writes. Institutions are the rules that coordinate social behavior. Just as tribes are based on the deep-seated human instinct of looking out for one’s family and relatives, states depend on the human propensity to create and follow social rules.

Dr. Fukuyama emphasizes the role of China because it was the first state. The Qin dynasty, founded in 221 B.C., prevailed over tribalism, the default condition of large societies, by developing an official class loyal to the state rather than to family and kin…

Without taking human behavior into account, “you misunderstand the nature of political institutions,” Dr. Fukuyama said in the interview at Johns Hopkins. Such behaviors, particularly the faculty for creating rules, are the basis for social institutions, even though the content of institutions is supplied by culture. Dr. Fukuyama sees the situation as similar to that of language, in which the genes generate the neural machinery for learning language but culture supplies the content.

The rise of modern states then requires on creating a set of traditions and rules that can overcome the selfish nature of rulers. The necessary ingredients only came together in Europe.

[Tribalism in Europe] yielded first to feudalism, an institution in which peasants bound themselves to a lord’s service in return for his protection. So when kings emerged, they seldom acquired absolute power, as did rulers in China, because they had to share power with feudal lords…

Of the European powers, only England and Denmark, in Dr. Fukuyama’s view, developed the three essential institutions of a strong state, the rule of law, and mechanisms to hold the ruler accountable. This successful formula then became adopted by other European states, through a kind of natural selection that favored the most successful variation…

“My argument is that the rule of law comes out of organized religion, and that democracy is a weird accident of history,” he said. “Parliaments in Europe had legal rights, and it was a complete historical accident that the English Parliament could fight a civil war and produce a constitutional settlement that became the basis of modern democracy.”

Fukuyama is also interested in explaining variation – why isn’t there continued change? why do poorer societies not easily develop effective states?

Institutions, though cultural, can be very hard to change. The reason is that, once they are created, people start to invest them with intrinsic value, often religious. This process “probably had an evolutionary significance in stabilizing human societies,” Dr. Fukuyama said, since with an accepted set of rules a society didn’t have to fight everything out again every few years. The inertia of institutions explains why societies are usually so slow to change. Societies are not trapped by their past, but nor are they free in any given generation to remake themselves.

Just as institutions are hard to change, so too they are hard to develop. “Poor countries are poor not because they lack resources,” Dr. Fukuyama writes, “but because they lack effective political institutions.” The absence of a strong rule of law, in his view, is “one of the principal reasons why poor countries can’t achieve higher rates of growth.”

You can get a good overview of Fukuyama’s argument about the development of democracy out of religion and monarchies in his 2010 article (pdf), Transitions to the Rule of Law. Here is the ending to that article, which comes closest to presenting an overall abstract of the ideas there:

Strong legal systems did not spontaneously emerge simply because there was an economic demand for them, as some economists suggest.13 Rather, the law developed “exogenously” (as an economist would say)—that is, for reasons external to the economic system, such as religious belief. Moreover, the West European pattern of development was one in which the rule of law existed before anyone tried to construct a strong modern state. As a result, law prevented the most tyrannical forms of a strong state from ever appearing in the first place. We should admit to ourselves that we have very little historical experience in successfully constructing a rule of law in societies where this pattern is reversed and where a strong state precedes law. Outsiders have learned a great deal about democracy promotion over the past twenty years and have considerable ability to help organize and monitor elections. Whether anything remotely comparable will be possible with regard to rule of law remains to be seen.

Fukuyama has discussed these ideas in public fora, and I found some video that will get you more in depth on his views.

The first – The Origins of the State: China and India – provides a very brief overview of the transition from prehistory , and then goes in depth in discussing some early examples of state-level organization.

The second – The End of History Revisited – covers four major objections to his earlier work, The End of History. In this video Fukuyama discusses, as I see it, how these objections lead him to develop new views on the course of history. Here he is taking on big thinkers like Samuel Huntington.

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14 Responses to Francis Fukuyama – The Origins of Political Order

  1. Craig says:

    Good stuff, thanks Daniel.

    Foreign Affairs recently had a nice piece on Fukuyama’s End of History argument and compares it with two other prominent visions of “what the driving forces of world politics would be” – its interesting reading.

  2. Dr. Fukuyama emphasizes the role of China because it was the first state. The Qin dynasty, founded in 221 B.C.

    China the first state? What ever happened to pharaonic Egypt. Or, for that matter, the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Persians? Perhaps he has a separate category for ’empires’ but, even so, ancient Egypt surely was a state before it was an empire.

  3. I don’t like this. Trying to peer through Nicholas Wade’s lens at Francis Fukuyama is doubly dangerous. Fukuyama’s book sounds like some evolutionary biology, wedded to an archaeological sequence outmoded over fifty years ago, in the service of traditional political science. Other than a nod toward China’s importance as the “first” (which Judith Weingarten rightly critiques above), the rest of the story is all about Europe, with nods elsewhere at systems that don’t work so well.

    The real archaeology of state formation seems to be completely ignored. No mention of different forms of state formation, like in the Americas, where research on Andean state formation throws other progressive sequences into question.

  4. Adam Piontek says:

    I’ll second Judith & Jason.

    And, not to mention someone once again operating in a “nature is the base of nurture” framework, which is incompatible with the sort of long view he’s attempting. On these time scales, culture affects biology as well. Making a reference to “evolved behaviors like … a propensity for warfare.” even more problematic than they already are on their face. We also have a propensity for altruism and fraternity, and not just “in-group.”

  5. Pingback: Current Items March 9-18 | Living Anthropologically

  6. Bob Oliphant says:

    DeGroot, the Washington Post reviewer, completely ignored Francis F’s emphasis upon “patrimony” (i.e. the leisure class revolution) as a destructive force, along with tribalism (ethnics, religionists, etc.). For the USA, what’s wrong with a unifying push for Standard Worldwide American Dictionary English? Could the conservatives and liberals join hands on this one? Surely we need something better than the NY Times daily crossword to tell us where our collective heads are at!

  7. Chet Mosher says:

    … I suspect Fukuyama’s work to be of interest to the Toynbee-ists, Spenglerists and readers of Carroll Quigley’s “The Evolution of Civilization”, which also proposed an organic nature to the development of cultures. As Mark Twain was quoted; “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.”

  8. Ivan Soto says:

    I’ll be looking for a much “new and improved” follow-up to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan on this one, and I will be very curious about how much credit Fukuyama gives Hobbes.

  9. K.S.Tso says:

    Emperors of China, contrary to some believe that there is no rule of law therefore there will be no democracy, consider themselves accountable to Heaven. Therefore, from the “State” “Rule of Law” “Institutions” model of post modernization of political systems (Fukuyama), there is the “State (cum Emperor)” “Heaven (Sky)” “Da Tong” (Confucian believe of “big equal (Grand Course)”
    Big equal implies commonality among the mass “Common Good” – call it socialism or communism or democracy – all equal under the law etc. James Legge (1815-1897) translated the term as “Grand Course”. (“Sacred Books of the East, volume 28, part 4: The Li Ki”, James Legge, 1885)
    “When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. (They accumulated) articles (of value), disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. (The), laboured) with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it (only) with a view to their own advantage. In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, filchers, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union.”

    The original text in one of Confucius’ Book of “Li” is:

    While this idea of “Grand Course” and is Confucian, Emperors have followed it one way or the other – some to the tee, other in some other forms of semantics. So in the last 300 years or so before 1911 we have the Temple of Heaven where Emperors of the Qing Dynasty went to pray to the “sky” for whatever they went to pray to the sky for. Some prayer must be asking for help to do the right thing or the things to ensure they could keep on being the Emperor. Hence, the rule of law may be “secondary” the Emperor being answerable to some institution bigger than him/her is not in doubt.

    With respect to “Chinese kings and emperors were not answerable to any body”, the statement is incomplete.

  10. Dr. Fukuyama is the most lucid analyst since Thorstein Veblen. Veblen also has been underappreciated.

  11. tricia roxas says:

    it’s not as if his disregarding the summerians, greeks etc. he just thinks that china was the one to come up with MODERN state, he quite alienated classical modernism theory, because in his view its peculiar. but he doesnt mean china was the first to have organized government.

  12. Friday July 15 in Costa Rica> The conference: “Models of development after the financial crisis” by Professor Francis Fukuyama (PhD. Harvard) and hosted by INCAE Business School.
    More info>

  13. Pingback: Addition to the Fall reading list | ericthoughts Blog

  14. Erik Villanueva says:

    Francis Fukuyama is basically saying that modern liberal democratic states are based on three basic institutions: the state itself as accumulated power, the rule of law that constrains the holders of state power, and political accountability.
    China does not rise up to something that can be called rule of law since the rulers basically are not bound by constraints to what they can do and does not have institutions that hold rulers accountable.

    However, China but must be credited with creating the first MODERN state (bureaucratically efficient, centralized, and impersonal) around 200 BC (?) as it had to recruit people, into the state bureaucracy and military, based on merit and competence and not based on immediate kinship with the rulers.

    In contrast, religion has played a role of providing the basis for a rule of law in India, but its state never had the chance to penetrate local communities/tribes to impose its will, which might explain why it is harder for large scale investment decisions to take effect there unlike in authoritarian China.

    Rule of law in Europe was established as an unintentional by-product of the desire of the Catholic Church to impose its moral dominance throughout Europe, which forced Pope (Gregory?) to impose the rule of celibacy on the priesthood (to isolate them from political struggle, which was driven by the desire to secure power and resources for the children of kings and bishops and priests).

    Institutions of accountability, like independent parliaments, arose in history, specifically in England, almost by a (non-repeatable/non-replicable) accident because the Parliament there as a feudal institution happened to have the strength to defeat the monarchy in a civil war and therefore ensured its survival as an institution.

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