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The Case for the State

Review: Francis Fukuyama's 'Political Order and Political Decay'

Francis Fukuyama / AP
• October 24, 2014 5:00 am

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Francis Fukuyama ought to be locked up and forbidden from writing again, if only for his crimes against the noble profession of book reviewers. This class of scribblers likes to start formulating their thoughts about a book early in the reading process. It’s best if the author lays out their entire argument in the introduction, so that the reviewer can proceed with ever increasing speed through what are, strictly speaking, unnecessary central chapters, before arriving at a conclusion that helpfully reminds them of what they liked or didn’t like during the early bits. Fareed Zakaria books are particularly well suited for this.

The reviewer's knife can be sharpened early. Or, to switch metaphors, frothy soap bubbles of enthusiasm can be prepared for blowing well in advance such that when the book is swiftly finished, the reviewer can bang the copy out and, like respectable journalists, or English professors, arrive at drinks by three-thirty.

Frustratingly, books by Fukuyama are preternaturally designed to resist such an approach. Layers of argument are added one by one, and later layers are generally only lightly foreshadowed earlier in the book, and sometimes not at all. In Chapter 11 of Political Order and Political Decay, the recently published second volume of his magnum opus on the subject of change in human societies, we learn that Fukuyama considers the U.S. Forest Service to have been the paragon of a successful, autonomous government bureaucracy that served the nation while managing to conduct sound strategic planning.

I started sharpening my knife—but to no avail, because in Chapter 31 I ran into this: "It may be surprising to learn, then, that the Forest Service is today regarded by many observers as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools." But it is not just a matter of presenting historical matters according to their timelines. On page 50 Fukuyama writes that the Arab Spring undermined the notion that authoritarianism was destiny for the Middle East, and mentions the 2011 uprisings numerous times early in the book in decidedly positive terms. It is not until page 435 that Fukuyama finally justifies his more or less bullish view of something most people agree was, whatever its initial promise, a geopolitical disaster: He sees the Arab Spring not as a late and stymied manifestation of the global wave of democratization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, but as something more akin to the 1848 uprisings in Europe—which also had little lasting effect in the short term, but set the stage for more important developments later.

The whole experience is very frustrating. It turns out you have to actually read the whole book, which is out of fashion, even among book reviewers. A similar situation transpired in the case of the article-cum-book that made Fukuyama’s name, The End of History and the Last Man. Written in the heady atmosphere of the fall of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama put forward a complicated, qualified, and interesting argument: Hegel’s suggestion that political development ends with something like modern liberal democracy, as further interpreted by Alexandre Kojève, ought to be taken seriously.

This is not how many took the book. Nor is it not clear how many people actually read the book. Widely mocked by an intellectually lazy crowd that assumed he was suggesting that, in some literal sense, human politics—war, strife, one-damned-thing-after-another, etc.—had come to end, Fukuyama came in for even more grief after 9/11 seemed to show that, in the most basic sense of war and peace, history was still very much under way. Of course, what these people mocked was not what Fukuyama was arguing at all—and even many who read the book missed its subtlety and substantial doses of qualification, including the declaration on its final page that, despite recent events, the book’s argument "must remain provisionally inconclusive."

Twenty-some years have passed, and with his latest book—a follow-up to 2011’s The Origins of Political Order—Fukuyama has not changed his dialectical ways, at least stylistically. Substantially, his tone is much less positive about the prospects of liberal democracy in general and its American variety in particular—though he does still profess a "normative preference" for liberal democratic regimes. (Language like this is why political scientists shouldn’t give pep talks.)

The two books are meant to update and expand on Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies. Huntington was one of Fukuyama’s teachers, and in the preface Fukuyama wrote for the reissue of Political Order in Changing Societies in 2006, he said that it "was perhaps the last serious effort to produce a grand theory of political change." Fukuyama’s effort, the second and final volume of which is called Political Order and Political Decay, displays many of the same remarkable qualities as The End of History, including displaying his truly impressive talent for synthesis and nuanced, clear explanation of vast amounts of source material, generally without loss of the logical thread.

Though American conservatives were naturally sympathetic to what they understood to be the argument of The End of History, it is no longer clear which wing of American politics is able to claim Fukuyama for its own. In these two volumes he seems scrupulously, even self-consciously, devoted to presenting matters in ways sure to upset ideologues on both the left and the right.

The left was already off on the wrong foot in his first volume, in which he insisted on beginning his narrative with the latest paleoanthropological research into early humans. Fukuyama’s balanced reading of the evidence reveals some inconvenient facts for present day leftists about matters of both gender (the Earth-mother will be disappointed to learn, for example, that there is little paleontological evidence of early matriarchy) and violence. As Fukuyama puts it, "Hobbes is far closer to the truth" on the violent qualities of the state of nature.

However, according to Fukuyama’s interpretation, both Hobbes and the progenitor of the modern left, Rousseau, are wrong about the state of nature. Man’s life might have been nasty, brutish, and short—but it was never solitary. The consensus of the paleo-anthropologists: Aristotle was closer to the truth when he argued that man is, by nature, a political animal. Instead of cities, which Aristotle took as the basic human organizational unit, the research Fukuyama describes depicts human society as beginning with linked groups of families called bands.

Band society was not utopia. Bloody competitions occurred between and within groups. But neither was it an individualistic war of all against all. Humans, at all times, found value in cooperation, exhibiting a sort of proto-morality that enhanced their capacity for survival. As Fukuyama puts it, early humans "cooperated to compete, and competed to cooperate."

This sort of society was not "tribal," a more sophisticated form of human organization that came later, with the development of ancestor worship. But it already exhibited two foundational principles that, no matter how advanced human society became, have never disappeared: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Human beings favor their families, and trade favors with friends.

Beginning with band societies, Fukuyama provided a broad-strokes history of the march of human organization through ancestor-worshipping tribes through early states, some of which developed the rule of law, and, finally, democratic accountability. It did not escape notice that in his first volume, Fukuyama chose to begin his story of the development of large-scale human political organizations—states—with China.

This China-first narrative strategy seemed, at first look, to be idiosyncrasy for its own sake. But Fukuyama made a strong case for it. The Qin dynasty and its successors had, in his argument, been the first to form an administrative state according to the definition of bureaucracy later be codified by Max Weber. That they did so without any sort of recognizable rule of law, let alone democracy, made it all the more pure of a case for study.

In light of what Fukuyama goes on to argue in Political Order and Political Decay, the reasons for beginning with China become much clearer. An alternative title for his two volume work might easily be The Case for the State. In addition to man’s irrepressible urge to favor his friends and family, the other major cause of political decay is, Fukuyama (following Huntington) argues, an emotional investment in institutions and norms that have outlived their relevance to changing circumstances. In the United States, it appears that our emotional investment in a political order where the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of democratic accountability, and too far from an effective and autonomous bureaucracy like those of northern European social democracies, is at fault.

China’s political development, which saw the early development of a strong state, differs dramatically from that of the West’s, which Fukuyama describes as having witnessed the rule of law develop first, long before effective states. Fukuyama more or less eliminates Greek and Roman history from his account of Western political development. He argues that the Catholic church’s successful rejection of secular authority with the Gregorian reforms, along with its earlier efforts to weaken kinship ties, primarily so it could get access to family wealth, led to both social mobilization and a sense that rulers were not ultimate authorities long before said rulers developed sophisticated states in early modernity.

This is an unusual account. In addition to rejecting classical history, Fukuyama also deemphasizes the importance of a theological role in explaining why Western Europe became the West, noting that the Eastern church had similar doctrine, but nothing resembling the West’s modern liberal democracy developed there.

Volume two picks up with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the end of Malthusian, zero-sum economics. As far as political science is concerned, modernity really does witness the emergence of something new under the sun. The rise of democratic accountability, which began with England’s Glorious Revolution, found itself in dialectical struggle with strong states seeking their own prerogatives. The 19th century saw not only the march of democracy but also of autonomous bureaucracy, nowhere more clearly than with the rule-by-bureaucrats that developed with the Prussian Rechtsstaat, a model of efficiency for which Fukuyama cannot quite dampen his enthusiasm.

In this preference, Fukuyama is not necessarily being inconsistent with his earlier work, including The End of History, despite the enthusiasm American conservatives had for that work. The end of history Fukuyama described in that book came from Hegel, and thus from a tradition of continental philosophy as interpreted by the European bureaucrat and philosopher, Kojève: The struggle for political legitimacy was always mooted to end, according to this trend of thought, with a universal class of state servants who, while in some ways accountable to the people, were largely autonomous and most importantly accountable to their own conception of the good.

In Fukuyama's telling, those participating in and writing about international development go wrong in ignoring the importance of state institutions, and the priority of state institutions over democratic ones. In this, he is largely persuasive. But the problem exists at home, too. For Fukuyama, the source of many of our current political problems is the United States’ allergy to the possibility of such a universal class of bureaucrats—or, to put it more generously, to "good government"—and our emotional attachment to a Madisonian order that precludes an "effective" state. Our political order favors democratic accountability, checks and balances, and individual liberty. At various points in the book, Fukuyama more or less suggests that changing the U.S. Constitution is necessary to forestall the already evident decline in our fortunes.

In a frustrating tic, he habitually dismisses those who would critique his preference for a strong state and question the feasibility of a universal class as a viable or lasting order as "libertarians"—even calling out Ron Paul by name—as though the only people who would offer objections would be those offering radical ones. As he must know, there is a strong Hamiltonian trend in American conservatism that supports energetic though limited government. You would be hard pressed to discern that fact from these pages—which is all the more odd, considering that this trend sometimes appears under the name of "neoconservatism," something with which Fukuyama used to associate himself.

The closer Fukuyama gets to the present day in his discussion, the more the book sounds like something that actually could have been written by Zakaria—also Huntington’s student, as it happens. It is something of a wonder that Fukuyama's two volumes, composed largely of the fluent synthesis of vast reading and extraordinary powers of organization and reasoning, could conclude with arguments that, at times, are so profoundly milquetoast and conventionally "centrist" that one could imagine them being delivered in a TED talk by someone who thinks it’s a shame that a statesman like Jon Huntsman didn’t have serious shot at the presidency.

In his final pages, one reads that income inequality has been a serious problem since the 1980s—citing Thomas Piketty—and that polarization is deadly for the Madisonian system—citing Norman Ornstein. Our political class has been captured by special interests: A congressman doesn't have to be literally corrupt, but can achieve a similar status by attending "a conference in a fancy resort on, say, derivatives regulation," where he will "hear presentations on why the banking industry does not need to be regulated without hearing credible alternative arguments. The politician will be captured in this case not by money…but intellectually, since he or she will have only positive associations with the interest group’s points of view." Indeed—though our untrustworthy congressman might point out that the same could be said of political scientists, too.

For the extensiveness of Fukuyama’s critique of the American system at the present moment (not every element of which, to be fair, is unpersuasive) he does not make it the place of his book to make many concrete proposals for change. Some of those that he does suggest—for example, that as education helped create the middle class, so education holds the key to keeping the middle class economically viable in a globalized and post-industrial economy—are both plausible and somewhat obvious. Others—American constitutional reform—are unlikely in the absence of some tremendous external shock, which he acknowledges. It is strange that the man who made his name suggesting that Hegel might have been right after all has, in effect, acquired a view of politics that is so tragic. 

Published under: Book reviews