book-reviews

The Origins of Political Order

by Francis Fukuyama

Rating: ★★★★★

It might sound odd to say that I enjoyed a nigh-500 page book on political theory, but it's true. Fukuyama has managed in this volume to write something which is both sensible and clearly understandable, despite being about the entirety of political history up to the French Revolution. He is punctilious about abandoning the traditional narrative approaches to theory of political development -- Greece and Rome, up through medieval and modern Europe -- to talk about India, the Middle East and, especially, China. It retroactively seems crazy, when presented with a well-documented cultural legacy of centralised states dating back thousands of years, to dismiss this area to a side-note of political theory. Fukuyama approaches political history as a topic which must be understood through and about "China First", and this is a very welcome perspective shift.

Some parts of Fukuyama's thesis confuse me a bit. When he talks about 'political order' he seems for the most part to refer to the modern state: an institution he marks by the strong institution of the administrative arm, the rule of law, and political accountability. He goes on to derive how this state is formed, pointing out historical examples of states which developed one or the other of these qualities, and how this happened. But he never makes a strong case for why the modern state is particularly desirable. To be sure, he points out that certain forms of statehood are better at using their resources than others, and that the pseudo-evolutionary laws that govern a state's survival suggest maximisation, but he does not argue that the modern state is in any way the ideal institution. Which is fine, but it makes me question why we focus so much on the creation of such states, and not on the sometimes extraordinarily stable and long-lived examples of less-than-modern states. I found it particularly jarring when Fukuyama casually passed over the history of the Polish Commonwealth as an example of a weak monarchy which collapsed 'after two centuries', a lifespan as long as many modern states.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the normative from the descriptive. Does Fukuyama think that accountability is necessary for a strong state? Much of his discussion of China seems to indicate this is not the case, and yet it remains in his model. Does he model something he finds desirable, or something evidently necessary? It is also hard to make sense of some of the fine distinctions he draws between examples. In the case of France and Spain, Fukuyama describes a 'weakly autocratic' state, in which the monarch amasses power but essentially sells off portions of the nation to the elite to enable this, foisting the burden of the national upkeep on the other classes, most notably the peasantry and third estate. In the 'strongly autocratic' example of Russia, the monarch sides with the elite, foisting national upkeep on a serf class. In the 'strong elite' example of Hungary, the monarchy is unable to stop the aristocracy from preying on the other classes. All these sound like basically the same thing, but Fukuyama uses the first to explain a lack of accountability, the second to explain a lack of law, and the third to explain the lack of a strong central institution of the state. I find that, rather than being necessarily a predictive model, Fukuyama's discussion is a set of useful tools for thinking about the distribution of power within a society.

This book is engaging, and exciting. Very few authors would dare to tackle history on this scale, and fewer would manage to write something so clear, readable and fundamentally practical. The covered period is the one I am most interested in, but Fukuyama tempts me to read the second volume, to be sure of completing one of the great modern achievements in political thought, as this will no doubt be acclaimed.