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The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of the development of the modern state is a masterwork.

By Jordan Michael Smith / April 19, 2011

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution By Francis Fukuyama Farrar, Straus and Giroux 608 pp.

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Francis Fukuyama became famous for his essay “The End of History,” published in the journal The National Interest in 1989. Along with the expanded book-version, the essay remains exciting and challenging more than two decades after it was first written. But “The End of History” has overshadowed everything he has published since, which is unfortunate because Fukuyama has quietly amassed a portfolio of writing that ranks him as among America’s best public intellectuals.

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Reading his tremendous new book The Origins of Political Order is a reminder of how poorly Fukuyama ever wore the neo-conservative label. True, he worked in the Reagan administration and ran with the Bill Kristol/Commentary crowd. But he was always far more intellectually serious and empirical than most other neo-cons. When Fukuyama opposed the Iraq War and wrote “America at the Crossroads,” a 2006 book lamenting the demise of neo-conservatism, it was as much a result of latent political differences as it was of philosophical shifting. Retrospectively, at least, it would have been more precise to see Fukuyama as in the mold of Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the first generation of neo-cons who were never conned into becoming Republican ideologues.

“The Origins of Political Order” is a sequel of sorts to the late Samuel Huntington’s classic “Political Order in Changing Societies.” Fukuyama’s update of Huntington’s work examines what current scholarship understands about the evolution of states. Beginning with hunter-gatherers, the book ranges across an astonishing array of knowledge to look at the development of countries, up to the French Revolution. (A second volume is intended to pick up where “The Origins of Political Order” leaves off). Evolutionary biology, sociology, political philosophy, anthropology – all these disciplines are mined for insights into what is among the most difficult problems in international politics: the question of how to establish modern, functioning states.

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Fukuyama deliberately avoids establishing a concrete thesis, convinced as he is that traditional theories of development have been flawed precisely because they seek to establish definitive conclusions where none exist. There are real limits to our knowledge of state-building, and it is best to sidestep ultimate statements or theories. What Fukuyama does contend is that “there are many potential paths to modernization possible today,” as opposed to the arguments that development follows a specific sequence, such as stable middle classes preceding democracy, for instance.

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