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.
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Fukuyama believes too little time has been spent studying the development of history’s first states in China, India, and Christian Europe. Examining these eras would be useful in that, in some ways, they resemble today’s underdeveloped countries in Africa and the Middle East far more than do developed countries in North America and Western Europe. And yet the rise of the latter receives all the scholarly attention.Skip to next paragraph
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Fukuyama takes China during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty as the first example of successful state-building. The Chinese established a centralized, administrative bureaucracy, an achievement unequalled by Europe for centuries. Fukuyama then compares our knowledge of ancient China with ancient India and pre-revolutionary Europe. The Ottoman Empire, the great Muslim conquests, the rise of Christianity and European predominance are all analyzed for their respective successes and failures. The book’s comparative approach, its fluidity with wide swaths of data across cultures, recalls Tony Judt’s “Postwar” and Eric Hobsbawm’s quartet on modern Europe. Fukuyama does not develop a narrative as exciting as Judt or Hobswam, though, spending great time on minute details in China and India. The trade-off is that “The Origins of Political Order” adds a level of comprehensiveness to its subject, and will almost certainly become the standard work on the history of political development.
Fukuyama’s book ends on the eve of the American and French revolution because, he writes, “the world changed very dramatically after approximately the year 1800, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.” Our view of continually rising living standards and improved technology was simply non-existent before modern Europe developed, he writes.
Fukuyama has a truly remarkable achievement on his hands. In creating a readable history of political development, he has synthesized vast quantities of data that illustrate a marvelous intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, and ability to blend material. If there is anything here to criticize, it is that details are overlooked in favor of categorical judgments about complex periods. But such a flaw is inherent to these sorts of grand historical works, and it is a small price to pay for encountering what is genuinely a masterpiece.