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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Jordan Michael Smith is a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor.

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