Review of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order

I took all summer and and fall, after I started in the spring, to finish Francis Fukuyama’s big book, The Origins of Political Order. I recommend it and found it hard to put down, but obviously did, often, and racked up quite a bit in library fines in doing so. Truly, it is well written and clear in presentation. I’ve debated how to write about the contents but will make this declaration up front:

The main point in Fukuyama’s book is that those in a society who occupy the top ranks are driven by biology to favor their relatives (called “patrimonialism” by Fukuyama)) and that a major part of how they increase their wealth and welfare is by exempting themselves and theirs from taxation. They do this by using their power to forge policy and law exempting them and theirs, thus shifting the burden of funding the government onto those less powerful plus weakening the government via loss of tax income so that the elites become even more powerful. Eventually, the society fails and revolution or some other change overtakes the entire society.

What I took away from this is the picture of the 1% doing exactly this, gradually depriving the middle class of resources, setting groups in society against one another, and using fear of loss of power, wealth, and status to foment disunity which the elites take advantage of to augment their own power base.

To back this take up, I will write up what I think are critical portions and pronouncements in the book. You will have to read the book yourself, of course, and decide for yourself.

Fukuyama starts off by setting the scene, so to speak, taking us back to society in its basic state. That’s my meat and potatoes because I was an anthropology major and I noted a number of citations and bibliographic entries I was familiar with. He denounces the traditional philosophers’ armchair anthropologizing and gives a well-grounded picture of early society. He then goes on to discuss at length how complex societies arose and formed states, and how they differ from each other. He treats China in detail, noting its very early development of complex governmental solutions to problems and the continuation into modern times of the patrimonial aspect of clans aka extended family.

Fukuyama contends that societies fail when the natural desire to promote one’s kin erases the possibility of the best governing personnel and some threat such as invasion or ecological disaster reveals the society’s weakness and it collapses. He traces many such failures in Chinese society and treats several other societies in convincing detail. He distinguishes between Spain and France, between France and England, between Western Europe and Eastern Europe and between Russia and Hungary.

 Quotes [not always exact] from Fukuyama that hit me hard:

Things happening hundreds, even thousands of years ago, can affect a current situation.

(this means a lot to me since the conservative argument against correcting, for example, the situation where Blacks couldn’t get mortgages in the years before and after WW II and so could not build wealth the way Whites could, is that “that was a long time ago” – and yet my wife had no resources to go to college b/c her dad didn’t have a mortgage and at the time [early 60s] I didn’t understand why)

Tyranny can be small-scale as well as of state dimensions.

(recall coal-company towns or, my bete noire, Col. Culpepper living on the hill and dominating the small Southern town)

Imagine U.S. society if the Southern slave states had dominated our country. Fukuyama is quite direct in indicating much of the deleterious effects of governmental and social relations of other societies to our own. This is refreshing, considering the blather we hear about how bad things are in other countries from people who ignore inconvenient truths about our own. The most egregious are the pronouncements of how terrorist organizations, particularly Islamic ones, are the outgrowth of evil ideologies and religions, with no recognition of how the KKK dominated regions of this country for years by terrorism backed by religious fervor. Since the victims were usually Black, many in our country still feel the Klan can be treated as a joke or ancient and irrelevant history.

If anything reveals the vacuity at the center of right wing thought in this country, it is the refusal to recognize the fact that less powerful groups have looked to the federal government for decades to gain access to education, health care, police protection, and other services denied them or weakened by local government. When the state governor is a member of the Klan, there is not much point in appealing to him for protection from the Klan.

While all due reverence is paid to MLK, we still hear snide remarks about the holiday in his honor. At the height of his public role, the pillars of the community (White) were raging about his disrespect for law and order (White). Was there awareness that this cry went back to slavery times? Any measure was not too extreme if it kept order, meaning kept Blacks from any prominent role in the society other than as laborers and maids. Now that the Republicans are trying to take the White House for another try at governing, we hear similar though disguised calls to keep Blacks out of the picture. Santorum’s plea for jobs for Blacks so they won’t have to take other people’s (White) money and Gingrich’s desire to exchange food stamps for people (Black) for jobs. It is all couched in the cloak of compassionate conservatism: we have to save our Black folk from a federal government who buys their votes by giving them bread (food stamps) and circuses (cable TV) while allowing them access to women (White).

OK, back to Fukuyama. He shows again and again how the state often is the protector of the non-elites; if the state is weakened, the predatory instincts of powerful people take over and you get sheer exploitation since there is no force for the unity of the society. Each elite person is the center of his own universe and subjugates everyone under him, even his own family even as he favors them. But the state serves all the people, perhaps not equally but with an eye to keeping the society from disintegrating. The elite person is uninterested in anything but augmenting his own power at the expense of others, a Libertarian, in other words. What constitutes a modern political system is a strong state, rule of law, and accountability. To sustain technological advances in such a society we need the scientific method, universities, human capital, research laboratories, a cultural milieu that encourages risk and experimentation, and so on (p. 249). Weakness of such societies come principally from the gridlock which inhibits making difficult decisions that could ensure their political and economic survival. (p. 482).

OK, back to my rant against Republicans. What those who despise MLK don’t understand is that as Blacks began straining against their bonds, the normal path to asserting one’s own power is violence. State sanctioned violence allows society to contain out-of-control forces but non-state violence wreaks havoc. In order to repress Black violence the state would have to become repressive, and repression doesn’t stop at the borders of societal blocks and institutions; it pervades everything. What MLK did was preserve order in American society, but the stupid right doesn’t get this. They just figured they could shoot Blacks down in the street and everything would be OK. As Trent Lot said at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party. Truly stupid.

OK, back to Fukuyama. On page 358 he remarks that colonial government in Latin America was structured as if the political institutions of the U.S. had been built around only the Southern states in which black slavery had been well established. My question is how much of that survived the Civil War and directs a good deal of our politics today. If, as he says on p. 78, that complex kinship structures remain primary among many peoples today and strongly shape their interaction with modern political institutions, how much more so for slavery-based institutions from 150 years ago. The Civil Rights battle was won only when the federal government enforced the Constitution against the Southern states (p. 384).

Following that, on page 385, Fukuyama quotes Hamilton saying that states in a federal system can keep their independence only if they treat their citizens well. “A powerful central government is neither intrinsically good nor bad; its ultimate effect on freedom depends on the complex interplay between it and the subordinate political authorities. This is a truth that played out in the history of the U.S. much as it did in Hungarian and Polish history. Compare Russia, with its strong state and strong oligarchy crushing the masses.

The penchant for harking back to ancient Greece and Rome is questionable in light of the way classical republicanism better describes those societies than does democracy due to the limited franchise. Greece did introduce citizenship based on political criteria rather than kinship, and that was a crucial step. Many societies haven’t reached that stage yet. These states, including the classical world’s, are not liberal so much as communitarian, not respecting autonomy of individuals nor privacy. The fatal flaw was that they did not scale well, meaning they could not be expanded while maintaining the structure.

I leaped for joy when Fukuyama warned us not to underestimate the importance of sex and access to women as a driver of political organization (p 76). For a long time, I have said that old men need the labor and fighting power of young men and know that the way to control young men is to control access to young women. The path to a man’s heart is through his penis, at least a young man’s heart.

The path to a liberal society is strong institutions. Autonomy of the courts permits them to restrain the ruler. The courts require the ability to train, hire, promote, and discipline the members of its profession. Huntington’s criteria for developing such institutions are: adaptability vs rigidity, complexity vs simplicity, autonomy vs subordination, and coherence vs disunity. Put Newt Gingrich’s declaration that judges should be brought before Congress to answer for unpopular rulings. A dysfunctional equilibrium can be reached in a society when the advantages of some groups over others produce decay. Existing stake holders resist change that might upset the equilibrium no matter the consequence of failing to make those changes. Fukuyama cites a scholar who states that the English barons at Runnymede expected their rights to be protected through a national king’s courts and thus saw themselves as representing a larger community, not exempting themselves from general rules. The foundation of such thinking in European as well as Indian and Arab and Turkish rulers is that they saw themselves as below the law due to the world view laid out by their respective religions (Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam). China serves as the counter example.

To bring this around to our current economic problems in the U.S., Fukuyama states that in a Malthusian economy, the actual distribution of wealth is more likely to represent chance starting conditions or the property holders’ access to political power than productivity or hard work. (Even in today’s mobile, entrepreneurial, capitalist economy, rigid defenders of property rights often forget that the existing distribution of wealth doesn’t always reflect the superior virtue of the wealthy and that markets aren’t always efficient) (p. 142). A liberal society requires a strong, unified state able to enforce its laws on its own territory, a society that is strong and cohesive and able to impose accountability on the state.

From these observations of Fukuyama’s, we can see that both the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives in this country can point to problems that must be addressed. Keeping in mind the BASICS Fukuyama discusses, those who are not blinded by religion and ideology might reach a solution.

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