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

  • By Francis Fukuyama
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 555 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jon Sallet
  • May 18, 2011

A sweeping, cross-disciplinary analysis of what makes a state succeed — or fail.

We can all recite the story of civilization. One minute we were hunter-gatherers, picking berries, chasing animals and painting the occasional cave. A moment later, thousands of us were building the Pharaohs’ pyramids. And a second after that, we were listening to Marc Antony deliver a funeral oration in Rome.

Francis Fukuyama, now a senior fellow at Stanford and well known as the author of The End of History and The Last Man (Free Press, 2006), is out to challenge that view — as well as the Anglo-centric perspective of the rise of democracy running from Athens directly to John Locke. Fukuyama does so in captivating fashion by describing the first modern state as … China, in 221 B.C.

In this first of two planned volumes, Fukuyama’s purpose is to describe the rise of political order. Spanning academic disciplines, he focuses on three attributes of political order: the creation of the state, the rule of law and political accountability. Using the stuff of human history from the time of nomadic tribes through the American and French Revolutions, he asks, simply: What happened, why did it happen, and what does it teach us about the future?

The Origins of Political Order presents a cross-disciplinary study of political development — not as it occurs today in so-called “developing” nations but from the origins of human civilization. Thus, looking back to prehuman social behavior, the book begins with a description of society before the creation of the state. Then Fukuyama tells the historical tale of each of the three ingredients of political order on which he focuses: state building, the rule of law and accountable government. The analysis ends with the “outline of a theory of political development and political decay” that includes the biological basis of social organization, the role of ideas, the evolutionary mechanism of political development and the institutional bases of modern states.

As noted above, it is China — not ancient Greece or the Roman Empire — that provides the core narrative for the early stages of Fukuyama’s analysis. From 2000 B.C. to 221 B.C., with the emergence of the Qin Dynasty, China moved from 10,000 kingdoms into one state. But it’s not just these numbers that tell the story. Rather, Fukuyama emphasizes the change from what he calls “patrimonalism” to a true state, symbolized by the shift from political power bestowed by kinship to government staffed through merit selection.

These are not the only attributes of a state — stable geographic coherence and a monopoly on the use of violent force are also critical — but these attributes support a key theme, to which Fukuyama returns. The shift from patrimonalism to modern statehood is not an arrow: It’s a pendulum, quite capable of reversing direction.

Here’s a question that illustrates that point: What is the relationship between the origin of celibacy in the Catholic Church, the use of slaves to staff the Ottoman Empire and the creation of bureaucracy in ancient China? All, Fukuyama tells us, were deliberate strategies by political institutions to ensure political power would not be grasped by an aristocracy that would, in turn, attempt to pass along the fruits of political power, most notably governmental offices, to their children. And when China turned back toward kinship-based administration in the first millennium A.D., it was because such strategies had failed.

Fukuyama next discusses the rule of law. To be a “state” is not necessarily to have a rule of law. Fukuyama points again to the history of China, which he depicts as lacking a “true rule of law” (but implementing what he describes as “good enough” property rights). And to have a rule of law does not necessarily produce a state. Consider Islamic law, derived from religious observance but preceding the formation of any Moslem state. The advantage of a rule of law is, of course, that it constitutes an important basis for political equality by enabling rules designed to be applied uniformly to all (even when practice falls short of principle).

Finally, Fukuyama discusses political accountability, which he is careful not to conflate with pure democracy. (After all, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were explicit in their desire to create a republic that would, in their view, avoid the excesses of pure democracy.) Here, Fukuyama moves to Europe at the dawn of the modern age and draws, in essence, the following grid, which I suggest provides a short overview of this portion of Fukuyama’s careful analysis:

State Building Absolutism Accountability
Strong Russia United Kingdom
Weak France, Spain Hungary

That was a world in which absolutism reigned in Russia, France and Spain. But in the Western European monarchies, the residual power of entrenched nobility and office-holders limited the power of the monarch. Also in that world, the United Kingdom and Hungary both created constitutional systems, but Hungary’s was undermined by its squabbling, self-interested barons.

With this, Fukuyama brings us to the dawn of the Industrial Age (leaving to his future second volume the narrative of political development in the last two centuries).

Of course, Fukuyama’s analysis is both richer and broader than these descriptions show. His analysis ranges over other regions, including India and Latin America, while drilling down on the shifting importance of religion, civic society and political legitimacy. But even this review’s brief summary is enough to allow us to consider 1) how Fukuyama’s analysis correlates to present political ideologies; 2) the extent to which his analysis fully explains the success or failure of political order; and 3) the implications of his political analysis for today’s global political challenges.

First, Fukuyama works to point out shortfalls in the ideologies of both the left and the right. Thus, he argues that peaceful means of social organization, chiefly the construction of irrigation systems in places like Sumer and Egypt, were not the basis for state-formation: War was.

At the same time, Fukuyama takes direct aim on rational-actor theory, which he sees as reducing human action to simple economic desires. Take care, he warns, not to believe that the time before modern property rights was a time without property. He gives the examples of tribal ownership of land and family ownership of land, both systems that firmly established ownership, even while limiting transferability and short-term economic maximization. That is especially true, he adds, before the Industrial Revolution put developed societies on a conveyer belt of increasing productivity.

Second, Fukuyama has bitten off a great big swath of human history and the social sciences. Distilling that to an accessible description necessarily requires simplification. But, as he approaches the forthcoming second volume, he should consider how the explanatory variables he identifies are consistently applied.

Consider the chart above. In his discussion of absolutism in Russia, Fukuyama mentions geography — the open space of the steppes free of impassable rivers and mountains. However, in explaining the difference between the success of constitutionalism in the United Kingdom and its failure in Hungary, a nation that was unable to fend off invasions from the east, Fukuyama does not emphasize potential geographic explanations.

That omission is at least susceptible to questioning. Hungary’s political culture in the 13th and 14th centuries may have been weak, but the state was also located near the doorstep of Europe, in a place easily reached by armies marching from Asia and the Middle East. In contrast, the United Kingdom from the time of the execution of Charles I through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 suffered political turmoil and was even threatened by the arrival of Dutch warships in the Thames, but it was not subject to a concerted land invasion. Did geography give the United Kingdom the breathing space it needed to find a successful path to a constitutional monarchy?

Third, Fukuyama does not shirk in applying his initial analysis to current political dynamics (to be completed in the second volume). For example, he returns again and again to manifestations of the collective-action problem, summed up in the classic prisoners’ dilemma in which two prisoners can win by working together, but each can avoid the worst outcome by being the first to cooperate with the police. So too, political elites choose between common purpose on the one hand and narrow advantage through “rent-seeking” behavior on the other.

Does the United States have a collective-action problem? Are our political elites (even those who eschew the term “elite”) settling for second-best, not-to-lose outcomes that offer short-term political advantage rather than the optimal advantage for the nation? To ask this in another way, are we willing to invest in each other’s success, seeking shared national advantage? One hopes that Fukuyama’s second volume will explore these questions.

Indeed, these questions are highlighted by Fukuyama’s description of a dynamic process, not a static conclusion. Political order, he advises, can be followed by political decay.

Fukuyama’s genuine accomplishment is to range broadly through history and intellectual disciplines to narrow his audience’s attention onto those attributes of a state that make it a success and onto those forces that work to defeat its creation or undermine the state, even once achieved. The work of political development, in other words, is not reserved for “developing” nations. Let’s hope that Fukuyama’s forthcoming second volume, surveying the past two centuries, will propose a theory of durable political success that can be acted upon by developing and developed nations alike — achieving success and avoiding decay.

Jon Sallet is a partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, L.L.P. He served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and worked in the Clinton administration as director of policy and planning at the Department of Commerce.

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