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How do we get to Denmark?

Francis Fukuyama is rare amongst scholars in being unafraid to ask large questions.

21 May 2011

12:00 AM

21 May 2011

12:00 AM

The Origins of Political Order Francis Fukuyama

Profile Books, pp.558, 25

Francis Fukuyama is rare amongst scholars in being unafraid to ask large questions. He first achieved fame, if not notoriety, by his thesis that, with the collapse of communism, we had reached the ‘end of history’. The rise of terrorism and the return of authoritarianism in parts of the Soviet empire led to this thesis being caricatured as implying the end of all political conflict. What Fukuyama meant, however, was that, for the first time, there were no longer ideological challenges to the dominance of liberal democracy. He reasserts this conclusion in The Origins of Political Order: ‘Liberal democracy as the default form of government has become part of the accepted political landscape at the beginning of the 21st century.’

The Origins of Political Order is concerned, however, not with the end of history but with its beginnings. It asks how human societies came to advance from tribalism to develop modern political institutions, including a well-functioning state and the rule of law. We take our political institutions for granted but suffer from ‘historical amnesia’. We have no idea how they arose. ‘How do we get to Denmark?’, asks Fukuyama, and answers, ‘Even Danes don’t know.’ Some developing countries have, of course, been unable to achieve modern institutions, and Fukuyama hopes that this book, the first of two volumes, may act as a kind of handbook for democratisers. This first volume analyses the development of institutions until the French and industrial revolutions.

Even a cursory glance at the continents of the world is sufficient to show that nations develop institutions at different rates. Democracy and the rule of law took root in Scandinavia, but not in Russia, despite similar climatic and geographical conditions. Most cases of successful authoritarian modernisation are in east Asia — South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and, of course, China — rather than in Africa or the Middle East. Afghanistan, parts of India, Melanesia and the Middle East remain tribally organised. Why did states emerge early in some parts of the world but not in others? Any theory of development has to answer this question and to explain differences in the pace of development in different societies. The different pace is, Fukuyama insists, sufficient to dispose of any general theory of development such as is put forward by Marx or Weber.


Fukuyama finds the explanation in history. ‘The actual historical roots of different institutions often seem to be the products of a long concatenation of historical accidents that one could never have predicted in advance.’ Intellectuals helped create a national culture in China, and it developed the modern bureaucratic state with a mandarin class, admission to which was based on ability. But there was no commercial bourgeoisie or market economy, and so a strong state came to coexist with a weak society. China lacked two fundamental features of political modernity: the rule of law and accountable government. Its great legacy, therefore, ‘is high-quality authoritarian government’, and it is no accident that most of the world’s successful authoritarian states share a common Chinese cultural heritage. It is interesting to speculate on whether China can achieve long-term economic success as an authoritarian state. Fukuyama thinks it can. I am more sceptical.

It was in Europe that the rule of law and accountable government first took root. European political development was exceptional ‘insofar as European societies made an early exit from tribal-level organisation, and did so without the benefit of top-down political power’. Social and economic modernisation preceded the establishment of the modern state. Societies based on individualism ensured that there was resistance to the pretensions of the state. ‘European society was individualistic at a very early point, in the sense that individuals and not their families or kin groups could make important decisions about marriage, property and other personal issues.’ States, according to Fukuyama, ‘were formed on top of societies in which individuals already enjoyed substantial freedom from social obligations to kindreds. In Europe, social development preceded political development’.

By the end of the 18th century, the components of modern political order had been established in much of Europe. ‘Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones.’ Communism and fascism, which both aspired to replace liberal democracy with their own conception of political order, flourished for part of the 20th century but, mercifully, had disappeared by its end. In Europe, at least, liberal democracy most definitely remains the default option.

Fukuyama does not explain why it was that authoritarian habits emerged in the 20th century in some European countries but not in others. Part of the reason, he believes, lies in the balance of power between the state and ‘an equally well-organised society that could defend its interests’. But for a more detailed answer we must consider the trajectory of development since the French revolution, which Fukuyama intends in his second volume to chart.

The Origins of Political Order is a magisterial work by an influential scholar, drawing on massive research in the social sciences as well as history and evolutionary biology. It provides a powerful and provocative analysis of the origins of the modern state, of relevance not only to historians and political scientists, but to anyone wishing to understand the nature of democratisation in the modern world and how it is to be achieved.


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