The Evolution of Political Order

Issue Date October 2015
Volume 26
Issue 4
Page Numbers 169-175
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Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 658 pp.

Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, the sequel to his 2011 work The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, brings the story told in the earlier volume up to the present day. The treatment of the past two centuries takes over six-hundred pages, more than its predecessor had employed in recounting the prior 200,000 years of human history. The new volume nonetheless covers an enormous amount of ground. It contains a remarkably diverse collection of case studies focused on particular countries or continents, along with other chapters that deal with broad thematic issues.

The book is divided into four sections: The first (“The State”) looks at political development in Prussia, Greece, Italy, Britain, and the United States. A second section examines “the effort to transplant modern political institutions from one part of the world to another” (p. 213), with particular attention to Africa, Latin America, and East Asia. The third part deals more specifically with the spread of democracy in the world since the nineteenth century, and a fourth and concluding section on “Political Decay” analyzes the increasing dysfunctionality of political institutions in the United States.

Initially, the logic behind Fukuyama’s unusual selection of so many cases is difficult to discern, but as the reader advances, the design becomes more intelligible and the true intellectual ambition of the author becomes [End Page 169] clearer. As the concluding chapter suggests, he views Political Order and Political Decay as a kind of analogue to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. (Fukuyama’s book therefore goes even beyond its professed ambition, stated in the preface to the first volume, of updating Samuel P. Huntington’s masterly 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies.) Fukuyama tries to provide no less than an account of the evolution of political orders by means of natural selection. Darwin’s design in the biological realm was exactly this—to offer a theory, confirmed by a wealth of evidence from his examination of both living and extinct animals, that could explain how species had evolved or disappeared (without divine intervention) through adaptation to their environment.

About the Author

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is professor of democratization and policy analysis at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Her latest book, The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

View all work by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

The challenge for the social sciences, however, is that they do not have an equivalent to the hierarchical classification system of species, invented by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) in the eighteenth century, which guided Darwin and is still in use today. There is no agreed-upon scale of modernity, and we find only a very imperfect consistency between progress in economic development, good governance, freedom, and human happiness. Authoritarian China seems to have better mass educational attainment than pluralistic India, and some of the most equal and developed countries in the world have the highest suicide rates. We also fail to keep a good count of extinct species in the way that biologists do. Norman Davies’s 2011 book Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations offers only a small selection. Even for Europe alone, one could add dozens of vanished city-states, including some that were highly successful for a time but could not endure. The kind of evidence that we can summon in social science tends to be insufficient to prove our more ambitious theories.

It is fortunate, however, that such obstacles do not deter authors like Francis Fukuyama; otherwise, remarkable books such as this one would never get written. Fukuyama sets out to explain the evolution of political order on the basis of three “institutions”: the state, the rule of law, and mechanisms of accountability. These may perhaps be better understood as three equilibria that a society strives to reach: The first entails the central control of violence by the state. The second requires the establishment of an objective law by which rulers are effectively bound and that they cannot change arbitrarily to suit their purposes. The third, democratic accountability, is close to what Seymour Martin Lipset described in his account of political modernization as inclusion: the development of modern universal citizenship through which all groups, not just elites, gain a voice in decision making and control. For all three to be sustainable, Fukuyama argues, economic development is indispensable.

Fukuyama departs from the usual normative approach to democracy and substitutes for it a political realism that is truly welcome after the near disaster of the Arab Spring uprisings. His excellent chapter on Nigeria is [End Page 170] a good case in point. “The presence or absence of formal democracy,” he writes, “has made very little difference either to Nigeria’s rate of economic growth or the quality of government” (p. 223). If social mobilization leads to demands for democracy before the second equilibrium, the rule of law, is established, what will follow is not a successful modern democratic state. Except for the still hopeful case of Tunisia, elections were unable to solve the problems that motivated rebellions in the Arab countries: In the absence of a level of social organization that could meaningfully channel interests into modern political parties and governments, these elections resulted merely in a consolidation of sectarian divisions.

Fukuyama also espouses a blunt and welcome biological realism, which has been absent for far too long from political science (though always present in social psychology and economics). Abandoning the normative ideal of ethnically neutral citizenship and other multicultural fictions, he urges that we should understand human nature as selfish, sectarian, partial, and corruptible—but without giving up on taming it. This is his most effective response to critics of his “end of history” prediction. In fact, he warned of an end of ideology, as no alternative was left that could rival democracy and market capitalism. But he never claimed, he says, that conflict would disappear, given the biological basis of human nature. Following Ernest Gellner, he sees Islamic fundamentalism as a pathology of nationalism (as fascism had been), and attributes the failure of many states in sub-Saharan Africa to their tribal nature preceding colonialism. “Weakness of national identity in sub-Saharan Africa is thus far more a matter of omission rather than commission” (p. 393), he writes, contending (as he also does in his case study on Prussia) that national identity is actually an indispensable prerequisite of a modern state.

Fukuyama also believes in policy realism. He has given up on the international community’s dream of molding every country into a Denmark or Switzerland, and warns us to “be wary of foreigners bearing gifts of institutions” (p. 320). The alternative policy that he cites as having been available for dealing with post-invasion Afghanistan is scary, but offers an excellent lesson in policy realism: Rounding up local power holders and striking deals with and among them would probably have resulted in a far more stable order than the attempt to endow Afghans with elections, Western-style courts, and other democratic devices lacking true substance and therefore unable to deliver. His 2004 book State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century had already offered a highly useful framework for the analysis of failed attempts to build modern states. The more pessimistic approach that he takes in his new work, however, seems to me to slight such successful state-building cases as the Baltic states.

Moreover, Fukuyama adheres to sociological realism, arguing that societies should be understood in their own terms. Some of the best pages in this rich book explore the different roles that elites have played (or [End Page 171] failed to play). Drawing upon Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), Fukuyama makes a compelling argument that England’s successful modernization path went through three stages: Economic development produced societal development, which in turn led to political development. The belief in the positive role of the middle class has always been the mantra of modernization theory, but Fukuyama’s worries about its impending erosion are probably well-founded.

Finally, Fukuyama espouses development realism, denouncing the fallacies of teleological theories of transitology. Not all development paths successfully lead to stable and prosperous states or necessarily result in happy endings. Liberal democracy, he writes “cannot be said to be humanly universal, since such regimes have existed for only the last two centuries in the history of a species that goes back tens of thousands of years” (p. 37). There is no end of history because there is no end to human nature. So decay, no less than progress, is also a perennial feature of human history, but it is especially threatening in a world where the demands placed upon states exceed their capacity. A very impressive example that he offers is the case of the U.S. Forest Service: Once an exemplar of the American state’s capacity to solve collective problems, it is now plagued by the very problems it had initially set out to resolve.

Despite the many virtues of his new book, however, there are a number of key questions that Fukuyama either leaves unanswered or answers in an inconsistent way.

First, his stance toward institutionalism is confusingly ambiguous; he uses some parts of its conceptual framework, but rejects other parts of it. He seems not to accept the crucial distinction that Douglass North makes between institutions as the rules of the game (both formal and informal) and organizations as the players, groups of individuals engaged in purposive activity. Yet viewing the state as an organization (even if one grown monstrously out of proportion) and not as an institution has some advantages, which might strengthen other parts of Fukuyama’s argument. For instance, it makes it easier to explain why similar state structures result in such different levels of performance across various institutional contexts. (An institutional context cuts across both state and society, which reciprocally shape each other.) In addition, given Fukuyama’s contention that patrimonialism is inherent in human nature, it makes sense to think that every organization starts out as being patrimonial; the autonomy of the state from private interests grows as the “owners” of the organization expand to include all the citizens of a state. Therefore, the society must develop sufficient controls to prevent any particular person or group from using the organization (the state) for private advantage by means of patronage, clientelism, or other institutions.

Second, Fukuyama argues for the primacy of state capacity over other dimensions of governance, but his view is not backed up by sufficient empirical evidence. The World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance [End Page 172] Indicators measure independently six different dimensions of governance—voice and accountability; political stability and absence of violence; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; rule of law; and control of corruption. Why, if governance is as weak a concept as Fukuyama believes it to be, do these all correlate so strongly (at around ninety percent)? Because rulers who are above the law manipulate regulatory quality to ensure their monopoly of power, and they use administrative discretion in order to target benefits. In contrast, rulers constrained by their societies enact more universalistic laws, govern more transparently and in the interest of a wider public, and therefore manage to allocate resources in a more satisfactory way.

What if “governance” or “institutional quality” is actually the underlying phenomenon (or “latent variable”) beneath all these different indicators? Only political stability diverges a bit from the others, due to the obvious reason that exogenous factors can affect political stability more than they do rule of law or regulatory quality. One cannot find a single country in the world today in which social allocation is particularistic and corruption is the norm but in which state capacity is high. Economic growth can coexist with a certain degree of corruption, but never with systematic corruption, corruption as a governance order. An old joke explains the difference between Asian and African corruption by comparing the size of their respective kickbacks—at 20 percent in Asia, there will be undue profits for some private individuals and extra costs, but a highway gets built; at one hundred percent in Africa, the highway will never get built.

What if a full range of state capacity is precisely the result of high-quality governance? Some governments do not aim at social welfare, understood in a universalistic way as allocation to the largest possible number of taxpayers; instead, they target the distribution of spoils (rents) to ensure private benefits and to avoid accountability to society as a whole. Fukuyama contends that creating an autonomous bureaucracy is the key to success, but it is unclear how this can be achieved in a country that already holds elections and in which parties compete for public spoils by politicizing the government in turn. By my estimation, however, this is the most common situation in the world today, found in 86 countries (those that Freedom House rates as Free or Partly Free, but where corruption is the main governance norm according to the World Bank’s Control of Corruption scale). There is no autonomous bureaucracy in these countries, only total collusion between elected and appointed officials in support of preferential social allocation.

In my own work on corruption, I argue that state capacity to deliver services is a consequence of institutional quality. This can be shown by measuring particularism of outcomes rather than of procedures (for instance, what share of education funds go to a locality whose head does not belong to the same tribe or party as the minister of education, or what [End Page 173] share of public works contracts go to firms with political connections). But if this is the case, it is quite impossible to improve state capacity except by changing the rules of the game with respect to governance. And that is a political, not a capacity-building, endeavor. This is why the World Bank cannot point to any country in the world where civil-service training was able to achieve significant improvements in state capacity in the absence of political reform. Fukuyama acknowledges that in Europe bureaucratic autonomy, helped along by autocratic monarchs to serve their own needs, came before universal elections. In the United States, where universal elections came first, achieving state autonomy was much harder. In fact, a successful example of this sequence other than the United States is difficult to find.

Important works by Dani Rodrik, by Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast, and by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue for the primacy of institutions for economic development. Of course, partial exceptions exist in Singapore and in the slave economies of the Arabian Peninsula. But most states in the contemporary world that have outperformed their regional neighbors—Uruguay, Chile, Estonia, Botswana—experienced political reform before economic prosperity, not the other way around.

Fukuyama is nevertheless right in contending that historically there have been many paths to successful modernization in Europe, with the virtuous circle opened in some cases by social mobilization, and in other cases by economic development. The paths become even more divergent and the sequences harder to follow if we add in the hard-to-grasp concept that he labels “modernization without development.” Again, a Linnaean modernity scale would be useful here, as this seems to refer to countries that experienced some sort of “failed evolution”—they have not become extinct, but deviate from some benchmark. This is a fair presumption, since Fukuyama clearly states that “development is a coherent process that produces general as well as specific evolution—that is, the convergence of institutions across culturally disparate societies over time” (p. 38, italics mine).

This is the aspect of the book that has attracted the most criticism, as here (and not only here) Fukuyama’s earlier beliefs in convergence, evolution, and universal laws of development resurface, displacing the more neutral “growth and decay” framework with a vengeance. He does not consider, for example, whether a belief in convergence on the part of earlier modernizers like Peter the Great may have been responsible for the pathological modernity of Russia today. After all, top-down modernization may only increase the distance between formal and informal institutions, with negative consequences for rule of law, state capacity, and legitimacy. Huntington, in Political Order in Changing Societies, had already intimated that this was a possible development for the “Third World,” and he was proven right in many cases. [End Page 174]

Finally, if so many different paths exist and predictions are so difficult to make, is it still possible to have a theory of changes in political order? Or are we led back to the old warnings of Robert Nisbet (in his 1969 book Social Change and History) that social change is not inevitable (low-quality equilibria can last for a very long time), and that no grand theory can offer a solid intellectual alternative to history and its many contingencies for explaining why change occurred? Fukuyama is a great narrator of separate histories, but what is the grand theoretical story that he tells? He clearly hopes that “progress” can be made by all peoples, regardless of the diverse sets of opportunities that are present for different countries, but he does not provide convincing evidence that this is the case. Although theories of development (such as geographical determinism) are discussed in passing, his book does not offer a final theoretical reflection that engages theories of social change and proposes his own.

Darwin himself was a firm believer in “uniformitarianism.” Along with his mentor Charles Lyell (1797–1875), the author of Principles of Geology, he believed that the evidence showed that the same universal “causes” or forces were always at work over time. The alternative view in those days was called “catastrophism”—today we call it “punctuated equilibrium” theory, after having rediscovered it in the last century. It holds that change occurs only due to great accidents, and that in between these sharp disjunctures gradual adaptation occurs. Fukuyama acknowledges the role of accidents, but then warns that they should not prevent supporters of change from working hard to prepare for their windows of opportunity. But readers will not find in this book useful prescriptions for seizing these opportunities, notwithstanding the huge demand for them from the author’s many admirers.


Copyright © 2015 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press