The Origins of Political Order – Francis Fukuyama

On The Origins of Political Order – Francis Fukuyama

I read this book (which is good) and immediately embarked on something of a Fukuyama kick, revisiting State Building, After the Neocons, The End of History? and The End of History and the Last Man. This review is therefore not restricted to Fukuyama’s most recent work, but more of an attempt to figure out how he progressed from proclaiming the end of ideological development, to a kind of cold realism about the world that he has always professed to dislike.

In a sense, Fukuyama hasn’t changed all that much. His overarching views, and belief in liberal democracy, has remained constant throughout his work. What I find extremely interesting is the process by which his methodology has changed from liberal philosophy to a type of argumentative history rooted in biological explanations (via some developmental economics). Viewed in this manner, On The Origins, and its as-yet-unfinished second volume, form something of a replacement to the contorted Hegelian take on liberalism of The Last Man (I name it thus in this review to differentiate it from his original National Interest article which kicked up such a fuss). Over the last year I’ve developed something of an interest in post-cold war political discourse, and it appears to me that the replacement of liberal philosophy by other disciplines or sources of knowledge forms a large part of the explanation of the changes in the discourse itself. It is perhaps easy, if not lazy, to sit back from a viewpoint of over twenty years of hindsight and sneer at the naivete of liberal discourse and practise after the end of the cold war, and that is not something that I wish to be a part of. I have no intention of damning Fukuyama, or any other commentator for that matter, on the parts of their argument that turned out to be grossly wrong. In The End of History Fukuyama predicted the longevity of the 1 party communist system. When he revisited the title with the Last Man, some three years later, this prediction was proved incorrect. In the Last Man, he failed to appreciate the terrible effects of nationalism on Yugoslavia (‘the Balkans’) and so on. World events are a harsh mistress, as confident writers in 1913, 1938, 1988 and 2000 would probably attest. Fukuyama is still, however, in the habit of hedging his bets. The end is clear, but it will be along sometime soon, just not now. In fact, On the Origins now includes the concept of political decay which Fukuyama now uses to explain any results which don’t fit his end-state trajectory, more on that later.

What is constant in Fukuyama’s work is that he really likes states. The End of History is about states, The Last Man is about states, State Building is about states, After the Neocons is about what states should do and On the Origins is about how states came about. This glowing confidence is perhaps at odds with the creeping doubts in his own work about the pre-eminence of states themselves. In The Last Man, Fukuyama argues via Hegel that the liberal democratic state represents the ultimate end of history (of ideological development and forms of governance). To his credit, he points out how boring and terrifying this end would be to the people that would live in it. His problem, which I wouldn’t criticise him for at the point of writing The Last Man, is that he can only conceive of history’s end in state-based terms. What I do think is interesting is that despite the events of the last twenty years, he still insists on pursuing a philosophical end-game that revolves around states.

The primary attack on Fukuyama’s thesis in The Last Man is that its methodology is bunk. Critical theorists of all shapes and sizes could draw blood from the book without even trying. My reading of it is admittedly kind on the author. Substituting “man” for “human” makes the text flow a little better, (yes, I admit that’s a sexist literary conceit, but it is simply my opinion) I don’t think Fukuyama intends to exclude women from the last stage of human development, nor all the other categorisations for homo sapiens thrown up by critical theory. To Fukuyama’s credit, he points out as far back as his original article that history could get “started once again.” Still, his wilful ignorance (I fail to see how a man so steeped in philosophy could profess true ignorance) of continental philosophy from Marx onwards is, well, stunning. I dislike relativism as much as anybody, but to simply ignore structural and post-structural approaches as if the last century never existed is slightly jaw-dropping. After all, “we” beat Nazi Germany and the USSR, not Foucault and France. But, even with this judicious allowance for argument, there is still the problem of translation between philosophy and reality. Fukuyama made a good argument about how liberal democracy beats fascism, communism and every other type of ideology. Where it falls apart is how this ideological “victory” translates into the creation of a world of liberal democracies. To his credit, he’s still trying to grapple with the problem 20 years on.

We can’t know if Fukuyama would have made the shift from the nice and clean world of political theory to the decidedly messy one of state building and state formation had the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq not happened. Actually, that can probably be cut down to Iraq, since the US was quite content to let Afghanistan build itself until well after Iraq had gone to hell in a handbasket. The Iraq war led to Fukuyama’s much publicised break from the American neoconservative elite, and his shot across the bows, State building. As a work, State Building felt short and incomplete, but it did mark a dramatic change in style. This was, perhaps, because the “think big, speak freedom and pray” method of state building failed so spectacularly in Iraq. I don’t, however, think that should have been quite as much of a surprise as it comes across in books such as Fiasco and Imperial Life in the Emerald City. For the real roots of western state building, I think the experience of the post-cold war era is exceedingly important. Here is where Fukuyama’s earlier work crashes headlong into his latter era books.

What is perhaps most distressing about the whole Iraq debacle is that America had just over a recent decade’s worth of failed and partially successful attempts at state building to draw upon, and it still messed up in much the same manner. If there is anything that can be said about the period as a whole, it is that liberal optimism didn’t translate well to chaotic situations. As much as Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority deserve derision for their jaw-dropping mismanagement of a state, the Harvard Business School wonks that privatised Russia in the cause of free-market orthodoxy deserve equal or greater opprobrium. In my work, I tend to refer to this as “liberal interventionist state building”, which is as neutral a nomenclature as I can summon for people whose ideological optimism overrides “realist” concerns.

And yes, I use realist for a reason. Throughout Fukuyama’s work, he derides Henry Kissinger and realist pragmatism. It seems that the man himself has replaced the evil empire with whom he encouraged détente. Yet it is quite noticeable that the moment Fukuyama finds himself dealing in real world issues, Kissingerite notions start worming their way through his work with alarming frequency. Though I can’t quote Kissinger on this, I would imagine that his approach to state building would be to find the most powerful internal actor whom it is bearable to deal with, and work from there until stability and growth is assured. The converse: annihilating or de-legitimising every form of socio-political association in a hail-mary bid for democratic equality, seems to be a recipe for failure. In After the Neocons, Fukuyama seems to abandon this latter strategy whole-heartedly. Democracy is the only legitimate end state, he says, but getting there takes time. In the context, time means periods of support for power structures that are in many cases positively anti-democratic. I imagine that Kissinger probably laughed his arse off at that volte-face.

On the Origins is an attempt of sorts to reconcile Fukuyama’s neoconservative ideals and The Last Man, with the realist leanings of State Building. All this without admitting to his realist tendencies. In this, he moves towards a form of liberal pragmatism, which I, myself, sort of subscribe to. On The Origins continues the more “scientific” methodology of State Building, but his selection of analytical categories is interesting. The points upon which his thesis of state formation rests are what I would consider to be idea-neutral, that is, he can classify state formation and building in this manner while preserving a theoretical space for the end state of The Last Man, but without opening up himself to charges of realism. I would be frankly amazed if this position holds in the second volume.

The major difference between On the Origins and the Last Man concerns the state of nature. In short, a considerable amount of the debate in The Last Man regarding human nature is thrown cleanly out of the window without a second thought. I’m quite glad of this, but Fukuyama is going to have some work cut out in volume 2, seeing as the “needs” envisioned in The Last Man are nailed to the human nature concept that he derives from Hegel and Hobbes et al. The problem with the state of nature is, as Fukuyama points out without quite pointing out with his prehistory sections in On The Origins, that it is bunk. Specifically, the state of nature dreamed up by liberal philosophers is an imaginary other, conceived by themselves to contrast with their perfect society. How humans lived prior to civilisation and large polities is a scare tactic to justify whatever political system they were arguing for. How humans act after the dissolution of a judicial and political system is another matter, but the invention of such systems (which allowed for humans to breed and produce population densities unheard of in prehistoric times) precludes a “return” to a state of nature. Just as the atomic bomb can be dismantled, but not un-invented, civilisation can be abandoned, but not un-invented. I’m glad that Fukuyama has done this, because although it throws a major line of argument of The Last Man out of the window, its replacement is far more intellectually sound, even though it is not quite such a ringing endorsement of liberal democracy.

Fukuyama replaces liberal philosophy and pure Hegel with biological determinism and authority structures. I’m not quite sure where I stand on this. On one hand the arguments that he constructs with biological science are sound. However it seems odd that he has reversed his prior position on the “First Man” (he doesn’t refer back to his previous position in the Last Man) while retaining the determinism which drove the text of the Last Man. While I would applaud Fukuyama’s attempt to place his philosophy on a rational basis, it does seem to admit that his most famous work is little more than a fancy play on words. The problem here is that he is drawing upon science in much the same way as social Darwinists did. It is deeply problematic to take physical sciences and to transpose them directly to politics, philosophy, sociology and history, all at once. A part of me is quite sceptical that he appears to need something deterministic about human nature, an innate drive, be it thymos, recognition or biological imperative to support liberal political systems that are formed of freely associating citizens.

Now that Origins starts Fukuyama from a point of always-social humans that don’t blindly murder one another due to the lack of a state, it is apt to turn to the collision between Origins and the main point of the Last Man: thymos. Except there isn’t one, or indeed, thymos isn’t mentioned. In The Last Man, thymos is essentially the human need to be recognised. It is why democracy is the end of history, because liberal democracy allows everyone to be recognised. But reading Origins, you might be forgiven for thinking that human beings in fact got organised for a variety of reasons, mostly circulating around the concept of order. In fact, “recognition” doesn’t even warrant a mention in the index this time around, nor does thymos. This is perhaps one of the most problematic parts of the book for Fukuyama’s end state, end of history, thesis. The Last Man is essentially a story of how an innate need finds its expression and everyone lives happily (recognised) ever after (until history starts again because of Nietzscheans pissing in the punchbowl to feel better about themselves). On the Origins tells us something completely different: accidents happen. Over time, these accidents form something of a stable political order, and it stumbles on until it collapses or evolves. From the story of On The Origins, human political organisation appears to be more of a matter that we evaded enough predators to not die in quick enough numbers to develop agriculture which in turn meant that we bred fast enough to create population densities that couldn’t be managed through tribal political interactions. Everything since has been one accident after another, until someone came up with democracy. Since Fukuyama considers liberal democracy to be a perfect end state, this is a remarkably good place to put the full stop on the story. It is a stark contrast to his Hegelian thesis which caused such controversy twenty years ago.

The problem is that Fukuyama doesn’t like this accidentalism, so he explains this accidentalism as the fact that other parts of the world didn’t develop states like western Europe. It seems curious that on one hand, he spends a long time showing how there were many other types of political order that were relatively stable over periods of millennia (in this, wars and rebellions can’t be a sign of instability, for surely Europe qualifies many times over in this regard) yet taking the sign that the European state system won as proof of its superiority. His thesis, therefore, is designed to show that the winner is inherently best. This is essentially the argument of the victor, by the victor, for the victor. That the European state system “won” because it came up with technological advances and military organisation that other forms of organisation didn’t doesn’t seem to figure into this thesis. Yet his criteria for judging states themselves doesn’t mention military might or technological differences. There are other curious blind-spots towards non-secular law, for example, transnational pressures, or any conception of the “political ecology” in which state formation takes place. In Fukuyama’s account, states seem predestined to win, with little explanation other than “they are states”. After volume 2 is published, it seems as though he could string the philosophy together into “The First State and the Last Man”, both of which are semi-mythological constructs. His arguments against other forms of political organisation essentially amount to “states won in the end”.

Fukuyama is doing this because he wants to figure out how to make states. In State Building, he considers the production and maintenance of liberal democratic states to be the number one security problem facing America. Yet in On the Origins, there appears to be little consideration of the external conditions of state formation. State formation is considered in the same way that Charles Tilly did, the fight, the bureaucracy for the fight, the need of a nation for the fight. In this, Fukuyama finds his value-free pegs such as the rule of law on which to base successful state formation. When volume 2 comes about, I’m sure the rule of law will be presented as a good step towards the democratic rule of law, which will be inherently better than the authoritarian/fascist rule of law, and communist rule of law. That way a liberal ideologue could quite happily reconcile themselves with supporting authoritarian power structures because they promote the rule of law, while simultaneously claiming to be an idealist, not a pragmatist.

To return to Fukuyama’s love for states, this appears to be the unwritten subtitle to the book. On the Origins of Political Order could easily have a colon followed by “Why states are the ultimate form of political order”. As a thesis plank, it makes sense, Fukuyama believes that liberal democracies are the end state of history, in order for this to be true, states have to be the ultimate form of political order. I’m not quite sure this is true. Philip Bobbit, probably the only other heavyweight political theorist, pointed out that consent might not be the future, and I think he’s right. The problem here is that modern states aren’t, in many cases, the best way of performing functions. While states are good at the provision of certain public goods, their economic ability is woeful in comparison to the private sector. Some states have adequate enough armed forces to ensure a monopoly on violence, a great many don’t. The line between a state and a permanent civil war can be as thin as a western commander deciding to go and save a government without telling his bosses. This is not exactly a glowing endorsement for what is supposedly the most perfect form of organisation. The experience of the last twenty years is that weaker states wither on the vine if left out in the cold by their powerful colleagues.

In Fukuyama’s end state, all political structures are broken except the citizen/state relationship. But the power relationship between the state and the citizen remains much the same as it did when Locke and Rousseau walked the earth. This is clearly no longer the case. The democracy of Locke does not admit that a single person, or small collective, could switch off functions for everybody else. In liberal democracy, the dissent of the minority is trumped by the monopoly of force. Protest? Fine. Rebel? Get quashed. We are now entering a world in which relatively tiny minorities of dissenters can quite easily perform actions that have catastrophic effects for the body politic. I can remember a seminar in which mutually assured destruction was likened to a tower block in which each resident held the trigger for explosives in the foundations. Each person would be equally unlikely to flip the switch, but who, it was asked, would want to live in such a tower block? Terrorists and hackers represent this quandary in a post-globalisation context. I’d argue that hackers are probably more significant than terrorists in this regard. Don’t like the government? Go home and turn an important state function off via your computer. The architecture of the internet is such that DDOS and other brute force attacks will always be possible. To prevent them, the architecture of the internet would have to be radically altered. I’d argue that this change radically alters the relationship of force between citizens, and between the state above them. On the Origins stops at the French Revolution, but I wonder how he will manage to reconcile his idealised end state with the shifting power relationships of the contemporary world.

Another important factor that Fukuyama doesn’t appear to be analysing is the role of information in state formation and state building. My (as yet undefended) thesis’ hypothesis is that information relationships are crucial to understanding power relationships in contemporary state building operations, so this was an area where I felt that the book left me cold. In fairness, the information environment is roughly steady for the period Fukuyama is analysing. In most respects, information is co-located with people and institutions, the only method of transmission is physical. But Fukuyama doesn’t necessarily analyse states and proto-states and their ability to collect, process and leverage information. This, for me, is one of the key factors for states “winning” over other forms of political organisation. The ability of bureaucracies to systematically collect and catalogue information, and their ability to utilise that information, gives them an advantage over other types of political organisation. Bureaucracies didn’t start this, but they definitely got better at it than other competing forms of political organisation.

Where I’d imagine Fukuyama is going to run into a problem in volume 2 is that the information environment has drastically changed, and with it, states’ competitive advantage in information collection and leverage has almost disappeared. For example, early states had a definite advantage over their populations in that they could control information flows. Physical force could cut off the supply of information to a region, isolated populations had no-one that they could communicate with to aid them. In the contemporary world, this ability to control information flows has more or less disappeared. For sure, Egypt could switch the internet off, but that wasn’t enough to stop information leaking, and the increasing economic role of the internet means that switching it off would be unsustainable for most middle-high income economies. Where there are non-state actors, or political networks, contesting the state building or state formation process, this inability to control information severely limits the power of the state vis a vis the population that it seeks to rule. In my interpretation, that means that contemporary and future state building needs to be far more consensual than the classical model. It also leaves open whether the “leviathan” state can ever be created from scratch in the contemporary world, something that Fukuyama needs to happen for his end of history to occur.

It is from here that we come back to legitimacy which is, I suppose, at the heart of all of Fukuyama’s work. Fukuyama’s argument in the Last Man is that legitimacy is likely to be conferred on liberal democratic states because they are the sole form of political organisation liable to satisfy a person’s need to be recognised. In making this argument he points out the economic role which plays into this need. He is not a neo-liberal fundamentalist, but at the same time, he sees markets and states as providing the best way of satisfying economic needs, and thus the respect issue and thus legitimacy. This is a point on which Micha Glenney drives a bus through his perfect world. I suppose Fukuyama’s talk of Nietzschean drives could incorporate post-global criminals and whatnot, but the problem here is that Fukuyama is envisioning a legitimate order of states, plagued by crime. Given the ability of criminal networks to comprehensively outfox governments on everything from resource extraction, to people trafficking and drug production, it is not too much of a stretch to consider that civilisation’s discontents might wind up on the winning side of the duality. Look at central America, where gangs and criminal networks are getting up to some nasty stuff, and in Mexico, freely challenging the authority of the state.

It is perhaps quite understandable that a neo-conservative American envisions democracy without thought to class and wealth disparities. However, in finishing, I think it is necessary to consider the logical ramifications for, and actualities of, wealth disparities in democratic states (and between states themselves). Just as Fukuyama derides realists for leaving their ideals at the border as they look out, it is quite noticeable that he leaves his wealth-redistribution at the same border as he looks inwards. In After the Neocons, he advocates increased aid to developing states, in effect, re-distribution of wealth between states. This has logic, in a world of equal states, people trafficking and other transnational crimes would be vastly reduced, as there would be no profit or economic inducement in crossing borders. One does, however, wonder what America would look like at the end of history. Fukuyama appears curiously blind to the anti-democratic effects of wealth disparity. I am minded to name drop Thomas Ricks’ blog post The One Percent Problem. Ricks is hardly a card carrying member of the Communist party, so I think it says something when he’s pointing out how insanely anti-democratic wealth is in American politics. I think Fukuyama has in mind something of a Warren Buffet outlook on wealth, but not every wealthy person is Warren Buffet.

I’m a capitalist, greed might not be good per se, but it is certainly more productive than other options. Even as someone that defends capitalism, I can see that it has its flaws.  I applaud the fact that Warren Buffet has decided his kids should “only” get a million dollars each, in wealth percentage terms, that’s a far lower percentage than most middle class youth get. But wealth disparities in a democracy do lead to aristocracy by another name. If you can use wealth for anything other than vacuous consumerism (you can), then you can use wealth to give your kids a helping hand in a capitalist system. The problem is that this produces a system whereby everyone wants to go up, and no-one wants to go down. In the UK produced an illusion of social mobility, whereby working class kids are meant to go up to the middle class. But the problem is, no-one drops out of the middle class, they just keep going upwards in it. So everyone stays in the same position, and at some point, the ones on the top get more than the ones on the bottom. In Fukuyama’s end state, everyone exists in some free-floating society where ability decides all. There’s two ways this can come about in America. Either there is some unheard of re-distribution of wealth, in which that top 1% divests almost all of its belongings, or the people on the bottom take it. I don’t think either is likely to happen, and I don’t think Fukuyama’s theories, as they stand, can adequately account for this. He pictures history “starting again” because people get bored, but what if it starts again because the very system that he’s envisioning reproduces aristocracy (and by extension, oligarchy) within the liberal democratic state itself, and between states? Does that count? In my mind, that’s history continuing in a fashion which his Hegelian history can’t account for. Fukuyama’s “out” on this is political decay, which I think is a perfectly okay concept and process. Fukuyama, however, seems to use this as a “heads I win, tails you lose” argument.

Drawing the lens back from internal contradictions, On The Origins is trying to shoe horn history into Fukuyama’s Hegelian world view. This is understandable. On a human level, I think Hegelianism is an entirely rational belief system. We, as humans, like to think that our belief systems are right, that they have a point. I sympathise with Fukuyama in his efforts to prove liberal democracy is better than its competitors. I, too, think liberal democracy is the best goddamn system yet invented. The obvious difference being “yet”. I might not have any truly rational basis for my beliefs (since relativists pointed out that there is none) but I’ll happily defend democracy against any other system, even though this belief is at some nucleic core, irrational. At a level of personal choice, I’d rather that than be a fence-sitting relativist who sees no moral difference between Auschwitz, Hiroshima and treading on an ant. However, Fukuyama can’t accept this relativism, and in this, I think his idealism blinds him to the flaws in his Hegelian world view. The simplest philosophical argument against this is, I think, Hofstadter’s use of Godel’s incompleteness theorem in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. The book itself is in my top-five life changing reads, and the philosophical calculus can be off putting. To summarise: Godel proved that it was impossible to prove the completeness of any system from its axioms. What Fukuyama is trying to do is in effect prove the completeness of liberal democracy from axioms of human nature and history. Irrespective of the validity of his axioms, it is an impossible task. At the end of the day, he is probably better off arguing that liberal democracy is the best game in town, rather than trying to prove its perfection. On the Origins does a great job of constructing the first part of an argument for the former statement, but leaves far too many open questions to prove the latter.