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

The Origins of Political Order: from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
Francis Fukuyama
Profile Books, 586pp, £25

In 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama burst on to the in­tellectual stage with a scholarly article entitled "The End of History". It was more than a contribution to public debate; it was a political event of the first importance.

Fukuyama did not mean that history as it is ordinarily understood had ended. He meant that history as understood by Hegel and his followers - history as the product of enduring conflicts between irreconcilable world-views - had reached its term. The end of the cold war was just one facet of the "end point of man­kind's ideological evolution". Western liberal democracy had become "the final form of human government"; the victory of economic and political liberalism was complete and "unabashed". Though he did not say so, the unmistakable conclusion was that the United States, the supreme embodiment of triumphant liberalism, was the custodian of humanity's ideolo­gical future, as well as the world's sole remaining superpower.

There was a dark side to Fukuyama's triumph­alism, however. In a book-length treatment of the theme, published in 1992, he suggested that victorious liberalism might fail to satisfy the primordial human need for pride, dignity and recognition; that, after the end of history, a feeble, contemptible "last man", devoid of striving and aspiration, might inherit the earth - only to provoke the reappearance of a "first man", engaged in new battles for prestige, fought with modern weapons.

Some of these themes reappear in Fukuyama's latest book, but in a new guise. It is an astonishing achievement. The canvas is vast, and the ambition prodigious. In just over 500 closely argued pages, Fukuyama has sought to uncover the sources of political order and to trace its
trajectory from our primate ancestors to the 21st century. Running through the book is this question: by what alchemy did the small, egalitarian, barely organised hunter-gatherer bands of prehistoric times spawn the long evolutionary process that led to the highly organised, bureaucratic modern state? Or, as Hobbes and Rousseau would have put it, how did the freedom of the state of nature give way to the coercive Leviathan?

Fukuyama's answer is that such a state of nature has never existed. Homo sapiens was not "born free" as Rousseau thought. Our remotest ancestors did not live in peace with each other or in harmony with nature. Like our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, we have always had a strong propensity for violent aggression and we have always lived off our environment. Again like chimpanzees, we have always followed leaders.

However, the war of all against all that Hobbes imagined was equally chimerical. The solipsistic, egotistic and calculating individual posited by social contract theorists, by their utilitarian rivals and by economists of virtually all stripes over the past two centuries is a phantom. Like our primate ancestors and relatives, we are genetically programmed to be sociable and are equipped with a large repertoire of social skills, not least of which is political organisation. We have always learned whom to trust and who can't be trusted by interacting continuously with the other members of our society. We have always followed social norms, sanctified by a religious or (more recently) an ideological authority; and we have always sought recognition from our fellows.

So far, so communitarian - yet there is nothing warm or cuddly about Fukuyama's vision of a political community. The road to political order, as he depicts it, was long, hard, circuitous and studded with cruelty and oppression. His story begins with ancient China and India, continues with the vast Muslim empire that once stretched from Spain to the Himalayas, and culminates with the states of 18th-century Europe. Fukuyama does not draw an explicit moral, but he does suggest that a stable political order is likely to rest on four building blocks: an authoritative state run by a meritocratic and "rational" bureaucracy; an ideology which legitimises that state; a legal system which prevents rulers from preying on the ruled and the ruled from preying on each other; and "accountability" of governments to the governed.

Contrary to liberal and Marxist assumptions, these things don't all necessarily go together. China developed the first two at a very early stage, but the third was and is very weak, while the fourth is non-existent. Having at first followed a trajectory similar to China's, India then diverged very sharply, thanks to the transcendental, other-worldly ideology - Brahmanic religion - that it adopted in the 2nd millennium BC, and that prevented the emergence of a strong Chinese-style state. And in 18th-century Europe, only "England" (Fukuyama does not seem to have heard of Scotland or Wales) could boast all four building blocks.

Fukuyama takes his story to the eve of the great Atlantic revolutions; a second volume will bring it up to the present day. Yet it is already clear that, in spite of his spirited critique of Hobbes's conception of the state of nature, his world-view has a distinctly Hobbesian flavour. Order is all. Freedom hardly gets a look-in.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that, although individual human beings are hard-wired for sociability, the political communities that incarnate their sociability are not. It follows that there is nothing natural or inevitable about political order. It is not an emanation of humankind's genetic inheritance. It is a precious but fragile construct, and its history is at least as much one of failure as success. The second reason is more complicated. At the level of the individual, Hobbes's war of all against all is an impossible nonsense, but at the level of the world it is anything but. Only strong states, Fukuyama seems to be saying, can hold their own in an inevitably conflicted world. And while order is fundamental to strength, freedom may well be its enemy. For him, the greatest danger facing contemporary democracies is state weakness, reflecting an excess of freedom, and leading to political and social gridlock. India, the European Union, the United States and Japan are all cases in point.

Fukuyama is shocked by the murderous cruelty of the Qin dynasty that created the first unified Chinese state, but he patently admires the strong Han dynasty that followed, and has little time for the diversity, complexity and religious subtlety of ancient India. He admires Denmark, and even implies that "getting to Denmark" should be the great project of the 21st century. But the Danish virtues he lists are good government, prosperity, legality and democracy. He says nothing about freedom, and the tension between democracy and freedom which has been a central theme of liberal political thought since Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill escapes him. For liberal social democrats, getting to Fukuyama's Denmark is not enough. In a world threatened by environmental disaster that only collective action can avert, the great question is how to find a Denmark where order and freedom go together. l

David Marquand's latest book is "The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe" (Princeton University Press, £16.95)

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?