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Francis Fukuyama’s new start

Francis Fukuyama, best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man, now aims to tackle all human history, middle, beginning and end, in only two books.

In his earlier work, the author argued that, with the collapse of the Soviet experiment, human history, which developed and progressed in a Hegelian or even Marxist sense, had reached its destination. The communist and every other experiment had failed; liberal democracy was the ultimate endpoint, the historical process’s logical outcome, and this could no longer be disputed. Succeeding years saw conflicts and genocide, even in countries that had so recently overthrown Stalinism, but Fukuyama’s thesis wasn’t disproven: The slides away from democracy were simply bumps in the road.

But a few years later, Fukuyama, a principle proponent of the neoconservative worldview, tied himself to the Iraq War’s success or failure, in line with the thesis of History. It naturally follows that the failure of the war and, with that, the entire neoconservative worldview shook the foundations of his thinking.

Fukuyama, after some academic soul searching, published America at the Crossroads in 2006, along with articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, that signaled his departure from the neoconservative movement. Unfortunately, he replaced neoconservatism with pessimism. The new works were interesting in that they showed the author’s progression, but ultimately unsatisfying: If the neoconservatives and the Marxists, or “Trotskyites,” to whom he draws a comparison with the neoconservatives, were so wrong in their foreign policy – which suggested that the U.S. military can and should be used for democratization – what can be done when confronted with the horrors of Saddam, or, more currently, Basher al-Assad?

Fukuyama was left without an overall theory of political development. He studied the question for several years; these studies bore fruit in the form of his new work The Origins of Political Order, the first volume of which was published in April 2011. Instead of history’s end, Fukuyama now revisits all of human history in an attempt to arrive at a better understanding of how the best modern societies came to be, and why elsewhere real democracy never, or at least hasn’t yet, flourished. Democracy, he learned with the Iraq failure, cannot simply be pasted onto a society.

This is the question Fukuyama attempts to answer in Origins: How does a country evolve into a stable democracy ruled by law, or, as it is put in the book, how to get to Denmark? This volume, the first of two, explores not so much the “how does” as the “how did.” How did liberal democracy arise in the first place?

In seeking an answer, Fukuyama discards all of his previous theories of development and goes far beyond the typical modern political/international relations text: He’s produced a sprawling, nearly 500-page book that seeks to reinterpret all of history (the volume’s subtitle is “From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution”).

Much of the problem with this newest work is that it is so counter-intuitive. Some form of democratic society isn’t, as the author argued earlier, the “default” position of human beings, nor was it ever necessarily in the cards. Its arrival in Europe was a simple historical accident that, were a few variables different, may likely never have occurred.

Fukuyama doesn’t reject development entirely, but his studies don’t lead to a worldview like those of Marx or even Weber, in which there is a single overwhelmingly dominant factor in human history. (For Marx, of course, that factor was economics: who controls the means of production, the mode of production and so on determined society; everything else – the superstructure – arose from that, and progressed in a way that is quite linear. For Weber, the factor was religion.)

Our author has found history differently. He laudably mixes a number of disciplines together, including even evolutionary biology. Humanity’s tendency toward cooperation as well as violence and war, towards religion, towards familial preference – all of these are factors that our author finds playing an important, somewhat determinative, role in shaping society.

A main criticism of his for much current thought (leaving aside recent postmodern relativist nonsense, which one has to reject to even attempt a serious understanding of how societies work) is that it has been too Eurocentric. The development of Europe was a lucky exception, he argues. A series of happy accidents brought liberal democracy and capitalism into existence in there, most specifically in Britain and Denmark.

This should be troubling. If Fukuyama, now echoing Barrington Moore, is correct, not only are Marxism and its right-wing neo-conservative cousin out the window, but there is not even any inevitable path towards democracy, nor was there ever. Instead, modern liberal society exists simply due to a few factors that randomly came together in Europe. Now, modern capitalist society has staying power, not through some sort of Hegelian destiny, but because it seems to fit best, or is the most suitable random occurrence.

There are, says Fukuyama, three important components essential to its emergence: a modern, “non-patrimonial” state with a stable bureaucracy; the rule of law; and accountable government. All three things have to emerge and converge, and this only occurred when certain other conditions came into being. China, for example, supplanted tribal society (the “default” state of existence in Fukuyama’s understanding) with the emergence of the first really modern state centuries ago. However, for various reasons, including religion and power relations, neither the rule of law nor accountable government ever developed. This rule of law, in which even kings and emperors feel that they cannot act outside of a certain prescribed set of norms, arose in Western Europe as a result of a Catholic Church power grab. Its separation from the patronage of kings left it able to develop a centralized structure and create a code of canon law (based on Roman law) binding on all Catholics – nearly everyone at that time. Consequently, for the first time in Europe, kings found their power limited, as they were forced to look to the Church’s blessing for authority.

Rule of law developed elsewhere, as in India. But there the rule of law developed too early and impeded the development of a modern, functional state. Only in Western Europe, and only in a few countries even there, did these two factors converge, and then converge again with a third, a set of power relations that forced monarchs to lose their absolutist status and take into account not only law, but the desires of at least a section of the populace.

Origins is an ambitious work, and, given that its subject matter is all of human history and development, there is plenty of room for disagreement. One can argue that Fukuyama’s jettisoning of the idea that one factor (whether religion, economics, geography or something else) is the sole determinant of human history adds sophistication and depth. But questions are left hanging. Everything is a chaotic stew, and nothing is for certain. Certain problems are obvious. The first and most troubling is that this is not at all a cheerful picture of the world. But one doesn’t have to like facts for them to be true. Still, there are non-emotional questions that arise, specifically around democracy and the rule of law.

Is it even necessary to democratize? Fukuyama thinks so, but the book leaves us with no reason as to why, except that it would be nice. According Origins, accountability is a necessity, but that doesn’t automatically mean democracy. While he often says China’s government is unsustainable, Fukuyama himself noted the stability of its political system in a January Financial Times article, saying that it has nothing to teach Washington, because its ruling elite take into account the needs and wants of its citizenry – in its own way.

But modern China seems to show evidence pointing away from Fukuyama’s conclusions. Economics has played a huge, one might say determinative, role in China’s development, and not necessarily in the way that the government there would like. As the economy has developed, the state and ruling party have found it hard to keep up, either through appeasement (better living conditions, etc.) or repression (the Great Firewall, for example). It’s obvious through any number of statistics – simply look at the number of people petitioning Beijing for better living standards, the increased number of strikes, or the recent rioting in various areas for a few cogent examples – that as people’s living standards increase, and as the economy becomes bigger and stronger, people have become more energized to fight for a say in how society operates.

The Arab Spring is yet another example; the general trend in the world is still towards more and greater democracy, more rule of law, and more government accountability, seemingly in accordance with economic development. Fukuyama’s book is ambitious, and his second volume is greatly awaited, but he has not proven that this democratic upheaval is mere historical chance, as he argues, and not “by default.”

Originally published in Dirty Honest.

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