Thursday, June 05, 2014

Want to understand our world?

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. By Francis Fukuyama.

Forty three years ago I discovered Marxism, and a world which had seemed baffling, messy and arbitrary suddenly made sense. Instead of a mass of shapeless events - kings and queens and wars - there was theory: theory stretching from the dawn of mankind in 'primitive communism' through the slavery of the Roman Empire to mediaeval feudalism and the rise of capitalism. The motor of history was class struggle, classes emergent from new modes of production. My own late-teenage angst was now explicable - we hadn't reached the destination yet, the final struggle for communism was yet to accomplish. I was a signed-up member of the Fourth International for almost a decade.

The generations of Marxist intellectuals were some of the smartest people on the planet and it took me years to absorb and integrate Marxist theory, and then to learn how to use it to create a 'political line'. In my late twenties conviction left me. It was only later I encountered E. O. Wilson's famous put-down ("Wonderful theory, wrong species") and finally realised that the Marxist theory of human nature required that we should all be very close kin, or ideally clones (like the ants).

Fukuyama has a similar project to explain world history in an overarching theoretical framework and use it to understand the dynamics and latent opportunities of the present day. He has a century and half of extra research to leverage over Marx, and a much more accurate view of human nature. I read "The Origins of Political Order" with increasing admiration as a largely successful attempt to account for how the world came to modernity in the strange form which exists today (the second volume, due this autumn, is already on my list). The Economist wrote a comprehensive review which I'm pleased to share with you here.

The Economist review (quoted in full).
WHY did the Catholic church's insistence on priestly celibacy in the late 11th century give Europeans an early advantage over other societies in establishing the rule of law? The answer in Francis Fukuyama's stimulating new book is that celibacy was one of several important reforms, instituted by Pope Gregory VII, which resulted in the development of canon law and the notion that even kings were subject to it. Gregory won everlasting fame by bending Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, to his will, forcing the most powerful man in Europe to do penance before him at Canossa.

Celibacy was vital in the battle against corruption and rent-seeking within the church, both of which were the typical consequences of patrimony. The reforms gave the church the moral stature to evolve into what Mr Fukuyama describes as “a modern, hierarchical, bureaucratic and law-governed institution” that established its authority for spiritual affairs—and by so doing set the ground rules for the subsequent rise of the secular state.

Mr Fukuyama (a pupil of Samuel Huntington who wrote a seminal work on political order 40 years ago) begins his own search for the origins of political order with the shift from small hunting bands to tribes. This eventually brought about the “coming of the Leviathan” or the coercive state. It was a development driven partly by the increasing complexity of societies founded on agriculture but much more by the organisational challenges of conducting warfare on an ever-greater scale.

With impressive erudition, the author travels across China, India, the Islamic world and different regions of Europe looking for the main components of good political order and at how and why these emerged (or failed to) in each place. The three critical ingredients, he argues, are a strong state, the application of the rule of law to all parts of society and a means of holding rulers to account for their actions.

The first unambiguously modern state, Mr Fukuyama believes, was the Qin dynasty in China, founded in 221 BC. Many of the control mechanisms perfected by the Qin had developed during the preceding 500 years or so of the Eastern Zhou dynasty when a host of small warring states across China began to coalesce. Such elements included a merit-based (non-aristocratic) military leadership combined with mass conscription, sophisticated taxation systems and a bureaucracy recruited from a permanent administrative cadre selected on the basis of ability rather than family connection. The Qin simply went much further, assaulting every section of society in its remorseless attempt to establish a form of proto-totalitarian dictatorship.

The Qin's extremism was also its undoing and it was soon replaced by the more enduring Han dynasty, which sought compromise with aristocratic elites and legitimation through a revived Confucianism. The Han state lasted for more than 400 years. But it was always vulnerable to what Mr Fukuyama calls “the bad emperor problem” as well as to the hardwired human tendency to make ties of kinship the primary criterion for conferring wealth, power and status. As Mr Fukuyama observes: “There is an inverse correlation between the strength of the centralised state and the strength of patrimonial groups. Tribalism…remains a default form of political organisation, even after a modern state has been created.”

Much of the book is concerned with the struggle between rulers in different parts of the world trying to forge powerful states (usually with the aim of military domination in times when conquest rather than technological progress was the main route to enrichment) while battling the astonishing ability of patrimonialism to undermine their efforts no matter what measures were used to break its grip. Chinese emperors favoured employing eunuchs in senior positions. Muslim rulers, from the Abbasids in the eighth century to the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt and the Ottomans, developed the institution of military slavery to lessen nepotism and the internal conflicts created by tribal loyalties.

The Mamluks were meant to be a kind of one-generation nobility owing loyalty only to the sultan. Similarly, the Janissaries, the elite slave troops of the Ottoman emperors, were not allowed to marry. But in the end both systems decayed as first the Mamluks and then the Janissaries became interest groups powerful enough to subvert the centralised states they had been created to defend. Once again, patrimonialism reasserted itself.

Mr Fukuyama makes an interesting comparison between 17th-century France, where royal absolutism was rather less absolute than it appeared and England, which, after the upheavals of the civil war and the 1688 revolution, became the first place (Denmark was probably next) to combine all three of the ingredients for a virtuous political order: a strong state, the rule of law and accountability. The problem in France was that the king did not feel strong enough to challenge the legal rights of the aristocracy, but both were happy to deny the rule of law to the peasantry and the rising commercial classes who bore the full brunt of meeting the king's need for money to fight wars, through taxation. England at the time could in no sense be described as a democracy, but the idea of accountability was entrenched at all levels of society by centuries of the common law, creating the political conditions for a constitutional monarchy and a dynamic economy.

Though this first volume concludes with the French revolution (a second, charting developments up to the present day, is in the works) its insights are relevant to our understanding of modern states and how they became what they are. For example, there is China with its incredibly smart centralised bureaucracy, weak rule of law and absence of accountability (Mao, argues Mr Fukuyama, shows that China has not yet escaped the “bad emperor” problem). Or there is India with its weak state, but much greater accountability and almost pedantic attachment to the law.

He also provides us with a yardstick for measuring the chances that the Arab awakening this spring will meet his three tests of political order (not high, at least not yet). Mr Fukuyama is still the big-picture man who gave us “The End of History”, but he has an unerring eye for illuminating detail. Books on political theory are not often page-turners; this one is.