The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 1st ed.
New York Times Notable Book for 2011, Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011, Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011
From the Publisher
Virtually all human societies were once organized tribally, yet over time most developed new political institutions which included a central state that could keep the peace and uniform laws that applied to all citizens. Some went on to create governments that were accountable to their constituents. We take these institutions for granted, but they are absent or are unable to perform in many of today’s developing countries―with often disastrous consequences for the rest of the world.
Francis Fukuyama, author of the bestselling The End of History and the Last Man and one of our most important political thinkers, provides a sweeping account of how today’s basic political institutions developed. The first of a major two-volume work, The Origins of Political Order begins with politics among our primate ancestors and follows the story through the emergence of tribal societies, the growth of the first modern state in China, the beginning of the rule of law in India and the Middle East, and the development of political accountability in Europe up until the eve of the French Revolution.
Drawing on a vast body of knowledge―history, evolutionary biology, archaeology, and economics―Fukuyama has produced a brilliant, provocative work that offers fresh insights on the origins of democratic societies and raises essential questions about the nature of politics and its discontents.
I agree with the positive reviews this book has received–it’s well informed, presents an interesting theory about an important topic, and–if that wasn’t enough–the book is well structured and enjoyable to read.
The titles of the five parts of the book provides a good notion of its scope: Before the State; State Building; The Rule of Law; Accountable Government; and Toward a Theory of Political Development. Fukuyama’s primary contention is that globally, political order arose out of the competition between polities, and that, within each society, the strength and endurance to compete successfully arose from three elements: the emergence of some form of state, the rule of law, and state accountability. He illustrates this fomula with analyses of the historical success and failure of a wide range of political entities, such as China, Russia, Spain, India, Hungary, Denmark, the Ottomans, the Catholic Church, and the American colonies. He uses the history of England and in particular its Glorious Revolution of the late 17th Century as the premiere case where all three of these elements combined into a notable success.
I found many gems within this work, including the following (expressed in my terms, not the author’s):
- A summary of Chinese history made easy to grasp through the lens of tribalism giving was to a nation state
- How the notion of economic “rents” inevitably drove tribal societies into monarchical states
- The tale of the “Evil Empress Wu,” which could easily be told as a multi-season “Game of Thrones” style television series
- A good analysis of why Russia has always seemed an outsider among European nations (hint: it started with 300 years of Mongol occupation from the 13th C. on)
- Why Denmark ended up being such a modern society and a decent place to live
- “No representation without taxation” if you want accountability within your politics
Most notable for me and my interests in furthering democracy was the notion that, yes, state accountability is essential to a happy outcome, but the rulers do not have to be accountable to everyone in the society. Once a king was accountable to a parliament of nobles, for example, everything in England seemed to go much better, no matter how much the peasants may have continued to suffer. It’s an interesting observation for an American to make in these days where we seem to be in the midst of a pivotal, populist uprising.
Readers may find themselves a bit frustrated by the end of the book, because, with so many examples and counter examples of what makes nations succeed, one experiences a “forest for the trees” challenge of making sense of it all. Despite Fukuyama’s compelling theory, the devil is still in the detail of the histories of all the societies he surveys. This book brings us far closer to understanding what makes some nations strong and others flounder, but the writing is honest enough not to claim that it has explained everything. I recommend it to anyone hoping to understand and someday model the rise, fall, and cyclical nature of society and economies. Ultimately, it deepened my sense appreciation and awe that we can find measures of order and even moments of peace in any of the nations we have on Earth today.