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Review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, 6/1/2012

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama.  Published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York.  2011, 608 pages.

Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama is nothing if not controversial and intellectually provocative; his book The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992, was among those models that attempted to make sense of what America should do in the post-Cold War era. 

His latest work is an ambitious topic that tries to explore the historical origins of political institutions and the process of political decay.  His mammoth book, which is only volume one of two, is not a book of solutions but a book of ideas on the rise and fall of political institutions that is filled with historical snippets that leave you pondering about where America is in the 21st century. 

Fukuyama grabs you by writing that American political institutions may well be headed for a major test of their adaptability, and that American politics rests not just in politics but society as a whole.  He adds that the growing polarization in American polity may reflect where Americans choose to live with and among those with similar ideological constructs. 

The book warns that whether one is looking at the Ming Emperors, Rome, the Ottoman Empire, or even the United States there are no automatic mechanisms by which political systems adjust themselves.  Pages highlight that the minimal no-government approach exists in the world today and manifests itself in the lawlessness of Somalia, the Congo, and areas of Pakistan.  Chapters make the case that political institutions are necessary and cannot be taken for granted.  In addition, market economies do not magically appear when you sweep government away. 

Fukuyama outlines hidden foundations by which stability exists, they are: property rights, rule of law, and basic political order.  He assesses previous empires on the development and more importantly the balance between the state, rule of law, and accountable government.

Fukuyama also takes a page from the German philosopher W. F. Hegel that human need not just material things but engages in a constant struggle for recognition which is defining the worth or status of a person, their god’s, customs, and belief.  Coupled to this is a human biological need to gravitate towards favoring kin, the human capacity for abstraction to generate mental models for causality.  In addition, humans have a proclivity for norm following that is emotive and not rational, and humans desire recognition of themselves and their way of life, which becomes the basis of legitimacy. 

Having a deep interest in the Middle East, I found it refreshing to see that Fukuyama considers Prophet Muhammad among the most important examples of the influence of ideas in politics.  Muhammad advocated a break from kinship-based societies to one based on a shared idea of monotheism.  The evolution of China as a state began with the ideology of Confucius which outlined how leaders should be judged, and society ordered, but even an ideology is not enough without the mobility of intellectuals which led to the evolution of a national culture.  Why did China decline and Europe rise is explained by the biological urge of China’s clinging to extended kinship, according to the book. 

The book then turns to military-slavery in Islamic polities which was to address the unreliability of tribal levies.  Whether it is the Mamluks, Mawlas, or Ottoman Devshirme, had less to do with religion and more to do with balancing empire with tribalism.  The preservation of property rights creeps up in Muslim empires, and the religious institution of waqf (religious endowments) were used by the Mamluks as a means of passing their property (and the management of the religious trust) to their kin, which was forbidden when the institution of slave-soldiers was conceived. 

Always look at Fukuyama’s balance of three concepts, the state, rule of law, and accountability in analyzing various polities. Can China in the 21st century grow with an imbalance in these three concepts?  Can China grow economically and maintain political stability as manifested in Communism?  What is the future of liberal democracies? Can gridlock and the inability to make decisions ensuring economic and political survival jeopardize democracy as we understand it?  India, the world’s largest democracy, cannot fix its infrastructure with stakeholders use the system to block action.  Japan built up the highest levels of public debt and has not taken measures to change the rigidity of its economy.  Is the United States in a dysfunctional political equilibrium with checks and balances making the solving of complex problems harder?  Fukuyama argues that ideological rigidity locks Americans with a narrow range of solutions. 

Among the book’s many theses: if institutions fail to adapt society will face crisis or collapse; do we see this in the 2011 Arab Spring?  The next volume looks at the French and American Revolutions.  This is a massive and complex work that addresses uncomfortable and large questions. 

About the Reviewer

Commander Aboul-Enein is author of Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat (Naval Institute Press, 2010) which was listed among the 150 most influential books on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  He teaches part time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the National Intelligence University.