Where the End of History Began

Books Philosophy Politics

Francis Fukuyama is famous for something he did not say. The book which made him a household name in the early 1990s was entitled, a little too grandiosely, The End of History and the Last Man. Hasty critics took him to be saying that history had come to an end, that Western ideology was now all-powerful, and that therefore there would be no more major conflicts of any kind. With every conflict that erupted after the publication of that book, from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the terror campaigns of al-Qaeda, commentators queued up to pour scorn on the naive Japanese-American political scientist who had claimed that nothing like that would ever happen again.

Except that he hadn’t. Fukuyama’s argument may have been wrong, but it was neither naive nor crude. His claim was that with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the discrediting of Communism, the ideology of liberal democracy was emerging as the one political ideal that was guaranteed to gain more and more support worldwide, until it eventually displaced all others. Rival ideologies would continue to exist for a long time (ethno-fascism and religious fundamentalism being just two examples), and would no doubt continue to cause conflicts. But no new kind of ideology would emerge; and the path towards liberal democracy would function overall as a one-way street, gaining more and more satisfied customers, for whom the other ideologies would gradually lose their attractions.

One peculiar feature of the book was its invocation of Hegelian philosophy, at least as interpreted by the Russian-French thinker Alexandre Kojève; this seemed intellectually self-indulgent at the time, and does not come out well at a second reading. For Fukuyama is not a philosopher; nor is he a scholar. Rather, he is a “big picture” political scientist, who works through the writings of scholars seeking answers to questions larger than the ones posed by those scholars themselves. He follows in the path of his Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington, whose wide-ranging work on the growth and decay of political order (as opposed to his later, more question-begging work on the “clash of civilisations”) has long been his intellectual lodestar.

Fukuyama’s new book, The Origins of Political Order, is the first of a projected two-volume study of the biggest question of all in political science: how have human beings developed the large-scale political structures that give them stability, justice and prosperity? To answer it, he looks at all kinds of evidence, from the workings of hunter-gatherer societies to the collapse of ancien régime France in 1789 (everything since then will be in the second volume); but he concentrates above all on the histories of China, India, the Islamic world and Western Europe.

According to Fukuyama, the best kind of political organisation has three essential components: a state structure (a central administration over a whole population, capable of administering justice, raising taxes and maintaining armies to defend it); the “rule of law” (a phrase for which he develops a rather special meaning of his own); and some sort of accountability of the rulers to the ruled (of which modern democracy is the purest, but not the only, form).

Traditional theories of the development of modern societies, from the Enlightenment to Karl Marx and beyond, assumed that there was one single process that would lead people step by step to modernity: from pastoralism to feudalism, say, and from feudalism to commercial or “bourgeois” society. Fukuyama’s most radical claim is that the essential components of the modern state do not evolve in any interconnected way. You can have one without the others; and if you do, the possession of that one component may actually prevent you from acquiring the rest.

His key example here is ancient China, which, by the first century BC, seems to have developed a very efficient and “modern” state structure in which highly trained bureaucrats held office on merit, and were able to impose the will of the emperor over a huge area. In spite of various episodes of decay or collapse, this “strong state” model was powerful enough in the Chinese case to prevent the formation of those “strong society” elements (such as autonomous religious organisations, or other forms of association within the state) that could have supplied the other ingredients of modern accountable government; and so China was held back from modernity by being too modern, in one way, too soon.

Fukuyama does not believe in uniform historical processes, and is not a determinist, or at least not an economic one. (There are touches here and there of biological determinism-claiming that humans are programmed for sociability, or violence, or status-seeking-but these are just invoked as background conditions, and play little direct role in the historical argument.) One of his recurrent themes is the importance of ideas, and especially of religious beliefs. India, for example, is described as having had exactly the opposite trajectory from that of China, with a strong society and a weak state, for reasons deriving entirely from the peculiar nature of Brahmanism: it was this belief-system that ossified society into a set of immobile occupational groups, and limited the military caste in such a way as to prevent rulers from raising large armies for state-building purposes.

The oddest feature of Fukuyama’s argument is his invocation of the “rule of law”. What we normally mean by this is a system in which laws are stated in general terms (i.e. not as ad hoc expressions of a ruler’s will) and enforced impartially (i.e. not in ways that vary according to the status of the individual subject). What Fukuyama means by it is that there is some other set of norms or values that stands above the law-making of the state, validating those laws, or, in some cases, overruling them.

Sometimes he seems to have in mind the very specific (and very American) political idea of constitutionalism — in which case, when Britain had a legal doctrine of “parliamentary sovereignty” à la Dicey, Britain was like the worst sort of despotism, a state utterly without the rule of law. But at other times he accepts almost any belief in a higher set of norms as satisfying this condition, so that a primitive tribe which appoints a new chief on its shaman’s say — so is, by placing the authority of the spirit world above mere political authority, asserting a commitment to the “rule of law”, that essential ingredient of modern statehood. Clearly, something has gone wrong with the argument here.

With Fukuyama’s third component, accountability, we come much closer to familiar territory. So much work has been done already on the development of democratic institutions in Western Europe that he can do little more than offer a summary of it. And this, despite his disavowal of Whig history, has a very Whiggish flavour to it, with its strong focus on the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688: Macaulay himself might have blushed to write that William  of Orange was simply “brought from Holland and placed on the throne”.

Fukuyama may be no more a historian than he is a philosopher or a scholar; but he has a talent for framing big questions and summarising large debates, and there is an honest seriousness about his whole approach that commands respect. The answers he gives are sometimes unconvincing, but never simply glib. So, while the book may be less than the sum of its parts, the experience of reading it is often invigorating, sometimes intriguing, and very seldom dull. And of how many other political scientists could that truthfully be said?