The Origins of Political Order

Image of Origins of Political Order
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
April 12, 2011
Publisher/Imprint: 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 
608
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“Deftly weaving economics, military strategy, religion, law, culture, evolutionary biology, archaeology, and history, Francis Fukuyama tells his story from the earliest of times up through the end of the 18th century on the eve of the French and American revolutions; and it unfolds in five major parts: before the state, state building, rule of law, accountable government, and toward a theory of political development. . . . Both thoughtful and thought provoking, The Origins of Political Order is a singularly important book, providing essential perspective at a time when our political institutions are severely challenged.”

How do you organize people and their affairs?

How do you sustain stability but not stifle progress?

How do you allocate resources, promote both economic growth and social justice, and preserve common concerns while accommodating the individual expression?

In short, how do you manage society to achieve political order?

The answers to these big questions, whose origins trace back to the earliest tribes, have evolved to represent the political order and enabling institutions of contemporary society. Today, these and derivative questions dominate the largest of social organizations.

How do China and India reconcile market initiative to promote growth with social justice for its hundreds of millions of disadvantaged?

How does the European Union sell austerity and fiscal prudence to hundreds of millions who do not understand or accept the proposition that they should suffer for the miscalculations of a few?

How does the United Stated balance national standards for education, immigration, and other issues with state’s rights and local city governance?

In his provocative, critically acclaimed The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama assessed the fundamental realignment of global power and politics, and concluded that a synthesis of forces functionally ended history as it had been known until the late 20th century. Subsequent studies have probingly explored big issues concerning society, governance, and progress.

Now, in latest book, he traces the evolution of power and governance from prehuman times. His majestic The Origins of Political Order is the first of a two-volume multidisciplinary study of how contemporary political institutions evolved from the earliest tribal organizing structure to today’s complex contemporary political institutions.

A particular strength of this volume is its broad coverage of China, India, and Islam, while stories of Africa and the Americas are less explicitly addressed. Perhaps these may be explored in a follow-up study, if not integrated into the second volume.

While the subject is vast, embracing all of the world’s places from the beginning of time through the 18th century, the author includes a plethora of stories, anecdotes, and fascinating facts.

One such fascinating point is the evolution of status symbols: before contemporary fashion an individual’s weight was the evidence of status, for only the prosperous could afford to eat more than a subsistence diet. Personal appearance, as evidenced by being thin and/or muscular, are contemporary status symbols. In his entertaining Bonfire of the Vanities, Thomas Wolfe wrote descriptively about socialites’ X-ray thinness as epitomizing their status. Now, other coveted status symbols are houses, cars, jewelry, handbags, shoes, clothing, charity boards, philanthropy, and trophy wives.

For much of the time period covered in this study, violence was central to implementing “the essence of politics: the ability of leaders to get their way through a combination of authority, legitimacy, intimidation, negotiation, charisma, ideas, and organization.”

And still, even in the modern era, “sometimes violence is the only way to displace entrenched stakeholders who are blocking institutional change. The fear of violent death is a stronger emotion than the desire for material gain and is capable of motivating more far reaching changes in behavior.”

Nonetheless, modern state institutions have proven incapable of effecting certain changes, which condition led to the U.S. Civil War, the two World Wars of the 20th century, and to purging patrimonial elites in China.

Political order, historically, derived from the intersection of relationships between the peasantry, the state: military capacity and administrative capacity, the upper nobility and gentry, and the Third Estate, comprised of “tradesmen, merchants, free serfs, and others who inhabited towns and cities and lived outside the manorial economy and feudal legal system” holds much explanatory power.

Rather than relying on a traditional approach of discussing different labels of governance form, by examining the interrelationships between the different categories of parties, the author’s framework conveys much insight and understanding.

Today’s contemporary world is very different than earlier times, for “political, economic, and social components of development interact with another quite differently now than they did before.” The political power is very different for “a much broader and more diverse range of social actors tends to get mobilized in contemporary societies compared to the agrarian ones. . . . Any political analysis of the struggle must begin by understanding the nature of the different actors, both outside the state and within it, and their degree of cohesion.”

Beyond the State, specifically military and administrative capacity, these different actors include trade unions, business groups, students, nongovernment organizations, and the media in addition to unorganized social groups.

His discussion of how the intersection of economic development and political institutions in a postindustrial Malthusian world is of particular current interest, inasmuch as the world’s population has just passed seven billion. Whereas starvation, disease, and predator concerns earlier dominated, progress on those fronts combined with intensive economic growth introduce new variables. Now, concerns of social mobilization, government legitimacy, and rule of law all loom large.

The author’s distinctive competency embraces dealing with big ideas, approaching them from multiple perspectives, evenhandedly presenting the record of events, and distilling the scholarly research and chronicles of historians’ telling of the seminal events.

Deftly weaving economics, military strategy, religion, law, culture, evolutionary biology, archaeology, and history, Francis Fukuyama tells his story from the earliest of times up through the end of the 18th century on the eve of the French and American revolutions; and it unfolds in five major parts: before the state, state building, rule of law, accountable government, and toward a theory of political development.

In approaching the subject of political order, the author cleverly investigates the forces that led to the emergence of states, generally, and the intersection of that process in creating the institutions that are the byproduct of initiatives to achieve, even impose order on circumstances where such order is lacking.

Both thoughtful and thought provoking, The Origins of Political Order is a singularly important book, providing essential perspective at a time when our political institutions are severely challenged.