June 2011

Arts & Letters

‘The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French’ By Francis Fukuyama

By Tim Soutphommasane

Most scholars have in them at best one major work. Had Francis Fukuyama ceased writing after The End of History and the Last Man, his hugely influential book of 1992, he could have been content with having produced a magnum opus. In the years since, Fukuyama has continued writing well-received, thoughtful books, but only now has he created something to rival his best known work.

The Origins of Political Order is the first instalment of a two-volume work about the history of political development. Describing this as ambitious doesn’t quite do it justice. The central question of this project – What explains the development of basic political institutions such as an impartial state, the rule of law and democracy? – admits no simple answer. Fittingly, Fukuyama adopts a sweeping approach, drawing on insights from sociobiology, political economy, sociology and political science. His aim, “to recover something of the lost tradition of nineteenth-century historical sociology or comparative anthropology”, is nothing less than to become the twenty-first century heir of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Such an endeavour has been undertaken before – most notably, the British political scientist Samuel Finer produced a mammoth three-volume study, The History of Government from the Earliest Times – but few have produced work as engaging and impressive as Fukuyama’s. He begins from a novel starting point in adopting biology as the foundation of politics. Rejecting what he calls “the Hobbesian fallacy”, the idea that human beings were primordially individualistic and sought government only to avoid a “war of all against all”, he argues instead that modern biology tells us there was never a period in human evolution where humans existed as isolated individuals. In the language of evolutionary biologists, the human brain is hardwired for social co-operation based on kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

There is something of a conservative slant to Fukuyama’s analysis, as expected from a former leading ‘neo-conservative’ intellectual (an affiliation he renounced in 2006 in light of American troubles in Iraq?). However, on the whole Fukuyama is refreshingly pluralistic. He rejects one-dimensional modernisation theories that suggest political development only occurs as part of a ‘single package’ involving capitalistic economic growth and liberal democracy. The Chinese, for example, developed a modern state more than two millennia ago, without the accompaniment of the rule of law, democracy or capitalism. (A state of affairs that also partly obtains in today’s China.)

Given the scope of this first volume – from prehuman times to the French revolution – Fukuyama says little about modern political development. He gives a taste, though, of what is to come in Volume II. Modern democracies in the early twenty-first century, he notes, are suffering from state weakness: “Contemporary democracies become too easily gridlocked and rigid, and thus unable to make difficult decisions to ensure their long-term economic and political survival.” It is an intriguing indication from a thinker many still regard as liberal democracy’s most enthusiastic cheerleader.

Tim Soutphommasane
Tim Soutphommasane is a philosopher and political theorist. He is a research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, fellow of St James Ethics Centre and senior project leader at Per Capita think tank. His books include All That's Left and Reclaiming Patriotism. @timsout

'The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution', By Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, 585pp; $59.95

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