The origins of political order: From prehuman times to the French revolution

Book by Francis Fukuyama

The origins of political order: From prehuman times to the French revolutionIn 1989’s The End of History—a hugely controversial work arguing that history, conceived of as an ongoing struggle between opposing views on how human society ought be organized, was finished off by the Cold War triumph of liberal democracy—catapulted Fukuyama to fame as a superstar intellectual. Or, depending on perspective, to infamy as a swaggering neo-con blockhead. Fukuyama has come a long way in his political views since then, publicly repudiating neo-conservatism and even voting for Obama in 2008, but he’s lost none of his authorial ambition or penchant for simplifying big questions.

Consider Fukuyama’s sociobiological take on human social formations. We are what we are—really smart apes—and for hunter-gatherers, as all humanity was during the great majority of its history, kinship-based bands are inevitable, even now the default mode into which we retreat when our larger organizations fall apart. The transformation into larger tribes, made both possible and necessary by agriculture, was also relatively natural, an acceptable way of connecting bigger groups of still-related people. But states, those much larger masses of unrelated subjects—how they arose and why so many failed—are very different, and the meat of Fukuyama’s book.

After considering a few standard ideas on their origins—as voluntary social contracts or a means to large-scale irrigation projects—Fukuyama dismisses them all, on the reasonable grounds that state formation, with its corresponding institutions of serfdom and slavery, was a huge setback to human liberty. Only violent compulsion, he argues, could have pushed the other necessary, but not sufficient, factors in state formation—primarily agricultural surpluses allowing for large populations and a division of labour—into creating an actual state. In a political game of dominoes, neighbouring populations were forced to follow suit or fall before the greater military power of the original state. Much of later human history can then be described, in Fukuyama’s depressingly convincing scenario, as a struggle to limit states’ coercive power.

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