Fukuyama sees the history of world politics as an interaction between different processes but the view is too open-ended

With Political Order and Political Decay Francis Fukuyama completes his two-volume epic narrative of world politics. In The Origins of Political Order he had painted, on a large canvas, the transition from pre-human times to the French Revolution and in this volume he moves on from the Industrial Revolution to what he sees as the globalisation of democracy. As he takes the reader through this long journey Fukuyama comes up with several valuable insights into specific aspects of the emergence of political order. It is only when he tries to draw universal lessons from the world’s experience with political order and decay that he begins to falter.

Underlying Fukuyama’s basic thesis is a set of five transitions. The first is from bands of individuals to tribal level societies “based on a principle of descent from a common ancestor”. As societies become larger and wealthier they move to becoming states. The states in turn can be patrimonial where the ruler treats the polity as virtually a form of his private property, requiring a transition to a modern state with a more impersonal form of rule. The modern state requires the development of an independent legal system. This is typically accompanied by a fifth transition in the form of the emergence of institutions of accountability.

Fukuyama is quick to point out that these stages need not occur simultaneously across the world or even in sequence. The different elements can also exist at the same time within a country and compete with each other. He speaks of the Middle East where “tribalism remains a powerful force and competes with states for authority”. And it is not difficult to add India and several other countries to this list.

In explaining the course of this competition Fukuyama falls back on Darwin not just to argue that “those that are best adapted to their environment survive”, but also to endorse the evolutionary view that some of the weapons developed in one environment can turn into liabilities when the environment changes. The competition over the arts in Renaissance Italy was a wasteful use of resources in the context of the wars that were to come against Spain and France.

Liberal democracy

In tracking this perceived competition for survival Fukuyama focuses on six dimensions of development. At the core of this approach are three political institutions: the state, rule of law, and accountability. These institutions are under constant pressure from economic growth and social accountability, as well as from each other. The results of this competition can take a variety of different routes. And the chosen route finally gains legitimacy from ideas, which are seen as the sixth dimension of development.

In tracking this competition across different countries of the world Fukuyama does come up with several potentially valuable insights. The distinction he makes between existing elites using their wealth to dominate poor voters in Italy, and American clientelism where non-elite politicians acquire wealth by providing concrete benefits to their supporters, would strike a chord for most analysts of the Indian experience. The framework of open and sometimes unpredictable competition also allows Fukuyama to bring in multiple factors including physical geography into the analysis. It is in the search for an explanatory theory that he becomes less convincing. The difficulty with any work in the social sciences that tends to fall back on Darwin, even with some safeguards, is the possibility of using survival as a proxy for superiority. When Darwin’s work first came out it was used as justification for racism, arguing that if White domination had survived it was because it was the Whites were the superior race. Fukuyama is too sophisticated and too modern to support such ‘scientific’ racism. But he is much less suspicious of the underlying principle that survival is in itself a justification for a particular social system. Indeed, this would appear to be his strongest argument in support of liberal democracy.

Fukuyama poses the central question of this book in an open enough way, asking whether liberal democracy (seen as a regime that is balanced among state, law and accountability) is a political universal or just a cultural preference of those who live in Western liberal democracies. In answering this question he does not go into the inherent benefits of different political systems but confines himself largely to the question of how they work and whether they will survive. This takes him to the quite obvious difficulties with the political systems of Iran, Russia, China and India.

Strain on thesis

This journey through the difficulties of other political systems brings him to the question of governance and that in turn leads him to the functional problems of the most dominant liberal democracy, the United States. His framework allows him to acknowledge that the U.S. too faces a serious crisis of governance and, further, that “all societies, authoritarian and democratic, are subject to decay over time”. But in an extension of his modern Darwinian thesis he believes the real issue is whether they can adapt and eventually fix themselves. And he appears to think liberal democracy can do so. The basis of this belief is that democracies have a wider buy-in and hence a willingness on the part of their people to make the system work. But this principle is not necessarily confined to liberal democracies and could well extend to, say, religion-based popular political systems like the regime in Iran.

Underlying this difficulty is a methodological strain on Fukuyama’s thesis. The strength of his analysis is his ability to see the history of world politics as an interaction between different processes. Such a framework is necessarily open-ended with the possibility of the interaction throwing up a wide range of results including some completely new ones. To find an unambiguous justification for any system, including liberal democracy, from such an unpredictable process is a near impossibility.

Given the large canvas Fukuyama has chosen to paint, to treat the fundamental issue as one of a justification or otherwise for liberal democracy seems oddly inappropriate. It is when this work is seen instead as a framework to understand the interaction between processes in the emergence and decay of political order that the true value of the book emerges. It would still not be faultless, as it is quite uncritical of the import of Darwin into the social sciences, but it would mark a significant step forward.

From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy: Francis Fukuyama; Profile Books, London. Distributed by Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt. Ltd., 4th & 5th Floors, Corporate Centre, Plot No. 94, Sector 44, Gurgaon-122003. Rs. 699.