Origins, Political Order and Political Decay

I thoroughly enjoyed the two volumes of the history of political organization, although I enjoy the second volume a lot more, if only because it seemed more relevant to the present day.

Fukuyama starts with a few human impulses: kin selection, and reciprocal altruism. The first means that we favour our biological relatives more; and the second means that we have the capacity to cooperate. The two together explains how empires are nearly always familial. Families will go to great lengths to attain power (in the past), and once they have it, they want to keep it.

I thought Fukuyama did a fantastic job in laying down how democracies developed in some countries, and why not in others. He lays down the fundamental problem of every political system: people are reciprocal altruists, and it means that if things were left to themselves, they will want to surround themselves with people like themselves to live and survive. This might be fine with small groups or even large associations, but this would be disastrous for running a country. The reason that people seem to accept the idea of a democracy is that it is a mechanism for choosing the people to rule. Democracies are not perfect, and an election is really one mechanism that allows countries to get to “Denmark”. Elections are part of the concept of accountable government. There are other aspects: a competent state bureaucracy and the rule of law. Without these other pillars, democracy is easily hijacked for other purposes. And so Fukuyama takes us through a historical narrative for how the other two aspects come to be present or absent in other parts of the world.

The origins of states come about through the need to wage war. We might not think about it much, but war is an expensive endeavour, and states need militaries to protect themselves or to conquer others. The creation of a military means that an empire/state needs to find ways to extract resources from the population, usually through taxation. And so a state needs ways to create the notion of a state from which to extract resources from. States that could conquer others or to defend against others then become stable entities over time, leading to the states we see today.

The concept of a rule of law is very interesting. Fukuyama basically says that it has religious sources, and that civilizations that come to accept something apart and superior from mankind as a lawgiver tends to think about having law to restrain even the monarch. In societies where the monarch thinks of itself as a divine entity and the lawgiver, the rule of law had not much chance to come up.

Very quickly, in China, a state emerged very early in its history, and it came to dominate society. The state bureaucracy was not always meritocratic; nobles were always trying to see how to get their sons to enter it. And there was always the imperial internal intrigues to deal with. What was also unique in China was that because the state was so strong, there was very little opportunity for a civil society to come up. And so Chinese society came to be dominated by familial relations that interacted with the state. I think this has serious implications when we think about the Chinese prospects to democratise. The critical tests of China, Fukuyama notes, is the possible occurrence of a charismatic leader, or when state enterprises or regions can go against the directions of the central government. If the CCP were to go away for any reason, the political vacuum would be filled by the military, as regional opportunists try to legitimise their rule over the rest of China. Sounds familiar? Try the Three Kingdoms…

As for India — India is really a collection of individual states held together as a nation by a sense of “India.” The states are pretty much autonomous and are the real sources of governance. This was the result of a light bureaucratic footprint left by the British. Does India need to be more centralised? As long as the Indian states are able to govern well enough, it does not appear that there will be an impetus to centralize. And no need to, anyway.

Fukuyama basically follows the Barrington Moore treatment when it comes to Europe: how the nobility, the monarchy, a rising middle class basically had to negotiate with each other. Where the nobility was too strong, fascism was the result in Germany. When the middle class succeeded in getting political concessions and greater representation, democracies resulted, as in France and the UK. I will elaborate on the formation on European states at a later time.

And then we come to the US, where democracy was instituted first before the state. As a result, the state bureaucracy sees a high turnover as the winning party gives positions as a form of rewards — a kind of patronage system. This happened in the UK too, for a while, until the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms came in and guaranteed the meritocratic system that we see in the today.

How does political decay come about? Political decay can be defined as when the state is no longer able to respond to change, leading to a form of internal collapse. We see this in past civilisations as regions get conquered, because the elites of an society could not cooperate with each other to deal with the issues at hand. The Qing dynasty had several internal weaknesses that made it incapable of dealing with technological innovations that were happening, and eventually led to its downfall. Is the United States in decay? Fukuyama notes that the United States political system is effectively a vetocracy, as the different groups become barriers to decision making. The two houses can block legislation; the president is not able to fulfil its agenda. So yes, the US does show signs of decay, but it is still possible to get things done. On the other hand, the US is near-invulnerable to foreign intrusions. Canada and Mexico have no desires to invade the US; nor do other countries have the capacity to put troops across oceans in numbers. The only risk for the US is a nuclear war…

Fukuyama has thus put together both the people’s basic impulses with the constructed nature of human institutions. He has provided a way to evaluate political institutions, which is immensely useful. I basically use the frameworks to look at the political dynamics within countries.