Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: The Origins of Political Order

Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order seeks to trace the basic outline of political development from our earliest knowledge up to the beginnings of the modern world.  First off, this is an excellent book, to some degree it summarizes in one volume what I've been trying to do with my reading over the last few years.  Within the book, he describes some of the biological underpinnings of political order as well as the early forms of organization these underpinnings led to, the development of the political form of the modern strong state, as well as the development of the rule of law and accountable government.  He ends the book with a basic theory of political development and decay.  Rather than focusing on summarizing the book, I will lay out my basic critiques of it, hopefully with enough background to be intelligible to the reader.

First of all, I have a basic philosophical disagreement with Dr. Fukuyama.  Fukuyama sees modern liberal political democracy as having solved many of the basic problems of political society and as being the best form of political order we can achieve (this argument is laid out more fully in The End of History and the Last Man, it of course does not mean the end of political change or competition but it does mean that there will be no more fundamental shifts in how societies are organized).  I disagree with this view.  I see a basic continuity in the belief of various societies that they have achieved some kind of apex of political order, something similar is seen in Greece, Rome, and China.  Successful societies that are more competitive than and are emulated by their neighbors tend to believe this, the Chinese for instance seemed to have some writers that believed in something not too far off from democratic peace theory, if only the barbarians were brought within Chinese ritual systems and government than they would be more peaceable and interstate relations would be more predictable.  These beliefs have the benefit of being to some extent true, these forms of international relations are really more peaceable than those with vastly different forms of political belief and structure.  However, their repetition throughout history and later disintegration makes me believe that these ideas are essentially false.  Of course, this is no more than speculation, previous periods of these beliefs lasted for quite a long time and I will be very surprised if anything new arises within my lifetime, so this belief is for all intents and purposes non-falsifiable.  However, it is a basic philosophical difference, I see us as being closer to the beginning of our social evolution than we are towards its end (I don't really see there as being an end, just like there isn't for biological evolution).

More concretely, I do have some more particular critiques.  First of all, Fukuyama contrasts the Chinese with no rule of law frequently with other societies (not just European) that did develop a rule of law.  For long term contingent development, I don't really disagree with this.  However, I am not so sure about the accuracy of crediting lower levels of arbitrary rule in Europe to this, rather than simply to the relatively high level of independent power enjoyed by non-state European political actors (rule of law may have played a role in allowing for the mobilization of this latent power, of course, I don't know enough about it to say either way).  Comparing the two histories, I am struck more by instances of arbitrary rule in Europe, such as the expulsion of the moriscos, persecution of the Huguenots, seizure of church lands in many states, slaughter of the Cathars, suppression of the Hussites, as well as more narrow seizures such as those that were inflicted upon many nobles in the Holy Roman Empire in the 30 Years War.  The examples used of arbitrariness in China tend to date to very early periods, such as Qin shi Huang (definitely megalomaniacal and arbitrary) from the 2nd century BC and Empress Wu in the 7th century AD, or to periods of complete political collapse and restoration, such as the first Ming emperor.  I just don't really see European monarchs as being much more respectful of the law than the Chinese emperors, I see both as feeling constrained more by the powers of their leading citizens or their bureaucracies than they are by any particular respect for the law.  I don't disagree that how these were both institutionalized had long term consequences, I just don't see much difference in contemporary periods and see the restraints as being tied more closely to the relative power of monarch and leading citizens than I do in the normative force of law (and to some extent I do see something fairly similar to the rule of law in the deference to received wisdom and respect for the pronouncements of earlier emperors in China, that this provided restrictions on the emperor doesn't mean that it could have led to the kind of constitutional restraints that the rule of law imposed on the west, this is the kind of coincidental development that wouldn't have been obvious to contemporary observers however).  To sum this up, I agree with Fukuyama on the important long run implications of the rule of law in comparing both societies (and found especially interesting his thoughts on how the law played a role in state building, particularly in England, I'll be reading a few of the books from the bibliography based on this), but I don't really agree with the idea that this provided much normative force in actual practice during contemporary periods of comparison between the two societies.

I wrote some thoughts on individualism earlier that were spurred by this book, I won't go into this here.  What did interest me greatly was Fukuyama's description of how Christianity undermined kinship ties and the family more generally, I'll be following up on reading those sources as well.  This does lead me to another critique however.  While Fukuyama spends a great deal of time dwelling on kinship, he doesn't discuss clientage in much more than some passing asides.  I think this is pretty important to the discussion of feudalism in Europe, while Christianity weakened kinship it seems to have largely been replaced by various forms of clientage and other corporate arrangements, not only vassal-lord but also forms of clientage associated with guilds and other corporate arrangements.  I think I understand why this isn't gone into at length, it shows a lot of similarity with kinship and would have unduly complicated an already complex story.  Still, I think it's important to note that these relationships are important to understanding the period and that while they are not completely ignored they could bear more discussion.

I also have some minor disagreements with his contrast between the malthusian world described here and the modern world.  First of all, I tend to see a little more continuity than I think he describes in the book, I reserve judgment on the whole until Vol. 2, however, so will just touch briefly on one aspect of this here.  My main reservation here is that while per capita income may not change much, we do see considerable change occur even in the malthusian economy across time.  This has two elements.  First of all, is the shift in household consumption patterns described in Jan de Vries The Industrious Revolution.  While this books largely describes the shift as occurring during the commercial revolution I think to some extent we do see this earlier, while consumption remains dominated by food there is a greater array of goods that become available to people with what remains of their income and some greater variety of social life.  So those apparently flat incomes probably do conceal at least somewhat greater variety in goods available to people as well as somewhat greater variety of production not directly related to food, even if overall incomes are limited by the very real limits of agricultural activity at this time (to further complicate this there are also some shifts towards monetization under state activity, it is hard to have a differentiated economy when coins are in short supply, as well as some easing of transport costs as more powerful states develop roads allowing more people to participate in more integrated markets, this is getting away a bit from what this books analyzes however).  Also, within those flat incomes can be a degree of disproportion among groups within the large units being analyzed for per capita GDP.  While overall incomes in China may be flat, this is partially the result of extensive growth into poorer areas, even as better settled, more productive areas see substantially higher incomes and greater commercial development.  In this case, poorer regions being settled using either political or technological change (new crops, like potatoes, as well as farming techniques) drag down the overall level of development due to their subsistence nature.  This doesn't mean that richer regions aren't experiencing greater diversification and specialization, but this doesn't show up in aggregate due to marginal extensive growth.  Again, this goes a bit off topic for the book, generally I think that the economic component of development needs fuller treatment than it receives here to fully understand political development.  This is probably better achieved by reading additional books than it would be by expanding this one however, though it is something that will bother me despite understanding the very good reasons for the relatively cursory treatment of economic issues here.

On the whole, however, I can't recommend this book highly enough.  It was really excellent, and provided a great deal of information in one volume that could only be gained otherwise by pretty extensive reading.  I would strongly recommend reading Liberman's Strange Parallels alongside it, many of the same societies are examined from a somewhat different perspective, and with a historian's eye rather than a political scientist's.  For me, the two best pieces are the introductory portions on the state of nature, examining political theory in light of better information on early history and anthropology as well as the comparison of European political development in four different cases, with a fifth case, Denmark, introduced to show an alternative path to modern institutions aside from the standard British case.  I think the most valuable portion of this part is bringing up the problem of a society being too strong relative to the state and how this can be equally destructive as a too strong state, the cases of Hungary and Poland are needed warnings about the need for political balance in protecting individual liberty.  The state is necessary to offset the advantages of the powerful, when it is too weak, individuals become subordinated not to the state, but to the magnates.  I see no reason why this is any different for commercial elites than it is for landed ones, much of Latin America points to how this can happen just as easily whatever form of wealth or political advantages these inequalities take.

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