Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama

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Reviewed by Edward Leigh

This is the successor volume to The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, which together offer a complete history of how people have organised themselves from small bands of hunter-gatherers, through tribes, to modern civilisations. This volume concentrates on modern history, and examines the development of Britain, the United States, China, Argentina, and many other countries through the lens of ‘getting to Denmark’.

Although a fan of Nordic Noir television drama (BorgenThe BridgeThe Killing), I was not aware that Denmark is the international model of a perfect state. Denmark, or rather an idealised version of the nation, acquires this status because “all three sets of political institutions [are] in perfect balance: a competent state, strong rule of law, and democratic accountability.” So, ‘getting to Denmark’ is shorthand for the end goal of political development, and the implicit aim of institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, that try to guide governments of developing countries.

Fukuyama sees a natural progression from nepotism (appointing family and friends), through patrimony (rewarding loyal subjects), through clientelism (buying off powerful or influential voters, or minority groups who hold the balance of power), to the impersonal bureaucracy of ‘Denmark’ (where policies are enacted to benefit broad sections of society).

Fukuyama explores the many forces that may propel a ruler along this path: in Britain, the Glorious Revolution, which established “an executive accountable to representative legislature”, was the result of a bloody civil war, the beheading of Charles I, an unhappy flirtation with dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the accession of enlightened monarchs, William and Mary. (Part of their enlightenment was drawn from philosopher John Locke, who accompanied them from the Netherlands around the time he was writing Two Treatises of Government, in which he expressed the idea that obedience to a ruler should depend on consent to be ruled.) In France it was revolution and expansionary wars under Napoleon I that led to the creation of a modern, universal legal code (the Code Napoléon) and an effective administrative state. In Prussia and Japan it was again expansionary wars that created a need for efficient centralised administration.

But Fukuyama also shows that the forces that create democracy are not revolutions or wars. In most countries, it is a challenge to the ruling elite by a growing and wealthy middle class of merchants and industrialists that starts the process of broadening the franchise. It may take further challenges, for instance by a unionised working class, suffragettes, or Civil Rights campaigners, before the ruling classes come to accept the force of argument, philosophical or ethical, for equality and hence universal suffrage.

This has implications for whether the Arab Spring uprisings can ultimately succeed in establishing fully-functioning democracies: in Fukuyama’s analysis the odds are against it because they do not follow the pattern of history.

One of Fukuyama’s most intriguing conclusions is that nations, such as Britain, that develop a strong state before adopting democracy ‘get to Denmark’ more quickly than those, such as the United States, that widen suffrage before creating strong, centralised government. For much of the nineteenth century, the US was rife with corruption (the construction of a New York courthouse which was supposed to cost $¼m ended up costing over $13m); pork-barrelling or clientelism was the norm; and railroad corporations (the Big Pharma of their day) grew rich from excessively favourable legislation.

This implies that the attempt by the US Government, assisted by NATO and other allies, to establish democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq is bound to fail – or take far longer than we have patience to stay for: Afghanistan had no rule of law nor an effective state under the Taliban; Iraq had both, but the US Department of Defense decided that it needed to cleanse government of Ba’athists, thereby dismantling the state almost entirely. Even if robust government institutions do become established in those countries, it is doubtful that democracy imposed from outside will stick, again because it does not follow the pattern of history.

When Fukuyama thinks of political decay, he has at front of mind his home country, the US, where he sees Progressive Era reforms (enacted under the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in particular) being eroded: government is arguably less accountable now to its electors than to powerful interest groups, such as healthcare and oil corporations, and the National Rifle Association. Lobbyists abuse the two main checks and balances on US government power: the division of power between the President, Senate and House of Representatives; and private individuals’ right to sue the government. If lobbyist-backed congressmen and senators fail to block legislation, they can still render it virtually incomprehensible and unworkable by appending hundreds of riders. Even once legislation is passed, campaign groups can test it in the courts, in the knowledge that the Supreme Court has the power to strike down any legislation as ‘unconstitutional’. (There is a parallel here with the European Court of Human Rights.)

Whereas Why Nations Fail (reviewed here) is an easier and perhaps more enjoyable read, there is a breadth and authority in Fukuyama’s writing that is both awe-inspiring and impossible to summarise satisfactorily: it is packed with well-researched historical facts, themes, ideas and references to virtually every significant political scientist and thinker of modern times. Anyone studying modern politics at A-Level or university, or working with governments in developing countries, or interested in understanding the fundamental patterns of political order should read this book. And then re-read it.

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Edward Leigh is editor of The Reformist website.

Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (Profile Books: London, 2014). ISBN 978-1846684364, 658pp, hardback.

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Read also:

  • Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolutio (Profile Books: London 2012). ISBN 978-1846682575, 608pp, paperback.
  • Larry Diamond, The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (Henry Holt & Company: New York, 2009). ISBN 978-0805089134, 448pp, paperback.
  • Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (Penguin: London, 2012). ISBN 978-0141044583, 432 pp, paperback.
  • James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1846684302, 560pp, paperback. (Reviewed here.)
  • Paul Kelly (editor), The Politics Book (Dorling Kindersley: London, 2013) ISBN 978-1409364450, 352pp, hardback.