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  • Fukuyama’s Grand Vision
  • Sheri Berman (bio)
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 608 pp.

With the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the last major regional exception to the “third wave” of global democratization has fallen by the wayside—or has it? The transitions in Tunisia and Egypt (the first two regional “dominoes” to fall) are still in their early stages. In the Middle East as elsewhere, moreover, the ultimate outcomes of even successful transitions remain in doubt as liberal-democratic practices in such countries often remain tenuous and sorely limited at best.

This uncertainty should hardly surprise students of political development. Initial versions of modernization theory believed that the good things of modernity would tend to go together, as societies followed a fairly predictable path leading from the development of capitalism, through the evisceration of traditional social structures and norms, to the emergence of liberal democracy. As early as the 1960s, however, it was becoming clear that many countries were getting stuck along the way. They might have experienced economic development and rapid social change, but ended up with political problems rather than political progress.

The most influential explanation of this phenomenon came from Samuel P. Huntington, who argued in Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) that it was much easier to break down traditional structures than it was to build modern ones. To understand why so many developing countries were trapped in violence, corruption, and instability, he noted, it was critical to recognize how hard it was to establish effective political [End Page 165] institutions. Huntington performed an invaluable service in highlighting the importance of institutions in political development, but he had little to say about where those institutions came from or how they worked together to produce a successful outcome. It is this gap that Huntington’s former student, Francis Fukuyama, seeks to fill in this massive, sweeping study of The Origins of Political Order.

Both Fukuyama’s theoretical ambition and the empirical scope of his project are breathtaking: This first of two projected volumes begins with the prehuman apes and runs through the French Revolution, examining in between political development in places as diverse as China, India, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Muslim world. Fukuyama argues that understanding something as important and complicated as “where basic political institutions came from” (15) and how they shape political outcomes requires a deeply historical and broadly comparative methodological approach, and the tour de force that he has produced makes the vast bulk of contemporary social science seem trivial and shallow.

No short review could possibly engage all the book’s arguments, but three of its central features command attention. The first is Fukuyama’s analysis of the “three components of political development that together constitute modern politics” (275). Much ink has been spilled, in the pages of this journal and elsewhere, in attempts to describe the nature and development of liberal democracy. Fukuyama goes straight to the heart of these debates, arguing that liberal democracy rests on three institutions: a strong and effective state, the rule of law, and political accountability. Only when all three exist together is liberal democracy possible, he writes. Then he shows just how rare an occurrence this has actually been.

Today, for example, it is fairly common to find countries that have accountable governments but lack a strong state or a rule of law. Ranging more broadly through history, however, Fukuyama finds examples of almost every possible permutation. China was the first country to develop a true state—a central government with a fairly sophisticated bureaucratic and military apparatus ruling over a delimited territory—yet it never moved on to develop either the rule of law or political accountability.

Fukuyama might have benefited here from a consideration of the distinction that Michael Mann, in his seminal 1984 article on state power in the European Journal of Sociology, makes between “infrastructural” and “despotic” power. The former type of power stems from legitimacy, from a relationship between the officials and the citizens of a state that is defined more by cooperation than by conflict. Mann defines such power as the “capacity of...


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pp. 165-169
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