Long Burn the Fire: On Political Order and Political Decay

IN THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH, E. O. Wilson begins his account of man’s long socio-biological evolution with a vignette about the painter Paul Gauguin, who, abandoning his family in France, boarded a Tahiti-bound ship in 1891. In Tahiti, Gauguin sought a simpler existence; or, less charitably, a life of romantic dissipation, which was believed to be possible amongst the “noble savages” of Polynesia. What Gauguin came to realize in Tahiti, however, is that the fundamental human condition is inescapable. There is no journey one can take to free oneself from its clutches. It is boundless, or only bounded by our biological and temporal limits. Gauguin traveled around the world to find himself in the same place.

Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897–1898) remains a stirring reminder of this newfound understanding. In the work, one is granted a panoramic view of Tahitians in various states of togetherness and solitude (as the painting accurately shows, even human solitude is a social phenomenon), over different phases of life. An elderly woman sits, suffering in her contemplation of personal extinction, on the far left of the work; a newborn surrounded by young women perch together on the far right, a symbol of our unceasing but mysterious re-emergence into this world. A prominent figure in the center of the painting stands, arms raised, gazing upward, seeking answers to perhaps the most confounding problem of all: just what it is we are,at our core. Birth and death are bookends. They may form the alpha and omega of the human condition, but they do not reveal the source or meaning of everything that comes in between.

Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

This is a question to which many answers have been essayed, of course, and few of them are wholly satisfying. Still, some are more plausible than others. Francis Fukuyama, representing a grand tradition of theorists that stretches back to Aristotle, sees us as essentially zoon politikon, or political animals. But Aristotle, and Fukuyama, has a rigorous definition of “political,” based as it is on the nature of the “polis.” We are beings defined by our sociability, which manifests itself as political activity. Politics is both a provider of desirable goods (such as peace and security) and an end in itself. It has an independent existence and purpose in this world. The autonomy of the political sphere is paramount in this school of thought: it cannot be wholly subordinated to economic objectives or imperatives. As Fukuyama writes, “the economic system must serve the ends established by the political order, and not the reverse.”

To be human, then, is to be a social-political being, although for Fukuyama this sociability is itself partially constrained and determined by our biological makeup. The question of the political therefore requires drilling all the way down, or at least as far as possible, to our socio-biological — even our genetic — foundations. But it also requires careful examination of the genesis and functioning of the largest units for collective (that is, social) action humankind has ever been able to assemble: states, those murderous and mundane leviathans.

With the release of the second and final volume of Fukuyama’s brilliant work on political orders, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (the first volume, The Origins of Political Order, was releasedin 2011), we have been given a cogent, clear, and often intellectually thrilling account of the development of the state. In the first volume, the reader begins with an examination of the socio-biological roots of this process and then climbs, ineluctably it seems, from band-level (that is, small kin group), to tribal, to state-based forms of political organization. The development of the state proved to be explosive, and, with the epochal French Revolution, would shape early modern Europe and, of course, far beyond.

Despite these great transformations, one is left with a sense of the deep and abiding continuities of our species, what Fukuyama considers our innate conservatism. This conservatism is not narrowly political, although for Fukuyama it can certainly lead to dangerous political complacency. Primitive tendencies often determine contemporary behavior, and humans are hardwired to cooperate (and also compete) with one another. Thus, as Fukuyama argues, we follow rules or norms because of their social and intellectual entrenchment, and not necessarily because of their rational worth.

In the second volume, which takes us from 1789 to the present day, Fukuyama confronts a world radically different from the one that preceded it. It is much more recognizably our own: a world challenged by the volatile promise (and peril) of the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity; and by the economic, social, and political convulsions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. This “dual revolution,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawm called it, has irrevocably altered humankind’s development. Thus in Political Order and Political Decay we begin to reckon with the magnitude of the changes brought about in the last 200 or so years. Arguably, in this period, humankind has traveled a greater distance — has become less and less recognizable to itself — than it did in all of the preceding 5,000 years; that is, in just about all of recorded human history.[1]

There is simply no way to do full justice in a review to a book as dense and as rich as Political Order and Political Decay, let alone to both volumes considered as a complete work. The books span millennia, but they also often delve deep into granular details about specific political arrangements the world over. In volume one Fukuyama focuses on ancient China and India, the Mamluk and Ottoman sultanates, medieval England and Hungary, and the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, among many other polities. In volume two, he looks closely at Prussia (the modern example nonpareil of a “rule of law” state, or Reichstat), despite — or perhaps partially because of — its authoritarian structure and development; modern Italy and Greece (where such development has been frustratingly uneven); contemporary Nigeria (which makes Italy look like Denmark in terms of the quality of governance); Latin American states (where there has been shockingly little interstate war, but, since war helps build states, a correspondingly low state capacity); and the United States (where historical distrust of state power cripples our country’s ability to solve contemporary crises). The natural tendency for such an ambitious project is centrifugal, even if one is — as we are here — in highly capable hands. Drift must be expected, and much repetition, of which there is noticeably more in the second volume. However, to an impressive extent, Fukuyuma is able to sustain and fortify his argument over the entire two-volume work. This is due in part to the elegance of his framework.

For Fukuyama, all political orders can be understood by looking at the development of three institutions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. Fukuyama defines the state according to its classic Weberian dimensions: as a political unit “that possesses a monopoly of legitimate coercion and exercises that power over a defined territory.” States, in their more primitive form, first appeared roughly 8,000 years ago in places like Mesopotamia and Egypt. Through a kind of competitive evolution, they have, over the millennia, crowded out other types of political organization, such as tribal or feudal orders. Although this process has been circuitous, staggered, and subject to many atavistic reversals, states have proven to be so superior in organizational capacity — especially as it pertains to war-making and tax-collecting — that they come to dominate, and eventually extinguish, all other forms of polities. (The fact that the phrase “Hanseatic League,” the medieval maritime confederation that embraced much of coastal northern Europe, is obscure today is an excellent example of this process.)

The concept of the rule of law, Fukuyama argues, is rooted in the authority of religious classes and institutions (such as the Brahmin caste in India, the ulama, or community of religious scholars, in the Islamic world, and the Catholic Church in Christian Europe) that paralleled political rulers. The more autonomous the religious institution, the more intense of a challenge it was able to mount against the temporal rulers of the day. (Fukuyama is fond of recounting the famous “Walk to Canossa” in 1077, when a controversy over the investiture of bishops led to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV having to kneel in a snowstorm for three full days outside the castle of Pope Gregory VII, begging for forgiveness.) Thus, in an ironic twist of fate, when the secularization process began in Europe, the very fact that the continent once possessed an extraordinarily powerful and centralized religious institution provided countries with a template for an external authority — and a normative tradition of binding rulers to a law higher than themselves.[2]

Finally, Fukuyama traces the development of mechanisms of accountability to feudal institutions that appeared under various guises across medieval Europe, such as the Cortes (in Spain) and the Parliament (in England). These institutions, which considered themselves the inheritors of the “ancient liberties” afforded to their predecessors by Roman law, were highly elitist in composition and perspective. But while undemocratic, they did provide an important check on the power of kings, especially during the rise of absolute monarchs in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. These institutions represented the landed estates, which formed the tax base of the state. The elites in England who possessed a seat in Parliament saw themselves as fiscal watchdogs, ensuring that their tax dollars were being spent wisely. England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, helped codify this principle, forbidding any direct taxation by the king without Parliament’s approval. Over time, Fukuyama argues, the notion of accountability has become largely synonymous with electoral democracy, causing barriers to the franchise to be lowered slowly. (“Slowly,” I think, should be the operative word here: the US Constitution of 1787 may have heralded the beginning of this new republican era, but even in the United States the progressive extension of democratic rights to all the country’s adult citizens was not completed until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.)

The state, rule of law, and accountable government thus emerged, in Fukuyama’s telling, on parallel historical tracks; they neither logically entail one another nor do they always work in complementary fashion. In fact, their relationship can be quite antagonistic. Take, for instance, the case of China. On Fukuyama’s reading, the first modern state appeared during the Qin Dynasty around 300 B.C.E, far predating its emergence anywhere else. Sophisticated legal traditions were also developed in China during this time, with one emphasizing the highly particularistic nature of law and the need for a wise, benevolent ruler to adjudicate disputes (Confucianism), and the other arguing for a more stringent command/obedience theory of law centered on the emperor’s word as ipso facto lawmaking (Legalism). But no theory of law developed that offered generalizable rules for conduct to which everyone, the ruler included, was considered subject.

The early emergence of a strong, unified state in China, its invention of the professional bureaucracy, and its tradition of legal and historical scholarship transmitted through the written word all help explain the extraordinary durability of the Chinese political order, and the persistence of China as a great world civilization more generally. But it has also had many devastating consequences for the Chinese people throughout the ages. It should come as no shock that Mao Zedong was a great admirer of the Legalist tradition.

The United States offers another highly educational example of these tensions. The United States, in contrast to China, established institutions of democratic accountability early in its history. Indeed, the US was the first country to institute universal (white) male suffrage, which was nearly achieved by the early 1840s. But these systems of democratic accountability, combined with an inherited tradition of English common law, retarded the emergence of a strong, capable, professional, and independent (that is, not party-dominated) bureaucratic state. Early democratization caused the capture of the nascent state by patronage networks; this led to offices (such as positions in one’s local postal office) being doled out to a victorious party’s political supporters. Civil service candidates were not subject to rigorous, impartial testing that would award jobs based on merit. Systematic abuse of power of this kind seriously undermined the efficiency and capacity of American government.

Eventually, an upper-middle-class reform coalition won a nearly half-century battle to professionalize the bureaucracy. Reformers fought a kind of intellectual trench warfare (against entrenched interests: the political machines). There was no indication that victory was foreordained. Indeed, late-19th-century American reformers were seen as deeply out of step with the spirit of their time — theirs was an age of unrivaled rapacity and the self-serving comforts of Social Darwinism — and their marginal place in American life helps explain why transformation of the civil service took so long. As Richard Hofstadter writes,

In politics the reformers were both isolated and sterile. Intellectuals, obsessed with the abstract ideal of public service, businessmen tired of the cost of graft, patricians worried about the need of honest government, they did not know the people, and the people with good reason did not know them. While reformers were concerned with public uplift, farmers and workers were trying to stave off private downfall.

Relatedly, Fukuyama observes that the reform movement pitted the intellectual gentry against the urban working classes, who were the main recipients of the urban political machines’ largesse. For all the long-term benefits accrued from the destruction of the machines, this political battle had the whiff of class war.

Thus a professional bureaucracy did not emerge in the United States until the 1920s, over a century after its institution in Prussia — and two millennia after its initial inception in China. Even today, Fukuyama notes, bureaucratic performance in the United States is considered inferior to that in democratic countries such as Denmark, and in authoritarian ones such as Singapore. While many Americans find bureaucracy anathema to their idea of this country, they might stop to reconsider that what they really object to is the degraded state of American bureaucracy: its quality, and not the thing itself.


“There are fossils of seashells high in the Himalayas,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “What was and what is are different things.” As in the natural order of things, the human political order has a tremendous capacity for transformation. But there is another, complementary reading of this phenomenon: these seashells, it could also be said, are the Himalayas. They are an imprint of an era that has long passed, but that imprint, to even be recognized as such, exists in the present, partially shaping it. This is one of the paramount lessons of Political Order and Political Decay, although it is not one that is clearly articulated: human history, and the history of our politics, may be linear, but it is also a simultaneous culmination of everything that was past, existing now. The histories of countries or civilizations contain these tendencies. One can look at the history of a place like China and, without resorting to a fatuous essentialism, better understand how legal arguments from two millennia ago are still bearing fruit today.

Fukuyama is deeply conscious of the effect of the past on the present — while we are not prisoners of our history, we are certainly constrained by it, he suggests, often far more than we realize. We are biologically predisposed to favor our relatives over nonrelatives, in proportion to their genetic closeness to us (a phenomenon known as “kin selection”), as well as to trade favors for material gain with other individuals who need not be relatives (a phenomenon known as “reciprocal altruism”). We can suppress or control these tendencies, but never free ourselves from them. They are part of who we are.

Indeed, the earliest states, which Fukuyama calls “patrimonial” (again following Weber), behaved in full natural accordance with these principles. Rulers saw their territories as their personal property, and positions of power were handed out like gifts to friends and family. Patrimonialism has been a corrupting (as well as weakening) force for every political order. Even today, states are in essence engaged in a never-ending battle to suppress our own basic instincts. (The failure to do so in Iraq has led to the communal conflagration — really, self-immolation — there today.)

Many states have gone to great lengths to emerge victorious. In the Middle East, the Mamluks and Ottomans nurtured whole independent classes of elite slave-soldiers (often kidnapped as children from Christian territories in Europe) who were forbidden to have children (or to pass down any titles or wealth); in the 15th century, Ming emperors in China employed an estimated 100,000 eunuchs as court administrators, spies, and assassins. Today, the presence of a professional, independent bureaucracy in a state, with personnel culled from the general population through a rigorous examination process, is considered a sign of modern, enlightened governance and efficiency. It is also, more deeply, a sign of the degree to which that state has held the patrimonial monster at bay.

Some states have been more successful at this task than others. But even the strongest political institutions are at best provisional. So, like in the cycles of creation and destruction prominent in Hindu cosmology, the process of political decay appears inevitable. Institutions, Fukuyama observes, are created to respond to certain crises or conditions, or to reflect certain needs or interests, that existed at the time of their inception. These all change. And if the institutions do not transform along with the new challenges inevitably faced by every polity, decay is the result. In the contemporary world, decay is often driven or accelerated by “neopatrimonialism,” an insidious process where “political leaders adopt the outward forms of modern states — with bureaucracies, legal systems, and the like, and yet in reality rule for private gain.” For “in the absence of strong institutional incentives, the groups with access to a political system will use their positions to favor friends and family, and thereby erode the impersonality of the state. The more powerful the groups, the more opportunities they will have to do this [my italics].”

One thing — sometimes it seems to be the only thing — that Americans of all political persuasions can agree on is that the United States is in a bad way. And it is no coincidence that Fukuyama focuses on “political decay” by analyzing the slow rot of American institutions. Experts agree, writes Fukuyama, that the quality of governance in America has been declining for at least 30 years. The federal government is riddled with inefficiencies that lead to overregulation in some areas and under-regulation in others. Congressional mandates often produce overly complex directives that lead to overlap between agencies’ functions, causing confusion and paralysis. The American tradition of common law means judges in effect serve as legislators, making policy in a highly fragmented manner. All this leads, as Fukuyama says, to a “system of redundant and nonhierarchical authority.” Private contractors have even increasingly taken over basic public functions — most disastrously, as we saw in Iraq, the provision of security in war zones. There is a concentration of wealth among the ultra-rich that is unprecedented since the last gilded age; not coincidentally, the profession of lobbying has also become engorged. In 2013, Fukuyama notes, 12,000 registered lobbyists spent over $3.2 billion on representing interests in Washington, DC. This for Fukuyama is a serious sign of a neopatrimonial regime in America. This process could also be called, simply, systemic legalized corruption.

There is a sense in which history is repeating itself, or at least that we have faced similar challenges before. In a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a particularly sharp diagnosis of the ills facing depression-era America:

A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that the equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists. Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached. […] There is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start. […] If the process [of industrial combination and monopoly] goes on at the same rate, at the end of another century we shall have all American industry controlled by a dozen corporations, and run by perhaps a hundred men. Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.

“Clearly,” Roosevelt says in comic, if unintentional, understatement, “all this calls for a re-appraisal of values.”

It is not easy to see how we can reappraise our values today, when our political class dissembles masterfully, but legislates pathetically. Men, women, and children — dozens of children — can be slaughtered en masse again and again, in a torrent of blood, while entrenched factional interests block the most rudimentary gun regulations. In an era when dollars have been made fungible with speech, it is impossible to hold leaders accountable in any thorough fashion. We have decayed into naked oligarchy, hidden in plain sight.

A liberal-democratic political order, Fukuyama would agree, is a fragile thing. It is always contingent on a complex convergence of factors, an equilibrium that occurs only when there is a rough balance of opposing forces in a society, in a distribution that must be constantly renegotiated. There are no Promethean events in politics: every generation must give the fire to itself. How exquisite, then, that the thinker most famous for popularizing the idea of the “End of History” has given us such a penetrating account of that very impossibility.


[1] Although Fukuyama never explicitly deals with the issue, these two centuries have had a parallel and often catastrophic effect on all other species on the planet as well. Some scientists and philosophers have even gone so far as to label our current age the “Anthropocene,” which marks the period in which human beings, through technological and demographic developments, have fundamentally altered ecological conditions on Earth itself.

[2] Many have also argued that, in a parallel development, the concept of human rights can only be understood as an outgrowth and secularization of the religiously inflected “natural law” tradition that grew out of the work of early modern jurists such as Hugo Grotius.


Zach Dorfman is associate editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council.



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