What’s that I hear? Francis Fukuyama back-pedalling frantically

A review of ‘Political Order and Political Decay’, by Francis Fukuyama. This excellent volume of comparative history and political science should be read by politicians and public alike

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

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

Profile Books, pp.464, £25, ISBN: 9781846684364

The problem with a futuristic thesis — particularly when summarised by a futuristic title — is that it is likely to be thrown back at you in the future. This is the problem that Francis Fukuyama has faced ever since he published his daring and now much derided book, The End of History and the Last Man, in 1992. In it, Fukuyama argued that history had been buried beneath the rubble of the former Berlin Wall and that the teleological process was now at an end: ‘What we may be witnessing… is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government.’

To many, this theory was literally exploded when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Since then it has been undermined further by the financial crisis, the failures of the Arab Spring, the continual rise of Islamic extremism, the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crisis in the eurozone and two wars in Eastern Europe (Georgia and Ukraine).

In his new book, the sequel to The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama has refrained from prophecy and instead examines the structural causes of political order and decay since the French Revolution. Accordingly, he asks a number of questions, including: how did Germany become a highly efficient unitary state during the course of the 19th century and not only survive but prosper in the second half of the 20th/21st century? Why have Greece and southern Italy failed to achieve the same levels of political accountability and bureaucratic autonomy as Scandinavia and Japan? What has prevented Argentina, rich in resources and land, from developing along similar lines to the United States? And how has the US itself got to the stage where in many respects it is unable to function as an effective administrator and legislator?

As Fukuyama argued in volume one, political order arises through the triumvirate of the state, the rule of law and accountability. What Fukuyama goes on to demonstrate in this second volume is that democracy — the ultimate expression of accountability — requires the other two pillars to be in place before its inception, in order to succeed. Countries which set up democracies before they have functioning states, governed by the rule of law and administered through autonomous, meritocratic bureaucracies, frequently find that the institutions of the state are hijacked by politicians and corrupted as a result. This practice, which Fukuyama terms ‘clientelism’, is evident in sub-Saharan Africa, Greece, large swaths of South America, and the United States prior to the reform of the American civil service in the last part of the19th century.

Following in the footsteps of Max Weber, Fukuyama sees an autonomous, meritocratic bureaucracy as the prerequisite for effective statehood. Prussia developed a highly efficient civil service at the beginning of the 19th century, well before the establishment of democracy, and went on not only to lead the process of German unification but to become one of the great powers in the world. Greece, by contrast, achieved universal male suffrage in 1864 (preceding Britain by a generation) but had no autonomous system of administration. Greek politicians therefore used the developing offices of the state as sources of political patronage, and within a decade Greece had a civil service seven times the size of Britain’s. The growth of the public sector at the expense of efficient and, finally, solvent government continued over the course of the next century and a half until Greek debt reached 140 per cent as a proportion of GDP and those damned efficient Germans were called in to sort out the mess.

Fukuyama still believes that western liberal democracy is the surest guarantee of political order and prosperity. Unlike neoconservatives, however (for whom he was once a standard bearer), he does not attribute the spread of democracy to the universality of the idea. On the contrary, Fukuyama’s understanding of political development is distinctly indebted to Marx: ‘Democracy emerged in Europe in gradual stages over a 150-year period, as a result of struggles among the middle classes, working class, old oligarchy, and peasantry, all being shaped in turn by underlying changes in the economy and society.’

Specifically, Fukuyama attributes the advent of democracy to the rise of the bourgeoisie and their demand to participate in the political process. As the American political sociologist Barrington Moore bluntly put it, ‘no bourgeoisie, no democracy’. This is, of course, not always true. A number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa adopted democratic systems without a significant middle class. But the ability to consolidate a liberal democracy is certainly easier in states where a vibrant bourgeoisie exists and, as Fukuyama points out, the absence of one can explain why democracy has failed to take hold in other areas, such as the Middle East. The link between democracy and middle class development, therefore, seems a strong one and leads Fukuyama to make one of the few predictions in the book: namely, that the continual rise of a vast Chinese middle class will force the People’s Republic to develop a more open political system or risk a breakdown of political order.

This said, Fukuyama no longer believes that western liberal democracy is the paragon of political order it may have been in the past: ‘All political systems are liable to decay… [and] the fact that a system once was a successful and stable liberal democracy does not mean that it will remain one in perpetuity.’ In particular Fukuyama is thinking of the United States, and in the last part of the book he lays bare the ‘decay’ of the American state.

As a revolutionary foundation, the US has always placed a higher premium on the restraint of power rather than its exercise. This tendency, however, has led to impotence and inertia, as the ‘checks and balances’ — the courts and Congress — have gained power at the expense of the executive. The yearly farce over the budget, with billions being wiped off global markets, is a product of what Fukuyama calls America’s ‘vetocracy’. Added to this, America’s democratic institutions have been corrupted by the influence of the now vast lobbying sector. Having abolished clientelism at the beginning of the 20th century, the US now has ‘a system of legalised gift exchange, in which politicians respond to organised interest groups that are collectively unrepresentative of the public as a whole’.

Fukuyama writes about the degeneration of America’s political system with the passion and frustration of a prophet straining to be heard over a cacophony of partisanship and ideological dogma. It is to be hoped that he will make himself heard: this excellent volume of comparative history and political science should be read by politicians and public alike. At the very least, it proves that history is far from over.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Check this YouTube clip, guys. You’ve been played.

    • You have to be pretty gullible to believe in conspiracies about moon landings or 9/11.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Gullible? Shut up, Eccles!

  • Tom McDonald

    This article is right to praise Fukuyama’s latest book and his new turn of thought, but it is wrong, like most detractors, to overlook what Fukuyama still seems to have gotten right in his first book. Within modern western nations liberal democracy sees no serious competitors in terms of legitimate alternative principles of political imagination and organization. Thus one could still reasonably say that it represents a kind of “endpoint” of “ideological evolution” — for us — even if it is still a matter of contention in other parts of the world attempting to achieve a modern economy without political liberalization. As Fukuyama notes, there is also the fact that the number of democracies in the world has increased significantly over the past 100 years. And those regimes struggling to avoid political liberalization do so in the face of significant normative pressures, while we in the west take it largely for granted. Even if parts of the world remain tragically mired in a perpetual but unfulfilled desire for a liberalization that never comes in fact, Fukuyama could still have been right that liberal democracy represents the “final” ideological ideal for reasonable human beings.