City Journal

Adam Kirsch
The Dawn of Politics
Francis Fukuyama goes back to the beginning.
Spring 2011
The chimp way of war: for Fukuyama, a primitive form of political life
OSF/Clive Bromhall/Animals Animals/Earth Scenes
The chimp way of war: for Fukuyama, a primitive form of political life

It’s possible that Francis Fukuyama does not take unmixed pleasure in his fame as the author of The End of History and the Last Man. Ever since Fukuyama published that book in 1992—indeed, ever since he published the article on which it was based in The National Interest in 1989—he has been shadowed by the phrase “the end of history.” Since then, he has written five more books on big, complex subjects, ranging from the decline of trust in American society to the future of genetic engineering, and he has participated in countless policy debates. Yet on the cover of his new book, The Origins of Political Order, he once again is identified as “the author of The End of History and the Last Man.”

Will this book—a 500-page survey of the growth of states “from prehuman times to the French Revolution,” with a promised second volume taking the story up to the present—finally be the one to emancipate Fukuyama from the end of history? The question is justified not simply by the size, scope, and ambition of the project but, above all, by its emphasis on origins. If the end of the Cold War represented the end of history, Fukuyama’s new book starts over at the beginning, with the emergence of the first states out of kin-based tribes more than 4,000 years ago. In the introduction, Fukuyama explains that his purpose in The Origins of Political Order is to offer a new theory of political development, to supersede the one that his mentor Samuel Huntington advanced in his 1968 study Political Order in Changing Societies.

But it is hard to avoid thinking that Fukuyama is after even bigger game. After all, he emerged in his first book as a proud Hegelian—more, as a rehabilitator of Hegel, in an age that had lost patience with all grand theories of historical progress. “The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made all of us into deep historical pessimists,” Fukuyama wrote. But the events of 1989 made it possible once again to believe that history was marching in the direction of freedom, that liberal democracy would prove to be the solution of mankind’s long experiment in politics. This or that tyranny might win a temporary reprieve, but the ultimate judgment was sealed. The concluding metaphor of The End of History made Fukuyama’s view clear:

Rather than a thousand shoots blossoming into as many different flowering plants, mankind will come to seem like a long wagon train strung out along a road. Some wagons will be pulling into town sharply and crisply, while others will be bivouacked back in the desert, or else stuck in ruts in the final pass over the mountains. . . . The apparent differences in the situations of the wagons will not be seen as reflecting permanent and necessary differences between the people riding in the wagons, but simply a product of their different positions along the road.

The title of The Origins of Political Order seems to promise the back story to this consummation, the arche to history’s telos. This might well sound like a hubristic project, requiring the kind of universal synthesis that few historians since Toynbee and Spengler have attempted (or wanted to attempt); and Fukuyama, of course, is not a historian. If he undertakes, in his new book, to discuss everything from Chinese Legalism to the Indian caste system to French tax farmers, it is not with the pretense of knowing everything about everything. Fukuyama confesses to relying “almost exclusively on secondary sources”—some, as the bibliography shows, rather antiquated. Nor, of course, does even such a wide range of topics come close to exhausting “the origins of political order”: for every civilization that Fukuyama treats, half a dozen go unmentioned. Most strikingly, he has almost nothing to say about the Roman Empire, which since Machiavelli has been the classic case study for thinking about the rise of states.

Still, Fukuyama’s project is quite in the spirit of Hegel, who made clear that the writing of universal history does not require giving an account of everything that has ever happened to mankind. Rather, Hegel explained in the introduction to The Philosophy of History, “The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development [is] according to the necessity of its nature.” It is this story of progressive enlightenment that the universal historian has to tell.

In the past, Fukuyama felt that that story was best and most succinctly explained by Alexandre Kojève, the Franco-Russian philosopher whose seminars on Hegel, given in Paris in the 1930s, exerted a huge influence on subsequent political thinkers. (When Fukuyama talks about Hegel, he acknowledged in The End of History, he is really talking about “Hegel-as-interpreted-by-Kojève.”) It was Kojève who proposed that History (that is, the History of the march toward freedom, rather than the lowercase history of whatever happens to happen) ended with the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon—for convenience’s sake, say in 1806, the year of the Battle of Jena and the completion of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. By that time, mankind had discovered that the ideal state was a liberal republic in which each citizen recognized every other citizen as equal, thus ending the age-old struggle between masters and slaves that was the engine of historical progress.

Hegel was aware that such a state did not prevail everywhere, or perhaps anywhere, on Earth in 1806. But this was merely a factual matter, not a philosophical one, Kojève explained: “Hegel . . . knew full well that the State was not yet realized in deed in all its perfection. He only asserted that the germ of this State was present in the World and that the necessary and sufficient conditions for its growth were in existence. Now, can we with certainty deny the presence of such a germ and such conditions in our World?” It took a great deal of confidence for Kojève to ask such a question in 1938, when many would have been quite willing to deny it. But when Fukuyama returned to the question in the early 1990s, fascism and Communism—the twentieth century’s major challengers to liberal democracy—had been defeated and discredited, and the “germ” of freedom was sending out new shoots.

Even in 1992, however, it was possible to point to many parts of the world where liberalism had not prevailed. And in the first pages of his new book, Fukuyama acknowledges that the tide of freedom may seem to have retreated during the last decade. There has been a “democratic recession . . . around the world in the 2000s,” he writes, with the post-Soviet states retreating into authoritarianism, the Communist Party still enthroned in China, and various kinds of despotism in Iran, Venezuela, and elsewhere. Yet Fukuyama’s wagon-train metaphor has always assumed that there would be laggards on the road to freedom. What matters, from his point of view, is not whether democracy advances or retreats, but whether there are any philosophically plausible alternatives to democracy, in the way that Communism once represented such an alternative; and he is confident that there are not. “Very few people around the world,” he claims, “openly profess to admire Vladimir Putin’s petronationalism, or Hugo Chávez’s ‘twenty-first-century socialism,’ or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Islamic Republic. . . . China’s rapid growth incites envy and interest, but its exact model of authoritarian capitalism is not one that is easily described, much less emulated, by other developing countries.”

Such a list exposes the fragility of the Hegelian distinction between History and history: when something like 2 billion people live under dictatorships, the fact that the idea of democracy goes philosophically unchallenged might seem a little irrelevant. Nor is it entirely true that the regimes Fukuyama lists are without admirers. Certainly the Islamic Republic of Iran has vocal (and well-armed) sympathizers, in Lebanon and Egypt and beyond.

Yet since ideas have consequences, the ideological victory of liberalism would be nothing to scorn—if it were really assured. Ironically, however, The Origins of Political Order itself gives reason for doubting this. For in a strange way, without explicitly acknowledging it, Fukuyama in his new book abandons the central premise of his earlier work, which was the Hegelian necessity of the progress of freedom. It is true that, as before, Fukuyama sees political history as the story of the evolution and spread of liberalism. The strategy of the book is to examine the development, across a range of societies, of what he considers the three pillars of “modern liberal democracy”: a strong state, the rule of law, and accountable government. While his choice of historical case studies is unconventional, the trajectory of the book leads him to a very traditional, even Whiggish, culmination: an analysis of “England, in which all three dimensions of political development—the state, rule of law, and political accountability—were successfully institutionalized.”

The implication is that all the other civilizations that Fukuyama discusses are defective Englands—though at times, he varies the metaphor and suggests that the goal of all countries is “getting to Denmark,” where “Denmark” is shorthand for “a mythical place . . . [that is] stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.” One way of reading The Origins of Political Order is as a manual on modernization, development, and state-building, the issues that have dominated Fukuyama’s work in recent years. They have also dominated American foreign policy in the post–September 11 era, as the plausibility of building democracy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan became a major question dividing foreign-policy neoconservatives from traditional realists, isolationists, and disillusioned liberals. Fukuyama, once a leading neoconservative, announced his resignation from that school in a 2006 New York Times Magazine article, “After Neoconservatism,” in which he declared it “very unlikely that history will judge either [the Iraq War] itself or the ideas animating it kindly.”

Allusions to this foreign-policy debate show up at several points in The Origins of Political Order, when Fukuyama emphasizes the cultural and geographical obstacles to democratization. “Mountains . . . explain the persistence of tribal forms of organization in many of the world’s upland regions,” he writes, instancing Afghanistan: “Turks, Mongols, and Persians, followed by the British, Russians, and now the Americans and NATO forces have all tried to subdue and pacify Afghanistan’s tribes and to build a centralized state there, with very modest success.” Likewise, Iraq illustrates the persistence of tribalism under the veneer of the modern state: “As the Americans occupying Iraq’s Anbar province after the 2003 invasion discovered, it was easier to control tribal fighters using the traditional authority of the tribal chief than to create new impersonal units that did not take account of underlying social realities.”

Such examples, Fukuyama concludes, “should imbue us with a certain degree of humility in the task of institution-building in the contemporary world. Modern institutions cannot simply be transferred to other societies without reference to existing rules and the political force supporting them.” Stated in such broad terms, this conclusion is hard to argue with. But it does seem at odds with the principle, central to Fukuyama’s earlier work, that liberal democracy is the best form of government because it fulfills a universal human desire for recognition.

In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama makes a considerably weaker claim for liberalism: “Once this combination of state, law, and accountability appeared, it proved to be a highly powerful and attractive form of government that subsequently spread to all corners of the world. But we need to remember how historically contingent this emergence was.” In the second volume of this work, taking the story of “political order” down to the present, Fukuyama plans to examine “how the application of that [English] model has fared in countries lacking the specific historical and social conditions of England.” But the principle established in this first volume is already clear: “contingency” and “attractiveness” have replaced universality and necessity.

What explains this shift, which Fukuyama never explicitly justifies? One answer might be that history—events in Iraq and Afghanistan—has derailed Fukuyama’s confidence in History. But the powerful thing about the dialectic, as generations of Marxists knew, is that mere events can never disprove it. Since decades are as moments in the eyes of the Idea—this is one of several ways in which it resembles God—nothing that has happened between 1992 and the present can disprove the end of History. (Didn’t Kojève dismiss everything that happened since 1806 as essentially irrelevant?) By the same token, every outbreak of democracy, no matter how imperiled or fleeting, can appear as confirmation of Fukuyama’s theory—which is why many commentators invoked the recent Egyptian revolution as a vindication of Fukuyama’s thesis.

The explanation for Fukuyama’s evolution must be sought, rather, in the realm of ideas—in particular, in the idea of evolution itself. Briefly put, Darwin has replaced Hegel as Fukuyama’s guide to politics. This becomes clear as early as the second chapter of The Origins of Political Order, “The State of Nature.” Fukuyama has never accepted the Hobbesian view of the state of nature as a war of all against all, but the grounds of his rejection have changed. In The End of History, he countered Hobbes with Hegel: the Hobbesian notion that society is grounded in man’s fear of violent death, he argued, was less plausible than the Hegelian view that society arises from man’s need to earn recognition from his fellows by dominating them.

In the new book, he again dismisses Hobbes, but this time on Darwinian grounds. Mankind has never consisted of atomized individuals, Fukuyama writes, but even in its most primitive state was organized into small, kin-based bands: “Human sociability is not a historical or cultural acquisition, but something hardwired into human nature.” The biological imperative for human beings, as for all animals, is the preservation of their genes, which led us to evolve the strategies of “inclusive fitness, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism.” So strong is this genetic allegiance that, in most parts of the world, it goes deeper and lasts longer than allegiance to larger groups like nations or states: “From the Melanesian wantok to the Arab tribe to the Taiwanese lineage to the Bolivian ayllu, complex kinship structures remain the primary locus of social life for many people in the contemporary world, and strongly shape their interaction with modern political institutions.”

Yet the effect of using Darwin to disprove Hobbes is actually, it turns out, to confirm Hobbes on another level. There may never have been a war of all individuals against all; but the state of nature was, Fukuyama argues, a war of all extended families against all. This is true even of chimpanzees, whose violence and status-seeking Fukuyama sees as a primitive form of politics. The first higher-order social organization, into tribes, was a response to this constant warfare, and the next level of organization, into states, was a way for tribes to gain advantage over one another. Fukuyama illustrates the point by discussing the “warring-states” period of Chinese history, from 480 to 221 bc, when constant conflict reduced thousands of competing principalities into a single empire. “The chief driver of Chinese state formation,” he concludes, “was war and the requirements of war.” The title of Chapter 5, “The Coming of Leviathan,” confirms that Fukuyama has taken a Darwinian detour to a Hobbesian conclusion.

Humankind’s earliest conflicts were classically Darwinian, then: fights over resources in which the fittest survived. But competitions among states, as Fukuyama understands them, are Darwinian in a looser, quasi-metaphorical sense. “Political systems evolve in a manner roughly comparable to biological evolution,” he writes:

Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on two very simple principles, variation and selection. Variation among organisms occurs due to random genetic combinations; those variants that are better adapted to their specific environments have greater reproductive success and therefore propagate themselves at the expense of those less well adapted. In a very long historical perspective, political development has followed the same general pattern: the forms of political organization employed by different groups of human beings have varied, and those forms that were more successful—meaning those that could generate greater military and economic power—displaced those that were less successful.

It is a sign of how powerful the Darwinian worldview has become that Fukuyama could find this analysis plausible, despite the fundamental difficulty of applying concepts like reproduction and fitness to states. To take just one example, the ability to exert “military and economic power” does not have any clear correlation with a polity’s survival in the long term—just look at the way the Mongols destroyed more sophisticated states, from Persia to Muscovy to China, and then disappeared in a few generations.

But there are two even deeper problems with Darwinism as a guide to political history. The first is that, like almost every thinker who has tried to apply the evolutionary model to human affairs, Fukuyama cannot avoid thinking of evolution as a matter of the emergence of higher forms out of lower forms. “Strict cultural relativism is at odds with the implications of evolutionary theory,” he writes, “since the latter necessitates identifying different levels of social organization and the reason one level gets superseded by another.” Yet at the very heart of Darwinism is the principle that there is no such thing as “levels” or “supersession”; as Darwin adjured himself in one of his marginalia, “Never use the word higher or lower.” Human beings are in no biological sense higher than cockroaches; we have simply evolved a different adaptive strategy.

In the same way, regarded simply as a strategy for survival, no human polity is higher or lower than another, only (momentarily) more or less successful. That is why Fukuyama’s new Darwinian theory of politics cannot yield the same confidence about liberal democracy that his earlier Hegelian theory did. If history is evolutionary, it can’t have a direction or a destination; liberal democracy is no more the end of history than Homo sapiens is the end of biology.

If this conclusion is hard to accept, that is because of the second problem with Darwinism as a guide to human affairs. Human beings are a species whose drive to reproduce is sometimes contested by moral and intellectual values that we posit for ourselves. It is not hard to think of situations in which truthfulness, fidelity, or piety can take precedence over the instinct to reproduce or even to survive—celibacy is a human institution, as is martyrdom. Nietzsche, who was a great antagonist of Darwin, formulated the difference between them precisely in terms of the different emphases that the two thinkers placed on survival. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche observed that, for human beings, the subjective experience of triumph was more important than actual success in the struggle for survival: “Physiologists should think again before positing the ‘instinct of preservation’ as the cardinal drive in an organic creature. A living thing wants above all to discharge its force.” And the discharge of force can take forms inimical to the preservation of life.

The application of this Nietzschean idea to politics implies that human beings are capable of sacrificing their own reproductive fitness in the name of an idea. Allegiance to a state or to a religion is a classic example of a human behavior that can be biologically “irrational.” But if that is the case, how can we reduce political order to an expression of biological drives? Fukuyama is well aware of this conundrum, since he has always been a devoted and insightful Nietzschean—if the first part of the title of The End of History and the Last Man comes from Hegel, the second comes from Nietzsche. That is why he insists many times, in The Origins of Political Order, that we cannot understand history simply in materialist terms. “Ideas are extremely important to political order,” he writes early on.

In fact, much of Fukuyama’s book consists of case studies in how and why ideas trump interests. It is biologically axiomatic for Fukuyama that people will seek to benefit themselves and their immediate kin. For a state to preempt such loyalties, it must possess legitimacy, one of the two key concepts in The Origins of Political Order. The “Mandate of Heaven,” which was said to decide among claimants to the imperial throne of China, is one classic version of legitimacy.

But legitimacy does not serve only to control peoples; it also, even more strikingly, controls rulers. Fukuyama rejects the economist Mancur Olson’s characterization of early modern European monarchs as “stationary bandits,” mere predators on their subjects’ resources. It is not historically true that kings taxed their subjects at the highest possible rate or continually threatened them with violence. In China, the influence of Confucianism bound rulers to act justly toward their subjects; in Europe, Catholicism and the institution of the rule of law did the same—and much more effectively, in Fukuyama’s view.

Political order arises, then, when the state commands enough legitimacy to trump its subjects’ familial loyalties. Conversely, political decay happens when those loyalties reassert themselves at the expense of the state. This leads to the second major concept in Fukuyama’s book, repatrimonialization. The classic example here is ancien régime France, whose aristocrats and financiers purchased parts of the state for their own benefit, in the form of tax-farming franchises and heritable offices. It was, Fukuyama writes, an “early prototype of what is today called a rent-seeking society. In such a society, the elites spend all of their time trying to capture public office in order to secure a rent for themselves.”

The most interesting parts of The Origins of Political Order deal with the various ways in which different polities have attempted to head off such repatrimonialization, some of them quite exotic. In the Ottoman Empire, the devshirme was a levy of Christian youths, in which gifted boys were taken from their homes and trained to be imperial administrators and janissaries; in this way, the sultans created a bureaucratic caste with no family ties. In China, the use of an examination system to recruit mandarins played a similar role. Both can be seen as strategies for producing Platonic guardians wholly dedicated to the state; in The Republic, Socrates even urges that the guardians be told that they have no human parents, which he calls a “noble lie.”

It is hard to see how Fukuyama can avoid a similar conclusion: that the forces that make for legitimacy and political order are, in the end, only noble lies. In the Darwinian understanding of man, only individual and familial advantage can be a genuinely rational motivation; nationalism, religion, and ideology, the great drivers of state-building and civilization-building, are irrational. Fukuyama tends to treat religion, in particular, as a collective delusion useful for driving the consolidation of tribes into states: “Religion solves this collective action problem. . . . If I believe that the chief can command the spirits of dead ancestors to reward or punish me, I will be much more likely to respect his word.” Again, he writes that “there is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad”—meaning, it appears, that in this case, the connection of religious belief with political power is especially naked. It is in this reductive sense that we must take Fukuyama’s insistence that “ideas matter.”

What this really means, in fact, is that ideas mattered. For there is no way that a reader who shares Fukuyama’s Darwinian outlook could ever find himself moved to action by the kind of ideas that he is talking about—the deification of a chieftain or a prophet or a nation-state. That’s why Fukuyama does not explain these phenomena from the inside, as Hegel did, but simply redescribes them in terms of inherited instinct. Two of the “foundations of political development,” Fukuyama writes early in the book, are that “human beings have a capacity for abstraction and theory that generates mental models of causality, and a further tendency to posit causation based on invisible or transcendental forces. This is the basis of religious belief. . . . Human beings also have a proclivity for norm following that is grounded in the emotions rather than in reason, and consequently a tendency to invest mental models and the rules that flow from them with intrinsic worth.”

Note the circularity of these definitions. Like the doctor in Molière who explains that opium causes sleepiness because it has a “dormitive power,” Fukuyama attributes the human susceptibility to religion and morality to our “capacity for abstraction” and “proclivity for norm following.” One difference between opium and religion, however, is that being able to describe religion in this way means being immune to it or emancipated from it. Indeed, to be emancipated from such ungrounded “norms” is what it means to live after the end of History.

Another name for this freedom is nihilism—the nihilism of which Nietzsche was the prophet and would-be doctor. What has been really distinctive about Fukuyama’s work, from The End of History onward, is that he seriously engages with the condition of nihilism, in which he worries that we are condemned to live. But while Nietzsche hoped to counter the apathy of the Last Man with the will-to-power of the Overman, Fukuyama—inheriting, as we all do, the lessons of the twentieth century—cannot look so blithely at the prospect of new “wars of the spirit.” His task, rather, has been to look for nonviolent ways of harnessing the human desire for struggle, recognition, and the “discharge of force.”

In Trust, Fukuyama saw work and corporate loyalty as possible solutions: “Liberal democracy works because the struggle for recognition that formerly had been carried out on a military, religious, or nationalist plane is now pursued on an economic one,” he wrote. The Great Disruption, his analysis of post-sixties cultural and social ills, was based on the recognition that “the situation of normlessness . . . is intensely uncomfortable for us,” and he looked hopefully forward to the spontaneous emergence of new norms and values. Our Posthuman Future was a still more powerful jeremiad against nihilism, perceived this time in biotechnological terms: “Biotechnology will cause us in some way to lose our humanity—that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going.”

There is an unmistakable echo in these words of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman in The Gay Science. After the death of God, the madman demands, “Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideways, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left?” As long as Fukuyama could believe in History as a dialectical process, moving inevitably in the direction of freedom and equal recognition, there was at least one compass point that he could rely on. In the Darwinian world of The Origins of Political Order, that directionality has vanished, and we are left with contingency and cynicism as the keys to understanding our own past. That this results in a more conventional book than we have come to expect from Fukuyama is a sign of how difficult the conventional wisdom is to escape.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Tablet. His new book, Why Trilling Matters, will be published this fall.

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