book cover imageThe Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
Hardcover, 608 pages, $35.

In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that the “end of history” was realized with the supposed triumph of a universal, democratic capitalism. In this view, history is depicted as an evolutionary process culminating in the conquest of a specific idea, thus permitting events to continue in the post-historical age, but only under the framework of a particular political system. Fukuyama’s concept of the end of history does not constitute the end of corporeal time; rather, it signifies the end of a tension or struggle in the battle of ideas. For several years, it seemed as if democracy triumphed over all other forms of government, and it would only be a matter of time before the entire world would enthusiastically embrace liberal, bourgeois values.

Accused by Jacques Derrida of being a back-handed Christian eschatology, The End of History and the Last Man promised more than a book of political science could deliver. In essence, it was an apology for a tired old brand of historicism characterized by the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. It provided an intellectual pedigree for the idea of a secular society sustained by an obsessive dedication to individual freedom, unbounded technological progress, and material comforts. Such a society was free to dismiss its religious roots and reject its cultural patrimony without destabilizing the political order upon which it rested, or so Fukuyama insisted. For Fukuyama, like Rousseau and Marx before him, the fundamentals of order are premised upon purely political constructs. In this vision of things, politics is not only the primary mover; it is the material, formal, efficient, and final cause of history. It permeates every aspect of life and decides the course of our future.

Nearly two decades later, in The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama revised his original thesis to account for significant events in world history, yet he remains the ever-committed historicist. Trapped by his own ideological fascinations, Fukuyama cannot separate himself from the philosophical presumptions that tend to unwittingly belie his vision of a free society. Although he assigns a greater role to the influence of contingent factors in his new book, Fukuyama missed a fantastic opportunity to reject the historical determinism championed in The End of History, and doubled down on his insistence that history is principally animated by the political structures associated with liberal democracy. Going far beyond Aristotle’s belief that man’s nature is political or social, Fukuyama insists that man’s end, and the path toward that end, is predominantly constructed upon political thought of a very specific type. Fukuyama leaves no room for cultural, religious, or other intermediary institutions, and purposely writes his history of order as a history of political order. In this view, all non-political factors are tangential to the impersonal political forces that he believes lend shape to human events. No doubt, Fukuyama recognizes non-political elements within the development of culture, but these considerations are assigned a secondary role.

Fukuyama’s thought has changed little even in the wake of significant historical events, including the September 11, 2001 attacks, major military campaigns, and the recent collapse of the international financial markets. Fukuyama had an opportunity to revise his thesis, and to some extent he endeavored to seek harmony between his past work and what he now hopes to be the first volume of his magnum opus. But while he now turns away from the outward dogmatism presented in The End of History, he nevertheless fails to meaningfully reconsider his working assumption that the end of history is preordained as a future in liberal democracy.

The Origins of Politics Order, however flawed, has qualities which assure it an important place in the contemporary political debate, even if its influence is ephemeral. While The Origins of Political Order contains many of the questionable conclusions found in The End of History, it nonetheless provides a unique view of the genesis of international political order. In particular, Fukuyama confronts the failure of non-Western cultures to develop stable political systems and examines why attempts to build such political systems have failed. To understand the basis of modern political order, Fukuyama points to what he considers the three primary elements: (1) a strong state; (2) the rule of law to which the state is subordinate; and (3) political accountability.

Fukuyama also challenges the extreme assertion, propagated by certain elements of both right and left, that government is an unnecessary social institution. Fukuyama’s vision of political order rejects the so-called “Hobbesian fallacy,” which asserts thatman in his natural state is an isolated figure. Turning to anthropological evidence and evolutionary biology, Fukuyama argues that prehistoric man was not the caricature of a solitary simpleton depicted by the seventeenth-century liberal theorists; he shows primitive man instead to be infinitely dependent upon kin and community. This kinship and social structure gradually morphed into the nascent institutions which in turn formed the framework that gave rise to modern states.

Fukuyama argues that the genesis and conservation of political order is dependent not just upon the existence of strong states, but specifically upon those which exist under the rule of law and maintain a high degree of political accountability. Fukuyama goes to great lengths to show that some states may possess one or two of these elements, but it is the rare historical occurrence when states are all three. England, he asserts, was the first nation to combine all three elements in a stable equilibrium, and other countries such as Denmark and the United States followed suit.

Overall, Fukuyama provides an incisive intellectual history, and although his conclusions are often questionable and his scope limited, the ideas in The Origins of Political Order must be addressed by a new generation of thinkers lest we risk them developing into any more of an influential intellectual force. Fukuyama is hasty with many of his conclusions and demonstrates significant unexamined ideological commitments. This is particularly so when it comes to his treatment of religion, and especially in his treatment of Christianity. While Fukuyama attempts to develop a history in the tradition of Fustel de Coulanges and Arnold Toynbee, he is unable to concede that spirituality is the central, animating force of culture, and instead treats religion as a useful means by which to explain certain aspects of political order. In his treatment of India, Fukuyama argues that the cultural order is ultimately an order based upon the theology of the Brahmins; nevertheless, he is less enthusiastic to make a similar connection between European culture and Christianity. It seems as if he cannot bear to admit to the significant influence of spirituality on the development of Western culture because such recognition might enervate the sophisticated political vision of modernity ensconced by Hegel and his disciples.

Fukuyama’s conception of order rests upon an abstract political vision, and everything in his book is viewed through the prism of a pure political science. In elevating the political to the level of ultimate reality, Fukuyama raises political theory to a theological plane, and tacitly avers that his particular vision of political order captures the universal spirit that animates history. By stressing the primacy of politics at the expense of other constituent elements of culture, Fukuyama embraces the core of Hegelian political philosophy—the supremacy of the State as the source of all order.

In a chapter entitled “Christianity Undermines the Family,” Fukuyama underscores that Christianity established a rival source of public authority to that formerly exercised by tribal and family leaders, and that close ties of kinship found among early Western tribal societies were weakened by the Catholic Church’s expansive evangelization of the Germanic peoples. The political result of a disintegration of tribal culture and strong kinship bands was the rise of an individualistic society—that is, in Fukuyama’s mind, the antecedents of the contemporary West. For Fukuyama, the Church’s actions were not the product of spiritual concerns, but rather were directed toward the achievement of specific political and financial ends. Thus in his estimation the Catholic Church’s desire for money and power dealt the death blow to traditional tribal life in Europe and laid the foundation of the modern Western order. The weakened bonds of kinship and tribal society then allowed the modern bureaucratic state to flourish.

Fukuyama’s understanding of political order is one of one-dimensional objectivism characterized by a devotion to scientific thinking that separates religion from the realities of civilization and culture. It places all of human existence within the realm of the political, the scientific, and the quantifiable. It is an artificial view that subordinates human existence to a mechanistic, inhumane view of human affairs. His treatment of the West pays a forced tribute to Christianity, but his narrative amounts to a mere apologetic for the ultimate triumph of a single, all-encompassing ideological system.

Fukuyama’s argument requires us to subscribe to a Gnostic dream that foretells the imminent coming of global democracy. The problem for Fukuyama is the recurrent problem for all committed ideologues: his ideas are not universally applicable despite strenuous claims to the contrary. Here, truth becomes an inconvenient obstacle to theory. Despite his fervent assertion and even belief, it is clear that Fukuyama has not found the key to a universal history in liberal democracy; rather, he has engaged in intellectual necromancy and conjured up long-buried ideas to sell as groundbreaking scholarship.

Fukuyama’s philosophical progenitor, Alexandre Kojeve, insisted that the end of history occurred in 1806, after Napoleon “defeated the Prussian monarchy and brought the principles of liberty and equality to Hegel’s part of Europe.” Every event occurring after that time, in Kojeve’s estimation, including the great wars and revolutions, are characterized as “simply a matter of backfilling.” Fukuyama carries this approach into his assertion of the historical inevitability of liberal democracy, insisting that “a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens” were all established by the close of the eighteenth century. Under this theory of political development, there is no room for free will, no consideration for the unexpected, just a blatant denial of God’s grace. Fukuyama fails to understand that history did not end in 1806 any more than it did with the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly two centuries later.

Fukuyama’s study is an impressive, comprehensive narrative, but it is just that—a narrative. He presents an old-fashioned assessment of politics that seeks to imitate the great meta-historians of the nineteenth century, but he only succeeds in imitating their errors. Fukuyama attempts to show that a single idea can infiltrate the entire process of historical development, but in searching for secular truths, he ignores the spiritual dynamism that animates every culture, and refuses to acknowledge the limits of our historical knowledge. T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” provides a more sophisticated view of the bounds of our historical consciousness:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.

Fukuyama’s historicism deliberately fails to admit the proposition that we cannot know the ultimate destination of history. Such historicism is more than a denial of the Christian doctrine of salvation, it is a presumptuous exercise in philosophical speculation. Edmund Burke’s words in Letters on a Regicide Peace serve as a reminder of the contingent nature of history: “a common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of nature.” As Samuel Johnson similarly observed, even “the greatest events may often be traced back to slender causes.” Distilled to its essence, history is ofteninexplicable, mysterious, and irrational. Fukuyama remains unable or unwilling to embrace the role of such irrationality, even if he now admits a greater role for contingency than he allowed in his earlier writings.

Fukuyama searches for answers to the meaning of history in all the wrong places, and in presenting the historical development of the world as a single-destination political saga, he not only mischaracterizes the character of world history, he misunderstands the nature of culture’s dynamics and underestimates the spiritual power that propels the human soul. Fukuyama confuses religious dynamism with political fanaticism, and in doing so, he embraces a false religion—an ideology—that parades Western-style democratic capitalism as the ultimate end of history and the very definition of salvation.  

Glen Austin Sproviero is currently serving as a federal law clerk.