The Chronicle Review

Well Beyond the End of History

Karen Ballard, Redux

After two decades in Washington, Francis Fukuyama joined Stanford University last year.
March 22, 2011

Francis Fukuyama has been accused of many things—triumphalism, utopianism, warmongering—but never a lack of ambition. True to form, his new book, The Origins of Political Order (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), doesn't limit itself to the whole of human history. Rather, it begins in prehuman times and concludes on the eve of the American and French Revolutions. Along the way, Fukuyama mines the fields of anthropology, archaeology, biology, evolutionary psychology, economics, and, of course, political science and international relations to establish a framework for understanding the evolution of political institutions. And that's just Volume One. The next installment, not due for several years, will bring the story up to the present. At the center of the project is a fundamental question: Why do some states succeed while others collapse?

"I proposed it as a three-volume work, but the publisher balked," the author says matter-of-factly. He's on the phone from his office at Stanford University, where he relocated last year after two decades in Washington, most recently at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The reasons for the move were largely personal, he says. He had never intended to stay in Washington so long. His arrival, in 1989, coincided with the publication of "The End of History," an essay—later a book—that rocketed him into the orbit of intellectual celebrity. His argument—that the war of ideas is over, and Western-style liberal democracy has triumphed, "marking the end point of mankind's ideological evolution"—neatly captured the emerging zeitgeist of the post-cold-war world. Cue the lucrative book deals, tenured positions, political appointments, and packed lecture halls—all of which conspired to keep him in Washington.

The move to Palo Alto, however, also reflects Fukuyama's growing interest in ancient history. "Washington has many people who will tell you what's going on in Beijing right now, but it's hard to find someone who can speak intelligently about the Han Dynasty," he says. Stanford seemed like fertile ground for the sort of peripatetic intellectualism on display in The Origins of Political Order.

The scope of the book makes it difficult to summarize. At the outset, Fukuyama posits a link between Darwinian natural selection and political evolution. Because human nature has universal, evolved characteristics, he writes, "human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures." Biology, he continues, "frames and limits the nature of institutions that are possible."

He then organizes political development into a four-tier taxonomy: Kin-ship-based bands and tribes were followed by the more complex arrangements of chiefdoms and states, in which authority was exerted on the basis of territory, not ancestry. Tribes became possible after the invention of agriculture, which allowed for higher population densities than could be sustained in hunter-gatherer societies. "Human beings were now in contact with one another on a much broader scale," Fukuyama writes, "and this required a very different form of social organization."

State formation is a murkier process. Did tribes voluntarily delegate authority to a powerful ruler? Or did states become necessary when rising populations made land scarce, sparking conflicts that could be resolved only by a strong, centralized authority? The second scenario, Fukuyama suggests, is very likely closer to the truth. The transition to states, he writes, constituted a "huge setback for human freedom" because states tend to be less egalitarian. Tribes were therefore most likely compelled by violence to relinquish their autonomy. One tribe conquered another one. Bureaucracies were established to rule over the vanquished tribe, and a standing army and police force were mustered—in short, the building blocks of modern states. The sociologist Charles Tilly put it best: "War made the state, and the state made war."

In conversation, as in his writings, Fukuyama is cool and understated. His sentences unspool slowly, the words carefully considered. This equanimity is shaken, albeit briefly, when I mention the idea for which he is most famous. "I've been trying to move beyond The End of History ever since I wrote the book," Fukuyama says with weary patience. "But no matter what I write, everyone wants to ask me about it."

And no wonder—few of the myriad efforts to interpret the post-cold-war world have so endured, and none has attracted as much attention. When the essay was published, a Washington news vendor reported that the journal in which it appeared was "outselling everything, even the pornography." Frequently described as a rock star, Fukuyama continues to draw large audiences around the world. His thesis, however, has never sat well in certain quarters. Margaret Thatcher supposedly quipped: "End of history? The beginning of nonsense!" More serious was the critique of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who countered with his own vision of a future soaked in conflict between the world's major cultural groups—The Clash of Civilizations.

In the eyes of some, September 11, 2001, vindicated Huntington and exposed Fukuyama's declaration as, at best, premature. (In fact, Fukuyama never suggested that the "end of history" entailed the cessation of extreme violence or cataclysmic events.) Nevertheless, those familiar with Fukuyama and Huntington only as rivals might do a double take when they open The Origins of Political Order and find that it is dedicated to Huntington, who died in 2008. Turns out that the book took shape when Fukuyama, a former student of Huntington's at Harvard, was asked to write the introduction to a reprint of Huntington's 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies, a book that Fukuyama regards as one of the most important in 20th-century international relations. But when he returned to the text, he says, it felt dated. For starters, there was hardly any mention of religion.

"We've seen a revival of religion in the world," Fukuyama says, noting that religion has played a central role in the historical development of political institutions as well. Early human sociability was limited to face-to-face interactions within close-knit kin groups, and trust didn't extend beyond a few dozen relatives. Large-scale cooperation didn't become possible until the development of religious beliefs, which allowed trust to transcend kin. And that paved the way for the big faith communities—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism—capable of uniting tens of millions of people in collective action.

Case in point: the Prophet Muhammad. At the time of his birth, around 570, the Arabian Peninsula had been inhabited by tribal peoples for centuries. Muhammad preached his vision of a single ummah—gaining adherents, conquering others, and eventually uniting central Arabia into a single polity. "There is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad," Fukuyama writes. "The Arab tribes played an utterly marginal role in world history until that point; it was only Muhammad's charismatic authority that allowed them to unify and project their power throughout the Middle East and North Africa."

Fukuyama's portrayal of religion as a unifying force in history will irk some atheists, for whom religion is at all times a source of intolerance, conflict, and violence. He does concede, however, that religion's role in the contemporary world is more problematic. Pluralistic societies require religions to coexist in proximity. As a result, he says, "integration today has to be based on shared political values, not deep, religiously rooted cultural beliefs."

The core of The Origins of Political Order consists of detailed studies of how China, India, the Muslim world, and Europe made the transition from kinship networks and tribes to states. Periodically, however, Fukuyama turns his attention to contemporary America, and the picture he paints isn't pretty. Noting historical instances of societal collapse—the Mameluke Sultanate in Egypt, the Ming Dynasty in China—he cautions that America might face a similar fate. "Political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances," he writes, adding that American institutions "may well be headed for a major test of their adaptability."

The problem is gridlock. Extreme polarization between conservatives and liberals, the growth of entrenched interest groups, and rising inequality all threaten to undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of the American political system, which has been slow to adjust to changing circumstances. "We Americans pride ourselves on our pragmatism, but right now we're more ideological than the Chinese, who are willing to try all sorts of public policies," Fukuyama tells me. Most significantly, he says, the Chinese experiment with a market economy. "It worked, so they stuck with it."

In a way, Fukuyama remarks, we've become victims of our own success: "Successful institutions are most vulnerable to rigidity because their earlier success makes people complacent." This tendency had the evolutionary value of stabilizing societies. "We're programmed to believe that tradition is good," but that also means we're vulnerable to the sort of institutional inertia that undid great societies in the past.

"The danger," Fukuyama warns, is that America's "situation will continue to worsen over time in the absence of some powerful force that will knock the system off its dysfunctional institutional equilibrium." The assessment is grim, but the famously optimistic Fukuyama is careful to end on an upbeat note: "As the situation gets worse, people will face up to it, and the system will correct itself."