/ Pratik Mallya

Personal Book Review: Origin of Political Order

Note: This is the first in the series of Personal Book Reviews; book reviews that are not designed to be scholarly or complete, but to highlight my personal likes and dislikes of a book. Thus, they are bound to be highly subjective.

Recent events have piqued my interests in Politics and Economics, specifically the problem of income inequality that so many progressive democrats like Bernie Sanders consider as a crucial impediment to the continuation of American society. To be completely honest, my exposure to economics or politics has been incredibly limited; my chief interest has been history and the unequal economic development of Nations. I did not consider Government policies to be of any importance to the economic prosperity and social progress in a country. So I read Krugman’s “Conscience of a Liberal” and I believe it pointed to this book, which is what made me read it.

Fukuyama is very frank in explaining both the scope and the limitations of his book; I think it was this honesty that made me more receptive of his ideas. Coming from a scientific/mathematical background, I’m generally more comfortable with theories and abstractions that are always applicable. Politics does not seem to be such a field, instead there seems to be very unique ways of political development which are suited to different cultures and societies. As such, Fukuyama tries to look for patterns in the political development of different civilizations, trying to seek out common features that resulted in great success or fantastic failures. He tries to look for fundamental causes for the differences in political development between, e.g. Indian and Chinese society. He explains why the Chinese were successful in building a strong, centralized state, with the concomitant efficient and impersonal bureaucracy, something which India has failed to do until modern times. On the other hand, while the Chinese may have been better at State-Building, democracy was much more fragile in the Chinese nation, while it has flourished in India. This is the first comparison that comes to mind, although he goes into great detail to distill the differences between many major civilizations, including Ottomans v/s Mamluks, French v/s English etc.

He makes the very interesting observation that the Catholic Church was responsible for breaking up patrimony in Europe. Once patrimony was severely weakened, true society began to form, when strangers would seek to create a set of laws that they agreed to abide by to get along with each other; a feature not required in patrimonial societies, where justice is handed down by the clan elders. Thus was a somewhat egalitarian civil society born in Europe. The rise of England is shown as a direct result of the solidarity of the English noblemen with the commoners, creating a system of political accountability not seen elsewhere in the world (A system that later spread to the United States). In my opinion, this was perhaps the most important observation. I’m sure it wasn’t a system of complete political accountability, but the degree to which everyone in English society was held accountable was certainly much higher in other societies…the extreme result of which, the King himself was considered responsible for crimes and hanged during the Civil War.

If one is to remember just one thing from this book, it would be the 3 factors that determine the nature of politics in a society:

Fukuyama then shows how the political orders of different civilizations can be explained with just these 3 factors, which was a fascinating revelation for me. Moreover, the book is essentially a cookbook of how these three factors developed in different cultures differently, what were the factors that caused them and how they may be similar or different from each other. I really liked the approach he has taken: of starting with historical facts, then deducing certain features and finally distilling these features along the 3 dimensions. For all history buffs, following a similar line of thinking can help explain the political development of many nations not specifically covered in this books…which I consider to be Fukuyama’s crowning achievement. For it gives armchair historians like myself a way to understand history without being overwhelmed by the different ways in which nations have developed. e.g. the Vietnamese state can be explained as follows: Colonial subjugation by the French led the people to look for something that would provide them independence, the threat of war by the US (and constant warfare caused by the Vietnam War) solidified their desire for a strong state to repel the foreigners and restore peace (Note that the people may not have desired such a state explicitly, strong states by their very nature, are capably of effectively mobilizing the state’s resources for the purposes of war. Thus, weaker states fail until a strong one comes by and succeeds, a kind of weird political darwinism). It is strikingly similar to the development of the Chinese State itself and for many of the same reasons: imperial ambitions of European powers, followed by the Japanese, were perhaps what made the Chinese people desire a strong state to defend their interests. And today’s Vietnam is similar to China in having a one-party communist state politically while permitting the operation of free markets economically. Seen in that context, both the Chinese and Vietnamese have retained only the political part of Communism: the part that allows for the existence of a strong, authoritarian state.

On the other hand, I do wish he had covered the effects of homogeneity in culture more in this book. China is mostly comprised of Han Chinese, Germany of Germans, England of English, Japan of Japanese etc. The US and India seem to be the only truly inhomogeneous, diverse states. But perhaps the reason is because the book stops abruptly at the eve of the French Revolution.

Fukuyama has created a truly masterful work; I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a nuanced and detailed, yet easily understood explanation of the reasons for divergence between the political development of different nations. This kind of understanding is more important than ever today, as the people of the world, especially the democracies, face the chaos of liberty and are bound to wonder if their political systems would do better with more authoritarian powers. The conclusion of the book seems to be that all the three factors are important for the prosperity of a society; but Accountable Government seems to be the most unique and the hardest to achieve.