How To Get to the End of History

Francis Fukuyama turns to, well, history to chart the way.

Francis Fukuyama is one of the giants of post-Cold War political thought. His essay “The End of History,” published in 1989 just before the Berlin Wall came down, provided the perfect framework for thinking about a new world order in which the old face-offs between competing ideologies were ending and liberal, capitalist democracy was sweeping the planet.

Twenty-odd years on, though, we continue to live in a world where democracy, prosperity, and law and order are unevenly distributed, and in his latest book, The Origins of Political Order—the first of a planned pair—Francis Fukuyama asks the obvious question: Why?

The answer, he suggests, lies not in philosophy, which drove so much of the argument of “The End of History”—expanded into a book, The End of History and the Last Man, in 1999—but in history itself. And lots of history: This book is extraordinary in its breadth, ranging from the Qin dynasty in third century B.C. China to the eve of the American and French revolutions some 2,000 years later. Along the way, Fukuyama takes in the history of ancient India, the medieval Mamluks, and the Ottoman Empire, the anthropology of Africa, the politics of Papua New Guinea, and plenty more besides. It is a tour de force.

At the heart of this remarkable book is the idea of “getting to Denmark.” By this, Fukuyama means creating stable, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and honest societies (like Denmark). As in his “End of History” essay, Fukuyama treats this as the logical endpoint of social development, and suggests that Denmarkness requires three things: functioning states, rule of law, and accountable government.

The problem, though, is that this trinity cannot simply be willed into existence. As we have seen in the last few months, overthrowing authoritarian rulers (such as the ones who have cursed the Middle East for so long) does not instantly unleash open societies. Fukuyama suggests that if politicians outside the West are to lead their countries toward Denmark, rather than toward somewhere like Iran, they need to understand—and replicate—the processes that have worked in the past. And that means understanding the history of political order.

Fukuyama is surely right about this, and The Origins of Political Order provides a much-needed primer to this history. He argues that “depatrimonialization”—basically, getting kinship out of politics—is the key to development. The complex societies of antiquity and today’s tribal societies, Fukuyama points out, have one thing in common: patrimonialism. Rulers treat the state as an extension of their family, sharing out the important positions among their relatives. Patrimonialism, Fukuyama insists, closes off the road to Denmark.

The first recognizably modern and depatrimonialized state, he argues, was China under the Qin dynasty in the third century BC. While fighting a series of brutal wars against neighboring patrimonial states, the Qin First Emperor (he of the famous Terracotta Army) separated government from the royal family, creating an awesomely powerful state with an efficient bureaucracy. However, the First Emperor was famously unaccountable, burying scholars alive and chopping people in two as the mood took him, and recognizing no law other than his own triumphant will.

By contrast, Fukuyama suggests, we might look at ancient India. Here, where warfare played a smaller role, the rise of Brahmin priests embedded kings in tangled networks of religious obligations—but at the price of preventing governments from centralizing enough power to function properly. India and China, he insists, are not parts of an undifferentiated “orient.” Each followed a different path of state formation, getting one part of the package right but the rest of it wrong; and the consequences of these differences persist to this day, in China’s over-mighty state and India’s chronic chaos.

Some of the most fascinating sections of this book are Fukuyama’s comparisons of China and India with the neglected but important societies of medieval Islam, but his argument really gets going when he turns to medieval Europe. Here, he suggests, the Concordat of Worms that ended the long struggle between popes and emperors in 1122 created a unique balance between royal power and religious tradition. This enmeshed states in networks of accountability to nonstate actors, just as had happened in India, but it also left states strong enough to function—like those in China. Western Europe began getting the best of both worlds; and the rise of common law in England gradually added rule of law, the third ingredient in the modern mix, to a unique European blend. By the 17th or 18th century, Western Europe was well on the way to Denmark (as it were).

Fukuyama is content to leave a question mark over the reasons for Europe’s uniqueness, emphasizing “historically contingent circumstances of European development” and “the extreme fragmentation of power in Europe.” But whatever the causes, he argues, the great empires of Asia never managed to bring the three vital ingredients together. As a result, all saw power being repatrimonialized by the second millennium A.D., as pushy aristocrats and royal relatives took over pieces of the state and turned them into private fiefdoms. By the 1770s, Fukuyama concludes, the West was very different from other parts of the world, and poised for the political and industrial revolutions that will form the subject of the second volume of his work.

He tells a fascinating story—and a very different one from the older, more familiar tale that sees the Greeks inventing democracy and good government in the fifth century B.C. and then, with Roman help, passing them down to modern Europeans and their overseas colonists.

Some 19th- and 20th-century Westerners concluded from this older theory of history that the only way to become modern was to become European, by—for instance—accepting European colonial rule until the necessary values had been learned. Others, including Marx and Lenin, instead decided that non-European societies must be shocked out of their slumber by revolutionary vanguards that would shatter the old, fossilized order, at whatever cost. This vision of history was not, of course, the only reason why Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea visited such horrors upon their peoples; but it bears a heavy burden of responsibility.

Fukuyama draws a more optimistic lesson from history. If today’s developing societies can recreate the kind of balance between state power, independent judiciaries, and accountability to nonstate actors that prevailed in 17th-century Western Europe, he suggests, they too will get to Denmark.

Specialist historians will, of course, want to argue with Fukuyama over whether he has really got the history right. Taking on so much of the past in 500 pages is an epic achievement, and—not surprisingly—there are plenty of places that Fukuyama’s analysis might be challenged.

The most important, I suspect, is the idea that Qin China was the world’s first modern state, which perhaps overstates Qin’s similarity to early modern Europe while understating its similarity to other empires of the first millennium B.C. All across Eurasia, from China to the Mediterranean, climate change and population growth drove the rise of much bigger, more bureaucratic, and less patrimonial empires in the first millennium B.C. Qin China was neither the first of them—that honor should go to Assyria, in the eighth century—nor the most developed (Rome in the first few centuries A.D. surely takes the laurels here).

This, of course, is all ancient history; but it matters. If this alternative view of antiquity is correct, we should not trace current differences between China, India, the Middle East, and Europe back to the empires of the first millennium B.C., because the similarities between these empires far outweighed the differences. We should also think twice before following Fukuyama in concluding that Europe has been leading the world in moving toward a modern political order for nearly 1,000 years—or that this modern order is the product of historical contingencies.

In this alternative view, Eurasian empires all followed similar rhythms, with state power, accountability to nonstate actors, and the rule of law all broadly advancing across the first millennium B.C. and then retreating in the early first millennium A.D. as invaders such as the Huns poured in from the steppes of central Asia. After “Dark Ages” of various lengths and depths, which saw repatrimonialization everywhere, the package of state power, accountability, and rule of law resumed its advance all across Eurasia, beginning in China in the sixth century, in India and the Middle East in the seventh-eighth century, and in Europe in the 10th century.

Europe remained for centuries the country cousin of Eurasia, similar to the grander civilizations of Asia in its social structures but backward in crafts and scholarship and poor in resources and technology. Only in the 15th century, on this reconstruction, did Europe begin to diverge—but not because it had stumbled several centuries earlier onto the perfect balance between state power, the rule of law, and the accountability of rulers to nonstate actors. A different catalyst gets credit: As soon as ships were invented that could be relied upon to cross oceans (as happened in the 13th-14th centuries), the fact that Western Europe was geographically so much closer to the resources of the Americas than was any other part of the Old World began pushing Europe down a distinctive path.

This way of looking at the past suggests that the creation of a modern political order in Western Europe happened rapidly, in the 17th-18th centuries, rather than gradually, over the long period since the 11th century; and that it was driven by the new wealth and market economy generated by Atlantic trade, not by the accidental outcomes of struggles between popes and emperors in Germany and kings and commoners in England during the Middle Ages.

And if that is true, it might point us toward an even more optimistic conclusion than Fukuyama’s—that there is no need for 21st-century politicians to try to reproduce a delicate balance between state and civil society that Europeans created slowly, accidentally, and violently across 700 years. Rather, history’s lesson is that from the first millennium B.C. to the third millennium A.D., ordinary people have successfully—and quite quickly—restructured their societies to respond to the challenges that economics thrusts upon them. Responding to the problems and opportunities that Atlantic trade created in the 17th and 18th centuries, Western Europeans rebalanced state power, rule of law, and accountability; responding to the challenges of global trade in the 20th and 21st centuries, other countries may well repeat the act.

These are the kind of questions that Fukuyama’s new book forces us to think about. It is an intellectual triumph—bold in scope, sound in judgment, and rich in provocations; in short, a classic. And perhaps the most delightful thing of all is that the author of “The End of History” is now stepping forward as the champion of history’s importance.