Monthly Archives: December 2011

Gray on gray: John Gray and the Owl of Minerva

Just like 2001, 2011 has given lots of people reason to have a pop at Fukuyama’s notion of The End of History (all caps, we’re talking in Hegelian now).  Often this involves some pretty weak criticisms vaguely directed at a straw-man version of Fukuyama’s thesis, which is assumed to be about US unipolarity or globalisation or whatever. John Gray, however, knows what he is talking about and offers a much more insightful dissection of the concept in an article on the BBC website. I think, in the context of the short piece, he does justice to Fukuyama’s ideas whilst vivisecting them to display their flaws:

They were swayed by a myth – a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government.

…While constantly urging the necessity for change, believers in gradual progress also assume that fundamental conflicts will wither away. Along with Marx, they imagine a radical alteration in human existence as a consequence of which the recurrent struggles that have shaped human life throughout the ages will be no more.

In different ways utopian thinkers and believers in gradual progress both look forward to an end to history as it has always been.

Here, I think, Gray is on the money. The denial that major human conflicts will at some future point be permanently resolved and that social life will take on the placid tranquillity of a waveless ocean can be thought of as a hallmark of ‘realist’ thought. For thinkers in such a tradition, the idea of a world without politics is absurd. A dangerous absurdity too because it encourages messianic crusades to bring history to a close and discourages an acceptance of plurality and disagreement.

Gray wants to suggest that the book of history never closes, that new surprises await us on every page. Crises don’t just disorientate us, they can leave us without bearings as all the stable features of our lives crumble away. I have to admit, this perspective has some resonance with my own personal situation since the GFC broke. But greater chaos yet could still be unleashed, plenty of history looks likely to be made in 2012.

Fukuyama Blogging: Part 4 ‘Political Accountability’

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3; China/Russia detour

Continuing my efforts to blog my progress through Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order vol. 1, here’s Part the 4th. This section could be subtitled ‘a brief history of accountable government’, as it deals with how broadly responsive government emerged in the pre-modern era. Again,Fukuyama is engaged in another plate spinning exercise. Accountability can only exist under very specific ‘goldilocks’ conditions under which the central estate and elite actors are roughly in balance.

Fukuyamapresents a typology of three different kinds of regime: Strong absolutism (his conception of which I discussed in my last post on China and Russia), weak absolutism, failed oligarchy and genuine accountable government. The last three are found primarily inWestern Europe, where the lateness of the development of the state made strong absolutism unlikely.

Ironically, although he makes many criticisms of Marx, it is clear that Fukuyama views class struggle as a pretty major determinant of the type of regime a society ends up with. Weak absolutisms occur where elite actors are co-opted by the state but retain their privileges. This produces a systematically corrupt form of government with a dependent elite above the rule of law and an oppressed peasantry. The exemplars Fukuyama provides are France and Spain, where caste-like gradations between different noble office-holders and elite exemptions from taxation produced societies dominated by rent-seeking.

What’s particularly interesting here is Fukuyama’s examination of how this venal system crossed the Atlantic and was transplanted to the Spanish Americas, giving rise to the legacy of oligarchic and patrimonial politics in Latin America. Indeed,Fukuyamamakes some fascinating comparisons between the travails of weak absolutist regimes and contemporary developing nations, likening Louis XVI’s minister Anne-​Robert-​Jacques Tur­got to technocratic neo-liberals parachuted into finance ministries inLatin America. He also notes that this kind of elite-co-opting state is chronically unable to institute a sensible system of taxation, so it has a strong tendency to default on debts as a surreptitious form of financing its expenditure. The centre cannot truly eliminate well entrenched elites, only chip away at their independence. Networks of patronage take the place of negotiated settlements between organised social groups, the norm in accountable regimes.

Irascible French nobles causing trouble for Edmund Blackadder

Those elites eh? Nothing but trouble. They make a similar nuisance of themselves in ‘failed oligarchies’, the exemplar of which is medieval Hungary. The Hungarian kingdom is not exactly well known as a crucial case-study in the making of the modern state, but it is of pivotal importance to Fukuyama’s argument. Indeed, maybe too much rests on this single case study. Hungary is important because Hungarian elites were able to thoroughly check the powers of their monarch and reduce him to their agent through the Golden Bull of 1222, a kind of super Magna Carta. The church, high nobles and lower gentry were all arrayed against the centre. The result was a weak state that failed to institute the kind of fiscal-military reforms pioneered elsewhere inEuropein the late middle-ages. At the mercy of large noble estates, the peasantry was crushed:

The “free­dom” sought by the Hun­gar­ian no­ble class was the free­dom to ex­ploit their own peas­ants more thor­ough­ly, and the ab­sence of a strong cen­tral state al­lowed them to do just that. Ev­ery­one un­der­stands the Chi­nese form of tyran­ny, one per­pe­trat­ed by a cen­tral­ized dic­ta­tor­ship. But tyran­ny can re­sult from de­cen­tral­ized oli­garchic dom­ina­tion as well

So we hit another dead end.

The Hungarian example is important because it buttresses Fukuyama’s belief that too much of anything (state power, elite independence) is a bad thing. The path to political development is the golden mean between alternatives. Down this path walked England, where a strong state faced a coherent landed elite. Unlike in Russia or China, English elites retained their independence. Unlike in France, they had deep roots on their estates in the country, they did not become office holders clustering round the royal court like flies. Why didn’t England go down the path of Hungary, however? Alternatively, why didn’t Englandend up like France? Why were the tendencies towards weak absolutism in the Stuart period defeated? For Fukuyama the important factors were the established liberties enjoyed by all social groups and the more open and less caste-like nature of social class in England.

Okay, plausible enough. But I wonder if an alternative explanation could be thrashed out by focusing on the terms of the settlement between elites and the state in the late medieval period. Whereas once lords had vied for the crown and acted as kingmakers, under the Tudors the elites were largely disarmed. However, the monarch depended on parliament to raise taxes for the purpose of war-making. So, perhaps by accident, the UK happened to hit on a compact between nobles and the state in which an accountable state secured a monopoly on the use of force. I’m not a historian of this period (yet alone of medieval Hungary for purpose of comparison), but I believe Mann makes the argument that by Elizabeth I the outlines of constitutional government were already in place.

Once again,Fukuyama’s argument might seem rather Whiggish, with its story of the rights of freeborn Englishmen triumphing over the plots of popish Stuarts, but he tries to head off the criticism with an example of how it could all go wrong as it did in Hungary, and how it went right for slightly different reasons in Denmark. In the home the best lager in the world, the monarchy supported literacy amongst the peasantry for religious reasons and attempted to build a peasant-based conscript army to avoid dependence on the nobles. This established traditions of corporate organisation amongst the upwardly mobile peasantry, setting the stage for gradual political mobilisation and the demand for accountable government. So the English Goldilocks had sister.

What Britain and Denmark shared was a synchronicity between state-strength, rule of law and accountability – providing a virtuous circle which created conditions for further political development. These nations were able to deal with the strains of modernisation, whereas (as Fukuyama acknowledges in the conclusion of the book) absolutist regimes such asFrancecould not cope with the demands of newly mobilised social groups during the dawn of the modern era. In any case,

The three com­po­nents of a mod­ern po­lit­ical or­der—a strong and ca­pa­ble state, the state’s sub­or­di­na­tion to a rule of law, and gov­ern­ment ac­count­abil­ity to all cit­izens—had all been es­tab­lished in one or an­oth­er part of the world by the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Returning to form as a disciple of Hegel and Kojeve, he notes that history effectively ended in 1806 at the battle of Jena. All that follows is epilogue.

But before the owl of minerva takes flight, lets go back a bit. First, I’m not really sure how separable the rule of law and political accountability in Fukuyama’s narrative. The problem is that England (and sometimes Denmark) is the exemplar of both of these aspects of political development. Both require a balance between state and elite power. Fukuyama suggests that Prussia under Fredrick the Great was an absolutism constrained by the rule of law, a Rechstaat, and it might have been enlightening if it had been used as a case study. But it is difficult to think of a state with political accountability (which we might define as the ability of corporate actors representing both elite and subordinate social classes to constrain the state) in which the rule of law was unknown. It’s hard to think of any likely candidates.

Second, I think that there is still a lot to be said for an alternative perspective that sees Britain as one of a chain of capitalist polities of increasing scale and ‘nation-ness’, from the city state of Genoa to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This family of polities, which also might include Switzerland and the Hanseatic League, has been of interest to scholars such as Tilly, Arrighi and Deudney. It’s not as if the international aspect of political development is missed by Fukuyama. But whilst the importance of conflict is acknowledged, he pays little attention to the development of worldwide capitalism and how it drove processes such as urbanisation in early modern Europe. War, trade and political development have always been related, however. The maritime orientation of Britain, for example, has been seen as pushing it towards developing a navy and seeking colonies overseas instead of remaining involved in continental European geopolitics. Its decision to become a sea rather than land power may have pushed it down a very different path to Spain, which Tilly suggests it otherwise resembled. Navies are expensive, but they cannot be used as a tool to oppress and extract wealth from domestic actors.

But in Fukuyama’s account, the rise of urban commerce and the burgher class depended more on domestic factors than international relationships. Capitalism arose in Europe because a deadlock between elites and the state prevented it from being strangled in the crib by either.

But enough, onwards towards the final post, where I’ll cover the conclusion as well as sling out some more reflections onFukuyama’s opus.

#Egypt, #OWC and the End of the End of History

Everyone is commenting on how eventful 2011 has turned out to be, with Charlie Brooker comparing it to an untoppable season finale. Given that the past week witnessed the deaths of both Vaclav Havel and Kim Il Jong (seems like the childlike empress of the universe is trying to keep the scores even), it’s anyone’s guess what surprise twist will be sprung in the last two weeks of the year. Alien contact via microwave signals beamed to Nintendo 3DS consoles? Ahmadinejad turns out to be a Saudi sleeper agent? Dolphins petition to join the UN?

'Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.' Heraclitus and NeverEnding Story references in a single post, only here on Chaos and Governance

The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Occupy protests have, of course, been identified as the crucially important events of the year by many. The link between the two was at first seen as spurious by many. But in an article for the Guardian last Friday, Malik, Shenker and Gabbat make a decent case for seeing events of the year as part of an interlinked youth revolt against economic and political hierarchies, taking inspiration from one another and employing the same social media-enabled tactics.

It may have seemed churlish at first to compare the sacrifices of the Egyptian protesters to those of the Occupy movement but, without losing a sense of perspective, the parallels seemed much more relevant once security forces responding to Occupations by pepper-spraying unarmed, unresisting students in the face at point blank range.

In addition, commentators such as Malik, Shenker and Gabbat (as well as Mason) have seen in the various struggles signs of the decentralised ‘multitude’ prophesied by social theorists Negeri and Hardt back in 2000 as the new vanguard of global protest. On this I’m not so sure. Is the Egyptian uprising really all that different in terms of its social composition or organisational strategy from past pro-democracy movements, such as those which brought down the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe?

Malik, Shenkar and Gabbat seem like they are on to something when they suggest that there is an important generational aspect to current protests. There is an undeniable groundswell of frustration from what they describe as ‘most well-educated generation in human history’, a generation which is probably the most under-employed generation in history to boot. High education and dashed expectations are a volatile mixture. As Mason quips in what was probably the most important and perceptive blog post of the year, the French revolution was ‘not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers’.

The Malik et al piece, however, ends with the rather strange suggestion that

the great revenge is this: the generation that grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and victory of a liberal capitalist society, is now working its damnedest to prove how untrue this is

Maybe I just have Fukuyama on the brain this month. But the comment seems strange because it seems to describe the opposite of what is going on in the Middle East, where pro-democracy movements (or at least important elements of them) are trying their damnedest to prove that Fukuyama was right, to prove that that the Arab-Islamic world is not eternally destined to be subject to tyranny and that democracy is a universal aspiration. Even in the advanced industrialised world, where I agree that many making up the Occupy movements seem to yearn for something more than representative liberal democracy, it seems strange to call the protests ‘revenge’. Rather, they seem more like self-defence in the face of the shredding of the social contract and all-out assault by the 1%. Indeed, a return to the model of social market democracy extant before the crisis would no doubt be an appealing proposition for many in Western Europe and the US right now.

In other words, I think many of us in the North wish that history really had ended in 1989.

Fukuyama Blogging: ‘Meanwhile, Back in Imperial China…’

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3

Okay, here’s a supplementary post on Chapter 20 of Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order vol 1 (previous posts: Intro, Part 1, 2, 3). The Chapter is a bit of a sore thumb in Part 3, which deals with the origins of the rule of law. But Fukuyama does not think thatChinadeveloped the rule of law according to his definition, as laws were schedules of punishments rather than constraints on rulers. So Fukuyama instead analyses the development of the Chinese imperial system without the rule of law and without accountability. In terms of Fukuyama’s schema, this makes China and Russia kindred in terms of their political systems – so I’ll pull out the discussion of the Russian Empire in Chapters 25 and 26 as well.

Russia and China were similar in that they both had to deal with military threats from steppe nomads. Invasions from such groups periodically disrupted China, but by the second millennium AD the tendency to reunification and reconsolidation was already well established. Like IR theorists and would-be psychohistorians Modelski and Thompson, Fukuyama emphasises the high degree of political and economic development enjoyed in China during the Song Dynasty in the C12th – they even had mechanical clocks! But the Song were invaded by the Rurzhen (precursors of the Manchu). At this stage in military history settled peoples had no decisive advantage over nomads, a fact which only changed ‘After Tamerlane’, as John Darwin argues. So Chinese political development kept on being disrupted by both patrimonial corruption from within and invasion from without.

Interacting with nomads may have put Russia and China on distinct paths of political development

Russia, however, was able to gradually turn the tables on Eurasian nomads after it finally overthrew the Mongol yoke. Indeed, in Fukuyama’s account, Russian absolutism is explained as a kind of serf-owning pyramid scheme geared towards constant expansion.Russia expanded for several centuries by pushing beyond its frontiers and establishing new defensive limes – see Darwin again on the details. Like in ancientChina, cities were less commercial hubs and more centers for bureaucratic and military administration. Expanding the frontiers was essential to stabilise border regions, to which serfs had a nasty habit of escaping to – hence the Cossack hosts on Russia’s Southern borders. On Fukuyama’s account the state, the church, the high nobles and the lesser nobles all had a common interest in maintaining this system of unfree labour.

Here lies another similarity between China and Russia: the state was free to terrorize elites to a much greater extent than elsewhere. From Ivan the Terrible’s efforts to liquidate the boyars onwards, the Russian state was able to sequentially rob elites of their independence and reduce them to mere office-holders in a agrarian military bureaucracy. Similarly, the more ruthless Chinese rulers like Empress Wu of the late 7th century, could have whole lineages of Chinese elites executed. There were few checks on Chinese imperial absolutism, which was moderated only by the Confucian tradition of meritocracy and the notion of the ‘mandate of heaven’. Although the notion of the ‘mandate’ was usually applied post-hoc and was without any firm criteria, the literati could still exercise some indirect influence over the emperor by shaping norms about proper imperial conduct.

But although it could moderate despotism, the bureaucracy was itself the source of problems. Bureaucrats are supposed to act impartially on behalf of the executive. But how can the political centre ensure that bureaucrats don’t misuse their powers or conceal information? The attempted solution in both Russia and China was to create networks of spies that served the centre directly. In China, certain emperors created cadres of eunuchs who served the same purpose. But this solution was an attempt to control the bureaucracy by creating a second bureaucracy to monitor it, a dead end.

Eunuchs make the best imperial spies

So on Fukuyama’s account both Russian Chinese systems reached their limits. Chinese imperial dynasties were unable to implement an efficient system of taxation and the centre was unable to formulate successful policy due to the archaic relationship between the bureaucracy and the emperor. When the centre fell in both China and Russia chaos reigned, perhaps because intermediate forms of social organisation had been gutted so thoroughly.

But interestingly enough, Fukuyama does not blame Chinese institutions for the fact that it was overtaken by the West in terms of technological development. ‘Good enough’ property rights were present, the centre did not and could not crush the economy through taxes, and bureaucratic administration was of a comparatively high quality. The reason, he thinks, must lie in more general attitudes to science and technology.

So, back to the story of political development in the West and the emergence of accountability!

Why Aren’t we all Singularitarians?

That’s the question being asked over at hnet. Why does belief in the singularity, the imminent exponential acceleration of the development of technology resulting in a post-scarcity age of limitless possibility, remain confined to dedicated enthusiasts?

The answer provided is that the public remain uninterested, unaware and/or sceptical of such notions because 1) the benefits promised by new waves of technology (such as the technology for space travel) proved to be a mirage 2) political, regulatory and cultural factors are inhibiting the development of many promising avenues towards Singularity City.

Call me a know-nothing sceptic, but the fact that space travel, robotics, genetics and – yes – even computers failed to live up to their promise should make us all a bit wary of the idea of an accelerating upward curve of technological development. As brilliantly expressed in Gibson’s short story The Gernsback Continuum, we already live in a world filled with echoes of the shiny utopian visions of yesterday. It’s somewhat ironic that the article expresses a hope that a film of Neuromancer might help shift cultural attitudes, as cyberpunk was an expression of total incredulity towards the optimism invested in the Jetsons-esque imagined futures of the ‘golden age’ of welfare capitalism.

2011 did not look much like this

One reason why many of those who have engaged with singularitarian ideas remain sceptical might be that over the past few decades there have been few technologically induced improvements in the quality of life for the majority of people in the advanced industrialised world. Much heralded discoveries, such as the human genome project, represent major scientific milestones but have produced fewer tangible benefits than expected (in the case of the HGP partially due to the unanticipated complexity of the epigenetic systems that control the expression of genes). 2011 was once envisaged as a time in which the promise of the early developments in cybernetics and biotech would be realised (just as the early C21st was envisaged as an era of space colonisation in the imaginary of the previous era), yet it still looks very much like the past.

This fact is made clear by the lacklustre rate of economic growth experienced in the industrialised world over the last thirty years. Computers and communications technology represent a partial exception. But this wave of technologies have not resulted in the generalised productivity growth associated with electrification or steam-power. They haven’t made transport easier or more rapid, they haven’t yet solved the problem of Baumol’s cost disease (teachers can still only teach effectively approximately the same number of students as they could in the C19th). Of course, robotics, space travel (through communications satellites) and computers are all now essential parts of the way the world economy operates. But all were oversold and none have had the dramatic, positive effects that previous technological shifts had. Indeed, through processes such as outsourcing, many of these technologies have been implicated in shifts which have left those in the industrialised world more insecure and precariously located than they once were.

I’m not actually a complete sceptic when it comes to specific singularitarian ideas. Cybernetics, narrow AI, advanced materials, gene-therapy and gerontological medicine (life extension) are probably going to arrive eventually . These technologies will likely reshape human societies, although in periods measured by ‘historical time’ rather than ‘event time’. But at present, there is as much evidence to suggest that we live in an era of technological stagnation (even whilst we witness dramatic leaps in scientific knowledge) as we do the pre-takeoff phase of a singularity. 

Fukuyama Blogging: Chapter 3 ‘The Rule of Law’


Part 1

Part 2

Part the third of Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order vol 1 deals with the second element of the triad of political development: the rule of law. Fukuyama picks up where he left off, examining the unique social fabric of Western Europe. It looks at first like Fukuyama is defending a familiar Whig view of the origins of the modern world according to which the ‘rights of freeborn Englishmen’ provided the foundation for the development of private property, prosperity and political liberty.

Everything I know about British history I learned from Blackadder

But Fukuyama’s argument in this part of the book is very specific and in quite sharp disagreement with lots of other scholars. For example, he picks a fight with those contemporary Whigs – neo-classical economists and like-minded historians – who equate the rule of law with secure property rights and, furthermore, hold that the latter are sufficient to ensure economic growth. According to Fukuyama this is incorrect, as ‘good enough’ property rights are sufficient for growth in the right conditions but property rights on their own will not produce sustained growth in pre-modern Malthusian conditions where technological change is only sporadic.

Fukuyama’s primary interlocutors are other conservative liberals, but he’s pretty critical of them at the same time. For example, his argument draws heavily on Hayek’s prioritisation of customary law over legislation as the most important element of the rule of law. Law must reflect:

a so­cial con­sen­sus with­in a so­ci­ety that its laws are just and that they pre­ex­ist and should con­strain the be­hav­ior of who­ev­er hap­pens to be the ruler at a giv­en time

Customary law, exemplified by Anglo-Saxon common law built up through countless legal judgments within individual courts, provides the basis for rule by laws and not by men – providing an escape hatch from both the ‘tyranny of cousins’ and the tyranny of tyrants. But Fukuyama disagrees with Hayek as he sees the early English state as playing an important role in fostering common law by providing ‘the King’s justice’ through travelling royal courts as an alternative to elite-dominated local courts. Like many other scholars, Fukuyama sees the English monarchic state as being unique because of it was simultaneously strong and limited – in contrast with the brittle but arbitrary character of many tyrannies.

But less important than the English state, forFukuyama, is the historic role of the Church in undergirding the rule of law inWestern Europe. Fukuyama regards religion as essential in fostering the rule of law because of its ability to imbue rules with intrinsic meaning.

Re­li­gion was es­sen­tial to the es­tab­lish­ment of a nor­ma­tive le­gal or­der that was ac­cept­ed by kings as well as by or­di­nary peo­ple…The ex­is­tence of a sep­arate re­li­gious au­thor­ity ac­cus­tomed rulers to the idea that they were not the ul­ti­mate source of the law… In this re­spect Chris­tian princes were like In­di­an ra­jas and Ksha­triyas, and Arab and Turk­ish sul­tans, who would agree that they were be­low the law.

Because the state was already very developed in Chinabefore any world religion could take root, the rule of law was underdeveloped compared to other civilisations. The rule of law was developed most fully in Europe because of specific way in which ‘re­li­gious au­thor­ity [was] or­ga­nized and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized’. The key was the distinct corporate existence of the Church. Fukuyama credits Pope Gregory VII as ‘declaring independence’ from the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor in the late C11th and securing the Church’s autonomy by enforcing celibacy on the priesthood – preventing its decay into a patrimonial institution. Again, we have an actor pursuing material interests to pursue spiritual interests to pursue… and down the turtles go.

In any case, by laying the grounds for the Edict of Worms in 1122 and the separation of church and state, Gregory headed off caesaropapism – the subordination of organised religion to the state. An independent Church became the nexus for the revival of Roman law, which make a vital contribution to the development of the rule of law in Europe (especially continental Europe).

What about the rule of law in other civilisational areas? The Christian orthadox world remained strongly caesaropapist and so the development of law was stunted as it was in China. In India Fukuyama argues that the rule of law existed in the form of an oral tradition guarded by the Brahmins. But maybe it mattered little in the context of the ‘tyranny of society’ – I don’t know, this is well beyond my area of competence. The Sunni Islamic world presents a bit of a hard case for Fukuyama, as a conception of the rule of law with authority preceding that of particular rulers was certainly present in the Ottoman empire. Indeed, the Ottoman empire seems to have been governed broadly in accordance with a conception of law – it was no predatory state. But whilst Fukuyama acknowledges that the Muslim ulama (legal scholars) did help sustain the rule of law in the Middle East, they lacked the corporate independence necessary for true autonomy and resilience:

No one, that is, ev­er es­tab­lished a sin­gle Mus­lim “church” com­pa­ra­ble to the Catholic church that emerged af­ter the Gre­go­ri­an re­form. Like the Catholic church be­fore the in­vesti­ture con­flict, the Mus­lim clerisy was a dis­tribut­ed net­work of priests, judges, and schol­ar­ly in­ter­preters who read and ap­plied Mus­lim case law. With­in the Sun­ni tra­di­tion, there were four ma­jor com­pet­ing schools of Muslim law that were philo­soph­ical­ly het­ero­ge­neous and whose rise and fall were de­pen­dent on po­lit­ical fa­vor. Be­cause the ula­ma nev­er in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized it­self around a hi­er­ar­chy, it was not pos­si­ble to gen­er­ate a sin­gle le­gal tra­di­tion.

Hmm… I’m not sure that Fukuyama provides a fully convincing account of the origins of the rule of law in Europe here, as there is no real knock-down explanation of why its development was more limited in theMiddle East. But in any case it’s a bold and original argument that examines a set of considerations that most political comparativists and development scholars will be unfamiliar with – I know I’m out of my depth on the empirical substance in this section.

Part 3 ends with a Chapter on state-craft without the rule of law in China, which I will discuss separately as it is a bit of a tangent from the preceding argument. Then on to Part 4 and political accountability, the final element of political development.

Blast from the past

Jamie at Blood and Treasure (best damn blog on the web and no mistake) has dredged up some comment I made waaay back in 2007 where I threw monkey shit at the shiny-happy embrace of the EU by wide-eyed Blairites infatuated by Giddens’ notion of the ‘runaway world’ and the wonderful logic of global economic integration transporting us to a happy land free of politics. That vision isn’t looking so zeitgeisty any more.

Fukuyama Blogging Part 2: ‘State Building’


Part 1

A bit later than I had planned, here’s some thoughts on Part 2 of Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order vol. 1. If it wasn’t clear from the outset, Part 2 makes it evident that Fukuyama is gunning for fame as a grand theorist and master scholar of political science in this work. The breadth and ambition is pretty impressive: this isn’t a simple thesis illustrated by a grab-bag of examples from history, but a dense and detailed attempt to work out the different paths of political evolution taken by different civilisations. Yes, civilisations rather than states: from Part 2 onwards Fukuyama is focused on the four great civilisational areas of China, Hindu India, the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe. Perhaps this is why the pagan political societies of the Middle East and Mediterranean don’t get a look in.

This section of the book deals with the question of political evolution of segmentary tribal societies organised in terms of patrimonial lineages. The first four chapters focus on the rise of states in ancient China, the consolidation of a singular empire-state and its subsequent decay. To distill Fukuyama’s argument into its essence, early Chinese history can be understood in terms of a dialectic between attempts at coercive centralisation and the reassertion of the highly resilient patrilineal Chinese clan. What drove this dialectic? With a nod to Charles Tilly and the IR theorist Victoria Tin Bor Hui, Fukuyama insists that the initial impetus behind the precocious Chinese state was war. Indeed, ancient China seems to have been pretty bellicose:

The continuity between hunting and warfare was preserved in a series of rituals that served to legitimate the social status of the warrior aristocracy…Meat was ritually shared during the rites, prisoners’ blood was shed to consecrate war drums, and particularly hated enemies were turned into a meat sauce to be consumed by members of the court or army

Human meat sauce, delightful. Hegel did, after all, say that history sometimes appears to be a slaughter bench… In any case in Fukuyama’s telling, these brutal conflicts between warrior lineages eventually gave way to depersonalised and bureaucratic forms of mobilizing military power – as in the state of Qin under the influence of the ‘Legalist’ (Chinese Machiavellian) administrator Lord Shang. Political development was driven from the top down:

Cities were political and administrative hubs, not commercial centers, with no traditions of independence and self-government.

The problem facing state builders was to

figure out how to make individuals loyal to the state rather than to their local kin group. Institutions based on territory and centralized legal authority had to be layered on top of strongly segmentary societies.

This recalls Mann’s argument that the power of early states had the tendency to ‘dissolve’ back into civil society as elites sought to secure their patrimony. According to Fukuyama, the solution adopted by the Qin was a combination of meritocratic recruitment and unchecked imperial authority. But the extreme ruthlessness of Legalism was not ultimately sustainable, and Chinese statecraft was softened by the Confucian tradition. This political philosophy emphasized filial piety (the values of the patrilineal family), bureaucratic government by an educated gentry, and enlightened rule as the basis for imperial authority.

The Khoo Kongsi, Penang Malaysia. A Kongsi is a clan temple of a patrimonial Chinese lineage.

Even after the Qin dynasty collapsed, China’s precocious efforts at state-building created a tendency towards re-unification. Indeed, Fukuyama suggests that China was less of an empire and more of a pre-modern proto-nation state due to attempts at instituting uniform territorial administration and the gradual emergence of a common elite culture. Nevertheless, the rot of political decay set in early on due to the reassertion of patrimonialism due to the natural human tendencies to favour kin and close friends. The consequence, which Fukuyama suggests we see repeated from Ancient Rome to C19th Latin America, was spiralling inequality and the creation of huge family estates or latifunda. Unable to bring these elite clans to heel or shift the burden of taxation away from the peasantry, the central state faced collapse.

What Fukuyama does a great job at in this section, I think, is definitively demolishing the idea that ‘Oriental despotism’ characterised the ancient East and that the term ‘feudalism’ can be straightforwardly applied to non-Western contexts. Instead, Fukuyama employs a dialectic between centripetal force of state-building and the centrifugal pull of kith and kin. At the same time he underlines that in most pre-modern societies we can locate a three corner struggle between central authority, the elites and the masses. The alliances that the centre builds with the other two groups hugely shapes subsequent political development .

The account of Indian political development is nearly as detailed but straightforward at its core. Early Indo-Aryan invaders into the subcontinent brought with them familiar tribal forms of organisation. However, the segementary patterns of intermarriage and the early hierarchies between social strata seem to have resulted in the formation of the caste system in the form of the varna and jati systems. The jati, inward-marrying occupational castes, are a unique form of socio-political development as they exhibit tribal features in the context of an extensive division of labour. Fukuyama’s message is that there is no unilinear path, the further we go from biology the less pre-ordained human social arrangements are.

Fukuyama repeatedly emphasizes the religious underpinnings of the Hindu social cosmology. He insists that it was the rise of the Brahmins that prevented the formation of states in India, as they consolidated the power to confer legitimacy on warrior/state-makers. Here, however, he encounters the thorny problem that sincerely held ideologies might nonetheless express a certain set of material interests. As he states later:

So from one point of view, the economic turtle is stand¬ing on the back of a religious turtle, while from another point of view the religious turtle is standing on the back of an economic one farther down the stack.

He castigates Marx and Durkheim for not taking religion seriously enough in its own right, but I think they were grappling with similar problems. In any case, Fukuyama’s diagnosis is that Indian society was too strong, preventing the emergence of strong states. But the tyranny of a decentralised society can be as terrible as an overcentralised state, he avers. Here he finds himself in the company of Barrington Moore and other scholars who have been shocked at many features of the caste system. In Fukuyama’s schema, India represents one end of the pole with China at the opposite. In the middle, where neither the state nor decentralised religious organisation could dominate, we find the ‘Goldilocks’ of Christian Europe.

Cast out caste

A weak state and a strong society is not always a good combination

But first Fukuyama takes us through an intricate detour in the history of statebuilding in the form of military slavery in the Islamic world – which represented a surprisingly modern and even enlightened form of organisation as strange as it may seem. By focusing on Islam, he makes it clear once again the importance he attaches to religion as one potential pathway out of tribal society. Indeed, reading between the lines, we can infer from Fukuyama’s logic that the Mongols might have built a more lasting empire if they had been the bearers of a salvationist creed. As it was they fissured or were absorbed by those they invaded. One disagreement with Fukuyama’s characterization of Islam, however. Islam was not only spread by the sword, but via trade routes and missionaries. South East Asia is home to a large portion of the world’s Muslims but has never been host to Arabian cavalry.

But focusing on the Middle East, Fukuyama insists that the problem for would-be Islamic state-builders following the disputed succession and the Sunni-Shia split was the tendency for tribal loyalties to reassert themselves. One strange solution was to staff bureaucracies, harems and (most importantly) barracks with non-Muslim slaves. Bizarrely, these slaves often occupied elevated and even privileged positions. They could be trusted because they were outside the usual tribal networks. But the corruption crept in again as these privileged slave-soldiers sought to take wives and then pass on their position to their sons. What is interesting in Fukuyama’s account however, is how he paints the Ottoman empire as a surprisingly efficient and light-touch early state which employed many techniques for staving off predatory elites and political decay, although not forever.

A janissary, an Ottoman soldier-slave. Note the awesome hat.

Finally then, Fukuyama arrives at the fourth civilisational region: Christian Europe. Breaking from a long line of commentators, he places minimal emphasis on the Graeco-Roman legacy in the West. In a single chapter he presents his explanation for the defeat of patrimonialism in Europe: the efforts of the Catholic Church to undermine patrimonial inheritance. By upholding the rights of widows to hold property and defending the rights of individual wills over the corporate rights of lineages, the Church delayed the formation of big landholdings and increased its own. This is similar to an argument the biologist Matt Ridley makes: men who went into the Church used their spiritual authority to undermine the wealth and power of their own brothers who stood to inherit family estates. But Fukuyama places a huge amount of weight on this explanation in explaining the individualistic direction of European socio-political development:

Rather than being the outcome of these great modernizing shifts, change in the family was more likely a facilitative condition for modernization to happen in the first place.

Yet couldn’t the contractual character of feudal society have instead originated in the need for to make agreements with non-kin for the sake of survival in the ruins of the Western Roman empire? In Part 1 Fukuyama points to the warlord’s retinue as a recurrent feature of decaying political societies, can’t we view the feudal manor in a similar light? Left unexplored is the possibility, suggested by Marvin Harris,  that Europe itself was inching towards a caste system: think of the number of occupation-based European surnames or the profusion of European guilds, monastic orders and other rather insular intermediary organisations. Fukuyama sees the European trajectory (as well as that of the other world civilisations) as the product of very deep tendencies. Perhaps this limits his consideration of how Europe could easily have followed a different socio-political path.

In any case, alongside the huge wealth of detail on four unique paths of political development, Part 2 makes clear Fukuyama strategy of viewing state-building, the rule of law and accountability as separate and decomposable elements of political development. Having devoted a third of the book to the origins of the state, he turns to the other two legs of the tripod in turn. More soon!

Fault Lines: A Review

Raghuram Rajan’s book is an attempt to explain the financial crisis and, in so doing, identify the underlying structural problems which led to the global economic turmoil – the ‘hidden fractures’. Given that we seem to be embarking on a renewed credit crunch and a W shaped recession, it is safe to say that whatever these fractures are, they have not been fixed. But Rajan’s contribution to the burgeoning literature on making sense of, and assigning blame for, the GFC makes several interesting arguments. Rajan himself has excellent credentials, although he has the dubious honour of the fact that he is former IMF Chief Economist, he nonetheless can claim to have raised concerns about troubles ahead before the crisis broke and been mocked by Alan Greenspan for his troubles – a prestigious accolade indeed.

But what’s his angle on 2008’s car crash of CDOs and commercial paper? Well, leaving aside the ramblings of gold-bugs and those who blame the crisis on some combination of Gordon Brown and Greek pensioners, there are broadly two kinds of explanation for the crisis: meso and macro. Meso-level explanations blame the regulatory framework governing finance in the Anglo-Saxon world, lending practices in theUSsub-prime sector, monetary policy decisions by central banks and so on. Macro-level explanations blame global imbalances of one sort or another, as did Ben Barnanke when he talked of the ‘global savings glut’.

At the macro-level, Rajan provides a very interesting account of the distortions within two kinds of economies: the high-savings exporter-creditors and the consumption-oriented debtors. In the most interesting section of the book, Rajan explains how the export-oriented development path adopted byJapan– the only real model for successful industrialisation within the world economy anyone has really found – brings with it a set of problems, namely stagnant domestic consumption and uncompetitive domestic firms. Nations adopting this model are addicted to exporting and, with low consumer borrowing, have built up large balance of payments surpluses. This is one of the strongest sections of the book, as it uses development economics to explain how deeply the ‘global imbalances’ are rooted in the political economies of many of the world’s major trading nations. On the other end of the rope is the big debtor on the global stage, the US, whose addiction has been fed by T-bill purchases by the exporters – particularly in Asia (I think everyone knows this story by now).

The problem with the political economy of the US, Rajan claims, is the dangerous interaction between inequality, credit and politics. Middle-income earners have been falling behind due to trade with labour-abundant economies and technological change that renders skills obsolete. But due to the maladies of the US educational system, workers have not been able to gain the skills they need before joining the workplace or retrain later. Much of the US workforce therefore fell behind during the two jobless recessions preceding the crisis, from which theUSrecovered only slowly and through bubble-stokingly loose monetary policy due to its lack of automatic stabilisers in the form of social safety nets. Rising inequality creates pressure on political representatives to ease the pain through credit, as this is much easier than deep reforms of education or health. Rajan argues this led to a political push to lend to subprime households.

This would already have been ungood, but it was made double plus so by a financial sector that amplified and distributed the risks through securitisation, CDSs and the rest of the pantheon of exotic instruments. Rajan is reasonably blunt here: many in the financial sector were making one-way bets on supposed ‘tail risks’ which they were totally unable to cover when the dice came up snake-eyes. The culture of excessive risk grew until it was a juggernaut that nearly collapsed the global banking system. Indeed, kudos to Rajan for having the guts to hint that there may have even been a degree of surreptitious, informal collusion amongst major financial institutions, who he suggests probably realised that collectively loading up on tail-risks would make taking out such risks safer and safer – especially with an interest slashing Fed waiting in the wings if a crisis were to occur.

Not sure this is what Rajan meant...?

There are some pretty big problems with Rajan’s analysis, however. He persists in describing the distress in the sub-prime sector which tipped the world into crisis as a tail-risk, albeit a tail-risk that the financial sector increased the probability of and which extreme leverage massively amplified. But these ‘tail-risks’ can instead be seen as the end stage of a classic Minsky bubble, an inevitable step in a process rather than an unlikely random occurrence.

Second, the idea that the US government played a central role by promoting sub-prime house ownership as a lazy form of redistribution is problematic. Rajan’s problem here is that he dismisses but offers no evidence for the idea that the expansion of sub-prime credit was demand driven, i.e. low income households were hungry for credit to offset their worsening relative position. Indeed, the massive rise in unsecured credit card debt that Rajan notes support this view. Even if the US government hadn’t pushed and subsidised home ownership, poorer households would likely have ended up over their heads – especially in the context of excess savings elsewhere in the world.

Third, Rajan’s explanation of rising inequality in the US is basically flawed. It hews to an idea that became almost a religious tenet over the past two decades: rising inequality in the West is caused by increasing ‘returns to skill’ due to technology. According to Rajan the real problem was the rising inequality between the 90 and the 10% rather than the 99 and the 1%. These claims have been picked apart by other commentators such as Krugman, but some choice quotes show the untenability of Rajan’s position: ‘the sup­ply of col­lege-​ed­ucat­ed work­ers has not kept pace with de­mand… Those who are for­tu­nate enough to have bach­elor’s and ad­vanced de­grees have seen their in­comes grow rapid­ly as the de­mand for grad­uates ex­ceeds sup­ply.’ This is derisory.

Rajan: ‘wealth seems to be with in the grasp of any one who can get a good job’ - or maybe not

The alternative is that income growth and job creation was concentrated in the financial sector and in industries providing services to the wealthy. So some other high-skill professionals, cosmetic surgeons, yacht designers or architects say, may have seen their incomes rise whilst job creation elsewhere mainly consisted of low-skill service sector positions – and why bother getting an education for those jobs? This is the account that Robert Reich presents in Supercapitalism.

inequality 2

Upper deciles really didn't do all that great in the US

So these problems render many of his conclusions and suggestions moot. Rajan openly states that many of his suggestions for fixing the hidden fractures rely on the view that much financial activity is not pointless and does generate something of value for the wider economy. This is at least questionable. The economy obviously relies on many functions of finance, but even Bank of England  Economists have wondered aloud about the net contribution finance actually makes over the economic cycle:

For the largest 25 or so global banks, the average annual subsidy between 2007-2010 was hundreds of billions of dollars; on some estimates it was over $1 trillion (Haldane 2011). This compares with average annual profitability of the largest global banks of about $170 billion per annum in the five years ahead of the crisis.

Taking risks is not itself an activity that warrants reward, especially when losses are passed on to the public.  Rajan seems to suggest that cutting the poor off from credit would do more harm than good. Well, maybe, but I can’t really see how curtailing haute finance would necessarily eliminate payday loans. Funnily enough, life went on before Glass-Steagal was repealed.

Rajan’s suggestions for improving the US education system are worthy but rest on some of his more dubious assertions about the cause of the crisis for their plausibility. He is however quite insightful in his observations that global compromises are necessary to move from a situation where the US is ‘consumer of last resort’, soaking up exports and savings. He’s enough of a realist to note, however, that although government officials realise that movement away from a world where the US provides the world’s demand is necessary, they are eager to pass the buck for the problem. This can be witnessed in the current mess, particularly in the intransigence ofGermanyfaced with the imbalances within the Eurozone. But the half-hearted solution, that the IMF become an educator of civil society and an inspiration for global citizens is pretty limp stuff – for some reason the IMF isn’t actually very popular with NGOs or actual civil society activists where it has operated in the past. But like other books in this genre, it’s a book aimed at political elites and the frequent flier class: the scary spectre of populism crops up once again. For my money, more solutions will come from angry citizens than the same elites who presided over the GFC.

So a strange and lopsided account of the crisis, radical and daring in places but far too wedded to discredited orthodoxies and shibboleths of the economics profession. Irritating ‘both sides are to blame’ posturing crops up in several sections. Undoubtedly, the biggest contribution of Rajan’s book is explaining how the global imbalances are connected to the different strategies for national development of states within the world economy. This made the book a worthwhile read in and of itself.

Fukuyama Blogging: Part 1 ‘Before the State’


The first section of The Origins of Political Order deals with politics before the state. This is interesting enough on its own as this is an area that few American political scientists have written on to my knowledge. In a few chapters, Fukuyama covers pretty massive ground: from the evolution of human sociability and language, to the ‘tyranny of cousins’ in human hunter-gather bands, to the emergence of ancestor worshipping tribal societies to the first states.

I’m impressed at the way Fukuyamabalances and integrates the different forces which shape human social life: biology, physical and biotic environment, rational self-interest, pro-social tendencies for rule-following and religious belief. He even finds room for the Hegelian notion of thymos, the demand for recognition from one’s peers, as an important driver. In a few of the early sections there is little that is truly new however: most social scientists are already very familiar with game-theoretic explanations of cooperation, accounts of the socially constructed nature of human society and so on. As a result I was left wanted a bit more detail about the fundamental nuts and bolts of political order, the content seemed more like an introductory overview (or maybe this is a symptom of reading too much social scientific theory in my Dphil).

The brief sections on hunter-gatherer bands are well argued but equally thin. Maybe because there really wasn’t very much politics within and amongst hunter-gatherer bands: no formal structures exist, no permanent positions of authority – only big men who temporarily rise to prominence. This changes according to Fukuyama with the emergence of tribal societies, which came into being with the spread of agriculture. What follows is a detailed and very interesting account of the organisation of ‘segmentary’ tribes as an important stage in human political development, in which human beings organise themselves into concentric circles of loyalty based on patrilineal descent. According toFukuyama, it is conflict over the surpluses generated by agriculture that resulted in the emergence of tribal societies. So war made the tribe and the tribe made war – Charles Tilly travels back in time to meet the ancient German tribes. But authority vested in chieftans only temporary during periods of hostility, although differences of rank opened up between warriors and those who work the land.

Of especially relevance isFukuyama’s insistence that older forms of social organisation never really disappear at higher levels of political development. Indeed it seems that it takes a lot of effort to stop their reappearance:Fukuyamaargues that militias in war-torn nations are simply a recapitulation of the retinues of chieftans in tribal societies.

From tribes we move towards the first pristine states. It is here that I raise some misgivings and uncertainties. First, the account is not particularly novel. The Wittfogel thesis about hydraulic despotism (ancient states emerged to regulate irrigation projects) is considered and rejected, whilst other factors such as population density, intensified conflict, strong ecotines (sharp gradation between fertile and infertile regions) and total size of a given region are all identified as playing a role. The problem is that this does not seem to represent a major advance on the account, for example, presented by Michael Mann around 25 years ago in his The Sources of Social Power – which attributes the emergence of states as the result of social ‘caging’ resulting from the loss of exit power on the part of populations who had previously been able to take back the authority vested in temporary leaders. It’s notable as well that unlike scholars such as Mann and Harris, he has much to say about the inequalities that the emergence of rank societies and then states involved.

Missing, last seen in Civ IV

Second, there is no mention of large-scale trade as a factor. Since Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony there has been a great interest in long-distance trading networks in shaping the pre-modern world. Writers in the field of ‘big history’ have also seen these networks as playing an importance role in long-term historical change. IR theorist and would-be psychohistorian George Modelski has been amongst those who have linked trade and early urbanism in the ancient Mesopotamian. If cities evolved as nodal points in webs of trade, then the implications for the origin of the state – which perhaps first existed as the city-state – are pretty significant. But there is little mention of such factors by Fukuyama, indeed he explicitly makes a choice to deemphasise the ancientMesopotamia. Odd, especially as in the Fertile Crescent we see many of the earliest hallmarks of statehood and international relations such as diplomacy, treaties, public works, the notion of international hegemony and (surely of central importance to the evolution of political order) written law.  Instead, Fukuyama opts to begin Part 2 with a focus on the state in ancient China. Onwards!