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!


Posted on December 1, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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