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!


Posted on December 12, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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