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!


Posted on December 19, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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