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.

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Posted on December 28, 2011, in development, inequality, political order, theorists and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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