Category Archives: historical sociology
The advantage of teaching very different subjects is that it draws your attention to strange contrasts and parallels across the social world and human history. 1645, China:
“They sharpened their hoes into swords, and they took to themselves the title of ‘Levelling Kings’, declaring that they were levelling the distinction between masters and serfs, titled and mean, rich and poor… “They tied the masters to pillars and flogged them with whips and with the lashes of bamboo…They would slap them across the cheeks and say: ‘We are all of us equally men. What right had you to cal us serfs? From now on it is going to be the other way around!’”
Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past 1973
Meanwhile, there was levelling going on in England
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under”
Col. Rainsborough at the Putney debates 1947
Was the outbreak of ‘levelling’ at the opposite ends of Eurasia in the mid-C17th a coincidence? Presumably, I don’t know of any deep, structural process hypothesised by world historians or historical sociologists that would link the two episodes – it seems like a bit of a stretch. But the similarities tempt an explanation.
Duck of Minerva, increasingly well-established as the nexus of academic IR online, is hosting a symposium on the ‘The End of IR Theory?’ special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. Lots of interesting posts so far, including one by Mearsheimer and Walt in defence of bold ‘big picture’ grand theorising. Also interesting is Bennett’s take, in which he calls for ‘structured pluralism’ focusing on causal mechanism rather than unproductive inter-‘paradigm’ debate between -isms. Goddard (who co-wrote what to my mind is one of the best discussions of Waltz in the literature) offers a sympathetic critique, arguing that the pluralism that Bennett advocates might not be all that easy to achieve in practice – as scholars cannot just suspend their pre-established beliefs and reach for the most appropriate mechanisms from a common toolbox when tackling a given problem of explanation. She also defends the pedagogical relevance of introducing students to argument over big ideas in world politics, ‘the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates’. An overriding focus on the minutiae of mechanisms and nuance of particular theories could result in such a focus being lost.
There’s lots and lots to agree with in this two posts, both on the importance of causal mechanisms for research and advanced-level teaching as well as the relevance of ‘big ideas’ for getting students and aspiring scholars interested in the subject (and let’s be honest, this is why people choose to study and aspire to become scholars of international relations in the first place). In Bennett’s article he makes the important point that
Middle-range theories are not just theories about individual causal mechanisms, but theories about how combinations of mechanisms interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes (p. 470)
This I think provides a bridge from the debate over causal mechanisms within international relations theory to causal mechanisms as understood by historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly (see my post from last year). A central tenet of historical sociology, as I understand it, is that one can indeed locate recurrent causal mechanisms across time and space – but they combine and interact with each other in very different, historically specific ways. So scholars searching for trans-historical covering laws are on a hiding-to-nothing, but – against strongly idiographic approaches that see every historical period, every cultural context as sui generis and incomparable in its uniqueness – we can engage in careful comparisons and draw attention to recurrent sets of causal mechanisms. This is, I think, what Mann means in the later volumes of The Sources of Social Power when he describes the ambitions of his project as lying somewhere between those of Marx and those of Weber.
I’m uncertain, however, about certain aspects of Bennett’s taxonomy of theories of social mechanisms. One dimension of this taxonomy distinguishes between material power, institutional efficiency and normative legitimacy – mirroring the distinction between realism, liberalism and constructivism that seems to have become the orthodox trinity of theories in US IR. I wonder if this set of distinctions leaves room for ideas of social power, as employed by historical sociologists such as Mann. ‘Material power’ implies raw, unsocialised power – what Arendt refused to call power proper but instead termed violence. Institutional efficiency brings to mind Pareto efficiency, discussion of which obscures consideration of inequality and power – as argued by Sen. Mann’s idea of social power involves social organisation (institutions in the broad sense) but involves recognition of the ability of those at the apex of social organization to ‘outflank’ subordinate actors. This kind of power isn’t ‘material’ as such, and it doesn’t really relate to the question of efficiency among institutions. Mann’s notion of social power is quite close to the idea of structural power as employed in Barnett and Duvall’s influential article on concepts of power in IR theory. I’d suggest, therefore, that it’s omission from Bennett’s typology limits this version of ‘structured pluralism’ to some degree.
Jamie over at Blood & Treasure has argued that actions by the Egyptian military are consistent with the advice given in Luttwak’s Coup D’Etat: A Practical Handbook. The book had been on my ‘to read’ pile for a very long time, so in the context of current events I decided to take a serious look at Luttwak’s manual. It’s very informative so far (although a bit outdated due to the advance of communications technology and the socio-economic changes that have affected much of the global South). But I think Jamie is wrong about event’s in Egypt being a textbook Luttwakian coup. According to Luttwak:
A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control over the remainder
Rather, what has occurred is closest to what Luttwak calls a Pronunciamiento.
In its original ninetheeth-century Spanish version this was a highly ritualised process: first came the trabajos (literally the ‘works’) in which the opinions of army officers were sounded. The next step was the compromisos, in which commitments were made and rewards promised; then came the call for action, and, finally, the appeal to the troops to follow the officers in rebellion against the government…the theoretical purpose of the takeover was to ascertain [sic?] the ‘national will’ … unlike the putsch, which is carried out by a faction within the army, or the coup, which can be carried out by civilians using some army units, the pronunciamiento leads to a takeover by the army as a whole.
This seems like a reasonably good fit for what has occurred in Egypt over the past week. As others have suggested, the relevant comparisons to the Egyptian situation might be pre-2002 Turkey, Thailand, and some C20th Latin American regimes where the army regarded itself as having a supra-legal duty to intervene in politics for the good of the nation. The Thai case is relevant because of the apparent support of members of the urban middle class for the 2006 military curtailment of electoral democracy. In fairness, this is not necessarily a scenario that Egypt’s secular democrats ever wanted to find themselves in – three-corner political struggles generate strange situations like this.
An article I wrote was published a week last Friday in a special edition of Millennium: Journal of International Studies focusing on the topic of Materialism and World Politics. The special edition features papers presented at the rather excellent two-day conference at the LSE in October 2012, including my own. The title of my article is ‘ Structural Inequality, Quasi-rents and the Democratic Peace: A Neo-Ricardian Analysis of International Order’. Here’s the abstract:
This article employs the neo-Ricardian concept of quasi-rents – temporary above-market returns – to vindicate the structuralist claim that patterns of international order are shaped by global inequality and the transnational division of labour. Developing a framework linking the distribution of quasi-rents within the global economy to the process of class formation, the article examines the implications for the influential ‘social market democracy’ explanation of the democratic peace. It argues that the democratic peace is in part predicated on the quasi-rents enjoyed by substantial sections of the workforces of the ‘core’ advanced industrial states. Such a political economy provides the foundations for a ‘social market democracy’ in which economic security can be enjoyed by substantial sections of the population, giving rise to the system of values on which the democratic peace rests. Thus, present patterns of international order result from a historically specific unequal distribution of quasi-rents within the world economy.
The abstract is somewhat technical, due to the need to locate the article in ongoing theoretical debates in less than 150 words. For the non-initiated, here’s what the article seeks to accomplish: Structuralism is a materialist theory of international relations which focuses on asymmetric relationships beyond the nation-state and how they result in global patterns of inequality. Structuralism has lost favour in international relations theory, partly because scholars feel it doesn’t have much to say about core issues of international politics such as authority, order and the use of organised violence*. This article seeks to present a fresh defence of structuralist arguments, arguing that patterns of war and peace may in fact be linked to patterns of global inequality and the organisation of the global division of labour. It does this by engaging with an influential position in the debate over the ‘democratic peace’ (the observed regularity that democracies very rarely engage in inter-state war with one another), Michael Mousseau’s ‘social market’ theory. He argues that peaceful, human rights-respecting values become dominant when large numbers of individuals in a society can enjoy economic security when they participate in the market. When markets do not provide economic security, those peaceful values will be weakened.
In the paper I investigate the circumstances under which markets may provide economic security, drawing on the labour market sociology of Aage Sorensen. He argued that individuals enjoy security when they occupy certain semi-insulated niches within labour markets, such as within occupationalised careers or professions. The ‘rungs’ of the ‘ladders’ of such internal job markets provide a greater degree of security than fluctating, unfettered markets. These niches arise out of the process of bargaining over quasi-rents, temporary returns above the normal market rate for an economic resource such as land, labour or capital. The local availability of quasi-rents will therefore determine the ability of actors in a common economic position (members of a class, if you like) to establish themselves within a niche in the labour market. The article uses research from the global value-chains literature to analyse some of the features of the distribution of quasi-rents. Until recently, the lion’s share of quasi-rents were located in the advanced industrialised North due to the compounded technological advantages of the early industrialisers. Economic actors in the global South found themselves stuck in industries producing generic products and were forced to compete on price.
But the new global division of labour has shaken this picture up. Many economic actors in the global South still lack access to quasi-rents and find themselves squeezed by large multinational buyers that control supply chains. But in other parts of the world, SE Asia and the S American cone for example, the shift in manufacturing capacity from the North may have led to opportunities to bargain for quasi-rents. Workers in the North, however, have been fighting a rearguard action to protect their niches within labour markets and defend systems of social welfare and insurance. Employers in the North have, due to a conjuncture of political, economic and technological factors, gotten much better at eliminating their workers from shares of quasi-rents. This seems to have led markets to become much more fluid, ‘flexible’ is the preferred term. But as Sorensen argued, freer markets might mean more insecure lives. More insecure lives might mean weaker support for pacific, liberal values. Of course, pacific values might actually strengthen amongst the new industrialisers in the global South. The point is that there are a set of compelling reasons, based on established empirical literatures within three different disciplines, to believe that the democratic peace is in fact underpinned by the specifics of the present global division of labour. This means that structuralism really does have something big and important to contribute to debates in international relations theory and the study of international security.
That’s the gist of the article (reversing the structure of the argument), but the real thing really attempts to nail down each step and present a rigorous, plausible restatement of structuralism using the idea of quasi-rents. I’m really happy with how the paper turned out and delighted to be part of what looks like a great issue of Millennium.
My previous post on Gellner’s ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB) managed to attract an approving link from Brad DeLong, so I thought that I might as well write the promised follow-up.
To recap part 1, PSB is an extremely ambitious – and overlooked – magnum opus that attempts to outline the structure of human history in terms of the development of production, coercion and cognition from the hunter-gatherer past to the advanced industrialised present. Gellner’s thesis is that the three epochs of human civilisation (hunter-gatherer, agrarian and industrial) are distinct not just in their patterns of social organisation, the focus of other historical sociologists such as Mann and Tilly, but in the way that they conceive of the relationship between mind and world.
Of note is the significance Gellner attaches to Plato. I’ve never believed that Plato has much relevance to the study of contemporary politics or even contemporary political theory, his political concerns belong to a very different world to our own. Popper’s criticism of Plato as totalitarian or proto-totalitarian always struck me as completely anachronistic. But Gellner makes a fascinating case for seeing Plato’s philosophy as exemplary of the cognitive shifts of Karl Jasper’s ‘axial age’. Before this age, local ritual and custom (nomos) ruled human life. Nomos was authoritative because human beings lived within small-scale, closed communities. It was grounded in a meaningful, ritualised shared social existence. Metaphysical concepts, norms, aesthetic standards and empirical beliefs (all of which are merged together at this point in history) compelled human thinking but were socially bounded and could not transcend context.
The key change in the axial era was the rise of putatively universal systems of normatively-loaded concepts that were ‘trans-ethnic, trans-social, trans-communal’. This is the birth of logos and the idea of reason and of the notion of a transcendent supra-sensory reality standing above, and giving meaning to, mundane existence. The death of Socrates might be seen as marking the historical juncture between the age of socially-circumscribed communal norms and the the axial age in which concepts transcend context.
Normatively-loaded concepts, now recognised explicitly as concepts, form the basis of explicit doctrines. The literate intellectuals of the axil age were deeply concerned with achieving coherence between these concepts in order to correctly understand and explicate the nature of the noumenal realm. The intellectuals, theologians and priesthoods pushed against the ‘easy cohabitation’ of many incompatible strands of belief that had characterised earlier periods of human history. But empirical investigation was not held in high regard within this new age of cognition and belief systems became largely non-referential:
Reality does not constitute a check on Ideas: on the contrary, they are the norms by which reality is to be judged and guided (p. 76)
The reality of the senses is only a flickering shadow cast by the true reality accessible only through reason and – once the world religions had established themselves – scripture, meditation, faith, veneration of saints and so on. The world is seen as a meaningful whole, each element accorded its proper place and imbued with a purpose. This axial age cognitive order, in which normatively-loaded concepts stand over and above mundane reality, helped to stabilise an agro-literate social order in which violence-specialists and legitimacy-specialists stand over and above the great mass of agricultural producers. The world religions offered salvation in the here-after but legitimated hierarchy on Earth.
Initially confined to the philosophically inclined elites, access to the noumenal order was restricted to priesthoods who interceded on behalf of the mass of the population in the mature agrarian societies. Effective monopolies were established on access to truth and salvation. Yet the salvationist aspect of many world religions always held the prospect of direct un-mediated access to the noumenal order by ordinary human beings. Thus under a specific set of circumstances at a particular point in history, the spiritual monopoly was broken and large numbers of people gained direct, unmediated access to salvation. Yes, this is Weber’s story of the rise of the Protestant Ethic and the swinging shut of the monastery door as essential to the rise of modernity. Indeed, I would argue that Gellner is much more neo-Weberian than the likes of Mann and Tilly – who are interested primarily in organizational rather than cognitive structures.
In any case, universalism managed to break free of the Universal Church and thus from the hierarchical social and spiritual order which it embodied. From there, Gellner argues, it was possible for the modern cognitive order to emerge. In this cognitive order the noumenal, super-sensory realm is dethroned. Nature is regarded as a single ordered whole free from any intrinsic meaning or purpose but comprehensible through experience and the faculty of reason. No knower is unique or has specially privileged access to the facts about nature.
This was a huge inversion in the cognitive ordering of the world. Previously, nature presented a testament to the veracity of supra-sensory truths – it confirmed the divine order. After the Enlightenment, reality provides the external measure of systems of belief. How did the Reformation bring about this ‘dethronement of the concept’, considering that Protestant denominations continued to regard the Bible as Holy Scripture? This is the weakest link in the whole chain of Gellner’s argument, in my view. In fact, the answer to the question is split between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Gellner suggests that the scriptural criticism may have led towards the view that everything can be criticised and thus the destruction of the idea of sacred knowledge. He makes a more convincing suggestion that the acceptance of a stalemate in the Wars of Religion gave rise to toleration and the creation of a social space in which free inquiry could flourish. Thus the Reformation may have been instrumental rather than essential to the Enlightenment.
Although I think he leans on Weber too much to the exclusion of consideration of the material processes transforming Europe at the end of the medieval age, I’ll restrain myself in this post and save the critical discussion for a final post dealing with the contemporary world and Gellner’s relevance for international relations. But I’l make one final point. Gellner’s thesis is very much focused on Western Europe and the transition to and then away from the medieval era. His rich discussion of the relationship between legitimacy-specialists (priests, scribes etc.) and violence-specialists, emphasising the role of mobilizing norms of legitimacy to decide between essentially equivalent groups of violence-specialists, has a great deal of applicability across cultural contexts.
But much of the discussion assumes a certain division of labour between the two groups, the division of labour present in medieval Europe. India is recognised as being on a very distinct sociological and cognitive path, but isn’t examined in any depth. Although the role of ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ in traditional Chinese thinking does fit with Gellner’s account of the cognitive structures of agrarian society, priests and mediators with ‘heaven’ have not held the authority or autonomy in China that Gellner assumes as the norm. The discussion of Islam is very limited, with Gellner commenting on the ‘anti-rational theocracy’ of that world religion without mentioning the Islamic Golden Age. Nonetheless, he has some much more interesting things to say about the position of Islam in the modern world – but that will have to wait for another post!
When I first read it at the age of 16, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod was a revelation to me. I was already a voracious reader of Iain (M) Banks, especially of his novels that deal most directly with political concepts such as The State of the Art and The Player of Games. But reading Ken MacLeod was a discovery of a different order of magnitude. Science-fiction takes ideas more seriously than any other genre. It refuses the conformity of presentism, daring to provoke the human imagination into considering different alternatives about the way that things might be. But whilst much science-fiction focuses on the technological aspects of alternative futures, The Star Fraction is about the future of History in the ‘capital H’ sense: struggles between ideologies, movements, classes and states. Ken MacLeod is aware of the fact that politics is not going to disappear, the future will present us with tough choices about our collective destiny. We may not always live long enough to understand the full consequences of those choices – although with the right innovations in biomedical science some of us just might…
MacLeod’s introduction to the US version of The Star Fraction has been up for a while over on the blog for the Centre for a Stateless Society. The book is a reflection on a social-scientific, not technological, possibility: that comprehensive central planning is very likely unworkable for micro-economic reasons but capitalism may well be unsustainable for macro-socio-economic reasons. Like a lot of science-fiction, The Star Fraction presents a what-if: ‘What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?’. It’s still a pertinent question to ask.
As MacLeod himself reveals ‘History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine’. The Star Fraction is a work of social-science-fiction written by someone with a subtle understanding of the materialist theory of history, an insider’s knowledge of computing, and first hand experience of the travails of the socialist project. The cyberpunk stylings are mainly there to give the book it’s flechette-gun-volley velocity and impact – as well as to give concrete substance to some humanist worries about whether technology actually needs us in the long-term.
One of the cleverest things about the original The Star Fraction novel is the fragmented system of micro-states imposed on the UK by America’s invasion of Europe. I didn’t realise it when I first read the novel, but the UK’s political system is supposed to be a degenerate and oppressive version of the minimal-state market-anarchist system outlined in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the book ‘actually existing libertarianism’ is imposed externally by a occupying superpower – just as ‘actually existing socialism’ was in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
Global financial crises generated by out of control algorithms, flying death-robots killing Islamist terrorists at the behest of the world’s last superpower, fascists in the shadow of the acropolis, grass-roots hackers’ movements releasing gigabytes of diplomatic cables – the world seems more like a MacLeod novel every day. This all reminds me that I really need to get a chance to read Farah Mendelsohn’s edited collection of essays, The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod. I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t able to go the Science-fiction and International Orders seminar, which featured both MacLeod and Chris Brown, at the LSE back in 2011 too.
Oh dear, over a month since I said that I would be reviving the blog and this is the first post to follow. In my defence, I had a busy August teaching at a Summer School in Oxford.
Anyway, there’s an interesting mini-article by Murad Batal al-Shishani and Dalia Elsheikh over on the BBC website about the rise of the thug as an important political actor in the Middle East.
The term “baltagi” is Turkish in origin. “Baltaci”, which means “axe-man”, was adopted into Arabic during Ottoman rule.
In modern day Egypt, baltagi came to mean “thug”. But after mass anti-government unrest erupted in January and February 2011, it began to be used to describe regime supporters who were used to disperse and attack protesters.
The Assad regime in Syria has of course been utilising the Shabiha militias, made up of criminals, to terrorise supporters of the armed opposition. Similar groups are wielded by the Yemeni regime as well, according to the article.
As a non-specialist, the article suggests to me that the political capacity of the regimes of the MENA region must have significantly declined if they are now dependent on hooligans and gangsters to cling on to power. In his recent book on political order (which I blogged on quite a bit) he makes the case for seeing the emergence of such retinues, which orbit strong-men able to keep doling out the loot, as a feature of political decay. Away from West Asia, bands of thugs have been utilised by various regimes whose hold on power and the conventional levers of government was slipping: from the Shanghai gangsters who massacred of workers and communists at the behest of Chiang Kai Shek at the start of the Chinese Civil War, to the squads of football hooligans who formed into ethnic paramilitary units during the Yugoslav wars after the disintegration of the federal state.
As these two example might indicate, the rise of the thug isn’t a good sign for the MENA region. Arguably, democracy requires an existing political order and the institutionalisation of the principle that political disagreements should not be resolved through force. Democracy seems a distant prospect where the state has privatised and farmed out its monopoly on the use of force.
Much delayed post on Fukuyama’s conclusion to The Origins of Political Order. I’ve had this post sat on my hard drive for over a month, but I wasn’t feeling the blogging vibe. Let’s have another go!
Having reached the French Revolution and the highest forms of political development through the emergence of the modern state, the rule of law and political accountability vol. 1 of Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order concludes. The entire history of politics from our primate ancestors up to the dawn of the modern world: done and dusted. Time to wrap up and look at what Fukuyama hopes we will take away from the book:
1) Modernisation not a general process, nor is political modernisation. Fukuyama’s goal is, in one sense, to rehabilitate modernisation theory and to make a case for the existence of an evolutionary ladder in political development. But at the same time he wants to reject the idea, promoted by classical social thinkers such as Weber, Durkheim and Marx, that all the components of modernisation are linked as part of a general process. Political modernisation inChina ran ahead even absent technological development. Nor is political modernisation a singular process, it can be decomposed into three aspects as I examined above. Fukuyama makes a strong case here, but as I argued in Part 4 its questionable whether he really succeeds in separating the ideas of accountability and the rule of law. The two seem pretty much intertwined empirically, even if they are conceptually distinct.
2) Ideas matter.Fukuyama seems quite irritated by perspectives which fail to acknowledge the independent weight of ideas in the evolution of human societies. He insists that it’s ‘a fool’s errand’ to attempt to make sense of the specifics of religion in terms of material circumstances, ideas ‘are turtles far down the stack that do not necessarily stand on the backs of turtles related to the economy or physical environment’. As a partisan of the opposite point of view, however, I wasn’t convinced thatFukuyama provides enough support for this thesis. In his account of political development it seems that it’s the way religious institutions are socially organised that really matters. This in fact fits in with an ‘organizational materialist’ perspective of scholars like Mann and Tilly very well. At other times,Fukuyama’s account acknowledges the direct material interests of religious actors. It’s pretty rare in the book that the actual substantive content of belief systems makes a big difference independently of other factors.
On the subject, I was slightly disappointed how rarely the idea of the ‘struggle for recognition’ comes up in the book.Fukuyamais a well known for his Hegelian view that the search for recognition – reciprocal acknowledgement by one’s peers – is the driving force in human history. Yet the idea only has a walk on part in this book, with the biological drive to favour friends and family doing the heavy lifting.
3) Violence plays a central role in political development. Following the well known arguments of Hintze, Tilly and others in IR such as Spruyt and Ayoob, Fukuyama places a lot of weight on conflict as a driver of the rise of the state and of political accountability (but not the rule of law as far as I can tell). Violence has a Darwinian function in generating selective pressure amongst political units and generating one of the few impetuses to overcome vested interests (see #7).
Okay, sure, fine. This is a well-established thesis that has been the subject of extensive debate. But it’s worth noting that there are other kinds of competition, for migrants, political supporters, allies and for mobile capital (the latter examined by Arrighi and Silver in the context of early modern Europe), many of which probably drove political development as well.
4) Property rights aren’t everything – oh and Mancur Olson was wrong. Fukuyama spends a lot of time criticizing economists and political scientists who think that everything turns on robust property rights and that all strong states are predators who bury commercial activity with onerous taxes. The story is much more complex than the account inspired by political economists such as Olson, he insists.
Here there’s not much to disagree with, the property rights uber alles brigade are pretty wearying. But it is worth noting that very often the people that Fukuyama bothers to engage with are all from the conservative side of academic debate, making specific mention of the specifics of arguments by neo-liberals and even neo-conservatives. In one sense, these are probably the people who Fukuyama debates with and is addressing in the book. But it’s notable that, although he often criticises Marx, he doesn’t actually engage with modern scholars influenced by Marx such as GA Cohen or Hobsbawm. There’s some irony in this deployment of straw-man Marxism, as contemporary Marxists such as Brenner and the IR theorist Teschke have made arguments which are of a similar format to Fukuyama’s, stressing the specifics of different systems of property rights and the relations between classes in explaining how capitalism originated in England.
What’s more, for all his attempts to distance himself from the Whig view of history, his account of the development is quite rose tinted in certain respects. It stresses the strong property rights of English subjects and established traditions of political accountability, but makes no mention of enclosure and the colossal theft by elites that it constituted. Both within Britainand overseas in its colonies, the establishment of property rights for some was quite closely related to the loss of property on the part of others. Turning to the modern world, things don’t seem to have changed much: witness the land grabs by unscrupulous local officials in China and the resultant images of ‘nail houses’.
5) Extreme levels of path-dependence characterises development. AlthoughFukuyama is resurrecting the idea of political modernisation and evolution, his account makes it clear that societies do not pass through a sequence of similar changes. Rather, their different paths are shaped by very deep social institutions:
New institutions are more typically layered on top of existing ones, which survive for extraordinarily long periods of time.
There’s no smooth and automatic progression along a simple evolutionary pathway either:
The actual historical roots of different institutions often seem to be the products of a long concatenation of historical accidents that one could never have predicted in advance.
Borrowing the idea of spandrels from Gould and Lewontin, he argues that an institution that arose for one purpose might play a totally different purpose further down the line – a notion that Mann referred to as a kind of institutional promiscuity.
This all makes political development seem pretty haphazard. Indeed, if this is true, then it seems that actually existing historical civilisations probably did not exhaust all the various possible ways of organising agrarian societies.
It makes me wonder as well, what of all the paths of socio-political development off the main linesFukuyamaexamines? All the societies he focuses on are patrilineal, but what about matrilineal cultures such as the Israelites or Sumatra’s Minangkabao people. Were these dead ends or did circumstances just prevent them from achieving the prominence of other world civilisations?
6) Political development should be understood in within-nation terms. Fukuyama actually contradicts himself on this issue I think. His focus is on the internal (endogenous if you like) development of political institutions, not looking at the position of societies in wider webs of relationships. Hence, turning to contemporary questions of development he argues that:
In more recent societies, it is easy to blame social failures on the machinations of various outsiders, whether Jews or American imperialism, rather than looking to indigenous institutions for the explanation.
Well, yes. But its also easy for those in wealthy nations to blame feckless Mexicans or Africans for the problems of maldevelopment, rather than ask uncomfortable questions about the global division of labour or the architecture of transnational finance. But Fukuyama isn’t so interested in understanding the interlinked global process of development, save for when he examines the second serfdom and can’t avoid acknowledging that the enserfment of those East of the Elbe was causally linked to the economic development of the West.
Suddenly at the end of the book, however, Fukuyamatakes a different perspective on the drivers of political development:
It is therefore no longer possible to speak simply about “national development.” In political science, comparative politics and international relations have traditionally been regarded as distinct subfields, the one dealing with things that happen within states, the other with relationships among states. Increasingly these fields will have to be studied as an integrated whole.
I’d agree, but I’d also say that the international dimension of development is nothing new in human history.
7) Political decay is a general phenomena. Taking up the baton from Huntingdon,Fukuyama wants to provide a sophisticated general account of political decay. Here I think he is quite successful. He sees two main sources of political decay: legacy investments, where previously successful social institutions are imbued with intrinsic value and thus are preserved long after they cease to be adaptive, and repatrimonialisation, which I examined in other posts. Yes, these are both variants of Olson’s idea of vested interests and ‘distributive coalitions’ gradually ossifying societies, butFukuyama develops the ideas with a lot of empirical and theoretical detail. I think there are other sources of political decay in the post-Malthusian world, but I’ll wait to see what Fukuyama says in the sequel.
One of the most interesting consequences of his argument is that decay generates novel social formations, not simply a reversion to previous forms. Sorry Heraclitus, but the way up is not the same as the way down. The Western Roman Empire had to fall before the possibility of feudalism arose. Decay therefore introduces novelty and can actually open up new pathways for political evolution.
That’s my scattershot appraisal of the threads of argument that run through the whole book. This post is already too long, so I’ll write a coda on the implications for the modern world to follow.
Francis Fukuyama is best known for his much misunderstood meditation on the epochal significance of the end of the Cold War, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ , which famously argued that post-nationalist liberal democratic capitalism represented the final form of human social evolution – barring any radical efforts to utilised technology to alter human nature.
Since 9/11, however,Fukuyamahas been preoccupied with the thorny problem of how underdeveloped nations can actually establish the institutions of liberal democratic capitalism for themselves, the problem of ‘getting toDenmark’. His concerns led to a brief and unhappy fling with the neo-cons, who he subsequently denounced as ideologically blinkered yahoos unable to learn from their mistakes and ignorant of the difficulties in exporting liberal democracy . As a result, he published ‘State-Building’, a series of lectures reflecting the state of the art on the art of making states.
This avenue of inquiry seems to have led Fukuyama to a much more ambitious project: developing a theory of the evolution of political order from pre-history to the present. In doing so, Fukuyama is making a bid to top his mentor and rival, Samuel Huntingdon, and to renovate modernisation theory, the master theory which united American social science in the post-war period and provided a framework for the US’s attempts to fight communism and control the development of the post-colonial world. All societies around the world were posited as moving though a series of steps until they finally converged on the ‘high mass-consumption’ society of the Eisenhauer-era USA.
I have to admit that I’m of two minds about Fukuyama’s project. Few perspectives have had more criticism directed at them than modernisation theory, which has rightly been lambasted for its dubious Eurocentric assumptions, empirical flaws, authoritarian value commitments and quasi-totalitarian political implications. This is, after all, the ideology which played no small role in the disaster of Vietnam– as recounted in Nils Gilman’s brilliant intellectual history of modernisation theory. Huntingdon’s opus, ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’ may be a classic of political science and path-breaking work on the political sociology of development, but it is also a treatise justifying support for the most odious regimes – an apologia for the Suhartos and the Mubaraks of the world.
However, I’m an avid reader of big-picture historical sociology and attempts to make sense of large-scale patterns of human socio-economic and political development – I can’t really turn away when Fukuyama throws his hat into the ring. I’m also of the opinion that so much calumny has been thrown at modernisation theory that scholars might be missing the important points that it does make. In particular, the reaction against ‘stagist’ theories of human development, where human societies are posited as moving along a linear path from one form of political order to the next, has gone much too far. As a result, it has become difficult to discuss notions of development or to raise the possibility that some directional processes link together what does on in changing societies.
So I’m interested to see what Fukuyama’s ‘The Origins of Political Order’ brings to the debate. The book is divided into five parts and I plan on writing a little review of each section with an overview and some reflections in the last post.