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4.0 out of 5 stars A Political Primer of Lasting Value, 25 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Hardcover)
Why have Western attempts to impose democracy on autocratic regimes met with such limited success? Why do so many developing countries remain mired in endless cycles of conflict and corruption? And why do manifestly authoritarian countries like China continue to prosper despite their widespread abuse of human rights?

In this hugely ambitious, yet accessible book, Fukuyama attempts to answer these questions by tracing the history of the development of human societies into fully functional states. Beginning in pre-human times, he analyses the reasons why isolated and generally nepotistic tribal groups started to co-operate and organise themselves into states. The answer, he argues, generally consists of war, religion and various combinations of the two.

It is becoming customary for Western liberals to demonise religion and, John Lennon-like, imagine that a world without it would be a better one. Some of Fukuyama's conclusions may surprise and even disturb them. Religion, he argues, is one of the very few forces capable of persuading human beings to abandon their traditional nepotism and work together towards a common ideal. Not everyone will be comfortable with his generally positive analysis of the role played by the Catholic church in medieval times, albeit accidentally, in promoting what he describes as "the rule of law." This phrase he defines at some length as being the concept of a moral code greater, even, than the power and authority of kings; this, combined with a strong state and universal democracy is a key attribute of a successful human civilisation.

Fukuyama analyses the development of the first sophisticated civilization in China, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses - these can still be recognised as characteristic of a number of Asian societies today. Stopping off to discuss the deep social divisions that have made Indian government democratic but frequently ineffectual, he proceeds to an account of the radical approach to nepotism adopted by the Ottoman empire - their solution was to enslave conquered peoples by forcibly removing their most promising sons to run their state bureaucracy; they were given enormous powers and privileges but forbidden to intermingle with their host society and, crucially, to bequeath their social capital to their children. The celibacy of clergy in the Catholic Church was a similar attempt to address this problem.

Fukuyama then turns to Europe where, he claims, the conditions of a successful state were most effectively established, particularly in England. Extensive and comparatively egalitarian participation in the machinery of justice at local and regional levels paved the way for a parliamentary assembly able to impose the rule of law on monarchs that overstepped their powers, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of the late 17th Century that paved the way for the French and American revolutions just over 100 years later. This is the point at which Fukuyama's narrative ends; a second volume will continue the story under the vastly different conditions prevailing after the Industrial Revolution. However, Fukuyama acknowledges that the English success was not unique by examining the very different route taken by Dennmark to a similar outcome, and before he discusses the English case he looks at the problems encountered by the ancien regime in France, weak absolutism in Spain and its malign influence on Latin American postcolonial societies, and the limitations of serfdom and oligarchy in Russia and Hungary. All this undermines any Eurocentric triumphalism.

It is greatly to Fukuyama's credit that he manages to explain all this in terms that are comprehensible to the intelligent layman. This is an easy book to read, but it is dense in argument and information, so much so that it would probably be impossible to grasp all its nuances in a single reading. What makes it absorbing and exciting to read are the frequent occasions when light is shed on a seemingly intractable political problem in our own times. It will deepen any thoughtful reader's understanding of the challenging and often dangerous world we live in, and every day listening to a news bulletin will throw into focus the general principles of Fukuyama's analysis. He discusses 21st century military adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and devotes several pages to the global implications of China's phenomenal economic growth. It is to be hoped that the events of the Arab Spring, which appear to have taken place after the manuscript was completed, will be addressed either in the promised second volume, or possibly a revision of the first. This book is likely to become a key primer in international relations and political science, and therefore likely to run to more than one edition.
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