WAY OF THE WORLD
THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER:
FROM PREHUMAN TIMES TO THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
By Francis Fukuyama (Profile Books 585pp £25)
TOWARDS THE END of his life Stanley Baldwin was asked whether his career in politics had been guided by the ideas of any political thinker. Perhaps surprisingly, since the former Conservative prime minister was not known to take much interest in ideas, Baldwin is reported to have replied that the thinker who had influenced him most was Sir Henry Maine, the Victor ian jur ist and author of Ancient Law (1861). Maine had argued that human history was a process of development in which societies that were based on hierarchy and command were progressively replaced by ones based on freedom and consent. It was this grand idea of history as a movement from status to contract, Baldwin said, that had inspired him throughout his political life. But then, seemingly perplexed, Baldwin paused. ‘Or was it’, he asked, ‘the other way round?’ Once widely read, Maine’s Ancient Law is nowadays virtually forgotten. But the idea of history that it presented continues to be widely influential, and Francis Fukuyama cites Maine repeatedly in support of the claim that liberal democracy is the end-point of political development. The faith that the world is set to converge on the type of government practised recently in a few modern countr ies is central to Fukuyama’s view of things, and it pervades this bulky text of nearly 600 pages, itself only the first of two promised volumes. The same faith underpinned The End of History and the Last Man (1992), a bestseller written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which expanded on an essay Fukuyama had published in a neo-conservative journal, The National Interest, in the summer of 1989. In the essay, entitled ‘The End of History?’, Fukuyama argued that ‘the universalization of Western liberal democracy’ was ‘the final form of human government’ – the only political system that could be fully legitimate, and the only one with a future. Three years later, the question mark that adorned the essay was gone. Like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whose monumental two-volume eulogy to Stalin’s Russia, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935), would appear in later editions without the question mark, Fukuyama seems to have believed that the passage of time had removed any possible doubt.
In the introduction to The End of History and the Last
Man, Fukuyama responded indignantly to critics who pointed out that history had not in fact stopped, but was continuing with all its normal conflicts. He had never claimed that historical events – great or small – would g r ind to a halt, he insisted. Rather, it was ‘histor y understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process’ that had come to an end. But the idea that history is moving towards a single end-state has nothing in common with evolution as Darwin understood it. The key feature of natural selection is that it has no end-state: it is a process of drift, with no built-in goal. What Fukuyama is invoking is not evolution but teleological history of the kind theorised by Hegel and Marx (and later, with a different end-point, Hayek).
Like innumerable thinkers before him, Fukuyama has confused evolution with a particular idea of progress. His ‘theory of development’ consists of a set of political ideals – roughly speaking, Anglo-American pieties of the past century or so – masquerading as an explanation of history. The institutions whose development he aims to chart, he tells us, are the state, the rule of law and accountable government. Together they define a potentially universal regime: ‘A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three institutions in a stable balance.’ An idealised version of American government during the past few decades, this ‘stable balance’ defines the most desirable future for the species; but it is also, according to Fukuyama, the destination towards which humankind is moving. We will have to await the promised second volume for Fukuyama’s account of the financial crisis, which has left the gridlocked American political system – supposedly the goal of political evolution – looking more like a dead end. We can be certain that his ‘theory of political order’ will be unchanged, for it is not based on facts and so cannot be altered by events. Mixing factual and ethical claims, Fukuyama’s ‘theory of development’ is inherently unfalsifiable. In his original 1989 essay Fukuyama interpreted the end of the Cold War as ‘the unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism’, when it was actually simply the defeat of communism – a thoroughly good thing, but not one that left liberal democracy as the only form of government that could in future be considered legitimate. As history started moving again after the Cold War freeze, a variety of hybrid regimes was bound to appear. Putin’s authoritarianism has many dark spots; but it has a degree of popular support commanded by none of its Soviet predecessors. The idea that Russia is travelling a path that must eventually lead to liberal democracy is not a result of historical enquiry. It is an article of faith, just like the belief that the convulsions currently shaking the Middle East, which Fukuyama has greeted as giving support to his theory, are stages on the way to Western-style regimes.
A compendium of stodgy erudition presented in leaden
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011
4 WAY OF THE WORLD
academic prose, The Origins of Political Order is a treatise of a kind one hoped had gone out of fashion. Starting with the social behaviour of chimpanzees, Fukuyama moves quickly on to consider tr ibalism in prehistoric China, pauses briefly to discuss political weakness in the Indian subcontinent (the ‘Indian detour’) and the emergence of the rule of law in Europe, before going on to the grand finale – the emergence of ‘accountable government’ in England in the Glorious Revolution, and the transmission of this ideal to America and France. There are some useful observations – Fukuyama notes that rapid economic growth has been achieved in China without anything resembling the legally protected property rights that are commonly believed to be necessary, for example – but on the whole this is familiar stuff, and he is aware that he may be criticised for falling into ‘the pitfalls of what is called “Whig history”’. There may be other ways of reaching the desired destination apart from the one that was followed in England, he admits. ‘The Danes took a much different route to get to modern liberal democracy, but in the end they arrived in a very
MARTIN VANDER WEYER
I NS I DE THE SQUID MONEY AND POWER: HOW GOLDMAN
SACHS CAME TO RULE THE WORLD
By William D Cohan (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 658pp £25)
THIS IS William D Cohan’s third weighty volume of Wall Street history and I fell upon it eagerly, having very much enjoyed its predecessors. The Last Tycoons (2007) was his award-winning ‘secret history’ of Lazard Frères, the very private investment banking firm where Cohan himself worked as a young corporate financier. It was followed by House of Cards (2009), which took the lid off another big but by then bankrupt name on the Street – Bear Stearns. Both were memorable especially for the portraits of the giant individual egos that gave these firms their corporate characters. Now he has attempted the same exercise with the biggest and, to some, most s inister name of a l l – Goldman Sachs. The firm will be branded forever with a description concocted by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi: ‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money’. That fantastical image is so powerful because it precisely captures the legend of Goldman, at least as it is seen by its critics.
The firm is perceived, for example, to have exceptional influence in US government circles, not least because similar place.’
The idea that history may have no overall direction remains unthinkable to him, as does the notion that its destination could be anything other than liberal democracy.
In fact liberal democracy is only the most recent of many imagined destinations. If Marx was sure history could end only in communism (assuming barbar ism could be avoided), Comte was no less certain that it would culminate with a type of hierarchical technocracy, while Herbert Spencer believed the future could only lie with laissez-faire capitalism and Sidney and Beatrice Webb with Soviet-style central planning. The one thing these visions have in common is that they have all come to nothing. Imagining that the future can be charted according to the currently prevailing idea of progress is a mug’s game. It is unclear whether Baldwin’s puzzlement regarding the direction of human development was pretended or real. But it reveals more insight into the shifts and turns of history than any of Fukuyama’s prognostications. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 22
many of its former executives have held senior positions in successive Washington administrations – Hank Paulson, the hyperactive bald-eagle Treasury secretary during the 2008 banking crisis, being the most recent. And it has often been accused of ruthlessly playing all
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LITERARY REVIEW May 2011