‘Political Order and Political Decay’ book review: Getting to Denmark?

Is political order even possible, asks The End of History author in his new book

Political Order and Political Decay
Francis Fukuyama
Pp 658

CONSIDER THIS scenario. President Barack Obama eventually withdraws troops from Afghanistan, leaving the world at the mercy of evil warlords of the Al-Qaeda, Haqqani faction of the Taliban, guerrillas of ISIS and Boko Haram and in the hands of corrupt and criminal politicians in the ever-increasing geography of failed or fragile states. This sounds apocalyptic, raising the spectre of what Thomas Hobbes famously referred to as “continual fear and danger of violent death. And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Predictably, this scenario has infected the paranoid American public, especially neo-cons, with the conspiratorial fantasy about Political Order and Political Decay, the title of the magisterial work that Francis Fukuyama has produced to pay a lasting tribute to his mentor and iconic American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s evangelical faith in ‘political order’ as the zeitgeist of modernity!

Far from vanishing into his neo-Nietzschean Disneyland of The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama returns with a vengeance to interrupt growing amnesia about fractured leviathan and its capture by plutocrats and vetocrats—the pernicious power of powerful, organised interest groups/lobbies in democracies.

Fukuyama is instinctively and temperamentally a strange political theorist; a die-hard conservative because he cherishes an ordered society and is willing to be put in the cast of a vigilante Ninja Turtle to stop Foot Clan crimes in New York City. But as a footloose democrat, he also fancies “getting to Denmark”. By this, he means “less the actual country Denmark than an imagined society that is prosperous, democratic, secure and well-governed, and experiences low level of corruption”.

It is this unintentional mid-air collision between utopia and dystopia that drives the intellectual energy and imagination of Fukuyama.

Fukuyama’s climbdown from the triumphalism of Hegelian The End of History to the more mundane issue of building strong efficient administrative states would, indeed, have gladdened the hearts of liberals and radicals alike. Yet Fukuyama once again shows why he enjoys an exalted oracle-like status in the comity of political scientists and policy makers around the world. You may not instantly fall in love with this 600-plus pages magnum opus, the culmination of an earlier volume titled The Origins of Political Order (2011), where Fukuyama traced the history of the political order up to the French Revolution, but you can’t resist the temptation of making it the love of your life if you wish to pursue a career in government, politics and policy making. Written clinically and compellingly, the books come across as the most grandiose effort to refurbish Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan as the new avatar of a “strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability”. Thus, we are not surprised by Fukuyama’s age-old obsession with sociologist Charles Tilly’s provocative aphorism that “war made the state and state made the war”.

Following Huntington’s rejection of the Darwinian version of modernisation theory in his classic Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), Fukuyama argues rather presciently in his grand historical analysis of origins of state and political order that “political decay is as likely as political development” and “political order is a good thing in itself”. Neo-liberals and anarchists of various hues would be recoiled into hissed silence by Fukuyama’s bold assertion that “strong political institutions are often necessary to get economic growth going in the first place. It is precisely their absence that locks failed or fragile states into a cycle of conflict, violence, and poverty”. In short, “political development follows its own logic independent of economic growth”.

Revolving around the core idea of political order, the book is a tour de force in exploring the historical sociology of how societies develop strong, impersonal and accountable political institutions. In a broad historical sweep, from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring and the debilitating effects of gridlocks in contemporary American politics to failed or failing states in Somalia, Haiti and Democratic Republic of Congo, Fukuyama examines the corrosive effects of corruption on governance and why some societies have succeeded in rooting it out.

Anti-corruption warriors such as Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi should consider the book as mandatory reading for appreciating the fact that a strong state and robust civil society are natural allies in eliminating nefarious practices of patronage and clientelism in the Indian political system. And they should also pay heed to the advice of the oracle to avoid the condition of ‘praetorianism’, or political breakdown and political decay, a natural fallout in case the pace of social mobilisation outruns the ability of political institutions to incorporate new actors. Ironically, you might have rightly guessed that there are no big surprises in the book, as the history of political order appears more like a celluloid representation of late-night dreams of violent European wars and colonial histories in the making and unmaking of the state.

In other words, the one theme that unites all chapters in the book is Fukuyama’s return to the idea of ‘political deficit’, arising out of a lack of what sociologist Michael Mann calls ‘infrastructural power’; the capacity of the state to effectively organise society and provide public goods throughout the territory. In a prophetic tone, Fukuyama avers that “many of the failures attributed to democracy are in fact failures of state administration that are unable to deliver well”.

And weak governments are no longer the preserve of only so-called developing countries, but the US, Greece and Italy also suffer from the deficits of strong, high-quality administrative states. The book is certainly about ‘effective states’, but its conservative tone is quite clear in Fukuyama’s rejection of the ‘large welfare state’ or ‘big government’. Much more than the size of government, it is its quality that results into good economic and social outcomes, he argues. Surprisingly, Fukuyama omits any discussion on leadership, something political scientists have discovered as a major variable in affecting the quality of the governance and longevity of political order.

Like his teacher Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama has a cyclical view of history and suffers from fears of progressive decline of America through political decay. ‘Being mortal’ is something neither Fukuyama nor Huntington ever considered worth studying. So we are bemused with his lack of understanding in recognition of ‘political renewal’ or ‘political innovation’ in making and remaking the so-called failed states or societies.

Though the book addresses world-historical trends and global phenomenon, there is a grave message for us that India not only faces the risk of becoming a morally vacuous ‘market society’, it also stares at the horrific political and economic consequences of an emergent ‘neopatromonial society’, in which political and business elites monopolise power for their private pleasure and public spectacle. ‘The miracle of politics’, according to Fukuyama, is that “we can have political orders that are simultaneously strong and capable and yet constrained to act only within the parameters established by law and democratic choice”. At the time when we mourn the death of our legendary teacher and political scientist Rajni Kothari, we might politely remind Fukuyama of his stout defence of democracy against the state, strong or weak. So, we need not fear the imminent collapse of the ‘idea of India’ due to the rise of strong leaders with stripes of authoritarianism and populism, as long as we practice the ‘miracle of politics’ by the people!

True, the Ubermensch (superhumans) of liberal democracy no longer believe in triumphalism of history. Yet Platonic notion of ‘noble delusion’ seems to animate Fukuyama’s valorisation of ‘political order’. Though political decay is often denigrated as ‘lower-order’ primate existence in the hierarchy of needs, political philosopher Roberto Unger has poignantly reminded neo-Nietzscheans that democracy is actually a provisional experience and it is often messy, chaotic and a work-in-progress. Thus, there is a tragic chutzpah at the end; the mass massacre of cartoonists by ‘modern barbarians’ at Charlie Hebdo returns to haunt Fukuyama of ‘sulphurous and tormenting flames’ of so-called political order in advanced western democracies!

By Ashwani Kumar

Ashwani Kumar is a writer, political scientist, development researcher and currently professor and chairperson of Center of Public Policy, Habitat & Human Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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First published on: 08-02-2015 at 00:14 IST