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Democracy as we know it is a recent phenomenon that should not be taken for granted, according to Francis Fukuyama in his new volume on the political order. A compelling book in which he warns against the continuous risk of political decay, the process where political institutions become incapable of overriding basic human biological impulses towards corruption and nepotism.
By Wouter Dol
With the recent 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall we might be reminded of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 essay “The End of History?” which stated that the end of the Cold War was the final triumph of liberal democracy over authoritarianism. It propelled the American scholar to world fame - and also into controversy, especially due to his affiliation with the early neoconservative movement in the United States (from which he later forcefully distanced himself). A quarter century later he presents us with the second volume of his vast scholarly project to tracé the development of political institutions to the emergence of liberal democracy. In Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy
he very thoroughly analyses why some countries become consolidated liberal democracies and others not.
Fukuyama builds on the framework he presented in the first volume of this mammoth project: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
(2011), which consists of focusing on three types of political institutions that have evolved over time: the state itself, the rule of law and democratic accountability, or the process by which leaders are answerable for their decisions. This evolution of these political institutions, Fukuyama emphasises, is remarkable since it goes against the basic human biological urges for “kin selection” – our preference for people with the same DNA (i.e. family), and for “reciprocal altruism” – the inclination to exchange repeated favours with others around us (i.e. friends). When institutions are able to provide the right incentives, we are more able to do things such as hiring a competent stranger over a cousin, or making a shift from patrimonial states run by leaders as private enterprises to impersonal states that safeguard the wellbeing of their citizens and neutralise elite interests.
Nevertheless – and perhaps triggered by his disappointment that liberal democracies have not spread quite as fast as he had hoped in 1989 – Fukuyama laments the large differences that exist between contemporary states in delivering basic services and in controlling corruption, and that many states are still doing quite badly. Since he asserts that a political system resting on a balance between the three institutions of state, law and accountability is both a practical and a moral necessity for all societies, he now poses the question of how other countries will be able to “get to Denmark”? Not to the actual country, but to a prosperous society where this balance exists.
In the first part of the book, he analyses the political development of several countries that were exposed to rapid industrialisation and comes to the conclusion that the sequence in which political institutions evolved matters greatly. Most importantly, the manner in which states reformed their bureaucracies relative to opening up to wider democratic contestation proves to be essential. When democracy arrives before strong institutions and a basic rule of law, politics will almost inevitably be captured by clientelism, where politicians provide individualised benefits only to political supporters in exchange for their vote or other favours. Greece and Southern Italy serve as examples of Western states that remain to this day marred by corruption, patronage relations and clientelistic politics. In these countries, the rule of law never consolidated due to low levels of trust in government and democratic accountability arrived before a strong state could ascertain itself. Likewise, the American political system, which began with a strong focus on restraining executive power combined with the Founding Fathers’ thinking on basic rights, freedom and democracy, actually created an intricate system of clientelistic political parties that dominated appointments to the bureaucracy. It therefore took significant effort and external events to ensure that an independent and professional public service eventually emerged in the mid-20th century. Fukuyama thus rightly ascertains “No country, the United States included, ever leaps to a modern political system in a single bound.”
In the second section of the book Fukuyama continues to show how this also holds for states that emerged out of colonialism. Here, Western thinking and institutions were transplanted into foreign lands, often replacing indigenous political structures. Leaving aside geographical and climatic influences, the differences experienced after decolonisation between countries in Latin America, East Asia and Africa were mostly determined by the level of indigenous state capacity that existed before the arrival of Europeans and the colonial powers’ level of commitment to building strong local institutions.
Continuing on this topic, the third section focuses on why democracy managed to evolve and spread.
He refers to Huntington’s Third Wave of Democracy, or the growth in the number of (electoral) democracies from 35 to 120, some 60% of current states, between 1970 and 2010. He points to the central role that mass political parties have played in mobilising social groups and in advocating shared interests, rather than providing shortterm favours under clientelism. Also, industrialisation, or rather the emergence of an urban working class instead of more conservative agrarians, seems to have been a important impulse in adopting democratic practice. Relevant for the discussion on inequality is the role Fukuyama gives to the middle class. This class emerged during the Industrial Revolution and was an essential driving force in promoting democracy and the modern state because they wanted to protect their assets from elite predation (push for the rule of law), and to increase their voice in decision-making (push for democratic accountability). When middle classes are squeezed, there is a risk of elites seeing more opportunity to capture control of the state and turn back democratic gains.
In the fourth and final section he describes this regression process by the concept of political decay, and using the illustration of the contemporary United States. Describing the US as “a state of courts and parties” where the executive is weak and has to share decision making with parties in Congress and with judges that are used to enforce legislation instead of independent state institutions. He then describes the increased negative influence of organised interests groups (lobbyists) on effective governance, and concludes that the current democratic set-up in the US no longer relates to the reality on the ground and is decaying.
Although Fukuyama remains a firm believer in the power of liberal democracy as a guarantee for the most optimal human development, his analysis of political decay in the United States contains important observations. The risk of re-patrimonialisation, or the weakening of impersonal institutions and the capture of the state by private interests, remains ever-present. This seems especially relevant for the European Union, which looks more and more like the US politically, and is also facing increased influence by organised interest groups on the legislative process. Fukuyama’s book is an incredibly well researched and rich narrative that is convincing about his basic model of political order. It is therefore an interesting and rewarding read. Although he claims that the book is backward looking and mentions he does not want to present any policy advice, this seems like a missed opportunity. If he indeed is the supporter of the spread of liberal democracies worldwide that he claims to be, some more direction seems appropriate. For instance, on how the active citizenship or inspired leadership that he mentions only as a side note might take root in contemporary weak states. Thus, the masterful work that Fukuyama presents in the two combined volumes is a highly readable bird’s eye view of human political evolution, but does not provide the roadmap for the massive challenge of getting everyone to Denmark.
is Programme Manager at the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (www.nimd.org
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2014: A Divided World
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