How Much ‘Progress’ Have We Made?
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
NOVEMBER 24, 2011
by William Pfaff
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 585 pp., $35.00
It is natural to assume that we were meant to become what we are, and that human existence has an intelligible significance, purpose, or conclusion. Francis Fukuyama has long since apologized for his declaration in 1992 that
what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Man had made his way from primeval slime through bands, tribes, states, and their variations, until arriving at the democratic state and liberal capitalist economy presided over by George H.W. Bush. This progression was what it had been all about from the start, and now it was over, with only boredom ahead, so Fukuyama warned at the time.
Being a reasonable man, Fukuyama soon acknowledged that it was not really all over, and that we certainly were not doomed to perpetual boredom.1 Au contraire, as not only the French would say. In 2006, in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, he wrote that he had newly concluded that
neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, [had] evolved into something that I can no longer support…[having been used during the 1990s] to justify an American foreign policy that overemphasized the use of force and led logically to the Iraq war.
That 2006 book was a straightforward foreign policy essay rejecting a Bush administration foreign policy that rested on “concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, unipolarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.” It dealt with how a different American policy intended to “democratize” the Middle East might employ “soft” power to obtain the reform of international institutions, with the aim of establishing a global order of democratic accountability, based on sovereign states.
Francis Fukuyama’s new book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (or books; the present volume is the first of two), is an ambitious attempt to quicken our journey to such a society. Widely reviewed, compared by some with Marx and Hegel, and called “a magnum opus” and a “new classic,” the work deals with the past development of human political order. It is intended to decipher the pattern on which modern democratic statehood has been founded, and on which new democracies can be built.
Fukuyama’s is a Darwinian approach to society: the fittest of political arrangements are those that have survived. Original man, hunter-gatherer, was not the isolated and peaceful figure Rousseau imagined, but had inherited from his “ancestral apes”—or so Fukuyama says—a propensity for violence that required the formation of protective social groups, the initial step toward tribes and warrior castes, and “the most basic and enduring unit of political organization, a leader and his band of armed retainers.” After that came “warlords…, militias, drug cartels, and street gangs”—as well as states, armies, and predatory empires. The tribal advantage in mobilizing manpower for war was an asset in the struggle for survival, the author’s argument being that waging war was in most instances the driving force for state-building. There seems to have been evolutionary progress mainly in methods and weapons of destruction.
With tribes also came religion, he says, in the form of ancestor worship. (This is the conventional view; but what do we really know? What about veneration, rather than deification, of the spirits of ancestors in such societies as China?) Tribes eventually became states, and Fukuyama offers his account of how humanity developed through kinship, monarchies, religions, and legal and constitutional associations, so as to reach the realm of disputatious international relationships that is the modern world.
His purpose is to ascertain the origin of the modern state structure so that we can teach unsuccessfully developing, or “failed,” or “failing” contemporary states how to earn a mature place in international society and in a new world order—to borrow a phrase—alongside the advanced, successful, and peaceful states exemplified by the United States.
The reader must await the second volume to see how this should be done. The modern political order is described by Fukuyama as built on a system of powerful ruling groups or alliances, ordinarily the product of successful wars, able to exercise a monopoly of power over a given territory, with armed forces able to enforce law, including private property law as it emerges, as well as defend the state against foreign rivals or enemies. Early tribal leadership or monarchies evolved over time into governing institutions, and the authority of institutions has eventually been recognized as superior to that of idiosyncratic individual rulers. According to Fukuyama, when these institutions are made accountable to elected bodies, the rule of law has emerged, and a modern state can be said to exist. This is no doubt true, but it is not a discovery.
He says that progress in political development is distinct from other aspects—economic and social—of human “modernization,” recapitulating the argument of the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard, whom Fukuyama acknowledges as his “mentor.” Huntington’s academically influential 1968 account of the stages of political development, Political Order in Changing Societies, dealt with the period following World War II.2 Fukuyama’s new book is meant to supply the back-story, so to speak, to Huntington’s volume, from the prehistory of mankind up to the French Revolution (and the Enlightenment, about which Fukuyama has curiously little to say, in this volume at least).
Fukuyama assumes that what Huntington called the “third wave of democratization” has already largely taken place, since at the time he was writing this book the number of “democracies and market-oriented economies,” forty-five at the start of the 1970s (according to Freedom House), had increased to some 120—”more than 60 percent of the world’s independent states.” Fukuyama therefore claims that liberal democracy is now “the default form of government.” To increase that total and ensure the enlargement of a new democratic international order, it will be necessary to rescue “collapsed or unstable governments,” the issue he says has most interested him as a Washington scholar and think-tank analyst, and that obviously inspires this book and its pending successor.
The Origins of Political Order is a long and comprehensive presentation of the history of the modern state—unnecessarily long, it would seem, a great fat thick tome (585 pages with 859 notes), presenting mankind’s path from those “ancestral apes” to our present condition. Most lay readers of the book are unlikely to meet any great surprises, since the story is roughly the one they grew up with (with large bits left out in spite of the book’s size), and his interpretation of prehistory and history, despite his disclaimer, is close to what the British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931 termed “the Whig interpretation of history,” which is to say that the past has been a progressive process leading up to us. “Us” is not only England and the United States but Denmark, Sweden, and other exemplary democracies. However, the utility of our historical experience to understanding the problems of Somalia, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Indonesian Papua, the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan, and Iraq—all of which are among the “collapsed or unstable governments” Fukuyama lists as currently in need of Washington and the West’s assistance—is not evident, at least in this volume. He also seems deaf to the cultural and historical aspects of political problems, which surely constitute most of what afflicts these countries.
For example, early in the book he cites the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, supported by American groups, which resulted in an elected democracy that rapidly “failed” (in part over the issue of joining NATO). He takes no account of the fundamental political problem of Ukraine, which is that it exists on the cultural frontier between Eastern Orthodox civilization, predictably influenced by Russia, and a western population that is mostly Roman (or Uniate) Catholic, with historical links to Poland, Lithuania, and the former Hapsburg Empire. This is not something an election resolves, especially a foreign-promoted one.
Much more important is that Islamic theocracy gets no attention, yet surely has been and remains the biggest obstacle to the Muslim countries’ ability to create modern political and social systems. Since the year 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, then king of the Franks, the emperor of the Christianized “Holy” Roman Empire, the West has had separate and legitimate political and religious authorities, both anointed by God and exercising authority granted them by Jesus of Nazareth’s admonition in the New Testament that the things of Caesar were Caesar’s and those of God were God’s. Popes and monarchs often struggled over power, but the principle of separation between religious and secular realms was never seriously in doubt, whereas the supremacy of Koranic authority over Muslim caliphates or regimes has been overturned for any considerable period only in modern Turkey (a revolution still contested).
In the late Ottoman system, which had previously functioned like the empires of antiquity, as an extension of the ruler’s household, there were reforms meant to modernize Islamic rule by bringing legal administration under direct secular control, but in practice this weakened the influence of the legal scholars themselves, who had provided a margin of flexibility in interpreting Koranic law. Twentieth-century efforts to break with Koranic theocracy succeeded, at a cost, in Atatürk’s Turkey (where the issue is still not completely resolved), but failed dramatically in the avowedly secular and pan-Arab Ba’ath Party in Iraq and Syria, and in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialist regime in Egypt, everywhere degenerating into military or sectarian dictatorships. The United States in recent decades has launched wars, or armed attacks or interventions, against a score of Muslim countries to fight Islamic movements determined to install or defend theocratic rule. The latter have been winning.
Fukuyama writes about Islam and the Christian West as if they have been essentially parallel and rival phenomena. The philosophical thought of the Western Catholic Church, as set forth in the thirteenth century by Aquinas, was founded on Aristotelian reason, based upon the proposition that man is a rational animal. Matters of divine revelation and scripture were reserved by Aquinas to theology, a separate discipline from philosophy. It was an irony that the Arab preservation of Greek philosophy from the ninth to twelfth centuries, and its transmission to Christian Europe, enabled Aquinas to create a system in which political and social thought was based on human reason, separate from theology, which the Arabs have been unable to do then or since.
Fukuyama mistakenly describes law in Western Europe as originating in canon law, which evolved during the first four centuries of the Christian era from early Church councils and the letters of bishops concerning Church discipline and government, eventually collated and synthesized by the Italian scholar Gratian. He taught in Bologna in the twelfth century and was probably a Camaldolese monk or hermit (the community incorporated both). His great work, called the Decretum, was published in 1140, and was adopted thereafter by the papacy.
Canon law certainly influenced Western civil law, as Fukuyama argues, but he ignores the importance of Roman law, which goes back to the fifth century BC. (Mesopotamia possessed the first code of law of which we know, in the time of Hammurabi in the second millennium BC.) Roman law lost influence in the West after the great East-West Schism (definitive in 1472), but during the Renaissance it was revived to provide the basis for modern civil and commercial law. As the inspiration for the Code Napoléon, Roman law prevails today throughout Western Europe and in much of Latin America. Fukuyama, a good American, sees English (and American) common law (which rests on precedent and legislation) as the basis of the modern political order—springing from the Magna Carta and the history that followed.
He acknowledges the influence of the Enlightenment’s conception and promotion of the rights of man and human equality, and the challenge of its humanist ideas to religion, which widely replaced religious with secular values. But he ignores the most important political consequence of this introduction of the possibility of an earthly utopia, which largely replaced religion’s teaching that the afterlife was where men and women would find salvation. In the Western era, beginning with Judaism, the belief prevailed that human existence was the enactment of a spiritual destiny, whose meaning would be discovered at the end of historical time. The individual, according to how he or she lived, could earn eternal life in another dimension of existence, in the company of God. The replacement of this conception of existence by what Peter Gay, in his history of the Enlightenment, calls the New Paganism, together with Charles Darwin and his contemporaries’ evidence of the evolutionary physical development of the human (and other) orders of living things, produced general acceptance in the West of an evolutionary explanation for society and civilization itself.
Post-Enlightenment secular theories of history, as generally recognized today, had the characteristics of substitute religions. Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism, the most important of them, were teleological and utopian. Marxism claimed to provide a comprehensive explanation of society’s existence and its foreordained outcome. It expected to transform the human condition, and, when achieved, to explain and justify all that had gone before.
The argument for the progress of humanity itself is plausible enough to most—although unproven as such. It is generally assumed, and offers reassurance that the past has been a meaningful advance that continues today. Fukuyama was quoted in a recent newspaper article as saying: “Look at what is happening in the Middle East. Finally the Arabs are catching up….” Asked whether he agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Fukuyama replied, “I do. Look, that’s why we have something called the Agency for International Development, in the hope that someday Somalia might look like Norway. It’s called progress.”3 Secular progress took and takes several forms, but it differs from the religious doctrines that preceded it by requiring secular fulfillment—within historical time. There can be no “by and by in the sky.”
Marxism was made a program of universal redemptive human action, concluding in a workers’ state led by Lenin (and in its Asian variant by Mao Zedong). National Socialism conceived of human progress through eugenic programs, in which lesser human “races” or defective or decadent instances or groups of human existence would have to be destroyed, leaving the more perfected to interbreed, with progressive results. (I exclude Mussolini’s ideology, Fascism, because Fascism was nationalist and imperialist, and did not purport to change the nature of mankind or of global society.)
Progress today is expected to embody or imply a world-historical explanation of where humanity is going, and an indication of how to influence or control where it goes. The attempt to establish a scientific explanation for history’s development, capable of supporting a political program to shape or control the future, employs large numbers of people in the United States in particular, especially in Washington and the more ambitious parts of the academy. Since World War II, academic political science has sought theories that could be empirically validated in the manner of the “hard” sciences it emulates, so as to be of policymaking utility to the American government. Huntington was a pioneer in this effort. However, the propositions that have gained the most influence in governing circles have tended to be mirror images of Leninism, or on the order of Walt Rostow’s theory of developmental “take-off,” or Samuel Huntington’s forecast that the era of wars between nations would be replaced by that of “wars of civilizations”—the last two not much more than journalistic speculation. Huntington’s theory contributed to disastrous policies in American government and pernicious confusion in public opinion.
Progress cannot usefully be discussed without discrimination among orders of progress, since human knowledge obviously expands. Scientific knowledge progresses, as does technological knowledge, invention, and exploitation. Humans in the aggregate have grown larger and healthier owing to science, better educated in the advanced civilizations, more sophisticated due to accumulated experience and recorded knowledge, vastly more powerful in their use of knowledge and technology. But have these humans themselves actually progressed?
The evidence of evolution as an account not only of the physical and social development of the human (and other) species demonstrates immense change in our manner of life and thought, and above all in our tools, but in what sense has this been progress? In human terms, apart from the abolition of slavery, is the Middle East a better place to live today than was the prehistoric Eastern Mediterranean? Has human nature improved? The problem is in part terminological. “Development” commonly implies progress even when it is applied simply to movement, activity, or the passage of time.
I am not myself aware that human character and conduct today display any general improvement over that recorded in the historical past. The political crimes of the twentieth century had their counterparts in the past, although the scale and reach of political crime subsequently became much more destructive, thanks to technology and modern bureaucratic organization, by comparison with so-called Asian barbarism, past wars of religion and race, enslavement, or mass extermination waged by men like Genghis Khan. Comparable things, or worse, continue to happen in our times. That men and women are morally improved from what they were at the beginning of recorded history has yet to be demonstrated. Fukuyama’s 2006 book identifies human progress with modernization, but is this a sustainable argument? Are modern Americans and their European contemporaries more advanced human beings than the founding Americans of 1776 or the Europeans of the Renaissance or Enlightenment? Do we find in modern society and contemporary universities the superiors of Socrates, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Herodotus, or of Shakespeare, Dante, and Mozart? They have not made themselves known.
Have men and women even improved since the beginning of unrecorded history? In his chronicle of man’s development from humanoid to our present governors, Fukuyama has much to say about early man and his communities but then makes an enormous leap to what he claims was the first bureaucratic state, in China, just before the Christian era in the West. What about Mesopotamia, whose first settlements are assumed to have been in the fifth millennium BC? Its monumental architecture survives and the University of Chicago has just published a twenty-one-volume dictionary of its language, with its Babylonian and Assyrian variants, which deals with agriculture, commerce, transport, medicine, and divination, among other subjects. The language was preserved on mud or stone tablets. Not only the Hammurabic Code of law but the Gilgamesh Epic survives, the latter considered the oldest surviving chef d’oeuvre in world literature. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations had palaces, exquisite golden jewelry, ornamentation, and running water and baths—as did their successors in the Greek city-states, to say nothing of Rome, Carthage, and Persia. Abundant records survive of the artistic and intellectual achievements of the first Egyptian dynasty, that of Menes in the third pre-Christian millennium.
Babylon, controlling the entire Tigris and Euphrates region in the second millennium BC, promulgated law and had what historians say was a quasi-feudal system. The urban centers of the great Indus Valley civilization, roughly contemporaneous with Babylon, such as Mohenjo-daro, possessed palaces, as well as complex domestic water and drainage systems leading into brick waterways, and traded with Mesopotamia and the Middle East. All this is well known. It is true that slavery existed throughout this period and in many civilizations and was usually an occasion for misery and brutality, as it was in the Atlantic slave trade, when Africans were widely considered less than fully human, and treated accordingly. Elsewhere, slaves could in some societies achieve power, high office, and honor while remaining slaves, as in the Ottoman system. I know of no evidence that the individuals who lived in those civilizations did not intellectually and morally resemble ourselves.
Werner Herzog has recently made a disquieting three-dimensional documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the recently discovered Chauvet cave paintings in France, which are believed to be thirty thousand years old, almost twice as old as the celebrated cave paintings of Lascaux. Herzog remarked of the images in a recent interview:
There is a certain strange, palpable power…something that touches us instantaneously, something that is completely awesome. What you are witnessing is the origin of the modern human soul and the beginning of figurative representation.
The caves are Paleolithic.4
Fukuyama’s book, despite its attention to early man, is really about the “modern” era, and is wholly American in sensibility. It is a Washington creation, addressed to the problems of American government in dealing with the failed, collapsed, or radicalized states that are obstacles to the Democracy Project that is the American version of the world-historical secular utopian ideologies of the post-Enlightenment nineteenth century.5 It speaks of Washington’s preoccupation with the supposed threat of China, problems of growth and ecology, and the decline of the free press and of civil society in the United States. It indirectly raises a question that American leaders still tend to answer in the affirmative, while Fukuyama now expresses deep doubts. Can a militarized and militarist America, turning itself from democracy toward plutocracy and oligarchy, hostile to aspects of international law and a code of human rights that it did much to create, yet still convinced of its natural superiority and of the inferiority of rival Europe, successfully claim the leadership of a new democratic order—if that arrives? Thus Fukuyama continues his search for scientific evidence, comparable to that in the physical sciences, to support a belief in human progress—the religion of our times, or the myth.
He wrote in his 2006 book that what he had actually meant to say was that economic modernization creates a desire not for liberal democracy but for the byproducts of "modernization," political and cultural as well as material. "Liberal democracy is one of the by-products of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time." ↩
A new edition of Huntington's book was published by Yale University Press in 2006, with a new foreword by Francis Fukuyama. ↩
See Alex Beam, "On the Cynical Side of History," The Boston Globe , April 12, 2011. ↩
See Larry Rohter, "Pre-historic Cave with a Hornet on the Wall," The New York Times , April 22, 2011. ↩
See the State Department's Leading Through Civilian Power: The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review , 2010, which David Rieff has described (in the February 2011 National Interest ) as a "geostrategic fairy tale." ↩
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