End of the end of history

Back at SAIS today for a well-attended lunchtime lecture, Francis Fukuyama, best known outside academia for his 1989 National Interest article “The End of History,” offered a lecture focused on the continuing importance of history and its contingencies in shaping what he terms the “political order”:  the state, rule of law and accountable government.    These he defined, respectively as a non-patrimonial (i.e. non-familial, non-tribal) system of concentrating power, rules limiting its exercise, and a system that somehow holds those who exercise power responsible for what they do.  These are the focus of his latest book, The Origins of Political Order.

To make a story he told briefly even shorter (and thereby no doubt losing nuance and meaning), he sees first emergence of the non-patrimonial (i.e., non-family based state) in the warfare that established the Chinese Han dynasty in the 3rd century BC, the origins of rule of law in the Catholic Church’s independence from the state established in the 11th century, and accountability in the aristocratic institututions for controlling taxation and expenditure that survived the end of feudalism, in particular the 17th century triumph of the English parliament.  They did not come about together, and in fact how they come about is different in different countries and circumstances.

This cross-cultural tour de force presentation led to interesting comments and questions.  Adam Garfinkle of The American Interest underlined the importance of sequencing and path dependency in Fukuyama’s recent book.  Michael Wolcott of the World Bank suggested that Fukuyama’s work poses a serious challenge to the modernization approach of so much international development work, as well as reminding us that history and ideas matter more than we give them credit for.  He also noted how development work–education of women, for example, or education in general–is an agent of change and therefore destabilization and conflict, even though we might prefer not to see it that way.

Acknowledging these points and others, Fukuyama declared himself a fan of gradualism, satisficing and second best solutions adapted to particular circumstances (see his recent article on Egypt in The American Interest he suggested).  He also wondered out loud whether the modern systems of political order that we have invented can survive in a world of limits to growth, an issue that he will not however take up in his next volume (focussed on developments in the political order during the last couple of centuries).


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