Francis Fukuyama’s doubts about the route to the end of history: Political Order and Political Decay

Review: For Fukuyama, liberal democracy is still the destination – but are we going backwards?


Twenty-five years after his essay on “the end of history”, Francis Fukuyama still believes that liberal democracy is the final stage of human political development – but worries that his own country has entered a path of political decay.

For exactly a quarter of a century Fukuyama has been a kind of intellectual punchbag. Whoever had nothing interesting to say about the era since the end of the cold war felt they could at least land a blow against a famous American intellectual by sneering that history had not ended, after all. But Fukuyama had never been so naive as to claim that conflicts would cease overnight; his point in 1989 had been that only liberal democracy could ultimately fulfil human aspirations for freedom and dignity.

The question is not whether we still see one damn thing happening after another – as Henry Ford is supposed to have defined history – but whether there are serious rivals to liberal democracy in the global political imagination. Will millions be rushing to live in the Islamic State; do westerners dream the Chinese dream? Fukuyama doesn’t think so. What we have had to learn the hard way since 1989, though, is just how difficult it can be to build lasting liberal democratic institutions, even if lots of people desperately want them. Fukuyama’s new book seeks to explain why. He also warns that liberal democracy is not a once-and-for-all achievement. There is one particularly disturbing example of what he calls “political decay” in the world today: Fukuyama’s own country.

This is the second of two volumes intended to update a classic work of American political science, Samuel P Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). Huntington, Fukuyama’s teacher at Harvard, had dealt a fatal blow to postwar optimism about developing countries inevitably becoming modern. But economic and political modernisation, Huntington insisted, were two different things. Economic success would lead people to mobilise, but often political systems cannot accommodate rising demands for political participation – and break down violently. A self-declared “Leninist Burkean”, Huntington insisted that political stability had to have priority. Elections could be too much of a good thing too early; modernisation under authoritarian auspices was safer.

Eurocrisis Fukuyama is not quite as gloomy as his mentor, but he also insists that democracy does not necessarily work well on its own. It needs to be tied together with the rule of law and a well-functioning state in an overall political package. The absence of statehood explains contemporary political disasters such as Nigeria no less than the ultimate causes of the Eurocrisis.

Greece and Italy enjoy democracy, but these countries’ present problems are due to the fact that, historically, democracy arrived before proper statehood. When the franchise was extended in the 19th century, elections amounted to elites trading favours – especially jobs in the public sector – for votes, what political scientists call “clientelism”. By the 1870s Greece had seven times as many civil servants per capita as Britain. And the pattern of bloating the state for short-term political advantage never disappeared: between 1970 and 2009 the number of public employees increased fivefold.

Mass clientelism, Fukuyama writes, is different from outright corruption. It creates a primitive (but economically highly damaging) form of democratic accountability. Citizens, after all, can say that they’ll only keep casting their ballot for a politician who actually delivers that plum job in Athens.

Fukuyama argues that the real division in Europe is not between a disciplined, hard-working north and a dolce far niente south, or between countries with generous welfare states and those harder on the needy. The real opposition is between what he calls a clientelistic Europe and a nonclientelistic Europe. Can anything change? Fukuyama reminds us that the US also introduced democracy first – but what he calls “the United States of Clientelism” got lucky in that a coalition of businessmen, middle-class professionals and urban reformers eventually managed to push through civil-service reform. Greece, he says, has never had such a constituency for change. Italy did, but it never fully succeeded in the country’s south.

Micromanagement Fukuyama’s other deeply pessimistic message is that political development is not a one-way street. The US kept making great strides in building a proper administration through most of the 20th century. But in recent decades the quality of American government has been declining. Fukuyama’s favourite example is the US Forest Service, which 100 years ago was a paragon of clean, effective management. Today it is micromanaged by courts and overburdened by conflicting mandates from the US Congress, which wants to please everyone, from business to environmentalists.

Fukuyama goes against conventional wisdom, insisting that good bureaucracies actually need independence. Instead, in the US, judges meddle in policy and Congress, besieged by 12,000 registered lobbyists, generates incoherent political agendas. Americans live in what Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy”, where interest groups, operating on the principle of “legalised gift exchange” with lawmakers, prevent rational policies. If the goal of development is to get the balance between statehood, rule of law and democracy roughly right, then the US is suffering from too much law and too much “participation” by well-heeled vetocrats.

To his credit the circumspect Fukuyama extracts no catchy global lessons from this story of political decay. He resists the conclusion that, in developing countries, democracy should always wait until a state has been created – although he does concede that authoritarian regimes might sometimes be better at state-building, just as they are better equipped to fashion a uniform national identity, another precondition for making democracy work. Nor does he think that, from time to time, we should give war a chance: unlike many sociologists, he does not fully embrace the idea that states make war and war makes states (with the implication that ramshackle states in a relatively peaceful place, such as Latin America, would actually have benefited from a more violent 20th century).

Admirer of China At the same time Fukuyama cannot help casting an admiring glance at China, for, according to him, it is the Chinese who invented the state as such – and a full 18 centuries before anybody in Europe came up with anything similar. This chronology is hard to believe and the only part of the book that lacks back-up by contemporary American political scientists (whose generally less than scintillating prose style Fukuyama faithfully reproduces throughout his volume – no concessions to historical anecdote here). For all we know the ancient Qin dynasty may have had a strong bureaucracy and controlled vast territories, but this does not add up to modern statehood.

In any case, Fukuyama tempers his admiration with the claim that China is the only world civilisation that never developed anything like the rule of law. The origins of the latter can be found in transcendental religion. Catholicism, and the state-church conflicts it generated, made the rule of law possible in Europe; nothing similar was achieved by Confucianism, which, Fukuyama argues, is utterly different from western religions.

Fukuyama admits that his book offers no policy prescriptions. He is interested in how we got here, not where we should go. Fukuyama’s volume is a sign of a new kind of western self-doubt: not only do we not know the next steps (even if we still have faith in the ultimate destination, the end of history); it is perfectly possible that, like political sleepwalkers, we keep going backwards. Fukuyama, so often unjustly accused of cold-war triumphalism, is giving us a wake-up call.

Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama (Profile Books, £25)