Make it Just So, Mr. Fukuyama

I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. It is, as the title suggests, the first of two volumes that will explain the development of human politics from the dawn of time to the present. As a big picture sort of guy, Fukuyama claims that “human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures” As a historian this type of talk tends to worry me, as I assume that any universals of human politics are either so vague as to be meaningless, or flat out wrong. Still, he is trying to present a theory of world political development that goes beyond Europe and gets as far as China, if not New Guinea, and when a big picture book gives that much attention to China I have to buy it.

The book begins with some discussion of the creation of the first states.

But in the end, there are too many interacting factors to be able to develop one strong, predictive theory of when and how states formed. Some of the explanations for their presence or absence begin to sound like Kipling Just So stories.

So, the Key To All Mythologies that we are looking for here is not the origins of the state, but a strong predictive theory of the origins of the modern stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and uncorrupt state. In order to create this one needs 1. A state 2. The Rule of Law 3. accountable government. 1

Fukuyama posits Qin China as the world’s first modern state.  This is somewhat problematic, since the main reason he calls Qin modern is that they had gotten away from patrimonialism and had established “a more impersonal form of administration.” China scholars usually refer to the Qin/Han period, since Qin lasted only from 221 to 206 BCE. How can you make a Huge Comparison or talk about Large Processes while resting everything on such a small sample? The Han of course built on the Qin model, but Fukuyama’s discussion will not help anyone trying to understand the relationship between Confucianism and Legalism or Modernism and Classicism in the Han, a dynasty where bureaucratism and familism were both very important in a very complex sort of way.  Fukuyama’s account of Qin/Han is based mostly on Harrison The Chinese Empire Harcourt Brace 1972 and Levenson and Schurman China: an Interpretive History. California 1969, although he does manage to cite Loewe a few times. This is not the book to read if you are a China scholar hoping that a broader perspective will help you understand China-y stuff. 2

Well, in any case eventually the Chinese fall behind, reverting to patrimonialism. Lots of stuff happens. Why did China not develop? A cocoon becomes a butterfly, a wad of dough placed in an oven becomes bread. Why did China not become Denmark?

The book is, among other things, Fukuyama’s take on the Great Divergence debate, the arguments over why China fell behind after 1300 or 1500 or 1700 or whenever; why China failed to have an industrial revolution, or more generally failed to modernize properly despite such a promising beginning. A lot of very interesting stuff has been written on this issue in recent years. Most other scholars who write on this topic focus on economics, and their books are full of complex discussions of comparative institutions.

How does Fukuyama explain China’s manifest backwardness in the modern era? Well, the book includes the most serious discussion of Oriental Despotism to have been published in the last 50 years.3

Oriental Despotism is nothing other than the precocious emergence of a politically modern state before other social actors could institutionalize themselves , actors like  a hereditary territorially based aristocracy, an organized peasantry, cities based on a merchant class, churches, or other autonomous groups.

So this is yet another checklist book, with a roster of European traits one needs to be modern, and then you either check them off or don’t. He does talk a bit about the ability of the bureaucracy to constrain the Emperor, but for some reason this does not count.  For the most part he focuses on China’s lack of The Rule of Law.

“Early Chinese kings exercised tyrannical power of a sort that few monarchs in either feudal or early modern Europe attempted. They engaged in wholesale land reform, arbitrarily executed the administrators serving them, deported entire populations, and engaged in mad purges of aristocratic rivals. …European state development had to take place against a well-developed background of law that limited state power. European monarchs tried to bend, break, or go around the law. But the choices they made were structured and checked by the preexisting body of law that was developed in medieval times.”

This seems wrong, but at least in a way that might potentially be productive. China -was- institutionally different from “Europe’4 and a comparison could be enlightening, but looking at Europe as possessing a system of law that was ‘preexisting’ does not seem accurate. It does make it easy to explain China’s backwardness, since although there is a lot of scholarship on Chinese law none of it describes the creation of a legal system which was distinct from existing systems of power and could constrain rulers by its mere legality. In fact if you look at that way you can ignore pretty much everything written about China in the last 30 years. 5

Having explained China’s failure to create a Rule of Law6 Fukuyama then goes on to explain the failure of economic development. One aspect of Great Divergence debates is that there are disagreements about when China fell behind. I guess failure to create the Rule of Law is in the Tang or something, but he also gives a Ming date for China’s economic failure.

What China did not have is the spirit of maximization that economists assume is a universal human trait. An enormous complacency pervaded Ming China in all walks of life. It was not just emperors who didn’t feel it necessary to extract as much as they could in taxes; other forms of innovation and change simply didn’t seem to be worth the effort.

His examples here are the old chestnuts of the end of Zheng He’s voyages and Su Sung’s mechanical clock, which somehow did not lead to an industrial revolution. For some reason he leaves out the Chinese abandonment of movable type. In any case this  spirit of what I guess you can call Oriental passivity is his explanation of the “binding constraints that prevented rapid economic growth from taking off in Ming-Qing China.”7

This seems to be so wrong as to be silly and embarrassing. There is no footnote for this enormous complacency.8 It must be easier to make a big argument when trans-historical cultural factors can just fly in and then just as mysteriously fly out again.

So, all in all I would say the book was not worth the money, despite all the promises of China discussions in the Table of Contents. Reading this book will not help you understand China better. I’m pretty sure it will not help you understand Europe better. If you are looking for something that can explain everything in general but nothing in specific, this may be the book for you.

It does have the benefit  that each chapter begins with a little summaries of what is to come. Thus chapter 21 Stationary Bandits…

Whether all states are predatory, and whether the Chinese state in Ming times deserves to be called that; examples of arbitrary rule drawn from later periods in Chinese history; whether good government can be maintained in a state without checks on executive authority.

These little snippets are not very common nowadays, and it gives the agreeable feel that one is reading a work of scholarship that has somehow fallen through a time warp from the 19th century.

  1. Do you have a Kindle? It’s nice. You can carry it anywhere, and its always full of books, so if you want to read recent scholarship, classic literature, or trashy novels they are all there right now. Unfortunately it does not give page numbers. It claims this is from p. 15,  location 503  

  2. If you are a non-China person Lewis Writing and Authority in Early China is a good place to start. 

  3. Since he  is not particularly interested in economics we don’t get anything on the Asiatic Mode of Production. 

  4. just as Italy was different from England 

  5. I also find his use of dates frustrating. What is an Early Chinese King? Where are these examples coming from? Or are they just taken at random from the Shang-Qing period? 

  6. Has anyone played Civilization 5 yet? Is it any good? 

  7. Fortunately these constraints no longer exist. This timeless aspect of Chinese culture is now Gone with the Wind, leaving behind only ‘an emphasis on education and personal achievement’ Apparently the May Fourth Movement was a big success. 

  8. Maybe he got this from reading Tim Brook? Craig Clunas? It’s a mystery. 

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