Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama

Roger Morgan on an exploration of the current state of our political institutions

September 25, 2014

This bulky volume surveys the global development of political institutions during the past two centuries, concentrating particularly on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. This principle of government, practically unknown in 1800, is outwardly triumphant in our time, but in practice subject to internal and external challenges, including the insidious danger of decay. Francis Fukuyama’s latest work forms a direct sequel to his previous one, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, and it echoes some of the themes of the controversial tract he published in 1992 following the official end of the Cold War, The End of History and the Last Man.

The underlying message, however, has changed considerably in the intervening two decades. The End of History suggested that the victory of liberal democracy over communism, following its earlier triumphs over hereditary monarchy and fascism, had produced worldwide consensus in favour of this form of government. This meant, in Fukuyama’s words, that liberal democracy might well constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government” and thus entail “the end of history”. His latest book, while indicating a number of nuances and qualifications concerning both The End of History and the present volume, gives a strong impression that the elements of “decay” in our present democratic institutions are something more than a passing phenomenon, and that liberal democracy may, after all, be facing something more like “decline and fall”.

Fukuyama’s approach to the development of well-ordered modern states in the 19th and 20th centuries focuses on their need for three key ingredients: an effective administrative bureaucracy, respect for the rule of law and the accountability of state power to a legitimate representative (or even democratic) authority. These correspond to the three components of division of powers – executive, judicial and legislative – identified by Montesquieu in the mid 18th century. There is a great deal to be said about this conceptualisation, and one of the problems with this book is that Fukuyama says quite a lot about it here, making the work over-long and rambling, a classic case of the wood getting obscured by the trees.

He makes perceptive comments on the three pillars of statehood and on their interrelationships. For instance, he stresses the importance of their chronological “sequencing”, arguing that democratic accountability works better if popular suffrage is introduced into a polity that already has an efficient state bureaucracy. In 19th-century America, he argues, the introduction of democratic voting long before the creation of a professional civil service perverted the relationship between voters and representatives into one of jobs, contracts and other material benefits.

Again, on the important issue of the functioning or malfunctioning of political institutions transplanted from one national society to another (as by colonialism, decolonisation or regime change in general), the author thoughtfully deploys the concepts of tribalism, trust and various forms of clientelism. One of the book’s drawbacks, however, is that its arguments are often presented in relatively self-contained and even disjointed chapters – an essay on China, on Prussia’s post-Napoleonic bureaucracy, on modern Greece or Italy, or on the ambiguities of the Arab Spring – so that the relevance of some of the detailed data is not clearly brought out. Sometimes an argument is left unfinished: for instance, a case study on the Victorian elimination of party-political patronage in Britain’s career civil service is useful as far as it goes, but a present-day discussion of this subject should have considered the repoliticisation effected by ministers’ special advisers, and in appointments to the bodies regulating education, broadcasting, the arts, the environment and much else.

The concluding discussion of the critical issue of “decay” concentrates too exclusively on the current frustrations and blockages of Washington DC (spectacularly lobby- and money-dominated though these are), and throughout the book there are too many statements of extraordinary banality: for instance, “the opposite of autonomy is subordination, where an organization is effectively controlled by outside forces”. One even wonders, at times, whether the text is the patchily edited transcript of an undergraduate lecture course. The subtleties of Fukuyama’s argument deserved a more coherent presentation.


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