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The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution Hardcover – April 12, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The evolving tension between private and public animates this magisterial history of the state. In his hominids-to-guillotines chronicle of humanity's attempts to build strong, accountable governments that adhere to the rule of law, international relations scholar Fukuyama (The End of History) advances two themes: the effort to create an impersonal state free from family and tribal allegiances, and the struggle—often violent—against wealthy elites who capture the state and block critical reforms. Fukuyama's multifaceted comparative approach grounds politics and government in the demands of biology, geography, war, and economics, and pays appropriately lavish attention to China (he styles the Qin Dynasty of 221 B.C.E. the world's first modern state), India, and the Islamic countries. A neo-Hegelian, he's especially trenchant on the importance of ideology—especially religious beliefs—as an autonomous instigator of social and political change. (He cogently ascribes Europe's distinctively individualistic culture to the medieval Catholic Church's "assault on kinship.") Fukuyama writes a crystalline prose that balances engaging erudition with incisive analysis. As germane to the turmoil in Afghanistan as it is to today's congressional battles, this is that rare work of history with up-to-the-minute relevance. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

Political theorist Fukuyama presents nothing less than a unified theory of state formation, a comparative study of how tribally organized societies in various parts of the world and various moments in history have transformed into societies with political systems and institutions and, in some cases, political accountability. Drawing upon a diverse range of sources—sociobiology and anthropology as well as macroeconomics and legal history—and paying particular attention to political development in Asia, Fukuyama describes a somewhat evolutionary mechanism wherein political systems develop in response to certain societal conditions and become institutionalized because of, among other things, their ability to adapt. Very much a continuation of his former teacher Samuel Huntington’s interest in political decay, this wide-ranging and frequently provocative work also carries the mantel of the great nineteenth-century sociologists, who addressed many of the same questions. Though Fukuyama hints at his theory’s relevance to present-day political challenges, readers seeking commentary on anything more recent than the French Revolution will need to be patient; this is volume 1 of 2. --Brendan Driscoll

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (April 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374227349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374227340
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (155 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #234,813 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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105 of 110 people found the following review helpful By Ryan on May 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Origins of Political Order is an engaging read for anyone willing to grant the author license to do some old school multidisciplinary broad-scope theorizing on a hugely important question: What are the origins of political order? Why did key political institutions -- a centralized state with a monopoly on the use of force, enforcement of legal norms by third parties, and accountability of the state to outside forces -- develop in some places and not others?

The real standard for evaluating this kind of book, a work in the world-historical Guns, Germs, and Steel genre, is not whether the author gets details wrong, or misconstrues some of the theories or cultures he discusses. This is inevitable. No one can be an expert in biology, the history of China, cultural anthropology, primate behavior, and legal history. But as Fukuyama correctly argues, that the task is necessarily imperfect and difficult doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. The standard for success is whether the necessarily imperfect effort nonetheless tells us something new and interesting. And Fukuyama succeeds on this metric.

Fukuyama abolishes any doubts the reader might harbor about political development as separate from economic or social development, and destroys any notion the reader might have that political order is somehow automatic or natural. Fukuyama will persuade you that political order is instead fragile and contingent. And he'll do it while taking you on a fascinating tour of the history of several different nations as well as the history of humans as a species. You'll learn about geography, primate behavior, and religion. Indeed, the pages are brimming with interesting theories on the various sub-topics that make up the volume, each of which could form its own PhD project.
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242 of 261 people found the following review helpful By Justin Hyde on April 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Since publishing his essay "The End of History?" in The National in 1989, Fukuyama has cemented himself as an important public intellectual and historical anthropologist. A former neo-conservative, Fukuyama, 58, now serves as the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

In this book, Fukuyama attempts to understand how humans moved from tribal and familial connections to organized institutions of states and governments. He writes, "In the developed world, we take the existence of government so much for granted that we sometimes forget how difficult it was to create."

Fukuyama artfully navigates the transition of humans from hunter-gather bands to tribalized communities to states and organized forms of government. Fukuyama emphasizes China because the Qin Dynasty was the first "state" to gain victory over tribalism. He contrasts this with Europe, which did not overcome tribalism until 1000 years later, and had to progress through feudalism before creating citizens loyal to the state.

Fukuyama's approach to historical anthropology stands in stark contrast to the "single cause" approach of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (2005). Fukuyama points to familial connections, human behavior, organized religion, and the human propensity for war as variable causes to the evolution of societies. Fukuyama engages disciplines outside of his usual realm including anthropology, economics, and biology. He notes, "It does seem to me that there is a virtue in looking across time and space in a comparative fashion.
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I read this book after getting through Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist." I thoroughly enjoyed Ridley's book but was skeptical about his single-minded emphasis on evolutionary bottom-up processes (a free market of ideas) as drivers of political development/order. Whereas Ridley almost always sees top-down governmental action as an impediment to development--something that stifles the naturalistic order produced by free market exchanges--Fukuyama takes a more even-handed, multi-dimensional and one might argue, accurate approach.

Fukuyama ascribes the development of political order to the rise of governmental accountability, the rule of law, and a centralized, impersonal state/bureaucracy. To defend this premise, he tackles some of the simplifications offered by Enlightenment thinkers, Marxists and free-marketers/libertarians. For one, he shows how Enlightenment thinkers got the 'state of nature' wrong: humans evolved to hunt and gather in groups--there never was a time when individuals acted as free-agents who, in their rational self-interest, came to establish a 'social contract' wherein they would give up some liberty in order to provide for the common security (government). Instead, there was an ongoing interplay between an emergent market morality (provided by tit-for-tat exchanges), the need to wage war, and ideas (religion, ideology & normative beliefs regarding the law) that together have tended to promote the development of political order in societies. And political development, rather than being a constant progression toward some liberal-democratic or Marxist-utopian goal, is fragile and just as likely to decay as it is to progress.
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