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Democracy field notes

Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay

On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama surfed to fame after pronouncing the global victory of the idea of American-style ‘liberal democracy’. Nearly three decades later, things look grim for his ‘end of history’ thesis, though close readers of the latest book by Fukuyama will surely conclude that although his thinking has since become guarded by qualification, and by convolution, his old story of American triumph in the world of ideas hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy is the second volume of Fukuyama’s investigation of the origins, evolution and decay of political institutions. Its lengthy argument can be summarised in a single sentence: without the prior establishment of a well-armed and functional territorial state, and without an independent judiciary responsible for overseeing the rule of law that robust state power then makes possible, modern liberal democracy simply cannot happen. No state, no rule of law, no democracy is the complex algorithm that structures the book’s six hundred plus pages, in support of his view that liberal democracy centred on free elections remains the world’s number one political preference.

Fukuyama admits of troubles in the house of democracy. American government, ‘hardly a source of inspiration around the world at the present moment’, resembles a bloated and dysfunctional ‘vetocracy’ distorted by lobbyists and big money. A third of the parliamentary winners of India’s 2014 elections, he notes, are facing criminal indictments, including serious charges such as murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. Fukuyama worries as well about the shrinking middle class, which he deems the social bedrock of liberal democracy. But all this decadence in the realm of ‘specific evolution’ is seen by him as remediable (how it’s to be fixed, he doesn’t say).

The bigger historical picture is different, and the future bright. On a higher, long-term plane ‘liberal democracy constitutes a universal evolutionary model’. It is guaranteed by the ‘clear directionality’ of ‘the process of political development’ that is pushed and pulled by long-term ‘general evolution’ trends. They ‘dictate the emergence of certain broad institutional forms over time’.

Some readers won’t much fancy the jargon, so let’s reach for the vernacular, to explore Fukuyama’s unaltered conviction that liberal democracy has the winds of long-term evolutionary trends in its sails. The longue durée (long term) is important to Fukuyama, above all because the modern territorial state has become the indispensable kingpin of political order. If there is no state, there can be no rule of law, or liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s point can be read as a back-door critique of the farcical American-led failure to build functioning states in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It’s also a sobering reminder that liberal democracy can’t be built by liberal democratic means. The type of democracy favoured by Fukuyama once required the bloody business of imposing political order on people, without their active consent. Today, the liberal democratic road to Washington remains steep, rough and rocky. It necessitates above all the establishment of political order through the state, followed by the imposition of legal restraints on state power. It is then, and only then, that free elections can take root and flourish among people living inside territorial states.

Fukuyama is an honest liberal who dares to remind his readers that liberal democracy is the offspring of the modern territorial state. The end result proved advantageous in several ways. As Fukuyama notes, with only passing references to the bloody American exception, the modern liberal state reduced civil wars. It legalised and legitimated social divisions, enabled the growth of civil society and facilitated the grand-scale enfranchisement of peoples for whose welfare it provided. And in international affairs, fixed state boundaries provided room for manoeuvre for any given liberal democracy, enabling its citizens and representatives to act with a measure of autonomy upon the outside world.

Liberal democracy in state form certainly had downsides. In the whole violent business of state building, peoples who lacked the capacity to become a modern state were typically left behind, as ‘stateless people’ and ‘asylum seekers’; or they became the raw material of colonisation, or victims of forcible removal and outright annihilation. The United States and other democracies in ‘homespun’ territorial form also waged war on other peoples, and still do. These nasty effects of liberal democracy are downplayed by Fukuyama. It is as if tawdry realities in the world of ‘specific evolution’ are excused by the positively universal gains of liberal democracy at the level of ‘general evolution’. Hence Fukuyama’s conclusion: even though liberal democracies such as the United States suffer decadence and do not currently live up to their ideals, the end of history thesis that liberal democracy is the only game in town remains intact.

The taxonomy of Political Order and Political Decay is grand, so splendid that at times it resembles Jorge Luis Borges’ famously fictional celestial emporium of benevolent knowledge. With the help of metaphors and insights dawn from evolutionary biology, economics, political science and modernisation theory, Fukuyama provides enlightened liberal democratic answers to every conceivable scholarly and political query. Or so it seems. The scope of the book is certainly breathtaking: national cases as different as Costa Rica, Italy, China, Nigeria, Japan and Britain are analysed with a sure hand. Yet as the narrative unfolds, and especially as we move closer to our own times, the grand emporium of liberal knowledge comes to resemble an untidy street market: forces extraneous to the analysis are randomly introduced in an effort to keep the story going. Fukuyama grows less sure of himself. Factors such as market forces, public trust and unintended consequences (Machiavelli’s fortuna) are suddenly summoned, to explain why things are not going as well as might be expected for liberal democracy at the ‘specific evolution’ level.

All these factors (and more) are surely needed to make sense of the complex history and fate of democracy in modern times. Democracy is far too complicated and contingent, its spirit and practical wanderings much too promiscuous and rebellious, to be tied down in reductionist - undemocratic - Grand Theory formulations of the kind Fukuyama uses to prop up his ‘end of history’ fable. That’s why, in this new book, factors such as capitalist markets and public trust and national identity serve to undermine the tidy elegance of the modern state, rule of law, liberal democracy taxonomy. Such factors equally threaten Fukuyama’s basic conceptual distinction between two levels of evolution. That distinction bears more than a passing resemblance to the mythical Judaeo-Christian division between heaven (where with a bit of luck we may end up) and earth (where currently we suffer). But for a variety of reasons, it no longer works.

The deep attachment of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ story to evolutionary metaphors is problematic. It is telling that the book contains no index entry for genocide or imperialism or totalitarianism or the atomic bomb. It’s as if these sordid facts of history never happened, or no longer matter, or should not be allowed to shape our view of history. And by supposing that democracy is a third stage in a ‘general evolution’ process that stretches in stages from the founding of a sovereign state through rule of law to elections, his perspective gets important things wrong.

Striking is Fukuyama’s neglect of democratic innovations that either preceded or attended the formation of the modern state. Obvious examples (they’re discussed at length in my The Life and Death of Democracy) are the election of representatives, parliaments, limited-term holding of office, petitions and trial by jury. Each of these modern democratic mechanisms has their origins in medieval Europe, that is, before the advent of the modern territorial state.

Fukuyama is equally neglectful of more recent cases of robust democratisation that defy his liberal ‘general evolution’ framework. India, Bhutan, Taiwan, South Africa, Botswana and Indonesia are democracies, but they are not liberal democracies on their way to Washington. That’s true as well for the Tibetan Government in Exile. Its polity is a creative form of non-liberal democracy whose popularly imagined homeland is to be found north of the Indian border, in the future, among citizens who don’t think of themselves as autonomous individuals and (like Taiwanese citizens) do not live within a ‘sovereign’ state.

These are not fine-point objections, random exceptions or insignificant ‘anomalies’. They in fact expose the ways in which Fukuyama’s evolutionary liberalism blinds him to some major political developments of our times. The shaping effects of the unfinished media and communication revolution (and the larger fascinating history of communications infrastructures in which state institutions always come embedded) are passed over in silence, for instance. Fukuyama is equally silent about the post-1945 birth of ‘monitory democracy’, and the corresponding redefinition of democracy as free elections plus the public efforts to question and break up arbitrary power, wherever it is exercised. Fukuyama repeatedly criticises democrats for neglecting the problem of governing effectively. He quotes Woodrow Wilson’s remark that democrats are typically more interested in ‘controlling than in energizing government’. But this quote understates the new 21st-century argument that monitory democracy, in the sense of public scrutiny and refusal of arbitrary power, is a basic condition of effective and efficient and just decision making, not only in the sphere of government but also (for instance) in the field of global corporate power and mega-projects.

It’s worth noting, too, how the state-centred approach of Political Order and Political Decay neglects the massive contemporary growth of cross-border governing institutions. Fukuyama thinks of himself as a realist, with strong ties to the liberal school of Realpolitik indebted to Samuel Huntington and (back in time) to Max Weber. Strange, then, is the way Fukuyama’s realism has an air of unreality about it: the thickets of cross-border power mechanisms in which all states and billions of people’s lives are now entangled simply go missing in this book. Fukuyama’s fixation on the foundational importance of the modern territorial state leads him to ignore not just the expansion and growing anti-democratic power of bodies like the G20 and the NSA, the IMF, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), ASEAN and the ECB. He sees no need for rethinking the meaning and scope of democracy in these much-changed circumstances of the 21st century. The urgent double task of reinventing the democratic imagination and breathing life into democratic politics in cross-border settings such as the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems rather lost on his thoroughly American, passé liberal way of seeing the world.


Fukuyama’s out-of-date commitment to travelling the road to Washington naturally places him at odds with China. The country may not score positive for its air quality, social injustice or football, but Fukuyama rightly says the Chinese state currently led by the Xi Jinping group is a political force to be reckoned with globally. ‘China poses the most serious challenge to the idea that liberal democracy constitutes a universal evolutionary model’, he writes.

It does indeed, but for reasons that slip through his end of history net. Political Order and Political Decay offers a masterful summary of the way endless local wars prompted ancient Chinese rulers to build strong, merit-based and centralised state institutions some 1,800 years before the same thing happened in Europe. The book shows as well that China never subsequently nurtured the spirit of rule of law (‘because it never developed a transcendental religion on which law could be based’, he surmises). In consequence, liberal democracy has thus far not happened in China, or so Fukuyama wants to conclude.

The main trouble with this verdict is its presumption that China ought to be on the road to Washington. It isn’t. And in the conceivable future it won’t be. The current Chinese experiment with political power is different. China is a new 21st-century type of despotism, a flexible one-party political system whose CCP rulers take pride in serving ‘the people’ of an ‘ancient civilisation’. These rulers energise markets and unequal wealth in their favour and count on support from a huge consuming middle class. They rule through law and a massive police force and army. They are guided by opinion polls, experiment with ‘smart power’ Internet public forums and see no need for ‘bourgeois liberalism’, or for free and fair general elections.

Both the durability of this Chinese ‘phantom democracy’ (let’s call it) and the formidable regional and global power of its spreading tentacles force us radically to rethink the year 1989. Francis Fukuyama lionised that year as the great breakthrough moment of the spirit of liberal democracy. Political Order and Political Decay still sees things that way. Perhaps instead we should think of 1989 as another new beginning, with a difference: symbolised by the bloody massacre of Tiananmen, a sobering year that set important parts of the world on the road away from Washington and towards Beijing?

This is a full-length version of comments that first appeared in The Age (Melbourne) and Sydney Morning Herald (February 14, 2015).

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