Francis Fukuyama was 36 years old in 1989 when “The End of History?” made him a star. At the time, there was little in his biography to mark him as anything more than another ambitious young Cold War technocrat. He had been hired by the RAND Corporation directly out of graduate school at Harvard (where he wrote a dissertation on Soviet foreign policy under the famous political scientist Samuel Huntington) and, aside from two stints at the State Department, had remained at RAND ever since, producing geopolitical analyses whose readership did not extend beyond the national security bureaucracy.
But Fukuyama had always been philosophically curious—a bent nurtured by his undergraduate teacher, the Straussian guru Allan Bloom, and maintained throughout his time in the policy world—and the argument he made reflected that. Delivering the original lecture before a University of Chicago audience that included Bloom, he argued that the scientific revolution had unleashed unprecedented productive energies for satisfying human desire, energies that only capitalism could properly harness. On its own, this scientific-economic logic could lead “equally well to a bureaucratic-authoritarian future as to a liberal one,” as he put it in his book-length elaboration, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). But humans are more than just desiring creatures seeking material satisfaction; they are also valuing creatures seeking recognition as equals, and only liberal democracy could satisfy this drive for recognition. The demise of fascism and communism left no coherent ideological challenges to liberal capitalist democracy, which stood revealed as history’s endpoint.
The basic argument, as Fukuyama stressed, was not original to him; he had adopted it from Hegel, and specifically from Hegel’s twentieth-century interpreter Alexandre Kojève. Timing alone, however, helped Fukuyama reach an audience unlikely to slog through Kojève’s 1930s lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. His essay arrived in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the book in the months following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet this timeliness was a curse as well as a blessing; if it guaranteed Fukuyama a mention in every intellectual history of the post-Cold War zeitgeist, it also meant that he tended to be more cited than read.
For a supposed embodiment of American triumphalism, the book’s tone was strangely wistful, and in its latter parts Nietzsche replaced Hegel as the guiding philosophical influence. Liberalism offers satiation of our desires and universal recognition as equals, Fukuyama suggested—but what about our need for heroism as opposed to harmony, our urge to struggle for superiority rather than settle for equality? Weren’t these more powerful drives, and in some ways more admirable ones? Won’t some of us continue to “struggle for the sake of struggle,” with a consequent “potential to restart history” at any moment?
These questions were too high-flown to interest most of Fukuyama’s critics. After the initial celebration, he quickly lost favor, his argument often treated as little more than a rhetorical punching bag. Commentators of varying leanings could all agree that the end of history thesis was willfully naive, a relic of post-1989 triumphalism that had been rapidly overtaken by harsher political realities. Fukuyama, for his part, turned to somewhat more modest topics in the years after End of History, writing books on trust, biotechnology and U.S. foreign policy.
But now Fukuyama has returned to the scene of the crime—to History in its full sweep. In a two-volume work, The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2014), he offers an extraordinarily ambitious account of human political life from prehistoric times to the present day. Political Order (as I’ll call the volumes collectively) is undoubtedly his most significant work since End of History. Yet the reader could be forgiven some skepticism: Why slog through a thousand pages by a man most famous for being spectacularly wrong?
One answer is because he wasn’t wrong at all, at least not in the ways that are commonly assumed by his critics on either the right or the left. Fukuyama’s argument has its limitations, and Political Order helps bring them into clearer focus. But understanding those weaknesses requires us first to reckon with its genuine strength.
The backlash against the end of history thesis began almost immediately. Beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, critics noted triumphantly that events (important events, even!) were continuing to occur, an observation that was recapitulated after every major geopolitical occurrence of the past quarter century. But this represented a simple misunderstanding. For one thing, Fukuyama did not think that history had ended everywhere; much of the world remained “stuck in history,” if only temporarily. More importantly, he was concerned not with history in the sense of the everyday flow of events, but with history as the story of the broader ideological frameworks by which we live. The only kind of event his theory ruled out was the rise of a world-historical challenge to liberal capitalist democracy.
The more serious critiques, found in both right-wing and left-wing flavors, came from those who charged that such a challenge was emerging. The right-wing critique, more prominent in everyday political debate, found its most famous expression in the 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” by Fukuyama’s old mentor Samuel Huntington. (Huntington’s piece, seemingly destined to be mentioned alongside Fukuyama’s “End of History?” in perpetuity, likewise lost its question mark on the way to becoming a book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.) Huntington posited a number of distinct civilizations alongside the “Western” one that Fukuyama took to be potentially universal, but the most salient was Islam. Fukuyama’s ostensible failure to account for the rise of radical Islam became a commonplace on the right; as one hawkish critic jeered, “the ‘end of history’ ended on September 11, 2001.” The consensus that radical Islam had taken the place of fascism and communism as the existential threat to Western liberalism reflected a genuine fear of terrorism, of course, but its appeal also reflected something deeper: the desire for an enemy that would allow today’s Westerners to relive the Manichean conflicts of generations past. It reflected, in others words, something like the need to “struggle for the sake of struggle” that had worried Fukuyama all along.
The notion that 9/11 changed everything involved a fair amount of selective memory; the threat of radical Islam had been a major topic of public debate since at least the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and many of Fukuyama’s critics had cited it against him from the beginning. His response throughout was measured and consistent: the most attention-grabbing forms of radical Islam were a fringe position even among Muslims, and showed no capacity to win adherents among the non-Muslims who make up the vast majority of the world. Terrorism was a product of modernity, bred primarily by Western societies’ failures to integrate immigrant populations, rather than a deep-rooted feature of Islam itself. Above all, the West should remember that its own transition to liberal democracy had been long, uneven and violent.
In truth, Fukuyama’s thesis had always been ambiguous with respect to international politics, for it could be interpreted in either an idealist or a realist direction. The idealist version (whether liberal or neoconservative) suggested that liberal democracy’s triumph would be accompanied by peace, as commerce replaced warfare; perhaps national boundaries would even fade as the world approached Kojève’s “universal and homogeneous state.” This had been Fukuyama’s own interpretation (although he never went in for fantasies of a world state), and in End of History he buttressed it with invocations of democratic peace theory, which maintains that democracies do not go to war with one another. (The theory is controversial for multiple reasons: empirically, because its truth depends heavily on the definitions of key terms like “democracy” and “peace”; politically, because it can, rather perversely, justify starting wars to impose democracy abroad.) But the end of history thesis could also be interpreted more minimally. It would not, on this view, deny the persistence of international conflict but only the persistence of conflict motivated by rival ideological systems, the grand “isms” of the twentieth century. Liberal states might continue to struggle among themselves, but these struggles would concern immediate interests rather than the value of liberal capitalist democracy itself—just as European states of previous centuries fought numerous wars that did not call into question the legitimacy of divine-right monarchy.
Fukuyama never fully defected from the idealist to the realist camp. Even in his most recent writings, he insists that states are not homogeneous pursuers of self-interest, for their internal structures and core values shape their foreign policies. But his political orientation changed over the years in subtler ways. Once a self-proclaimed neoconservative and man of the right, he broke with his former allies over the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His grander claims about the pacifying effects of liberal democracy faded away, and in his 2006 book America at the Crossroads, he made his break with neoconservatism official, arguing instead for a “realistic Wilsonianism” (even if he left unclear precisely what such a stance would imply). The book concluded by proposing as a model for American foreign policy not the neoconservative idol Winston Churchill but the realist icon Otto von Bismarck.
In a surprising way, the attacks from the right helped illustrate some of the less obvious virtues of Fukuyama’s original thesis. He may have been complacent, but he was no crusader. The very triumphalism that his critics decried, his belief in liberalism’s unshakable ascendance—and, perhaps, his bittersweet consciousness of living in a post-heroic age—helped inoculate him against the impulse to seek out new monsters to slay.
If the right attacked Fukuyama for being insufficiently fearful about political threats to Western liberalism, the left attacked him for being insufficiently hopeful about economic alternatives to it. Fukuyama’s argument came on the heels of a set of developments that seemed to fit a pattern: the collapse of the USSR; Deng Xiaoping’s decision to move China toward something that looked a great deal like capitalism; Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s attacks on the postwar welfare state. The closing-off of systematic alternatives to capitalism coincided with capitalism’s own transition from “Fordism” to “neoliberalism” (to use the now-conventional terminology), and Fukuyama seemed to exemplify both of these pernicious trends. To detractors on the left, his thesis was at best a failure of political imagination and at worst a highfalutin version of Thatcher’s taunt that “there is no alternative” to the free market.
However unappealing Fukuyama’s view may have been to the left, the lean years of Third Way liberalism and compassionate conservatism did little to disconfirm it. But more recent events have offered critics of the left, like those of the right, the chance to claim vindication by history. If the right liked to maintain that history had returned on September 11, the left came to argue for September 15: the day in 2008 when the fall of Lehman Brothers signaled that the Great Recession had arrived in earnest. The years that followed brought political disappointment, particularly for those who had grandiose expectations for the Obama presidency, but this very disappointment seemed to open the door for a resurgent radical left that would reject liberalism altogether. Marx is back, it was proclaimed—often by the remaining faithful, who had never allowed that Marx had ever been away, but sometimes also by new converts. Those looking for portents could find them all over the world. In Europe, the fight against austerity brought the largest left-wing economic mobilizations in a generation, exemplified by the recent electoral victory of the leftist party Syriza in Greece. In America, economically-focused movements like Occupy had difficulty gaining much traction, but a resurgent left was visible elsewhere, above all in the recent protests against police brutality stretching from Ferguson to Baltimore. Everywhere, self-proclaimed radical voices became more prominent, driven by a new and adversarial activist culture centered on the internet.
But regardless of how significant this trend proves—and the fact that its participants tend to be young, educated and internet-savvy likely leads us to overestimate their numbers—its implications for Fukuyama’s thesis are not entirely clear. The end of history does not require total ideological consensus or political stasis, for the overarching framework of liberal capitalist democracy is perfectly capable of including warring left-wing and right-wing variants. The relevant question is not the size or strength of today’s left but whether it stands outside this framework.
One obstacle to answering this question stems from the persistent conflation of Fukuyama’s thesis with Thatcher’s “no alternative,” suggesting that Fukuyama’s position is specifically neoliberal. Of course, the meaning of “neo-liberalism” is itself often obscure; increasingly, it is used as shorthand for The System as a whole, in which case it must include Fukuyama along with virtually everyone else. But in the narrower and more concrete sense of the term—the specific form of capitalism characterized by privatization, deregulation, austerity and so on—Fukuyama is no dogmatic neoliberal. In End of History, he argued that all societies will eventually accept the “basic terms” of capitalism, but denied that this must dictate “the extent to which they regulate and plan capitalist economies.” The kind of capitalism found at the end of history rules out Soviet-style central planning but encompasses everything from extreme laissez-faire to robust social democracy.
It therefore encompasses virtually all of the left’s economic battles in recent years. These battles have mostly been rearguard actions in defense of what remains of the old welfare state—against austerity, against privatization, against the continued upward redistribution of income. However necessary they may be, they do not take us beyond the end of history. The point was driven home with great clarity in a recent speech by Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the darling of the left since Syriza’s electoral victory. The experience of recent decades, he argued, demonstrates the futility of hoping that crisis would inevitably lead to something better. “The left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system.” As a result, Varoufakis suggested, Syriza finds itself in the unlikely position of trying “to save European capitalism from itself,” however ambivalently it might approach this task. It is too early to tell how Syriza’s story will end, but the recent experience of leftists in power (especially in Latin America) suggests that they will likely disappoint those hoping for a systematic rejection of capitalism.
A similar point holds for the leftist groundswell more broadly. Rejectionist pockets exist, but the dominant ideals are largely liberal ones. The most important left-leaning writers to emerge in recent years, like Glenn Greenwald and Ta-Nehisi Coates, tend to be masters of immanent critique, challenging actually-existing liberal democracies from inside rather than outside their own premises. (Whether this is a matter of genuine belief or rhetorical strategy is not particularly important; what matters is that these are the arguments that resonate.) Issues like privacy, once disparaged as the quintessential bourgeois freedom, have become central concerns of the left.
To be sure, the generation that came of age after Obama has grown more willing to embrace the “radical” label, leading some centrists to warn darkly of an emboldened far left that (in the words of the journalist Jonathan Chait) “has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones.” But the radicalism of what we might loosely call the “internet left” has been primarily on the level of tone and tactics; there is little in the underlying vision that would shock John Stuart Mill. If its partisans are radicals, they are predominantly radical liberals. This is not, as some old-fashioned Marxists are prone to complain, because of a shift of focus from class toward race and gender; such categories can be analyzed from any number of political standpoints. The prevailing tenor (and perhaps the incoherence) of the movement stems rather from its specific ideological mixture: broadly pluralist and tolerationist ideals combined with maximalist tactics directed against those perceived to violate them.
None of this is to suggest that the left’s current battles are not worth fighting. Nevertheless, the fact that these are the relevant battles tends to confirm rather than to refute Fukuyama’s basic thesis. He may still be proven wrong—after all, for his argument to be correct, it has to be correct forever, and the future lasts a long time. But on the most basic level, we still inhabit the ideological landscape that Fukuyama described a quarter century ago. The end of history hasn’t ended, yet.
Yet perhaps we are looking in the wrong place. Fukuyama and his critics, for all their disagreements, have shared a set of assumptions about history’s overall shape. For both, history is directional and dialectical, continually generating new things and never precisely repeating itself. Whether we have reached the end of the road, or whether we have an unknown distance still to go, both can agree that we will never double back the way we came. Historical change comes about as one world-historical formation supplants another, dramatically and often violently. We remember such changes by the capital-r Revolutions that name them: American and French, Russian and Iranian, Agricultural and Industrial, Scientific and Digital. If Fukuyama is wrong, the logic goes, it is for failing to anticipate the next of these momentous changes—if the end of history ends, it will do so with a bang.
But what if it ends with a whimper instead? What if the alternative to the end of history is not a leap forward into the unknown but a slow slide back into what came before? Perhaps the last couple of centuries, with their warring -isms struggling to supplant one another, are the real anomaly. The task then would be to stop trying to discern the next -ism coming over the horizon, and instead focus on the multifarious problems of political life that take place on a less grandiose level. A return, not to the warring gods of the twentieth century, but to history as it has taken place for most of human existence.
These are the questions that are raised by Political Order, if only implicitly. Fukuyama rarely pauses to relate his new work to the ideas that made him famous, but it nevertheless sheds light on how his thinking has evolved over the last quarter century. The change is most obvious on the level of genre: while End of History was a work of political theory, with a distinctly Straussian undercurrent of hostility towards scientistic views of human life, Political Order is unabashedly social-scientific. It might be misleading to say that the new work is more concrete than the old—certainly it is no less sweeping and ambitious, aiming to give a history of human political life from prehistoric times to the present. The tone, though, is more practical, examining the concrete problems of building political institutions rather than the fate of the world. Just as significantly, the Hegelian and Nietzschean themes in the earlier work—the view of humans as value-creators, recognition-seekers, strivers after power—largely drop out. The people on display in Political Order are more prosaic creatures: rule-following, religious and community-oriented, somewhat venal but not otherwise vicious.
Fukuyama presents his new work as a revision of Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). Huntington’s book was notable for its rejection of the tidiness of classic modernization theory: far from political, economic and social development progressing in tandem and irreversibly, uneven development and political decay are perpetual possibilities and sources of unrest. Along these lines, Fukuyama tracks the various permutations by which societies have arrived at successful political institutions, or failed to arrive at them, or lost them. The ultimate task, he suggests, is “getting to Denmark.” (The choice of social-democratic Scandinavia as the endpoint rather than market-mad America is probably not accidental.)
Political Order’s thousand or so pages cover a vast amount of historical ground, far more than any review can survey. But one of the work’s virtues is that for all its massive scope, Fukuyama is agreeably cautious as an analyst. He rejects monocausal explanations of historical change and warns against the delusion that we could ever predict future developments with any certainty, instead aiming to provide a “middle-range” theory that isolates a range of causal factors and generalizes about their relative importance. Rather than a grand theory of history, Political Order presents us with a careful and thoughtful observer picking his way through the grand theories of others.
As Fukuyama is well aware, however, there is no such thing as pure empiricism, and Political Order has an implicit conceptual framework. The directionality of End of History, with its closing image of humanity as a wagon train traveling into the future in procession, has become far more muted; so has the theme of technological change. Fukuyama sometimes notes the vast changes wrought by industrialization, the breakout from a zero-sum Malthusian world into one marked by new and untold production possibilities, but such changes do surprisingly little work in the overall argument; he views the problems of political development today as broadly similar to those of past millennia. History, once a directional process producing endless novelty, has become something like an oscillation between two poles—a story of nature and artifice, as humans alternately rise out of their primordial state and descend back into it. One pole,the goal to be attained, is rationally administered Denmark. The other, the primordial state perpetually threatening to return, is what he follows Max Weber in calling “patrimonialism.”
Fukuyama begins his story before Homo sapiens even emerged, and the first hundred or so pages of Political Order race through the vast majority of human societies, first “bands” of hunter-gatherers and later “tribes” of farmers and herders. The distinguishing feature of these societies, he claims, is that they are organized around what he calls “natural human sociability.” Contrary to the state-of-nature fantasies of early modern philosophy, humans have always lived in groups; contrary to the anachronistic assumptions of economists, their default mode is cooperation rather than the pursuit of individual self-interest. Drawing on voguish work in evolutionary psychology and game theory, Fukuyama argues that there are two basic and biologically-rooted forms of such cooperation: kin selection, by which we favor others insofar as they share our genetic material, and reciprocal altruism, by which we help genetic strangers insofar as they help us in turn. This natural sociability is the basis of the general phenomenon of patrimonialism, the tendency to favor one’s own family and friends. The bands and tribes that precede proper states are entirely organized around these decentralized patrimonial groups.
The tribal or patrimonial society, its structure dictated by biological imperatives, is thus the default mode of human existence for Fukuyama—the baseline against which we can measure our progress toward Denmark. The evolutionary flavor of the argument certainly suits contemporary intellectual sensibilities. But already difficulties appear which will trouble the project as a whole. It might be true, for one thing, that the biological imperative to pass on one’s genes is responsible for the general ubiquity of kinship structures of some kind. But as many anthropologists have argued (the most recent being Marshall Sahlins), these kinship structures take a wide variety of forms that do not strictly correspond to the percentage of genes shared by members, meaning that there is no single natural or default form of kinship. Likewise, however interesting the game-theoretic models of the emergence of cooperative behavior may be, they bear a striking resemblance to the state-of-nature model that Fukuyama elsewhere rejects, and may not tell us a great deal about actually-existing social relations. The structure of Fukuyama’s narrative requires “patrimonialism” to be a unified phenomenon, one whose biological roots make it a constant possibility and hence the perpetual threat to effective political order. But its conceptual underpinning, natural sociability, seems to dissolve the closer one looks at it.
The other pole of the basic contrast that underlies Political Order is clearer: it is the modern state-level society. The contrast itself, as Fukuyama acknowledges, is essentially Max Weber’s, and his narrative echoes Weber’s story of the supplanting of “traditional” authority by a “bureaucratic” authority that is rational, efficient, autonomous and impersonal. Fukuyama rejects certain aspects of twentieth-century modernization theory, such as its Eurocentrism and its assumption of unilinear progress. But like modernization theory, his work remains structured around the categories set out by Weber and the other founding fathers of social theory: Maine’s status and contract, Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Durkheim’s mechanical and organic solidarity. Fukuyama may vary the story, delinking the various processes of modernization and emphasizing that they are always contingent achievements, but the desired end state is ultimately not very different. History can be (even if it isn’t always) a process of rationalization. And history still has an end, not in the sense of a stopping point but in the sense of a telos: getting to Denmark is history’s purpose, even when the actual passage of time takes us further away from it.
Fukuyama isolates three institutions on the road to Denmark: the state, which involves consolidating power, and the rule of law and accountable government, which both involve tempering it. The rule of law requires that a higher body of preexisting law (whether constitutional, customary or divine) set limits to the ruler’s power; accountability requires that rulers be responsive to the interests of society as a whole. Defining these institutions so broadly lets Fukuyama appreciate the ways that informal constraints have historically limited what rulers are able to do in practice, even in societies lacking the formal mechanisms of modern liberal democracies. It also lets him appreciate the critical role that religions have historically played in shaping political institutions. (Some of the most surprising chapters in Political Order describe how the self-interested policies of the Catholic Church helped create an atomized society in Western Europe at the dawn of the medieval period. It was this atomized social structure, he suggests—drawing on scholars like Marc Bloch and Jack Goody—that was the true source of Europe’s distinctiveness, a thousand years before the rise of capitalism.) But at the same time, this ecumenical approach comes at a cost: it prevents Fukuyama from defining the rule of law and accountability with any precision, so that it is never entirely clear, for instance, whether they are a matter of rulers’ subjective beliefs or of objectively enforceable limits on their power. Nor is it clear how much the two differ from each other, and he allows that they “have been closely associated with one another historically and promoted in common.”
This imprecision may reflect Fukuyama’s own preoccupations, for his primary focus is ultimately on the state—that is, on the creation of effective power rather than its limitation. The state-building chapters are the central ones in Political Order’s first volume, and the most willing to depart from the conventions of the “West and the rest” genre. While his broad-brush depiction of “tribal” society might suggest that his will be yet another story of modern European exceptionalism, he instead gives pride of place to classical China, arguing that the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BCE to 220 CE) saw the birth of the “modern” Weberian state. More generally, he refuses to equate modernity with the growth of limited (Anglo-American) government or to identify what Europeans called “Oriental despotism” with backwardness and ignorance. On the contrary, he remarks wryly, “so-called Oriental despotism is nothing other than the precocious emergence of a politically modern state.”
Impersonal administration is the goal and patrimonialism the threat, and Fukuyama is bracingly ready to follow this logic wherever it might lead—in the process rehabilitating some of the villains of traditional Whig history. Nowhere is this more striking than in his treatment of the form of military slavery that developed in the Islamic empires of the Mamluks and Ottomans, in which the military and administrative classes were composed of slaves separated from their parents and forbidden heirs of their own. The system may have shocked European observers; “no one is a tyrant there,” Montesquieu marveled of the Ottomans, “without at the same time being a slave.” But Fukuyama sees it as a rational solution to the problem of patrimonialism, ensuring a class of impartial soldiers and administrators without whom Islam would likely have perished as a world religion. It only failed when the slaves were allowed to make their positions hereditary, thereby allowing patrimonialism and corruption to reassert themselves.
The theme of rational administration besieged by biological sociability likewise dominates the second volume of Political Order, which covers the last two centuries or so. Noting that the world changed dramatically after 1800, as industrialization offered an escape from the Malthusian cycle, Fukuyama focuses on the political ramifications of this shift rather than on its economic, technological or environmental aspects. Increased prosperity brings social mobilization, as newly literate publics demand a role in political life and mass democracy replaces traditional mechanisms of accountability. But democracy is a mixed blessing, for it invites clientelism, the modern form of patrimonialism. Tammany Hall-style machine politics is, for Fukuyama, the natural outcome when a society (like nineteenth-century America) democratizes before it has a well-run state in place.
How then to achieve good governance? One answer is war: the pressures of military competition are a brutal yet effective mechanism for weeding out inefficient structures, and many of the most successful states (from classical China to nineteenth-century Prussia) were forged in its crucible. (Conversely, the relative lack of interstate war in Latin America, however desirable in itself, helps explain the persistence of the patrimonial structures inherited from the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers.) To an extent, then, Fukuyama endorses Charles Tilly’s maxim that “war made the state, and the state made war.” He does insist, however, that war is not necessary for effective state-building, since in some cases (notably nineteenth-century America and Britain) reform coalitions were able to emerge in the absence of a major military threat, which largely succeeded in purging patrimonialism and creating effective bureaucracies.
At least temporarily. Perhaps the most important lesson Fukuyama takes from Huntington is that political decay is always possible. The conservative and rule-bound nature of human beings means that institutions which arose as a rational response to one set of conditions persist well after these conditions have abated, and the biological imperative to favor one’s own means that re-patrimonialization is always a threat. Here Fukuyama clearly has America in mind. The central theme of his second volume is how the United States, having briefly achieved something like an effective state in the early twentieth century, has subsequently let it slip away (a process symbolized by the rise and decline of the U.S. Forest Service). He tries to stay out of the polemics about size of government that define everyday American politics, instead emphasizing that the quality of government is more important than its size. But his book nonetheless represents a sustained argument against America’s libertarian self-image, beginning with its opening epigraph: Alexander Hamilton’s paean to “energy in the executive” from the Federalist. The problem with American government is that it “allocates what should properly be administrative powers to courts and political parties”—or, more simply, that it has “too much law and too much ‘democracy’ relative to American state capacity.”
Should state-building therefore take precedence over democracy? That had been Huntington’s answer; the most famous takeaway of his 1968 book was that developing countries might require an “authoritarian transition” to modernize before opening the democratic floodgates. Here, at least, Fukuyama is unwilling to follow his teacher. For one thing, it is easier to sing the praises of enlightened authoritarianism in theory than to find genuinely enlightened authoritarians. For another, although the demand for democratic participation is not historically universal, and only arises as a byproduct of the modernization process, once it has arisen it can no longer be ignored. Democracy is a fait accompli.
This is the answer we would expect from Fukuyama; he became famous, after all, for insisting on democracy’s inevitability. And here even his critics (at least his Western ones) are unlikely to disagree with him. The ascendancy of the concept of “democracy” is in fact one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favor of the end of history thesis. The old debates in political theory, from Aristotle onward—which took democracy to be one kind of regime among many, and argued for its superiority or (more often) inferiority compared to the others—are barely imaginable now. The premise that democracy is the only legitimate form of government has become so deeply ingrained that the only remaining question is who gets to claim the term for themselves. Contemporary debates in political theory pit “deliberative democrats” against “radical democrats”; social critics of self-proclaimed democratic regimes like the United States charge them with being “sham” rather than “real” democracies; even nakedly authoritarian states feel compelled to give themselves a democratic sheen. (Kim Jong Un rules over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) To that extent, we are all Fukuyamans now.
But is Fukuyama himself still a Fukuyaman? If he still insists on democracy as a sine qua non, the tone is a bit more hesitant, and the argument somewhat at odds with the tenor of Political Order as a whole. End of History had insisted that economic modernization alone cannot explain the inevitability of democracy, for the logic of capitalism is as compatible with a “bureaucratic-authoritarian” future as it is with a liberal one. Only by treating humans not merely as desiring creatures who seek material satisfaction but as valuing creatures who seek recognition can we understand why liberal democracy is necessary. Such Hegelian themes are far less evident in Political Order, and the bureaucratic-authoritarian future seems more of a live possibility. It is China, Fukuyama suggests, that poses “the most serious challenge” to the end of history thesis, although he insists that it is impossible to tell whether the Chinese model will be stable. Regardless, the dominant image evoked through the thousand pages of Political Order is of the modern Weberian state—rational, impersonal, bureaucratic—born in China and at home there for the past two thousand years.
For all that Fukuyama rose to fame by announcing the end of the Cold War, his categories remain deeply shaped by it. The authoritarian Weberian state rising to confront the liberal Weberian state, embodied in two global empires—the image is one that would be at home in the social theory of half a century ago. It may not be a coincidence that Fukuyama’s fiercest critics tend to be those who want to refight the Cold War, regardless of which side is the object of their nostalgia. But perhaps this framework itself is no longer adequate.
As I write this piece on the South Side of Chicago, I have periodically stepped outside to feed the meter where my car is parked. It might seem like a classic example of the modern state’s fiscal apparatus in action, down to the high-tech electronic meter itself. But my money is not going to the local government at all: in 2008, the city of Chicago sold off its parking meters to a consortium of private investors led by the financial giants Morgan Stanley and Allianz. In return for a one-time infusion of cash to the revenue-starved city government, the consortium received the right to run Chicago’s parking for the next 75 years (a right, as it turned out, worth far more than what they paid for it). It is only an especially brazen example of a wider trend toward the privatization of core government functions.
Fukuyama has a ready way to explain such phenomena: they represent re-patrimonialization, the innate tendency to favor one’s family and friends over the public good. The privatization of parking meters is not different in kind from the tribal leader using his power to reward kin and allies. And there is some merit in this explanation, at least in reminding us that many of the phenomena taken as novel features of the contemporary world have a long history. Indeed, in its broadest outlines the Chicago parking deal is simply a form of tax farming, the practice by which ineffective pre-modern states sold off the right to extract revenue from the populace to private actors; it would have been familiar to an inhabitant of the French ancien régime.
But Morgan Stanley is not a local chieftain, and the interest groups that dominate contemporary politics are hardly analogous to the kinship groups of non-industrial societies. If the Weberian state is losing its coherence, this may not represent a retreat to the particular, to the local, to some sort of vaguely defined biological sociability. It seems rather to represent a new kind of impersonality, still more impersonal than the territorially rooted governments that it is challenging. When I lose patience with the increasingly extractive Chicago parking authorities, I want more than anything to give a piece of my mind to those responsible—but who would this even be? Does it make sense to speak of “recognition” in such a context? Recognition by whom, of whom, as what? Does it make sense to describe this relationship as “liberal,” or for that matter as “illiberal”? We still lack the vocabulary to describe what is happening around us, but perhaps this very lack is a sign that the end of history will not last forever.