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The surprisingly long history of humanity's political development

In his latest book, Francis Fukuyama returns to humanity's distant origins to discover how political institutions have developed around the world. Here, he talks to Rob Attar about his findings and reveals how the west can count itself lucky

Published: May 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm
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This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine


Your story of political development begins in prehistory, with humanity's distant ancestors. Do you think, therefore, that our biology has impacted on the political systems we've created?

In the 20th century, as a result of the reaction against Darwinism, the Holocaust and people who wanted to misuse science, there was a concerted effort by social scientists to argue that biology plays no role in the way human beings organise themselves or manage their institutions. But I think there’s too much evidence that indicates that this isn’t the case. Every man on the street would accept that we have a nature and it inclines us to do certain things.

You don’t need a great biologist to tell you that nepotism is a constant factor or that people will try to manipulate the political system to ensure that their children and descendents are well taken care of. Patronage is an absolutely natural way for human beings to relate to one another. What is unnatural is to prefer someone on the basis of qualifications or some abstract exam.

So does democracy go against human nature?

It does. That’s why you have to create all of these incentives to reinforce it or to prevent people doing what comes naturally to them.

How important has geography been to the way that political institutions have developed?

It has been enormously important. If you look at where there are still tribal societies it is all in mountainous regions, heavily forested areas and in deserts. There is a simple geographical reason for that – it’s very hard for state-level societies to send armies into those places. Afghanistan today is proof of that, where NATO is having huge difficulty suppressing the Taliban.

In China the early development of a large state-level society was very much driven by a combination of large river valleys and the early adoption of horses, which allowed great mobility for armies. China could expand the reach of the state very rapidly, but for those who didn’t border on central Asia or this steppe land it was much harder to do that.

I think this was part of the reason for the late development of western Europe. The Roman empire could establish a large political unit based on water-borne transportation around the Mediterranean but had a hard time penetrating beyond the Rhine and the Danube because Europe was so heavily forested. Geography made it harder for Europe to get off the ground in creating modern political entities.

Yet more recently, China was overtaken by Europe in political development. What went wrong for China?

It was probably several factors but the most important was the absence of competition. This began with geography too. The Chinese empire was established on a large contiguous landmass where there weren’t any other state-level societies that could really threaten it. The lack of competition resulted in the entrenching of an extremely powerful centralised state that prevented the establishment of other states, religious organisations or a strong aristocracy.

The institutions and freedoms that exist in modern Europe are absolutely connected with the enormous weakness and decentralisation of power at the time of the collapse of the Roman empire. The competition that was established between early European polities drove state formation and as a result of physical geography, ethnicity and a number of other things, nobody could establish a universal empire. So right up until the 20th century, everybody was under the gun to improve their institutions if they were going to survive. That is largely why Europe moved ahead.

I’ll also make an important bow to the existence of England, sitting off Europe as an island. England was a state that consolidated and was quite powerful very early on and could then act as an obstacle to any continental empire forming.

How much of Europe's political development was down to chance?

The development of modern liberal democracy was dependent on a lot of contingent historical causes. One of them has to do with the Catholic church, both undermining kinship and creating the institutional basis for the rule of law. Another was the seemingly accidental survival of feudal institutions such as estates or parliaments into the modern world, which led to parliamentary democracy in England and then the USA. Then it was lucky that the parliamentary side in England just happened to be cohesive enough to be able to behead Charles I and hold out against the monarchy, whereas it wasn’t able to do so in other European countries. Absent of these events, world history would have looked very different.

“Up until the 20th century everybody was under the gun to improve their institutions if they were going to survive”

Do you believe that the system we have in the west – with a functioning state, the rule of law and political accountability – is the optimum one?

I believe that it has been. It is the matrix in which the full innovative capitalist market economy can operate and is also something that people desire because they like the personal freedom and the recognition of their dignity that this kind of society provides.

Will all societies tend towards what we have in the west?

The emergence of these institutions was initially just a matter of luck. A lot of historical accident went into it. Once they were established, however, particularly as technology has permitted societies to learn about one another, it has been less about luck. People look around the world and see who is successful and ask why they aren’t doing as well.

It is precisely this kind of competition that promotes institutional change in any given society. So it wasn’t a matter of luck that the west spread these institutions everywhere else, because they worked very well.

There are some countries which, despite centuries of contact with the west, still struggle to achieve western-style institutions. Why do you think this is?

Political institutions come about for all sorts of peculiar reasons. One of the most important of these is military competition. The Chinese would not have developed a strong state early on had they not gone through a 400-year period of constant warfare and the same thing is true of early modern Europe. Furthermore in China and Europe this kind of institutional creation or innovation took place over a long period of time and was very painful. Hopefully my book will show people that these institutions are very hard to create. We shouldn’t ask: “What’s wrong with these countries that means they haven’t got these institutions?” What do people expect? This stuff is really difficult.

Think about sub-Saharan Africa, which, up to the moment of colonisation in the late 19th century, had relatively few state-level societies. Then colonial regimes imposed western-style political institutions and at the moment of independence saddled them with borders that made no political sense. Now they are left with arbitrary borders and weak states that don’t correspond to a lot of the underlying social realities. If you ask what’s wrong with them, that’s a lot of the reason.

Do people in the west appreciate the importance of the political system we have?

We take these things so much for granted that we stop thinking about them. That is very much the problem with American foreign policy in the past decade. The people who arranged the Iraq intervention, for example, had this idea that if you kill the wicked witch of the west, all the Munchkins will get up and make a democratic society, because that’s the default organisation. It just didn’t work that way. There’s a historical amnesia that prevents people from understanding how difficult it is to create institutions.


Francis Fukuyama is an influential political economist based at Stanford University. He is best known for his 1989 essay and follow-up book The End of History, which argued that liberal democracy had triumphed in the battle of ideologies. Fukuyama is currently working on the sequel to The Origins of Political Order.


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