Fukuyama on the Origins of the State

Agree or disagree with Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis that we’ve reached the end of history with liberal democracy, his books always make for stimulating and instructive reading. One hears a lot of talk in academic circles these days about the wonders of interdisciplinarity.  Fukuyama is one of the few taking up this call who is ambitious enough to tackle the big topics, doing so skilfully. Reading very widely across the social sciences and humanities disciplines, he has a knack for abstracting and synthesizing the critical points into a rich and highly readable account of whatever aspect of the human condition he happens to be examining, whether it be the role of trust in societies, the implication of biotechnology for humanity, or the processes by which social order is brought about.

In his latest book, The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama addresses nothing less than the evolution of the state: where did it come from? How has it developed, at least in some forms, to accommodate the rule of law and accountability to the public? This book is the first of a two volume set that takes us back to our hominid ancestors, such as homo erectus and homo ergaster, and from there all the way up to the French revolution. The next volume is projected to continue from the events of 1789 to the present era.

Having read the first part, I can tell you what Fukuyama thinks about the origins of the state. To begin with, he points out that the state – understood as an entity with a monopoly on legitimate coercion within a confined territorial area — has not always been a feature of the human situation. Indeed, given that homo sapiens has been around for approximately 200,000 years, government is a comparatively recent institution. The earliest signs of government extend back 3,000 to 4,000 years to places like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China.

Reminscent of David Hume’s account in The Treatise of Human Nature, Fukuyama explains that human beings were initially organized as hunter-gatherers in small, band-level societies. As it was then much easier, when other bands attacked, to simply move elsewhere for resources as opposed to defending the territory currently being occupied, private property was non-existent. With no property, there was no institutionalized hierarchy. One person, recognized for their talents, might be able to exercise authority over the the group for a time, but leadership was fluid.

What changed this, Fukuyama notes, was the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. By raising productivity, agriculture could sustain larger human populations.  Greater population densities meant that people no longer had the option of moving to another area if attacked. Between cultivation and harvesting, too, one has to wait for an extended period before the fruits of one’s labour can  be reaped. Both these factors tied people to a specific piece of land, making it more worthwhile to defend a property right to it.

 The mode of social organization that evolved to deal with this shift was the tribe.  This is a kin based group in which membership is based on ancestral lineage. Larger than bands, tribes could quickly mobilize their kinsmen into a sizable military force that could defend the group against invaders or seize the resources of other societies.  Still, this wasn’t a state, as the “Big Man” or chief that led the tribe in war would lose their influence in more peaceable times.

 Amid this competitive struggle between tribes, the state emerged as the most effective mechanism to engage in warfare. Fighting and ruling by coercion became a specialized, and hence more efficiently executed, task.

This begs the question, of course, as to why tribes agreed in the first place to cede authority to certain individuals whose monopoly over force would effectively define them as the state. One possibility is that tribes were compelled to do so to defend themselves against other well-organized groups. An alternative explanation is that the tribes were persuaded by the religious authority and charisma of a few gifted individuals.

Fukuyama hedges between these two options. Either way, Fukuyama makes it clear that the roots of government lie in war.

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