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. Â 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 theÂ critical points into a rich and highly readable account of whateverÂ 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 orderÂ is brought about.
In his latest book, The Origins of Political Order, FukuyamaÂ 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 andÂ accountability to the public? This book is the first of a two volumeÂ set that takesÂ usÂ back to our hominid ancestors,Â such as homo erectus and homo ergaster, and from there all the way up to the French revolution. The next volume isÂ projected to continue from the events of 1789Â 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.Â As it wasÂ then much easier,Â when other bands attacked,Â to simplyÂ moveÂ elsewhere for resources as opposed to defending the territory currently being occupied, private property was non-existent.Â With no property, there was no institutionalized hierarchy. One person,Â recognized for their talents, mightÂ be able to exerciseÂ authority over theÂ the group for a time, butÂ leadership was fluid.
What changed this,Â Fukuyama notes,Â was the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. By raising productivity, agriculture could sustain larger human populations.Â GreaterÂ population densities meant thatÂ 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 canÂ be reaped. Both these factors tied people to a specific piece of land, making it more worthwhile to defendÂ a property right to it.
Â The mode of social organization that evolved to deal with this shift was the tribe.Â This is a kin based group in whichÂ membershipÂ is based on ancestral lineage. Larger than bands, tribes could quicklyÂ mobilizeÂ their kinsmen into a sizable military force that could defend the group against invaders or seize the resources of other societies.Â Still, this wasn’t a state, as the “Big Man” or chief that led theÂ tribe inÂ war would lose theirÂ influence in more peaceable times.
Â 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, andÂ hence more efficiently executed,Â 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 ofÂ a few giftedÂ individuals.
Fukuyama hedges between these two options. Either way, Fukuyama makes it clear that the roots of government lie in war.