Political Order and Political Decay

Political Order and Political Decay

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Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by 

Frank Fukuyama's eighth book comprises the back half of his survey history of political order. Where The Origins of Political Order concluded with dual revolutions (in France and the United States), this volume proceeds from that turmoil as far as the global financial crisis and the Arab spring.

Fukuyama's prescriptions about our political course may well seem more subdued and more shaded than his contentious claims in The End of History and the Last Man, but he does still label our current state as "the globalisation of democracy". In this new volume, Fukuyama is scrupulously, studiously attentive in citing argument by Samuel Huntington, whose Clash of Civilisations has long been compared with and worn better than The End of History.

Generalist historians play many parts, as teachers first and most of all, but also as guides and intellectual traffic cops. They remind and nudge readers about historical facts and trends we may well have forgotten, doing our reading and thinking for us. Unlikely though the image is, Fukuyama here occasionally calls to mind Virgil conducting Dante through Inferno, highlighting our sins of omission and commission, then bewailing our fate.

That element of elegy and lament really matters. Fukuyama's historical chronicle works as back-projection as well, noting the points at which our governance – especially that practised in Washington – went astray. His worry with Washington is that a combination of "intellectual rigidity" and the entrenched power of elites now buttress a "vetocracy".

Fukuyama prefaces this book with a quotation from Alexander Hamilton, whom he elsewhere praises as the only American Founding Father "who showed an interest in strong, capable judgment". Pithy and combative as ever, Hamilton once observed that: "a government ill-executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government".

Executive capacity, summed up as determination, will and plans to execute policy is consistently praised in this volume. Fukuyama is intrigued not just by power as theatre but by more mundane bureaucracy as well. Max Weber is regularly commended as a point of reference (possibly too much so). In addition, Fukuyama devotes careful, thoughtful argument to appraising the calibre of various public services (especially the rise and fall of the US Forest Service, and the spread of law in Japan). Those concerned to divide, limit and hem in power are dealt with more briskly. Deliberation, one of the critical variables in how power works, is his focus throughout.

All these arguments are clearly stated, cogently explained, confidently defended. Fukuyama only occasionally lapses into jargon; he could usefully dispense with "clientelistic" as an adjective or "repatrimonialization" as a noun, but plain English otherwise reigns. He is especially persuasive in appraising "low-trust equilibrium" (using Italy as an example) in outlining how political parties "create a stability of expectations", and in insisting that "reform is a profoundly political process, not a technical one". He is particularly instructive in justifying the claim that a strong national identity is "critical" to building a strong State, using early post-colonial experience in Tanzania and Indonesia as guides.

Where Fukuyama's conclusions are drawn in a deliberately striking manner ("Latin America was born with a birth defect" is one instance), he works hard to make up the initial, dramatic proposition. Summed up, Fukuyama's new work sits rather neatly somewhere between a "tour d'horizon" and a "tour de force".


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