Learning from Francis Fukuyama

I have finished Francis Fukuyama’s magnum opus, The Origins of Political Order, and as you might expect I like the way he cuts across traditional categories.

Of course I have read his notorious The End of History and the Last Man, which became a laughingstock – somewhat unfairly.  I think his point is that under modern conditions people are becoming hollowed out and shallow – a point made in Francis Schaeffer’s comments on “personal peace and affluence,” in C. S. Lewis’s essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” and in Don Henley’s song “Garden of Allah.”  I also enjoyed his The Great Disruption, which traces the moral chaos of our time to the fact that technology has made most work in our society suitable to the muscles of women, whereas in the past, say, Rosie the Riveter was only too glad to quit riveting when World War II was over and go back to being a housewife.  Thus women and men become substitutable for each other in many other ways – including, now, even as the husbands of men and the wives of women, an idea promoted in no culture or religion worldwide on the entire planet, in the scope of all human history, until maybe 30 years ago at best.  Also in The Great Disruption is a fascinating discussion of the theory of norms of various kinds, including the diagrams which I hope to reproduce on this site in a future post, and which cause me to style myself a Five Kingdom Kuyperian Fukuyamaist.  [Blue Kennel is very interested if anyone wishes to set up a social group for other Five Kingdom Kuyperian Fukuyamaists.]

I will not attempt to summarize the entire work, just say that there is a lot of fascinating material on China, India, and the Muslim world and not just the West.  Surprisingly absent is any discussion of the Old Testament commonwealth – a thing found in probably the best known book on ancient history generally available!  But maybe he wouldn’t be taken seriously in academic circles if he commented on the Old Testament commonwealth!  Anyhow, analyzing the Old Testament in terms of Fukuyama’s theory would be a good exercise, and if given sufficient flattery from my gentle readers, I may undertake it.

There are three elements to a just political order in Fukuyama’s thought that you need to “get to Denmark,” as the phrase says.

  1. A strong and organized state.  Not necessarily ‘big’ or intrusive government, but a state strong enough to keep people safe and keep the gangsters down.
  2. The rule of law over the rule of men.  A legal code that stands over the arbitrary decisions of men as to what is within the law or not within the law.
  3. Accountability of the state to the people. (p. 16)

On the other hand, due to fallen human nature [though Fukuyama tries to sound like a Darwinist, we know what he means], the default that civil government tends to drift into if we are not vigilant is an order he calls patrimonialism:  a ruling elite giving favors and permissions to family or blood relatives, or, in modern society, friends or clients.  As Fukuyama himself describes it, “Organized groups – most often the rich and powerful – entrench themselves over time and begin demanding privileges from the state. Particularly when a prolonged period of peace and stability gives way to financial and/or military crisis, these entrenched patrimonial groups extend their sway, or else prevent the state from responding adequately.” (p. 17)

I don’t have time to cover all the interesting tales in this book, but I will note two important decrees by Popes that did a lot to set off the West as unique.

First, in the time of Gregory I, the Great (590-604) the Papacy, dealing with the Christianizing German tribes, forbade several practices common among them:

  1. “Marriage between close kin” like first cousins.
  2. “Marriage to the widows of dead relatives (the so-called levirate).”
  3. “Adoption.”  This sounds odd to us, in view of the fact that the Churches today are trying to promote adoption because the alternative is so often abortion, but I have a hunch this was not about the unwanted kids of strangers but about strategic adoption of older children and young adults as heirs.  I wish Fukuyama had explained this in more detail.
  4. “Divorce . . . a form of serial concubinage.”
  5. “Concubinage,” which made the chance of producing an heir more certain if the concubine’s child was recognized as legitimate. (p. 237-38)

The Old Testament Law had been more tolerant of most of these practices.  The advantage to the Church was that with these restrictions people were more likely to die without issue, and would, under these circumstances will their property to (ahem . . .) the Church!  But they also improved the status of women, because “The church made it difficult for a widow to remarry within the family group and thereby reconvey the property back to the tribe, so she had to own the property herself.  A woman’s right to own property and dispose of it as she wished stood to benefit the church, since it provided a large source of donations from childless widows and spinsters.”  There were no charitable foundations, at that time, outside the church.  The Muslim world had its waqfs, whereby a wealthy family could lock up its property in a tax exempt foundation, but these did not spread to the West until after the Renaissance, at least.  And as a result of this, feudalism was not exclusively kinship-based in the way that clan or tribal societies were; yes, you handed down your dukedom or whatever through the family, but the kings and higher barons over you and your sub-barons under you were often of very different families from yourself.  The lord-vassal relationship was not a family relationship.

Nevertheless, it was a society where land and political power were handed down from parent to child and through the family, and later on strategic marriages [like the one of Ferdinand and Isabella] often enlarged countries or united territories.

Second, the church’s answer to this culture was formulated by Gregory VII Hildebrand, pope from 1073 to 1085. When he succeeded to office, the Holy Roman Emperor [ruling Germany and northern and central Italy] and other kings and lords had the right to appoint bishops, call church councils, and even promulgate canon law – a situation which continued in the Byzantine and Russian Empires as long as they lasted.  Hildebrand decreed that the church should have the right to appoint its own bishops, and that secular rulers should not have the right to appoint or depose them.  The other important change he made was that all priests and bishops should be celibate and have no children.  The wisdom of this is not easily seen today, especially in regard to parish priests, but in the culture of that time bishoprics and even pastorates would be handed down from father to son or the nearest relative if this tendency were not checked, which would develop a priestly caste.  And even with this change, bishoprics were often given to younger sons of important families, and there were a lot of uncle-to-nephew transfers of bishop’s sees!  But at least in theory, the Roman church became the one medieval institution where the plowboy could rise to be Pope.  He could never hope to be king or duke. Make no mistake.

I think celibacy of priests is an idea whose time has come and gone.  Most Protestant pulpits are not handed down from father to son, except maybe in the largest ecclesiastical empires, and in the case of two such empires in Orange County, the son was passed over in favor of the daughter or son-in-law.  [All right, maybe Robert Schuller and Chuck Smith should have been required to observe celibacy!  But not any other pastors.]

Interestingly enough, in the same vein Fukuyama seems to think that the ‘janissary’ system of the Ottoman Empire, where young boys from Christian homes were drafted into state service and into Islam, was not such a bad thing for the same reason – until later on the Janissaries won the privilege of passing on their position to their children!

This book covers only up to the eighteenth century.  Fukuyama promises us a sequel, in which we are to learn how modernity and technology have changed the political world and put us under different stresses and temptations.  I can’t wait.  I do view the current rise of what I call the ‘donorcracy’ in American politics with the gravest concern – it has certainly pushed our political system back toward patrimonialism!

We, in California, have just seen the bizarre spectacle of the Democrats, supposedly the party of Big Government par excellence, voting unanimously to kill urban redevelopment, an intrusive big government program if there ever was one; while all Republicans except a brave six, the supposed party of “limited government,” voting to uphold that program.  No ideology can explain this; the constant danger of default to patrimonialism, as Fukuyama warns us, does explain it.

Related: Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.  2011: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

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