I have been a fan of Francis Fukuyama since reading The End of History and the Last Man. This book will be, for me, equally memorable. The End of History asks the question "is the human race figuring out how to better govern itself?" The Origins of Political Order traces the history of that noble endeavor from prehistory to the French Revolution. Why did some countries move further along the trajectory to liberal democracy than others?
I learned a great deal of political history. Like most of my (Vietnam) generation my formal history education made it from the Greeks to England and America with little or no consideration of the rise of other civilizations. In addition to supporting Dr. Fukuyama's thesis of political order this book would make a great senior high school text for whatever "history" and "government" courses are called these days.
I said "exhausting" as there is a lot of material covered. In support of his thesis we get more than an overview. Rather we get a detailed account of the political rise of many civilizations. I found on occasion that I just had to put the book down for a day or two to catch my breath. Those who need the "Cliff's Notes" version can skip to the final section "Toward a Theory of Political Development," It is a great summary of the premise. It opens with an echo of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (which I also recommend) in its characterization of fundamental human nature. Those who are invested in Rousseau's pacific ignorance or to a lesser degree Hobbes anarchic violence as the basis of human behavior may find this section troubling.
Troubling to me was the identification of political decay as a prime mover in history. Why do countries fall into dark ages in their quest for better models of governance? I could not but be struck hard by the similarities of the histories of previous political decay and what I observe happening in the United States today. Why are some of the most egalitarian impulses not only doomed to failure but prevalent in today's American society and political order? Are we destined to destroy our own political progress by our ill-conceived humanitarian impulses? With approval of Congress in single digits, the majority of Americans believing the country is on the wrong track, the second President in a row with approval ratings below 50%, and unemployment, underemployment, and a large number of potential workers who have just given up are we in fact in a period of political decay? Legitimacy of the “State” is a core element in political order yet the American government has never been perceived by such a large majority as having less legitimacy in my lifetime. Add that war has always been a primary source of change in political order and consider the world today - the Russian invasion of Crimea, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Liberia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea etc. I am more concerned for the future today than I was growing up during the Cold War.
I find that scary problem an interesting foreshadowing of the second volume of this series - the history from the French Revolution to the Present. Maybe there is a way out. I certainly hope so! I look forward to its publication.
Remember, "Its turtles all the way down."