Francis Fukuyama does two things in his latest book, “Political Order and Political Decay,” a sequel of sorts to “The Origins of Political Order,” which was published in 2011: first, he offers a historical account of the emergence of modern, democratic political institutions in the 18th century and after; then he develops an account of the “decay” of those institutions, and with it a diagnosis of the crisis of political legitimacy that is afflicting most developed liberal democracies today.
When I met him in London earlier this week, and before we discussed some of the book’s central arguments, I asked Fukuyama for his assessment of the geopolitical challenges facing the west today. In an interview in the current issue of Prospect, Henry Kissinger tells Bronwen Maddox that he is pessimistic about the prospects for global stability and order in a world in which China and Russia are newly assertive and militant jihadism is spreading chaos throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Does Fukuyama share that pessimism?
FF: I think that we’re in for a really rough period over the next few years. In what Zbigniew Brzezinski used to call the “arc of crisis” —from North Africa, through sub-Sharan Africa and then into the Arab world, Pakistan and so forth—you’ve got a system of weak or failing states. It’s quite striking that, simultaneously, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq are all falling apart. But the even bigger problem is going to be Russia and China, at either end of Eurasia. They’re well organised and have got territorial ambitions. That, I think, is a more serious challenge in the long run than Isis.
JD: Presumably there’s a connection between the account you offer in the book of political “decay” in failed states like Libya and what’s happening in Iraq and Syria with Isis?
Right. I actually don’t think that Isis, in itself, is going to be that powerful a political movement. It’s based on an idea of Islam that’s not even “medieval”—it’s a kind of ersatz. And both the Iranians and the Saudis agree that they don’t like this organisation and both want to put it back in its box. It’s going to be a very containable threat, but Russia and China are different, because they are threatening real democratic countries and are powerful and well-organised.
You discuss in the book the case of Libya today, where there is no state—that is, no central authority exercising a monopoly of legitimate force over its territory. The same is true, more or less, in Iraq, and it’s in such conditions that movements like Isis can flourish.
Yes. In Libya, in fact, Gaddafi didn’t build institutions. He didn’t believe in them. [His regime] was a kind of personal family dictatorship. And we’re now seeing the consequences of it. Unlike Egypt, which actually has an army, Libya doesn’t. And that’s why it’s now consumed by militias.
The cases of Syria and Iraq are different, because there you did have powerful dictatorships. In Iraq, we [the US and its allies] disbanded the army and didn’t put anything in its place. The reconstruction of legitimate state authority is the central issue there and in other places. One thing we’ve learned from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the United States and other western powers don’t know how to do this. They don’t have the staying power. In theory, they could devote the resources to doing it, but most taxpayers are not going to [stand for it].
Are you suggesting that the failure to take the reconstruction of the Iraqi state seriously enough was the most consequential mistake, rather than the invasion itself?
No. Once you decided to do the intervention, it implied a lot of follow-on measures.
Let’s turn, then, to the argument of your new book. You begin by discussing three “scenarios”: Libya, where, as we’ve just seen, there are no political institutions to speak of; then there’s the capture of democratic institutions, particularly in the US, by lobbyists and other commercial interests; and finally the challenge posed by an expanding middle class to political institutions in emerging economies (you mention Turkey, Brazil and China). What, in your view, connects those three scenarios?
The Libya part of the story is about the centrality of actually having a state. And the theme that underpins the whole book is that despite the desire for constrained states and the hostility towards state authority, states are still necessary. And the quality of the state is what determines whether a country is poor or rich. Almost by definition, a poor country is one that doesn’t have a government that can provide basic services which are then a platform for economic growth. That’s why East Asia has done well and Africa has not—East Asia has such states.
That’s the first story about how you get to a modern state (in the way Max Weber defined a modern state). The second story is about what happens once you get there. My view is that a modern state is a pretty fragile institution. It’s unnatural in some sense, because it forces people to recruit the best qualified people rather than people they like, or their friends and relatives. There’s always a very strong, natural pressure to “repatrimonialise” the state. In the United States, we closed off one avenue for that, which was just giving out jobs in the government to one’s political supporters. But we’ve now opened up new pathways for reciprocal gift-exchange—a lobbyist makes a donation and gets a tax break some way down the road. That’s come to characterise a lot of modern American government. And that is, to my mind, a clear case of political decay.
And then there are some ideas that are so deeply embedded, like presidentialism in the United States, which simply don’t work that well—for a variety of reasons. But we’re so committed to the existing constitutional forms that it’s almost impossible to change any of it.
And that commitment is deeply sedimented in the US isn’t it?
Yes. People begin to worship their own institutions. The institutions are instrumental in getting you to solve certain problems, but then they become ends in themselves, they become intrinsically valued. That’s why they’re so hard to reform.
In terms of democratic institutions, the United States is one of the oldest countries. When the first Tea Party Congress was elected in 2010, they took turns reading from the Constitution as if it were holy scripture! But insider capture of the government is also very damaging. In the lead-up to the French revolution, the French government began selling pieces of itself off to venal office-holders. So, for example, you could buy the position of tax collector from the government and then give it to your son as part of his inheritance when you died. We’re not quite as bad as there right now in the US, but you do see a similar effort to carve out privileges. The American tax code is just a travesty. You’ve got a very high marginal tax rate, but very few companies actually pay it because they will protect themselves with special exemptions, subsidies, tax breaks and so on.
You said just now that the state is, in some sense, an “unnatural” institution. Now, it does look to me as though all the arguments you make in this book are underpinned by an account of human nature, in which what you call “reciprocal altruism” and other forms of “natural sociability” loom large.
That’s right. Modern biology has demonstrated that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it’s built around two fundamental principles. One is that of inclusive fitness—the William Hamilton theory that we’re altruistic in proportion to how many genes we share. This is basically a principle of nepotism. And that continues to be a major driver of human behaviour. The other is reciprocal altruism. On a face-to-face basis, we’re instinctively geared to exchanging favours. That’s how we deal with strangers. Even in a modern, rule-of-law society, a lot of politics is still structured around that. Even in a modern bureaucracy, you still find patronage chains where people exchange favours. Any impersonal political order is constantly being challenged by the natural inclination of people to favour family and friends.
And this is related to—and the problem is especially acute in the US—the “repatrimonialisation” of politics isn’t it?
Yes. Modern lobbying is built around that. We define bribery and corruption very narrowly to mean an overt exchange of a quid for quo, and we don’t criminalise the more general expectation of returned favours.
One question about the bigger historical story you’re telling in the book. You put considerable emphasis on the role played by the French and American revolutions in the emergence of modern, democratic political institutions. What, in your view, are the principal legacies of those two events? Not just in France the US, but around the world.
They had somewhat different impacts. The French revolution did surprisingly little for democracy, if, by democracy, you mean the right to vote and to political participation. In France, you don’t get universal suffrage until the end of the 19th century. The biggest contributions of the French revolution were modern democracy and modern law. You had the Code Napoléon, the first modern code of civil law on which most modern codes are based, right up to the present day. Combined with that was a modern administrative state—you basically guillotined all the venal office-holders and replaced them with merit-based, educated bureaucrats. That’s what the French are still famous for.
The legacy of the American revolution is political participation. The United States began its life on a very restricted franchise. You had to be a white male with property in order to vote, after the Revolution. The United States was really the first country to remove the property qualifications and we fought a Civil War that, in theory, removed the race qualification. So we had more people voting at an earlier stage in our history than almost any other country in the world. We were also, therefore, pioneers in clientelism and patronage. That was the natural consequence of allowing people to mobilise on a mass basis.
And that’s making a comeback in the form of what you call “repatrimonialisation,” which finds its most extreme form in the influence of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. You go on to make a connection in the book between repatrimonialisation and “institutional rigidity”. The American system seems to be suffering from an especially extreme form of institutional rigidity or “gridlock” doesn’t it?
Rigidity has to do with checks and balances. If you suggest to an American that we have too many checks and balances, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy and say, “But that’s what makes our Constitution great.” I think we have too many of them. Right now, for example, we have something like 60 ambassadorial appointments that are being held up in the Senate, because any of 100 senators can put a hold on a given nomination. It’s as if you had a corporation with a board and each of the board members could veto a mid-level appointment made by the CEO of the company. It would be completely crazy in a corporate context, but that, basically, is where we are in terms of government procedure. It interacts with lobbyists, because in America lobbyists have many more points of access than they do in a parliamentary system. You can lobby an individual member of Congress to put a special bill in that would carve out an exemption for a particular client. But in the British system or the German system, while lobbyists have an impact, it comes more at the top level of the party, with party leaderships trying to satisfy different interest groups.
You write that the “very stability of institutions is also the source of political decay.” Are you claiming that the process of decay is both inevitable and ineluctable?
That’s the general pattern. Times change and institutions become less adaptable. Something has to happen, usually in the form of an external political shock, to get them to change. This happens. Governments do reform themselves, often before they collapse completely. But you’re in big trouble if that doesn’t happen. The theory of democracy is that democracy should be a more sustainable system because you’ve got inbuilt processes for renewal. People can just vote the bums out when they’re not performing well. But unfortunately, a lot of times that just doesn’t happen in a democracy. Voters are shortsighted, or don’t understand the problem, or they’re internally divided and can’t mobilise to protect their interests.
The focus of your analysis falls on the US. How far do you think we can generalise from the US case, given the distinctive features of it that we’ve already discussed?
You can’t generalise across all democracies. A number of democracies are working well—in Scandinavia, Germany. But there are a number that are similar to the United States. I would point to Italy, Japan and India. In each of them, you have underlying social divisions that get reflected in their political systems and produce gridlock—a failure to grapple with big reform issues. Japan is an interesting case: it’s very homogeneous and not as internally polarised [as the other countries I mentioned]. But they’ve got this weird system in which you have to seek consensus, even in areas where consensus is not necessarily needed. Then they’ve got insider capture. The Fukushima episode showed how the regulators had been completely captured by the nuclear industry. And to this day they haven’t been able to fix that problem.
Since you mention consensus, let me ask you about President Obama. Early in his presidency, he made great play of pursuing bipartisan agreement, often on issues where he was never going to secure it. And many American liberals found this maddening. Do you think that has been a problem?
Two things have happened. The first was completely out of the President’s control: the Republican Party moved right in a very nasty way—anyone in his position would have been faced with an intransigent right wing. But I think he’s simply not a very skilful politician. He doesn’t connect well with people. He’s not very good at even getting people in his own party to support him. He’s not good at making an emotional connection. He’s sort of the polar opposite of Bill Clinton, who was a master at that. Obama was never good at it and has now given up trying to seduce people.
The other side of Obama is that nobody’s frightened of him. And you can’t be a successful democratic politician if you don’t engender love on the part of your supporters, and fear on the part of the people who stand in your way. There are no consequences to opposing him.
You’ve arrived in the UK at a time at which the British state is undergoing a crisis of self-confidence following the referendum on Scottish independence. How does the situation here strike you?
I think that Britain has had a deeper problem for some time, one that became evident after 9/11. National identity is something that’s not natural—it’s socially constructed, at a grassroots level, but also by political leaders who can develop a narrative. In the 19th century, certainly if you looked at the Tory side of the argument, there was a clear narrative: it was to do with Empire; you wanted to be British because it was Great Britain, and you wanted to be part of this larger imperial project. Ever since the dissolution of the Empire and Britain’s integration into Europe, there hasn’t been a positive narrative put forward of what it means to be British. This became evident in the aftermath of 9/11, when it was clear that there were a lot of Muslims in Britain who had not been well integrated into British society. I think the British form of multiculturalism is just awful. It basically said [to Muslims]: “You can have your culture over there. We’re not going to try assimilate you into any broader set of British values.” Unlike the French, or the United States, [the model] just allowed these groups to develop separately from the rest of British society.
There are downsides to the French model of laicité, though, aren’t there? For instance, it allows for no expression of cultural belonging or particularity.
I know this is a hard argument to maintain, but I still think that, despite the riots in the banlieues, the French have done a better job of assimilation than the British have. I think those riots were misunderstood. They were not anti-systemic. Muslim kids actually want to be French citizens. Like black kids in American ghettos who riot periodically. They don’t have jobs and they don’t like the police, but they don’t have a fundamental rejection of the values of French citizenship. But you get Muslim communities in this country that are like strangers who just happen to find themselves here.
With values-based conceptions of national identity, like the French or the American, you create a very open national identity that can assimilate a lot of people pretty quickly. So one of the underlying problems in [the debate over Scottish independence] was that a lot of short-term practical issues were raised—What would independence do the economy? Who gets the oil subsidies?—but it seemed to me there was something missing in terms of the question why you would want to be part of the larger enterprise called “Great Britain”.
You discuss popular (and indeed populist) distrust of “elite institutions,” particularly in the US. But such distrust is particularly widespread in the European Union, too, isn’t it?
Europe is strong in all the wrong places. It’s strong in areas that really annoy people, like food labelling, consumer standards and so forth. But it’s not strong in the areas that count, like fiscal policy. The result is the eurozone crisis. So I actually think there’s a legitimacy to a lot of the populist critiques of the EU. You do have a technocratic government that isn’t delivering. It’s run by elites who, every time a referendum is held that rejects the expansion of the EU, say that the people are wrong and are making a mistake. There would have been a willingness to concede greater powers if those elites had designed the thing properly.
Most of this discussion has stayed in the domain of political science. But what about political economy? What role have the significant structural changes in the global economy over the past decades played in the political shifts you discuss in the book?
The most fundamental challenge posed is the problem of growing inequality, the erosion of middle-class jobs. This is partly the result of globalisation, but technological change is more important. You’ve got intelligent machines that are substituting for higher and higher levels of labour. In a lot of corporations now their HR departments are being gutted by artificial intelligence. So middle-management, white-collar jobs that used to be plentiful are now disappearing. That, I think, is challenge number one. Then you’ve got this governance challenge: because of the high degree of economic interaction and inter-dependence, national-level governance structures can’t control a lot of what goes on. And to the extent that they can, they’re not perceived as legitimate. And that’s an area where I don’t see a solution.