15 July 2011

Fukuyama’s new book

I’ve just started reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest book The Origins of Political Order. It’s the first of two volumes, and deals with the development of political institutions across varying cultures and eras from prehistoric times to the 18th century (the second volume will pick up where the first left off and continue the analysis up to the present time). Some have called it Fukuyama’s magnum opus. The books are certainly ambitious in both scope and intended theoretical application.

Fukuyama is often associated with American neoconservatism, but apparently he no longer supports that rather bellicose ideology. A passage from chapter one of TOoPO (‘The Necessity of Politics’) shows his more centrist stance:

There is in fact a curious blindness to the importance of political institutions that has affected many people over the years, people who dream about a world in which we will somehow transcend politics. This particular fantasy is not the special province of either the Left or the Right; both have had their versions of it.

And the political scientist who signed a post-9/11 letter to President Bush urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power by any means necessary later became a critic of the Iraq War. In TOoPO Fukuyama writes:

The degree to which people in developed countries take political institutions for granted was very much evident in the way the United States planned, or failed to plan, for the aftermath of its 2003 invasion of Iraq. The U.S. administration seemed to think that democracy and a market economy were default conditions to which the country would automatically revert once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed, and seemed genuinely surprised when the Iraqi state itself collapsed in an orgy of looting and civil conflict.

Fukuyama’s centrist, perhaps even realist, ideas appeal to me. As someone who flirted with far Leftism many years ago (I was a member of an Australian socialist group), my present self actually feels a tad embarrassed over having been seduced by romantic ideas that often took leave of the realities of society, human nature and economics. I think my acquired respect for rationality, evidence and critical thinking played a big part in my move towards the political centre (though upon a thorough accounting perhaps more of my values lie towards the liberal, progressive left). Maybe it’s an inevitable transition, as per Winston Churchill’s curt remark:

If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.

Since I’m neither twenty nor forty, it’s only fitting that I be a moderate, thus retaining both heart and brain. Which is why I also liked Joseph Heath’s Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism (2009), where a left-leaning philosophy professor debunks common economic myths believed by the Left and the Right. This sort of equal opportunity reality check isn’t so much a case of “the truth lies somewhere in the middle” (an argument prone to the false compromise fallacy), but rather a case of the facts being indifferent to ideology. Just like in science.

It’s going to take me a while to get through volume one of The Origins of Political Order, especially since my distraction by other reading material is basically guaranteed. Hopefully by the time I reach the cliffhanger chapter on the French Revolution, volume two will already be out. I swear, Fukuyama better not do a George R R Martin.


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