Sunday, September 23, 2018

The escape from tribalism

This is the first of two volumes about the history of the state, written by Francis Fukuyama. So far, I've only read the first volume, “The Origins of Political Order”. It begins in murky prehistory and ends with the French Revolution. The second book is titled “Political Order and Political Decay” and deals with the 19th and 20th centuries.

Despite its monumental sweep, Fukuyama's book is surprisingly easy to read. It attempts to answer the question why Western Europe and Western-derived societies in other parts of the world are unique in terms of modernization, democracy, the rule of law and overall social stability. While Fukuyama denies holding a near-deterministic position in which societies are trapped in their present state due to events that took place centuries or millennia ago, I think it's obvious that he *does* hold such a position. Thus, the roots of Western, more specifically Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, success goes back all the way to the fall of the Roman Empire and the social changes during the Early Middle Ages. In the same way, Russia, the Muslim world, India and China follow trajectories heavily shaped by ancient successes and failures.

That being said, Fukuyama does not have a “teleological” view of history, where Western modernity (or the Whig Party platform) is somehow inevitable. Nor does he believe that Western modernity and democracy are inevitable in the rest of the world as a kind of preordained endpoint of The Historical Process as a whole. Rather, Fukuyama sees human societies as products of uneven and contradictory processes. While human social change isn’t “blind”, it often has unintended consequences. Thus, the attempts by the Catholic Church during the Early Middle Ages to strengthen its power base against the Germanic monarchs unintentionally dissolved tribalism and laid the long term basis for modern Western society, which is unique in world history due to its non-tribal character. While not identical, Fukuyama's perspective does seem to have certain similarities with Stephen Jay Gould's view of biological evolution (he mentions Gould in his book). Shorter periods of decisive but often contingent change are followed by much longer periods of relative stasis, and adaptive evolution often gives rise to “spandrels”, non-adaptive structures which are byproducts of the adaptive ones, but often plays an important role anyway. If I read Fukuyama correctly, the West is the eventual outcome of historical changes that could have been different. Perhaps we simply were lucky!

Fukuyama sees tribalism or “patrimonialism” as the natural state of humankind, rooted in our biological evolution as a species. Originally, humanity was organized around patriarchal clans where almost everyone was genetically related. Later, the patriclan gave rise to the tribe, which is much broader in composition and hence more based on reciprocal altruism than on kinship, although kinship still plays an important role on sub-tribal level, where families attempt to promote their own special interests. The tribe can be seen as a form of extended or “fictional” kinship system. War is another constant of human existence. From this follows that any political order will tend to be based on kinship, extended kinship in the form of tribalism, and territorial aggression. Political systems *not* based on tribalism will tend to devolve in a tribalist direction if given half a chance. Only Western civilization has successfully managed to escape from tribalism due to various unique historical circumstances. However, other societies have tried to accomplish the same thing through different routes than the Western one. Thus, China's history has revolved around the constant conflict between a strong state based on meritocracy and equally strong familial lineages promoting their own special interests. Some Muslim societies, most notoriously the Mamluks and the Ottomans, tried to escape from tribalism by a peculiar system of slave-soldiers and slave-officials, who stood outside the kinship system altogether and were therefore “neutral” (and loyal to the sultan and his state foremost). In Western Europe, as already noted, the dissolution of tribalism was an unintended consequence of the Catholic Church's attempt to gain control over land and other property, while simultaneously strengthening its own political power. Among other things, the Church prohibited marriage between close kin and levirate marriage, while recognizing female property rights. For these and related reasons, it became difficult to keep property within the patriclan, eroding its material base. While noble families of course played important roles in European history, they were no longer part of real clans or tribes. Very often, feudal loyalty ties were between non-kin. Kinship ties also weakened among the peasants, who gradually evolved into freeholders based on private property.

Other important changes also took place in Western Europe. Fukuyama argues that the rule of law and democratic accountability evolved already before a strong state, whereas in China the state emerged first and never permitted the two former from evolving in the same decisive way as in Europe. Once again, the Church played an important role by systematizing canon law and the Roman law. The investiture conflict between the Church and the secular rulers also created the preconditions for modernity, since the conflict ended with a compromise, in effect creating a “secular” sphere outside the direct control of the religious authorities. Another important factor was the role played by kings who supported the commoners against the nobility, thereby in the long run (and perhaps despite their own intentions) strengthening the former. Thus, in medieval England, the local courts played a curious dual role as both the king's agents and representatives of the local population. When the strong state emerged during the Early Modern Period, it had to contend with powerful traditions of legality and accountability, and also with free burghers and peasants. After prolonged conflict, this created a balance in society not found in, say, Russia where the rise of the absolutist state was accompanied by the destruction of republican forms and the enserfment of the peasantry.

In contrast to Marx, Fukuyama believes that politics and religion are independent variables which shape the course of history. The centrality of religion comes from Max Weber, although the details differ. Overall, I must say that “The Origins of Political Order” is pretty heterodox, the author constantly attacking received wisdom from Marx, Hayek, Huntington, modernization theory and yes, even Herr Weber! Often, he is right. For instance, Fukuyama points out that despite the lack of real rule of law and democratic accountability, China and similar authoritarian regimes might become very successful anyway, if the regimes feel that something resembling “rule of law” is in their best pragmatic interest. Nothing stops the Communist Party from grabbing private property such as American companies or their profits, but it's not done since it's bad for business. This sounds trivial, but it goes against the received wisdom of both liberals, libertarians and Neo-Cons (and perhaps Fukuyama himself in an earlier incarnation) that everyone will become more modern in the Western sense (perhaps with some prodding from American bombs or Open Society Foundation handouts) and that only such societies can possibly be successful, generate economic growth, etc.

Personally, I consider “The Origins of Political Order” extremely interesting. My main objection is the socio-biological perspective. Contrary to what the author imagines, matriarchal societies (using that term broadly) has existed, and so has peaceful societies, including at least three peaceful high cultures. The author (unfortunately) isn't “wrong” when pointing to patriarchal clans and warlords as important movers and shakers in world history, but as a truly universal theory, his book nevertheless falls short. But then, perhaps there isn't a universal theory in the first place? Contingent evolution, anyone? The fact that there are two species of chimpanzees with diametrically opposed behavior patterns, both equally close to man genetically speaking, should perhaps be enough to problematize any dependence on orthodox socio-biology. That being said, what the author asserts about tribalism is obviously correct: the matriclans were, of course, also “tribal”, and so are peaceful societies. The Indus Valley Civilization didn't see itself as bent on a universal mission to save mankind, after all. The tension between genetic solidarity and reciprocal altruism is a constant in human history. Humans can form non-kinship groups, including groups based on a world religion or political ideology, but they often turn into quasi-clans and get genetically perpetuated in the second and third generation by members marrying and having children. In this perspective, the West does look unique. For how long, remains to be seen. Fukuyama ends his book on a cautionary note by mentioning the deadlock and polarization in American politics (the volume was published in 2011) and points out that when democracy fails, authoritarianism and a very different kind of political order inevitably becomes more appealing…

No comments:

Post a Comment