In my last blog I declared that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) was arguably the most controversial political theory book to shake the two interconnected worlds of academia and mainstream political discourse in the last 50 years. Another candidate for this particular mantle would be Samuel Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), which is ironic since Fukuyama’s latest book is dedicated to Huntingdon, his former mentor at Harvard.
Huntingdon was one of the most respectfully brazen critics of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis. Like many of his peers, he sought to immediately disassociate political development from an evolutionary framework where liberal democracy would be its highest stage of attainment. Instead he painted a picture of a future world where international relations would revolve around a core of seven civilisation blocs all vying for power in the modern world. These civilisations were identified as the Western world, Russia’s Eastern Orthodox sphere, the Islamic World, the Sinic East, Hindu India, Latin America and, unconvincingly, Japan. Instead of ‘what do you believe in?’ the twentieth century’s obsession with ideology would lose its primacy as a means of negotiating a modern existence and would be replaced with an increasing emphasis on ‘who are you and where do you come from?’ Consequently, Huntingdon predicted that the ideological dominance of Western political philosophy in the post- communist age could potentially create a counter reaction from the world’s other ancient civilisations, especially in the Islamic world, where there would be much discomfort that a recently victorious foreign political order might be imported and thereby threaten indigenous institutions and customs. In this latter assumption Huntingdon appears to have been prophetic, but hardly controversial; for China, Japan and the Islamic world have experienced this anxiety since the emergence of western civilisation as the dominant force in world affairs beginning in the eighteenth century.
Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-Human Times to the French Revolution engages directly with Huntingdon’s 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, but is also concerned with some of the questions raised in the latter’s 1996 opus. Two themes that stand out for me in reading Fukuyama’s new work centre on why China developed the first modern state, but no accountability or rule of law; and why England was the first nation to impose institutional checks on the executive without weakening the central government or preying on the peasantry, thus creating the foundations for modern democracy. For reasons of coherence I will analyse Fukuyama’s thoughts on China in this blog and will look at the second question in a later article.
Huntingdon famously asserted that ‘God and Caesar, church and state, spiritual authority and temporal authority, have been a prevailing dualism in Western culture.’ However, he contrasted this with other civilisations to conclude that ‘In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner.’ Fukuyama takes this pithy observation as a central theme of his book, but begins with a modern appraisal of the advances made in biology to help us establish what it is that motivates human beings to co-operate and settle into reciprocal communities.
The Anglo-Saxon philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, such an influence on the founding fathers of the United States of America, is the first casualty of modern science. A scientific consensus has emerged in the last few decades concluding that humans do not co-operate out of fear of violent death and threat to property (the Hobbesian utility calculation based on rational choice), but are a naturally co-operative species. Man was never simply a wandering individual permanently threatened by the brutish instinct of his fellow man and forced into making compromises whereby he would give up his right to untrammelled freedom and subordinate himself to others in exchange for security and property rights. Instead humans are shown to be peculiarly attached to creating and observing rules; are naturally inclined to form reciprocal relationships with their blood relatives and those with a shared common ancestor; and are uniquely given to abstract thought to explain the surrounding world through the paradigm of religion. Indeed, Fukuyama shows that the human desire for private property has not always been based on economic motives, but frequently as a means of securing land for ancestral worship.
However, his main theory is that humans by default are prone to live together through loyalty to blood ties and tribe, and organise the functioning of their communities with an emphasis on patrimony rather than impersonal expertise, especially so since humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. The creation of a centralised Chinese state in 221BC brought about by the expansion of the Qin Kingdom was a landmark in human history, for it was the first time that a political order had been successfully created in which the regional autonomy of aristocratic warlords was completely extinguished by the central Monarch. The nobility of conquered kingdoms were killed off or forcibly relocated, state administration of the new empire was selected by merit rather than virtue of blood, weights and measures were harmonised, and a standing peasant army was conscripted and maintained by a central bureaucracy. But it is worth noting that the new Chinese focus was on creating an efficient administrative regime to make it easy for the rulers to make law that suited only them and not those who were governed by it. So why did the rule of law not develop in China after such a momentous human development? Fukuyama’s answer is clear: a revolving dispute between the patrimonial, kinship-based social harmony of Confucianism and the aggressive centralising, lust for power among Emperors, known as the politics of Legalism.
The all-conquering Qin Kingdom led by Ying Zheng (alternatively known as Qin Shi Gaungdi, 259 – 210 BC) was so revolutionary in its approach to consolidating power that it managed to inspire the hatred of millions and undermined the hold of Confucianism on Sinic customs and culture. Its successor, the Earlier Han dynasty established in 202BC by Han Gaozu, sought to continue the centralising project of Qin, but was also wise enough to recognise that the country would have to find a place for the embittered nobility if it was to survive future revolts. Fukuyama’s sweeping take on three millennia of Chinese history may be a bit simplistic at this point, but he concludes that Gaozu’s decision to restore a modicum of feudalism – that is decentralised, semi-autonomous government by powerful Dukes who have ownership rights over their local peasant subjects – created a future pattern of alternating governments devoted to either continual centralisation or a relaxation of aristocratic persecution. Crucially any reversion back to a patrimonial political order (e.g. tribalism) was sought by powerful families seizing control of the central administration, so that the central state always managed to reconstitute itself after a violent interregnum. But what influence did Confucianism have on the Chinese character to make it so distinctive?
Confucius’ teachings promote ancestor worship, the idea of a static social order and the emphasis of trusting the rulers of the day if they have the Mandate of Heaven on their side. A critic might say that it is almost like reverse libertarianism, where the people are the indifferent leviathan inclined to keep out of the everyday affairs of the state in the interests of efficiency; and many political theorists seem to agree that this explains why the grip of the Communist party will be hard to break (although, in our age of globalisation and easily comparable polities perhaps not impossible).
The enviable tradition (stretching back 22 centuries) of selecting state administrators based on merit and the ability to pass intellectually demanding examinations (with some exceptions of corruption and reversion back to selection by blood and birth in between) is what modern commentators have identified as the Sinic mentality. A long held view that the state could be trusted because it had the best brains working for the administration of the country does not seem to have entered the realm of European thought at any stage as a model of good governance prior to the twentieth century, yet it has persisted in China for longer than two thousand years. Likewise, no European country ever thought to have an impersonal, merit-based system for recruiting its administrators, but sought instead to rely on aristocrats. The Russian aristocracy were forcibly drafted into state service under Peter the Great (1672-1725), state offices were sold to the nobility and aspiring gentry in seventeenth and eighteenth century France, and upward mobility in England was restricted to a small pool of aristocrats and ‘new-moneyed’ industrialist families throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century despite the advances made in rolling out compulsory secondary education in 1870.
Any thought of creating institutions to check the power of Monarchy were anathema during the heyday of Chinese Empire and an Emperor could only be guided by moral principles rather than subjected to any checks and balances by rival institutions. The modern Chinese Communist Party is assumed to be a strange continuation of this old mentality but in a different guise. However, Fukuyama also points out that Legalism, first pursued with ruthless efficiency by the Qin Dynasty in the third century BC, sought to dismantle the Confucianist obsession with loyalty to the family and restoration of feudalism by destroying all vestiges of aristocratic power groups capable of rising against the state, especially in its determination to make state administrators loyal to the state rather than to their family bloodlines. It was ultimately this last policy that led to the emergence of the state bureaucracy’s impersonal selection based on merit, completing a bizarre synergy between Confucianist and Legalist schools of thought, both of which found common ground for promoting the famous entry examinations, but for entirely different reasons of self-interest. The Confucianists were able to have their classics (written by Confucius’ disciples) form the basis of state education and the legalists were able to pursue their strategy of making administrators loyal to the state rather than to their families.
Ultimately, the aristocracy remained weak and subject to periodic extermination by the reigning Emperor when perceived to be too powerful, yet Confucianism, itself not a religion but a philosophy, was unable to construct an effective powerbase in their absence. Consequently the Chinese state has never been effectively constrained in the last 22 centuries by any rival power groups capable of holding it to account and, according to Martin Jacques in his recent book When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (2008), is one of the reasons why there is no history of a strong civic society in the country. It is a testimony to the efficacy of Confucianist thought that its belief in order and hierarchy and promotion of sagacity over martial masculinity resulted in long periods of stable government. The 16th century Italian missionary Allessandro Valignano declared it the best governed country in the world and was troubled to think that these law-abiding, humble people might be destined for Hell only because of geography and their misfortune of never having heard the Gospels.
The foundations of the rule of law in the European Middle Ages are famously traced to Pope Gregory VII’s meeting with the King of the Romans, the German Henry IV, at the Italian fortress of Canossa in 1077. Here the Caesar waited for three days, barefoot in the snow, to be absolved by the Pope and readmitted into the Catholic Church after being excommunicated for daring to divide and rule the church and seeking to place his own candidates in the bishopric. The fact that the German King came to do his penitence before a leader with no standing army should not be understated, even if Gregory could claim to be responsible for something far more powerful – the very souls of all people living under the guidance of Christendom. The historian Tom Holland summarises the impact of Canossa brilliantly in his book Millenium (2008): ‘The whole of Christendom, from its summit to its meanest village, was to be divided into two. One realm for the spiritual, one for the secular… It required a full-out assault upon presumptions that were ultimately millennia old.’ No such compromise was ever made by a Chinese Emperor precisely because he did not have an equivalent autonomous sovereign to restrain him, nor did he allow any institutions to operate autonomously and hold him to account. The Islamic world was closer to the European experience and the rule of law was imposed on Ottoman Sultans by a council of Ulama (Islamic theocratic experts), clearly defining what an earthly ruler could and could not do to Allah’s subjects in the Dar-al-Islam (House of Islam).
Throughout this article I have not mentioned the impact of war on the development of the Chinese state, but it cannot go unmentioned. Of course this is of the utmost importance to any understanding of how the world’s first centralised state (admittedly using modern criteria to read back into history) came into being, and the period of the Warring States, c.475-221BC undoubtedly created excess devastation and life threatening conditions to produce great thinkers such as Sun Tzu. Confucius lived during this chaotic period and the lawlessness and phenomenal casualty figures clearly had an impact on his fondness for harking back to a more peaceful feudal political order. Continuous internecine warfare and the need to conscript manpower to replace military losses led to better institutional organisation in the armies of the myriad Chinese Kings and usurpers, and this deserves to be analysed in more depth in another article.
Ironically, Francis Fukuyama’s examination of China’s ‘Special Path’ is a reminder that each civilisation has its own unique characteristics that cannot be easily discarded. Indeed, his survey of contemporary biology shows that humans are fiercely conservative and need a lot of convincing before they can even think of withdrawing their emotional investment in traditional political institutions. It would be a blow to Chinese democrats everywhere if their nation’s unique history was used against them as a justification for authoritarianism. Fukuyama does not explicitly say it, but the rise of China could easily lead to a more strident form of Chinese nationalism in which we in the West might be one day receiving lectures about the inefficiency of democracy and the superiority of authoritarian central government.