Review | The Origins of Political Order – Francis Fukuyama

About the Book 

Virtually all human societies were once organized tribally, yet over time most developed new political institutions which included a central state that could keep the peace and uniform laws that applied to all citizens. Some went on to create governments that were accountable to their constituents. We take these institutions for granted, but they are absent or are unable to perform in many of today’s developing countries—with often disastrous consequences for the rest of the world.

Francis Fukuyama, author of the bestselling The End of History and the Last Man and one of our most important political thinkers, provides a sweeping account of how today’s basic political institutions developed. The first of a major two-volume work, The Origins of Political Order begins with politics among our primate ancestors and follows the story through the emergence of tribal societies, the growth of the first modern state in China, the beginning of the rule of law in India and the Middle East, and the development of political accountability in Europe up until the eve of the French Revolution.

Drawing on a vast body of knowledge—history, evolutionary biology, archaeology, and economics—Fukuyama has produced a brilliant, provocative work that offers fresh insights on the origins of democratic societies and raises essential questions about the nature of politics and its discontents.

585 pages (hardcover) 
Published on April 12, 2011
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This was an Audible purchase and a library loan.

So, you look at the title of this book and I think you’ll either fall into one of two camps: This is really interesting, or “I’m already bored.” 

If you fall into the second camp, hang on, because I’m going to tell you why this book is amazing. 

I’ve never read anything by Francis Fukuyama before, nor had I ever heard of him. However, Fukuyama is apparently pretty well known for his research, and his adept way of presenting complex topics to the average nonfiction reader. I’d read a few reviews of this book, and I got pretty excited. This is just the kind of thing that interests me. How politics began. How that particular wheel started forming, and how it evolved in different societies across the world.

It takes a certain kind of scholar to capably take not only this sprawling timeline and make it digestible to the average reader, but to take concepts such as political evolution and social fluxes in various pockets of the world, and make them interesting. Fukuyama, thankfully, is that person.

Now, it’s not a particularly light topic, but it certainly is an interesting one. The history of humanity is full of kinds, power, evolving societies and so much more. In this book, Fukuyama follows the trail of various political movements, starting with tribal organizations and then moving into more complex forms of social organization and it’s CAPTIVATING. The story of humanity is told in this book. 

Fukuyama is a superb researcher. He really gets into the meaty parts of various political movements, and what I really like is this never really felt like an overview, though that is exactly what it was. This book is 585 pages long. There really isn’t much room for it to be anything more than an overview. However, Fukuyama does an incredible job at knowing exactly how to tell a story without making the reader feel like they are just getting bullet points. Furthermore, I really enjoyed how he showed the evolution of this stuff, and how one thing often impacted others and moved political systems down the road to development and change. 

Perhaps, if you are well-versed in these topics, you’ll find that you know a lot of this information, but for me, I found a whole lot of new details here that I wasn’t previously aware of. It’s fascinating to trace the evolution of human thought, and how societies changed to suit their times. How the rule of law became a thing, and how different social groups dealt with certain issues in different ways. 

“Most people living in rich, stable developed countries have no idea how Denmark itself got to be Denmark—something that is true for many Danes as well. The struggle to create modern political institutions was so long and so painful that people living in industrialized countries now suffer from a historical amnesia regarding how their societies came to that point in the first place.” 

The political order Fukuyama discusses in this book are cantered on what makes strong state institutions. Namely, the rule of law, political accountability, and administrative capabilities. He avoids the trap of making this book feel like he’s just listing off a bunch of political landscapes throughout time by juxtaposing developments in China, India, the Middle East, and Europe, showing how these broad landscapes of humanity figured things out, and developed political systems in their own ways, and sometimes how these systems impacted each other.

Not every system is strong, and he goes into the pitfalls people ran into as well. And perhaps this was what interested me most, not just looking at the political successes throughout time, but the author’s ability to study the weaknesses in a fair, and even-handed way. More, these political weaknesses are not unique to history. A lot of what made one system rise or fall is still very much seen in the wider world around us right now. I always enjoy how history is a mirror for our modern times, but I was really surprised by just how clear that mirror was, as I read this book. 

“Human beings are rule-following animals by nature; they are born to conform to the social norms they see around them, and they entrench those rules with often transcendent meaning and value. When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change.” 

The Origins of Political Order covers politics from the dawn of time to the French Revolution. That’s a whole lot covered in just under 600 pages. The second book in this series, called Political Order and Political Decay covers from industrialization to the globalization of democracy. I haven’t read that one yet, but it’s absolutely on my list. I listened to this book on Audible, and I also had a copy of it from the library and I found that having a book in both mediums was helpful. Some of the topics covered in this book are chunky, and it helped me to be able to read and re-read certain portions as I went. However, the audiobook narration was fantastic. It was really easy for me to just sit back and listen.

Fukuyama wrote an incredible book here, and I think it’s a necessary read for anyone who wants to understand modern politics. Smooth writing, and in-depth research serve to make The Origins of Political Order a fascinating, transformative read. 

5/5 stars


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