The long, winding road to Denmark

Stanly Johny | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on February 08, 2015

Book: Political Order and Political Decay: From Industrial Revolution and to the Globalisation of democracy. Author: Francis Fukuyama; Publisher: Profile Books. Price: ₹699

Francis Fukuyama

Despite the odds, the prospects for democracy globally remain good, writes Fukuyama

In 1989, against the backdrop of the crisis in the communist world, an essay — ‘The End of History’— published in The National Interest magazine announced the triumph of Western liberal democracy over other forms of government. Its author, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, developed his arguments further after the collapse of the Soviet Union and published the book, The End of History and the Last Man in 1992. In this book, he argued that liberal democracy is the only form of government compatible with socio-economic modernity. Markets and democracy were part-and-parcel of his single triumphant formula.

But the post-Soviet world has never been as rosy as many had predicted. Western liberalism did neither triumph over other forms of government, nor did market reforms trigger democratic changes in non-western societies. China is an example. The country has seen stunning economic growth after its economy was opened up in the 1980s, but the Communist Party have retained power monopoly all these years. Now take Russia. It elects leaders through democratic elections, but the State power is still centralised and, at times, authoritarian. Africa remains weak both economically and politically.

Why did market reforms fail to spearhead democracy? Why do so many problems still persist in the modern world, even after geopolitical competition between big powers ended? Why some states are efficient, developed and democratic, while some others failed miserably? Is liberal democracy free of challenges?

Impersonal State

Fukuyama addresses these questions in his latest work, Political Order and Political Decay. This is the second volume of Fukuyama’s ambitious study of government. The first, The Origins of Political Order, started with prehistory and ended with the French Revolution. The latest volume takes the story up to the present.

Fukuyama admits that history has proved to be more complicated than he imagined and a major reason lies in the quality of political institutions. He’s no longer talking about the end of history. Instead, he’s suggesting “getting to Denmark”, an imagined society “that’s prosperous, democratic, secure and well-governed, and experiences low levels of corruption”.

The volumes, Fukuyama says, is an attempt to update the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s classic Political Order in Changing Societies, (1968). Like Huntington, Fukuyama too believes in lack of alternatives to the concept of State in maintaining order in and providing public goods for society. “For better or worse, there’s no alternative to a modern, impersonal State as guarantor of order and security, and as a source of necessary public goods.” The question is how to make this State an effective, functional and responsive one.

For Fukuyama, a successful liberal democratic political order should have three vital institutions in some kind of balance — a strong State, rule of law and procedural accountability. But modern history tells us that this balance is missing in most countries, and the reason could be traced back to colonial or pre-colonial times. For example, take the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the least-developed regions in the world.

Fukuyama argues that the countries in the region never developed strong indigenous institutions prior to colonisation, nor the colonialists invested enough in creating institutions.

Britain, for instance, adopted a policy of “indirect rule”, which justified minimal investment as African colonies were paying barely for the cost of their own administration. “The least developed parts of the world today are those that lacked either strong indigenous State institutions or transplanted settler-based ones,” he writes.

Democracy and future

So how should one society get to Denmark? Fukuyama shies away from suggesting solutions, as he writes the book is about history, not about the future.

But one can reach conclusions based on his analysis of history. He says each society must adapt institutions “to its own conditions and build on indigenous traditions”. That will take time and enormous patience. But as the recent history of Iraq and Libya tells us, exporting institutions would not work. Fukuyama, in fact, warns, “we should… be wary of foreigners bearing gifts of institutions.”

He also questions those who say Islam isn’t compatible with democracy, and he has not lost hope completely about the ‘Arab Spring’. The chaos in the Arab world may lead to better times. He describes the chaos Europe went through in 18th century when modern political institutions took shape. Islam, he insists, is not an enemy of democracy.

Islamic parties have best captured the demand for political voice and dignity. He cites the Tunisian example, where the Arab Spring protests started in late 2010.

In the North African country, moderate Islamic parties and secular political groups have agreed on a compromise constitution that does not let Sharia trump the rule of law, and the country seems to have withstood the turmoil spreading in the rest of the Arab world. Democracy is where political history is headed. “The prospects for democracy globally remain good.”

The ‘vetocracy’

But liberal democracy is not free of challenges. The difference from the Cold War days is that most of these challenges are coming from within, not from an outside enemy. Interestingly, Fukuyama takes the example of the US, “the world’s oldest democracy” for a detailed study. He says the American economy remains a source of miraculous innovation, but the US government “is hardly a source of inspiration.” The political institutions that allowed the US to become a successful modern democracy are now beginning to decay. The division of powers in America has always created a potential for gridlock. This, along with a polarised polity, with parties being divided along ideological lines, and powerful groups who can exercise veto over policies they dislike, has led America into a “vetocracy”, he writes.

And the crisis in capitalism has a role to play in this decay. A declining middle class, increasing income inequality, overweening special interests, and partisan gridlock have resulted, he argues, in “a crisis of representation,” in America. This is a warning for many other liberal democracies as they grapple with institutional rigidity while economic crises are upsetting their balances.

The book stands out not only for the author’s intellect and honesty, but also for the enchantingly beautiful prose in which his ideas are presented. Of course, it could have been tighter. The 658 pages are unevenly distributed.The first two parts, on the state and foreign institutions, are too lengthy and the second two, on democracy and political decay, too short.

But these shortcomings can be overlooked as the ideas the book deals with are much greater and demands the world’s attention. Perhaps, it’s time to start thinking about “getting to Denmark” and do away with the “institutional rigidity” of modern democracies.


Francis Fukuyama is the author of The End of History, The Great Disruption, Our Posthuman Future, State Building, After the Neocons, and The Origins of Political Order, among others. He is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford.

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Published on February 08, 2015
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