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THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER

... man springs from nature, creates a society adequate to his immediate needs out of his reason and will, and then engages in fatal combat with his own creation, to provide the drama of historical change.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1)

INTRODUCTION

THE NECESSITY OF POLITICS

We now turn from Africa to Europe, as well as Asia and America, not forgetting, though, even pre-human times. Further to a contemporary political taxonomy, as in the previous chapter, we now turn to historiography.

The sequencing of political development in Western Europe, as such, was highly unusual, for noted or indeed notorious American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama (2), when compared to other parts of the world. Individualism on a social scale appeared centuries before the rise of other modern states or capitalism; a rule of law existed before political power was concentrated in the hands of centralized governments; and institutions of accountability arose because modern, centralized states were unable to completely defeat or eliminate ancient feudal institutions like representative assemblies.

Once this combination of state, law and accountability appeared, it proved to be a highly powerful and attractive form of government that subsequently spread to all corners of the globe. But we need to remember, Fukuyama emphasizes, how historically contingent this particular process of emergence was. China, for him, had a strong state, but without law and accountability; the Middle East had states and law, but in much of the Arab part it lost the latter tradition. Societies are not trapped by their pasts and freely borrow ideas and institutions from each other. But what they are in the present is also shaped by what they were in the past, that is their past grounding, and there is not one single path that links one to the other.

What Fukuyama is aiming for in The Origins of Political Order is a middle-range theory that avoids the pitfalls of excessive abstraction (the vice of economists) and excessive particularism (the problem of many historians and anthropologists). Fukuyama is thereby seeking to recover some of the lost tradition of 19th-century historical sociology or comparative anthropology. He starts with a Western analysis of "the state of nature".

THE STATE OF NATURE

SOCIABILITY PRECEDES INDIVIDUALISM

In the Western philosophical tradition, discussions of the "state of nature" have been central to the understanding of justice and political order that underlies modern liberal democracy. Plato and Aristotle argued that a just city had to exist in conformity with man's permanent nature and not what was ephemeral and changing. Thomas Hobbes (3), John Locke (4) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (6) developed this distinction and wrote treatises on the question of "the state of nature" (note that they had in mind a much more abstract notion of "nature" than, say, that of the American Indian – see Chapter 15), seeking to ground political rights in it. Describing the state of nature was a means and a metaphor for discussing human (as opposed to non-human) nature, an exercise that would establish a hierarchy of human goods that political society was meant to foster.

The French 18th-century philosopher Rousseau, for Fukuyama, was brilliantly correct in certain of his observations, such as his view that human inequality had its origins in the development of metallurgy, agriculture and, above all, private property. But he, Hobbes and Locke were wrong on one very important point. All three thinkers saw human beings in the state of nature as isolated individuals, for whom society was not natural. According to Hobbes, early human beings relate to one another primarily through fear, envy and conflict. Rousseau's primitive human is even more isolated. For both, human society emerges only with the passage of historical time, and involves compromises of natural liberty. This is not the way things actually happened.

Fukuyama labels this the Hobbesian fallacy: the idea that human beings were primordially individualistic and that they entered into society at a later stage in their development only as a result of a rational calculation that social cooperation was the best way for them to achieve their individual ends. This premise of primordial individualism in fact underpins the understanding of rights contained in the American Declaration of Independence and thus of the democratic political community that springs from it. This premise also underlies contemporary neoclassical economics, which builds its models on the assumption that human beings are rational beings who want to maximize their individual utility or incomes. But it is in fact individualism and not sociability that developed over the course of history. That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behaviour is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts. Aristotle was more correct than those early modern liberal theorists when he said human beings were political – hence our notion of "polity" – by nature.

Everything that modern biology and anthropology tell us about the state of nature suggests the opposite: there never was a period in human evolution, for Fukuyama, when human beings existed as isolated individuals; the primate precursors of the human species had already developed extensive social, indeed political, skills; and the human brain is hardwired with faculties that facilitate many forms of social cooperation. Human beings do not enter into society, according to Fukuyama, and political life as a result of conscious, rational decision. Communal life comes to them naturally, though the specific ways they cooperate are shaped by the environment, ideas and culture.

When norms are invested with intrinsic meaning, they become objects of what the German 19th-century philosopher Hegel called "the struggle for recognition". The desire for such communal recognition is fundamentally different from the desire for material resources that underlies economic behaviour. A great deal of contemporary politics revolves around demands for recognition, particularly on the part of groups that have historical reason for believing their worth has not been adequately recognized: racial minorities, women, gays, indigenous peoples and the like.

As political systems develop, for Fukuyama moreover, recognition is transferred from individuals to institutions – that is to rules or patterns of behaviour that persist over time, like the British monarchy or the American Constitution. But in either case, political order is based on legitimacy and the authority that arises from legitimate domination. Legitimacy means that the people who make up the society recognize the fundamental justice of the system as a whole and are willing to abide by its rules.

FROM BAND TO TRIBE

Many believe, Fukuyama goes on to say, that the primordial form of human social organization was tribal. Tribal organization did not arise, however, as one of us, Louis Herman, has pointed out, until the emergence of settled societies and the development of agriculture some nine thousand years ago. Rousseau pointed out that the origin of political inequality lay in the development of agriculture. Since band-level societies are pre-agricultural, there is no private property in any modern sense. Within such a group there is nothing resembling modern economic exchange, or indeed modern individualism. There was no state to tyrannize over people at this stage of political development. Your social world was limited to the circles of relatives around you, and they determined just about everything in your life. Leadership was vested in individuals based on qualities of strength, intelligence and trustworthiness. In this type of society, a "direct democracy" so to speak, leaders emerged based on group consensus; they had no right to their office and could hand it down to their children. This, for the Samatars, was the era of commonwealth, and for Chancellor Williams, as we shall see in the next chapter, the original period that constituted Africa.

The transition from band-level societies to tribal societies was made possible by the development of agriculture. Agriculture was invented in widely separated parts of the world, including Mesopotamia, China, Oceania and Mesoamerica 9,000-10,000 years ago, often in fertile alluvial river basins. Human beings were now in contact with each other on a much broader scale, and this required a very different from of social organization. In such a "segmentary" society, each “segment" is a self-sufficient unit, able to feed, clothe and defend itself, and thus characterized by what the French sociologist Durkheim (6) called “mechanical solidarity". The segments can come together for common purposes, like self-defence, but are otherwise not dependent on one another for survival; no one can be a member of more than one segment at the same level. In tribal societies, these units are based on a principle of common descent. The most basic unit is a lineage, a group of individuals who trace their descent to a common ancestor who may have lived generations ago.

 
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