The Elixir of Effective Democracy

August 2011
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Francis Fukuyama. Origins of Political Order:  from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

The twenty years that have passed since the publication of the international bestseller The End of History and the Last Man could have more than once convinced the author, American philosopher and scholar Francis Fukuyama, that he had been hasty with his conclusions.  The Berlin Wall fell, as did the Soviet empire, but the world triumph of liberal democracy did not occur.  At the beginning of the 1990s the number of electoral democracies sharply increased, but the quality of government did not improve. And already from the middle of the 2000s the number of free countries with competitive elections has gradually decreased. Last year, according to the evaluations of the non-governmental organization Freedom House, the level of democratic freedoms has declined in twenty-five countries in the world, in particular in Ukraine.  In contrast to the times of the Cold War, today’s authoritarian governments still do not have a common ideological denominator, as Communist ideology once was.  However, in many regions of the world, support of Islamic fundamentalism, radical nationalism, or currents of a neo-imperial worldview is increasing.

The first volume of Fukuyama’s new monumental work Origins of Political Order is an analysis of the multiplicity of the historical process. As the author states, the reason for the “continuity of history” was not the unacceptability of the principles of democratic government, but the complexity of actualizing them: “the majority of people would want to live in a society where the government is simultaneously responsible and effective… but not every government is able to be such because of weakness and the corruption of state institutions, and sometimes because of their complete absence.” Fukuyama illustrates his thesis referencing the Ukrainian experience: on the wave of the mass protests in 2004 the democratic powers in Ukraine won, but turned out incapable of governing effectively. This permitted those who were once accused of falsifying the election to return to power. Thus, the existence of democratic freedoms does not yet guarantee effective governance. It is for this reason that new democracies often either lose their legitimacy and return to their authoritarian past, or create a democratic façade and hide their old authoritarian practices behind it.  Authoritarianism in the 21st century creates an illusion of a better possibility of effective governance, which permits perceiving it as a remedy for the main illness of an undeveloped democracy.  Fukuyama attempts to assemble a collection of prescriptions that will ensure the effectiveness of managing the state organism without using authoritarian injections.

How to “get to Denmark”?

Fukuyama calls the problem of creating a regime which would be both democratic and effective as “getting to Denmark”–that is, creating a stable state with strong democratic traditions and a high level of socio-economic development. He distinguishes three categories of political institutions that guarantee the effective functioning of a liberal democracy.

The first of these is a professional bureaucratic apparatus, equipped with a transparent mechanism of cadre selection and deprived of the influence of familial or personal contacts to obtain employment. Following Max Weber, Fukuyama considers the absence of such influences the main attribute of transfer from a clan-tribal method of societal organization to a modern state. 

The second indispensable institution is the primacy of law.  Fukuyama indicates that this has two components:  on the one hand, it guarantees equality for all citizens of the state in the spread and enforcement of laws; on the other hand, it is the recognition by state and government officials of the primacy and inviolability of Fundamental Law, which cannot be changed according to the whims of political conjuncture.

The third institution combines within itself different methods of government control, especially the principles of the division of power, regular elections, and the social actors' mechanisms of influence upon the process of approving government decisions.

Fukuyama notes that the first of the three institutional types emerged outside the borders of Western civilization. The Han Dynasty in China, which ruled in the last two centuries B.C. and the first two A.D., began the tradition of modern bureaucracy, which completely changed patrimonial rule. It is specifically this millennia-old tradition that secures the relative effectiveness of the authoritarian regime in today’s China. At the same time, just as a thousand years ago, today in China there are no institutions of the primacy of law and accountability to authority.  For a long time, the only control method for Chinese rulers has been their self-control in the form of Confucian awareness of moral responsibility before their own people.

The primacy of law and of control institutions was an invention of European civilization. The institutional autonomy of the Catholic Church was the guarantee of the formation of the order of law, to which even political rulers were obligated to submit. According to Fukuyama, the codification of religious rules and their implementation due to the authority and independence of the church accustomed European rulers to the inevitability of recognizing the higher power of the law. 

Finally, institutions of accountability were the result of conflict between state rulers with the wealthy social strata of aristocrats and middle and minor nobility in the Middle Ages.  Fukuyama notes that a different balance of powers between the state and social groups required different roads to state creation in Europe.

Four Models of State Creation

The character of relations between state rule and social groups depended upon their ability to act cooperatively. The solidarity of titled citizens, nobility, and the new stratum of urban artisans created a counterbalance to monarchist rulers. This balance of powers formed itself institutionally into a system of “checks and balances,” which was based upon the equal division of power and of the mechanisms of mutual control. In England and some Scandinavian countries accountable government came about as a result of compromise amongst various equally-powerful parties. However, notes Fukuyama, if the state apparatus is weak, the consolidated actions of social groups can lead to the strengthening of oligarchic rule and, eventually, the fall of state-building project. This specifically was the result of the domination of the privileged social groups in 13th century Hungary. In contrast to England, where a strong state apparatus already existed, the Hungarian aristocrats in parliament began to abuse their dominance for personal gain by limiting the powers of the king. This led to the gradual decline of the state and the loss of independence within three centuries.

Two other state-building approaches described by Fukuyama are based on absolutist models.  The first is weak absolutism, which emerged in states with divided wealthy strata and, at the same time, with a weak central government.  This is, first of all, France during Bourbon rule, and Conquistador Spain. The characteristic feature of weak absolutism became the appearance of “rentier seekers” – groups of wealthy individuals who received from the government privileges in the form of appointments, titles, or rights to use resources that guaranteed them permanent financial income. In return, they guaranteed the monarchs their loyalty, and provided them with material support for financing military campaigns or expeditions. The monarchist-aristocratic coalition developed a poorly effective state, in which law stood in defence of their property, and the bureaucratic apparatus was an instrument of the division of benefits among those closest to the monarchy.

The model of strong absolutism, an example of which became the system of rule in the Russian empire, lay in the complete domination of social groups by the monarch.  This model foresaw the centralization of power in the hands of one person, the arbitrary use of justice, and the use of excessive violence in destroying autonomous wealthy social groups.  The monarch’s unlimited rule also became possible because of the subjugation of the state church and enslavement of the peasantry for the benefit of the landowning and noble social strata. In Russia patrimonial relations within the ruling elite also dominated, contributing to the growth of favoritism and the decisiveness of family ties as a factor in career advancement.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka