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53-July-Aug-2011
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From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

missing imageFrancis Fukuyama, a former neoconservative involved with the Reagan administration, has written a number of works on political science but is best known for The End of History and the Last Man (1992), an expansion on an earlier column in The National Interest which argues that Western liberal democracy is the apex of human sociocultural evolution.

The Topic: In this grand historical survey, Fukuyama charts the evolution of the state--from the tribes of the Pleistocene epoch to the collapse of the monarchy in 18th-century France. States develop differently in different regions because political order is essentially a function of geography, climate, language, religion, and numerous other characteristics, and the ways in which societies regulate themselves can create patterns that last for centuries. The ideal state, in which freedom and prosperity are maximized, consists of three components in perfect balance: the creation of the state, the rule of law, and the state's accountability to its citizens. Previous societies may have possessed one or two of these elements, he argues, but none would acquire all three until 1700s Great Britain launched a new era in government.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 608 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780374227340

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In creating a readable history of political development, he has synthesized vast quantities of data that illustrate a marvelous intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, and ability to blend material. If there is anything here to criticize, it is that details are overlooked in favor of categorical judgments about complex periods. But such a flaw is inherent to these sorts of grand historical works, and it is a small price to pay for encountering what is genuinely a masterpiece." Jordan Michael Smith

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Whether discussing the growth of modern bureaucracy during China's Zhou Dynasty, or the role of military slavery in the construction of the state in the Ottoman Empire, or the implications of religious intrigue on India's dynasties, Fukuyama remains intellectually nimble, yet generally accessible, throughout. ... Fukuyama's scope is fascinating; he writes persuasively and well." Earl Pike

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The Origins of Political Order is a rigorous attempt to create a synoptic view of human history by means of a synthesis of research in many disciplines. Even those who doubt that such an enterprise can succeed or who take issue with particular details or conclusions can be impressed by Fukuyama's audacity and stimulated by his arguments. Ambitious, erudite and eloquent, this book is undeniably a major achievement by one of the leading public intellectuals of our time." Michael Lind

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The Origins of Political Order [is] a sweeping survey that tries to explain why human beings act as they do in the political sphere. Magisterial in its learning and admirably immodest in its ambition, the book traces the history of political organization and principle from ‘prehuman times' up to the period of the French Revolution." David Gress

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Origins of Political Order tries to make sense of the complexity that has cluttered the last two decades. It is a bold book, probably too bold for the specialists who take refuge in tiny topics and fear big ideas. But Fukuyama deserves congratulation for thinking big and not worrying about making mistakes." Gerard DeGroot

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The Origins of Political Order may enlighten us to the general importance of history, but it doesn't provide us with a conclusive framework for understanding current global upheavals. ... For a book with such grand aspirations, this is a comparatively unsatisfying reward." Eric Oliver

Critical Summary

This bold and large-scale treatise generally impressed the critics with its breadth. Fukuyama draws from a wide range of fields--evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, world history, and political philosophy--and assembles a striking assortment of facts and arguments. However, he deliberately avoids proposing a unifying theory, claiming that "there are many potential paths to modernization." This line of reasoning and the lack of a comprehensive chronology of political development throughout human civilization were disappointments for the San Francisco Chronicle, which otherwise praised Fukuyama's engaging prose, astute observations, and extensive knowledge. Accessible and ambitious, Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order provides an illuminating tool for understanding how contemporary political unrest has its roots in the (sometimes distant) past.