More reflections on 2017: The end of history revisited

More reflections on 2017: The end of history revisited

In 2017 Francis Fukuyama published two podcasts providing a retrospective account of his essay, “The End of History” (1989) which was later published in more extended form as the book The End of History and The Last Man, in 1992, 25 years ago.

I had bought Fukuyama’s book, back in the early 1990s, when I was a lowly junior bureaucrat, still finding my way in the world, but with vaulting intellectual ambitions, fostered by my years as a graduate student. I was drawn to Fukuyama, as the orthodoxies of radical academic thought were crumbling, and although I do not recall his book in much specific detail, I do associate it with other cultural encounters of that time that liberated me from radical, Foucauldian thinking traps and led me to a more open encounter, a long odyssey through the world of governing. Around the same time I read Simon Schama’s Citizens, with its devastating account of the myth of the French Revolution, and watched  Andrzey Wajda’s films The Possessed and Danton. And, of course, around me happened the world historical events of the collapse of communism in Europe and Russia, and the crushing of dissent in China, symbolised by Tiananmen Square. Closer to home, and every day in the office, I observed the disappointments of social democracy, and the radical reworking of the government I laboured for through a strange mix of a charismatic strong leader and public choice theory inspired liberal contractarianism.

The years passed. Children came, my perspective on the world changed. The confidence of my university years was delivered  increasing blows. My career stalled since I chose to look after my children and my writing, and stubbornly refused to affix myself to any single powerful network. Opportunities passed me by; and I became more of an outsider in the institutions in which I worked.  But I was an attentive, well-read observer, who, unlike so many of the successful careerists who passed me by, interpreted the events around me with the insights of Clio. And what I observed was a slow decay in political institutions.

I became convinced that:

“the quality of government and democracy has deteriorated, reflecting the wearing out of a model for governing born in the 1980s. This deterioration underlies poor performance of governments of both sides of politics in recent years.”

I wrote this in a secret plea for something better; forging my ideas from a book by the Norwegian sociologist and author on democracy, Stein Ringen. It made me feel like Machiavelli (who Ringen himself invoked in writing A Nation of Devils) submitting his manuscripts to the powerful patrons who would go on to ignore his pleas for Virtù. But like Machiavelli I believed that:

“For, to judge aright, one should esteem men because they are generous, not because they have the power to be generous; and, in like manner, should admire those who know how to govern a kingdom, not those who, without knowing how, actually govern one.” Machiavelli, from “Dedication” to The Discourses.

So my mind was prepared to listen again to Francis Fukuyama when he published the second volume of his global history of political institutions, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy.

With this book, Fukuyama reworked the account he gave of the end of history back in 1989/1992. Crucially, he focussed on the formation of an effective state, a system of political order, and strong political institutions. The economic system pursued by a country did not determine its fate. Mere beliefs in freedom and democracy were not enough. A form of order had to be established. Rule had to be conducted with authority.  And this authority had to impose a form of political order against powerful human social tendencies – reciprocal altruism and kinship affiliation or more generally homophily. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Birds of a feather flock together.

The state was not a cancerous growth on society, but a difficult and profound achievement of culture, curbing inherited tendencies of the human animal. This focus on the importance of the state and its way of governing, was in contrast to fashionable anti-statist ideas that suffuse much thinking on both the left and the right. Fukuyama insisted that the state was not a beast to be contained, but a garden to be nurtured. Most of all, it was crucial for political order, and for democratic political order, that the state should be effective. He proposed a triad of political order – accountability, the rule of law, and executive capability.

It was the decline of executive capability that I observed around me, and that conditioned my mind to support Fukuyama’s hypothesis. I have continued to see it throughout this year, both in the outer world of reported politics across the world, and in my observed world of insider politics in the minor provincial bureaucracy in which I serve. Good governments continue to lose their way, as Julia Gillard observed of her own. Too often this weakness is seen as a problem of trust, with executive governments betrayed by a fickle public, incited to rapid mood changes by a feckless media. I see it as a problem of authority, of political order, and the failure of political leaders and bureaucratic elites to practise virtù, which I rename the ordinary virtues of governing well.

Fukuyama continues as a mordant critic of Donald Trump who represents a populist resurgence of a form of accountability, but without the liberal spirit of the rule of law, and completely lacking in effective executive capability. In an interview he says of Trump:

You know, he gets the democracy point. He loves going to these rallies where people adulate him. He doesn’t get the liberal part so well, which is that you’ve got this set of rules that constrain power and force you to play by the rules.

INSKEEP: What are the causes of an election of someone who concerns you so much like that?

FUKUYAMA: Well, I think there’s two basic background conditions. So the first is this globalization reaction that I’d mentioned earlier that, you know, you have a middle class in the United States or working class that has really not done well in the last 30, 40 years. And I actually think it’s quite legitimate for them to blame the elites who promised that, you know, as a result of globalization, everybody would be better off. But in fact, they were the losers.

The other thing, I think, has to do with our political system. Quite honestly, you know, well before Donald Trump began saying this, it wasn’t working well. You know, Congress couldn’t pass budgets, it couldn’t – you know, it was very deadlocked. Plus – which I think there’s a general feeling that interest groups, people with a lot of wealth and power, have a disproportionate say in the way that our democracy works. And so all of these put together, the institutional shortcomings and the socio-economic impacts of globalization, I think, prepared the ground for a rise of a populist.

And I’m actually surprised it took this long to get to this point because ever since the financial crisis in 2008, I think we’ve been ripe for something like this.

Trump is also typical of one of the diseases of modern political institutions that Fukuyama diagnoses in Political Order and Political Decay – repatrimonialisation. This describes the recruitment of friends and family to offices of the state, and the reorientation of the state to the personal service to the governing leader or, in less corrupt forms, the governing party.

I have seen repatrimonialisation up close in my own bureaucracy. Patronage, not merit, now rules the court. It has a devastating effect on the conduct of elites and the executive capability that is essential to both political order and effective democracy. I wonder, as the year closes, if it is possible to launch an effective resistance to this trend. It has happened in the past, and Fukuyama’s account of the emergence of law-based and merit-based bureaucracies in Germany, United Kingdom and the United States (all quite different histories) should be essential reading for any public official. The world I see around me day to day is that of the patrimonial system: “elites build power through the management of patronage chains by which clients follow patrons in pursuit of individual rewards. All of this is reinforced by ritual, religion and ideas legitimising a particular form of elite rule” (Political Order and Political Decay).

We have turned our back on the culture and institutions that reformed the “patronage-ridden bureaucracies” of the nineteenth-century. The Chief Castellan of my bureaucracy, who espouses a view of public trust that confuses public order with a circle of trust  between patrons and clients, would do well to read Fukuyama and his account of the pathway different states took from patrimonialism towards modern government.

Can we turn again, and begin to rebuild new foundations for a better form of political order? Fukuyama’s analysis in Political Order and Political Decay identifies two principal spurs to the removal of patronage-politics from the institutions of the state.

The first spur was military competition, which prompted the forging of the Prussian bureaucratic state, China’s civil examination system, and not least the often misunderstood Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of mid-nineteenth century Britain. The last was, in part, a response to catastrophic elite failure in the Crimean War. Perhaps failure in war may ultimately be a spur to reform of American political institutions, but I can only hope that will not be so in my own minor province, far from the battlefronts of the world.

The second spur may offer more promise to my society. It was “a process of peaceful political reform, based on the formation of a coalition of social groups interested in having an efficient, uncorrupt government” (Political Order and Political Decay). This process was supported by economic development, growth of education, and specialisation of social roles, leading to the formation of many new social actors who “have no strong stake in the existing patrimonial system.” This was the critical process in the United States and Britain, where “economic modernization drove social mobilization, which in turn created the conditions for the elimination of patronage and clientilism” (Political Order and Political Decay).

But it was never a perfect victory, and never a uniform pathway. Different institutional arrangements, social patterns, and congeries of interests, with more or less interest in retaining forms of patronage and clientilism, put down deep roots in the new political order. Some aspects of high-minded culture strengthened the new meritocracy; but now culture remains vital for ever. Over the last thirty years we have witnessed more economic and social changes that have watered these old deep roots of patronage and clientilism, and the weakening of a culture of living in truth. And they have fought the human social tendencies Fukuyama identified at the outset of Political Order and Political Decay.

“The modern impersonal state forces us to act in ways that are deeply in conflict with our own natures and is therefore constantly at risk of erosion and backsliding. Elites in any society will seek to use their superior access to the political system to further entrench themselves, their families, and their friends unless explicitly prevented from doing so by other organized forces in the political system.” Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay

Against these forces appeals to merit and an increasingly jejune ideal of democracy are weak reeds. I wish I could find a way to form a social coalition for a better way to govern. But that is not my skill. The best I can do is give voice to my thoughts, and hope that some others may heed the call and have the know-how to put it into action.

It reminds me of the pessimistic, but not defeated, conclusion of another of the books I studied closely this year, John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell. He hoped the great universities might rise to the challenges to apprehend the scale and connectedness of the vast challenges we face.” I have lost much faith in those institutions, as I have in the bureaucracies of the world; but perhaps some reinvented university might take on the responsibility Dunn assigns to them, since if no-one does we face a terrible future.

“Could human beings do any better in the face of the chaos they have made together? The answer to that can only be yes. Will they do any better, and, above all, will they do better enough? Quite probably not. But that is not a conclusion that it makes any practical sense to anticipate. A species facing self-extermination, even at a relatively sedate pace, has reasons for altering its behaviour, But it will still be the species that chose to acts in the ways that created that risk. How far can human beings learn? In the end they will find out.” John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell.

It is as if, 25 years on, we are remembering Nietzsche’s Last Man, from the title of Fukuyama’s book on the end of history. Still, I hear in Dunn’s closing notes, the ominous opening of Das Rheingold, and:

Dr Cogito hears Das Rheingolds opening note,

And so the story goes:

We still dig from deep water’s mud:

The ring, the ring, the ring.

(from my poem The State of Politics)

And Fukuyama, a more dispassionate thinker than I, a less portentous philosopher than Dunn, still hears a bell tolling for all our democracies in the state of politics in 2017:

Well, as a, you know, as a citizen, I feel that it’s a little bit too exciting. Every day, you wake up and you really read something you thought was not possible in terms of American politics. As a dispassionate social scientist, I actually think that it’s quite interesting, you know, because we have these theories about institutions and how they’re supposed to work. And it’s going to be a test. I think we’re all in for an interesting test of the stability of our democratic institutions, how legitimate they are, whether they can actually self-correct.

We political scientists tend to believe this. But, you know, you have to meet reality.

(Interview with Francis Fukuyama, “On why liberal democracy is in trouble”)

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Political order and political decay in Australia

If there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, either aspiring or well established, it has been centred in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality basic public services like education, health and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.” Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay p 524

Governments are failing in Australia, and yet there is next to no insightful commentary on the underlying reasons why. There is much noise and puff about failings of the political class, and tiresome predictable conferences on reigniting “reform.” There is an endless circle of meaningless commentary by self-regarding journalists and panellists, who perform no useful function other than their own self-promotion.

Occasionally, there is discussion of trust, of disengagement from “mainstream” politics and the media, and of a need to establish new processes and institutions to renew democracy. Much of this material comes from former political advisers, such as Nicholas Reece and Mark Triffit, at the Melbourne School of Government. Their proposals include ideas such as participatory budgeting or new forms of media engagement. Some of this discussion receives sponsorship from wealthy patrons like the Belgiorno-Nettis family and their foundation that sponsors forms of citizen deliberation.

These ideas are worthwhile innovations, but in the end are minor changes in process, and will always be of marginal concern. They can provide for entertaining workshops now and again for people with boundless enthusiasm and restricted responsibility. But they do not offer a way to reshape the ordinary, enduring duties of governing. They do not consider the deeper institutional and cultural foundations of the problems they discern. Small changes in process will not address profound failures in political order. To rectify the course of democracy it is important to understand the roots of the decay that has taken hold in the contemporary political order.

This is the task performed by Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay. As Fukuyama indicates in the quotation above, the loss of trust and discontent with democracy is at its foundation a failure of performance: modern democratic governments are failing as political orders because they do not provide the substance of what people want. They pursue “reforms” to pander to media and elite audiences, but do not deliver the substance of what people want from their governments: real improvements in their linked lives. As Stein Ringen comments in A Nation of Devils, the best explanation for a loss of trust in governments is that governments have not acted in trustworthy ways. It is not a newly fickle public, but a long, slow decay in governing that is at the heart of our democratic disorders. It is not a failure of “reform” vision that is the problem of Australian political culture, as argued most insistently by Paul Kelly, but a betrayal of democratic substance by political elites whose careers are grounded in a new patrimonial political order.

For Fukuyama, a successful political order stands evenly on three legs: accountability, rule of law and state capability. But in contemporary democracy, this balanced order is not achieved. Most of the discussion of democratic renewal focuses on process changes in accountability, and indeed attempts to sabotage state capability, by investing new authority and resources in non-state actors, such as citizens groups, charities, social businesses, and social entrepreneurs, or democratic monitors in the form of public or private “oversight” organisations. The appeal to philanthropists and “independent” persons is evident, but these changes have minimal impact on the prime institution bonding political elites to the ordinary citizen, parliament and other forms of democratic representative assembly. Similarly, the rule of law becomes a process driven diversion – “the worship of procedure over substance is a critical source of political decay in contemporary liberal democracies” – or a game of lawyers prosecuting political elites too little and too late. The grossest example of a deformed institution of the rule of law in Australia is the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption that despite high profile indictments for minor misdemeanours has systematically failed to prevent gross, pervasive and destructive corruption in that state.

While rule of law and accountability are common themes in discussion of the ingredients of successful democracy, state capability is a more important contribution from Fukuyama. States must be effective if they are to be authoritative. If they are not authoritative, they cannot impose the democratic order on reluctant others. Democracies must project authority and command obedience – they are not a vaudeville show for gadflies and media critics. And capable states have emerged as often from authoritarian origins, as from cultures of dissidence and citizen participation. The Westminster system was the product of a tightly organised aristocratic elite opening itself to new talent from a commercial, technological elite, and preceded a significant widening of the democratic mandate. Germany is the prime example of an effective bureaucracy that worked through various forms and deformations of the rule of law and accountability. Fukuyama shows how well-functioning bureaucracy is essential to political order and democratic success. His analysis ought to underpin wide-scale institutional change in today’s bureaucracies in Australia.

It is the disease in state capability in contemporary democracy that I know best. Twenty-five years in the Victorian state government bureaucracy has given me direct experience of the decay of an institution, the public service, and the deformation of a culture, an ethos of governing well. Slowly, without anyone really noticing, over the last thirty to fifty years a model of governing, rooted in economic and social developments, has emerged triumphant within its enclosed walls. But its triumph has undone state capability, entrenched an elite consultocracy – squads of advisers, job-hopping executives and consultants – through new forms of patronage and clientilism. This consultocracy is befuddled by its own rhetoric and rites. The more it talks about reform, the less it contributes to the performance of a capable state. It is the unacknowledged legislator of Australia’s political crisis of recent years. Fukuyama’s analysis of the deformation of contemporary democracy by new forms of patronage, clientilism, kinship affiliation and reciprocal altruism shows how these bureaucratic gangs have taken over and sabotaged Australian public institutions. This is the treason of the clerks.