How Much ‘Progress’ Have We Made?

It is natural to assume that we were meant to become what we are, and that human existence has an intelligible significance, purpose, or conclusion. Francis Fukuyama has long since apologized for his declaration in 1992 that

what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Man had made his way from primeval slime through bands, tribes, states, and their variations, until arriving at the democratic state and liberal capitalist economy presided over by George H.W. Bush. This progression was what it had been all about from the start, and now it was over, with only boredom ahead, so Fukuyama warned at the time.

Being a reasonable man, Fukuyama soon acknowledged that it was not really all over, and that we certainly were not doomed to perpetual boredom.1 Au contraire, as not only the French would say. In 2006, in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, he wrote that he had newly concluded that

neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, [had] evolved into something that I can no longer support…[having been used during the 1990s] to justify an American foreign policy that overemphasized the use of force and led logically to the Iraq war.

That 2006 book was a straightforward foreign policy essay rejecting a Bush administration foreign policy that rested on “concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, unipolarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.” It dealt with how a different American policy intended to “democratize” the Middle East might employ “soft” power to obtain the reform of international institutions, with the aim of establishing a global order of democratic accountability, based on sovereign states.

Francis Fukuyama’s new book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (or books; the present volume is the first of two), is an ambitious attempt to quicken our journey to such a society. Widely reviewed, compared by some with Marx and Hegel, and called “a magnum opus” and a “new classic,” the work deals with the past development of human political order. It is intended to decipher the pattern on which modern democratic statehood has been founded, and on which new democracies can be built.

Fukuyama’s is a Darwinian approach to society: the fittest of political arrangements are those that have survived. Original man, hunter-gatherer, was not the isolated and peaceful figure Rousseau imagined, but had inherited from his “ancestral apes”—or so Fukuyama says—a propensity for violence that required the formation of protective social groups, the initial step toward tribes and warrior castes, and “the most basic and enduring unit of political organization, a leader and his band of armed retainers.” After that came “warlords…, militias, drug cartels, and street gangs”—as well as states, armies, and predatory empires. The …

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    He wrote in his 2006 book that what he had actually meant to say was that economic modernization creates a desire not for liberal democracy but for the byproducts of “modernization,” political and cultural as well as material. “Liberal democracy is one of the by-products of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.”