I have not posted to this blog in almost a year because I have been busy finishing up my book Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. The book is now complete and will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Sept. 30, and by Profile Books and Contact in the UK and the Netherlands, respectively, at around the same time. It constitutes volume 2 of the series that began with The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution that was first published in 2011. Foreign Affairs has published an excerpt “America in Decay” in its September-October issue that I suspect many readers and reviewers will focus on; eagle-eyed readers may remember that some of the same ideas first appeared in my essay here in The American Interest late last year. The chapters on the United States constitute, however, only two of thirty-six in a book that covers many different subjects.
The two volumes together seek to provide a framework for understanding political development. The project arose out of an effort to rewrite and update Samuel Huntington’s classic work Political Order in Changing Societies, first published in 1968. The title of my second volume is actually that of the first chapter of Huntington’s book, which in turn was an expansion of an article he published in World Politics in 1965.
There are many differences between Huntington’s approach and my own, beginning with the fact that both of my volumes are organized historically rather than thematically. As I point out in volume 2, Huntington was wrong on a number of critical points. He argued, for example, that the most unstable societies were those that were in the process of modernizing, and that both poor traditional societies and developed ones tended to be more stable. Trends in global politics since 1968 have not borne this out: many societies have modernized relatively peacefully, and today there is clear empirical evidence that the most unstable ones tend also to be the poorest and least developed.
There is one critical point of continuity between Huntington’s analysis and my own, however, which many recent development theorists seem to have forgotten. The bottom line of Political Order in Changing Societies could be summarized as follows: all good things do not go together. Huntington argued that when the rate of social mobilization, driven by socio-economic change, outstripped the ability of political institutions to accommodate demands for participation, that decay and instability would result. He pointed to the “gap” between expectations of new, rising middle classes, and how from the French Revolution on this gap had propelled the breakdown of political order. He drew several practical implications from this observation, including the desirability of sequencing state development and democracy in an “authoritarian transition,” an idea that was later expanded by Huntington’s student Fareed Zakaria.
This simple observation went against the grain of the dominant paradigm in American social science in the middle of the 20th century, modernization theory. As I detailed in my preface to the 2005 edition of Political Order in Changing Societies, the latter saw the different aspects of modernization—economic growth, increasing individualism, greater democracy, and social development—as parts of a seamless whole, ones that were mutually reinforcing. Huntington argued, to the contrary, that political development had its own logic independent of economic and social change, and that a failure of institutions to develop in parallel could lead to their breakdown. His analysis was the final nail in the coffin of modernization theory.
This fundamental insight remains at the core of my two volumes. I present a framework for thinking about development whose major dimensions are economic growth, social mobilization, changes in ideas, and political development. Political development in turn has three components: the state, rule of law, and mechanisms of accountability. These six dimensions, I argue, are all related to one another in complex ways, but are also subject to their own independent logic and evolutionary change. Any given society may be at very different points along any of the six dimensions. Thus China has a very strong state, high economic growth and rapid social mobilization, but limited rule of law and no formal democratic accountability. Singapore shares in China’s rapid economic growth and strong state, but differs by having inherited a relatively well developed legal system. Afghanistan by contrast has formal mechanisms of accountability (rapidly in the process of self-destructing), but very weak rule of law, a weak state, and much slower economic growth. Progress in any one of these dimensions may stimulate growth in another; but as Huntington argued, they may also often act at cross-purposes.
The central disjunction that Huntington focused on was that between social mobilization and political institutions. In my book, however, there are several others that have played out over the past two hundred years. A critical one is the potential conflict between a high quality administrative state, on the one hand, and democracy on the other. States, by Max Weber’s famous definitions, are legitimate monopolies of coercive power; democracy, by contrast, seeks to constrain state power through elections and other mechanisms of popular accountability. A properly functioning liberal democracy depends on finding the right balance between the institution that concentrates and uses power—the state—and mechanisms of constraint, law and democratic accountability. In many parts of the world today (think Russia and China) and in the West historically, the chief problem for political development was to enhance the mechanisms of constraint over strong states. Fear of concentrated state power has of course been the dominant narrative in the United States, from the Revolution to the Tea Party today.
But in many developing countries, the problem is the opposite: the absence of effective states that can provide minimal public goods like citizen security, public health, education, infrastructure, and other basic public goods. As Huntington said, before you can constrain power you first have to be able to deploy it, and we have forgotten how difficult and contingent a process state-building has been historically. States are now ubiquitous around the globe, but modern states—ones that are characterized by impersonal treatment of citizens, and are not regarded as the private possession of the rulers—are much harder to come by.
One of the dominant themes of the second volume, then, is how modern states evolved out of patrimonial ones. (Patrimonial states are ones that are considered the personal property of the rulers; today this term has been replaced by ne0-patrimonial, in recognition of the fact that no one explicitly claims ownership of the state, and yet many behave in that fashion.) Part I of the book (there five parts) explains how modern states emerged in developed countries like Germany, Britain, and the United States, while Part II deals with the legacy of state weakness outside the West the wake of Western colonialism. More to come on other parts of the book in later posts.