walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: August 28, 2014
The State
Political Order and Political Decay

Volume two of the project I started writing in 2011, titled Political Order in Changing Societies, hits bookstores later this month. It is an attempt to map out how modern states have evolved out of patrimonial ones, and tries to show how simplistic understandings of how development works can lead to disastrous policy.

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.

show comments
  • qet

    This is excellent. So excellent, in fact, that I sent it to my daughters (who won’t read it except under threats). It speaks volumes about the entrenchment of the left-liberal mentality in this country over the past 40 years that such an article needs writing at all. Anyone who has ever been around a self-avowed atheist or secularist knows with certainty that the person is not in fact deeply and personally wounded by the presence of religious symbols in his field of vision; not even a little. Instead, such a person is an example of the type of man described by Seneca as one “who nourishes his grief and has the as the measure of his affliction not what he feels but what he has decided to feel.” The point about the progressives’ desire to abolish history is just so correct, and it really ought to alarm people more than it seems to.

    • Gary Novak

      Yes, Berger’s post is excellent. And this reader doesn’t mind that Berger sometimes returns to curiosities that don’t go away. “Put differently” is one of his favorite ways of starting a sentence. But that doesn’t make me think “Here we go again,” but “Maybe I’ll get it this time.”

      But I think you overlooked one point: When Berger doubts that many people are really offended by religious symbols in public, he exempts “members of militant secularist pressure groups.” Put differently, they ARE really offended. But you seem to think that you are agreeing with Berger when you claim to know with certainty that “self-avowed secularists” are not offended by such symbols, “not even a little.” The fact that they have decided to feel offended is not . . . decisive. Religious people are also making a decision when they take a sacramental view of the world, but the feelings they experience as a result of that choice (including the “secular cheer” noted by johngbarker above) are quite genuine. Berger’s point is that the self-appointed guardians of the delicate sensibilities of the masses have a tiny following among ordinary sane people. And, quite apart from that empirical question, there is no constitutional right never to be offended. I hope your daughters listen to you!

  • Anthony

    Wherever reasonable (or unreasonable ) men can reasonably disagree, as they can about questions of religious celebration/practice in a pluralist democracy, their decision in favor of one way or alternative (to some minds) is a preference that closely resembles preferences in what are more obviously matters of “taste”. To my mind, in the sphere of all matters subject to individual thought and decision, pluralism is desirable; but on the eve of the Christmas season (without casuistry) Christian symbols, i.e. Christmas, represent cultural norms associated with Western civilization. And if you are citizen thereof, its celebration ought not be deeply hurting nor intrusively offensive (unless of course intrusion extends into prescriptive religious judgment on how to conduct your life in a free society). Still Peter Berger, we must remember that the Kemalists think elevating parochial values to the realm of the sacred is license to dismiss other people’s interest. So as we enter Christmas season, a word to the wise…

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Bradley Millier, a law professor from
    Western University in Canada, has an interesting article on a related issue in
    the December issue of Foreign Affairs on “Quebec’s Secular Charter.” Miller describes how secular fundamentalists
    in Quebec have appropriated the symbols, architecture, language, and rituals of
    Catholicism to advance their formal Secular Charter. In contrast to fundamentalist secularists in
    the U.S. who want religious symbols banned in the public sphere, in Quebec these
    religious cultural elements now are in the service of the state, not the

    Quebec’s Secular Charter affirms the
    values of State secularism, religious neutrality, equality of men and women,
    and provides a framework for “accommodation requests”. Employees of all public institutions must
    “exercise reserve with regard to expressing their religious beliefs.”

    Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture Course,
    mandatory in even religious and home schools, restricts teaching religion that
    provides meaning to the lives of students.
    It must be taught along with other religions and cannot favor one religion
    over another. This religious education
    policy is to be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 under the case
    Loyola vs. Quebec.

    The appropriation of the outer symbols
    of Catholicism in the service of a monistic secular public culture is also the
    tactic taken by many Episcopalian churches in the U.S. that have been
    infiltrated by the secular, political Left.
    The clash between secular fundamentalist Episcopalians appropriating
    religious culture for their cause and sometimes equally religiously
    fundamentalist Anglicans is what has led to the legal fight in the U.S. courts
    over who owns the church buildings. Not
    surprisingly, even Anglican churches that owned title to their properties on a
    deed lost their church buildings to Episcopalians by convincing secular courts
    that those property rights were superseded by church government arrangements.

    Imagine the American Baseball League
    exerting it owns Yankee Stadium over the rights of George Steinbrenner’s
    investment group! What would be
    considered an illegal, hostile takeover in business is de rigueur when property
    rights over religious buildings get into U.S. courts. I can only imagine that the same type of
    judges hears these property rights cases that Peter Berger considers in a
    category for which his respect is generally minimal.

    Something like this conflict is also
    playing out in California where the City of Richmond exerts that they can
    condemn a bank’s loan on an over-mortgaged home and leave the bank’s depositors
    and investors with the loss all in the name of secular justice. One can only imagine that such cities got such
    a confiscatory idea from the religious property rights cases that preceded it.

    Apparently, just as the legal system
    gives church governmental bodies the unlimited right to confiscate property, there
    aren’t laws against confiscating the cultural elements of a religion in the
    state’s cause. As Miller describes it,
    in Quebec the churches stand empty and the marriage and birth rates are the
    lowest of any Canadian province, thus necessitating the immigration of
    religious people the secular government wants to culturally neuter.

    There is some vestige of common sense
    left in the U.S. However, apparently
    there is no common sense left in Quebec.

    • Gary Novak

      Your post raises an interesting question about the malleability of religious symbols. Berger has warned about the theological dangers of supping with the devil. Are the secular fundamentalists of Quebec overlooking the dangers to secularism of supping with the angels? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps the secularists who co-opt religious culture are angels unaware. Let’s be glad there are no laws against the confiscation of the cultural elements of religion.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        One could argue that Christmas is an appropriation of Christian symbols by the commercial culture. Of course, if one wants to go back far enough Constantine also appropriated Christian symbols to socially construct a Roman Empire in the face of a collapsing Western Roman Empire

        I would recommend that you, and other readers, you buy yourself a Christmas gift of a copy of Selina O’Grady’s remarkable “And God Created Man” (2013) which explains how religion has been used by empires to bind their populations and for social control. O’Grady is what might be called a lay sociologist who writes from a Weberian interpretive sociological viewpoint (“beliefs matter’) and who uses as her thesis Berger’s observations about religion and legitimation (“…religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation”….Berger – The Social Canopy, 1967).

        O’Grady’s book is not an “apology” for Christianity or an apology for atheism. Like Berger, O’Grady is musically religious.

  • johngbarker

    I have often wondered if the “secular cheer” of Christmas suggests that there is an aspect of Christian faith that promotes human flourishing and a conviction that the life can be made joyful– I sense this more in Christian music than text.

    • Gary Novak

      Despite Berger’s use of the felicitous concept of “signals of transcendence” to link the secular world of mundane experience to the transcendent world of religion, he is careful not to conflate the two worlds. (So, he celebrates the birth of Christ and ALSO celebrates secular cheer.) Likewise, Rudolf Otto says (in “The Idea of the Holy”) that the aesthetic experience of the sublime can arouse the religious experience of the numinous– but that art is not religion. Your suggestion that “secular cheer” may be a form of human flourishing promoted by Christianity raises some interesting questions regarding the permeability of the boundaries. Can secularists be as cheerful as Christians? Is it only Christian music that can foster “secular cheer”? What about sublime secular music? And if human flourishing is the bottom line (as secularists typically think), why not promote it directly instead of getting it as a spin-off of Christianity with its potentially obstructionist texts? “Smile, God loves you”? Well, why not just “Blue skies, smiling at me . . .”? Or Bach’s music without the gospel of Matthew? (Or is the music itself already religious?). For my part, I fully expect to find salvation tomorrow night at Tulsa Ballet’s “Nutcracker”– “a source of happiness for many people, especially children.”

  • Monkish

    As for “Turkey: Jews did quite well under Ottoman rule; serious anti-Semitic measures were enacted under the Turkish Republic.” This statement is simply preposterous, as any historian of the Ottoman Empire would tell you. Legal inferiority (dhimmi status), the head tax (jizya), mandatory dress codes, bans on self-defense (Jews and Christians couldn’t carry weapons), laws against riding on horseback, to say nothing of the smaller symbols of humiliation and abjection foisted upon them by the Sultan… The Damascus affair and the Armenian genocide didn’t happen during Kemal’s watch.

  • wigwag

    One would think that a man who hasn’t published a post on his blog in almost a year (after promising his loyal readers that he was going to post more regularly) would make his triumphant return with something a little more substantial than a glorified advertisement for his new book. This essay provides almost nothing other than an invitation to explore Fukuyama’s erudition in greater detail this September when his book is finally published. There’s nothing wrong with using a site with which you are intimately affiliated for a little self-promotion, but it doesn’t show a lot of respect for your readers when self-promotion is all that’s on order.

    With that said, Fukuyama’s book is sure to be provocative. September looks like it will be an interesting month for people interested in international affairs. In addition to Fukuyama’s book, Henry Kissinger has a book coming out on September 9th entitled “World Order.” The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating excerpt from the new book yesterday,

    Reading Kissinger’s essay makes it clear that he is still one of America’s most gifted commentators on world affairs well into his 91st year and despite his recent surgery to replace a defective heart valve.

    Perhaps American Interest readers will get lucky and the editors of the site will select some interesting reviewers for the books by Fukuyama and Kissinger. At the appropriate time, it would be particularly valuable to get Walter Russell Mead’s take on what these two esteemed authors have to say.

  • Anthony

    “…how simplistic understandings of how development works can lead to disastrous policy” – perhaps a fundamental tenet for political order and political decay (without being tautological).

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service