If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.
It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.
My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.
An Academic Celebrity Death-Match
After finally finishing all three books last week, it struck me that you’d get very entertaining Jerry Springerish outcomes if you put the authors together on a conference panel. Going by their books, I’d say that Fukuyama and Ghemawat would mostly agree but eye each other very warily, given their drastically different methodologies. Fukuyama is the ultimate metaphysical conceptualizer and Grand Narrative weaver, while Ghemawat is a data-driven empiricist and narrative debunker par excellence.
Graeber is a sort of micro-narrative ethnographer-storyteller with a visceral suspicion of both numbers and abstractions. In a way the title of Graeber’s book is misleading. Debt is not one big story spanning 5000 years, but more like a collection of 5000 little stories and arguments thrown together, with a bigger narrative almost slapped on as an afterthought. And for a book about debt, money and finance, it manages the astounding feat of filling up several hundred pages with almost no numbers, equations, graphs or mathematical arguments.
On our hypothetical conference panel, Graeber would probably start out politely but end up trying to bludgeon the other two to death within a few minutes. Ghemawat would probably fight back impatiently, with barely-concealed annoyance, held back only by a sense of scholarly dignity. Fukuyama would probably walk off the stage with the tired, resigned and martyred look of a misunderstood senior academic statesman.
Moving on from these idle fantasies of academic-celebrity death-matches, let’s talk about the books.
Where they are Coming From
Jerry Springer jokes aside, the books are interesting to read together because of the sharp differences in politics, maturity of thought and individual personalities that inform the book.
It’s interesting to note that Fukuyama was born in 1952, Ghemawat in 1959 and Graeber in 1961. Personality-wise — and perhaps this is a function of age — they come across as gentle, impatient and angry, respectively.
Along another dimension, Fukuyama is mostly descriptive (though his politician-fans often mangle his ideas into prescriptions), Ghemawat is weakly prescriptive in a tentative and technocratish way, and Graeber is strongly normative.
And along a third dimension, Fukuyama is mildly reactionary (taking on classical man-in-the-state-of-nature models, but reconstructing rather than destroying them), Ghemawat is moderately reactionary (simultaneously taking aim at what he labels “globaloney” arguments on the anti-globalization side and Thomas Friedman on the pro-globalization side) and Graeber is almost entirely reactionary (devoting the entire book to attacking the foundations of mainstream economics rather than constructing an alternative framework).
I am deeply tempted to read the three as a sort of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva trinity. Fukuyama’s project is ultimately a creationist account of the world in a sort of “more perfect union” sense. Ghemawat’s is a preservationist account, deeply absorbed in the actual complexity and constraints of the world as it exists, and the problem of defending against threats and preventing things from unraveling. Graeber’s is destructive-nihilist, focused on fundamental inequities, social justice and a revolutionary agenda. You get the sense that he wouldn’t be too upset if everything unraveled.
Taken together, the three accounts constitute a fascinating creative-destructive reading of contemporary world affairs situated within a broader historical context.
But I won’t belabor this rather overwrought trinity metaphor, just leave it as a framing suggestion for you.
For Fukuyama, this book represents a sort of swan song in a long career in the public eye that began with The End of History and the Last Man (1993). He gained notoriety via an association with the neocon coterie around George W. Bush (a movement he later disavowed) and with this book, he is clearly wrapping up a lifetime of scholarship devoted to a single question. There is a certain sadness and poignancy in his approach to the subject matter as a result.
Ghemawat is best understood as an anti-Thomas-Friedman and anti-anti-globalists. In fact, World 3.0 is best viewed as a systematic attempt to tear down the anti-intellectual Friedman-Globalization-complex, which he clearly views as having done immense damage to the pro-globalization movement through its sloppy “flat” metaphors, shoddy arguments, and wild and ungrounded swings between alarmist and exuberant rhetoric. The most entertaining (though not most useful) parts of his book are the stories of his encounters with Friedman-influenced types. The project of countering anti-globalization types does not get as much attention, mainly because Ghemawat clearly does not take them very seriously.
As an ex-McKinsey consultant, ex-HBS professor (where he worked for 25 years), and current professor at IESE, Barcelona in the heart of the Eurozone and its present crisis, he is everything Friedman is not: an extremely careful, data-driven advocate of globalization: relentlessly pragmatic, skeptical of just-so stories, and studiously averse to grand-standing. Where Friedman is the ultimate uncomprehending journalist-outsider, going “Oh Wow!” at everything, Ghemawat is the ultimate insider-technocrat of globalization, the sort of immensely influential person who normally stays out of public conversations and sticks to persuasion in backrooms, cabinets and boardrooms.
And finally, Graeber is the (relatively) young hothead demagogue of the bunch. He appears to have been blooded in political combat during the anti-globalization movement of the eighties and nineties (he seems to have been involved in the resistance to the IMF/World Bank approach to managing the world economy in particular). Of the three, he is clearly the Man of the Hour, given his association with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
As scholars, all three are complex people with careful and nuanced views on their subject matter. These are not the sorts of people you could reduce to simplistic political stances.
To the extent that they have actually been involved in world affairs, however, they cannot really avoid being politically pigeonholed: Fukuyama is a social and political conservative, Ghemawat is a classic business conservative/social liberal and Graeber is a cross between an anarchist and a neo-socialist.
With Fukuyama, you get a separation of scholarship and personal political history that is almost surreal. There is absolutely no acknowledgment that his involvement in Bush-era world affairs might be a relevant backstory (I was hoping to find some personal commentary in the preface, but was disappointed). The professor and the political influencer might as well be different people.
With Ghemawat, the separation is maintained, but there is open acknowledgment of how his involvements in world affairs have shaped his scholarly views (there are plenty of ideas substantiated by references to his role as a consultant to various world bodies and national governments for example).
With Graeber, there is a weak attempt to maintain some sort of scholar-activist separation early in the book, but by the end, the effort is completely abandoned and the scholarly endeavor is openly and clearly subordinated to the activist agenda. Debt starts out as a disinterested scholarly book, but ends as an openly political polemic.
The Raw Material
Each book tackles the question of how the world works, and each takes a historical approach to the question. The time-span under consideration ranges, for all three, from roughly 5000 BC to modern times.
Ghemawat, after a quick tour of the first few thousand years, settles on the last century and the modern era of globalization (Zakaria’s Post-American World is a good companion read, since it fill in more detail around the parts that Ghemawat skips over a little too quickly, with the same data-driven approach).
Fukuyama ranges over the first few thousand years at a leisurely pace and stops just sort of the industrial revolution. His account of modernity is to be published in a second volume in 2012, which I am now impatient to read.
Graeber ranges all over the entire time-span, mainly to the detriment of his treatment of post-1800 modernity, since the 300-odd years between 1800 AD-2011 AD probably contain about the same quantity of relevant raw material as the 6800 years between 5000 BC and 1800 AD (that’s exponential trajectories for you). Where Fukuyama and Ghemawat modestly limit themselves, Graeber ambitiously tries to do it all in one book. In some ways he succeeds, and in other ways, he over-reaches.
(An unrelated reason for the weakness of the post-1800 parts of Graeber’s book is probably the difficulty of providing a purely qualitative-ethnographic account of the modern era. I cannot see any way to truly understand things like the subprime crisis without mathematics for instance).
The result is that Fukuyama and Ghemawat end up telling their stories in steady and measured ways, taking care to substantiate their arguments. Both are also somewhat predictable: the surprises they have to offer are relatively minor, but rigorously argued.
Graeber is more original than either Fukuyama or Ghemawat; there are startling insights, ideas and examples at practically every turn. But every argument seems suspect due to the hurried nature of the development.
It doesn’t help that the overarching narrative is shaky to the point of being incoherent, and unravels completely towards the end. At various points, I found myself reflecting that Debt would have worked better as a compendium of ethnographic anecdotes and short essays debunking of economic myths.
I’ve been discussing Debt with a few people over the last week and Daniel Lemire observed that the whole thing reads like somebody’s research notebook hastily published, without much editing. Justin Pickard (an alum of Goldsmith’s University, where Graeber teaches) rather evocatively called it “a mountain of intellectual rubble and tiny anecdotes that I can start playing with.” It’s an apt description: the book provides a lot of astounding value, but you definitely have to excavate the book rather than read it, and work hard to separate the politics from the scholarship.
Let’s take a brief look at each of the books in turn, in descending order of author age.
The Origins of Political Order
You cannot really understand Fukuyama’s book without reading it in the context of The End of History and the Last Man, the book that made him famous almost 20 years ago. If you just read The Origins of Political Order (which you can do, since it is written in a stand-alone way), you are likely to find the arguments less substantial than they actually are.
That’s because he dealt with the harder foundational questions to his own satisfaction (and to the satisfaction of about half the people who think about this sort of stuff) back in 1993. This book can be understood as a reading of history, assuming the conceptual framework of The End of History as a starting point, where he drew upon Hegelian philosophy to argue in favor of a strongly historicist understanding of political evolution, and came to the conclusion that the natural and necessary end point of political evolution is liberal democracy. It was an abstract and metaphysical argument rather than a historical one.
At the time, the problem of conceptually explaining the so-called “democratic peace” (the observation that liberal democracy has been spreading rapidly, and that liberal democracies normally don’t go to war with each other) was a much-debated question in political science, and Fukuyama provided one compelling answer. His former mentor, Samuel Huntington, and later Huntington’s student, Fareed Zakaria, fought back with counterarguments in books like The Clash of Civilizations and Illiberal Democracy. These reactions (in my opinion) conspired to miss the point: attempting to counter a purely conceptual argument intended to illuminate philosophical questions, sort of like the idea of general equilibrium in economics, with empirical and historical counter-arguments. To be fair to Fukuyama’s critics, they were responding more to the co-option of his ideas by politicians seeking a post-Cold-War moral justification for “spreading democracy” than to Fukuyama himself. But in the process, they ended up resorting to thinly-disguised cultural essentialism (later, Huntington attracted a lot of criticism for his stridently cultural-essentialist treatment of the question of the rise of Latino culture in the US).
I read these books in the late 90s, during a period when I was myself rather enamored of complexity theory (I worked briefly with Robert Axelrod who was also working on computational models of the “democratic peace” at the time), so my own history of thinking about such questions has mostly been in computational-modeling terms. I fell in love with Fukuyama’s ideas mainly because they lend themselves very well to computational modeling perspectives.
In fact, The End of History served as my introduction to advanced political science debates.
I didn’t quite buy his liberal-democracy-is-natural-and-necessary conclusion, but I convinced myself that in a weaker form (contingent upon the specific conditions prevailing on planet earth, and given the peculiar psychology of homo sapiens, but not contingent upon cultural differences within humanity, which is what his critics argue), his idea of liberal democracy as the evolutionary end-state made complete sense to me.
The point of going into this extensive backstory is that without it, there is a good chance you might miss the point of Origins.
Origins is an analysis of history. Avoid the temptation to think of it as some sort of empirical “proof” of End of History. In a sense the End of History arguments are metaphysical and unfalsifiable. It is best to read Origins as a reading of history through the lens of End of History.
So what is the book about?
It is about the evolution of the institutional structure of modern liberal democracies. Given liberal democracy as the assumed end point of convergence for all political forms (think water drops flowing down from different points on the edge of a bowl to the bottom) Fukuyama wants to know where the institutions of liberal democracy come from. He identifies three core institutions in particular: the state, the rule of law and accountable government.
The book starts with classic Man in the State of Nature theories from Hobbes and Rousseau, reconstructs them in light of evolutionary biology. He argues that both Hobbes and Rousseau were wrong to posit states of war and peace amongst primitive individuals as starting points. Instead, he offers the idea that individualism itself is a relatively late (13th century) political development, and that State-of-Nature models must begin not with individuals but groups. You could say he arrives at a Hobbesian starting point, adapted for warring groups rather than warring individuals.
With traditional political science thought experiments thus reconstructed, he begins his story with kinship groups and tribes, and moves on to the formation of the earliest states (pristine state formation as opposed to competitive state formation).
Here he again breaks with traditional Western scholarship that usually begins with Greece (really, for no good reason), and chooses to start with China instead (which turns out to yield a much more coherent story).
He argues — very successfully — that the first modern state was the one based on the bureaucracy that emerged in China during the Warring States era and successfully endured, providing the first historical break from politics governed by kinship and tribal dynamics.
After noting that China did not develop the other two institutions (rule of law and accountable government) until modern times, he moves on to India where, he argues, a modern state in the Chinese sense never developed, but rule of law and a form of accountable government did, but without being embodied in stable institutional forms within which power and inertia could accrue.
Next, he moves westward and carefully examines the case of the Islamic state, which possessed a strong state capable of resisting kinship and tribal power (by developing the unique institution of slave armies and state institutions that finessed the problem of dealing with tribal loyalties — the famous devshirme and Mamluk models), and a strong rule of law, but no accountable government.
Finally, he picks up the European story with the growth of Christianity, the tussle between the church and the state, the weakening of family and kinship structures due to the impact of the church, the emergence of the modern idea of the socially mobile “individual” and ultimately, the modern liberal democracy, with functioning state, rule-of-law and accountable-government institutions.
The story is without a doubt a work of extraordinary synthesis. Having read more than a few world histories (both straight-up narratives and analytical accounts), I can safely say that Origins is in something of a class by itself. Like it or dislike it, it will definitely allow you to appreciate world history in ways that you probably have not occured to you.
Ignoring the foundational assumptions inherited from The End of History, which you pretty much have to either accept or reject based on your ideological leanings, the one weakness of the book is its uncritical assumption that the institutional structure of the world is in some sense central to the story of political evolution. We do not really get a more fundamental account of organizations and institutional forms, and how they emerge from more basic forces. We also do not get an adequate account of the birth-death lifecycle dynamics of institutions. So you could call this position “institutional essentialism,” which makes the account something of a curve-fit of ideal and timeless notions of institutions onto the actual institutional history of the world.
I’ll stop here, since I can’t do justice to all three books in one post. Next time, I’ll cover the other two, and try to weave all three stories together into some sort of harmonious synthesis. Should be an interesting challenge.