Profile, £25, 526pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-Human Times to the French Revolution, By Francis Fukuyama

It is as well to be clear at the outset that this book is a tour de force, readable, well-informed and provocative. It supplies a coherent, sustained and challenging narrative of the whole of human history up to the eve of the late 18th-century Age of Revolutions. You would have to be very knowledgeable not to learn from this book and not to be grateful for the bird's-eye view it affords of the development of political institutions across several millennia.

Francis Fukuyama traces the slow and uneven emergence of three institutions which he believes boosted the survival-chances of the societies which developed them: the unitary territorial state, the rule of law and the accountability of rulers. Despite his conservative credentials, this does not involve the conventional Anglo-American story from Plato to Nato, by way of Magna Carta and the American Revolution.

Indeed, with its insistence that those who know the history of only one country know no history, the book should be required reading for the education minister and his advisers. Fukuyama develops his argument with respect to the history of China, India and the Middle East before focusing on Europe. When Europe claims a central role, Spain and Russia are considered side by side with Britain and France.

In Fukuyama's view, the initial political challenge was to escape beyond tribalism and the "tyranny of cousins". The author's evident respect for the lingering potency of tribal institutions was to be reinforced by the great difficulties discovered by US invaders in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a Paris seminar he is said to have referred to his own position – aware of the constraints of historical development – as "Marxist", in contrast to the impatient "Leninism" of the neo-cons. The whole emphasis of this work is on the slow gestation of the prerequisites of political development.

For Fukuyama, tribal organisation responds to structural imperatives in social evolution but also blocks the path to further development. The early account of the origins of state-like forms relies heavily on Lawrence Keeley's military-focused argument in War Before Civilisation (1996) and does not consider the evidence assembled by Keith Otterbein in How War Began (2004): that warfare greatly declined in importance following the hunting to extinction of the larger mammals. Keeley himself grants that early settlement cultures, such as the Natufian, "furnish no indication of warfare at all".

However, Fukuyama's argument that earlier social forms have a way of surviving in and through subsequent development is compelling. So is his idea that the state had to limit the power of clans and lineages while realising that it could not abolish them.

During most of the long period covered by this book, China was the world's most effective large-scale state and its remarkable recent recovery owes much to this fact. Likewise Indian democracy, in this account, may owe something to the legacy of the British Raj but much more to the vigour of civil society in the sub-continent stretching back for over two millennia. However, the political institutions of these two great civilisations were often compromised by survivals of dense networks of kin which weakened China's state bureaucracy or corrupted India's sacred order.

The institution of slavery furnished a solution to several Islamic states because it supplied a core of kinless state administrators, the Mamluks. At the age of six or seven, promising boys were seperated from their families and trained to become soldiers and civil servants. The tenacity of the Ottoman Empire showed how successful this device could be.

However, in Fukuyama's view the most thoroughgoing break with kinship was brought about by the rise of Western Christendom. He often contrasts his schema of historical development to the supposed economic determinism of Karl Marx and the Marxists, but at this point his argument has a historical-materialist twist.

Christianity succeeds in diminishing family ties when the Church takes a strong stand against practices which enhanced the power of lineages such as cousin marriage, divorce, adoption and marriage to the widows of dead relatives. The looser family pattern favoured by the practices of Latin Christianity have the effect of channelling assets to the Church itself (eg through widows' bequests). Fukuyama further urges that "contrary to Marx, capitalism was the consequence rather than the cause of a change in social relationships". Yet he soon acknowledges that "the most convincing argument for the shift has been given by the social anthropologist Jack Goody", an authority whose work could be seen as a distinctive fruit of Cambridge Marxism.

In Fukuyama's view, the path to modern capitalism required institutions not only freed from kin entanglements but limited by the rule of law and accountable to at least some of the ruled. He sees European feudalism as replacing kinship ties, with an implicit contract of dependency and protection in their place. However, the book devotes little attention to the emergence of capitalism and fails to scrutinise what was very possibly the crucial development –the emergence of wage labourers and tenant farmers in the English countryside in the 16th century. The enclosure of common land by private landlords and the dissolution of the monasteries are not discussed, and curious references are made to English "peasants". While Fukuyama offers a vivid sketch of the "evil Empress Wu" in China (624-705), there is no matching portrait of Henry VIII.

Fukuyama's discussion of the "rule of law" insists that respect for law requires political actors always scrupulously to act within the existing framework. In such a view, the American Revolution would have to be seen as a blow to the rule of law; the later US emancipation of the slaves had several extra-Constitutional features.

There is also difficulty when Fukuyama argues that the rule of law is defined by the fact that, where it holds, rulers are not above the law. This neglects the doctrine of the king's "two bodies" – an earthly body subject to the law, and a heavenly body that could do no wrong. For a while, the English Parliamentarians in the 1640s insisted that their indictment of the corporeal actions of the king was in the name of the sacred covenant between king and people. Indeed, the formula that the king can do no wrong was re-affirmed by the Restoration. Yet Fukuyama still seems to count the United Kingdom as an example of a polity bound by the rule of law.

In a work of this sort there are bound to be over-simplifications and mistakes but they do not undermine its achievement: to provide a plausible or provocative reading of the course of human history. Fukuyama's criteria have an undeniably conservative bent, but since he is focusing on the requirements of order, this has a certain logic.

The book is offered as the first part of a two-volume study, the second of which will concern itself with the late 18th century and after. This period sees a huge divergence between the material condition of the West and of most of the rest of humanity, and many other developments which should test Fukuyama's apparent faith in modernity, capitalism and rampant competitive violence.

Robin Blackburn is research professor at the University of Essex; his new book 'The American Crucible: Slavery, emancipation and human hights' is published by Verso in June

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