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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible