Saints and Bureaucrats


The nations read Francis Fukuyama. He has the ear of the Chinese government, officials in the White House, and the international elite. When he is not writing a best-seller, he analyzes policies, lectures for international-studies students, and comments on the situation of an Indonesia, Japan, Germany, or any nation that pays for him to speak. Economists and political scientists call him a rock star in their field. With Political Order and Political Decay, published in late 2014, he has completed a project to explain the instantiation of politics that he began in 1992 with The End of History and the Last Man. What Political Decay adds to his theory is a defense of the bureaucracy as the highest form of the most important institution of a regime: the state.

Not everyone reads Fukuyama—for instance, political philosophers. The End of History had piqued their interest for a time with its strong anthropology and non-marxist theory of history. But the conversation surrounding the work turned into whether history would end for this or that country, if democracy could become universal, what promise Fukuyama gave to certain projects or how damnably he condemned others. The political philosopher came to realize that Fukuyama’s audience is not himself but political scientists. The progressive was given a renewable energy source to replace exhausted fossil-fuels. The political philosopher realized that he was the fossil.

So what virtue or use is there for the philosopher to read Fukuyama, especially philosophically? He is the president’s philosopher, not the don’s. His work speaks to decision-makers for whom the philosopher is out of sight, out of mind. Commentary is as ineffectual and self-indulgent as internet comments. Not invited into the conversation, the philosopher smells and sounds like the curmudgeon he is.

Suppose, however, that there are reasons to understand him. For one, it is likely be the last time the philosopher can read political science without having to know advanced statistics. Fukuyama writes at the end of a generation of political writers, like John Rawls, who wrote on concepts, metaphysics, philosophy. We cannot expect those who come after to do the same. Politics and economics is increasingly about p-values and sample populations. Nonetheless, the political scientists (or actuaries) after Fukuyama will invariably be his intellectual progeny. His work is comprehensive, and compelling. Political science after Fukuyama may well be a catalogue of footnotes to his anthropology.

For the sake of remembering Fukuyama’s metaphysics, especially that anthropology, I’ve put a few of Fukuyama’s principles here. These are not exhaustive of his work, but they are his political-philosophical core. Unavoidably they will have bits of political science in them, but the hope here is to draw out his enduring convictions.


Action without Person

According to Fukuyama, the first societies gathered around shared ancestry. A clan was united around common descent from a chief. But as generations multiplied and kinship relationships grew distant, something had to be done to keep the society together and to ensure it remained peaceful. In this context, the society does not need democracy or law, which react and limit. It first needs agency.

The primary institution that the government must form is the state. It holds the monopoly of coercive power. It is the effecting part of government, the will of the body. Before it can counter its temptations with law or answer to its actions through democracy, the government must be potent. If the government is going to minimally survive or maximally flourish, it must first have power.

To survive invasion, colonization, war, internal revolutions, economic contraction, and political corruption, governments must be formed in the right sequence. Other political institutions, such as law or democracy, must come after the state. Not all nations have been so lucky as to do this in the right order. Political decay often begins with an excess of legal or democratic systems, clogging the heart.

The other sequence running parallel to any particular nation is Modernization. As history accumulates, it becomes clear that man’s tendency to prefer kin and to give back when they are given a gift both lead to the worst corruption of government. Kin-selection leads to sibling rivalry and splits in nations. Reciprocal altruism leads to lobbyists. The Modern state removes these tendencies. The goal of nations is to begin with the powerful state then to end with an impersonal one. The goal is bureaucracy – focused, meritorious, competent.


Will Liberal Democracy Become Universal?

Fukuyama is clear that the Modern State is not necessarily the Liberal Democratic State, which is just a kind of government structure. Thousands of years before Rome or Greece dabbled with democracies, the Chinese empire had developed the first Modern state which was not and is still not a liberal democracy. As a principle, modernization happens. The question is whether liberal democracy will spread along with modernity. Is it universal or accidental?

So what is required for liberal democracies? They are contingent on being related to, and often originated with, he notes, a Christian ethic or legal tradition. The Christian West made liberal democracy as a “secular” form of Christianity. So while Europe has the Magna Carta, the word for a political right does not exist in Asian languages, which did not encounter Christian thought till later. It’s understood still in China and Japanese culture that someone’s political standing is granted to him by the emperor. The nation, even more than Islam, it seems, that would oppose a liberal democracy is China. China is Fukuyama’s test.

In the third century B.C., China introduced the civil service exam. Those who worked in government earned their position (their bureaucratic position) on merit and competence, not on familial ties or because they scratched an influential back. The Chinese empire had a stint with nepotism, but since then the government has run, Fukuyama writes, with enviable efficiency. It, and some surrounding states, have functioned this way for thousands of years. Even when America gave Japan a constitution after World War II, part of which states that the emperor is not god, the law still does not apply to the emperor like it does to the people.

Both China and Japan, despite late interactions with the West, have under-informed legal traditions. The emperor does what he wishes without thinking about law. He trusts his advisors and they make a decision. No red tape. This kind of state, and a thousands of years of tradition, is hard to root out. If this government gives into liberal democracy – likely, Fukuyama argues, when a middle class emerges – the argument for liberal democracy’s universality is strong.

The other half of liberal democracy’s success is whether America can remain one. It suffers the opposite puzzle: a weak state. In part, this comes from America’s own historical sequence. We began, Fukuyama writes, with the English tradition of Common Law, from which we developed a state, from which we dealt, bloodily, with democratic accountability. Notice that the state emerged from a legal tradition. Power came from law. This sounds safe, and it is. It’s also problematic for action. Law doesn’t move; it reacts. The trouble for American politics becomes the constriction of legality. Checks and balances become default. The president checks congress, the court checks the president, congress checks itself. Fukuyama coins a new term for American politics: vetocracy. (Still a liberal vetocracy.)


The Engine of Prestige

While the scientific progress gives Fukuyama’s history its linearity, through military escalation and intellectual extension, something else must make it run forward. Fukuyama follows Hegel and his progeny, who identify man’s humanity with his ability to defy his animal nature. True, man has a body with animal instincts and needs. But his man-ness is “free and un-determined.” It is the ability to refuse our animality, to subject our instincts to our will, that makes us human.

This manifests as acts of courage or heroism against nature, but this is only half the picture. We want our man-ness, our power over nature, recognized. I want others to acknowledge that I am truly man. Expressing one’s own humanity becomes “a battle to the death for pure prestige.” Against other men, this becomes war, the relationship between master and slave. The man willing to risk his life in a fight against another is the master; the man who cowers, the power of self-preservation being too great, becomes the slave. Master and Slave Fukuyama re-fashions into megalothymia and isothymia, where thymos is the chest of man (he refers to C.S. Lewis’s “Men without Chests”). It is the desire that others recognize himself as higher than (megalo) or equal to (iso) themselves. For Hegel, megalothymia culminates in the extraordinary man, who lives for noble purposes and gains recognition for his superiority.

The world full of megalothymia is the city of James Bond. Bond is all megalothymia; he is the man’s man. He is England’s man. And it’s better for everyone if he didn’t exist. He kills too easily, his fights are far too dramatic, his enemies are too visionary.


Bureaucracy over the Adventure of Man

Instead of reading Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, to understand a world full of isothymia, read Dilbert, or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. If any peace or security is to be sustained, history will end with a bureaucracy. The “Last Man” becomes an accountant. Under the reign of the omnicompetent bureaucracy, The End of History is a peaceful, secure stasis. The Pale King follows employees at the Internal Revenue Service. One of them remarks, “The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.”

Modernization is the process from the personal to the impersonal; from struggle to the static. It ends not with Marx’s proletariat, but with Hegel’s universal class of bureaucrats. Yet this seems to deny the earlier premise that man’s natural desire for recognition brings struggle for that recognition. Peace and “megalo” recognition do not co-exist. Does this not create a self-contradiction?

Fukuyama wavers on whether Liberal Democracy will survive. Modernization without question will continue, though, some will fight against it, even just to fight. In The End of History Fukuyama suggests that “… if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause … then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle.”

That modernization is an experiment – an scientific experiment, though it may be – carrying the real possibility of failure does not occur to Fukuyama. This possibility did occur, though, to Nietzsche. From an essay by Rémi Brague:

In a passage that remained unpublished, [Nietzsche] has his Zarathustra say, “We are making an experiment (Versuch) with Truth! Perhaps mankind will thereby founder! Never mind, go ahead (wohlan)!” This is quite a brash formula. We might sober up and ask: What if, in fact, the experiment yields a negative result? What if mankind invents contrivances and/or adopts modes of behaviour that endanger its own survival in the long run? The trouble is that, if the experiment does fail, so that mankind in its entirety walks the plank, who will have another try?


A Different Mankind

How might the political philosopher respond to Fukuyama’s prophecy? This is a question of form as much as content. An article laying out metaphysical foibles is tempting, but not worth the time. And against a Hegelian, any robust criticism must be carefully shaped so as not to fall into the slot of the “anti-thesis” that will eventually coalesce with Fukuyama’s thesis into synthesis. The puzzle is how to disagree with Fukuyama’s totalism without playing the game.

One option is to assume a different anthropology. The “megalo” man rests his superiority atop other men; the “iso” no less selfishly seeks equality of himself next to other men. But recognition is not the only principle of freedom. Homo ludens and homo adorans come to mind.

In his thirst for recognition, Cain murdered. But Abel thirsted not for recognition but to worship and honor God. He lived according to another impulse, and it avoids any clear appropriation with Fukuyama’s theory since it is not opposed to Fukuyama’s theory, but is disinterested in it. The worshiper is necessarily other-interested, not self-interested.

One form of disagreement other than the academic paper (which also should be written) is the life of worship, play, and love, against the temptation to pursue recognition. Some vocations have little to do with recognition and much with worship: the mother, the monk, the parish priest, sometimes the teacher (at seminary or the Christian school). Call these the day jobs of good political philosophers, the true heroes. And as the Pale King puts it:

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theatre. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all—all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify and audience. Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.

This is generally the life of the saint, which is never about recognition, even when it receives it from God and the world. Lives that give first to God, like Abel, exist on other desires than man’s lust for man’s prestige. The most visible example of this that comes to mind is the Papacy of Rome. The most invisible is the farmer.

Charles Carman

Charles Carman is a staff writer at The Curator magazine. He married a poet from Minnesota. They regularly host meals with friends where they talk theology and literature over wine and homemade rosemary bread.