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Democracy Before and After the State
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Chapter on April 24, 2021 0 Comments 32 min read
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Democracy Before and After the State

[This conversation with Francis Fukuyama first appears in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]

Citation guide: “Fukuyama, Francis and Jean-Paul Gagnon. 2014. “Democracy Before and After the State” in Gagnon, JP, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 42-55.

Defining democracy

Gagnon: How do you define democracy?

Fukuyama: I think that it’s important to distinguish several different ways of thinking about democracy. So for my usual work as a comparative political scientist, what I’m talking about is modern liberal democracy. That is a set of institutions on the democratic side having to do with competitive multiparty elections and then on the liberal side having to do with a constitutional framework that guarantees a certain set of individual rights. I think that the tendency among comparativists is to define this procedurally. So if you have got that set of institutions: you qualify. There is a big debate about the quality of democracy. You get, for example, a number of countries like Venezuela and Russia that are characterized more as electoral democracies or competitive authoritarian regimes rather than genuine ones.

So that is one way of thinking about it. The other way I think gets more at the issue that you want to raise in this interview. It has to do with the question of the substantive degree of equality and political participation
that exists within a social system. You could speak of a tribal community as actually being democratic, even though they do not have multiparty elections and they do not have rule of law or any of the formal institutions that you associate with a modern liberal democracy. That is an alternative way of thinking about it.

Gagnon: True, but the institutions inherent to your conception of liberal democracy are, I think, under increasing critique. There is certainly a line of criticism observable in the literature on modern liberal democracy. That critique is based around the argument that we have these institutions that were built in certain histories. In some ways they may be parochial and that parochialism poses as the root of a crisis. To offer an example, Sonia Alonso, John Keane and Wolfgang Merkel recently published The Future of Representative Democracy (2011). Therein we see this attention, as you said, being paid to institutions in operation but the institutions are empty shells – they are the façade of an ersatz democracy. There’s no substance. Some commentators argue that it is these very empty institutions of liberal democracy that are leading to political apathy, to political parties losing membership, to voters having no confidence in members of congress and so on. Do you think we should be trying to marry other conceptions of democracy that in a participatory, discursive or deliberative sense could bring substance back into the institutions of the United States for example or Canada or Australia?

Fukuyama: I think that that discussion has been there all along. I do not think it was ever missing. If you go back to Robert Dahl’s classic books on the nature of democracy, he had a whole series of characteristics that had to do with the quality and degree of actual participation. He focused then on the output side of participation. It was about the quality of the decisions that were actually made in a democratic society. That was in his view the mark of a true democracy or polyarchy.

So I do not think that discussion was ever missing. I think that for foreign policy reasons and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was a tendency to just use the term liberal democracy as shorthand for a certain minimal set of institutions. When you are talking about the shift after the Orange Revolution or now in the Arab Spring where you have got this very stark contrast between an earlier authoritarian regime and then a regime that is in some measure democratically accountable, I think that is why people settled on this focus on a kind of minimal set of institutions. But I think now that that victory has largely been won, there is a good question about the quality of democracy that as I said was never entirely absent. Quality of democracy is, I think, probably the central issue that faces us now.

Gagnon: So, in simple analytics, we first had a struggle to achieve the Schumpeterian ‘minimalist’ approach to democracy which then led us now to try to build the quality behind it all. That is a useful insight and one that obviously ties in with the narrative that the participativists of the 1970s were using – the young Carol Patemans, Bonnie Honigs and Anne Philipses of the time.

The critiques of democracy that we have been touching on are inextricably bound to the nation, the state or both. There were of course times before states as we know them today. And during these times there were polities – there were places that practised diverse democratic governance. At the same time there were places that practised diverse forms of non-democratic governance too. Sometimes the same polity could sway for example between its own forms of oligarchy, timocracy and democracy. I think that the rises of sub-national sovereign bodies, like Catalunya, are drawing from their own pre-state histories and democratic heritages. Somehow certain conceptions of democracy are giving puff to local polities – its giving them spine to resist the states they are in. And I do not think that is a bad thing. But what is the ‘prestate’ or political arena before the rise of the state? How can we come to understand this locus?

Fukuyama: Right. Well, there’s two broad periods. You have had behaviourally modern human beings for about 50,000 to 100,000 years. And for the first I would say 40,000 of those years, you had band level societies in which human beings lived in groups that were probably no more than 30 or 40 individuals large; most of whom were genetically related to one another in some fashion. Then, beginning around 10,000 years ago you had the rise of tribal societies in which people organized themselves into descent groups based on descent from a common ancestor who might be dead for three or four, possibly even more generations. And those two phases of social organization are universal.

Everybody started out with band level organization and many of the civilization societies in the world passed this level of political order. The Khoisan and the Kalahari’s are example of peoples that never got beyond the band level organization. But virtually every other society in the world went through a tribal level of development and all of these are alternatives to the state. In fact there are few surviving tribal societies. In the uplands of Southeast Asia or in the jungles of India or in mountainous regions like Afghanistan or in deep deserts, you still have these earlier forms of social organization. These survived simply because I think it was militarily too difficult for state level societies to project power into these regions.

Democracy before the state

Gagnon: Yes, Jared Diamond, Lee Wilson, John Steckley and of course many ethnologists over the years have been describing the many band and tribal level societies that exist today – or existed historically. One example would be the Wendat Nation, a First Nations polity, commonly referred to as the Huron. Steckley and I have been working on further deciphering the nature of their pre-European contact political behaviour. It appears that their institutions had remarkable levels of participation, deliberation and consensus-formation. But how would you describe democracy at the band and then tribe levels of political order?

Fukuyama: It is hard to project backward a heavily historically loaded term like democracy onto these kinds of societies. I think probably it would be better rather than calling them democratic you would have to say that they are much more egalitarian than the hierarchical state level societies that they were replaced by. But they were certainly not liberal and they weren’t democratic in anything like the modern sense of the term. They had hierarchy that was mostly related to gender and to age and so in both band and tribal level societies you have leaders who are basically older men.

And then there’s a certain subordination based on kinship groups and then some degree of organization based on that hierarchy. But it was not one that could ever be enforced by a centralized form of authority. So the tribal chief could not actually force anybody in the tribe to do something that they really didn’t want to do. In fact if some people disagreed with the leadership they’d simply wander off somewhere else and they’d split away from the tribe and form their own tribe. So in that respect I would not call it democracy in anything like the modern sense. The nature of authority was much more consensual and based on the legitimacy of the leader.

This type of political behaviour goes on today in a tribal society like in Papua New Guinea. All of the tribal groups are led by a big man, but the big man is not hereditary. It’s really someone who’s chosen among the group on a consensual basis for leadership qualities that everybody defers to. In that sense there is a process both of participation and of popular choice that makes it different from life in a state level society.

Gagnon: This linear description of democracy to me sounds relatable to some basic universal conception of democracy. If we looked for example to the Bambuti in the Ituri Forest or, as you said, certain tribes in Papua New Guinea, we can observe an egalitarianism that is not commonly seen in contemporary New York City or New Delhi for example.

I think that is the case because there is today in these tribal societies access to communication between members of a group. That, of course, is due to small numbers. But I also think that these more egalitarian groups could be considered citizenries in their own right if not precursors to concepts of contemporary citizenry – whatever the latter indeed means. We can argue there to have been, based on recent tribal evidence, a balance of communication and, as you said, the consensual regulation of cultural nuances, rules or laws which members of the group had to follow to stay in good standing with the group. They do this now and probably did this more than 50 thousand years ago to maintain the unity of the group as this has, and had, survival benefits. Yet this more egalitarian communication and the ability for ‘regular group members’ to both form and abide by their own norms smacks of certain expected ideals of democracy today. Would you agree?

Fukuyama: It is with regard to both participation and a certain degree of social equality. But it’s not liberal democracy because in this kind of society you really have no personal freedom whatsoever. It is like living in a very, very small town, meaning that in this kind of society individuals in a certain sense do not even exist in the sense of being autonomous agents who can decide where they are going to live, who they are going to marry, what kind of work they are going to do, and how they are going to relate to the larger community. It’s that kind of a society. All of that is set for you by your social customs and the normative rules that bind these kinds of societies together. So although it is democratic it really is not a free society and in many ways one of the reasons that people like modern society is precisely because it’s anonymous. You do not have to deal with your neighbour if you do not like them or want to get away from them. In the tribal society there’s essentially just no escaping your relatives. So it’s democratic but it’s not liberal in the least bit.

Gagnon: That is an interesting point and one that calls into question the ethos of democracy through time and space. In this tribal democracy, taking Christopher Boehm and his hierarchies in the forest as our analytic framework, we see that there are elements of democracy in action but the ethos of the democracy is inherently different from that of the autonomous individual of today’s democracies. I wonder if the desire for liberty in a basic democratic society was or is a common desire. Although freedom itself as a term is, like democracy, difficult to pin down, I would probably agree that individualistic freedom from within the family or small town would have been a source of tension.

Fukuyama: Again you are talking about different kinds of freedom. In a tribal society the group has freedom so it does not have to live under the authority of anyone who it does not want to have authority over them. And in fact in a segmentary society, a segment can split off if they disagree with the decisions being taken by the larger group. So you have freedom in that sense. What you do not have is anything like modern individualism where I as one single person get to determine how I’m going to live because in that society you really are dependent on the people immediately around you. These people then can dictate pretty much most of the conditions under which you live.

Gagnon: I recall that you used the term the ‘tyranny of cousins’ in volume one of your book The Origins of Political Order (2011). We gain a unique insight here. The way that freedom itself and tiers of freedom have progressed in history warrants an analysis in itself: Origins contributes substantively to that particular project.

At this stage we have built some idea of a pre-state democracy. Therein we do not have individual freedom as many understand it today but there is group freedom. There are also certain expectations whose practice dates back some 50 thousand or more years ago: these are participatory and egalitarian expectations that are arguably in demand today. It feels to me that many individuals today are after what we might call ‘authentic experiences of democracy’: things that appear to be enjoyed by certain contemporary band and tribal societies. Maybe we lost some things from our pre-state societies and now want them back. What was lost in the democratic practice of pre-state democracy with the rise of the hierarchical state?

Fukuyama: I think as just the terms indicate you get to a stage where you have a centralized force or source of authority that is coercive. As I said, the group in a tribal society can be certainly morally coercive and in some cases physically coercive as well, but almost every definition of the state is about this monopoly of violence. The state’s authority then enforces a single law over the territory of the state and this is a form of human inequality which really does not have precedent in either the band level or tribal level societies. And so you get phenomena like slavery, segregated castes and essentially politically powerless people. That only happens in this kind of society with the rise of the state before the state gets offset by things like the rule of law and modern forms of accountability.

Gagnon: There seems to be a scale here. We have certain ‘goods’ and certain ‘bads’ in the tribal and the band being mitigated through the rise of this hierarchical state. But this monopoly of power can pervert the human condition and, like a pendulum, in the swing back into contemporary expectations of democracy we make some corrections. It is as if we are trying to reclaim or enhance the good practices of tribal democracy and do away with the bad practices of the hierarchical state through the popular rise of accountability and the rule of law.

Fukuyama: I think you have to understand that what’s driving this process is not the search for an ideal society. It’s really a kind of remorseless competition between different forms of social organization. So at every stage in this sense it’s a security dilemma that drives the movement of people from one form of organization to another; from the band to the tribe and then from the tribe to the state. The reason for that is that most tribes can defeat most bands or most states can defeat most tribes in a military showdown. So what you get in the process is a kind of escalating competition over security that forces most human societies into state level organizations because that is really the only thing that can produce this Hobbesian kind of peace. As I said the only exceptions to that in the modern world are the geographically isolated or impenetrable areas where you get the survival of earlier forms of organization.

I think the hope in modern societies is that in the context of a modern state you can actually restore some of the quality and participatory character of the pre-state form of society. But that is being done with the acceptance that a utopian experiment concerning a smaller kind of society cannot ever be revived anywhere. It has to look different from what it did prior to the state itself.

Gagnon: So the human demand is the same but it’s wearing different clothes?

Fukuyama: Yes.

Gagnon: Although we have been touching on this a bit so far, I’m curious to explore why the rise of the powerful, vertical, non-transparent, unaccountable, and sometimes demonic as well as often corrupt state occurred throughout Eurasia. Perhaps this was due to the Hobbesian contract – that need for security which you expressed earlier. This escalation of the monopoly of power must have had some effect on democracy. Do you think democracy went underground as pre-state practices went into regression or do you think that it was something that simply changed its clothes? In other words, was democracy lost to the state or was it in some ways made better by the state?

Fukuyama: That is a little bit hard to say just because the state is such a broad generic category and there are really many different types of state level societies. One thing that you had in western Europe was the rise of city-state republics – places like Florence and Genoa and Venice and so forth. These were not democracies because they were not premised on universal equality. They were more like citizen oligarchies, but they were not nearly as hierarchical and authoritarian as the monarchies that they competed with. Up until the birth of the American republic these could not survive in anything but relatively small scale regions.

Within centralized states you also had differing degrees of individual freedom and you never had any social equality. But what you did have was different degrees to which the state protected non-elite individuals from the depredations of elites. And in fact I think this is one of the classic roles for the state, one of the more positive ones that sometimes we tend to forget, which is that there are many societies wherein the state itself is not the only threat to human freedom and dignity. It can also be threatened by powerful elites, by oligarchs, by warlords, by a whole variety of non-state actors. I think the classic role and part of the reason that people like living in state level societies apart from external security is that the state is strong enough to dominate these powerful elites and keep them under control.

So even if it does not produce anything like social equality at least it protects the weak from the worst depredations of the strong. I think this is a classic reason why states were able to achieve some degree of legitimacy.

Gagnon: Do you see city-state republics like Venice, Genoa and Florence, from the ninth century CE to the late medieval periods as places that led to the maturation of specific kinds of democracy – types that came to influence later European democratic politics?

Fukuyama: Well, I think that that period was not as important for the development of democracy as it was for the development of the rule of law. One of the characteristics of European society is that, in my view, as a result of certain changes in inheritance rules by the Catholic Church, there was a decline of tribalism and extended kinship in virtually all societies that fell under the authority of the western Christian church. In the vacuum, in the social vacuum that was created by that among all these former barbarian democratic tribes, you had the development of feudalism which is not democratic at all.

It’s a contract between a weaker and a stronger individual, but it is a contract. It is individualistic in that sense. And it can be undertaken by people who are not kin. That, in conjunction with the revival of Roman law after the investiture crisis in the eleventh century, actually laid the ground for a much higher degree of individualism. That is to say people could freely enter into legal contracts even with social superiors in Europe and expect some protection from an independent legal system. This was to a much greater extent a reality in Italy than in China or India or in other parts of the world. So in that respect I think there’s a certain preparation for the liberal part of liberal democracy in this period.

Democracy after the state

Gagnon: I think that we are developing a crucial point at this stage. Would you see democracy as something that rose in demand especially concerning the development of the rule of law? In a number of cases like Europe, India or China, we see developing conceptions of accountability and of the rise of individualism or comparatively as you argued in Origins: the rise of the nuclear family. Would you argue that in these or other places the rule of law and individual freedom led to a popularization of democracy into the twentieth century and to our present stage of modernity?

Fukuyama: It differs in different parts of the world. I think that in India the existence of a separate religious law that was not controlled by the political authorities in the form of the whole Brahmin varna class was important in restricting the tyrannical power of centralized states in a way that made India really quite different from China. In China there was no offsetting counterweight to the power of the centralized state and therefore they were capable of incredible tyranny. They could also do things like build the Great Wall and do big irrigation projects which the Indians could not.

But on the other hand there’s probably more social freedom under that Indian situation and so that is why I argued in my book that actually while there’s no specific precedent for democracy in India, except maybe at a village level, there’s certainly even less of a precedent for any kind of centralized dictatorship. In that respect the fact that India is actually a law governed democracy in the twenty-first century I think thus should not be too much of a surprise.

Gagnon: Would you argue that the popularity of democracy as for example argued by Amartya Sen has led to a weakening of the state as it was known in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Fukuyama: I think that democracy is inevitably a constraint on the behaviour of the executive – of the powerful administrators of the state. It forces accountability. But weakening can be understood in several senses. I would say weaken is less good a verb than constrain because ideally what you want to have is a state that is strong, meaning that it’s able to enforce laws and formulate policies and with all the capacity that that implies, but that it only does that within the law and according to the dictates of a democratic populace.

So I think what you want is not a weakening of the state but a constraint of the state. Now, in fact I think that democracies do at times actually produce weak states because they paralyse decision making and make it extremely difficult to govern simply because you have got interest groups and the need for coalitions and public opinion that can be fickle and shift and so forth.

Gagnon: This brings to light part of the contemporary difficulties with democracy – at least with certain minimalistic procedures in democracy. Following the arguments of Bernhard Wessels (2011) and Mark Chou (2012, 2013) we see that certain ‘democratic procedures’ create the possibility for democracy to produce political decay.

Fukuyama: I think the problem in democracy is that over time, well actually I would not say this is a problem with democracy. This is really a problem with all political systems, whether it’s democratic or not is that elite groups tend to entrench themselves over time. Now, the theory for democracy is that because it is a democracy that enfranchises everybody, you get a natural counterweight to this because it would not be in the interest of non-elites to allow elites to get away with corrupt behaviour or rent seeking activity or other things that further their own interests. But in fact in democracies a lot of time this process breaks down which is why you oftentimes have this phenomenon of the elite capturing democratic political systems. And, if that rigidifies over time, it becomes a form of political decay.

Gagnon: I especially like the role of democracy as some kind of rupture toward entrenched interests. That is unique and is something that Daniel Bray (2011) writes on in his own way. Leadership or representation often creates space for political activity – kind of like democracy solving democracy.

Let us look further at this second major emphasis of our interview: democracy after the state. In order to get closer to that question it’s important for me to know if you argue that the state or, more specifically, what I would consider the falsity of a nation state to be an anomaly in the grand history of the human animal’s politics. You know – for an easy question.

Fukuyama: It’s a little bit hard to say that because human beings have not existed in an equilibrium. It’s not as if there’s a steady equilibrium state to which we are all going to return. So we are never going to go back to hunter-gatherer societies or to band level societies and so although it is a case that human beings have only been living in state level societies for let us say the last six thousand of the 50,000 years of their existence as a particular species, I do not think that tells you anything about what the future development is going to be. As I said we are not going to go backwards in terms of this kind of development.

Gagnon: The crux remains the nation state. Now I have had a bone to pick with that concept for quite some time. Let us look at the US for example and the indigenous peoples therein. Indigenous peoples in the USA are viewed as ‘nations within a nation’ and there is too a strong presence of different peoples from different nations in the US (i.e. immigrants). To me it seems that the USA is a union state. It is a plurality of nations rather than one unitary nation. From that point of departure, I was trying to focus on this falsity: the myth of the nation state – of Louis’ L’État c’est moi. That use of the nation state in the rhetoric of contemporary or recently passed polities is in itself something strange since I view it as illogical. I think we are well and truly, at least in the majority of ‘mass migration countries’ or post-colonial loci, in a condition of post-nationalism. Would you agree or disagree?

Fukuyama: I think that the theory of the nation state really was part of the whole development of modern nationalism which is that the state ought to correspond to the nation, meaning it ought to correspond to a single linguistic or ethnic group which it more or less did in western Europe but didn’t do at all in Eastern Europe. And then when you get outside of Europe, to the Middle East or Africa or Southeast Asia, there’s no relationship to this reality whatsoever.

But I think that is historically the origin of the term and all that means is that France and England in some sense homogenized themselves early on so that they didn’t confront the degree of ethnic diversity that other parts of the world experienced. But you are right. Most states in the world today are not nation states.

Gagnon: And that is important I think because there is plurality, that diversity, of either self-identified or exogenously labelled nations or groups in a country. Would you see that this condition of postnationalism that we are experiencing is in some way similar to prenationality? Would you argue that there are similarities between a pre-state and what I would in this discussion call the post-state?

Fukuyama: What you are seeing in many parts of the world is the rise of a certain kind of regionalism and localism. So the modern form of social organization is not just centralized large states. It’s also the diffusion of power and social organization through region, states, municipalities, neighbourhoods and the like. I think the hope has always been that this kind of decentralization could recreate some of the sense of community and trust that existed in a small band level society or tribal level society. The challenge is to do that in the context of a larger state level structure.

Indeed state level structure embedded in a globalized economy is much more cosmopolitan. Whether you can actually pull that off successfully I think is another question. But I think much of the concept of civil society was related to the idea that in fact people needed more immediate face to face forms of community than what was provided by any kind of modern state.

Gagnon: With this contrast and the mutations of democracy in mind, are we heading into an era of the post-state? If so, what would that mean for democracy?

Fukuyama: I actually do not think we are heading into a post-state. I think that the organization of global politics for the time being is going to continue to be organized around sovereign states. I think what you are seeing is some attempt to create super state organizations, the most advanced of which is the EU which unfortunately now seems to be going backwards in that regard. We should also consider the formation of other sub state kinds of organization. So that can be regions, it can be parts of existing states like Scotland or Catalunya and places of that sort, or it can be organizationally based with all sorts of transnational groupings and identities and so forth. So I think that what all that means is that these new forms of organization get layered on top of the existing state-based international system – but they do not replace it.

Gagnon: So given that this is something new in terms of scales and types of human organization, what, for liberal democracy in this case, do you think this will affect?

Fukuyama: I think it complicates things because it means that democracy, formal democracy, modern democracy was built around the presumption that people lived in coherent states and now they participate in a whole variety of overlapping non-mutually exclusive forms of organization which give them different forms of political participation. But on the other hand you could also see that as quite a good thing because it means that the state is not the only way in which people get to exercise some degree of citizenship. That can be done in a variety of other forms as well. So I think that is a really complex result that means some steps forward and some steps backward.

Gagnon: Backward. That is interesting. Could you elaborate?

Fukuyama: There is a sense of disenfranchisement as for example globalization produces. Even on the level of the EU, few people actually know who their member of the European Parliament is and care much to vote for them because it’s such a large organization with such diffuse powers that they feel quite unconnected. This means that the actual decisions that are made by the EU are really done either by bureaucrats with limited accountability in Brussels or else by heads of state purporting to speak in the name of people but without actually really consulting them. And so this is the basis for the democratic deficit in Europe.

In the United States or other large democracies at a national level you get a similar sense of disenfranchisement just because it’s such a large country and the politics are complicated. The impact that any individual can have tends to be fairly limited. I think the other source of discontent and disenfranchisement has to do with the role of elites and interest groups that are able to capture the system and use it for their own purposes without an evident way of stopping that or restricting their influence.

Gagnon: So we could argue that this liberal modern democracy is changing, becoming something new, and will continue to do so.

Fukuyama: All political systems tend to evolve. I think the basic principles are the same. It’s the implementation that in fact continues to change.

-> End.

Citation guide: “2014. Fukuyama, F. and JP Gagnon. “Democracy Before and After the State”. Gagnon, JP, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought, pp. 42-55, Palgrave Macmillan.

Next reading? If you are interested in the interchanges between culture and democracy then you may like this conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo.

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