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THE BIG READ: Importance of being earnest

Ray Hartley | 2013-05-14 00:43:43.0
Fukuyama refused to be upstaged by questions on South African politics
Image by: ULF ANDERSEN/GALLO IMAGES

The weekend ended with mass adulation for Justin Bieber at FNB stadium. But there were beliebers of a different kind at the Linder Auditorium on Friday night.

The evening's rock star was Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, and the world's foremost thinker on liberal democracy. He was delivering a lecture in the series organised by the Mapungubwe Institute. The auditorium was filled to the rafters.

Short, balding and wearing an ill-fitting suit, Fukuyama did not cut a dramatic figure seated in one of three white chairs on the stage. After two introductions he rose to speak, perhaps for the millionth time.

But once he got going it was clear why Johannesburg's intellectuals had given up movie night at the Cinema Nouveau. Fukuyama would explore three pillars - although he never used that word - of democracy: The state, the rule of law and accountability. He would do so without fireworks, power point presentations or gimmicks. He would apply his brain to a problem and think aloud.

The view that humans were brought into social relationships with one another by the state was wrong. Humans had always been social creatures, even in prehistoric times. They were wired for nepotism and for "reciprocal altruism" - remembering favours and returning them.

A modern state had to be based on the repression of this instinct of looking after the concentric circles of immediate family, more distant family and friends (in that order) that our prehistory had established.

China was the first society to place merit above familial loyalty in the state, making the transition from patrimonial to a modern "impersonal" state thousands of years before anyone else.

Centuries of warring between an ever-decreasing number of tribal confederations had resulted in a unified state. War had led to modernisation. When you went into a life or death battle, it didn't make sense to appoint your cousin to head the army - you found the best person available for the job.

Success at war required the raising of taxes and logistics, which in turn required building an efficient bureaucracy. Officials had to be educated people who knew what they were doing, and so a civil service based on merit resulted. To this day, the Chinese bureaucracy valued merit and education highest in its civil service. Other states that followed this model - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, for example - had also built highly effective states.

But the second feature of democracy, the rule of law, had not been established in China. The reason, Fukuyama said, was that legal restraints on the state had their origins in religion - "the only authority that can put limitations on what powerful people do".

Unlike India (Hinduism), the Arab world (Islam) and Europe (Catholicism), China lacked a "transcendental religion". To the present day, its legal system was too weak to check state power. Some laughs were raised when Fukuyama mentioned the reign of the Guptas in India's ancient past. He was nonplussed.

In Western political development, the rule of law developed before the modern state. Pope Gregory decreed Catholic priests and nuns should be celibate because he wanted to reduce the temptation of bending the law to favour blood relatives. It was, said Fukuyama, "a pragmatic decision".

The development of Roman law and the tradition of independent legal institutions in the 17th and 18th centuries saw to it that the law served the elite citizens of these nations and their property rights were institutionalised.

Fukuyama turned his attention to the final of his three themes - accountability. The medieval bodies, which kings had to consult to raise taxes, became places of accountability and, in the case of England, became a parliament.

Fukuyama précised the story of the struggle between England's parliament and the royalty - the beheading of Charles I and the ultimate victory of a balance between the state and parliament.

The result was that the world now had political systems in which the balance between the state, the rule of law and accountability leaned one or the other way.

India, which has no historical precedent for dictatorship, leans in the direction of accountability. China has a powerful impersonal state but little accountability or rule of law. That's why when the Chinese state wanted to build the three gorges dam, it simply moved 1.3million people out of the floodplain and got on with it.

But over the last 200 years, following the advent of industrialisation, the foundations have shifted. Per capita income is no longer held in check by population growth in the way it was in pre-industrial times. In the new "unusual world", growth outstrips population spurts, leading to the growth of a middle-class and new social groups, which wished to enter politics, especially in countries such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa.

China's middle class, now numbering between 300 and 400million, would begin to assert itself. There had recently been a rail accident involving school children, which the Chinese transport ministry had attempted to cover up by burying the carriages. Cellphone photos of the catastrophe hit the internet and the carriages had to be dug up and a proper inquiry held. In 40 years, China would be like America.

When Fukuyama had finished answering questions, many of which attempted - unsuccessfully - to wring political commentary on contemporary South Africa out of him, he was loudly applauded.

Afterwards I snuck backstage and got him to sign my first edition of The End of History. I was still a belieber.

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