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Decoding political power

A gripping inquiry into the historical causes of political decay.

books Updated: Sep 30, 2011 23:30 IST
Gautam Chikermane

Politics is decaying and it's time to study that decay. From India where the ongoing 2G scam is merely one of the several symbols of this putrefaction to the US that seems to be caught in a dysfunctional political equilibrium, citizens across the world can breathe easy. If understanding the malaise is crucial to negotiate the larger forces framing our ideas, jobs, wealth, our very lives, help is at hand. For starters, India is not alone.

"We have seen numerous examples of political decay," Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order, unarguably the most insightful look at politics. "The Ming Dynasty in China faced increasing military pressure from well-organised Manchu forces. Regime survival depended on the government's ability to … rebuild a professional army. None of these things happened … At this point in the dynasty, the regime had fallen into a certain comfortable relationship with the elites that would have had to shoulder a higher tax burden." Sounds familiar? It could be America's tomorrow, he warns: "Political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances," and that US political institutions are heading for "a major test of their adaptability".

Wide in its expanse, the book explores the success or failures of political institutions, from the 'big man' of Melanesian society to the obsession of Mamluk elite on internal power struggles that allowed the Ottomans to defeat them. Deep in its excavation, it bores into theory from practice ("theories ought to be inferred from facts, and not the other way around") and pulls out insights. Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford, uses material not only from history and politics, but anthropology, economics, biology and religion to decode power.

The intellectual inquiry is honest. Fukuyama is a brave Western scholar who begins his exploration from India and China rather than Athens, Sparta or Rome. He points out Karl Marx's error of clubbing India and China into a single 'Asiatic' paradigm. "Unlike China but like Europe, India's institutionalisation of countervailing social actors - an organised priestly class and the metastacisation of kinship structures into the caste system - acted as a brake on the accumulation of power by the state. The result was that over the past 2,200 years, China's default political mode was a unified empire punctuated by periods of civil war, invasion and breakdown, whereas India's default mode was a united system of petty political units, punctuated by brief periods of unity and empire."

It is not merely geography or warfare that contrasts India's political development from China's. The biggest differentiator is religion. While China's thrust was on ancestor worship, India took the idea further through the system of varna or social classes. "From the standpoint of politics," Fukuyama writes, "this was an extremely important development because it separated secular and religious authority." While the Chinese priests were employees of the state, Indian Brahmins were a separate varna from the Kshatriyas (warriors) and recognised as having a higher authority." It is from this, he argues, that India's relatively greater thrust on the rule of law germinates. It also explains India's democratic leanings. Around the second millennium BC, religion "evolved into a much more sophisticated metaphysical system. The new Brahmanic religion shifted the emphasis from one's genetic ancestors and descendants to a cosmological system. Access to this transcendent world was guarded by the class of Brahmins."

A rich exposition on the phenomenon of political decay, this gripping account ends with the French revolution. It leaves us gasping for the second volume that will "describe how political development occurs in the contemporary world" through the three components of industrialisation, economic growth and social mobility. As far as its analysis of the evolution of politics goes, this book - or passages from it - will definitely find its way into essential reading lists of universities.

What it lacks is in its analysis of psychological evolution of a society and its political institutions that are driven by the same vital warring instinct as their ancestors. How, for instance, physical barbarism has given way to economic barbarism. As we celebrate the growing tribe of billionaires, society's invisible expressions like inequalities will not be tolerated beyond a point. So far, that point is a comfortable distance away. But if the current system of political capture continues, decay is inevitable.