National identity can drive development, says Fukuyama

Speaking to a full Linder Auditorium  in Johannesburg on May 10, Francis Fukuyama ticked off the three things he sees as the key elements of a successful modern nation: an “impersonal” state, the rule of law and accountability.

A guest of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (where he teaches an intensive course for mid-level civil servants) and the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, he ignored the advertised title of his address (The End of the End of History …), and sharply but in an easy, conversational style summarised the key points of his 2011 book, The Origins of Political Power, the first of two volumes (the second will be out next year) on how societies develop economically and politically.

In his Linder talk, Fukuyama, who is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford, contrasted two forms of state: the modern constitutional-democratic state versus the patrimonial version that was, with long and painful struggle, displaced by the modern kind in the West. The patrimonial state, of course, is the older and more traditional: the family is the basic unit of association and the model of power relations from tribal chieftaincies to absolute monarchies. This is the state as, essentially, an extension of the royal household.

The challenge today is to build states that are “impersonal” and offer equality to all before the law. Economic development is unlikely without such a state, though China has done rather well in that regard — without rule of law or real accountability. Fukuyama puts this down to the specialised, meritocratic bureaucracy, the mandarinate that emerged two millennia ago and still survives. This tradition has also benefited the East Asian states that developed so rapidly over the past few decades.

I met Fukuyama the day after his talk and asked specifically about South Africa and where he sees it going. If we’re at a kind of developmental crossroads as a country, he implies, the pointers are to Asian-style rapid development versus the kind of patrimonial, pseudo-monarchic state seen in so many African countries.

“South Africa’s constitutional democracy is a sort of foreign body that’s sitting on top of a society that’s not modernised in other respects,” says Fukuyama. “The state that was inherited from the apartheid era was a pretty modern, well-functioning state but, of course, access to it was restricted to white people. Naturally, when it opened up, those who had been excluded wanted to control it.”

Payoffs for political support
Around Africa, he says, “the colonial state was seen as something to be captured” because it offered control of resources. “So, after independence, you get a whole lot of fighting over the state.” Patrimonialism, he says, is humanity’s default option when it comes to elite formation. Even in highly developed democratic states, a kind of political patrimonialism can take hold: “In the 1820s, Andrew Jackson was the first populist [American] president and he said: ‘I won the election so I choose who staffs the American government.’ It wasn’t just ‘I’m going to pick ministers and they’re going to set policy’, it was ‘I’m going to put my people throughout the bureaucracy, because they need jobs and they’ve been denied access to the system’.

“It’s a perfectly natural tendency to want, in the name of political control, to distribute positions in the state as payoffs for political support. But that weakens the state because it’s not impersonal, it’s not based on merit.”

Apart from state officials appointed on the basis of merit rather than political affiliation, countries hoping to develop also seem to need a strong sense of national identity. “In the second volume [of The Origins of Political Order], I’ve got a comparison of Kenya and Tanzania. Julius Nyerere, for all his other dumb policies, really invested in a concept of Tanzanian identity, in Swahili as a national language, and so forth, and that I think has allowed that country to avoid the kind of ethnic fighting over spoils that has wrecked Kenya.

“In Kenya, ethnic identities override any sense of shared national community. It shows up in corruption. A lot of corrupt politicians aren’t stealing on behalf of themselves, they’re stealing to feed a clientelistic patronage machine that’s based on ethnic identity. They’re trying to feed their supporters … But that’s what happens in the absence of a sense of national identity.”

Could South Africa’s “developmental state” provide a model of how the state can push development?

“The big problem with the idea of a developmental state is that, once the state gets into the business of handing out resources in different industrial sectors, there’s a great temptation to politicise them according to noneconomic criteria, so you’re basically paying off supporters rather than investing in things that will provide downstream economic benefits.

“The real debate for South Africa is whether it could implement an Asian-style industrial policy, or is it likely to be dragged back into patrimonialism?”

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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