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The end of complacency: Fukuyama on the grand accident of democracy

March 2, 2016 - 6:55pm -- Nick Young

In 1989, as communism was collapsing across Eastern Europe, Francis Fukuyama achieved intellectual celebrity—and notoriety—with a short essay, The End of History?  “We may be witnessing,” he wrote, “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” A quarter of a century later, he has not quite recanted. His latest work, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, elaborates a notion of “political development” that still presents liberal democracy as a culmination of human progress.  But getting there requires “three sets of institutions in perfect balance: a competent state, strong rule of law and democratic accountability” [25]. Developing these becomes “a universal requirement for all human societies over time” [37]. But develop them out of sequence or balance and you can end up end up with militarism (Prussia, Japan); clientelism (Greece, Italy), or authoritarianism (China). And even if you get everything about right, the institutions may atrophy and decay—as in today´s U.S.A—because of state capture by powerful interest groups and a surfeit of checks and balances that make government action extremely difficult.

Fukuyama’s model of political development in fact turns out to be so demanding, and so contingently rooted in European history, that only relatively few states, mainly clustered in northern Europe and its former colonies, have so far achieved it to a satisfactory degree.  For the rest of the world, the message appears to remain that there is no alternative, even though the model is very hard to replicate.  So it is far from clear what kind of claim is being made here about the “Globalisation of Democracy.” Has it arrived already or is it still on the way? Is it destiny, or merely desirable? And what does it mean to talk about the development of liberal democratic institutions as a “universal requirement of all human societies?”

Yellow peril in Africa? White folks should stop fretting.

May 14, 2015 - 1:08pm -- Nick Young

At the outbreak of Algeria’s war for independence in 1952, there were one million French settlers living in that country alone. Today, an estimated 250,000 people of Lebanese descent live in West Africa. Some two million people of Indian descent live in East and Southern Africa (not counting a million or so more on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion.) Numbers like these are worth bearing in mind when approaching Howard French’s book of anecdotal reportage, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. (Knopf, New York, 2014)

France’s post-imperial stress disorder

October 4, 2014 - 4:16pm -- Nick Young

A prizewinning novel explores France’s identity crisis with lyrical panache—and a painful look back at the not-so-glorious past. But hang on a minute. A weird undertow appears to suggest that the answer to present troubles lies in more, er, sexual congress.  Vraiment?  I thought it was more a matter of politics.

Alexis Jenni

L’Art Français de la Guerre (The French Art of War)

(Gallimard, Paris, 2013 folio edition, 776 pp)


France had a terrible 20th century.  One million six hundred thousand dead in a First World War that historians remain at a loss to explain. A squalid struggle with Britain for control of the Middle East, with a continuing legacy of seemingly endless violence.  Defeat and occupation in a Second World War that brought the additional ignominy of a puppet government collaborating with Nazism. Then a barbaric, failed effort to hold on to colonies in Indochina and Algeria. Finally, as the century drew to a close, propping up a crumbling dictatorship in Rwanda and intervening to protect its génocidaires. This was a long and hard fall for a nation whose 18th and 19th centuries saw prodigious scientific, intellectual and cultural achievement, prodigious imperial power, and prodigious belief in the virtues of French civilisation.

Don't fuck with America

December 9, 2013 - 12:00am -- Nick Young

Captain Phillips (Directed by Paul Greengrass, 2013) 

The most interesting question about this morality tale of American power efficiently eliminating vermin is whether it should be seen merely as a feel-good pot boiler or whether its uncompromising resistance to depth betrays a wider anxiety about the way the world is going.

“Imagining” genocide

October 23, 2013 - 5:36pm -- Nick Young

Rwandans living or travelling in the West must, I imagine, hate encountering the casual question, “So where are you from?” The answer will surely evoke either polite confusion or else impertinent enquiry. Were you (or your parents) among the killers or the victims, the interlocutor is too likely to wonder, so notorious is the Rwanda genocide brand. And are you a Tutti or a Frutti, or whatever they’re called? If I were Rwandan I would definitely make a habit of claiming to originate from Burundi—a place so few people outside of Africa have heard of that you could be fairly sure of keeping the conversation on an innocuous keel.

Having this year happened to become a temporary resident of Rwanda, I felt the need to situate myself with a bit of reading. And it’s impossible to get away from the genocide as the defining publishing event. So here’s my response to five of the most readily available texts—one ‘novel,’ one memoir, one work of ‘reportage’, one of journalistic analysis, one of scholarship. I review these in the order I read them. Four were written by white North American men, so there was a clear risk that they might say more about North American men, and their way of seeing, than about Rwanda. That’s certainly the case with the first, which disturbed me most but taught me least.

Ten days in hospital

October 23, 2013 - 2:49pm -- Nick Young

May has come to South London, blustery, fresh and often wet, but many Britons on the streets are sporting short sleeves and bare legs as if holidaying in the tropics. Even the hospital, stuffy and suffocating by tradition, turns out to be airy, with a chilly draught coming from the window berth I have luckily secured. Perhaps they’re saving on energy.

Our ward has a motley, shifting crew of patients. Of the languages I know, English is the only one that confers this subtly coercive title, redolent of the administrative grandeur that made it possible to run an empire, upon the bedridden malades, enfermos, bing ren.

Petroleum could make or break the East African community

October 23, 2013 - 1:16pm -- Nick Young

This piece was published in The East African in April, 2012, at a time when I busy getting Oil in Uganda up and running. That project occupied me for a year, but it is doing okay by itself now so am I free to think about other things.

The announcement last week of a promising oil discovery in Kenya, combined with news that Tanzania’s offshore gas fields are proving even richer than at first thought, raises the prospect of an East African region transformed by hydrocarbon wealth.

Deafblindness shows rights activism must be tempered with realism

October 23, 2013 - 1:05pm -- Nick Young

I offered this piece to The East African in early 2012. I wasn’t surprised that they turned it down. No-one likes to hear that equal rights have a price tag.

It was recently my privilege to do some consultancy work for SENSE International. This UK-based NGO is working in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with children and young people who are both deaf and blind.


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