European politics was long defined through the institutions of monarchy and aristocracy. Title and wealth were passed down through generations. Patrimonialism is a political system based on inheritance. It is not a Western tradition. The Chinese Empire is divided into Dynasties based on lineage. Even today, modern society has never completely eradicated patrimonialism. The business empire of Donald Trump has been handed down to his sons Don, Jr. and Eric. The rise of corporations and professional managers mark a transition from patrimonial inheritance to professional management within business, but large organizations still remain passed on from generation to generation.
Francis Fukuyama has made patrimonialism central to his account of political modernization. In The Origins of Political Order, he argues it arises from a biological urge within all humans to care for their children. He cites some scientific research that shows there is a link, but never accounts for why those same emotions are established for adoptive children. Is it biological or institutional? Fukuyama goes on to establish the natural drive to create institutions based on inheritance or family. Modernization becomes the challenge to establish institutions established on a different foundation than blood relations.
Patrimonialism, according to Fukuyama, is based on genuine familial love. This makes sense in a normal, healthy family. But the stories of monarchs and aristocrats do not reflect normalcy. Malcolm Gladwell would call them Outliers. The Shakespearean play King Lear gives the account of a King whose sons turn against him after he relinquishes his kingdom. The story must have held cross-cultural resonance because Akira Kurosawa based his movie Ran on this classic play.
The relationships between monarchs and their successors was frequently strained. Paul I resented Catherine the Great resented her for the death of his father Peter III who was not his actual biological father. The Empress Wu is known for killing her children to ascend to the throne. Finally, Tutmos III erased his predecessor, Hatshepsut, from the historical record in Egypt. There are many examples of sons who led rebellions against their fathers. The intermarriages of the monarchs of Europe did nothing to reduce the thirst for war and conflict.
Freud established the Oedipus Complex in his work The Interpretation of Dreams. The theory has been derided as overly sexual, but the theory says less about sex and more about authority. The desire of the son is to replace his father. This is institutional rather than biological. The desire exists because the father provides an authoritative role within their relationship. Patrimonialism establishes institutions like monarchy and aristocracy where the parent is the authority. But Freud noted healthy people outgrow the Oedipus Complex. It is absurd to believe the child could replace their parent or that the death of their parent is necessary to establish their own authority.
Patrimonial institutions are different. The father becomes the barrier for the son to assume authority. A peerage is more than an inheritance. It was a social identity. But a grown son who waits and waits for his patrimony has no social identity until the death of his father. Patrimonialism created tension between the institution aristocracy and the institution of family. While the institution of family could reinforce patrimonial institutions, monarchy and aristocracy undermined the basis of the family.
An earlier work from Fukuyama, Trust, merged ideas about economics and social capital. But he extends many of his ideas about patrimonialism into the economic institutions. The family business is patrimonial. The children inherit the company from their parents. It is difficult to pass companies onto future generations because the priorities and goals of future generations change. Leadership is established through lineage rather than merit. Large corporations find it necessary to transition leadership from the family to professional managers. Some companies make the transformation early in their existence. It is not uncommon for the founder of a startup to step down as the organization grows. Professional managers take over as CEOs because they are better equipped to manage the challenges of a large organization.
Fukuyama calls the tendency of families to rise and fall the “Buddenbrooks” phenomena, based on the Thomas Mann novel. Yet professional managers suffer similar struggles. Ford Motor Company was founded on the ingenuity of Henry Ford and a resurgence under his son, Henry Ford, Jr. The professional managers who replaced the Fords have had mixed success.
And the professionalization of management does not always work for startups. It is laughable when Fukuyama refers to the transition from Steve Jobs to John Sculley as important for Apple’s evolution as a company. He notes how founders rarely have the skill or ability to manage companies as they mature. Little did he know professional managers would nearly bankrupt Apple before Steve Jobs rescued the company through the insights and determination only a founder can provide.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org