In general I try to avoid having academic heroes, as the foundation of the academy lies in a constant casting aside of received wisdom and questioning of what is taught. Become too attached to the work of one individual - or even worse, to the individual themselves - and suddenly you have a conflict of interest when you go in search of the truth. And while it's embarrassing to see undergraduates fawn over the latest craze, sadly that doesn't compare to the sight of me fawning over Samuel Huntington. The conservative political scientist - tutor to Francis Fukuyama and Fareed Zakaria, and who died in 2008 - is one of the reasons I became involved in the serious study of history and politics. His The Clash of Civilization was the first serious book of political analysis I read, if we discount Ayn Rand (and we do). But that is a mere footnote compared to his 1968 masterpiece, Political Order in Changing Societies.

I had the good fortune to be reading this book as the Arab Spring began a year ago, after the events in Tunisia but before the coup in Egypt. Rarely has anything echoed so loudly through the decades. Political Order is Huntington's attempt to explain the process of political change which has gripped the Third World in the last century or so, as the demands of changing societies have nibbled at established political systems and eventually overturned them. In this book, Huntington gave us a stark and clear framework for understanding the process of change unfolding in countries like Egypt today.

Prior to Huntington's book, most academic explanations of political change in the Third World followed in a traditional, ethnocentric framework. The general view was that the undeveloped countries of the world were gradually developing and becoming more like modern, Western countries. Observers didn't bother themselves too much with getting to understand the intricacies of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America because they were content that all of them would eventually become much like the United States - free-market democracies, with liberty and justice for all. Out of this came the belief in what Huntington called "the unity of goodness" - that economic, political and social freedom would all inevitably emerge at the same time, and be compatible, much as they seemed in the contemporary United States.

Huntington took a hammer to these complacent and thoroughly ethnocentric conclusions. It was lazy analysis to ignore the salient features of developing countries themselves and merely assume they were on a path to resemble us, he said. Instead, he set out to analyze the process of social and political change as it actually happened in the Third World, taking account of the motivations of various groups involved as viewed them their own perspective. Cutting through the rhetoric about "revolution" and progress we can hear so loudly coming from western discussions of events in Cairo or Damascus today, he insisted on dwelling on the potential of political change. What emerged was a much more realistic appraisal of events.

According to Huntington, political change in countries like Egypt or even China today comes about because the demands of society eventually outstrip the abilities of the political system to respond. This might sound terribly abstract but it's really quite simple. Dictatorships or military governments are usually responsive to only a small group of people: these people determine how the government rules, and everyone else has to put up with it. Democracies, in contrast, are much more inclusive and responsive due to open media and regular elections.

Political change in the Third World happens when narrow governments - dictatorships - become overwhelmed by the desire of the people to have their voices heard and to have a say in how they are governed. This might manifest itself in protests, through armed insurrection, or in more subtle ways. The key point is that the "changing societies" of Huntington's title overtake the "political order", and threaten it; just like what happened in Egypt and Tunisia recently.

Change in the society can come about in a variety of ways, but what they have in common is that they evoke political consciousness and make the country's population suddenly unwilling to put up with their political system. The most common agent in this change is not - as might be expected - severe repression, but actually rapid development. Many revolutions from the French through to the Mexican and the Egyptian were preceded by rapid economic growth and social change, not stagnation; it was precisely this development that gave citizens new interests to defend against their rulers, and provoked them to raise their voices in protest and demand a say in how they are governed.

So far this narrative is not too different to that of the complacent, but here is Huntington parted ways: societies caught up in this process, he suggested, can expect not a utopian future of modern luxury and participatory democracy, but a long, slow and probably bloody grind as they develop the political institutions necessary to accomodate and satisfy social change. That the process would be lengthy should hardly be surprising given the history of Britain and America, and the civil wars and other trauma which they had to overcome before becoming the countries they are today.

Huntington showed how in truly modern societies, political stability rests on neutral institutions which arbitrate between the various groups in society and prevent one from dominating the other, and he also showed how it could take decades for trust in such institutions to develop. And when institutions that formerly played this role - such as the army in Egypt - suddenly ceased doing so, a terrible vaccum of legitimacy could emerge and civil war could break out between various groups in society as they tried to impose their will upon others, lacking as they did a any political system through which they could live peacefully together.

What was remarkable about Huntington's thesis in this book was that it challenged the "unity of goodness", and showed how rapid economic and social progress could actually undermine political stability and hence lead to chaos and violence. This was illustrated by Huntington's most sensational claim, which was that the United States and Soviet Union had more in common with each other than they did with any country in the Third World, as both possessed political stability which matched the aspirations of their society. Huntington here gave us the central insight that in one sense what matters is not how a country is governed, but whether it is governed at all - an insight ignored by the United States when it toppled the government of Saddam Hussein and unleashed chaos in its wake. And an insight which, while we hope not, may also be vindicated as we continue to watch events unfold across the wider Middle East.

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