Some societies advance while others remain trapped in poverty and deprivation. Civil liberties flourished in the European West and North America, leaving other nations playing catch-up.

“The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty ” by James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu grapples with these realities, threading a narrative from the ancient tale of Gilgamesh to the modern power struggles in Syria. While the book skillfully connects events from world history in a captivating story, it prioritizes storytelling charm over the in-depth analysis readers may have anticipated.

Liberty lies at the heart of Robinson and Acemoglu’s theses. Their main argument is that liberty is a precursor to progress. Society consists of people who always desire liberty, which cannot be secured in anarchy; hence, order becomes a prerequisite. Consequently, people need a state to establish such order.

A society without a state or order offers unlimited freedom, resembling a Hobbesian state of nature, a “war of all against all,” as there are no rules but sheer chaos. Therefore, the state serves as a maintainer of order to protect liberty.

If the state is all-powerful (an omnipotent Leviathan), it can become despotic and curb freedoms. On the other hand, if society overpowers the state, it leads to total anarchy. Thus, a balance is referred to as the narrow corridor between society-led anarchy and state-led despotism.

The narrow corridor is a delicate balancing act, landing on a thin hair that, once achieved, can secure liberty. Liberty, in turn, fosters creativity and innovation, contributing to economic development.

According to the authors, the West developed, while the remaining world did not because it navigated through a narrow corridor and secured individual liberty, ultimately flourishing in economic progress.

This foundational framework guides the authors in explaining and evaluating the evolutionary trajectories of developed and non-developed countries.

Furthermore, the books balance the Rousseauian ideas of popular sovereignty and the Hobbesian Leviathan with absolute sovereignty. Concerning the state, the authors emphasize that the state’s power must be curtailed or checked to ensure the security of liberty.

The term “Shackled Leviathan” describes an ideal equipped and restrained state. However, they acknowledge the necessity of a Leviathan, similar to Hobbes, but they differ on the extent of powers it should possess. Therefore, it must be shackled by the social forces of society to secure liberty and achieve progress.

The narrow corridor expresses John Locke’s idea of a responsible and limited government where liberty and property are safeguarded.

Despite the expanse and breadth of the analytical framework, this book has certain limitations. It is based on broad generalizations about the state and society as different, disconnected entities.

From a sociological perspective, a lot occurs between the state and society, and sometimes, the boundaries become blurred when people working as extensions of the state machinery are active participants in civic life.

Additionally, a society without a state is not always anarchic, as evidenced by society predating the state. The nature of its custodial and normative sanctions further underscores that they provide a semblance of order even without strict state-commanded laws, the “social order.”

The culture and norms, though diverse, offer semblance and harmony to the social structure. A state can borrow from customs, make laws, and ensure a calculated order; however, it must be noted that society before the state was not an orderless anarchy.

Assuming that the pre-state world was all anarchy is a denial of the existence of any social order. Anarchy as a pre-state condition is rooted in Hobbes’ idea of human nature, which is selfish and brutal, motivated by a lust for power, greed, and a race for survival. This is a highly reductive view of human nature.

The recent surge in populism across Europe and the Americas unveils a facade of exuberant civility within Western systems. While populism may be a contemporary phenomenon, the stained history of the West, marked by war crimes and genocides, challenges the narrative of its development based solely on the value of liberty.

It prompts a critical question: liberty for whom? The authors posit that the West’s development was rooted in securing liberty, yet a closer examination reveals a nuanced reality. Liberty, as envisioned by the West, often translates to the freedom of its white citizens, while external interactions reflect a preference for enlightened despotism [see Mill] over those deemed unfit for liberty, construed as people from the third world.

The West’s prosperity, framed as a result of securing abstract values, disregards the historical reality of capitalist expansion and colonial occupation. The accumulation of material wealth through colonial extraction, mass killings, looting, and the slave trade contradicts the narrative that the West is rich solely due to its embrace of nuanced values.

This framing not only reeks of Euro-centrism but also perpetuates deeply entrenched epistemic orientalism, attempting to cast the world in the shadow of Western ideals. Presenting the capitalist liberal democratic model as the panacea is akin to administering a drug to the body politic, initially promising, but with time, it creates a toxic dependency, as evidenced in various debt trap practices worldwide.

The historical trajectory of Western development cannot be fully explained without referring to its colonial-capitalist past and its extravagantly debilitating, ecocidal effects on the environment.

While praising the progressive evolution of Western democracies, the authors suggest that the UK became a first-world country because it struck a nuanced balance between the state and society. The Magna Carta exemplified this balance, which set the sail for progress.

However, this explanation oversimplifies the situation, as the Magna Carta resulted from an intra-elite struggle that compelled the king to grant certain rights to barons, excluding the general public from its purview.

Furthermore, if the Magna Carta set the sails for progress, how do we explain the hundred-year, thirty-year, and two world wars? Did liberty in Western societies truly flourish during these periods? If so, where did the wealth come from? If the answer is the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, the question arises: where did they source their raw materials? Addressing these inquiries has the potential to challenge the Western narrative of progress.

According to the authors, Europe achieved the restraint of Leviathan, underwent the Renaissance, and secured liberty by combining the strict Roman legalist tradition with German democratic tribal values.

However, this prompts the question: if the West has followed the right path for centuries, how did fascism emerge in European Germany, Italy, and Spain? Some of these responses lack a sophisticated theoretical foundation; instead, they rely on cherry-picked facts from the archives of an otherwise racialized imperial history.

In the context of the Western material progress narrative, it cannot be dissociated from colonial violence and extraction. The depiction of a shackled leviathan is insufficient, as history cannot be lulled into silence. It has only been three decades since apartheid, one of colonialism’s most discriminatory exports, was abolished in South Africa.

Similarly, even if it is acknowledged that the third world should follow a narrow corridor, the problem persists. Third-world countries, economically entwined in a toxic dynamic with the world order, cannot escape.

There is no independence in following that narrow corridor either, as superpowers interfere in the affairs of impoverished nations. Many of these states are caught in debt cycles, having forfeited their freedom to the IMF or World Bank.

The author’s framework overlooks the role of interference in the political systems of poor countries. It is a well-documented fact that the USA supported dictatorial regimes worldwide during the Cold War, pursuing its interests.

Robinson and Acemoglu have introduced a fresh jargon to an otherwise oft-told story of Western progress. Credit must be given to the overall framing of the book, as it connects different narratives from history, making it entertaining enough for pleasure reading.

However, when it comes to analysis, it falls short of rigorous depth. The framing is reductive and exclusive. In other words, it is a flowery defense of liberalism. As the story goes, the security of liberty leads to industrial capitalism and, hence, progress.

The prescriptive path is problematic and ignores its baffling consequences. At best, it is a fascinating story, while at worst, it is a liberal apologia for the vagaries of modernity. Perhaps the narrow corridor isn’t broad enough to allow people of color to pass through.

*The author is a Political Science graduate from GCU, Lahore, with interests in Political Theory and Western Philosophy.

**The views expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the content of this review.

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