Two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama argued that the collapse of communism in Europe had brought the world to "the end of history." After a century of battling its main rivals, principally fascism and communism, only liberal capitalist democracy remained. It had its flaws, but as a way of ordering society it was ideal because it balanced order and material comfort with liberty, equality and justice. When individual democracies - not least the United States - failed to live up to these standards, the fault lay with those societies rather than with democracy itself. From then on, Fukuyama claimed, all undemocratic societies would gradually evolve into democratic ones.
Fukuyama was much criticized when it appeared that history had not, in fact, ended in stubborn corners of the world such as the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. Then in September, 2001, al-Qaeda struck at the very heart of liberal capitalist democracy in the name of re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate, a very old version of history indeed.
Even more important was the counter-example of China, which enjoyed levels of economic growth and social cohesion once thought impossible for authoritarian regimes, much less communist ones. According to Samuel Huntington - who had once taught Fukuyama at Harvard University - the world was not witnessing "the end of history" so much as "the clash of civilizations."
Perhaps. But such criticisms missed Fukuyama's larger point, which was that economic and political modernization - capitalism and democracy - together provide the best means of governing modern societies. Although an air of Western triumphalism surrounded Fukuyama's work, he did not, in fact, argue that democracy was destined to spread inevitably or easily.
But spread it would, because no other system was capable of consistently providing people what they want - political autonomy, social stability and economic growth - over long periods of time. And in a globalizing world, its spread would be difficult to contain. If China is still a thriving autocracy 50 years from now, then Fukuyama's theory will need some work. But for now, it still seems valid.
In some sense, The Origins of Political Order is a more detailed version of The End of History. Fukuyama still makes the case for the superiority of liberal democracy. Comparing political history to biological evolution, he says that through war, trade and other forms of competition, people have been able to compare the effectiveness of different systems and measure democracy's advantages for themselves.
To prove his point, Fukuyama explores the large sweep of history, from the dawn of humankind up to the French Revolution, when democracy was a rarity. This is because The Origins of Political Order is the first of two volumes, and as such lays the foundations for the transformations wrought by the American, French and Industrial Revolutions. Here, he explains how humanity emerged from small groups, based around kinship and tribal loyalty, to larger, more complex societies rooted in impersonal ties that were nonetheless strong enough to keep a large body of people together, such as religion.
Aside from sweep and detail, in this book Fukuyama pays more attention to what it is exactly that makes liberal democracy function so well. His argument essentially boils down to three elements that must be evenly balanced: a competent state; the rule of law; democratic accountability.
It is rare for governments to have all three. China, for example, has a lot of the first, a little bit of the second and none of the third. Russia has a lot of the first, none of the second and some of the third. Afghanistan has some of the third (regular elections), but none of the other two. Somalia has none of them. And so on. The point is deceptively simple: The balance struck by societies in Europe, North America and parts of East Asia is vital but difficult to pull off.
The Tea Party and conservative Republicans should take note: Fukuyama's main message, that modern democracy and capitalism require a strong central government, runs counter to their basic political assumptions. Much of Africa, he provocatively points out, is "a libertarian's paradise," with almost no taxes, government regulation, labour unions or welfare states. Instead, these countries offer their people social instability, continual conflict and economic stagnation.
There is a reason why The Origins of Political Order may seem like a more cautious version of The End of History. Until his bitter break with the movement a few years ago, Fukuyama had been a prominent neo-conservative. While he was always much more subtle and interesting than his fellow neo-cons, his "end of history" thesis had all the hallmarks of neo-conservative thought, especially its hubristic sense of historical determinism.
But by his own admission, brilliantly laid out in his 2006 book America at the Crossroads, the march to war in Iraq made him rethink a lot of his own basic assumptions about politics and foreign policy.
Fukuyama now places as much emphasis on order as he does liberty. The result is The Origins of Political Order, his fullest, richest work yet. It is a lively, fascinating and readable milestone in historical and political sociology. It will also be an essential guide to the future direction of world politics.
Andrew Preston teaches modern history at Cambridge University, where he is a Fellow of Clare College.