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Francis Fukuyama is famous for something he did not say. The book which made him a household name in the early 1990s was entitled, a little too grandiosely, The End of History and the Last Man. Hasty critics took him to be saying that history had come to an end, that Western ideology was now all-powerful, and that therefore there would be no more major conflicts of any kind. With every conflict that erupted after the publication of that book, from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the terror campaigns of al-Qaeda, commentators queued up to pour scorn on the naive Japanese-American political scientist who had claimed that nothing like that would ever happen again.

Except that he hadn't. Fukuyama's argument may have been wrong, but it was neither naive nor crude. His claim was that with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the discrediting of Communism, the ideology of liberal democracy was emerging as the one political ideal that was guaranteed to gain more and more support worldwide, until it eventually displaced all others. Rival ideologies would continue to exist for a long time (ethno-fascism and religious fundamentalism being just two examples), and would no doubt continue to cause conflicts. But no new kind of ideology would emerge; and the path towards liberal democracy would function overall as a one-way street, gaining more and more satisfied customers, for whom the other ideologies would gradually lose their attractions.

One peculiar feature of the book was its invocation of Hegelian philosophy, at least as interpreted by the Russian-French thinker Alexandre Kojève; this seemed intellectually self-indulgent at the time, and does not come out well at a second reading. For Fukuyama is not a philosopher; nor is he a scholar. Rather, he is a "big picture" political scientist, who works through the writings of scholars seeking answers to questions larger than the ones posed by those scholars themselves. He follows in the path of his Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington, whose wide-ranging work on the growth and decay of political order (as opposed to his later, more question-begging work on the "clash of civilisations") has long been his intellectual lodestar.

Fukuyama's new book, The Origins of Political Order, is the first of a projected two-volume study of the biggest question of all in political science: how have human beings developed the large-scale political structures that give them stability, justice and prosperity? To answer it, he looks at all kinds of evidence, from the workings of hunter-gatherer societies to the collapse of ancien régime France in 1789 (everything since then will be in the second volume); but he concentrates above all on the histories of China, India, the Islamic world and Western Europe.

According to Fukuyama, the best kind of political organisation has three essential components: a state structure (a central administration over a whole population, capable of administering justice, raising taxes and maintaining armies to defend it); the "rule of law" (a phrase for which he develops a rather special meaning of his own); and some sort of accountability of the rulers to the ruled (of which modern democracy is the purest, but not the only, form).

Traditional theories of the development of modern societies, from the Enlightenment to Karl Marx and beyond, assumed that there was one single process that would lead people step by step to modernity: from pastoralism to feudalism, say, and from feudalism to commercial or "bourgeois" society. Fukuyama's most radical claim is that the essential components of the modern state do not evolve in any interconnected way. You can have one without the others; and if you do, the possession of that one component may actually prevent you from acquiring the rest.

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