Francis Fukuyama made himself famous overnight in 1989 with the claim—in his essay “The End of History?”—that history as we knew it had ended with the victory of liberal-democratic capitalism over Communism. In fact, his tract wasn’t as triumphalist as some now remember. Fukuyama wondered, with Nietzschean melancholy, whether citizens in the newly hegemonic West would lose spiritual and moral purpose now that the all-defining conflict with Communism was over.
Capitalism did win in 1989—no credible alternative has emerged—but capitalism didn’t lead to liberal democracy. Market systems turned out to be politically promiscuous: they could share a bed with any number of political regimes, from Nordic democracies to Singaporean meritocracies. In Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Western liberal democracy now faces a competitor Fukuyama did not anticipate: states that are capitalist in economics, authoritarian in politics, and nationalist in ideology. These new authoritarians are conducting an epoch-making historical experiment as to whether regimes that allow private freedoms can endure when they deny their citizens public freedom.
Fukuyama has now completed the second of two enormous tomes on the history of political development from the dawn of civilization to today. (The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution came out in 2011.) Far from recanting, he appears to double down on his original claim that history has a democratic destiny. After exhaustively and sometimes laboriously tracing the political development of societies around the globe—Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy is 672 pages long—he concludes that, yes, “there is a clear directionality to the process of political development.” Democracy is where political history is headed, he says, and “the prospects for democracy globally remain good.”