June 3, 2002
There must be a mischievous demigod somewhere who delights in dropping irresistibly pithy, provocative phrases into human intellectual history and watching subsequent generations innocently misuse them. For example: “the state of nature,” “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “the revolt of the masses,” “the culture of narcissism,” “the end of ideology,” and most recently, “the end of history.”
In 1989 Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?” appeared, followed by a tidal wave of commentary. Many readers took it for a simple celebration of America’s victory in the Cold War. But with the essay’s publication in greatly-enlarged book form, it became plain that Fukuyama was after bigger game. “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992) was a clearly written, carefully argued, philosophically and empirically rich meditation on the largest questions: What is the fundamental dynamic of history? Or is there more than one, and are they perhaps working at cross purposes? Can we, after the sound and fury of the twentieth century, discover meaning, direction, even progress in the historical record? No one can offer a plausible answer to these questions without combining Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and modern science into a coherent story, along with abundant illustrations from politics, economics, and sociology. Amazingly, Fukuyama did just that.
His conclusion (much simplified) was that, given late-20th-century human nature, liberal democratic capitalism is probable, optimal, and stable. That is, it’s where all present-day societies are tending, it’s a good place for them to be tending, and once they get there they’ll stay. Having sketched this big picture, Fukuyama next zoomed in to fill out the details. “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity” (1995) asked what makes liberal democratic capitalism tick. Science and technology, of course; but equally important is organization. Some forms of organization are better than others at fostering flexibility, innovation, economies of scale, and other commercial advantages. One essential prerequisite for efficient organization is trust, the ability to cooperate with those outside one's kin group. Societies vary greatly in their levels of this key variable. In general, the more prosperous societies (the US, Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, northern Italy) have higher levels than the less prosperous ones (Russia, China, India, Latin America, southern Italy). Explaining these variations led Fukuyama on many fascinating excursions into history, sociology, and anthropology, once again admirably narrated and analyzed.
“The Great Disruption” is somewhat less breathtaking in scope than its predecessors, though not much. From the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, throughout most of the industrialized world, social statistics showed a disturbing trend. Rates of crime, drug use, divorce, welfare dependency, and out-of-wedlock births rose sharply; while levels of trust and confidence in government, institutions, and fellow citizens dropped. Fukuyama does not, like some neoconservatives, merely assert these things; he provides lots of data. Nor does he, like them, blame it all on philosophical relativism, moral flabbiness, feminism, or rock ’n roll.
It was, rather, “the transition from the industrial to the information era,” with its myriad consequences, that produced the Great Disruption. “The changing nature of work tended to substitute mental for physical labor, thereby propelling millions of women into the workplace and undermining the traditional understandings on which the family had been based. Innovations in medical technology like the birth control pill and increasing longevity diminished the role of reproduction and family in people’s lives. And the culture of intensive individualism, which in the marketplace and laboratory leads to innovation and growth, spilled over into the realm of social norms, where it corroded virtually all forms of authority and weakened the bonds holding families, nighborhoods, and nations together.”
Actually, insofar as Fukuyama blames anyone for the Great Disruption, it’s adult males. Women’s increased economic independence and ability to control their fertility are, he acknowledges ungrudgingly, good things. But the result has been a precipitous decline in many men’s sense of responsibility for their children, and a corresponding increase in families without fathers. This breaks a key evolutionary link: the socialization by older males of younger males, whose seething energy is the primary source of either social dynamism or social disruption.
Naturally, increasing social disruption diminishes trust. So does increased global competition and economic insecurity. So do geographical mobility, mass culture, and couch potato-ism. People still associate, but the radius and intensity of their connections shrink. Meanwhile, an easygoing hedonism gradually undermines our capacity for fortitude and self-sacrifice. Can any of this be helped, or is it the inexorable trend of (post-)modernity? Must we continue to fragment and atomize until, a few generations hence, we reach terminal anomie?
Fukuyama doesn’t think so. Humans, he maintains, are “by nature designed to create moral rules and social order for ourselves.” The second half of his book is an inquiry into this rule-generating, self-organizing faculty, drawing on his usual wide range of sources in history, philosophy, and social science, with the addition this time of the new and promising discipline of evolutionary psychology.
Game theory, for instance, demonstrates mathematically that for most economic agents, honesty is the best policy and cooperation pays. Cognitive neuroscience is discovering brain modules that specialize in interpersonal perception and subvocal communication. Evolutionary theory explains how reciprocal altruism has developed in humans and a great many other species. Industrial sociology shows how decentralized networks grow and why, at a certain level of technological development, they outperform hierarchical systems. Perhaps most reassuringly, social history offers many examples of previous disruptions, great and small. Political, economic, and technological change have often strained, even exhausted a society’s cultural and moral resources. In particular, the shift from agriculture to industry in late18th- and early 19th-century Europe, as well as the settling of North America around the same time, produced extremely raw, violent societies, which were nevertheless tamed by the century’s end.
Besides, our own statistics have begun to improve. We may, Fukuyama speculates, already have turned a corner. In any case, he assures us, we eventually will. Social order is always fraying and being reconstituted. Human nature is tenacious but resilient.
Each of us, of course, is an expert on human nature. My own sense is that Fukuyama’s imagination is not quite equal to his very impressive intellect; i.e., the Great Disruption may be more fateful and permanent, for better and worse, than he makes out. Still, he has made out a great deal in this and his previous books, and will undoubtedly teach us a great deal more. Three seminal books in a mere seven years. What next?