The Big One


THE GREAT DISRUPTION: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order; By Francis Fukuyama; (The Free Press: 354 pp., $26)

Francis Fukuyama likes big subjects and bold claims. In 1989, he burst into public consciousness with his provocatively titled National Interest article, "The End of History," later expanded into a book, "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992). His thesis: Liberal, democratic capitalism represents the final stage in the Hegelian evolution of governing regimes, and the fall of the Soviet Union settled the debate. When the musical group Jesus Jones hit the pop charts with a 1991 song lauding the post-Cold War joys of "watching the world wake up from history," Fukuyama achieved a cultural penetration few intellectuals–let alone Hegel interpreters–dream of.

So what do you do after History? In his book, Fukuyama glumly imagined a boring, bourgeois life for the "last man": passive VCR-watching, perhaps enlivened by the pursuit of artistic perfection a la the Japanese tea ceremony. Life after History seemed to offer little to those once fired by high-stakes ideological struggle.

But Fukuyama is far too curious to stay bored. Market liberalism poses plenty of interesting challenges to the inquiring mind–not the least of which is what makes it tick. In his 1995 book "Trust," Fukuyama explored the role of "social capital" in creating prosperity. To flourish, he argued, economies need people who can spontaneously form communities, extending trust beyond the clannish bounds of kinship or the formal claims of contract.

"Trust" was an intelligent but rather conventional conservative-communitarian paean to the black box called "culture." It celebrated the Protestant ethic, hinted at the superiority of Japanese lifetime employment and declared that "the ability to obey communal authority is key to the success of the society"–an ability that contemporary American individualism was eroding. The message was troubled: America seemed to have lost the social habits that had made it a flourishing society. Fukuyama warned readers that "once social capital has been spent, it may take centuries to replenish, if it can be replenished at all."

In his new book, Fukuyama continues his emphasis on social capital. But "The Great Disruption" represents an important break with his earlier message and with the cultural pessimism that grips Washington intellectuals. "Social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade once again, and there are many indications that this is happening today," writes the upbeat author.

Fukuyama now explicitly rejects the idea, a commonplace among neoconservatives, that social capital is finite and static. It is not, he writes, "a rare cultural treasure passed down across the generations–something that, if lost, can never again be regained. Rather, it is created all the time by people going about their daily lives. It was created in traditional societies, and it is generated on a daily basis by individuals and organizations in a modern capitalist society." From "it may take centuries to replenish" to "it is generated on a daily basis" is quite a change of tone.

Before we get to the innovative, positive half of "The Great Disruption," however, Fukuyama takes readers through an eight-chapter section on what he argues are related social ills: increasing crime, family instability, a general decline in trust. Through a host of statistics and graphs, he seeks to demonstrate that a Great Disruption in norms–a breakdown of existing social order–did in fact occur, not just in the United States but in other developed countries. His international perspective avoids the trap of attributing general trends to country-specific events, such as the Vietnam War. He also undermines the conservative assumption that the '60s caused the disruption. The cultural upheavals of that period, he suggests, were a symptom rather than a cause.

Family life appears key to the Great Disruption's origins, at least if you believe that we learn how to relate to others first in the home. But Fukuyama notes that crime rates don't match up with the rise in divorce or unwed births. Crime shot up too soon: "There was evidently something beneath the surface of family domesticity in the 1950s that wasn't entirely right, since the generation growing up in it proved more than ordinarily vulnerable to a variety of temptations when they came into adulthood. . . . The onset of the Great Disruption needs to be traced to a factor common to both crime and family breakdown."

That factor, he argues, is disregard for traditional authority: "the rise of moral individualism and the consequent miniaturization of community." When individuals make their own moral decisions and insist on exercising the choices that market economies and advanced technologies enhance, the existing social order is disrupted. (Oddly, Fukuyama does not address the postwar expansion of education, which encourages individuals to think for themselves even as it enhances the knowledge economy.)

This argument gives the book's first section a conservative tone reminiscent of "Trust," especially in the chapter called "The Special Role of Women." For the first time in history, women in the West (and to a lesser extent in Asia) have the economic power and reproductive technologies to live independently of men–and even to support their children. As Fukuyama notes, this change is a product not primarily of government policy but of the economic shift from brawn to brains. The ratio of female-to-male earnings started rising in the mid-1960s. Not coincidentally, he suggests, this period "is a good starting date for the beginning of the Great Disruption." The emancipation of women, he implies, is at the root of social disorder.

Fukuyama is no misogynist, and the changing role of women is undoubtedly crucial to the social transformations that interest him. But his discussion of women's opportunities is unduly negative. One reason lies in his tendency toward determinism: Throughout the book, he treats "technology" and "the economy" as forces largely independent of important human goals. Yet technology by itself is not an explanation for change; it is only a vehicle for solving problems. New technologies do create options once foreclosed not just by authority but by practicality; individuals, however, must choose to exercise those options. What latent dissatisfaction, we're left to wonder, led people to make those choices? What was wrong with the world before the Great Disruption?

This blind spot leads Fukuyama to ignore the keen desire of women to escape their vulnerability to the whims of nature and of men, a desire that any search for the sources of new social capital must take into account. The evolution of the family in an individualist age must be one that allows women to feel that they and their children are secure, not trapped.

But just when you think "The Great Disruption" is only a more rigorous version of the usual conservative gripes, it veers into its second section, and entirely new vistas open up. In seven wide-ranging chapters, Fukuyama lays out his theoretical case for social optimism. Order breaks down, yes, but it also reemerges, because "we human beings are by nature designed to create moral rules and social order for ourselves." The answer to current problems is not "a full-scale retreat into one of the traditional cultures of the past" but a bottom-up dynamic process of developing new habits and institutions under changed circumstances. Just as we adapted to the move from farm to city, from the integration of home and work to their separation, we will adapt to the effects of contraception and a knowledge economy (and, Fukuyama might have emphasized more, to increasing longevity).

This engaging section is the heart of the book, its contribution to the cultural debate. It is informed by a rich body of important scholarship that is virtually unknown among not only East Coast intellectuals but also Wired-style exponents of the "New Economy." Drawing on serious empirical and theoretical work from fields ranging from evolutionary game theory to animal behavior, Fukuyama provides a lucid course in what he rightly argues is "one of the most important intellectual developments of the late twentieth century": "the systematic study of how order, and thus social capital, can emerge in a spontaneous and decentralized fashion." It is a mark of the book's sophistication that political scientist Elinor Ostrom and economic historian Douglass North, a Nobel laureate, loom larger than management gurus and "complexity" popularizers.

Self-organization, as Fukuyama depicts it, is what individuals do without hierarchical direction: It includes the informal norms that prevail in small groups of the sort in which human beings, and their primate ancestors, lived throughout most of our existence. He opens the section with the story of commuters from the Washington suburbs who line up at a local restaurant every day to take rides with complete strangers. By picking up two or three of these "slugs," a driver can use the carpool lanes and considerably shorten the trip into D.C. Over the years, Fukuyama reports, rules have evolved: "Neither cars nor passengers may jump the line; passengers have the right to refuse to get into a particular car; smoking and the exchange of money are forbidden." The system works because people trust each other as fellow government workers and because people voluntarily obey sensible rules. It is a small-scale model of self-organization and evolving norms. It illustrates how human beings naturally create social order and thus suggests the process through which the Great Disruption might be repaired.

In Fukuyama's version, self-organization does not account for what economist and social theorist F.A. Hayek called "the extended order"–the impersonal relationships that allow culture and trade to flourish among strangers. (Fukuyama attributes the term to Hayek but defines it as "the sum total of all the rules, norms, values, and shared behaviors that allow individuals to work together in a capitalist society." He thereby misses Hayek's crucial distinction between the extended order and small-group norms, which can be quite hostile to outsiders.) For extended orders, Fukuyama maintains, you need hierarchy. The rules are not instinctive and have depended on the authoritative lawgivers of religion and politics: "Culture with a capital C . . . does not have spontaneous roots."

No matter. Today's problems, he argues, come not from the absence of formal authority, which we have in abundance but from a breakdown of quotidian morality: "The reconstitution of social order for the United States and other societies in a similar position, then, is not a matter of rebuilding of hierarchical authority. It is a matter of reestablishing habits of honesty, reciprocity, and an enlarged radius of trust under changed technological circumstances."

He's right about the current situation but wrong to oppose hierarchy (or Culture) to spontaneity. If "human beings by nature like to organize themselves hierarchically," as he argues, leadership itself must often emerge spontaneously. The issue is one of levels: A leader proposes a hierarchy (an organization, strategy, plan of action, etc.) that must win converts, just as any new "slug" rule must. The emergence of new hierarchies is itself part of the spontaneous process of self-organization. The important contrast is not hierarchy versus spontaneity but persuasion (including competition) versus imposition.

Fukuyama, for instance, calls organized religions (as opposed to traditional folk religions) hierarchical without considering their evolution or, for that matter, their variety. This omission hurts his ability to imagine the sources of new order. What accounts for the development, within recent history, of the Mormon church or Pentecostalism, one hierarchical in organization and the other radically decentralized? Both were in fact spontaneous orders, rallying followers who felt moved by their spiritual insights, communal values and modes of worship.

These two movements were arguably responses to the last "great disruption," the social and economic changes of the 19th century. In his final section, a scant two chapters exploring life "After the Great Disruption," Fukuyama sets great store by the Victorian era's ability to transform a society of crime, grime and extraordinarily heavy drinking into the quintessence of propriety. We did it before and, he believes, we will do it again: The divorce rate has peaked, as have out-of-wedlock births. Welfare rolls and crime rates are dropping. Laura Schlessinger's "often censorious tone" has replaced feel-good pop psychologizing. The Million Man March and Promise Keepers have affirmed men's familial responsibilities.

All true, and undoubtedly a bottom-up response to social excesses. But Fukuyama's contribution would have been greater if he had extended his imagination beyond the comfortable conservative litany. Youth culture is full of indications of a new moral consciousness. If you're looking for meditations on "honesty, reciprocity, and an enlarged radius of trust" (not to mention awesome responsibility and problematic parenting), you can learn at least as much from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as from Dr. Laura.

Nor have traditionalist men been the only ones gathering on the Washington mall. By some counts, the 1993 gay rights march attracted as large a crowd as the ones inspired by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Promise Keepers, and it, too, had marriage as a central theme. The push for gay marriage–for the freedom to make commitments–marks a dramatic change not merely from the pre-Great Disruption days of the closet but from the aggressive libertinism of the 1970s. Whatever happens legally, a new order is already evolving in the lives of individuals, with the sanction of voluntary institutions, including many churches and employers.

Discovering such evolving orders requires a combination of journalism and cultural studies, not social science. That would not suit Fukuyama's preferred methodology and would take him into uncomfortable territory. And though such explorations would make the book more interesting and perhaps more convincing, they would not necessarily make it more influential.

"The Great Disruption" is an important and ambitious work. It promises to communicate unconventional ideas to political intellectuals bound by convention and thus to inject much needed vitality and realism into stale and stylized debates. In a nonthreatening and serious way, Fukuyama is making another bold, and I believe correct, claim: that the trial-and-error processes of a free society lead not to decay but to discovery, not to disorder but to new and ever-evolving forms of order.