Books: What happens after the end of history

The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order by Francis Fukuyama Profile pounds 20
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Economists, sociologists, cultural critics all agree that our society has undergone a profound transformation in the last four decades. We have seen a shift from heavy industry to service industry, from the production of things to the production of information, from class to individual, from nation to globalisation. The shape of this new society is still not at all clear: hence the tendency to describe it negatively, as "postmodern", "post-industrial", or "post-Fordist". Francis Fukuyama prefers a more positive label: we have entered, he says, "the Information Age". But he is not concerned here to do more than gesture to its leading characteristics. Instead he focuses on a single neglected aspect of it. For Fukuyama contends that the transition to the Information Age has been accompanied by "seriously deteriorating social conditions in most of the industrialised world" - by the "breakdown", in fact, of "moral order".

The decline Fukuyama detects is reflected in three principal, related developments: the rise of crime, the decline of the two-parent family and the contraction in the "radius" of trust and co-operation. Statistics suggest that rates of theft were 16 times higher in the US in 1991 than they were in 1953. Of the 67 per cent of children born to married parents in the US in the 1990s, a full 45 per cent will see their parents divorce by the time they are 18. In 1958, 73 per cent of Americans surveyed said they trusted the Federal Government to do what was right "most of the time"; by 1994 the figure had fallen as low as 15 per cent. These statistics are American but, as Fukuyama shows, the trends they represent occurred all over the Western world (although not, significantly, in the rich, newly industrialised economies of South East Asia).

Fukuyama argues, convincingly, that these are dramatic and genuine trends, which can't be explained away by changing methods of recording crime or measuring trust. Granting he is right, what lies behind them? Everyone will have a favourite answer. The left blames rising levels of inequality, unemployment, racism and the lack of opportunity for the worst-off members of society. The right locates the problem with the dependency culture generated by the welfare state, the rise of permissive, relativistic values and the decline of religion. Feminists argue that the rise in single- parent families is not necessarily a bad thing in itself and, in so far as it is, the blame (like the blame for crime) lies with men.

The forces at work are, in fact, very obscure and it is a pity that Fukuyama does not seem able to shed much light on them. He rejects a number of arguments, maintaining for instance, that there is no established link between inequality and crime, while denying that cultural changes could alone account for the "great disruption". Otherwise he cites, in no particular order, myriad possible causes, hardly bothering to distinguish between them. He suggests these social changes are all somehow related to economic change, but also concedes that there are probably broader cultural forces at work; he is convinced that the decline of two-parent families has contributed importantly to the "denorming" process but also admits that if this was the case, you would expect the rise of divorce and single-parent homes to precede the rise in crime and fall in trust, when in fact they developed together. While he makes a point of saying that men are more responsible than women for the "breakdown of the family", he can not help falling into the language of right-wing anti-feminists.

But if Fukuyama stops a long way short of a complete explanation, he does offer an interesting reading of the phenomenon itself as a depletion of "social capital" - sociologese for that trust which, when it exists among members of a group, allows for co-operation between them. The importance of social capital has often been overlooked by the left and right. The right likes to think society can be secured by a combination of enlightened self- interest and strong state; the left has appealed to humanity's innate altruism while in practice also relying on a strong state. But the happiest, most successful communities, Fukuyama suggests, are founded on more than self-interest and less than selflessness. They draw on a limited, enlightened sense of mutual benefit: a willingness to put oneself out, to restrain oneself, to adhere to social rules on the understanding that others will do the same. This is the "art of association", that willingness to cooperate, that Hegel and de Tocqueville identified as essential to a stable, well- ordered liberal society. Much like economic capital, social capital reproduces itself fairly easily, but once it goes into decline, the fall can be hard to stop.

Fukuyama's new book, however, is by no means a counsel of despair. On the contrary, he suggests that there is good reason to think that the decline in trust and reciprocity that has accompanied the rise of the Information Age will correct itself, and, in the central part of this book, turns to evolutionary biology to explain why. The argument is, in essence, fairly simple. Economists have long worked on the assumption that agents are purely self-interested. Yet even egotists have an interest in the development of communities where high levels of trust and honesty obtain. More than this, there is strong evidence that sociability or "virtue" of a limited kind is wired into us; just because, ultimately, virtue is in our long term interest, individuals who behave virtuously have survived against those who don't. Aristotle was right more than 2,000 years ago: we are by nature "social creatures".

In one of the most interesting chapters of this book, Fukuyama explores the limits to the spontaneous generation of social order, arguing that our natural sociability would never alone give rise to a large-scale advanced society. It will ensure co-operation among small groups, but formal political and religious authority, with its written laws and controlled use of violence, is needed to sustain large, multi-ethnic states. Fukuyama gives short shrift to those who think that the state might ever wither away. Nevertheless, the state channels and makes use of - and ultimately depends on - our limited but natural sociability.

We are now, according to Fukuyama, in a better position to make sense of "the great disruption". As he explains, unlike many Third World countries, the advanced societies of the West are already stable entities: political authority is long-established and secure. They have lost, however, "the art of association" that is, in a sense, natural to us. "The reconstitution of social order in the United States and other societies in a similar position is not a matter of rebuilding of hierarchical authority. It is a matter of re-establishing habits of honesty, reciprocity and trust under changed technological circumstances."

Fukuyama's analysis, however, gives us reason to be optimistic. For one lesson of his story is that we are naturally inclined to forge trusting, mutually beneficial social networks. As he points out, crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour have risen before, in the middle third of the 18th century for instance, only to fall again. Against those who see market societies as inherently unstable, on the grounds that the self-interest they encourage undermines their moral roots (a position to which Fukuyama himself subscribed in his famous, much debated The End of History), he now contends that commerce and other types of interaction characteristic of the Information Age are socialising - the new high-tech service industries, in fact, place more trust and responsibility in their workers than the old factories ever did. And indeed, there is evidence that we are now on the upward turn of a U-bend: crime is declining, trust is growing, divorce rates are down, especially but not exclusively in the US.

This then is Fukuyama's argument. It has the merits and the defects of his work as a whole. It is bold, imaginative and often insightful. Evidence is nicely handled, ideas vividly explicated. Fukuyama has a healthy respect for rigorous abstract academic theories, while resisting the reductive, diminishing tendencies of some of them. Yet looked at a little closer, its argument is often ill defined, hazy or simply unconvincing. Why do we need the whole Darwinian superstructure to tell us that we flourish in trusting communities, in which we give as well as take? Why exactly did the "great disruption" occur and by what process is it being mended? How might the lessons from evolutionary biology be usefully applied? These uncomfortable questions find nothing close to an answer. Still, this is a better book than The End of History. More rigorous, subtler, more penetrating.