Can we trust the men in suits?

Francis Fukuyama's new thesis goes a long way towards explaining the appeal of Louis Farrakhan; The bow ties, the short hair, are a deliberate affront to liberalism
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"The contemporary black underclass in America today represents what is perhaps one of the most thoroughly atomised societies that has existed in human history." So writes Francis Fukuyama in his new book Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, published this week. Also this week, 400,000 black men marched on Washington under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. The quote and the march form a perfect and harmonious, though depressing counterpoint.

Fukuyama's book is about what he calls "social capital". This means the social, as opposed to merely economic, structures that make successful societies. Trust lies at the heart of these structures, since it smooths the operation of society, lowering transaction costs and encouraging the formation of large corporations, institutions and networks. Social capital precedes capitalism and, when capitalism emerges, softens its worst effects.

Japan, with its elaborate networks and conventions, provides the supreme contemporary model of high trust capitalism. Urban black America, with its guns, drugs and broken families, is the supreme contemporary model of the failure of trust.

Farrakhan has much in common with Fukuyama. He, too, sees the importance of social cohesion. He understands how badly the American blacks have performed in comparison with other ethnic minorities. Both men observe the success of the Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese in America and then both ponder the catastrophic failure of the blacks to form businesses, law-abiding communities, stable families, workable lives. Fukuyama blames the deracinating effects of slavery; Farrakhan blames genocidal white racism.

Farrakhan's response is an intense conservatism. The suits and bow ties, the short hair, the demands that black men accept their family responsibilities all represent an attempt to impose a viable social order on the chaos of the inner cities. They also represent a deliberate affront to liberalism and libertarianism.

Once Martin Luther King's civil rights movement could elide effortlessly into the anti-authoritarian politics of the Sixties. To support King's efforts to raise black consciousness was an essential part of the liberal- hippie package. But Farrakhan's version of black consciousness is nothing to do with sloppy liberalism, with its jeans and niceness, nor with libertarianism and its culture-dissolving free-for-all. He wants a culture, he wants suits, bow ties and a separate nation, a nation in which American blacks can, finally, establish their true racial supremacy. He wants a future that inverts the past: a future of neat blacks and messy whites.

This sort of nightmare has been afflicting American liberals rather a lot lately. Lee Kwan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, has led an Asian challenge to the intellectual supremacy of the American liberal model. His clinically clean brand of authoritarian capitalism is held up as a reproof to the mess and decadence of American society. Asia, says Lee, doesn't need your rights and your perverse obsession with individual freedom; Asia has its own methods and these will, in time, defeat an atomised America.

One way or another, men in suits - orientals or blacks - are telling liberal Americans that they have got it wrong; that, in time, the suits will prevail. Liberals in their jeans lack the discipline to resist.

Both Lee Kwan Yew and Farrakhan are guilty of the most crass simplifications. Lee and the peripatetic Singaporean diplomats who propagate his gospel at conferences around the world say that America in particular and the West in general will destroy themselves because of their crippling burden of ultra-individualism. Individualistic societies will inevitably fragment under the burden of capitalism while Asian societies, with their group consciousness and willing submission to authority, will cohere all the more effectively.

Farrakhan insists that only by separating themselves from decadent, oppressive, white society can the blacks attain their promised land. The whites, the Jews in particular, are simply the genocidal oppressors. By imposing discipline and group consciousness the blacks can outflank the liberal whites.

But, as Fukuyama points out, an America of ultra-individualism is almost as much of an illusion as an Asia of solid group loyalty. American capitalism was founded on the group consciousness of protestantism and the abilities to associate and submit to corporate authority. Both IBM and Microsoft would have been unthinkable if American really was an individualistic as the Singaporeans claim.

Equally, Chinese-based societies do not have the group mentality of the Japanese. They are family-centred and trust is, in the main, only extended through kinship. They may, for the moment, thrive. But can they form large, stable, modern corporations and institutions? Nobody yet knows.

But what about Farrakhan and the blacks he aspires to lead? This is, in many ways, the big question, the question that comes prior to America's ability to compete with the East. Namely, can America sustain a stable, ethnically plural society when a large proportion of that society - the blacks - is failing to integrate and, in defiance, identifying itself as outcast? If the answer is no, then booming Asian capitalism is the least of America's problems.

Clearly the Farrakhan solution is the worst possible. A black nation constructed on his principles would be a fantasy land, a hard-line Islamic dictatorship, Iran without the oil or the political sophistication. But, equally clearly, there is something about such racial extremism that works in America. American politics, probably because of the excessive legalism of the society, are absolutist. Extremism and simplification, frequently from ethnic minorities beyond the reach of liberal criticism, are accepted and celebrated. If you have a strong, simple point, you will be on television and, if you are on television, you have a constituency.

This is the real problem. Farrakhan and his sinister, shaded henchmen only exist as a political force because of the American need for strong, simple images and strong, simple solutions. They are a symptom of the corrosion of sophistication in American politics. In Fukuyama's terms they are a symptom of the loss of trust, the destruction of social capital. If America persists in such confrontations, based on the airless, legalistic language of rights or the bitter tribalism of race, then there is no hope. Farrakhan may as well have his nation and OJ Simpson will be forever innocent "because" of white racism.

Can the Americans escape from these increasingly crude confrontations and then, of course, can we? Fukuyama says "social capital is like a ratchet that is more easily turned in one direction than another". In other words: it is easier to lose trust than to rebuild it. Farrakhan is the omen of a trustless world that must fall back on crude tribalism. On Broadwater Farm our own Wayne X apes this grim prophet, happily with little success. But there is still time and any number of baffled, British liberals ready to forgive the unforgivable merely because it is black and even though it wears a suit.

'Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity' by Francis Fukuyama is published by Hamish Hamilton, pounds 25.