Anthony Dworkin applauds the ambition of Francis Fukuyama's three synoptic books on the end of history, social capital and human nature, but finds them all wantingby Anthony Dworkin / July 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Ten years ago, in the summer of 1989, a short article under the byline of Francis Fukuyama appeared in the neo-conservative American journal, the National Interest. At the time, few outside the world of Washington policy analysis would have been familiar with the author-a mid-level state department official and expert on Soviet relations with the third world. But almost overnight, the article transformed him into one of the most talked-about intellectuals in the US. It was titled “The End of History?” and proposed that liberal democratic capitalism had been established as the ultimate form of organisation for human society.
Fukuyama’s article was not particularly scholarly or rigorous, nor even original. He made no secret of his debt to the Frenchman Alexandre Kojeve. The article updated Kojeve’s ideas and applied them to the world at the end of the cold war. What set Fukuyama apart was his boldness and his timing. Even before the fall of the Berlin wall in the autumn, the tumultuous events of 1989 seemed to call for an intellectual response on a grand scale-and Fukuyama’s thesis stood alone in the sweep and ambition of its argument.
Fukuyama’s article developed into a book, The End of History and the Last Man, and his intellectual celebrity was established. It was not that his argument swept all before it; for all the attention it attracted, it was more often scorned than applauded. Fukuyama was accused of compla-cency, of na?vety, of liberal triumphalism. Yet, like a provocation that can’t be dismissed, his thesis has continued to exert a remarkable hold over public debate. In the past decade, think how often it’s been raked over: during the global economic turbulence of last year I counted seven references to the end of history in British newspapers in a single week. Despite everything that has happened since 1989, it has held its ground as a point of reference for anyone trying their hand at an over-arching theory of the times.
The End of History remains the work for which Fukuyama is best known, but his thinking has moved on. After history, he turned his synoptic eye on economics and culture. Trust, published a few years later, picked up the fashionable notion of “social capital” and used it to explain countries’ economic structures and success. Societies held together by bonds of trust could sustain a higher level of corporate development than those where strangers were regarded with suspicion. Prosperity was more likely in places where people had developed the “social virtues” and were used to associating in groups that were bigger than the family and smaller than the state. Here was Fukuyama’s answer to those who objected that his theory of history prescribed a single model of social organisation -that of the US. Within the house of capitalism there were many rooms, he argued. It might even be that the US was falling behind other societies where the ties of community were stronger.
Trust was comparable to The End of History in its use of a single organising principle to make sense of a huge swathe of human activity. But Fukuyama’s sense of timing had become less certain. Not long after the book was published, the “high-trust” economies of Asia crashed, while the US powered ahead. But in moving from ideology to culture, Fukuyama was in tune with the drift of neo-conservative thought. The End of History marked the high-water point of right-wing universalism. The global confrontation with communism had been a battle for democracy, liberty and human rights, so victory was an endorsement of these principles. It was natural for the triumphant hawks of Washington to locate the engine of historical change in the individual’s desire for equal respect and recognition.
It was not long before the celebratory tone of many commentators began to falter. In its place a new note was sounded: that of western decline. To many eyes (and not only those of conservatives) the liberal democracies had simply become too individualistic. Envious glances were cast at the hierarchical countries of east Asia, which some believed had struck a better balance between liberty and order. The most important aspect of a society no longer seemed to be its institutional and economic structure, but the animating spirit that pervaded it. “Liberal political and economic institutions depend on a healthy and dynamic civil society for their vitality,” wrote Fukuyama. Here the law of historical progress seemed to have gone into reverse. Fukuyama discerned a ratchet effect whereby it was easier to break down trust than build it up.
Fukuyama’s new book, The Great Disruption, attempts, among other things, to patch up the holes in Trust. It no longer seems plausible to argue that big corporations are the key to economic success, when flexible economies like the US are flourishing thanks to the proliferation of small business. At the same time, Fukuyama has taken on board the point made by critics of the “social capital” thesis that not all groups are good. The rule of law can be better than ties based on cronyism. And the Trench Coat Mafia of Lyttleton, Colorado are a social group, too.
Forced to concede that economic growth and soc-ial stability don’t always go together, Fukuyama builds The Great Disrup-tion around an admission that seems remarkable coming from him: capitalism is itself disruptive. The force that he used to see as synonymous with progress now appears in a more negative light. The book revisits the familiar ills of modern western society-high divorce rates, rising crime, and declining trust and respect for established institutions. Underlying all these he sees a common cause-the upheaval of traditional ways of life brought about by changing patterns of work and sexual relations. Sometime during (predictably enough) the 1960s, two disruptive processes came together with cataclysmic results. One was the shift from a manufacturing to an information-based economy, which made many working-class men redundant while opening the workplace to women on an unprecedented scale. Simultaneously, the invention of the pill gave women control over their reproductive lives. This, you might think, was no bad thing-but Fukuyama argues that it relieved men of the burden of responsibility, and helped precipitate a breakdown in traditional family structures. The end result was the growth of what Fukuyama calls “moral individualism.”
Fukuyama’s diagnosis brings to mind a familiar conservative lament. But there is a difference: the root cause is economic, not cultural. Patterns of behaviour determined by economic forces and scientific advance have in turn led to the erosion of social order. However Fukuyama is not ready to write off capitalism yet. His book unveils a new source of hope in the shape of human nature.
The Great Disruption makes clear the dominant theme that has always been latent in Fukuyama’s writing. His central subject is order. The search for the underlying pattern that will make sense of the chaos of the modern world has propelled him from one grand theory to another. First it was order through history, a law of institutional progress that made sense of the turbulent events of our century. Then it was order through culture. Values would provide a scheme to explain why some societies prospered while others failed. Now, with his instinct for intellectual fashion, Fukuyama has moved on to order through biology. It is the action of our selfish genes that will prevent society from fragmenting. In the course of three books written over ten years, he has covered the three great deterministic theories of modern social thought.
Fukuyama is not modest about the explanatory power of his new-found paradigm. He writes that “the study of how order… can emerge in a spontaneous and decentralised fashion is one of the most important intellectual developments of the late 20th century.” As he recounts, this is a field where the work of biologists and economists has come together. Evolutionary psychologists have proposed a model of human behaviour that gives greater weight to innate drives. These drives are more important than social scientists would like to think and the scope for intervention to fight against them is limited. At the same time, economists such as George Axelrod have argued that a dispersed group of individuals, each seeking to act in his or her own interest, can be driven, over time, to behave in a cooperative way-pure selfishness is actually less fruitful than “reciprocal altruism.” Transferred to the world of our hunter-gatherer forebears, the model predicts that natural selection will favour the development of sociable behaviour. Those who act together will survive, and their cooperative tendencies will predominate in future generations
Darwinian explanations of social behaviour have proliferated in recent years. Fukuyama adds to the list by proposing that it is in our genes to create an ordered society. “Human beings have certain built-in capabilities… for inventing moral rules to constrain individual choice.” Here we have the answer to the threat of the great disruption. Left to themselves, people will recreate moral rules to prevent excessive individualism. Indeed, there is evidence in the US that this is already happening. Crime rates are falling, divorce becoming less frequent, and the number of illegitimate births levelling off. A restoration of social order may be on the way.
But Fukuyama is pulling a fast one here. A series of social problems which had an economic cause now seem to have a biological solution. He does not pause to consider that his indicators of social well-being may merely reflect the long American boom. By saying that order will come from spontaneous interaction, he short-circuits any role for public policy or collective choice.
Apart from anything else, this isn’t convincing from an evolutionary point of view. As in much neo-Darwinian theorising, the distance between our world and the ancestral environment appears telescoped. Patterns of behaviour are plucked from the savannah and deposited into Hackney or the Bronx as if they were almost interchangeable. Of course it is true that our tendency to get along with each other is a product of natural selection, because all of our behaviour is at some level a product of natural selection. But you could also say that our tendency to institute governments derives from evolution.
The Great Disruption is built around a model in which order and individual excess are opposed. Fukuyama believes that information-based economies require individual initiative and that the decline of social harmony is the price we pay. Of course, order is important for people to flourish and prosper. But too often, the vision of order that emerges is indistinguishable from conformity. Reading it had the unexpected effect of making me look back sympathetically to The End Of History. Although most people tend to regard that book as a celebration of free market capitalism, this was not its dominant message. Instead, Fukuyama argued that the future of mankind lay in societies based on equal recognition of the dignity of each individual. That seems a more attractive vision of human nature than the one where we are torn between two poles of nature: the tendency to license and the impulse to conform. The Great Disruption
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