In the thirty years that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, a profound disruption of postwar society, a plague of pathologies, may be said to have been visited upon the United States. The social order that took root after 1945 and seemed so solid in the 1950’s was shaken to the core by a succession of events and social trends that were already under way when the tragedy in Dallas exploded into the national consciousness. In hindsight, this event may appear to be a latter-day version of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in June, 1914, since in both cases assassination signaled the collapse of old assurances. In Europe, the secure world in which Édouard Manet could paint his placid Déjeuner sur l’herbe, or Georges Seurat his translucent pastorals of a comfortable, serene bourgeoisie, was gone, as it were, with the wind.
In the Western world, at the close of the fallen American president’s thousand days, the guns of war that soon began in earnest coincided with the inauguration of widespread social changes, some arguably positive, others unquestionably negative, still others hotly debated to this day. Pronounced uncertainties, generational mistrust, and gaping fault lines of social fissure were spawned by war in Vietnam, youthful rebellion (led by the Beatles), and a tumultuous scandal in Washington, D.C., now known as the Watergate affair. Rising crime levels, growing social violence, and an increase in the divorce rate and rate of illegitimate births were among disturbing social trends in the decades that followed. It scarcely seems exaggerated to call these collective social processes a “great disruption.” That, in any event, is how Francis Fukuyama, elfin savant of the American Enterprise Institute, views them, and he titles his latest book accordingly.
The Great Disruption is divided into three parts. The first discusses the nature and causes of the disruption. The second, provocatively labeled “On the Genealogy of Morals” after Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887; On the Genealogy of Morals, 1896), argues that the generation of moral norms is a natural, and therefore inevitable, process among human beings. The third part describes past, present, and future processes of social “renorming”—the reconstitution of society’s moral order—and argues that renorming is not historically unique, is currently taking place, and can be expected to continue. This process can either be aided or hindered, though not entirely blocked, by the state—by public policy. If part 1 is a largely, though not entirely, unhappy story, the next sections are decidedly upbeat because in Fukuyama’s view, social norms are a perpetually renewing resource that is not consumed by the destructive processes of contemporary society. Rather, they can—and do—constantly reemerge.
Throughout this engaging book, Fukuyama points to the crucial role “social capital”—the common norms, or shared rules and values, which allow people to cooperate—plays in promoting social well-being. Social capital is essential to a decent, prosperous society because without it, social cooperation, including the production of wealth, is impossible, and statism is inevitable, since only the state is available to perform key functions, such as keeping order.
Conservatives are correct, we learn, in asserting that our stock of social capital has long been declining. However, they are not correct if they believe that the stock of social capital is finite and, once used up, is gone forever. Indeed, the fascination and power of this book arise from the range and complexity of evidence (from a number of social and biological science disciplines) the author brings to bear to refute the notion of social capital as finite and transient.
Fukuyama’s conclusion to part 1 is that the underlying cause of the most recent great disruption is the change from an industrial- to information-based economy, and that the consequence of this change has been the rise of extreme individualism. In making this argument, Fukuyama is at pains to tell the reader that his view is not economic determinism. On the contrary, he shows that since similar economic causes brought about different effects in Catholic Europe vis-à-vis East Asia—especially Japan and Korea—other factors must have been at work. Thus, cultural influences can play a substantial role in determining outcome.
The second and third parts of The Great Disruption bring a message of hope that is, in essence, contrary to postmodernism’s anti-Enlightenment thrust that human beings have a nature and that part of this nature is the faculty of reason; and, second, that “by nature” we spontaneously create rules. Because we are social beings, we are moral beings—that is, we generate an ethic, even if this ethic is no more than “honor among thieves.” Indeed, the fact that even thieves must have rules to govern themselves is telling. Without shared norms of behavior, any social cooperation is impossible. The social disruption of the early nineteenth century (to which the Victorians reacted) was the breakdown of informal norms at the village level as village life disappeared into “the world we have lost” at the coming of industrial civilization. The social renorming that constituted the solution to the social crisis of the early nineteenth century was the creation of formal rules—the laws and regulations of the nation- state—as well as the informal mores and attitudes...
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