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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2263

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.

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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 known as Victorianism.

The renorming of society is a natural process that we can observe around us even as the consequences of excessive individualism continue. One might argue that the appearance of the communitarian movement is a sign of this process: It shows a reaction against the perception of excess. In the American context, however, Fukuyama does not see the rebuilding of unitary national hierarchies—either secular or religious—as the way forward. It is not a question of directed national reconstruction but of a natural, accretive process of rule creation at the level of local communities and social and economic networks. In this process, the state has two primary tasks: One is to regulate and educate, and the other is to stay out of the way. Too often, Fukuyama believes, the state denies local communities the ability to control themselves.

Fukuyama uses a variety of sources to construct his argument that society constantly re-creates norms. Game theory drawn from economics and political science provides him with key ideas. When individuals meet just once in a social transaction, their behavior may resemble self-regarding amoral opportunism. (College students on spring break at a resort who never expect to see each other again tend toward such behavior.) However, repeated social transactions (iterated games) encourage ethical reciprocity, behavior that protects the actor’s reputation, and so moral rules are born. To Fukuyama (as opposed to Kant), such rule- following derived from the pursuit of self-interest qualifies as ethical behavior as much as obedience to the categorical imperative or pure altruism. Under market capitalism, such rule-making constantly recurs.

Quite apart from game theory, one can already detect the process of renorming in the spontaneous social behavior of real-world people. Examples abound, such as the Washington, D.C., commuters who developed a ride-sharing system with its own complex rules. A significant by-product of this self-organized, informal system is that commuters gain a sense of trust in one another. Trust, Fukuyama teaches, is not a virtue but arises as a consequence of virtue. Thus, social capital—adherence to shared norms— naturally generates trust.

Woven into the fabric of this work is the author’s commentary on the postmodernism debate. Fukuyama brilliantly straddles a middle ground between postmodernism, which he opposes on many (though not all) issues, and the moralistic right, especially the Religious Right, which he also usually (though not always) opposes. In so doing, he decisively defends the Enlightenment—champion of reason, foundation of liberal democracy—from which the American Constitution springs. His arguments amount to a frontal assault on the high priests of postmodernism: Neither human affairs nor moral norms are remotely as arbitrary as that school pretends. Although cultural differences may be significant, human nature is nevertheless a reality. Humanity’s nature is to make rules; that there are rules is a biological as well as rational imperative. Nor are these rules arbitrary; they must generate a modicum of social capital for social tasks to be performed.

Fukuyama opposes postmodernism on other grounds. As the reader will see, he denies the obsolescence of the state, which will continue to fulfill essential functions. More important, he denies the postmodern proposition that all “metanarratives”— overarching myths, stories, or encompassing explanations—are dead. At least one is alive and reasonably well: Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian contention, developed in his The End of History and the Last Man (1992), that history has a logic. Thus, the “final” form of human association, liberal democracy, is demanded by the unavoidable requirements of an information-based economy. It is “final” in that it constitutes the completion of human development.

In this regard, civil society’s role as liberal democracy’s social foundation is paramount. “Civil society” comprises the realm of autonomous, self-organized associations between family and state. Healthy civil society acts as a creative counterforce to a potentially dominant state. It is a training ground for civility and leadership and fosters the skills and outlook, such as rational behavior and literacy, required for effective citizenship. Fukuyama is at best skeptical of Robert Putnam’s contention that American civil society is in decline. Though certain associations, such as the Elks, Moose, and other “animal” organizations, may be losing ground, others appear to be taking their place.

Theorists of civil society—particularly Central and Eastern Europeans who have suffered at the hands of oppressive states—have often waxed rhapsodic over its virtues and possibilities. Civil society is a “school in the art of association,” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s language. Its champions observe how civil society copes with problems ranging from neighborhood insecurity (by organizing “watch” associations) to the lack of swimming pools (by forming community pool associations). They sometimes imagine, echoing Karl Marx and nineteenth century anarchism, that people can do without the state—that one day it will “wither away.”

Though valuable and indispensable as a foundation of freedom, civil society is not, as Fukuyama observes, self-sufficient. Acolytes of capitalist anarchism argue that markets and the rest of civil society supplant the grand hierarchies of the past, whether it be General Motors or the U.S. federal government. Their argument is that the organizational structure of contemporary market-driven and other organizations tends to be flat. Organizations today simply cannot operate, it is argued, under pyramidal authority as they did in the past.

Fukuyama counters that however thoroughgoing this trend may be (deepened and hastened by Internet egalitarianism), a vital role remains for hierarchy, in particular the hierarchy of the state. To be sure, this is not the fully grown state implied by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s failed Great Society programs. Its ambitions are more modest. However, the state is necessary both to regulate and, above all, to protect society. Its role, too, is to foster and engage the attentions of socially aggregating vehicles such as political parties, providing forums for sharing and transmitting common political values and shared cultural norms. In fulfilling these functions, the state reveals the truth of Aristotle’s famous dictum that “man is a political animal” requiring an overarching ruling association to be self-sufficient. Lesser associations are insufficient because they leave people subject to the depredations of others, whether it be gangs or other states.

Although they naturally create moral rules, human beings left to themselves tend toward “moral miniaturization” in which loyalty stops at truncated boundaries. Only a larger hierarchical organization, such as the state, can ensure overall order. Humanity’s natural condition is not what Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all,” but it is a war—of one group or confederacy against all others. The current celebration of civil society overlooks not only the necessity for states but also the necessity for citizens, those disposed and trained to keep states honest and limited, as envisioned by liberal democracy.

The state’s educative function mandates that it foster transmission of common cultural values, a foundation of social capital. Today, truly common cultural values are secular, not religious, influential as religion is in the United States. These shared secular values are those of constitutional liberal democracy. Without common political culture and a common language to communicate civic norms and values, society tends to become what Samuel Huntington calls a “cleft” society. Clearly, Fukuyama fears that the United States may be moving toward permanent ethnic division and denounces public policy, principally multicultural education, that furthers this folly by promoting social fragmentation.

In the end, Fukuyama argues that “the Great Reconstruction” is a task for both society and polity. Through its educative, regulatory, and protective public policies, the state has the capacity to bring positive influence to bear on the renorming process. There is nothing automatic about the reconstruction process. The unseen hand of market discipline leads in the right direction but only goes so far. Leon Trotsky’s chilling epigram, “You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you,” remains in force. Politics will never be dispensed with and always has the last word—sometimes through positive public policy, other times through forbearance. Politics allows the healing process embedded in human nature—our moral needs, our moral creativity—to work its course.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (June 1, 1999): 1753.

Commentary 108 (July, 1999): 80.

Library Journal 124 (June 15, 1999): 97.

New Statesman 128 (June 14, 1999): 46.

New York 32 (June 7, 1999): 88.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (July 4, 1999): 4.

Publishers Weekly 246 (May 24, 1999): 53.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 1999, p. 12.

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