Freedom's cost has been too high
Not the end of history, but the end of 'unnatural individualism'
Francis Fukuyama is one of America's most provocative social analysts. His much-discussed 1989 essay, "The End of History," declared that the collapse of Soviet communism eliminated ideological conflict as the engine of historical change. The ultimate stage in human history had been reached. Market capitalism had triumphed, and democratic values were spreading inexorably across the globe.
Fukuyama, a freethinking neoconservative who teaches public policy at George Mason University, has since admitted that liberal democracy is far from universal and that the dynamics of historical change remain more problematic than he had earlier assumed. Yet he remains audacious in his analysis of the social scene.
In "The Great Disruption," he announces that the fractious individualism spawned during the 1960s is coming to an end - and none too soon.
Fukuyama contends that beginning in the mid-1960s a wave of disruptive values washed across Western civilization. Individualism asserted itself over community needs; personal rights and freedoms triumphed over familial and social responsibilities. The result was a "great disruption," a seismic shift in the fragile balance maintaining social order.
This breakdown, he asserts, occurred in many countries, and can be statistically demonstrated in trends related to crime, fatherless children, public trust, and other social activities.
THE GREAT DISRUPTION:
HUMAN NATURE AND THE
By Francis Fukuyama
354 pp., $26
True to the sweeping nature of his argument, Fukuyama marshals an impressive array of data from over a dozen countries to bolster his broad thesis. He demonstrates that in the last 50 years, every major Western democracy has witnessed sharp increases in crime, dramatic declines in family stability, and the erosion of trust in core societal institutions.
Fukuyama then systematically considers and dismisses as incomplete the most prominent explanations for this "great disruption" - growing poverty and social inequality, the anarchic excesses of the counterculture, mistaken government welfare policies, the decline of conventional religious belief.
His own cross-cultural analysis leads him to fasten on two interrelated factors that have affected developments in all Western democracies: the emergence of an information-based economy and the reverberating implications of the birth-control pill. He emphasizes that the rise of excessive individualism resulted primarily from technological and economic factors "that are products of the capitalist economy conservatives celebrate."
By elevating mental work over physical labor, the knowledge revolution eliminated most of the stable blue-collar jobs upon which postwar American society was based. It also has thrust millions of women into the workforce and thereby undermined traditional family roles by freeing many men from their economic responsibilities.
At the same time, he says, advances in medical technology such as the birth-control pill undermined the significance of reproduction and family, not simply by emancipating women from pregnancy but also by encouraging men to abandon their long-term marital and parental responsibilities.
These two factors in turn helped promote the "culture of intensive individualism" that "corroded virtually all forms of authority and weakened the bonds holding families, neighborhoods, and nations together."
These controversial assertions alone are enough to create a stimulating book, but Fukuyama offers more.
The most intriguing thesis of "The Great Disruption" is that the "unbridled individualism" unleashed during the 1960s is coming to an end. Fukuyama highlights the widespread reduction in the rate of violent crime in Western nations. He points out that rates for divorce and teen pregnancy have leveled off. Fukuyama sees many tangible and symbolic signs, including the Million Man March, that male responsibility for wives and children is reviving as a social norm. And recent surveys suggest that public trust in major institutions is also growing.
For Fukuyama the most compelling reason for hope is that the excessive individualism of the past 40 years must come to an end because it's unnatural. In contrast to conventional capitalist theorists, he does not believe that human beings are by nature cool calculators of rational self-interest. Instead, he concurs with Aristotle that we are basically social creatures who intuitively recognize the need to channel and restrain individual interests for the social welfare. "The situation of normlessness," he declares, "is intensely uncomfortable for us, and we will seek new rules to replace the ones that have been undercut."
Readers will find some of Fukuyama's assertions preposterous; all are debatable. His reliance on statistics tends to be selective. To cite but one example: The rate of illegitimate births may be declining, but the illegitimacy ratio - the percentage of babies born to unmarried women - has been rising during the 1990s. It is now 32 percent for the nation; among blacks it is 67 percent.
Yet taken as a whole, "The Great Disruption" constitutes a major contribution to American social thought. If not always convincing, its major arguments are relentlessly arresting. Fukuyama asks the large questions about social and moral trends that paralyze most of us. His insights drawn from philosophy and the social and life sciences give credibility to a thesis bound to startle our complacency. This is a must read for those interested in the human condition.
*David Shi is the president of Furman University, Greenville, S.C., and the co-author with George Tindall of 'America: a Narrative History' (Norton, 1996).