Francis Fukuyama's Unhappy Optimism

Although the decade ended thirty years ago, the 1960s are in many ways still with us. Like Jacob Marley’s ghost, they serve as a haunting reminder of who we once were and who we have become. That the 1960s continue to influence our society is acknowledged by partisans on both the Right and the Left. Thus, while conservatives trace many of our problems back to the liberationist ideologies of the 1960s, former radicals, now turned pillars of the establishment, praise the decade’s revolutionary idealism in the hope that this will inspire today’s youth to follow their lead.

All of this helps make the argument of Francis Fukuyama’s latest book particularly provocative. The Great Disruption is less concerned with celebrating or rejecting the revolutionary “values” of the 1960s than with announcing their death. The author of the best-selling The End of History and the Last Man here presents yet another controversial thesis: The broad social turbulence of the previous three decades has come to an end, and Western societies are presently experiencing the beginning of a “Great Reconstruction.”

Disruptions Great and Small

Fukuyama’s claim that the social upheaval of the past thirty years has been a “Great Disruption” in the normal rhythms of social life is hard to dispute. In a Herculean, scholarly effort, Fukuyama presents an overwhelming array of historical data that shows that the past three decades have witnessed the steady growth of rates of crime, abortion, divorce, and illegitimate births. Such social pathologies have eroded the levels of trust and social capital that civil society must necessarily rely upon for its stability and well-being.

But Fukuyama is interested in “History” more as a process than in the ordinary sense of that term. He is less concerned with locating the source of these eruptions in “specific American events,” such as Watergate or Vietnam than in interpreting the historical forces that have caused the United States and other Western countries to experience such great societal disruptions.

Fukuyama examines several explanations for these disruptions–poverty, inequality, and failed governmental policies–and finally settles on two: the movement of Western societies from industrial- to information-based economies, and the invention of the Pill. That the technological revolution ushered in great social change does not surprise him. He points out that social upheaval occurred during the Industrial Revolution; it, too, replaced many of the old virtues with new ones and saw previously unthinkable social arrangements now become the norm.

The changes brought about by the Pill, however, were unprecedented. The ability to control fertility not only allowed women to enter the workforce–supported by an information-based economy–but also transformed the nature of male-female relations. Fukuyama takes “the main impact of the Pill” to be the change it caused in “male behavior.” Access to effective birth control further eroded the already precarious natural ties that males felt toward family life; he notes, for example, that since its invention, the number of shotgun weddings has been cut in half. No longer worried whether sexual encounters would result in offspring, men found it easier to avoid their long-term familial responsibilities. Fukuyama makes a strong case that this is the real reason that rates of divorce, abortion, and illegitimacy have increased over the past thirty years.

The Eternal Return of Human Nature

Fukuyama argues in the latter part of his book, however, that the era of the Great Disruption has ended and that we are currently in the midst of a time of social self-healing. The impetus for this is not a nostalgic desire to return to the lost bourgeois morality but to the reassertion of human nature itself.

Fukuyama’s argument is rather simple: Human nature desires social stability. Drawing on a number of biological, historical, psychological, and sociological sources, he argues that human beings naturally seek to instill order in society. Specifically, Fukuyama uses the recent discoveries of evolutionary biology to argue that, like his primate ancestors, man is drawn to the kind of stasis that institutionalized rules of honesty, trust, and reciprocity provide. And, if he cannot find such rules, he “will spontaneously create [them] … without the benefit of a prophet … or a lawgiver to establish government.”

Fukuyama is wary of “top-down” impositions of either religious or political forms of social order. Instead, he favors the “self-creating” stability that the efforts of decentralized human beings provide. (Accordingly, while his naturalistic defense of society leaves room for the voluntary associations that religions must rely upon in liberal societies, he remains suspicious of organized religion. In a laughably contemptuous yet revealing remark, he likens the possibility of a religiously inspired moral reconstruction of American society to “a Western version of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s returning to Iran on a jetliner.”) For Fukuyama, government plays a necessary and salutary role in society, but societal norms come principally from human nature itself; he points to the “message of male responsibility” preached by groups such as the Promise Keepers and the organizers of the Million Man March as examples of this phenomenon.

That the social and political turbulence of the Great Disruption had to come to an end was inevitable. Human nature found it too unbearable. Eventually human beings were forced “to create new rules to replace the ones that [had] been undercut.”

While some will see his defense of the ineradicability of human nature and social life as merely a rediscovery of Aristotelian wisdom, this turns out not to be the case. On the one hand, Fukuyama affirms the existence of human nature; on the other, he relies upon New Age, materialistic evolutionary biology and psychology to explain it. Yet these two things are ultimately irreconcilable. Does Fukuyama finally think human nature is sempiternal or perpetually evolving? And, if it is always evolving, toward what is it evolving?

Fukuyama’s Newfangled Aristotelianism

Similarly, Fukuyama’s sociological framework and penchant for evolutionary theories cause him to exaggerate the autonomy of social life while simultaneously defining human sociality down. Thus, while he makes periodic references to man’s political nature, he never really factors this into the analysis. Consequently, his account of sociality fails to do justice to the noble ends of politics and the religious and philosophic ends toward which political life itself points.

This is most visible in his account of car-pooling Washington civil servants known as “slugs.” The practice of slugging arose “spontaneously.” Originally designed to combat the oil crisis, slugging lets car-poolers shave twenty minutes off their commute. Slugs have established their own set of social rules: They cannot smoke, and their conversation must remain light–above all, slugs must avoid talking about “religion and politics.”

Fukuyama praises the slugs for creating “social capital,” but what kind of social capital have they created? The slugs have fashioned a world in which they live together without living together. They can speak to each other but not about the highest things. They are, in other words, not Aristotelian citizens engaged in the pursuit of the good life but the kind of apathetic individuals that Tocqueville feared and that Nietzsche identified as “Last Men.” Fukuyama’s slugs live in a world where everything is social and, thus, where nothing is social.

Interestingly, in a recent essay in the National Interest appropriately titled “Second Thoughts,” Fukuyama observes that today the most radical threat to human society comes from biotechnology. Popular pharmaceuticals like Ritalin and Prozac “threaten” us with “the Last Man in a Bottle.” Through prescription narcotics we shall live in a world of sedated human beings where “everyone is the same.” One wonders why Fukuyama chose not to temper his book’s essentially “optimistic view” of the future with these perceptive insights; that is, one has to wonder how, or even whether, his two different appraisals of the Last Man fit together.

This brings us to the larger question that Fukuyama’s book raises. While his claim that Western societies will continue to witness economic and political progress is compelling, must we also embrace the lowered social and moral standards that his book is willing to accept? Or would we not be better off sharing some of his article’s more sober “second thoughts” about the human desirability of such a future? And, if we answer yes to this last question, will we not have to reconsider whether the great disruption in human society has, in fact, come to an end?