Things fall apart . . .Book Review. The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstruction of Social Order by Francis Fukuyama.

Consider the following: Approximately half of all marriages contracted in the 1980s in the US could be expected to end in divorce. In the last 25 years rapid increases in the rate of births to single mothers have taken place in virtually all OECD countries, in the US accounting for one in every three births and in Scandinavia over half of all births.

In the same period, the shift from marriage to cohabitation has been substantial, with cohabiting couples twice as likely to separate after 10 years than first-time married couples. Survey data indicate that people nowadays trust each other less and are themselves less likely to behave ethically towards others. Crime rates rose dramatically in most western countries from the 1960s onwards.

Demographers project that in two generations, three out of every five Italian children will have no siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins, with only 5 per cent of children having both siblings and cousins. In Sweden almost half of all households are composed of an individual living alone.

These are some of the examples cited by the American academic Francis Fukuyama as evidence of what he calls the "great disruption", the social upheaval that has characterised liberal democracies in the developed world over the past 50 years. Fukuyama first burst upon the scene in 1992 with his book, The End of History and The Last Man, in which he argued that history had reached its logical end with the emergence of the kind of liberal democracy found in the world's most economically advanced countries, such as the US.

He argued that although many countries have not yet achieved this state, they will all get there in the end. Why? Because economic development requires a stable democracy, human nature craves freedom, and, with the fall of communism, there is no obvious alternative. This assertion, needless to say, greatly irritated many people, who accused Fukuyama of, among other things, self-flattering ethnocentrism. His new book is going to annoy the same people. They will accuse him of moralising and judging, the premier modern vices.

But Fukuyama is undaunted by the struggle to explain the big cultural and political questions of the 20th century, approaching them with an engaging mixture of heroic intelligence and American gusto. Now he turns his attention to the great moral and social issues of modern societies, and identifies the tendency to excessive individualism as the greatest long-term vulnerability of contemporary liberal democracies.

The modern liberal state is premised on the notion that, in the interests of political peace, there is to be pluralism of opinions about the most important moral and ethical questions. The only moral consensus is tolerance uber Alles.

Fukuyama argues that this principled belief in moral relativism may lead to a process of "moral miniaturisation" - a society having fewer and fewer shared values - which may ultimately undermine the very basis of liberal democracy. The liberation of the individual from unnecessary and stifling social constraints is a powerful cultural theme of liberal democracy and for the most part has worked extraordinarily well, resulting in the creation of a rule of law that is one of the proudest accomplishment of Western civilisation.

But, Fukuyama argues, there is "a growing awareness that there are serious problems with a culture of unbridled individualism". The first problem is that moral values and social rules cannot be regarded as simply arbitrary constraints on individual choice. Rather, they are preconditions for any type of co-operative enterprise.

Social virtues such as honesty, reciprocity, and keeping commitments are not just ethical values, but are part of what social scientists call "social capital" - a society's stock of shared values. The second problem with unbridled individualism is that people end up bereft of community. People who are liberated from traditional ties to spouses, families, neighbourhoods, work places or churches think they can still stay socially connected. But the problem of associating only with those you choose, is that such ties tend to be less permanent, leaving individuals feeling increasingly lonely, disoriented, and longing for deeper relationships with others.

Fukuyama considers that the most dramatic shifts in social norms have happened in relation to families. He flatly states that the rapid increase of households headed by single mothers is a very negative social development. In his view, the sexual revolution mainly benefited men and middle-class, educated women, while many of their less educated sisters saw the floor collapse under them, trying to raise children by themselves in low-paying, dead-end jobs or on social welfare. However, anybody looking in this book for new data to support these arguments will be disappointed, and will be less than impressed by his assertion that Dan Quayle (remember him?) was right about family values.

Inevitably, Fukuyama's strong views on family values will draw support and fire from predictable quarters. But, however disputatious his view on gender and family politics, it would be wrong to dismiss this book as a call for a return to right-wing basics. Indeed, he repeatedly shows how the right and the left have each contributed to the great disruption - the right by fighting against any limits on the exercise of the individual's right to freedom and choice in the economic sphere and the left doing the same in the social and personal sphere. The left, he says, worries about lifestyles, the right about money, with each denouncing excessive individualism on the part of the other.

Dismissing the usual left versus right explanations and polemics surrounding these issues, he instead locates the problems in a wider and more complex framework of understanding. For example, Fukuyama argues that the shift made by developed societies over the last 50 years from industrial to the information age will ultimately be as consequential as the two previous waves in human history: from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies and then from agricultural to industrial societies during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, much of the book is devoted to drawing broad parallels between the current "great disruption" and the social disorder that followed the Industrial Revolution, as masses of displaced and uneducated people flowed into the cities.

Are we destined, then, for ever-increasing levels of disorder and social atomisation as the culture of intense individualism that is needed for innovation and growth in the marketplace spills over and corrodes virtually all forms of social bonding and authority? His answer is moderately reassuring. There are, he says, two parallel processes at work: in the political and economic sphere, history appears to be progressive and directional and has reached a kind of earthly perfection in liberal democracies - the only viable alternative for technologically advanced societies. In the social and moral sphere, however, history appears to be cyclical, with social order ebbing and flowing in different areas. Societies have to periodically play catch-up to re-norm themselves in ways that meet the changed conditions. He argues that this is already happening and that a new social order is already under construction, with a slowdown in the US in rates of divorce and crime and an increasing concern about the role of fathers. In one of the most interesting parts of the book, he describes how Victorian society successfully re-established social order in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

He argues that such reconstruction of the social order will be accomplished by a combination of forces: human beings' biologically-driven need to create order, public policy, and what he calls "culture wars" about public and private behaviour. Veterans of referendums in Ireland in the 1980s might shudder at the thought of any more "culture wars" here. But in an era when the social consequences of private acts of abuse are precipitating an unprecedented loss of trust in public institutions, this bold and interesting book underlines the work of reconstruction of trust and civic virtue that is ahead of us.

Originally published in The Irish Times. 

Posted: 12 June 1999