Bring on the boy scouts

The Great Disruption

June 18, 1999

Francis Fukuyama made his name with a strikingly timed article in the American journal The National Interest , explaining to its gratified readers the world historical significance of the demise of Soviet power. Three years later the thesis of this article resurfaced, in a considerably bloated form and for a far wider audience, in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), adding fortune to fame. In 1995 a second, rather denser book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity , discussed, with equally apt timing, the relations between cultural heritage and the organisation of economic life within contemporary global capitalism, stressing on balance the comparative advantages of the Orient. Four years later still, and in the wake of Asian financial collapse, The Great Disruption is a yet more expansive work on the equally timely theme of the prospects for social cohesion and civic order in the wealthier capitalist societies, and above all in a United States that continues to dominate the global economy and international politics and to press its commercial culture so disturbingly and insistently into virtually every other society.

The three books make an interesting set, varying widely in the clarity of the questions that they address, the range of intellectual materials on which they draw, and the analytic energy with which these materials are brought to focus on their subjects. Very plainly the work of a single author, they show a steady rise in intellectual self-assurance, from an admittedly lofty initial point. The End of History is the best known of the three, and likely to remain so; but it is not at all an impressive book, saying in the end rather little, giving weak reasons for believing what it does say to be true, and ending in a state of uncharacteristically flustered irresolution. Trust is in some ways the most interesting and thoughtful, if also the least conclusive, of the three. It is hardly Fukuyama's fault that it failed to anticipate the Asian financial debacle of three years later - although more observers did see this coming than appear to have anticipated the sheer pace at which Soviet power deflated.

The Great Disruption sets out from some striking (and to Americans, obsessively important) facts about recent US social history, signalled in crime rates, statistics of illegitimacy and family break-up, and opinion-survey evidence on levels of interpersonal and institutional trust. The academic shibboleth for these concerns is the term social capital, a concept given a degree of professional credibility in the writings of the sociologist James S. Coleman, and very much at the centre today of the research agenda of the prominent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Social capital is an ideal vehicle for America's hallowed preoccupation with the health or pathology of its own society, a source of mingled fear and fascination since the days of Tocqueville, or even the "errand into the New England wilderness" chronicled by Perry Miller. When its schoolchildren gun one another down in the playground or classroom corridors, what does this show is happening to America? When Americans, in Putnam's celebrated phrase, bowl alone (or even cease to bowl at all and slump in front of their televisions instead) what does this portend about their future sexual, domestic or political proclivities, the threats they are likely to pose to one another or the degree to which they would be well advised to credit one another's promises? Does the irresistible progress of global capitalism destroy society as such, converting Lady Thatcher's overconfident ontological assurances into distressing truths of experience? As reflected in Fukuyama's book or Putnam's research agenda, these are very much concerns of the American hour in Bill Clinton's America, with its weakly formatted and all too free-flow hydraulics between id and superego, with little, if anything, determinately in between. But they are just as much concerns for Tony Blair's Britain, with its eagerness to supplement decades of political instruction of the populace in the need to learn to take care of themselves with a belated acknowledgement that they must also be prepared (not least for fiscal reasons) to take some care of one another. In singling out these concerns, Fukuyama once again shows his knack for responding to what people have on their minds. How effectively, in this case, does he manage to handle their concerns?

Social capital, it is important to realise, is less an answer to any definite question than a handy mnemonic for the continuing importance of some very old and permanently pertinent practical issues. The social creation and destruction of mutual trustworthiness are as old as human society itself. It has always been an exceedingly intricate and opaque process and is unlikely ever to cease to be so. In The End of History and the Last Man , the main intellectual resource on which Fukuyama drew was the legacy of western political thinking, as mediated by the late Leo Strauss. The Great Disruption reports a great deal of factual information of varying dependability, drawn from a wide variety of sources. But the main intellectual materials on which it draws to assess the significance of this information are taken neither from the history of political thinking nor from sociology as an academic discipline, but from evolutionary biology and the theory of games. What Fukuyama most wishes (and his readers presumably share this wish) is to tell whether mutual trustworthiness is bound to deteriorate further, as and if capitalist societies continue to grow and expand their territorial scope, or whether it can be successfully repaired and kept in good working order.

Fukuyama himself believes that it can (and, so far as I can tell, probably will) be repaired, both in the US and presumably in other comparably prosperous settings elsewhere. But the reasons he gives for believing this are vaguer than they sound, and in the end do not go determinately further than registering that mutual trustworthiness could in principle be repaired, if only humans elect to act in such a way that it in fact is. Evolutionary biology is quite difficult to understand and game theory is extremely difficult to apply precisely to human predicaments in the real world. But Fukuyama writes about each as though they were extremely easy to understand and more or less applied themselves, at least in the hands of a polished interpreter. This is an understandable rhetorical effect for a highly paid consultant, ie someone too busy to have time to carry out research into anything for themselves but a permanent source of fluent opinion on an endless range of weighty topics. It is also an excellent recipe for selling books in large numbers.

The Great Disruption might be intellectually more convincing if it were less conclusive in tone: more open in acknowledging that, like everyone else, its author has no idea whatever how America's society will in time prove to turn out. But it would be far less effective in genre, radically less saleable, and very possibly less interesting to think about. In form it is a cunning blend of jeremiad, teach-yourself guide to modern social thought, and collective self-help manual.

What is most interesting about its conclusions is not what it asserts about the balance of capacities for conflict or cooperation inscribed in human genes or in the interactive logic of human confrontation across space and time. It is the much vaguer and less emphatic picture that it gives of how and why cooperation and conflict have fluctuated so drastically within both the US and Britain over the past two centuries or so. Like Putnam, a larger, franker and very much funnier interpreter of the same American materials, what Fukuyama in the end wishes to argue is that Americans can, if they will only pull themselves together, refashion and consolidate an interactive setting in which they can hope to trust one another more expansively once again in the future. To do this, what they need above all is institutional inventiveness and pertinacity, and some degree of social imagination. Fukuyama also seems to believe that they may require, and secure, a tactfully inchoate religious revival. If social capital has fluctuated so dramatically in each of these societies across time it must still be possible for it to go up as well as down; and the forces which caused it to rise in the past should give us at least a clue as to how it might be induced to rise again in the future.

The tacit heroes of Fukuyama's book are, as they are in effect for Putnam too, the great entrepreneurial social capitalists of 19th-century Britain and their slightly later North American counterparts, for example Thomas Arnold or Baden-Powell, William Booth or Florence Nightingale: eminences like those whom Lytton Strachey strove to bury. The political and social division of labour is tricky here. "Waiting for Baden-Powell" would scarcely be a catchy slogan for New Labour. "In darkest America and the Way Out" might not be a promising campaign platform for Al Gore (or even Dan Quayle). But the fear that these tasks of social reconstruction may prove beyond the resources of Jack Straw is hard to shake off; and it is even more difficult to imagine the most tactfully inchoate of all possible religious revivals stepping nimbly into the breach in the British case.

It is far from clear where we should look for the eminences of New Britain. But before we subject our candidates to the cultural condescension they will no doubt merit in the long run, it might be safer to try to find some candidates in the first place. Social capital may not be much of an idea. But how we create and destroy the capacity to earn one another's trust remains far too important a matter to leave to politicians, social scientists, or even consultants. De te fabula narratur . This, I fear, is a story about us.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order

Author - Francis Fukuyama
ISBN - 1 86197 099 4
Publisher - Profile
Price - £20.00
Pages - 422

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