Outlook: clear

June 18, 1999

Having proclaimed liberal democracy triumphant and history over, Francis Fukuyama now finds that family breakdown is down to the pill and women going out to work. Harriet Swain talks to a controversial thinker

Life is good for Francis Fukuyama. He loves his job as professor of public policy at the Institute of Public Policy, George Mason University. He loves writing books about how we live, which prompt columns of newsprint when they are published. He loves spending spare time with his three children, who appear in full colour on his website with accounts of their interests and achievements.

Best of all, he is lucky enough to be writing in a place that, politically at least, just happens to have reached a peak. For him, liberal democracy of the kind the United States enjoys is "the only viable alternative for technologically advanced societies". In other words, as he will long be remembered for saying, liberal democracy represents "the end of history". And for a time, at least, as the formerly Communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc collapsed, he appeared to be right.

In his latest book, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Fukuyama claims things are looking up in the moral sphere, too - at least in the US. While the march of political development is progressive, he argues, moral development is cyclical. But, after "the great social disruption" of the 1960s, caused by technological advances such as the pill, Americans at last seem to be on an upward curve.

Rates of increase in crime, divorce and illegitimacy have slowed, welfare rolls have decreased and men and women both seem to be taking more responsibility for their children. This is because, he explains, human beings are social creatures, whose "most basic drives and instincts lead them to create moral rules that bind them together into communities".

The only cloud on Fukuyama's rosy horizon is that nobody likes an optimist. He has been accused of telling the US elite what it wants to hear, boosting the egos of western capitalist nations with his reactionary views about the family and his insistence that capitalism is not only successful but right.

The criticism does not bother Fukuyama, who says he is being realistic. "I don't start out wanting to be optimistic. Mankind has come through a really horrible century - at least the first two-thirds of it. It is much easier to be a pessimist. But realistically, if you look at things at the end of the 20th century, politically, economically and socially, they have worked out much better than anyone would have thought." Even the poor have gained, he says. "The shift towards freer markets and more open, democratic political forms has been broadly empowering for many people and not just for the crowd at the top of the social hierarchy. If you look at East Asia, you see millions of people who were living in poverty now leading middle-class lives."

Fukuyama's willingness to express the unfashionable view could suggest a low "thymos", as he calls it - the desire for recognition that drives human beings. But it is this very knack for controversy that has brought him worldwide recognition.

He has never looked back from the publication of The End of History and The Last Man, which started life as a lecture to the University of Chicago in 1989. "I was asked to lecture in a series on the decline of the West. I said I would give a lecture, but that it would not be about the decline of the West, it would be about the victory of the West."

In it, he talked about the triumph of liberal democracy, which had settled all the big questions of History with a capital "H". Taking Hegel's belief in the idea of the history of political and economic institutions as a single, evolutionary process, he argued that this evolution had reached its conclusion. Liberal democracy was the best political system for advanced technological societies; and capitalism, the most efficient way of exploiting technology, was the best economic system.

The stir caused by Fukuyama's lecture became a whirlpool after the Berlin Wall came down a few months after he delivered it. Several ideological wars since have been cited in an attempt to prove him wrong. But he sticks to his principles. Recent wars in Kosovo and Liberia are the skirmishes that happen on the periphery of modern states and in states that are not yet "at the end of history".

In his second book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Fukuyama moved down a scale to look at the "best" cultural supports for the capitalist democracies at history's end. For him, "a nation's well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned byI the level of trust inherent in the society". Societies that have strong families but relatively weak bonds of trust among people who are not related tend, he argues, to be dominated by small, family-owned and managed businesses. Japan and Germany can support big multinational companies such as Sony and Siemens because their societies possess a strong culture of mutual trust and support. France and Italy have done less well economically because they have less of a tradition of civil society.

The Great Disruption, published this month, takes another step down the scale to look at the kinds of domestic arrangements that best support stable society. To do this, Fukuyama explores "human nature", taking a close look at the biological forces that he believes determine family life.

He is reluctant to talk about the biological origins for male/female characteristics. Instead, he suggests it may be better to talk about female "socialisation". In his book he has no such qualms: "While the role of mother can be safely said to be grounded in biology, the role of (late 20th-century) father is, to a much greater degree, socially constructed." Men "have a biological disposition to be more promiscuous and less discriminating than women in their search for sexual gratification".

Even more controversially, he blames recent breakdowns in family life on the impact of the pill and the sexual revolution and cites evidence linking higher female earnings to rising divorce rates and a trend towards child-bearing outside marriage.

His interest in the biological sciences is relatively recent. Introduced to the literature by friends, he now strongly advocates the importance of biological insights for social science. "The more I read, the more it became evident that the social sciences were operating on a principle that was ideologically based. This was a reaction to the Holocaust and to the genuine misuses of biology by assorted racists and bigots. Social sciences had been turned in the opposite direction - to say that one's genetic basis meant nothing. But there has been a genuine revolution in biological discoveries. The social sciences have to adjust."

In considering ethical and political problems, biology "shows there are certain constraints in social engineering that limit the kind of society you can create". For example, socialism began with the mistaken premise that human beings were altruistic or could be made to be more altruistic. Nature "provides a negative lesson that there are certain types of utopias that are not realisable".

Fukuyama's enthusiasm for biology shows something of the convert's zeal. His maternal grandfather was a prominent economist in Japan. His father, a second-generation Japanese-American, was a congregationalist minister and academic sociologist. "He was way to the left of where I am, so we had a lot of political arguments." His mother, who had an MA in social work, worked "intermittently" with his father. He took classics as an undergraduate at Cornell University, before making what he called "a wrong turn" by studying comparative literature at Yale. This involved a period in France being taught by Derrida and Lacan. He thought all of this so "totally bankrupt" intellectually that he quit to study international relations at Harvard.

Then came a job with the Rand Corporation and a stint at the US State Department, before his "End of History" lecture catapulted him into academic life without all the tedious specialisation that he complains is usually necessary for tenure in America.

This is an exciting time to be thinking about politics, what with the impact of globalisation and the fallout from feminism, says Fukuyama. Both phenomena, he adds, are likely to lead to fewer wars. Commercial competition is likely to take over from warfare as a mechanism for technological developments. And those who fight wars are predominantly young men, while the populations of the developed world will be proportionately older rather than younger in the future as people live longer and birth rates fall.

Terrible things could happen, he admits. There could be a nuclear explosion. Genetic engineering could destroy life as we know it. But "very powerful innate human capacities for reconstituting social order" will remain.

Fukuyama is content with teaching, writing and fiddling about with his computer, making ever fancier virtual furniture. After coveting the Sheraton and Hepplewhite antiques in the State Department, he began making reproductions. His new, computerised hobby does not let him keep the furniture. But this way, he says, he manages to avoid splinters.

Great Disruption reviewed, page 29

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