Fukuyama's 'Disruption': Surfing for a trend

May 23, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order," by Francis Fukuyama. Free Press. 343 pages. $26.

Out in the deep waters of contemporary times swims a group of social scientists waiting to catch the next big wave of social change to surf into shore. Francis Fukuyama, author of the best-selling "The End of History and the Last Man," thinks he has found one in what he identifies as a moral decline of Western and developed Far Eastern countries from the 1960s to the beginning of this decade, to be followed by a moral "reconstitution."

The Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, Fukuyama rides this wave for 343 pages of distressingly bad reasoning and opportunistic thought operating under a cover of apparent methodological sophistication and a tireless review of sources.

Fukuyama associates the "bad" period from the 1960s with a group of negative statistics, such as increases in crime, divorce, and illegitimacy, and the breakdown of social trust. Here, however, he picks and chooses. If crime rose, so did human rights; if divorce increased, so did the status of women; if neighborhoods broke down, there was an increase in the effectiveness of global nongovernmental organizations; if people mistrusted politics, perhaps such mistrust is healthy.

Next he asserts that the "bad" period was a result of the transition from an industrialized to a service and, increasingly, an information-based, economy. The latter particularly encourages individualism, and thus morally reprehensible conduct, he says.

Here, Fukuyama simply ignores scholarship, such as by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, which sees much of the information of our time as centrally controlled by media conglomerates and so fostering uniformity rather than individualism. Fukuyama also ignores the work of many social scientists, originally sparked by David Riesman, who describe this period not as an age of individualism but of "other-directedness" and conformity.

Fukuyama tells us that, in the '90s, "human nature" has somehow reasserted itself, and is once again doing what it "naturally" does -- establish ethical relations based on clear norms and close social ties. Again, the trouble with this essentialist thinking is that it allocates "bad" social development to the social reaction to technological trends -- say, the weakening of the nuclear family as a function of women entering the workforce during the childbearing years, or sexual "immorality" associated with the greater availability of birth control -- and "good" social developments to human nature.

There is no way of dealing with such arguments, except to point out that every human social form, from state communism to democracy, from the tight, repressive Victorian family to the hippie commune, is a manifestation of human nature -- whatever that is.

But Fukuyama backs away from his own arguments, and spends half the book inconclusively attributing a variety of social trends to a combination of human nature, spontaneous order and a mixture of networking and hierarchy, including politics and religion. Here the book is clearly in trouble, even on its own questionable terms.

In the end, Fukuyama reasserts his thesis of a moral return, a conclusion likely to endear him to conservatives who see the social developments of the last 50 years as a colossal mistake. It is a kind of conservatism which indeed looks backwards to earlier eras while ignoring their problems, and the reasons why we have moved past them.

Craig Eisendrath, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, has his Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization. He served as a Foreign Service Officer.

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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