The Great Disruption:
The Decline and Rise of Social Order

by Francis Fukuyama,
336 pages,
ISBN: 068484530X

Post Your Opinion
Last Man Standing When History Stops
by Robert Sibley

Ten years ago, an obscure American policy analyst named Francis Fukuyama came as close to achieving celebrity status as a North American intellectual can when he published, in the Summer 1989 issue of The National Interest, an essay entitled "The End of History?".

Perhaps it was a matter of right-time-right-place, but the essay, and the book that followed in 1992, drew the attention of politicians, journalists, and academics from around the world. Considering the times-the Soviet Union was deflating like a soufflé gone bad and the Berlin Wall was being reduced to objets de touristes-the reaction was understandable. The world was in a whirl, and Mr. Fukuyama seemed to know why.

He speculated that, with the end of the Cold War, history was over because liberal democracy, which constituted the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and the "final form of human government", had triumphed. In the wake of communism's defeat, all that remained for the West to do was to bring the unenlightened regions of the planet into the liberal-democratic fold and establish a "universal and homogeneous state"-an exercise we dub "globalization". Many commentators, on both the Left and the Right, took umbrage at his claim. How can history be over when the world was in such a mess? Only a few people, familiar with the work of Hegel, Nietzsche, and their interpreters, knew that what Mr. Fukuyama had in mind was not history-as-event, but History-as-Purpose.

Now, a decade later, having departed from the U.S. State Department's policy-planning section for a professorship at George Mason University, Mr. Fukuyama has a new book, The Great Disruption, that should prove equally controversial. The book is an extension and revision of his 1989 essay which takes into account what Mr. Fukuyama sees as the key defect in his original end-of-history thesis: its failure to address the issue of human nature and account for the impact of science on future political and social development. Mr. Fukuyama argues here that, given the right conditions, it is the nature of human beings to be liberal democrats in a market-based economy.

This claim will no doubt disturb the slumbers of those utopian social engineers whose desks in university Sociology departments and the Federal Department of Justice still hold blueprints for social perfection. True, as the bloodiest century in history staggers to a banal, let's-party conclusion, it is hard to support any smiley-faced notion that the new millennium will be anything other than another slaughterhouse. Considering all the evidence of "things falling apart"-the virulent nationalism of the Balkans, the continued political and economic immaturity of Africa, the precarious position of Russia, and, closer to home, the pathologies born of gender conflict and sex-and-corruption scandals in the highest offices of the state-you might wonder at the sagacity of anyone who thinks some new and improved social order is aborning.

Nonetheless, that is Mr. Fukuyama's claim. The last five decades have marked a shift from industrial to information societies, he says, that created as great an upheaval in our political and social orders as the nineteenth-century shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. Rooted in technology, this upheaval gave rise to a culture of extreme individualism that undermined traditional institutional arrangements, moral standards, and social norms, and resulted in the rapid rise of crime, illegitimacy, family breakdown, and divorce rates, even as infertility rates, confidence, and civic trust fell.

In a particularly provocative chapter, Mr. Fukuyama asserts that feminism, propped up by the technology of The Pill, has sundered many of the institutions and traditions on which society depended for stability and purpose. Women fell for the bait of narcissistic individualism: "One of the greatest frauds perpetuated during the Great Disruption was the notion that sexual revolution was gender neutral, benefiting women and men equally, and that it somehow had a kinship with the feminist revolution." Feminism may have rightly pinpointed the more oppressive aspects of monogamy and paternalism, but it failed to substitute an effective means for raising the young. Effective contraception and feminist ideology allowed men to indulge in promiscuous behaviour and abdicate their traditional social role of protector.

The years of turmoil are coming to an end. Citing falling divorce and crime rates and a levelling off in the number of children born to single mothers, Mr. Fukuyama writes: "Evidence is growing that the Great Disruption has run its course and that the process of `renorming' has already begun." Institutional breakdown and social fragmentation are giving way to a renewed sense of moral order and civic-mindedness. The extremist individualism that characterized our social psyches for the last three decades is being replaced by "an ethic of benevolent collective responsibility".

Why are we suddenly recovering our civic sensibilities? Because, according to Mr. Fukuyama, we are by nature social creatures with an innate desire for hierarchy and orderliness. Biology prescribes morality. After decades of upheaval, our cultural and moral values have evolved in ways that allow us to adapt to changing technological and economic conditions because we possess natural instincts for both cooperation and competition. When one set of cooperative arrangements crumbles-as, for example, when the seemingly stable 1950s fragmented into the radicalism of the 1960s-we strive to build new ones. "By nature, [human beings] organize themselves into not just families and tribes, but higher-level groups, and are capable of the moral virtues necessary to sustain such communities... Human biology creates a predisposition to solve collective action problems."

The audacious claim that we are, by nature, rational, system-building creatures inclined by virtue of genetic inheritance and historical experience to construct particular moral and social orders is, well... it's enough to short-circuit the synapses of any utopian social engineer. How can you remake society in your own particular ideological image if your fellow citizens are hardwired to be something other than what you want them to be? Plato pointed out the dire implications of social engineering in The Republic, when he presented Socrates's deeply ironic prescription for bringing about the rule of the philosopher-kings: take away the children from their mothers and fathers and chase all the adults out of the city... which means, obviously, that you'd have to kill all the parents... which means, obviously, that utopias are founded on mass murder.

The point of Socrates's dark lesson is that we should be leery of those who come forward with plans to perfect society. As Mr. Fukuyama observes, the last 200 years since the French Revolution have witnessed a West racked by a kind of off-and-on civil war between competing ideological camps-communism, fascism, and liberalism, in particular-each of which claimed to possess the salvational blueprint for creating a new and improved world. The result was a century of slaughter.

However, the limitations of social constructivism have been revealed, first in 1945, when fascism was defeated, and then in 1989, when communism collapsed. It was the failure of these ideological experiments that justified Mr. Fukuyama's original end-of-history argument. To attempt to remake society according to some perfectionist view of politics would require that politics become engineering-the application of technical knowledge to the reshaping of society according to an a priori ideological master plan. So far at least, people don't take kindly to being re-engineered.

The grand (if mad) communist blueprint for a perfect world may have been tossed onto the trash heap of history, but many still cling to the intellectual methodology of Marxism. However, at the end of history, their standards are much lower. Instead of going to war on behalf of a classless society, they get hysterical over smoking in restaurants or exercise their moral sensitivies on video-game violence. These fights only go to prove Mr. Fukuyama's point: Liberalism is the big ideology on the block.

Mr. Fukuyama certainly does not suggest that there will be no more "historic" events. Things will happen: the odd war, the occasional recession, and, no doubt, Quebec referenda. But there will be no more questions about fundamental political or social values that are radically at odds with those now prevalent in liberal democracies. History has ended in the sense that the concept of "progress", the touchstone of the West since the Enlightenment, has reached its political terminus.

In The Great Disruption, Mr. Fukuyama revises his end-of-history thesis to acknowledge that developments in natural science and technology leave the evolution of society more open-ended. "Societies caught on the escalator of technological progress find themselves constantly having to play catch up as social rules evolve to meet changed economic conditions... People can adjust over time to all these changed conditions, but the rate of change can often exceed the rate of social adjustment."

He accepts, therefore, that, in the social and moral sphere, "history appears to be cyclical" inasmuch as social order changes over the space of several generations. Nevertheless, in the political and economic sphere, history appears to be progressive and directional. And, at the end of the twentieth century, it has resulted in liberal democracy being the only viable alternative for technologically-advanced societies. "The unfolding of modern natural science drives economic development, and economic development drives-with lags, setbacks, and wrong turns-a process of political development in the direction of liberal democracy. We can therefore expect a long-term progressive evolution of human political institutions in the direction of liberal democracy."

As far as Mr. Fukuyama is concerned, nothing-including the Gulf War, the Asian flu, and the Bosnian War-has happened since 1989 to invalidate his end-of-history thesis. Liberal democracy and capitalist markets remain the only serious political and economic arrangement for any society hoping to be part of the modern world.

Many will probably find this a pleasing prospect, at first glance. But is it? If history has indeed come to an end, if there are no great causes, no soul-expanding questions left to address, what is to be done? Build even faster computers? Find more parts of our bodies to pierce? Obsess over genetically-altered tomatoes? Demand tougher cat bylaws? Such hyperbolic questions expose the conceptual flaw in Mr. Fukuyama's thinking. Despite his restoration of the primacy of nature in human affairs, Mr. Fukuyama's concept of human nature is inadequate. He forgets, as Aristotle does not, that human beings are neither beasts nor gods, but rather creatures dwelling in between heaven and earth, possessing both a spiritual dimension and animal traits.

Where his original essay was rooted in the political philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel and Alexandre Kojeve, The Great Disruption relies on statistics and biological description. Such a materialist foundation is inadequate for addressing philosophical questions like, Is Mr. Fukuyama's envisioned political order the kind for which real men and women are best suited?

The full title of the 1992 book that grew out of his 1989 essay was The End of History and the Last Man. That "Last Man" should not be forgotten: He is the one left standing at the end of the ideological civil wars that have preoccupied the West in this century. The phrase was coined by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe creatures whose greatest aspiration is securing their own comforts. The Last Man wouldn't dream of doing anything to ruffle the social fabric. Last Men are nonjudgmental, for to be judgmental is to cause conflict and undermine one's self-esteem.

A nation of Last Men will undoubtedly be recognized by the United Nations as a nice place, perhaps even the best country in the world, but it shouldn't be relied on as an ally. Last Nations don't breed warriors and heroes because Last Men possess no transcendent ideals. Instead, they have rights and values, which, as Nietzsche taught, are about ego and power. And why not? The grand questions have been answered. At the end of history, there's nothing to do beyond the technocratic administration of society. Or shopping.

If any of this sounds familiar, perhaps it's because we are already in a state of Last Manhood, so to speak. Anti-tobacco campaigns, the high-dudgeon denunciations of the animal-rights activists, the anti-humanist irrationalism of radical environmentalists-all look very much like the life-fearing ressentiment that Nietzsche describes as the preeminent trait of Last Men.

The Great Disruption does not ponder the spiritual and psychological harm such a Last-Man society will wreak on its citizens. Mr. Fukuyama seems, in fact, quite oblivious to the likelihood that the universal and homogeneous state will be a tyranny, albeit a "nice" one, and that the next century will have no place for real men and women who aspire to be more than consumers. 

Robert Sibley, an editorial writer with The Ottawa Citizen, is currently working on a doctoral thesis in Political Science at Carleton University.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us