Moral panic

The Great Disruption

Francis Fukuyama <em>Profile Books, 354pp, £20</em>

If you are interested in a guided tour of current intellectual fashion, Francis Fukuyama's latest book is just the ticket. It offers overnight stops in anthropology, economics, moral philosophy, psychology, neuro-physiology and other attractive locations. As with all good tours, it offers a combination of the exotic and the familiar. There are enough new names to suggest that we are breaking new ground, but there are also comfortingly established names - from Schumpeter to Margaret Mead, from Socrates to Hayek.

The tour has the merit, too, of being a round trip. We are taken through some disturbing and challenging terrain but eventually arrive back at the point we started. The theme of the tour is the breakdown of social order, the rise in crime, the weakening of trust and morality. This is familiar territory, but Fukuyama does not seek to minimise its challenges. He takes a studiedly neutral view of the various arguments from left and right as to why what he describes as the "great disruption" has happened. But in the end his message is a reassuring one.

Fukuyama tells us that while things may seem bad, they are not as bad as they have been on previous tours. We (by which I think he means what used to be called western society) have been over this course before. Human society is always likely to follow this track, as one social order breaks down and another takes a little time to re-establish itself. But, he assures us, a re-establishment will happen. Human nature, both individually and in society, ensures that some new form of order will be arrived at, even though it may seem unfamiliar and unattractive in prospect. We arrive at the end of the journey with a sigh of relief, perhaps bemoaning our bad luck in having lived through the period of the disruption, but confident that our successors will complete the job of social reconstruction.

I learnt much from and enjoyed the book. But the package tour left me dissatisfied in one major respect. I couldn't help but think about that which seems to have been deliberately skirted around. There is, it is true, a brief discussion at the end of the book which takes us into some of this region. This is the chapter asking, "Does capitalism deplete social capital?" Fukuyama offers a tentative negative answer but seems hardly aware that the capitalism about which this question has sometimes been asked in the past has now been transformed into a different and much more powerful beast.

There are, in other words, major aspects of the modern global economy that Fukuyama fails to take into account. One does not need to be a Marxist to understand that the shape of that modern economy has huge implications for societies across the globe. The mere fact of the single global economy; the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands; the increasing importance of technology and the corresponding decline in the value of labour; and the rapidly growing significance of the privately owned media as a means of shaping social values are all new phenomena which raise in a serious form, for the first time, the question of whether or not an acceptable social order will or will not be allowed to reassert itself this time. It is at least arguable that these global forces are now so powerful that the efforts of individuals or of whole societies to negate or reverse them will come to nought. The great disruption and the breakdown of social order may not be the cyclical phenomena that Fukuyama comfortingly identifies. They may be, on this occasion, the outcome of forces so powerful that they can actually prevent the operation of the expected self-righting mechanisms.

What is odd about the book is not that it provides no answer to this sort of question, but that it appears to ignore it altogether. In averting his gaze from this part of the territory, in his apparent belief that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, Fukuyama exhibits that same Pollyanna-ish optimism that we saw in Anthony Giddens' Reith lectures. So Fukuyama's package tour is an enjoyable and reassuring experience for the small number that can afford it. It seems scarcely relevant to those thousands of millions who inhabit the territory that the package tour avoids.

Bryan Gould, a former member of the Labour shadow cabinet, is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato, New Zealand