Seeing Things: Disrupting Society

Any thinking person today senses something wrong with modern society. Despite the phenomenal prosperity and security we enjoy, we intuit that things are just not right. We point to crime, family breakdown, or spectacular school violence. But particular issues do not get at a deeper question.

Fortunately, a brilliant formulation has recently appeared from Francis Fukuyama, who became famous a decade ago with his book, The End of History. Fukuyama argued that democracy and capitalism were the culmination of several hundred years of struggle. Since then, he has been looking into the conditions that made that triumph possible. And his conclusion, in a new book, The Great Disruption, is that “shared cultural values” of a particular kind are indispensable to a good society. The “disruption” designates social developments that have led us to the point at which modern liberal democracies “cannot take their cultural preconditions for granted” anymore.

The reasons for this run deep. Fukuyama rounds up the usual culprits—”radical individualism, the sexual revolution, and unbridled capitalism”—as having undermined the “social capital” of self-discipline, steady families and communities, and trust in secular and religious authority. But he connects these to an even larger shift in civilization.

The older forms of social capital emerged during the rise from agricultural to industrial societies. The Industrial Revolution, as any reader of Dickens knows, caused large disruptions in earlier forms of kinship and community. After some initial chaos, developed countries achieved a reasonable amount of cohesion that increased liberty and equality while still maintaining a sufficient amount of authority in state and church.

But our new information age has done away with that earlier compromise, says Fukuyama. The shift to information technology may be as great an historical disruption as the earlier change from agriculture to industry. Hierarchies of all kinds have been undermined by the new conditions. And instead of societies organized from the top down, whether by political or religious authority, we have entered an age in which our common lives will be shaped by the “self-organizing” activity of decentralized groups.

Fukuyama believes that we are social creatures by nature and will therefore find ways to remake social order. He places a great deal of faith in indications from neurophysiology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, ethology, and new forms of psychology and anthropology, which suggest that order is part of our natures. By contrast, he argues, “Religion, though often helpful to this process, is not the sine qua non of social order, as many conservatives believe.”

But Fukuyama’s confidence in all the modern “-ologies,” to the detriment of the old political and religious insights, looks, upon more careful inspection, like a splendid mirage. Living, breathing human beings, as opposed to the constituent parts into which they are carved up by science, will never be content without large, comprehensive explanations for their lives. Of course, we can get community of a kind from merely secular and local organization, and always have. But as John Paul II has reminded us in his most recent encyclical, Faith and Reason, the deeply human questions—Why am I alive? What is my destiny?—are the deepest engines of our existence. To push these out the back door, as if they were optional activities in an otherwise secular enterprise, would be to invite them to return with a vengeance, probably in distorted and violent forms. The furies of Islamic fundamentalism may be only an early warning sign of such a process.

Even in secular terms, we may doubt that human hunger for community can be fulfilled absent commitment to the spiritual community. Historically, social reform drew on the moral passion that only religion provides. Slavery ended in much of the world, for example, primarily because of Christianity It is telling that it persists precisely in those areas which the faith has not penetrated.

Yet Fukuyama’s analysis deserves to be read in full by anyone looking for enlightenment about our current plight. Along the way, he allows for many of the concerns that lead to the frustration of many religious people over what seems increasingly to be an inert human mass, unaware of its own deepest longings. The information age will no doubt call upon all of us to find innovative ways to preserve human things in unprecedented circumstances. But human nature does not change, even when ages do. If we want to save ourselves from inundation by the inhuman, we will not only have to rediscover the human but make more room for the divine.

Robert Royal


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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