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M A Y  1 9 9 9

The Great Disruption
Missing baby

The shift to the information age has been accompanied by social disorder throughout the industrialized world. But new forms of stability may already be in the making

by Francis Fukuyama

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.)

OVER the past half century the United States and other economically advanced countries have made the shift into what has been called an information society, the information age, or the post-industrial era. The futurist Alvin Toffler has labeled this transition the "Third Wave," suggesting that it will ultimately be as consequential as the two previous waves in human history: from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, and from agricultural to industrial ones.
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More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Age of Social Transformation," by Peter F. Drucker (November,1994)
A survey of the epoch that began early in this century, and an analysis of its latest manifestations: an economic order in which knowledge, not labor or raw material or capital, is the key resource; a social order in which inequality based on knowledge is a major challenge; and a polity in which government cannot be looked to for solving social and economic problems.

Related link:

The Great Disruption
Data tables relating to trends discussed in The Great Disruption. Posted by Francis Fukuyama at his George Mason University home page.

A society built around information tends to produce more of the two things people value most in a modern democracy -- freedom and equality. Freedom of choice has exploded, in everything from cable channels to low-cost shopping outlets to friends met on the Internet. Hierarchies of all sorts, political and corporate, have come under pressure and begun to crumble.

People associate the information age with the advent of the Internet, in the 1990s, but the shift from the industrial era started more than a generation earlier, with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the United States and comparable movements away from manufacturing in other industrialized countries. This period, roughly the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, was also marked by seriously deteriorating social conditions in most of the industrialized world. Crime and social disorder began to rise, making inner-city areas of the wealthiest societies on earth almost uninhabitable. The decline of kinship as a social institution, which has been going on for more than 200 years, accelerated sharply in the second half of the twentieth century. Marriages and births declined and divorce soared; and one out of every three children in the United States and more than half of all children in Scandinavia were born out of wedlock. Finally, trust and confidence in institutions went into a forty-year decline. Although a majority of people in the United States and Europe expressed confidence in their governments and fellow citizens during the late 1950s, only a small minority did so by the early 1990s. The nature of people's involvement with one another changed as well -- although there is no evidence that people associated with one another less, their ties tended to be less permanent, looser, and with smaller groups of people.

These changes were dramatic; they occurred over a wide range of similar countries; and they all appeared at roughly the same period in history. As such, they constituted a Great Disruption in the social values that had prevailed in the industrial-age society of the mid twentieth century. It is very unusual for social indicators to move together so rapidly; even without knowing why they did so, we have cause to suspect that the reasons might be related. Although William J. Bennett and other conservatives are often attacked for harping on the theme of moral decline, they are essentially correct: the perceived breakdown of social order is not a matter of nostalgia, poor memory, or ignorance about the hypocrisies of earlier ages. The decline is readily measurable in statistics on crime, fatherless children, broken trust, reduced opportunities for and outcomes from education, and the like.
From the archives:

"Education," by the Editors (December, 1879)
"The apprentice system has nearly disappeared. It has declined contemporaneously with the rise and encouragement of a compulsory public-school system. The rapid changes in society also have made the old relation of master and apprentice unlikely.... We shall discover that in neglecting the education of the hand we have not only weakened the power of the state, but have stimulated an unbalanced education of the person."

Was it simply an accident that these negative social trends, which together reflect a weakening of social bonds and common values in Western societies, occurred just as the economies of those societies were making the transition from the industrial to the information era? The hypothesis of this article is that the two were in fact intimately connected, and that although many blessings have flowed from a more complex, information-based economy, certain bad things also happened to our social and moral life. The connections were technological, economic, and cultural. The changing nature of work tended to substitute mental for physical labor, propelling millions of women into the workplace and undermining the traditional understandings on which the family had been based. Innovations in medical technology leading to the birth-control pill and increasing longevity diminished the role of reproduction and family in people's lives. And the culture of individualism, which in the laboratory and the marketplace leads to innovation and growth, spilled over into the realm of social norms, where it corroded virtually all forms of authority and weakened the bonds holding families, neighborhoods, and nations together. The complete story is, of course, much more complex than this, and differs from one country to another. But broadly speaking, the technological change that brought about what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction" in the marketplace caused similar disruption in the world of social relationships. Indeed, it would be surprising if this were not true.

But there is a bright side, too: social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade, and there are many indications that this is happening today. We can expect a new social order for a simple reason: human beings are by nature social creatures, whose most basic drives and instincts lead them to create moral rules that bind them together into communities. They are also by nature rational, and their rationality allows them to spontaneously create ways of cooperating with one another. Religion, though often helpful to this process, is not the sine qua non of social order, as many conservatives believe. Neither is a strong and expansive state, as many on the left argue. Man's natural condition is not the war of "every man against every man"envisioned by Thomas Hobbes but rather a civil society made orderly by the presence of a host of moral rules. These assertions, moreover, are empirically supported by a tremendous amount of research coming out of the life sciences in recent years, in fields as diverse as neurophysiology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, ethology, and biologically informed approaches to psychology and anthropology. The study of how order arises -- not as the result of a top-down mandate by hierarchical authority, whether political or religious, but as the result of self-organization on the part of decentralized individuals -- is one of the most interesting and important intellectual developments of our time.

The idea that social order has to come from a centralized, rational, bureaucratic hierarchy was very much associated with the industrial age. The sociologist Max Weber, observing nineteenth-century industrial society, argued that rational bureaucracy was, in fact, the very essence of modern life. We know now, however, that in an information society neither governments nor corporations will rely exclusively on formal bureaucratic rules to organize people. Instead they will decentralize and devolve power, and rely on the people over whom they have nominal authority to be self-organizing. The precondition for such self-organization is internalized rules and norms of behavior, a fact that suggests that the world of the twenty-first century will depend heavily on such informal norms. Thus although the transition into an information society has disrupted social norms, a modern, high-tech society cannot get along without them and will face considerable incentives to produce them.

THE disruption of social order by the progress of technology is not a new phenomenon. Particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human societies have been subject to a relentless process of modernization, as one new production process replaced another. The social disorder of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America and Britain can be traced directly to the disruptive effects of the so-called first Industrial Revolution, when steam power and mechanization created new industries in textiles, railroads, and the like. Agricultural societies were transformed into urban industrial societies within the space of perhaps a hundred years, and all the accumulated social norms, habits, and customs that had characterized rural or village life were replaced by the rhythms of the factory and the city.

Freefall This shift in norms engendered what is perhaps the most famous concept in modern sociology -- the distinction drawn by Ferdinand Tönnies between what he called Gemeinschaft ("community") and Gesellschaft ("society"). According to Tönnies, the Gemeinschaft that characterized a typical premodern European peasant society consisted of a dense network of personal relationships based heavily on kinship and on the direct, face-to-face contact that occurs in a small, closed village. Norms were largely unwritten, and individuals were bound to one another in a web of mutual interdependence that touched all aspects of life, from family to work to the few leisure activities that such societies enjoyed. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, was the framework of laws and other formal regulations that characterized large, urban industrial societies. Social relationships were more formalized and impersonal; individuals did not depend on one another for support to nearly the same extent, and were therefore much less morally obligated to one another.

Many of the standard sociological texts written in the middle of the twentieth century treated the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft as if it were a one-shot affair: societies were either "traditional" or "modern," and the modern ones somehow constituted the end of the road for social development. But social evolution did not culminate in middle-class American society of the 1950s; industrial societies soon began transforming themselves into what the sociologist Daniel Bell has characterized as post-industrial societies, or what we know as information societies. If this transformation is as momentous as the previous one, we should hardly be surprised that the impact on social values has proved equally great.

Whether information-age democracies can maintain social order in the face of technological and economic change is among their greatest challenges today. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s there was a sudden surge of new democracies in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the former Communist world. As I argued in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), there is a strong logic behind the evolution of political institutions in the direction of modern liberal democracy, based on the correlation between economic development and stable democracy. Political and economic institutions have converged over time in the world's most economically advanced countries, and there are no obvious alternatives to the ones we see before us.

This progressive tendency is not necessarily evident in moral and social development, however. The tendency of contemporary liberal democracies to fall prey to excessive individualism is perhaps their greatest long-term vulnerability, and is particularly visible in the most individualistic of all democracies, the United States. The modern liberal state was premised on the notion that in the interests of political peace, government would not take sides among the differing moral claims made by religion and traditional culture. Church and State were to be kept separate; there would be pluralism in opinions about the most important moral and ethical questions, concerning ultimate ends or the nature of the good. Tolerance would become the cardinal virtue; in place of moral consensus would be a transparent framework of law and institutions that produced political order. Such a political system did not require that people be particularly virtuous; they need only be rational and follow the law in their own self-interest. Similarly, the market-based capitalist economic system that went hand in glove with political liberalism required only that people consult their long-term self-interest to achieve a socially optimal production and distribution of goods.

The societies created on these individualistic premises have worked extraordinarily well, and as the twentieth century comes to a close, there are few real alternatives to liberal democracy and market capitalism as fundamental organizing principles for modern societies. Individual self-interest is a lower but more stable ground than virtue on which to base society. The creation of a rule of law is among the proudest accomplishments of Western civilization -- and its benefits become all too obvious when one deals with countries that lack one, such as Russia and China.

But although formal law and strong political and economic institutions are critical, they are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee a successful modern society. To work properly, liberal democracy has always been dependent on certain shared cultural values. This can be seen most clearly in the contrast between the United States and the countries of Latin America. When Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and other Latin American countries got their independence, in the nineteenth century, many of them established formal democratic constitutions and legal systems patterned on the presidential system of the United States. Since then not one Latin American country has experienced the political stability, economic growth, or institutional efficacy enjoyed by the United States, though most, fortunately, had returned to democratic government by the end of the 1980s.

There are many complex historical reasons for this, but the most important is a cultural one: the United States was settled primarily by British people and inherited not just British law but British culture as well, whereas Latin America inherited various cultural traditions from the Iberian peninsula. Although the U.S. Constitution enforces a separation between Church and State, American culture was decisively shaped in its formative years by sectarian Protestantism. Sectarian Protestantism reinforced both American individualism and the tendency of the society to be self-organizing in a myriad of voluntary associations and communities. The vitality of American civil society was crucial both for the stability of the country's democratic institutions and for its vibrant economy. The imperial and Latin Catholic traditions of Spain and Portugal, in contrast, reinforced dependence on large, centralized institutions like the State and the Church, weakening an independent civil society. Similarly, the differing abilities of Northern and Southern Europe to make modern institutions work were influenced by religious heritage and cultural tradition.

The problem with most modern liberal democracies is that they cannot take their cultural preconditions for granted. The most successful among them, including the United States, were lucky to have married strong formal institutions to a flexible and supportive informal culture. But nothing in the formal institutions themselves guarantees that the society in which they exist will continue to enjoy the right sort of cultural values and norms under the pressures of technological, economic, and social change. Just the opposite: the individualism, pluralism, and tolerance that are built into the formal institutions tend to encourage cultural diversity, and therefore have the potential to undermine moral values inherited from the past. And a dynamic, technologically innovative economy will by its very nature disrupt existing social relations.

It may be, then, that although large political and economic institutions have long been evolving along a secular path, social life is more cyclical. Social norms that work for one historical period are disrupted by the advances of technology and the economy, and society has to play catch-up in order to establish new norms.

SINCE the 1960s the West has experienced a series of liberation movements that have sought to free individuals from the constraints of traditional social norms and moral rules. The sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the 1980s and 1990s movements in favor of gay and lesbian rights have exploded through the Western world. The liberation sought by each of these movements has concerned social rules, norms, and laws that unduly restricted the options and opportunities of individuals -- whether they were young people choosing sexual partners, women seeking career opportunities, or gays seeking recognition of their rights. Pop psychology, from the human-potential movement of the 1960s to the self-esteem trend of the 1980s, sought to free individuals from stifling social expectations.

Both the left and the right participated in the effort to free the individual from restrictive rules, but their points of emphasis tended to be different. To put it simply, the left worried about lifestyles and the right worried about money. The left did not want traditional values to unduly constrain women, minorities, gays, the homeless, people accused of crimes, or any number of other groups marginalized by society. The right, on the other hand, did not want communities putting constraints on what people could do with their property -- or, in the United States, what they could do with their guns. Left and right each denounced excessive individualism on the part of the other: those who supported reproductive choice tended to oppose choice in buying guns or gas-guzzling cars; those who wanted unlimited consumer choice were appalled when the restraints on criminals were loosened. But neither was willing to give up its preferred sphere of free choice for the sake of constraining the other.

great disruption As people soon discovered, there are serious problems with a culture of unbridled individualism, in which the breaking of rules becomes, in a sense, the only remaining rule. The first has to do with the fact that moral values and social rules are not simply arbitrary constraints on individual choice but the precondition for any kind of cooperative enterprise. Indeed, social scientists have recently begun to refer to a society's stock of shared values as "social capital." Like physical capital (land, buildings, machines) and human capital (the skills and knowledge we carry around in our heads), social capital produces wealth and is therefore of economic value to a national economy. But it is also the prerequisite for all forms of group endeavor that take place in a modern society, from running a corner grocery store to lobbying Congress to raising children. Individuals amplify their own power and abilities by following cooperative rules that constrain their freedom of choice, because these also allow them to communicate with others and to coordinate their actions. Social virtues such as honesty, reciprocity, and the keeping of commitments are not worthwhile just as ethical values; they also have a tangible dollar value and help the groups that practice them to achieve shared ends.

The second problem with a culture of individualism is that it ends up being bereft of community. A community is not formed every time a group of people happen to interact with one another; true communities are bound together by the values, norms, and experiences their members share. The deeper and more strongly held those common values, the stronger the sense of community. The trade-off between personal freedom and community, however, does not seem obvious or necessary to many. As people have been liberated from their traditional ties to spouses, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches, they have expected to retain social connectedness. But they have begun to realize that their elective affinities, which they can slide into and out of at will, have left them feeling lonely and disoriented, longing for deeper and more permanent relationships.

A society dedicated to the constant upending of norms and rules in the name of expanding individual freedom of choice will find itself increasingly disorganized, atomized, isolated, and incapable of carrying out common goals and tasks. The same society that wants no limits on its technological innovation also sees no limits on many forms of personal behavior, and the consequence is a rise in crime, broken families, parents' failure to fulfill obligations to children, neighbors' refusal to take responsibility for one another, and citizens' opting out of public life.


The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

Francis Fukuyama is the Hirst Professor of Public Policy and the director of the International Commerce and Policy Program at George Mason University, in Virginia. His article in this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his book The Great Disruption, to be published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, next month.

Illustrations by Brian Cronin

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; The Great Disruption; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 55-80.

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