Not long before he died, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin somberly summed up his, and our, age: “I have lived through most of the twentieth century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history.” What made it so horrific is politics or, more precisely, the secular religions of National Socialism and communism that violently sought to transfigure the bourgeois economic and political condition of modern man. The exact number of people killed by these dark political adventures is lost to time, though surely it exceeds 125 million.
The secular religions are now gone, leaving behind only loss and ruin. Communism, as an ongoing political experiment, expired with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989; National Socialism didn’t survive its crushing military defeat during World War II. As the twenty-first century dawns, it is difficult to imagine a serious ideological challenger to what communism and National Socialism wanted to destroy: prosaic bourgeois liberal democracy—what social theorist Michael Novak calls democratic capitalism.
Despite the fall of the political messianisms, however, the future of democratic capitalism is by no means unclouded. Perhaps this is as it should be, since all things merely human are flawed. The hubris of the secular religions was to think that they had solved “the political problem.” Properly understood, democratic capitalism makes no such claims. It has been a virtue of the richest current of liberal democratic thought, from James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville to Irving Kristol and Pierre Manent, to explore bourgeois society’s inherent limitations and failings without losing sight of its basic decency and relative justness. Three important recent books allow us to confirm the relevance of that anti-utopian tradition and gain a better understanding of what troubles democratic capitalism today.
François Furet’s The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press) provides striking insights into the political tensions of democratic capitalism. While most nations have awakened to the economic merits of the free market, John Gray’s False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (New Press) proclaims the post–Marxist era of the new global economy a human disaster. He’s mostly wrong, but enthusiasts of unleashed markets would be foolish simply to ignore the dissatisfactions he gives voice to. And Francis Fukuyama’s ambitious The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (Free Press), which seeks to explain the social chaos that has plagued the economically advanced democracies for several decades, helps illumine—though not in a way the author intends—the biggest danger to democratic capitalism: the growing alliance between the free-market economy and a culture of moral libertinism. Politics, economics, culture: in each sphere, democratic capitalism faces deep challenges.
At the time of his death in 1997, François Furet was France’s foremost historian and the world’s preeminent authority on the French Revolution. Though once a Marxist himself, Furet broke with the Marxist view of the French Revolution—long dominant in French historiography—which saw it as an economically determined bourgeois warm-up for the Russian Revolution of October 1917. In the Marxian optic, 1789 was the inevitable result of a rising bourgeoisie overthrowing the ancien régime and the agricultural society tied to it. Furet rejected the notion of historical inevitability and gave human political actions a central explanatory role. In a Tocquevillian register of melancholic liberalism, he also claimed that the revolution released utopian hopes for a humanity reconciled with itself and in control of its destiny that neither liberal democracy nor any other political regime, including socialism, could ever satisfactorily fulfill.
The Passing of an Illusion, which appeared in France in 1995 and quickly became a controversial bestseller across Europe, shifts the focus to the twentieth century and to the rise and decline of the Communist idea, the inheritor of those profound but—when directed into politics—destructive longings. Disabused, attentive to the complex interactions of “ideas, intentions, and circumstances” that give meaning to history, Furet’s final testament is written on the far side of the revolutionary passions of the epoch. It serves as a kind of warning about expecting too much from politics.
Communism’s seductive appeal, Furet argues, came in considerable part from coupling the inherently incompatible ideas of human volition and the science of history. The Russian Bolsheviks showed the true capacity of man’s revolutionary will, which, in the most backward nation of Europe, promised the achievement of human liberation first announced by the French Revolution. To this “cult of volition,” Furet explains, “Lenin would add the certainties of science, drawn from Marx’s Capital.” History has a predetermined outcome, and thanks to Marxist “science,” we know exactly what it is, the revolutionaries claimed. Knowledge would transform Proletarian man into the Lord of Time, ushering in the classless society.
It was never clear how a science of historical inevitability could be reconciled with the allegedly Promethean will that forged the Russian Revolution, but no matter. Isaiah Berlin describes the emotional lure: “There is a curious human feeling that if the stars in their courses are fighting for you, so that your cause will triumph, then you should sacrifice yourself in order to shorten the process, to bring the birth pangs of the new order nearer.” Will and science: “By combining these two supremely modern elixirs with their contempt for logic,” Furet stringently notes, “the revolutionaries of 1917 had finally concocted a brew sufficiently potent to inebriate militants for generations to come.”
However intoxicating communism’s blend of revolutionary will and pseudo-science, it inebriated as many as it did because it both grew out of and exploited a two-fold political weakness of the bourgeois regime. The first weakness: liberal democracy set loose an egalitarian spirit that it can never fully tame. The notion of the universality and equality of man, which liberal democracy claims as its foundation, easily becomes subject to egalitarian overbidding. Equality constantly finds itself undermined by the freedoms the liberal order secures. The liberty to pursue wealth, to seek to better one’s condition, to create, to strive for power or achievement—all these freedoms unceasingly generate inequality, since not all people are equally gifted, equally nurtured, equally hardworking, equally lucky. Equality works in democratic capitalist societies like an imaginary horizon, forever retreating as one approaches it.
Communism professed to fulfill the democratic promise of equality. Real liberty could only be the achievement of a more equal world, a world, that is, without the bourgeoisie. And if what the Communists derisively called the “formal” liberties of expression and political representation had to go in order to establish the true freedom of a classless society, well, so be it. Thus was set in motion, Furet ruefully observes, the “egalitarian apocalypse.”
The second weakness is more complex, though its consequences are increasingly evident: liberal democracy’s moral indeterminacy. The “bourgeois city,” as Furet terms it, is morally indeterminate because, basing itself on the sovereign individual, it constituted itself as a rebellion against, or at least a downplaying of, any extrahuman or ontological dimension that might provide moral direction to life. For all the inestimable benefits of the bourgeois city—its three-fold liberation, in Michael Novak’s formulation, from tyranny, from the oppression of conscience, and from the grinding material poverty of the premodern world—its deliverance from the past has come at a price.
As the “self” moves to the center of the bourgeois world, Furet suggests, existential questions—what is man? what is the meaning of life?—become difficult to answer. Communism, usurping the role of religion in checking the individualizing excesses of democratic modernity, falsely promised to resolve such pressing existential questions, to provide a political articulation—monstrously perverse, as it turned out—of human ends.
The two political weaknesses of the bourgeois order, Furet adds, have a psychological corollary: self-doubt and self-hatred. The bourgeois man finds himself unsettled by a guilty conscience and spiritual dissatisfaction. “Self-doubt,” Furet writes, “has led to a characteristic of modern democracy probably unique in universal history, the infinite capacity to produce offspring who detest the social and political regime into which they were born—hating the very air they breathe, though they cannot survive without it and have known no other.” Hatred of the bourgeoisie, on the right and the left, is a tale as old as bourgeois modernity itself, of course, but it is jarring to realize how much ire has come not from aristocratic revenants or fiery proles, but from the cerebral sons of bourgeois fathers. Historian Perry Anderson points out that most of the leading Marxist thinkers originally came from bourgeois money: Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, even Marx himself—all had fathers who were bankers, bureaucrats, lawyers, manufacturers, or merchants.
The end of World War I—a bourgeois war motivated by bourgeois concerns and supported by the bourgeois class—left middle-class Europe exhausted. Into the breach stepped the Soviet Union, the antibourgeois society with all the answers. In the interwar years, the liberal democratic societies seemed powerless to control their fate while the Soviet Union’s “five year plans,” constructing the socialist future, appeared the very model of human rationality. But as credible reports of purges, political terror, and starvation began to leak from Stalin’s totalitarian netherworld during the 1930s, doubts about the Communist system began to arise.
The chaotic aftermath of the war also spurred the rise of fascism, a second and rival critique of bourgeois modernity. Where communism embraced the universal ideals of 1789, fascism drew its revolutionary force from the nation and—with its darkest star, National Socialism—from racial ideology, making it what Furet calls the “pathology of the particular.” Although professed mortal enemies, communism and fascism shared many affinities, including a loathing of the bourgeoisie, which is our concern here.
Despite the failures of communism and fascism, the political weaknesses of the bourgeois democracies—their susceptibility to egalitarian overbidding and their moral indeterminacy—are with us still. Nor are we free from hatred of the bourgeoisie; it remains virulent in both high and popular culture. The liberal democratic regime, Furet observes, by its very nature “creates the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond Capital, a world in which a genuine human community can flourish”—a need, his book persuasively shows, that will never be met. With the fall of communism, “The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of, and no one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject or even trying to formulate a new concept.” “Here we are,” Furet concludes, “condemned to live in the world as it is.”
Is this strange antinomy of the human political condition—between the utopian impulse and prosaic reality—sustainable? Though communism and fascism have exited the stage of history, one should resist the temptation to conclude that the history of politics culminates in the bourgeois regime. New political monsters may yet arise from the unstable and ultimately dissatisfying bourgeois world. More likely, liberal democratic societies will continue their plunge into a generalized moral nihilism subversive of bourgeois order—a concern I will return to later. The task of political thought is to guard against these threats, whatever shape they might take, through what Furet terms “the sad analysis of reality.”
If the political future of democratic capitalism remains uncertain, requiring both vigilance and reconciliation to this-worldly imperfections, what about its economic prospect? Though communism now rests in history’s dustbin, anticapitalism is not without influential adherents, as evidenced by British political theorist John Gray. Gray is not of the traditional left. But having moved from Margaret Thatcher’s camp in the 1980s to become a fierce critic of Thatcher’s legacy during the 1990s, he is certainly no longer the free-market conservative he once was. His recent book False Dawn is a blistering assault on the global capitalism of competitive free markets, fast-moving entrepreneurs, and volatile stock exchanges.
Gray brusquely dismisses the assumption that global capitalism will spread wealth across the planet. Inverting Montesquieu’s dictum that “commerce . . . polishes and softens barbarian ways,” Gray believes that capitalism is leading inexorably to a new late-modern barbarism. Indeed, Gray argues, the project of creating a world market is as utopian as Soviet communism—both are Enlightenment ideologies, he stresses, wedded to the cult of reason and blind to history—and threatens “to rival it in the suffering that it inflicts.”
For Gray, the project for a world market is utopian because it seeks to transplant a U.S.-forged “unfettered” capitalism, characterized by flexible labor markets, low taxes, spirited competition, and relatively restrained welfare benefits, to cultures with radically different, “embedded” markets in which man’s desire to barter and trade is constrained. The transplant will never take, since unfettered markets are humanly unsatisfying; but global capitalism’s “gale of creative destruction”—Gray borrows the language, though not the sobriety, of economist Joseph Schumpeter—will erode social cohesion by destroying settled ways of life, ignite fundamentalist movements that will struggle to restore order by force, and lead rival powers to exploit natural resources ruthlessly until the earth is left cracked and barren. The world will face the “return of history,” Gray solemnly warns, “with its familiar intractable conflicts, tragic choices, and ruined illusions.”
Gray paints global capitalism in lurid colors. “Already it has resulted,” he writes, “in over a hundred million peasants becoming migrant laborers in China, the exclusion from work and participation in society of tens of millions in the advanced societies, a condition of near-anarchy and rule by organized crime in parts of the post–Communist world, and further devastation of the environment.” In the U.S., where the market is most free and its unyielding logic most visible, the technological innovation and cutthroat competition that creative destruction lets loose has “proletarianized” the middle classes by eliminating stable careers and suppressing income growth, undermined the family, bred resentment over fast-rising inequality, and pushed innumerable uprooted and alienated individuals into criminality. The dismal realities of the U.S. economy, he predicts, will soon consume the world. Supporting his contention, Gray interprets the crisis of Asian capitalism as a harbinger of a “fast developing crisis of global capitalism,” a sign that global free markets have become ungovernable.
Gray sees no truly viable political response to global capitalism. He hopes for what I would call a “market pluralism,” encouraging various ways of articulating markets within different cultural and political forms. But his hope burns dimly since he sees no world power that will put a brake on the market. The U.S., which has the power, is the global market’s chief sponsor. Socialism is dead, Gray acknowledges, and for good reason: “The legacy of socialist central planning has been ruinous.” But Gray thinks that his preferred social democracy, too, has gone into “final retreat,” unable to resist the capitalist storm. Global markets, obeying a “New Gresham’s Law” in which bad forms of capitalism drive out good, punish governments that borrow too much money or boost taxes to achieve full employment. A “race to the bottom” ensues, with governments stripping away social protections in order to remain economically competitive and firms relocating to the global backwater with the cheapest labor costs.
As for the neoconservative belief that markets can be tied to traditional morality, Gray is contemptuous. The free market, he says, by celebrating individual choice above all other goods, necessarily erodes traditional forms of life. Global capitalism will proceed without a humanly appealing economic and political alternative until it sets itself, and the world, aflame.
Most of False Dawn’s description of contemporary capitalism, it is easy to show, is wildly exaggerated. Gray overestimates the degree of the historical ascendancy of American-style capitalism and the destructive effects of economic globalization. Market pluralism is, in fact, a fairly accurate way of describing the global economy, and is likely to remain so. To the “unfettered” capitalism of the U.S.—itself a caricature, since the U.S. economy is regulated heavily—we can contrast Japanese capitalism, which, despite the turmoil that has roiled the Asian markets in the last year, still features long-term employment and tight relations between banks and other firms; the German social-market model, with generous welfare benefits, powerful trade unions, and high taxes; and the touted “Third Way” of Tony Blair’s Labor Party in England. One needn’t stake a claim on the merits of any particular capitalism to grasp the reality of market pluralism.
Each kind of capitalism entails unavoidable trade-offs. German worker protections, for example, come at a cost: negative job growth over the past five years and high unemployment. The U.S.’s freer market has led to booming job growth and low unemployment but greater disparities in wealth. Economic globalization, pace Gray, hasn’t made these difficult social choices irrelevant. It does, however, punish exceedingly foolish economic programs, like President François Mitterrand’s 1981 nationalization of large swaths of the French private sector, which sent $3 billion a day in capital flooding from the country until his government was forced to change course. We may be witnessing the “final retreat” of extreme forms of social democracy, though even that I doubt, since the pull of egalitarianism will always be powerful in bourgeois societies. But, contrary to Gray, more moderate versions remain viable, albeit at the cost of low job growth and high taxes. There is no wide-ranging “race to the bottom.”
Only on two counts does Gray’s analysis deserve deeper scrutiny. First, there is capitalism’s tendency to erode stable careers. The U.S., where the project to establish the global market originated, is the best place, Gray feels, to measure the insecurity creative destruction brings with it. The rest of the world will soon feel it. “In their ever greater dependency on increasingly uncertain jobs,” Gray contends, “the American middle classes resemble the classic proletariat of nineteenth-century Europe.” Today, he holds, the prospect of a career is becoming obsolete.
That overstates the situation. Many people still have long-term, even lifetime, careers. The U.S. employment turnover rate has shifted in the direction of mobility, but more from individuals willingly changing jobs (or even careers) than from being fired or laid off. Nevertheless, beneath Gray’s inflammatory rhetoric lies a truth. For much of the post–World War II period, technological changes came relatively slowly. Industry in the developed world grew used to fixed ways of doing things. Now, as competition from an increasingly international economy liberates ever more creativity and technological innovation, the insecurity of employees will continue to grow as whole industries become redundant and are replaced with new industries, perhaps unimagined a short time before. How much call is there, in the year 2000, for vinyl record albums or typewriters? Who knows what new industries lie just beyond the horizon? The Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione puts it sharply: in the future we will have myriad “work opportunities” but fewer lifetime “jobs.” Flexibility will be the key to prosperity, both nationally and individually.
Though we shouldn’t exaggerate its extent, this transformation, inseparable from global capitalism’s creative destruction, can lead to a social weakness comparable to democratic capitalism’s political weaknesses of moral indeterminacy and vulnerability before egalitarianism. Some people will have a hard time adapting to the more flexible work world. Not everyone, after all, is cut out to be one of Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. A life of constant anxiety about one’s future is a diminished life. Gray is right about that much. Political thinkers need to think imaginatively about how to reduce such insecurity.
One option, I’m convinced, is a dead end: the agenda of the traditional social democratic left. Social democracy, at least in its extreme forms, massively swells the welfare state, makes government power omnipresent, and drains economic life of its vitality. Unfortunately, many on the left don’t see, perhaps can’t see, what neoconservative social theorist Irving Kristol calls the “spreading spiritual malaise” of the welfare state. Writing in 1840, Tocqueville imagined a society consumed with such a malaise, in which government, compassionate toward its subjects,
provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. . . . It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with government as its shepherd.
Tocqueville’s nightmare of tutelary despotism, a world without risk or human excellence, is the result toward which a certain kind of social democracy tends. It solves the problem of insecurity at the cost of restricting initiative.
More promising are the recommendations of Michael Novak in his 1996 book Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. First, Novak argues, policymakers should move to establish personal ownership of benefit packages (especially health care benefits, which companies carry only by historical accident) that can move from job to job with a worker should he be displaced by creative destruction or choose a new career path. Second, as a way of combating labor’s decline in an era of flexible economies, Novak proposes that visionary unions reconstitute themselves as independent business corporations, supplying trained workers, as needed, to other firms. Neither of these suggestions would eliminate insecurity, but they would be pragmatic, nonutopian ways of lessening the anxiety an open society causes while preserving its opportunity-creating dynamism.
A more flexible economy also will require new habits, and new ways of teaching them. Buttiglione has made this point repeatedly: “People must learn to learn, but not learn just technical knowledge, because this changes easily.” Instead, Buttiglione argues, individuals must be willing and able to adapt. If once one knew how to make vinyl albums, one must learn today how to operate the machines that make compact discs; tomorrow, one will probably have to learn to do something else as technology continues to evolve. Europe’s stagnating welfare states have been, for decades now, more set on consuming wealth than creating it. Thinking primarily of them (though the lesson holds for all advanced economies), Buttiglione calls for an educational renewal that will again make work a central virtue in our democratic societies.
Responsible thought—Furet’s sad analysis of reality, not Gray’s phantasmagoria—also has, then, an essential role to play in the economic realm. It must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the plurality of market models. And it must seek to temper the disadvantages of each. The market, we need to remember, is an instrument (a point Gray does grasp) and we can always try to make it more effective in securing human flourishing. It can be viewed as an Enlightenment ideology comparable to communism—a secular religion, in effect—only if profit becomes a society’s regnant deity. I don’t think things are that bad yet, but democratic capitalism’s economics, like its politics, are imperfect, far from utopian shores.
In the economic life of democratic capitalism, too, we need vigilance and reconciliation to the flawed and often tragic nature of the human world. This is as true as it has ever been in the age of global capitalism, which promises to make us at once more prosperous and more anxious, and constantly beckons the specter of tutelary despotism as an answer to our fears.
Gray makes another argument, an old argument, that has always shadowed bourgeois society. The free market, he claims, is incompatible with traditional forms of life and leads to a culture of anomic individualism, family disintegration, and social upheaval. Agreeing with Gray, at least in part, is Francis Fukuyama, author of the justly famous The End of History and the Last Man, which argued, wrongly but well, that man’s political history had reached its terminus in bourgeois liberal democracy.
In his most recent book, The Great Disruption, Fukuyama blames the social chaos of the democratic world of the past thirty-five years—spiraling crime, rising divorce, tragically high abortion and illegitimacy rates, and worsening levels of trust and citizenship—on the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy, a process that began during the 1960s. “Was it just by accident,” Fukuyama rhetorically asks, “that these negative social trends, which together reflected weakening social bonds and common values holding people together in Western societies, occurred just as economies in those societies were making the transition from the industrial to the information era?” Fukuyama’s answer: no. The Great Disruption is the poisonous fruit of the economic trends of the past three decades.
What was it, though, about the postindustrial economy that led to such dire consequences? The first key for Fukuyama is the transformation it wrought in the nature of work. In the industrial era, most work was labor intensive. Men were more suited to it than women, simply because of their greater physical strength. But the postindustrial economy, Fukuyama explains, “substitutes information for material product.” In an information economy, instead of the muscular assembly-line auto worker getting big rewards, it’s the brainy programmer designing the car’s computer system who draws the sizable salary.
Such far-reaching change in the nature of work opened the way for women to enter the workforce in large numbers. Women leaving home to compete for jobs put unprecedented pressures on the family by, among other things, diminishing the father’s traditional role as breadwinner. The decline of the family, Fukuyama notes, correlates with many of the social pathologies, including crime, that have afflicted the economically advanced Western societies since the sixties. Intensifying the strain on the family, he continues, was a technological invention of the post industrial era: the Pill. The Pill encouraged the “liberation” of women from the constraints of the hearth, Fukuyama stresses. But it also had an effect on men’s behavior by altering their attitude toward the risks of sex. It helped turn them into cads by separating sex from obligations toward child rearing. Men’s ties to family life, already fragile since they have fewer natural bonds toward their offspring than do women, became precarious.
The postindustrial economy drives the Great Disruption in a second way, Fukuyama suggests, and here his argument exactly mirrors that of Gray and sociologist Daniel Bell, who famously wrote in the 1970s of the “cultural contradictions of capitalism.” The breathtaking innovation of the information economy, and the kaleidoscope of choices it allows, “spills over” into moral and social norms, corroding authority and weakening the bonds of family, neighborhood, and nation. When I can choose from one hundred different brands of breakfast cereal, Fukuyama seems to be claiming, I will want one hundred different sexual partners, too, and be angry if my priest or my mother frowns on my desire. We begin to choose our moralities, our pasts, and even our sexualities in the postindustrial bazaar. Faced with such individualizing forces, small wonder that the moral order has been badly damaged.
All this makes the end of history sound very unsatisfying. Not to worry, Fukuyama reassures us, for the Great Reconstruction has begun. Man can’t live in the rubble of anarchy for long. His social nature and his self-interested reason lead him to “renorm” social life, to invent new moral rules for getting along with his fellow man. Along with nature and reason, the ongoing turbulence of the postindustrial economy itself encourages the reemergence of social norms—or “social capital,” as Fukuyama calls it. “A modern, high-tech society,” he writes, “cannot get along without [social norms] and will face considerable incentives to produce them.” We’re already seeing the signs of the new order, Fukuyama notes: safer streets as crime drops, falling illegitimacy and divorce rates, an increase in the level of neighborly trust. Fukuyama draws on game theory and a formidable range of recent research in the life sciences, including evolutionary biology and primatology, to make his point, but the upshot is clear: the end of history marches on, with just a thirty-five-year cultural disruption to slow it down. If Gray is Cassandra, Fukuyama is Pangloss.
What should we think of Fukuyama on democratic capitalism’s recent history? The Great Disruption contains a wealth of data that will be mined for years to come. But Fukuyama’s argument is fundamentally flawed.
His explanation of the Great Disruption, first of all, is unsatisfactory. There is a stronger cultural component to moral breakdown in the West than Fukuyama concedes. If the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy undermined moral life throughout the Western democracies, as he claims, why didn’t the same change lead to disorder in Japan and South Korea? As Fukuyama admits, nothing comparable to the divorce and illegitimacy of the Western democracies exists in these Asian societies; crime rates in Japan have actually dropped over the period of the Great Disruption. Apparently, their thicker communal and familial cultures have staved off social disorder. But this would indicate, against the thrust of Fukuyama’s argument, that culture moves with a strong degree of independence from economics. Moreover, the Pill didn’t drop out of the sky one day on unsuspecting bourgeois societies, but grew out of profound cultural and moral shifts—in particular the rise of feminism—that thus far have had less resonance in Asia.
Nor does Fukuyama sufficiently stress the role of law and policy in the West’s social woes. Would divorce have increased so dramatically had Western societies not liberalized divorce laws? Would crime have so ravaged America’s cities in the absence of laws coddling criminals? Would the number of abortions have skyrocketed had liberal regimes not legalized abortion? Of course not. Yet a postindustrial economy didn’t force these changes in law and policy, which occurred in varying degrees throughout the West over the past three decades. Rather, they too grew out of profound cultural and moral shifts—in particular the triumph in elite circles of a desiccated form of liberal thought—that thus far haven’t penetrated Asian societies to the same degree. In short, culture and politics seem to be the primary explanatory factors for the Great Disruption, not capitalist economics.
Culture and politics are the principal realms of man’s liberty and reason. Fukuyama’s refusal to grant them a major place in his analysis isn’t just the product of his quasi-Marxist economism; it follows from his reductive conception of human nature, which, despite his claims, is anything but Aristotelian. The new age sciences he employs are rigidly deterministic. Fukuyama protests that he’s no determinist, but I wonder if it’s possible to embrace these life sciences uncritically, as he does, and still leave a place for freedom. Evolutionary biology, for example, with its theory of the “selfish gene,” interprets a mother’s sacrifice for her child not as a free act of love but as a quest to propagate her genetic heritage. This interpretation is untestable, a matter of belief. Yet if it’s a matter of belief, why believe it? Doing so renders our moral vocabulary vacant and makes the human world literally senseless. If his notion of freedom is thin, Fukuyama’s understanding of human reason isn’t any thicker: his is not the proud reason of Kant, let alone Aristotle, but is purely instrumental. It teaches us the most efficient way to get from a to b, and that’s about it.
Given Fukuyama’s reliance on untenable economic and scientific reductionisms and his pinched view of reason, I find his optimism about moral renewal in liberal democratic societies no more convincing than his account of its breakdown. Man’s nature limits his freedom, but within those limits experiments in living can take him far from recognizably good ways of life, where his faculties can flourish, toward ways of life that diminish his spirit and lead, in the long run, to social breakdown. Who can say how long a society can continue running—and in some ways improving—while its spiritual life declines? Furthermore, why should we expect the same postindustrial economy Fukuyama thinks led to the Great Disruption to help heal it? Simply because an economy “needs” something doesn’t mean human beings will supply it.
Fukuyama’s good news is also more ambiguous than it first appears. “If the rate of divorce has fallen,” observes historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, “the rate of cohabitation has almost doubled in the past decade alone, and couples living together without benefit of marriage can separate (and do so more frequently) without benefit of divorce.” If the rate of out-of-wedlock births has decreased, the ratio of such births to all births has only leveled off, and done so at a high level. If abortions are fewer, in part it is due to the new respectability of unmarried motherhood. And so on. As Himmelfarb testily puts it, “For almost every favorable statistic, an ornery conservative can cite an unfavorable one.”
The democratic capitalist societies, then, still have a cultural problem. And here’s where things get tricky, because both Gray and Fukuyama brush up against the truth. When moral nihilism dominates the culture, as it does in Western societies—especially in the U.S.—free markets can radicalize it by shouting it, so to speak, from the rooftops. Not long ago, a television commercial for Mastercard featured pallid-faced kids who looked like junkies, with nose rings, tattoos, and the whole range of alienation’s disfiguring equipment. The message was simple: if you have money (or at least credit), who cares what your attitude toward life might be? And Mastercard is not alone: there’s Nike’s famous “Just Do It” ad campaign extolling release from constraints (which Fukuyama himself mentions), Calvin Klein’s kiddie-porn, and Time Warner’s continuing depredations (the most recent being a rap song about killing New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani). In such cases, we witness the corporate world bottom-feeding for profit, and it’s disgusting.
The greatest threat to the future of democratic capitalism, I believe, lies in this growing association of capitalist power and moral libertinism. A few years ago, Buttiglione made a pregnant observation. “Libertinism,” he said, “is in a certain sense more dangerous than Marxism, because it penetrates more deeply.” Instead of crushing man’s reason and his passions, as did communism, moral libertinism turns man’s passions against the truth. Marxism, as we’ve seen, was a religious atheism, a secular religion that hubristically proposed to build utopia only to open the gates of Hell. Libertinism, Buttiglione maintains, is a “negative atheism”—it “corrupts societies and is unable to offer the values needed for a society to live.” Not everyone can “just do it,” or else society crumbles. In the long run, Buttiglione thinks libertine capitalism “is existentially unbearable.” But in the short run, and that can last a long time, it coarsens the human world and intensifies the Great Disruption.
Gray and Fukuyama are right, then, to see a link between contemporary capitalism and nihilism, but they get things backward: nihilism is first imported into the market, not exported from it. Nihilism results, Buttiglione says, from the “suicide of culture,” and here he means culture in the sense of Bildung, not as an anthropological term as I’ve been using it. Our elite spiritual enterprises (Buttiglione mentions philosophy and theology, and I would add art and literature) have become ever more corrupt. In their main variants, they no longer even bother to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful, however plural and difficult to attain these ends might be. The suicide of culture sends its tenebrous signals throughout the human world; the market receives the signals, dumbs them down or brightens them up, and then seduces whomever it can. The bourgeois regime’s moral indeterminacy weakens its capacity to resist.
The connection between nihilism and capitalism is accidental and need not last. But the struggle against it requires, not reconciliation to this-worldly realities, as with democratic capitalism’s politics and economics, but something inspired: the rebirth of culture. Here should be directed the spiritual longings that Furet worried might again find their way into politics. We will need to paint again with the grace of Tintoretto; write with the humanity of Shakespeare; philosophize with the love of truth of Aristotle and Aquinas; and educate our best in the riches of our dual heritage of faith and reason. Our religious bodies should be at the forefront of this struggle, which is both moral and aesthetic. (Fukuyama laughs at the idea of a religious revival that might heal the Great Disruption, describing it as “a Western version of Ayatollah Khomeini returning to Iran on a jetliner.” But this merely indicates his limited grasp of human possibilities.)
Politics, too, will have a crucial role, though not as a secular religion. Statesmanship can help set society’s moral and aesthetic tone, and shame the powers that have bargained with nihilism. And postliberal policies, like those New York City has successfully implemented in fighting crime, can chip away at the decisions that fed the Great Disruption.
These three important books, then, help illumine the democratic capitalist prospect. Here is what it looks like at the dawn of a new millennium: in politics, it finds itself haunted by moral indeterminacy and weak before egalitarian demands; in economics, troubled by the anxieties of the rapid change that creates wealth; and in culture, suffering from the suicide of the elevated pursuits that should protect man’s highest ends. Not pretty, until you realize the alternatives—some undreamed of political monster arising from bourgeois discontents, a spirit-sapping tutelary despotism, or a radicalization of libertine capitalism.
Working a slight change on an old truism: democratic capitalism is still the worst regime, except for all the others. Perhaps, if we’re both vigilant and lucky, the twenty-first century will not rival Berlin’s twentieth as “the most terrible in Western history.”
Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor of City Journal, author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, and editor of On Cultivating Liberty, a collection of Michael Novak’s writings.