After describing how society fell apart in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s (rising crime rates, illegitimacy, etc.), Francis Fukuyama asks, “Are we fated to slide into ever-increasing levels of social and moral disorder, or is there reason to expect the disruption is merely a temporary condition?” One has the feeling that Fukuyama started work on this book seven or eight years ago, before the crime rate plumetted and illegitimacy trends reversed, but didn’t have the heart to rewrite his book around those important new facts. Nonetheless, there is much that is thoughtful and original in this book. The first half is dedicated to Fukuyama’s analysis of the “Great Disruption,” the period when, to use the social science jargon, our supply of “social capital” diminished. Divorce rose, crime spread, and people became less trusting of their institutions and of each other. Fukuyama often seems on the edge of adopting the standard conservative “critique” (Fifties Good! Sixties Baaaad!) but his argument is actually more nuanced. Fukuyama, author of the controversial book The End of History, argues that the cause of the Great Disruption was not so much the liberal welfare state (as conservatives suggest) or income inequality (as liberals suggest) but something more fundamental: the technological revolution.

The normal explanations offered are not satisfactory, he notes, because many of these negative social trends occurred throughout the Western industrialized world—including countries with lots of welfare and those with little; those with great inequality and those with less; those with civil liberties protections for criminals and those without. So he searches for causes that were common to all Western industrialized nations.

One cause he identifies is the birth control pill. The pill, he argues, led to family breakup, one of the main causes of the Great Disruption. This happened not because oral contraceptives eroded the morals of women, but because they unleashed the natural piggishness of men. “Since the Pill and abortion permitted women for the first time to have sex without worrying about the consequences, men felt liberated from norms requiring them to look after the women whom they had gotten pregnant!’ Hence more illegitimacy. “What changed after the ’50s was that many rather ordinary men were allowed to live out fantasy lives of hedonism and serial polygamy formerly reserved only for a tiny group of men at the very top of society.” Hence the high divorce rate.

With men on the verge of ditching their wives at any moment, any sensible woman would endeavor to become financially independent—hence the drive for women to join the workforce (another cause of the Great Disruption). And that’s where the computer chip comes in, according to Fukuyama. The pressures for women to join the workforce coincided with a proliferation of the types of jobs that women were better suited for and a decline in the types of jobs more inherently suited to men: “Put in its starkest form, an information-age economy substitutes mental for physical labor, and in this sort of world women inevitably have a much larger role to play.” The increase in illegitimacy, divorce, single motherhood, and working moms led, in turn, to more crime, which led to gated communities and declining trust.

This logical chain has some weak links. Fukuyama overstates the extent to which information-age jobs are woman-friendly and manufacturing jobs man-friendly. Most assembly line jobs can be equally well done by women and certainly most technical jobs are perfectly well-suited to men. Moreover, many divorces were initiated by women, not their husbands. Many women joined the workforce not to strengthen their financial independence, but because they wanted to be psychically fulfilled. Finally, the idea that the pill-induced boom in male irresponsibility led to illegitimacy has a small flaw in the logic: If the gals were taking the pill, they wouldn’t have gotten pregnant.

But Fukuyama is on to something when he identifies these massive economic forces, rather than government policies, as the key to the riddle. He’s also right to argue that crime had a major effect on social capital. Fear of crime drove people into suspiciousness, isolation, and gated communities, and it fueled racial tension. While he ignores other reasons for segregation—some white flight came not from fear of crime but fear of blacks—he understands what liberals have often missed: Their cherished goals of community togetherness can only work when Law and Order prevail. We can sing “Kumbaya” more—if we let the police crack some heads.

Much of the book is devoted to a separate question: Given that society’s norms have eroded, can they be re-established? After a highly academic digression about whether norms have biological or social origins, Fukuyama concludes that yes, with some difficulty, society can be “re-normed.” This is important not only for the obvious reason that a Re-Normed Society is a Happy Society, but also because the new economy requires it. Silicon Valley grew in part from an informal culture in which techies and entrepreneurs shared information in ways unthinkable in other industries. Information-based companies need to be lean and non-hierarchical, and that can’t happen without a certain amount of collaboration and trust.

(Permit me an irresistible digression: Fukuyama notes that many of the information-age pioneers “arose out of the communal norms of the Bay Area counterculture of the late ’60s and ’70s.” Combine this with the fact that while the Internet was not created by Al Gore, it was indeed created by the government, and one is left with the delicious irony that the technological revolution that has transformed the world grew out of a combination of Haight-Ashbury and Big Daddy Government.)

Because Fukuyama was so busy studying whether it was possible for these nasty social trends to reverse, he missed the fact that they already have. In part, the explanation for the improved conditions seems to be what criminologists called the “younger brother syndrome.” Many boys who saw their older brothers die in crack wars decided it wasn’t worth it. Some girls who saw their big sisters get pregnant out of wedlock decided they weren’t to be emulated.

Harder to pinpoint is whether the activities of community groups and religious institutions helped drive home the message. Fukuyama argues that religion is a powerful means of instilling a sense of trust and community:

“Instead of community arising as a by-product of rigid belief, people will come to belief because of their desire for community. In other words, people will return to religious tradition not necessarily because they accept the truth of revelation but precisely because the absence of community and transience of social ties in the secular world makes them hungry for ritual and cultural tradition. They will help the poor or their neighbors not because doctrine tells them they must but because they want to serve their communities and find that faith-based organizations are the most effective ways of doing so.”

The evidence on this is mixed. Much of the new interest in spirituality is highly personal in nature. People are reading books, going online, and attending retreats in order to find “inner peace,” not in order to form neighborhood block watches. But there is a parallel trend that better fits Fukuyama’s analysis. Many people are indeed returning to religion to find a sense of community. A great example is the mega-church, the fastest growing form of worship. These are humongous churches that combine electrified music with theatrical sermons to create an entertaining Sunday morning experience. Often cited as an example of the “Mailing of America,” they are actually examples of the opposite. Most mega-churches are so large that they can create scores of smaller groups geared toward particular needs—single mothers, alcoholics, Bible studies. Think of the church as the town and the small groups as the neighborhoods.

There has also been a big increase in the number of people who have joined independent “small groups” to pray or discuss religious or ethical matters. Outside the auspices of institutional religion, they provide an excuse for people to get together and share intimacies. By one estimate, there are four million of these small groups.

I share Fukuyama’s view that a thirst for community has helped fuel the resurgent interest in religion. But it’s a secondary, not a primary factor. The main cause is demographic: The Baby Boomer cohort has hit the stage of life when they think about spiritual things. Older Boomers have seen their parents die and begun to face their own mortality; younger Boomers now have young children and are trying to figure out how to raise them so they don’t shoot up their high schools.

If conservatives have to swallow the idea that the greatest economic boom in a generation was spawned by hippies and bureaucrats, it’s only fair that liberals have to accept the idea that the secret to community renewal may be religious revivalism.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.