The Magazine

Stopping the Future

Francis Fukuyama defends humanity.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By J. BOTTUM
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But as modernity careened bloodily from side to side while liberalism's triumph worked itself out over the last two centuries, certain people have felt the desire to get off the boat. For some in America, for instance, the impetus was the disaster of socialist economics. For others it was an inability to stomach abortion. For others it was crime rates. For others it was euthanasia. For a few recent converts it is biotechnology and cloning. But, for all of them, a point is reached where they decide, "This is where I say, 'Enough.' This is a good place to stop."

Thus the economic libertarians wish to hold their position in the 1890s, the Evangelicals in the 1920s, the Southern agrarians in the 1940s, and the National Review conservatives in the 1950s. For a century and a half after the French Revolution, Catholicism stood as the only major force opposed to modernity, and even after the great rush of Vatican II aggiornamento, Catholics essentially froze the modernity they were willing to accept at 1964. A variety of factors drew off the neoconservatives around 1972.

Reagan's great conservative coalition of the 1980s was essentially a uniting of all these dissenters from the liberal project under one big Republican tent, and it was enormously successful in closing off certain economic lines that advanced thought had once assumed were identical with modern liberalism. Who now defends big government? Who still believes in the superior efficiency of a centrally planned economy?

But in other ways, the Reagan revolution was unsuccessful--as the continued rise of out-of-wedlock births and the apparent ineradicability of abortion and our lockstep march toward biotechnology's Brave New World all demonstrate. And that is because, in a certain way, there was never any chance of success. Examined closely, each disembarking group proves to have been seeking not to undo modernity but to freeze it at a particular moment--a moment when certain vestigial elements left over from the premodern world kept at bay the worst effects of modern times.

And yet, lacking a coherent unmodern philosophy, we can offer no compelling reasons for modernity to stop where we wish it to. The economic and political battles against communism, by returning liberalism to its original course, certainly changed the direction of modernity. But they did nothing to slow modernity down. Over the last few decades, for example, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of the American Founding have all pointed out that a smidgen of religious belief seems necessary to prevent modern liberalism from devouring its own political and economic gains. But this insight hasn't brought us much, for a culture's religious belief doesn't derive from the desire that the culture have a religious belief. Meanwhile, since its Enlightenment beginning, modernity has conceived of religion as its great enemy, and the antireligious impulse of the modern world is still steaming on and on--unchecked by our recognition that it ought not to, that it ought to have stopped somewhere before this.

Or, for another example, consider the question of whether we could have had a liberalism that was against abortion. We did manage to find an anti-Communist liberalism, after all--however much the Communists insisted that the future was theirs and that they were merely liberals in a hurry. And, hard as it is to remember, there was a moment around 1969 when several liberal writers were insisting that care for the poor and the weak demanded the rejection of abortion. But the liberationist impulse was simply too strong, and the sexual revolution too much fun. And so abortion came, despite opposition from those who wanted a modernity without it. Having bought a ticket this far, what means--what right, for that matter--did they have to stop the boat from going further?

AND NOW, at last, modernity has brought us the biotech revolution, and Francis Fukuyama has reached his point of saying, "Enough. We must get off." God knows, he's right. The first third of his book is utterly convincing proof that we are heading straight onto reefs that will destroy us. But the question is how we are to prevent that--for it is the internal motor of modernity itself that has driven us here, and Fukuyama accepts vast seas of modern development.