Age of Fracture or Age of Counterrevolution?

by Corey Robin on October 17, 2012

Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture hasn’t received a lot—really, any—attention around here. That’s a pity because it’s a terrific book. Easily the most comprehensive account of social thought in postwar America, it narrates how our notion of the “social” got steadily broken down across a wide array of disciplines. It’s also a flawed book. My review of it has finally appeared in the London Review of Books. Unfortunately, it’s behind the paywall, but I’ve liberated some of it for your consideration here. Some people might feel uncomfortable commenting on the review without having read all of it—here’s my pitch for you to subscribe to the LRB—but I doubt that’ll ultimately prove to be much of an impediment.

If you look at books published in the years between 1944 and 1963 – books like An American Dilemma, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Power Elite, The Organisation Man, The Feminine Mystique and The Making of the English Working Class – you’ll find they depict a world moving towards an almost claustrophobic cohesion. Classes consolidate, whites push down on blacks, blue collars are hemmed in by white collars, and grey flannel suits march down city streets lined with offices and banks. Auschwitz may have been a world away from Levittown, but in Hannah Arendt’s vision of totalitarianism – ‘destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other’ – postwar writers found an apt description of social life as a whole. When Betty Friedan reached for the concentration camp as a metaphor for women’s estate, it was the reflex of a generation trained to think in terms of blocs of men and women constrained, shaped or otherwise constituted by social patterns.


The decades since have seen the publication of The Declining Significance of Race, In a Different Voice, Free to Choose, Gender Trouble and Freakonomics. Unity is either gone or on the wane. Norms are out, outré is in. All that’s solid (if there ever was such a thing) has melted into air. But where Marx was melancholic and ecstatic over that notion, thinking it reflected a genuine dissolution of the social world, writers and scholars now view fragmentation not simply as the way of the world but as the very condition of knowledge.


The intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers calls this the Age of Fracture, , noting the tendency among intellectuals of the last four decades to replace ‘strong readings of society’ with ‘weaker ones’. Between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th, he argues, ‘social thinkers had encircled the self with wider and wider rings of relations, structures, contexts and institutions. Human beings were born into social norms, it was said. Their life chances were sorted out according to their place in the social structure; their very personalities took shape within the forces of socialisation.’ Then things fell apart. Not only in the external world – things have been falling apart, after all, since the onset of modernity; the last quarter of the 20th century was scarcely more fractious than the first quarter of the 17th – but also, and especially, in ‘the field of ideas and perception’. ‘One heard less about society, history and power, and more about individuals, contingency and choice.’ Rodgers traces this ‘disaggregation’ of social categories across a range of discourses: economics, law, political science, history, anthropology, race, gender and philosophy. And while some of the trajectories he plots are familiar – from patriarchy to performance in women’s studies, from interest-group pluralism to individualist rational choice theory in political science – the cumulative effect of reading the same story again and again across so many fields is arresting. When Ronald Reagan begins to sound like Judith Butler and right-wing evangelicals make the linguistic turn, it’s clear there is something in the air.



What Rodgers may be narrating, in other words, is less the story of an intellectual fracture or even a shift in the basic modes of capitalism than of a political counter-revolution (that’s what Friedman called his project), organised in the highest circles of the economy and academia, and which radiated throughout the culture, often sweeping up its most self-conscious opponents. If Mises was correct that ‘even the opponents of socialism are dominated by socialist ideas’ – and the administrations of Macmillan and Eisenhower suggest, broadly speaking, that he was – it seems plausible that opponents of the free market counter-revolution (from liberal technocrats to feminist theorists) would come in turn to be dominated by its ideas. Not necessarily by its policy prescriptions – though many in the Democratic Party came to favour monetary over fiscal policy and developed a knee-jerk recourse to cutting taxes – but at the deepest level of its political imaginings, in particular its way of seeing the world in terms of the unplanned, spontaneous, unco-ordinated actions of a billion fractious particulars, and a corresponding scepticism about mass movements.


There are historical precedents for the association between fracture and counterrevolution. In response to the debtor insurgencies which took place in America in the 1780s, and which threatened the interests of creditors and property, James Madison observed that in small societies it is possible for democratic majorities with clear and distinct interests (usually inimical to property) to cohere and impose their will on the minority. But ‘extend the sphere’ of society, he wrote, ‘and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.’ After the French Revolution, doctrinaires like François Guizot and Pierre Royer-Collard, and their student Tocqueville, came to similar conclusions about the counter-revolutionary value of pluralism. And in the Old South, John Calhoun formulated his theory of concurrent majorities – an already fragmented society would be further fragmented by the near impossibility of the national government’s taking concerted action on behalf of the majority – as a counter to the abolitionist North.


Fracture need not always be a counterrevolutionary device. Neither must every counter-revolution follow the path of fracture. But the fact that the two are so often twinned does cause one to ask why fracture is so threatening to revolution and reform, and so friendly to counter-revolution and retrenchment. Why are unity and cohesion a necessary if not sufficient condition for any kind of democratic movement from below?


Movements of subordinate classes require the concerted action of men and women who, individually or locally, have little power, but collectively and nationally (or internationally) have potentially a great deal. If they hope to exercise it, such movements must press for and maintain their unity against many challenges: not only divisions among themselves (such movements hardly lack for heterogeneity of gender, race, status, religion, ethnicity and ideology) but also the power of their superiors. For these movements, unity is a precious and precarious achievement, always under threat from within and without.


Counter-revolutionary movements, by contrast, are multiply served by the forces of fragmentation. Political and economic elites, with their independent command of resources, do not need to rely so much on unity and co-ordination. What they require instead is the disunity of their opponents: the reverse of Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum that ‘the most important desideratum’ in any struggle is ‘the utmost possible unity of the leading social democratic part of the proletarian masses’. That disunity, it turns out, is fairly easy to achieve. Not only does fragmentation splinter the counter-revolution’s opponents into roving bands of ineffective malcontents; it also makes it more difficult to identify any ruling class or clique. No longer is there a simple target for mass action (the Bastille, the Winter Palace); there is just a pleasing spray of power, attached to no one group or individual in particular, potentially available to one and all. This, it seems to me, is one of the great obstacles the left has faced for the last half-century or so. With the Occupy movement, and its pitch for unity, one so grand (‘99 per cent’) it makes ‘workers of the world’ seem practically poststructural, we may at last be leaving it behind.

{ 21 comments }

1

J. Otto Pohl 10.17.12 at 2:29 pm

In broad terms the triumph of post-modernism over Marxism in some segments of the academy accounts for the fracturing nature of a lot scholarship in recent decades. I find this unfortunate because while I disagree with the Marxists, particularly on concrete issues like whether the Soviet experiment was worth its human costs, at least I understood them. They had a coherent view that could be engaged on its own terms and debated. It is not really possible to deal with much of the incoherent post-modern writing in the same manner. The literature is just often too amorphous to allow for anything like Barrington Moore’s brilliant critique of the Marxist emphasis on the working class as the engine of revolution.

2

LFC 10.17.12 at 2:29 pm

Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture hasn’t received a lot—really, any—attention around here.

I referred to it briefly in this comment.

3

William Timberman 10.17.12 at 3:33 pm

In my opinion, much of this fracturing is a delusion, or more accurately, a latter-day parlor game that anyone with a PhD is in one of the so-called social sciences is by definition licensed to play. Mistaking the part for the whole is a method available to any moderately clever operative with a career to make, and there seems no end to those willing, if not uniformly able, to take advantage of it.

There’s also plenty of room for counterrevolutionary (in the OP’s terms) mischief without any genuine intellectual content at all — the Koch brothers being the most popular current example. In large part, I think, this is because we find ourselves in a very fluid period of transition, when the fundamental elements of traditional economic and political analysis are being redefined. Some of this redefinition going on where we can’t see it unless we look very hard, but a surprising amount of it is right out in the open, where we can, of course — if we’re inclined to — mistake it for something else. Thatcher’s invocation of the family, for example, might be seen in a very different light if anyone bothered to look closely at what’s happening to families in the 21st century.

Not all modern affinities are elective, but those which are shouldn’t be taken quite so serenely as evidence of fracturing, but rather as evidence of the solidifying ground of a future synthesis which, in the fullness of time, will become visible even to those who presently have a vested interest in not seeing it.

4

bob mcmanus 10.17.12 at 3:50 pm

1: After reading this I came up with:”Surplus is gained by arbitrage across difference.”

Now that may be horribly phrased, and I welcome improvement, but I wanted something abstract that could be equally used as a basis for Marxian, Lacanian, economic, feminist, anti-colonialism etc analysis. Post-modernism isn’t any harder or more incoherent than the world it describes, or the discourses it wants to engage.

The problem is that if you want to understand feminism as simultaneously liberating and a reactionary tool of neo-liberalism, you have to use the dialectic.

5

QS 10.17.12 at 4:30 pm

“Fractured” society results from both the Soviet experience (as a negative reaction) and American experience (as the positive neoliberal project). The Soviet experience generated the New Left, including figures like Adorno who sought to excavate the subject from totalitarian (US or USSR) society. In other words, the false unity of Moscow generated the demand for individuality. Just as here, the false assertion of the individual subject demands a unification of powerless individuals (the 99%), to create an effective opposition against today’s Horatio Algers.

6

bourbaki 10.17.12 at 7:04 pm

Shorter Pohl:

Postmodernists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you will about the tenet’s of Marxism-Leninism, Robin, at least it’s an paradigm.

7

John Quiggin 10.17.12 at 7:14 pm

This is a great post! I had some related thoughts here.

To sum that post up, while the 99 per cent are a heterogeneous mixture, with lots of internal divisions, the 1 per cent are a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centred on control of capital, even when their income is notionally derived from their jobs.

8

LFC 10.17.12 at 8:13 pm

When Ronald Reagan begins to sound like Judith Butler and right-wing evangelicals make the linguistic turn, it’s clear there is something in the air.

Rodgers no doubt draws parallels betw Butler-ish postmodernism and Reagan-esque neoliberalism and no doubt there are some parallels to be drawn. But the theme of ‘One heard less about society, history and power, and more about individuals, contingency and choice’ is so broad I’m not sure how useful it really is. Sure, a talented intellectual historian can take the motto “only disaggregate” and apply it across many fields in the period in question, but a book like this must be selective, as he admits — it’s very U.S.-centric, for one thing — and isn’t it possible that he has left out some currents that would not fit the ‘fracture’ thesis quite so neatly?

Take historical sociology for ex.: Some major works of the ’70s and into the ’80s and 90s (Wallerstein, Skocpol, Tilly, e.g.) don’t really fit the ‘fracture’ thesis. Just one example; I’m sure there are others.

I haven’t read the whole review — just the part reproduced in the OP. But I’m not one of those for whom commenting on only part of a review is an “impediment”.

9

gordon 10.17.12 at 11:18 pm

From the post: “Movements of subordinate classes require the concerted action of men and women who, individually or locally, have little power, but collectively and nationally (or internationally) have potentially a great deal. If they hope to exercise it, such movements must press for and maintain their unity against many challenges…”

Damn right. Legal restrictions on union organising and collective action, and police attacks on demonstrators are a couple of challenges that many of the “subordinate classes” have come up against recently. And the now pervasive electronic eavesdropping and surveillance mean members of any group are likely to be easily identified by police and the burgeoning variety of spooks we now have the pleasure of paying for, and can be picked off or frightened off before any useful collective action can be organised.

10

Kester 10.17.12 at 11:34 pm

I find the supposed links between uniformity (as opposed to variety), a cooperative basis for society (as opposed to a competitive one), and unity of movements (as opposed to splintering) a bit tenuous. Only the Madison quote makes anything like an explicit connection. I’ll admit to not having read the book or full review, though; maybe I’d find better support for them there. I suppose it’s at least plausible that members of a society founded on diversity of style and/or interest will find it harder to form a coherent movement.

Also, from what little I know (and I’m happy to learn more even at the expense of the point I’m about to make), it seems to me that religious revolutions usually follow the exact opposite of the trends you’d suspect on this account. The Protestant reformation is the obvious example. Even as they are achieving their aims, the revolutionaries tend to grow ever more divided among a number of fashions, competing over ideas, attention and adherents, and pulling in different directions, often to no apparent ill effect on their remaining joint causes. Meanwhile, those faithful to the old authority tend to retreat from earlier levels of variety of fashion and opinion in order to mount a coherent counter-reformation. This pattern seems entirely independent of the maturity or degree of success of the revolution.

11

Watson Ladd 10.18.12 at 12:04 am

Recently? Taft-Hartley has been around for ages. Police have been battling demonstrators since time immemorial. There are shifts, yes, but they have a lot to do with the failures of the past movements, rather than being obstacles that necessarily exist and inhibit progress.

12

straightwood 10.18.12 at 12:45 am

The waning of destructive simplifications and mass-consumed ideology is not a bad thing. The emerging knowledge-intensive society may look formless on the surface, but it will harbor a much richer variety of social structures than the old hierarchical, dogma-ridden era of information scarcity. Of course, those who are professionally committed to resisting change will not greet this transformation with enthusiasm.

13

Timothy Scriven 10.18.12 at 2:08 am

Looking at this as a political phenomena, much like #9. The problem is that no one is articulating a conception of political action that is radical, deeply collectivist, and deeply anti-totalitarian. Even as its numbers were small, the authoritarian communist left (in various guises- from the Comintern, to Trotskyism) provided the political and intellectual core of resistance for the majority of last century. When that model was discredited (rightly so), all that remained for the left were watery and inspid forms of left liberalism; ideas so lacking in substance that even right-wing internet fanboy “libertarianism” comes across looking like a respectable and defensible ideology by comparision.

If we want to stop the fracturing of society into ever more defenceless parts, we need a geninuely alternative line to the current ideology, not something with differences of emphasis. “A bit more for the poor” isn’t enough, we need to re-explain and argue old ideas that have been forgotten- we need to show that unemployment exists because capitalism needs it, not because people are lazy. We need to turn the tables on capitalism, and argue that it is the great defender of social parasites, not us and that the biggest bludgers in this world have a great many zeroes in their income.

The rearticulation of libertarian socialism, in terms which are more than vain posturing, which are accessible yet rigorous, which aren’t intended to shock, but to persaude, is in my view the most critical political work to be done right now.

I just wish I saw much prospect for any of it actually happening. Even under times of undeniable crisis we’re not going forward as a movement.

14

Both Sides Do It 10.18.12 at 4:32 am

OP: “it seems plausible that opponents of the free market counter-revolution (from liberal technocrats to feminist theorists) would come in turn to be dominated by its ideas. Not necessarily by its policy prescriptions [...] but at the deepest level of its political imaginings”

William Timberman: “[...] the fundamental elements of traditional economic and political analysis are being redefined. Some of this redefinition going on where we can’t see it unless we look very hard”

Straightwood: “The waning of destructive simplifications and mass-consumed ideology is not a bad thing. “

Timothy Scriven: “If we want to stop the fracturing of society into ever more defenceless parts, we need a geninuely alternative line to the current ideology, not something with differences of emphasis.”

Crooked Timber turned into a hard-core Francis Spufford blog so gradually I didn’t even notice. Not that I’m complaining.

I haven’t read either the full LRB piece or The Age of Fracture, but is there a quick explanation besides their being adopted in the same time span for treating “disaggregation” in different disciplines as symptoms of the same phenomenon? The move from Dahl to Downs in political science seems to have been driven by different dynamics than, say, the rise of Dick Posner and the Law and Economics movement.

15

coffee 10.18.12 at 6:56 am

Very interesting.

I would like to hear the author’s thoughts on Hermeneutic Communism, which argues for weak and fragmented thought.

16

Metatone 10.18.12 at 8:22 am

As another who is prepared to comment just from the excerpt here…

I don’t know about the agency – I feel like those in power in the West rather stumbled upon the value of fracture, rather than planned it. However, it’s a notion with a lot of explanatory power for our current moment. Oppressive power has been decentralised – spread across multiple domains. Occupy London found this out regarding public space. They weren’t just battling the police for the right to demonstrate, they were battling a private security force, because public land has been privatised. Privatisation of basics like water and electricity come to mind as well – there are no democratic rights to these basics, just market transactions. If you don’t like it, switch provider (although with water in fact you can’t…) At the same time, privatisation and dismemberment has helped neuter the big unions.

Or another way to look at it is that the decline of institutions increases the value of money. So the rich have more power not by virtue of controlling institutions so much as having money. In Britain at least this could be seen in part as a reversion to (for example) a Dickensian time. Some countries never had the consolidation and stayed fractured all along. (Name your favourite favela state here…)

17

Roger Gathman 10.18.12 at 9:44 am

I think there are two crucial books missing from the troop going from Arendt to C. Wright Mills. One is the New Industrial State, and one is Silent Spring. Both are about the administered life – with the administration of lifeforms extending, in Rachel Carson’s very cleareyed view, across all environmental levels without any consciousness that this is happening on the part of the ‘consumer’. Galbraith’s book marks, I think, in retrospect, a huge turning point in the ‘counter-revolution’ – one in which the administrators of firms began to move, under cover of making a better return on investment, not towards Friedman’s vision of the firm as a profit maximizing unit – Galbraith is still right there – but the firm as a personally profit maximizing unit. The firm as a squeezable lemon. And this change in the adminstrative ethos is not so much a fracture, I think, as a response to something very Marx-ian – the fact that, in spite of the kind of Keynesian magic that was supposed to unite the corporation and the wage class in the happy bonds of demand management, the rate of profit began to fall in the seventies, as though capitalism was still following the demonic logic Marx outlined. I think it is hard to exaggerate the panic that swept the elite in the seventies.
So I would make my claim that both Carson and Galbraith are much more relevant to Robin’s review than Arendt and C. Wright Mills.

18

William Timberman 10.18.12 at 4:08 pm

Popular entertainments have had some very interesting things to say about this over the years. In the late Sixties the dystopia everyone feared was the one expressed in the first half of 2001 — the lying to the concerned Russian scientists, the briefing in which a roomful of functionaries is subtly warned to believe what they’re being told, the vapid conversation over sandwiches on the way to the monolith site. Regimentation with a smile, and by apparent mutual consent. By the Eighties, dystopia came, in Blade Runner, to be flavored by incomprehensible Chinese graffiti, dysfunctional architecture, a perpetually deranged climate, immigrants of unknown origin roasting rats in the gutters, and on top of all of it, the threat of being butchered by an android Prometheus.

So in the movies, at least, it seems that in those twenty years we went from a fear of order to a fear of chaos. Do we really wonder why, or what it all had to do with liberalism and conservatism? I suppose it’s also worth noting that Arthur C. Clarke was an unbridled optimist, and Philip K. Dick was anything but. They might well have been thought of — kinda, sorta — as the Newton and Blake of our then very modern distempers, if anyone but Pauline Kael had taken movies seriously at the time, that is.

19

bob mcmanus 10.18.12 at 7:08 pm

So I am starting the Rodgers and having trouble with it, just as I had difficulty getting into Perlstein, Hedges, Robin, Hacker, Krugman. And I am also currently reading Hobsbawm’s first volume of four but loving it.

So I am wondering if it might be something about liberals writing social history and social theory “top-down,” that what is important is what Noonan writes that Reagan speaks, that elites are representative or reflective of broad social changes even if they don’t cause them. And the liberal or social democratic writers feel themselves as elite wanting to persuade elites within a broad polity that accepts them.

While OTOH from Hobsbawm, if taking notes, I couldn’t name a British Prime Minister of the period but could name ten local Chartist activists. And even if the jargon and methodology of the Marxists (Lefebvre, Harvey) and post-whatevers (too many, and intentionally obscure, recently Karatani and Inoue Miyako) are abstruse and obscure, their subject matter, stance, attitude, perspective is at street-level, populist, empirical. That’s where they want to be, what they want to study, in opposition to all centers of power.

It may be something barely conscious or maybe very deliberate, in myself and the writers, maybe something as basic as alienation. But I would rather read about divorce dockets in Kyushu than the fights between Nobel economists. The latter just feels dreary.

20

Corey Robin 10.18.12 at 9:52 pm

#19: So what you’re saying is you like social history as opposed to intellectual history, the history and theory of commoners as opposed to that of elites. Fair enough. But then why, oh why, do you even bother reading intellectual history or the history of elites? (Incidentally, it has nothing do with the alleged politics of the writer. Arno Mayer, for example, is no liberal, but he writes about elites — he calls it “history from the top down.” Likewise, Perry Anderson. And I wonder how you’ll feel about Hobsbawm when you get to “The Age of Capital” and “The Age of Empire,” where the major protagonists are, for better and for worse, the bourgeoisie. You are, after all, currently reading book called “The Age of Revolution.”)

21

Nick 10.19.12 at 1:43 am

If ‘workers of the world’ is practically poststructural, does ‘we are the 99%’ hold any weight at all? Late-modernity and its predominance of social structures ‘destroyed all space between men and pressed men against each other’. Post-modernity devolved into a glut of individualism. The current era is about finding the balance/reconstructing /mutating through learning/learning through mutation/mongrelisation – not seeking to reunite ‘the left’ behind increasingly abstract, tautologically-inclusive slogans. What next: “We are the world”? Excuse the cynicism (and possible complete misunderstanding of what you’re saying here!) but I’m not seeing how it leaves anything behind. The Arab Spring slogan was ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’. Well and good. The majority of ‘the 99%’ want nothing of the sort.

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