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.