Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture–And Ours
What does Judith Butler have in common with Ronald Reagan? How about Jerry Falwell and John Rawls? Cornel West and Milton Friedman? In his sweeping history of American social thought during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers argues that these figures share more in common than one might think.
According to Rodgers fracture or what he (less poetically) calls “disaggregation” characterizes the main currents of intellectual life from the early 1970s to our own day. He argues that a mid-century focus on the social power of tradition and institutions, whether economic, political and religious, gave way to competing models of social life that stressed individual agency, historical contingency, and the amorphous power of culture. Early on in Age of Fracture, Rodgers sharply contrasts the social thought of the Cold War and the period that followed in terms of human nature. Rodgers writes,
Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. (Rodgers, 3)
In economics, Rodgers argues, this transformation was especially acute and would have serious consequences for social policy and social thought more generally. As the repeated financial crises of the 1970s seemed to discredit the effectiveness of Keynesianism, a number of schools of economic thought stepped into the fill the vacuum (often with major funding from recently established conservative think tanks)—all with strong libertarian tendencies.
Proponents of monetarism, rational choice theory, and supply-side economics might have disagreed on certain principles, but all believed that the best economic outcomes were produced when individuals made their way into the open market without interference from labor unions and government regulators. Individualism ruled; deep notions of power waned. At the same time, social theorists started to blame the rise of an urban “underclass” on the very government agencies created to serve them (while downplaying years of de-industrialization, institutional racism, and declining tax revenues due to white flight).
One of the most striking contributions of Rodgers’ book, however, is to show that shrinking ideas of the “social” were not limited to free-market economists, but also characterized nearly every sphere of the period’s intellectual life. Across the era’s social sciences, Rodgers notes an interest in thought experiments involving game theory, prisoners’ dilemmas, and “veils of ignorance” (in John Rawls’ famous Theory of Justice) that showed little concern for context, history, and power. Attention shifted toward abstraction and individual choice. Legal originalists discounted centuries of jurisprudence and social context to uncover the “true” meaning of the constitution at its foundational moment. Meanwhile, leading economists believed they could ignore the legacy of the past and shepherd Eastern Europe into a capitalist future through “shock therapy.”
As the social movements of the 1960s moved forward into the 1970s and 1980s, Rodgers sees fragmentation across the board. Inspired by the New Left idea of participatory democracy, influential liberal thinkers embraced pluralism and communal participation, which served to downplay earlier visions of a national social contract and economic redistribution (on the right, many showed a similar concern for the well-being of “mediating institutions” supposedly threatened by an intrusive federal government).
Feminists who had once believed “sisterhood is powerful,” now debated the usefulness of the concept of “woman.” Did it risk further marginalizing the distinctive voices of black women, working-class women, and queer women? At the same time, influential black intellectuals in the United States and England such as Paul Gilroy, Cornell West, and Henry Louis Gates rejected one-dimensional understandings of a unified black experience—and instead called for an understanding of blackness that conformed to the complex legacies of life within the African Diaspora.
For all the commonalities Rodgers sees running through the period’s social thought, this is not a consensus history of the 1980s. Even with though he sees the pull of “disaggregation” leaving a mark across the period’s ideological spectrum, he remains sensitive to political conflict, for example, noting contentious battles over Central America, nuclear weapons, and social issues such as abortion.
Nor is Age of Fracture yet another declension narrative about irresponsible radicals and “identity politics” somehow bearing responsibility for the revival of the country’s political right. In fact, Rodgers sees a major difference between the social thought of the 1960s, which tended to focus more closely on the power of institutions and social forces such as the government, the military, and capital in shaping inequality, and the period that followed with its emphasis on fracture, agency, and culture. Rodgers also sees much to praise in social thought since the 1970s, particularly the way it has helped legitimize racial and sexual difference.
He does believe, however, that the era’s strong emphasis on culture, rupture, and agency has lead to a neglect of key questions about power and history. At the end of his chapter on race, Rodgers argues that the,
growth of more complex understandings of identity was also the retreat of history. A culture reshaped in the choices and present moment preoccupations of a market-saturated society had transposed the frame of argument. In a liberation that was also the age’s deficit, a certain loss of memory had occurred. (Rodgers, 143)
Is this really the case though? Is it true that thinkers such as Cornel West and Judith Butler really had less of a concern with institutions, history, and power than their predecessors? Or was it that they aimed to capture a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the way history unfolded, power functioned, and identities were created? No one who has read Foucault for a graduate seminar would be unfamiliar with questions of power and institutions—even though the answers he encourages might not be as straightforward as a Marxian or even an “interest group pluralism” reading of the concept might provide. Does a focus on everyday performances of power really have to come into conflict with one attuned to the power of history and institutions?
In addition, is Rodgers correct to lump most of the period’s social thought under the concept of disaggregation? Can we really see any commonalities between the interpretive strategies of an influential anti-foundationalist literary critic like Stanley Fish and a biblical fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell? Rodgers acknowledges that the period’s conservative thinkers (and many self-proclaimed liberals) tended to obsess over combating the moral relativism and multicultural fragmentation that they saw characterizing intellectual life. Conservative Christians, in particular, proclaimed a universalistic understanding of human nature and longed for fixed gender binaries totally at odds with celebrations of gender trouble or the indeterminacy of texts.
Rodgers argues, however, that even among the religious right and cultural conservatives, one finds dissension on questions of gender, free speech, and foreign policy. While this is surely the case (when was any social movement wholly unified?), Rodgers might have done even more to explain how evangelicals fit into his broader theme of fracture.
While some readers may take issue with the book’s conceptual preference for lumping rather than splitting (though Rodgers always does an excellent job describing particular ideas), others might feel that the question of causality is left too open-ended. If fracture characterized the age, what exactly caused it to break out? Rodgers notes the value of works by David Harvey and Frederick Jameson, which examine the economic roots of the “post-modern condition,” but rejects what he sees as the determinism implicit in such models. Rodgers believes that ideas about fracture often preceded economic change and helped condition responses to it. It’s hard to disagree with this point, but it’s not surprising that discussion has already begun over the question of causality and the book’s principal argument.
Whatever minor issues readers find with the book however, they are likely to be impressed by its scope, its analytical ambitions, and its sensitivity to nuance, not to mention its readability. For many years it will serve as a key reference point for scholars investigating particular questions about social thought since the 1970s. In addition, Rodgers implicit normative stance, which calls on scholars to engage deeply with history, institutions, and power—particularly when dealing with questions of inequality—rings very true today, as we continue to live through the legacy of the age of fracture that he describes so effectively.