(Note: This review formed my comments as part of a roundtable on Age of Fracture at the U.S. Intellectual History Conference 2011. Stay tuned for further roundtable posts.)
“All that is solid melts into air.” Marx and Engels, 1848
“Concepts of society fragmented.” Daniel T. Rodgers, 2011
“All that is solid melts into air,” one of the more memorable of the many pithy allegories from The Communist Manifesto—which Marshall Berman playfully calls “the first great modernist work of art”—has persisted as a persuasive metaphor for the modern experience. Permanence has been “pitilessly torn asunder,” replaced by compulsory obsolescence. For many, this modern transformation is felt as vertigo, and as loss, anxieties given voice to by Jackson Lears, who laments the modern uprooting of “people from kin and communal ties, transforming them into mobile, interchangeable units of ‘human capital.’” For antimodernists in general, the separation of the self from longstanding bonds of mutuality produces disastrous, even inhuman consequences. For antimodernist leftists like Lears, uprooted people are seemingly incapable of collective resistance to capitalist dehumanization. But for Marx and Engels, and for latter-day modernists like Berman, rootlessness is to be embraced as a weapon against estrangement: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Daniel Rodgers offers a similarly explanatory metaphor for recent U.S. intellectual history: ours is an “age of fracture.” Since the 1970s, “the terrain of common sense shifted.” Structuralist and other “strong readings” of society have given way to disaggregation. Rodgers writes: “Notions of power moved out of structures and into culture. Identities became intersectional and elective. Concepts of society fragmented. Time became penetrable. Even the slogans of the culture war’s conservatives were caught up in the swirl of choice.” But whereas the “all that is solid” analogy explains modern cultural change as a by-product of capitalism—culture as epiphenomenal to “the dull compulsion of economic relations”—for Rodgers, “the age of fracture” is a metaphor that arises from a world where the boundaries between perception and reality are porous to non-existent. To those who want to know what explains the age of fracture, or to whom we should assign blame, Rodgers offers no solace, only ambiguity: “Which foot moved first? Did the economic transformations of late capitalism set loose these new debates? Or did ideas move first? My response is neither and both.”
In addition to ambiguity, Age of Fracture exudes ambivalence, a moral position neither for nor against our age. Like the modernists, Rodgers sees no point pretending we can go back to the way it was. But like the antimodernists, Rodgers is unsettled by the present condition. This is evident in his disapproval of many of our age-defining ideas, the worst of which seem to find the most acolytes. In what might be my favorite aspect of his approach, Rodgers heaps polite abuse, if there is such a thing, on several such bad arguments. For instance, in his analysis of the “law and economics” movement that found a home in prestigious law schools such as the University of Chicago, where Richard Posner holds court, Rodgers makes quick if mannerly work of the movement’s seminal text, Ronald Coase’s 1960 article, “The Problem of Social Cost.”
Coase’s Noble-prize winning argument went as follows: since social efficiency is best achieved when two parties are left alone to bargain their way out of their conflicting positions, civil litigation need not be weighed down by such quaint considerations as justice. Rodgers’s concise critique then follows as such: “The social good was a maximization problem in aggregate market value: crops and cattle, property values and pollution-abatement costs, not, he had been candid enough to say, any close assessment of who stood best to bear the pain of the compromise or how unequally matched their resources might have been at the outset.” The precision with which Rodgers implicitly unmasks the most significant problem with Coase’s crude brand of utilitarianism, that in failing to account for historically-rooted power imbalances it empowers those best positioned to benefit from the “free market,” works in microcosm as an argument against the microeconomic impulses that define the age of fracture: the seemingly neutral application of microeconomics, the prototypical weak reading of society, to theretofore macro-problems, is anything but neutral.
One of the more odious representations of the microeconomic contagion was libertarian Charles Murray’s racialist 1984 book, Losing Ground, a de facto handbook for several Reagan administration domestic policymakers. Murray argued that expensive Great Society programs designed to alleviate poverty actually resulted in increased poverty, the unintended consequence of the ironic incentives built into welfare policy. According to Murray, after calculating the costs and benefits of marrying and seeking employment, a poor couple, whom he imagined as rational economic actors “Harold” and “Phyllis,” would have concluded that it made more sense to remain unmarried and on welfare. Rodgers crisply summarizes the implications of Murray’s contention: “The cure constructed the disease and fed on its own perverse failures.”
The seductiveness of Murray’s microeconomic solution was obvious, especially in an era defined by austerity: doing less was both inexpensive and achieved a better result. At a time when urban poverty seemed more and more intractable, and more and more linked to racial inequality—evident in the racialized discourse of the so-called “underclass”—Murray’s “benign neglect” approach proved salient, particularly since the electorate was impatient with political measures that appeared to benefit blacks.
It is no surprise, then, that Losing Ground helped lay the foundation for Clinton’s “end welfare as we know it” legislation. But just because Murray’s anti-welfare screed was influential does not make it right. Rodgers undermines Murray’s “tendentious” and “slipshod” argument by pointing to some pesky facts, such that the percentage of welfare mothers had remained constant since the late 1960s, and that the number of unwed mothers had only gone up relative to the number of married mothers because married couples were having fewer children. Rodgers also relays that “the incidence of poverty had, in fact, fallen sharply in the Great Society years that Murray had surveyed.” Government inaction, then, was an unlikely means to economic equality given that inequality was the result of historical power imbalances that the Great Society successfully, if inadequately, counter-balanced. Add to that the sympathetic reading that Rodgers gives to structural considerations of racial inequality—“to be born into a society marked by race was to be born into a system saturated with power”—and it seems clear that Rodgers seeks to correct the faulty microeconomic interpretations prevalent in the age of fracture by layering them with macro forms of analysis.
In his final chapter, “Wrinkles in Time,” about the proclivity with which assorted political actors construed the past in anti-historical fashion, as if “one could penetrate through the incomplete and muddled historical record to its original, undistorted core,” Rodgers analyzes the development of “originalism,” a legal principle popular amongst conservative jurists like Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork. Originalists theorized that jurisprudence should be constrained by an absolute understanding of the Constitution, in terms of either its original meaning or the original intent of those who framed it. Although microeconomic legal thinkers like Richard Posner sharply criticized originalism’s anti-utilitarian neglect of “consequences in the world of fact,” the two forms of jurisprudence were flip sides of the same noxious anti-contextualist coin: where microeconomic legal theorists contended that legal interpretation should avoid historically-structured concepts like justice, originalists fantasized that the law, properly understood, folded time over onto itself so as to escape history.
Obstreperous U.S. District Judge Brevard Hand, who “set out to show that history proved the Supreme Court wrong” on its rulings on religion in school, made arguments from his Alabama bench in the early 1980s that served as an important precursor to the originalist movement, particularly in his disagreement with incorporation, a process by which portions of the Bill of Rights were applied at the state level. Among other revolutionary legal transformations, the precedent set by incorporation led to the 1962 Engel v. Vitale landmark decision that ruled school prayer violated the First Amendment. In contrast, based on a properly originalist understanding of the Constitution, Hand declared that states were not bound by the First Amendment and, as such, that Alabamans were free to establish religious practices of their choosing.
Rodgers obligingly lays out the obvious criticism of originalism: it distorted the history of the framing of the Constitution, which was, after all, a careful compromise between partisans who held multiple, often oppositional intentions. But his most damning charge is that originalists were ignorant of historical structure: “The originalist argument tapped not a desire to go back to any actual past but a desire to escape altogether from time’s slipperiness—to locate a trap door through which one could reach beyond history and find a simpler place outside of it.”
In making his devastating critique of conservative anti-structuralist thought, Rodgers shows that structural notions of power mattered where weak readings of society led to conservative conclusions. Coarse could only make the case that aggregate social efficiency should be the judicial system’s core objective by deflecting structural inequality, the consideration of which required giving thought to concepts infused with history, such as justice. Murray could only argue that welfare destroyed incentives for poor people to find jobs by ignoring the structural causes of unemployment, such as the trade policies that decimated the urban-industrial job sector, thus impoverishing large pockets of inhabitants in cities across the nation. Hand could only contend that the Constitution did not stipulate for incorporation by thinking of the document as devoid of history, by erasing two centuries of American jurisprudence that had ineluctably given constitutional law new meaning. In sum, it might seem that Rodgers is a structuralist doing battle with anti-structuralist ideas. But this is a selective reading of Age of Fracture. For although he respects some structural explanations, Rodgers also believes historical change can result from the power evinced by free-floating contrivances such as metaphors: market metaphors shape new material realities, and vice versa, new market forms give life to new metaphors. Rodgers, then, employs a soft poststructuralist methodology. As such, his critique of anti-structural ideas is mostly confined to those with conservative manifestations. In contrast, he shows some sympathy for left-leaning forms of poststructuralism, such as the cultural turn taken by the historical discipline.
Rodgers analyzes the historiographic cultural turn under the rubric of “the search for power,” which, for historians, “led to a virtual abandonment of the terrain of economics for new worlds of culture.” In other words, “power grew less tangible, less material, more pervasive, more elusive until, in some widespread readings of power, it became all but impossible to trace or pin down.” Much of this owed to the influence of French theory, especially Foucault’s evocative notion that discourse was everything, which collapsed the brackets separating material and linguistic sources of power, a particularly convincing framework for those who studied the constructedness of race and gender. But the cultural turn in American historiography predated the French invasion by a decade or so, when historians of the United States eagerly embraced E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson’s cultural Marxism, which inscribed the working class with agency, had an enormous impact on this side of the Atlantic. “It formed an outlet for the politics of consciousness that had run so strongly through the new left, the civil rights movement, and feminism. Culture gave historical ‘agency’ to the common folk of history, who had so little else to offer.” Less optimistically, Antonio Gramsci’s theory of power, another cultural Marxist-inspired paradigm that went by the name of “hegemony,” was paramount in popularizing ideas about the top-down power of culture, as opposed to Thompson’s bottom-up power. In Rodgers’s eloquent words: “Hegemony was the power of the dominant class not only to impose its social categories on others but also, and still more, to make its system of meaning come to seem the natural order of things, so that by insensibly absorbing that order the many consented to the domination of the few.” The most important American historian working in the Gramscian school was Eugene Genovese, who famously argued in Roll, Jordan, Roll that the agency of the slaves—“the world the slaves made”—though significant, was only possible within a “system of meaning” made to seem natural to those who inhabited slave society. In other words, slave agency was constrained by a reified vision of slavery’s social parameters.
Both of these readings of history, whether in the guise of Thompson’s rosy understanding or Genovese’s dour interpretation, remained tied to the structural form of historical analysis that went by the name of Marxism. And yet, Thompson and Genovese’s understandable attempt to make sense of how the oppressed were able to resist power, if at all, led them to innovate a sort of soft poststructuralist approach that emphasized culture as a motive force unto itself. This, in turn, created a bridge to more radically poststructuralist readings of history, readings beyond even Foucauldian, such as the feminist destabilizing of identity, best enunciated by Judith Butler, or the deconstruction of race as a stable category, a position eventually taken by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Interestingly, Rodgers comes across as sympathetic to this left-leaning move away from historical structure. Perhaps this is because leftist poststructuralism could be interpreted as less radically anti-structuralist than the conservative obliteration of history. More likely, the degree to which Rodgers is more sympathetic to the poststructural turn taken by left-leaning theoreticians than he is to the anti-structuralist turn taken by conservative intellectuals is predicated more on politics than epistemology. Maybe this is fine, since the link between politics and epistemology is often unclear. Anti-foundationalists like Richard Rorty have found some common political ground with foundationalists like Noam Chomsky. Arguably, Rodgers is adhering to one of the fundamental principles of philosophical pragmatism: he is basing his conclusions about different forms of anti-structuralism on their varied political results. And yet, an inconsistency redounds from Rodgers’s selective readings of anti-structuralism.
If results matter more than epistemology in determining the quality of an idea, then the structural critique of conservative anti-structuralism is groundless: what matters in judging originalism is not that it toyed with time in radically anachronistic ways, but that it resulted in a less liberal society, the political standard by which Rodgers tacitly judges ideas. Of course, what this stark juxtaposition makes clear is the absurdity of the argument. Originalism is bad politics precisely because it is bad epistemology, and vice versa. In other words, epistemology often presupposes politics.
To sum this up, a poststructuralist critique of a poststructuralist age is a paradox, fitting perhaps, but still a paradox. To be fair, Rodgers is not a social critic. He is a historian, and Age of Fracture is, first and foremost, historical scholarship, agenda-setting at that. However, Rodgers seems to want intellectual history to double as social criticism (though he is far subtler in going about this than was someone like Christopher Lasch). Insofar as Age of Fracture is a piece of social criticism, it lacks the razor-sharp edge of someone who takes aim from a position of alienation. Though Rodgers is uncomfortable with some of the conservative ideas that gained traction in the age of fracture, he seems to have made peace with the anti-structuralist zeitgeist in ways that antimodernists and Marxists alike cannot abide.