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Book Review

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The Age of Fracture: An Intellectual of America and the Twentieth Century

February 28th 2011

Book Covers - Fracture

The Age of Fracture. Daniel T. Rodgers. Harvard, 2011. 360 pages.

In The Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers offers an elegant, often eloquent, history of intellectual life in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Primarily interested in the construction of ideas that shaped conceptions of history, society, and responsibility, he analyzes texts from an eclectic array of academic thinkers across the political spectrum. Rodgers argues that in the 1940s and 1950s, social scientists and political philosophers established the terms of the debate on a range of issues concerning the self and society, obligations and justice, morality and destiny. To these postwar intellectuals, ideas had severe consequences, contexts and nature constricted human action, and history loomed very large indeed. While the turmoil and chaos of the 1960s caused tremors, it was not until the quakes of oil embargoes, unemployment, and inflation in the 1970s, that fault lines in this ideological consensus emerged. Into this breach, a lexicon of microeconomic principles, which had been forming for decades in libertarian circles that stressed agency, contingency, and reason emerged, promising solutions to seemingly intractable problems of disco-era stagflation. Instead of focusing on property and production, workers and owners, these economists celebrated instead the slight of (an invisible) hand that produced wealth and fostered the virtues of competition.

The vocabulary, metaphors, and grammar of the free market boosters seeped into academic discussions. Instead of the public solidity of politics and pressure groups, American historians, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars seeking to understand the formulations of class and exercise of power, now uncovered the ineluctable influence of culture and diffuse workings of hegemony.

Gramsci, Geertz, and Foucault replaced Marxist dialectics while close readings of popular songs, prisons, and cockfights superseded analyzes of elections, parties, and unions. This cultural turn reshaped the color line as well as race came to be viewed less as a fixed state and more as a social construction. Notions of gender likewise became subject to preoccupations with language and consciousness-raising rather than investigations into the architecture of patriarchy.

But the heart of Age of Fracture lies in the penultimate chapter, “The Little Platoons of Society,” titled after a phrase found in Burke that identified local groups as the source of significant affinities. In contrast to Rousseau’s social contract where citizens cede sovereignty to the government in exchange for order, Burke found in neighborhood groups and voluntary associations loyalty-earning organizations that offered the best hope of social harmony. The chapter opens with a lucid analysis of the redistributive justice scheme of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which set the parameters for discussions about equality and justice for the next decade. Deploying the decision-making premise of rational actors in a marketplace, Rawls held that, as the economy grew, bounty would spread as those in power put into place buffers for the powerless in a “There but for the grace of God go I” calculation.

Ironically, it was in 1971, the same year as the book was published, that the U.S. economy, which had facilitated such hypothetical largesse, screeched to a grinding halt and the engines that worked to close income gaps since the end of World War II “quietly slipped into reverse.” The causes were numerous. On the supply side, women entered the workforce in larger numbers than ever before and globalization of production and markets brought more laborers into competition with each other. Meanwhile, unions lost their power, cheap oil disappeared, and the simultaneous appearance of unemployment and inflation stumped economists.

What followed next was an awkward pas de deux between libertarians and traditional conservatives, with the likes of George Will vaunting community and evolutionary change rather than abstract tinkering by bureaucrats and Milton Friedman skewering the notion that society, rather than individuals, had moral obligations. Traditional conservatives were the true keepers of the civil republican flame because they wanted enterprise without the avarice, the sacred, not the profane, humility, not hubris. But most on the right agreed that equality was a fool’s errand in a world where hierarchy, whether divinely ordained or not, was the reality. They held out the principles of civic republicanism as the best means for individuals to achieve the American dream of social mobility and for the nation to realize the promise of democracy. But theirs was a streamlined republican moralism that venerated industry, initiative, and thrift while sidestepping sympathy, self-sacrifice, and fairness; had Ben Franklin adhered to this version of his Thirteen Virtues, he would have patented all of his inventions to reap wealth rather than leave them free to contribute to the public good.

With the assumption of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the “great U-turn” (as Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone deemed it) that reversed decades of progress narrowing the gap between rich and poor, went into full throttle. Deindustrialization, deregulation, and international competition for jobs and products coincided with a spike in urban homelessness, crack cocaine epidemic, and drug gang violence. The poor in the 1980s looked different and seemed to inhabit a different moral universe; while the whole world seemed to be moving at a faster pace in an increasingly fragmented universe, they remained surprisingly static and mired. Well-meaning liberals and anecdote-inclined conservatives alike trained the spotlight of vivid words on the new “underclass.” How could they be helped? Who was responsible for them?

Money did not seem to offer answers. After all, the tremendous cost incurred by Great Society programs seemed to result in more welfare recipients, illegitimate children, and urban strife. As conservatives liked to point out, if you would have asked someone in 1960 if we spent billions of dollars on the poor, would we have more violence or less, most would have said less. The fact that there was more suggested that something other than income had to be at play. And this new class of dependent poor (well, those that received press attention) seemed startlingly unabashed: Cadillac-driving pimps, welfare queens, unrepentant gun-wielding teens. Funded by a growing array of conservative think tanks, writers like Charles Murray insisted that government handouts exacerbated, instead of ameliorated, the problem, and urged Horatio Alger style self-help, as a panacea.

In tracking these “shifting debates over society and societal obligations” Rodgers reveals his ultimate intent: The Age of Fracture is, to some degree, a history of the Progressive Era in reverse. His previous books—The Work Ethic in America, 1850-1920, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence—signal his interest in moralizers, the “unworthy poor,” shaping words, and the latticework of ideas that framed attitudes toward work in an age of industrialization. In the magisterial Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, Rodgers set off on a transatlantic quest for the holy grail of historians of the Progressive Era: unearthing the origins of the reform ethos. He built on Robert Wiebe’s classic synthesis The Search for Order (1967), No Place of Grace (1981) by Jackson Lears, and James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory (1986) to demonstrate the motivation, origins, and strategies of middle class reformers who buttressed the effects of modern society with rural co-ops, workmen’s compensation, public housing, and city parks.

While Progressive-era chroniclers traced the movement from autonomous farmers to time clock-punching employees in an industrializing, mass culture America, bringing centralization and regulations for states and compassion for its citizens as they worked to solve trenchant social problems, Rodgers, in The Age of Fracture shifts this chronology. He marks out the story of “disaggregation,” which features newly autonomous individuals in a deindustrializing, multicultural nation armed with deregulation, decentralization schemes, and tough love. Instead of modernism and class politics, Rodgers tracks postmodernism and identity politics and, unlike the earlier “ministers of reform” who had moved away from the stern religion of their parents to embrace the Social Gospel, Christians in the Reagan era embraced fundamentalism.

In the final chapter, Rodgers turns to the history vogue in the Nasdaq 1990s. To explain the popularity of Civil War reenactors, E.D. Hirsch’s cultural primers, and Ronald Reagan’s recollections of cinematic moments (which sometimes stood in for actual historical events), Rodgers employs the metaphor of “Wrinkles in Time”: the simultaneous immersion in the present and fascination with the past accessed through a metaphorical “trap door.” Applied in legal circles, this resulted in “strict constructionists” who eschewed considerations of equality in their telic quest to discern original meaning. The exercise of law came to resemble Biblical exegesis: consult a concordance (the Constitution) and intuit authorial intent (founding fathers).

But, instead of the historical origami found in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), with its overtones of Christian theology, Rodgers might have used a secular referent from the period under review, particularly given that other key examples transcend political and religious lines. The 1985 film classic Back to the Future offers an ideal alternative. In the movie, teenager Marty McFly is transported back in time through a friend’s invention called the flux capacitator. Attached to a car, it allowed time travel. Attached to the Constitution, it transposed Federalist Society members in Rodgers’s analysis to eighteenth-century constitutional conventions. Skipping over huge tracts of time could not please Burkean conservatives who prized continuity, but it provided ballast to those with more radical ideas about process and power.

Flux capacitor cogitation also influenced the thinking of experts who flocked to post-communist countries in Europe and Russia bearing neoliberal ideas about free trade, privatization, and austerity protocols. They believed the transition from controlled economies to full-fledged markets had to occur in a flash (a plan that Naomi Klein identifies as a “shock doctrine” conspiracy of neoliberal elites but that Rodgers labels, with less foreboding, an effort to slip the coils of physical time), just as American markets, after fifty years of the New Deal, had been freed to return to their “normal” unregulated state. End of the world prophecies and end of history pronouncements similarly suffered this DeLorean delusion as did George W. Bush and his cabinet with their decision to invade Iraq: they could, they believed, transform the Middle East despite a millennia of history trending otherwise, into a modern, capitalist democracy simply by igniting a spark.

Rodgers dissects the process by which conservatives changed their ideas after encountering important major tomes (though at times this come across as Tim Russert-style “gotcha” moments). Liberal do-gooders in the Age of Aquarius, not Christian Republicans in the era of big hair bands, rolled out the first plans for school voucher programs. The term “underclass,” which conservatives used to demonize the inner-city poor was first employed by a triumvirate of high profile leftists (Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ted Kennedy, and William Julius Wilson), not by shock jocks performing an act of rhetorical legerdemain.

Codes regulating speech, far from being alien rules imported by tenured radicals, were commonplace in nineteenth-century schools, church-affiliated colleges, and Jerry Falwell’s own Liberty University. Robert Bork began his career criticizing the Warren Court for overreaching, deigning as it did to intuit framer’s intentions regarding the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet, only a decade later he had become a fierce proponent of strict interpretation. Justice Antonin Scalia too ripped into the Warren Court for veering into psychology and social issues but by the 1990s was employing such justifications himself. When Bill Clinton announced a plan for a federal service corps, conservatives jeered, but, when George W. Bush rolled out his own version during the ‘00s, they applauded. The about-faces demonstrate the fluid nature of categories of liberal and conservative and the distortions of binary distinctions, but Rodgers does not take to task those on the left for their own evolving positions (given, he is primarily interested in explaining how the liberal state was de-legitimized).

One of the great pleasures of The Age of Fracture is the sheer joy that Rodgers seems to take in words. The book begins and ends with an analysis of the words used in presidential addresses. Throughout, he offers OED-style exercises in etymology: how language changed, narrowed, distilled into orthodoxy, and eclipsed visions. Rodgers presents a broader time frame with which to analyze ideas associated with Reagan’s tenure. Far from being the Decade of Greed, as I have argued elsewhere, it was actually not until well after Reagan left office that the values of commerce won a decisive victory over civic virtues. And, in some sense, it is a relief to read a book about the last quarter of the twentieth century that gets beyond the by now familiar tropes about the rise and fall of the New Deal coalition, triumph of conservatism, and the culture wars as 1960s redux.

Jim Cullen reviews books for the History News Network. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003).

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