Achieving Disunity

Corey Robin

  • Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers
    Harvard, 360 pp, £14.95, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06436 2

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.

‘Ideas,’ Rodgers writes, ‘moved first in the arena of economic debate.’ Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the dominant tropes in economics had been institutional, even among conservatives. Right-wing critics of the welfare state and state-managed economies did not speak of the market; they spoke of corporations and banks and ‘championed the rights of management and the productive powers of the free enterprise “system”.’ The idea of the market that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s – ‘self-equilibrating, instantaneous in its sensitivities and global in its reach, gathering the wants of myriad individuals into its system of price signals in a perpetual plebiscite of desires’ – dispensed with these settings and constraints. It also dismantled the ‘troubling collective presence and demands’ of social democracy, turning unions, workers and the unemployed ‘into an array of consenting, voluntarily acting individual pieces’. Everyone became a buyer or seller, everything – kidneys, pollution – got bought and sold. The only thing holding it all together was the magnetic energy of these individual acts of exchange.

Like most scholars of the free-market movement, Rodgers assigns great weight to Milton Friedman, ‘the University of Chicago’s most forceful politiciser’, and the right’s answer to J.K. Galbraith. He wrote columns for Newsweek, advised presidents (and dictators), and organised the ten-part PBS series Free to Choose as a counter to Galbraith’s 15-part BBC series on capitalism. With his focus on the money supply as the source of economic well-being, Friedman helped popularise a ‘radically simplified model of aggregate economic behaviour’, in which ‘state, society and institutions all shrank into insignificance within a black box that translated money inputs directly into price outputs.’ Yet, as Rodgers points out, Friedman’s monetarism was also far more state-centric – the Federal Reserve played an almost heroic role in determining the direction of the economy – than most market theologians would have liked.

What truly pushed the market into the culture – high and low – were the adjutants of Friedman’s revolution: the law professors and jurists, not just on the hard right (Richard Posner) but also on the squishy left (Stephen Breyer), who made economic efficiency the measure of all things and provided much of the rationale for deregulation; the second wave of free-market economists (Robert Lucas, for example, or Gary Becker), who took apart the field of macroeconomics in favour of game theory, behavioural economics, rational expectations and other individualist approaches; and journalists like George Gilder and Jude Wanniski who recast the market as a popular (and populist) vision of the good society.

In his 1972 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Galbraith accused economists of ‘eliding power’, contributing to ‘an arrangement by which the citizen or student is kept from seeing how he is, or will be, governed’. But with market exchange now praised as the definition of social life and sociability, power as it had been traditionally understood – an unequal relationship between individuals and classes, in which someone dominated, ruled, constrained or otherwise determined the fate of someone else – became even more elusive. As Rodgers writes:

Power underlines the elements of coercion in social exchange: the monopolisation of resources, the distortion of desire, the pinch of necessity, the coercion of consent, the extraction of obedience. The economists’ reigning model of exchange stressed, to the contrary, the voluntary character of the act: without a sense of themselves as better off now with the results than they were before, no bargainers would come to agreement. The very definition of economic exchange constructed it as a realm of freedom.

It wasn’t only economists who were thinking this way. Some, for example in political science and, increasingly, sociology, have explicitly modelled their work on economics. Others – historians and post-structuralists – have unwittingly mimicked the dispersal of power in free-market economics: ‘Down some of these winding paths, power fragmented, its bloc categories fracturing into smaller, individually situated micropolitical acts. Down others, power grew more diffuse, pervasive and subtle. But in either case, the dominant languages for power grew thinner, less concentrated and more difficult to grasp.’ The economists and their epigones said power was nowhere; the post-structuralists and theirs said it was everywhere. In the end, who could tell the difference?

Like any periodisation, Rodgers’s doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Robert Dahl, the political scientist who made interest-group pluralism a watchword of the postwar era, rested his arguments not on institutions but on the more or less rational motives of homo civicus, a strategic actor who looks for ‘ways of using his resources to achieve his goals’, and homo politicus, one who ‘allocates a very sizeable share of his resources to the process of gaining and maintaining control over the processes and policies of government’. Aside from the fancy maths, how different is that view from the rational choice models of contemporary political science, which also derive institutions in part from the rational motives of strategic actors? Such continuities suggest that Rodgers is not always as clear as he might be about what constitutes the break between then and now.

Conversely, a great many foot soldiers in the free-market brigade would be surprised to learn that they were marching against institutions. It was Friedrich Hayek, after all, who argued that law was a condition of liberty rather than a constraint; that traditional institutions were repositories of human knowledge and know-how, with which one tampers at one’s peril; and that every individual achievement was predicated on a vast scheme of co-operation (albeit unintentional and unconscious). Hayek argued against institutions by design, not institutions as such. He and his followers on the right may be accused of many failings but not of having a thin conception of society – unless by society we mean social democracy rather than laws, schools, churches, families and firms. As Rodgers points out, even Hayek’s most influential student, Margaret Thatcher, when she stated that ‘there is no such thing as society,’ added a rider regarding the irreducibly social and institutional nature of humanity: ‘There are individual men and women and there are families.’ In this, she was merely echoing Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom: ‘The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual.’

Even so, Rodgers is onto something, and many of his observations are startling. Ronald Reagan, for example, strode into office as the consummate Cold War president:

A sense of historically clashing structures dominated the presidential style. Urgency and obligation were its hallmarks. The Cold War political style clothed the events of the moment in high seriousness; it bound them into a drama of global struggle; it drew leaders and nation into tight and urgent relationships. It formed a way of articulating public life in which society, power and history pressed down on individual lives as inescapably dense and weighty presences.

But no president in the second half of the 20th century did more to undermine the tropes and trappings of the office than Reagan. Instead of calling for collective sacrifice, he asked Americans to believe in themselves; instead of the anxious weight of the present, he offered a weightless dream of the future. Before Reagan, presidents had made themselves and their leadership the story, but his trick was to get himself out of the way. He pioneered the ‘heroes in the balcony’ segment of the State of Union address, stepping aside to make room for a gallery of ordinary Americans to assume centre stage. ‘His métier was that of the programme host: the president as the nation’s off-camera narrator.’

By the end of his presidency, Reagan had diminished the office and given the country a myth of itself in which past, present and future dissolved into one another in a manic pastiche – something, in other words, out of postmodern life. ‘Reagan’s post-Cold War style was connected to intellectual trends that ramified out far from the Reagan White House,’ Rodgers concludes, ‘often articulated by persons who would have denied any connection’ with him. We should look at the work of thinkers as apparently diverse as Friedman, Foucault and Butler in a completely different light: not as critiques of the present but as symptoms of it, and not as holding mutually antagonistic positions but as variations on a theme.

A shrewd reader of texts, Rodgers isn’t so effective as an analyst of the trends he identifies. He rejects explanations of the Age of Fracture that attribute too much influence, as he sees it, to conservative think tanks and intellectuals. They were not always successful, he points out, in their efforts to promote the free market. But few movements achieve all of their aims; failure, as Weber taught us, is an occupational hazard in any kind of politics. Rodgers adds that it was often liberals like Breyer, Ralph Nader and Ted Kennedy who helped pioneer the political turn to the market. In 1975, Kennedy sponsored legislative hearings about the negative market effects of federal regulation of the airlines – one of the factors that led to the deregulation of the industry in 1978. And though we often forget this, neoliberal was a label, at least in the American context, first applied to politicians, intellectuals and journalists of the left: men like Robert Reich, James Fallows, Lester Thurow, Gary Hart and Bill Bradley, all of whom saw themselves in opposition to an older labour-liberal establishment that was sceptical of the market and friendly to the state. The ‘fracture of the social’ that followed, Rodgers insists, ‘was, in the end, as much a product of left-leaning intellectuals as it was of the new intellectual right. The notion of a conservative age in American intellectual life … harbours only half the truth.’

Yet Rodgers takes too narrow and personal a reading of the conservative backlash. Whether an idea tends left or right is not reducible to the affiliations of its proponents. Ending welfare doesn’t become a liberal idea just because Bill Clinton proposes it any more than standing up for the 99 per cent becomes a conservative idea when a Republican does it. Rodgers is right that ideas can travel across political frontiers, but they don’t lose their passport in the process.

Rodgers goes on to address the Marxist arguments of David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, which hold that postmodern cultural fragmentation is connected to the shift from the Fordist national economies of the first part of the 20th century to the post-Fordist global economy of the last part. In the Marxist view, the cultural solidities and structures of the 1950s reflect – and are reflected in – the postwar entente between capital and labour, which produced unionised jobs with high wages and benefits, pensions, and guaranteed healthcare. The loosey-goosey quality of our contemporary culture, by contrast, is bound up with the move to the global assembly line, just-in-time production, off-shoring, outsourcing and flexible labour markets.

Rodgers takes these claims seriously, but ultimately rejects them: not by examining what Jameson or Harvey actually said but by going after a version of their argument as it might have been formulated by the Second International. Operating on the assumption, it seems, that Jameson and Harvey are economic determinists, Rodgers counters that ‘economies are rooted … in ideas, practices, norms and conventions’; that the cultural hegemony of the market was ‘an accomplished fact … well before anyone clearly discerned the new shape of the global economy’; and that material experience is mediated by rather than reflected in culture. But neither Harvey’s nor Jameson’s account is addressed by these claims; Jameson would be especially surprised to be taken to task on the second point, since he has never assumed that cultural production entails the producer’s conscious apprehension of the world (one of his most famous books is The Political Unconscious).

The explanation Rodgers settles on is that intellectuals working in discrete fields tried to solve the problems they confronted with the tools they had to hand; more or less independently, but with an eye on one another, they shifted the categories of social thought from the singular to the plural, from the cohesive to the fractious. But this soft, local pragmatism – along with Rodgers’s weirdly agent-less constructions (a ‘contagion of metaphors’ ‘moved’ and ‘slipped across’ intellectual boundaries; ‘arguments poached on parallel debates around them’) – doesn’t take us very far. It makes the book a symptom of the fracture it describes – ‘thinking in modern societies … is piecemeal, context-driven, occasional’; there is no ‘single, dominant idea’ – and leaves the central historical question unanswered. Why did so many intellectuals and politicians make the same moves at the same time?

Given the free market’s role as the pacesetter in Rodgers’s account, it seems that the real if unacknowledged story of Age of Fracture is the political and ideological contest between an ascendant neoliberalism and a regnant yet waning Marxism, broadly construed. The chief makers of the fracture defined their cause as a struggle against some variant of a hegemonic socialism. Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism (1922), which Hayek said ‘fundamentally altered the outlook’ of his own First World War generation, opened with the claim:

Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses approve of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter ‘The Epoch of Socialism’ … Opposition in principle to Socialism there is none. Today no influential party would dare openly to advocate Private Property in the Means of Production. The word ‘Capitalism’ expresses, for our age, the sum of all evil. Even the opponents of Socialism are dominated by socialist ideas.

Looking back on the publication of his own Capitalism and Freedom twenty years earlier, Friedman remarked in 1982:

It is hard even for persons who were then active, let alone for the more than half of the current population who were then less than ten years old or had not yet been born, to reconstruct the intellectual climate of the time. Those of us who were deeply concerned about the danger to freedom and prosperity from the growth of government, from the triumph of welfare-state and Keynesian ideas, were a small beleaguered minority regarded as eccentrics by the great majority of our fellow intellectuals.

For a century, Marxism had shaped the contours of the political imagination. It injected the vocabulary of class and exploitation into the political vernacular, and forced people, whether they were socialists or not, to see the world – not just government but the economy, family, society too – as the product of organised, collective human labour. Because society was made, it could be grasped as a totality: each of its particulars was a revelation of the whole. More than any other, it was that idea – what Hayek called taxis (a social order made by design, accessible to human intelligence), and counterposed to cosmos (a spontaneously evolving and unplanned social order, not quite accessible to human intelligence) – which permeated the culture and against which opponents took aim.

Yet socialism – again, broadly construed – was an idea that had come under increasing attack throughout the second half of the 20th century, and often from the left itself. The gallery of socialist apostates includes Max Eastman, James Burnham and Irving Kristol. Rodgers, though, focuses on a less dramatic and arguably more significant mode of disillusion on the left. Reared to think of state intellectuals as the agents of progress, Keynesians in the 1970s underwent a critical crisis of confidence. Already under siege from New Leftists, who (in common with Friedman) disparaged liberal technocracy as bureaucratic tyranny, the Keynesians were caught by surprise by the stagflation – a seemingly intractable combination of high unemployment and inflation – of 1973-75. The MIT economist Paul Samuelson, whose 1948 textbook set the Keynesian standard, was sufficiently rattled to admit to the ‘failure of any paradigm to deliver the goods’.

The calls for the reform, as opposed to the destruction, of the welfare state came from within it. But these struggles within and around the left provided an opportunity for the right. With the engines of progressive advance now idling – or, as with deregulation, shifting into reverse – it was only a matter of time before the right made its move. 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.