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.

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