Many conservatives fundamentally saw the Cold War as a war of ideas. As such, the last quarter of the twentieth century reflected this reality–think tanks, academic journals, and partisan media outlets proliferated. The Age of Fracture, by Daniel T. Rodgers, positions itself as “a history of the ways in which understandings of identity, society, economy, nation, and time were argued out on the last decades of the century, and how those struggles of books and mind changed the ways in which social reality itself would be imagined” (2). His understanding of this quarter century was an age of fracture, in which strong notions of society, and institutional arrangements reflecting these notions, gave way to less collective social arrangements and ideas. What we should look to is the discursive shift from a focus on “society, history and power” toward one focused about “individuals, contingency, and choice”–the political and social consolidation of the thirties, forties and fifties yielded to the disaggregation of the seventies, eighties and nineties (4-5). Rodgers says that it should be understood as a qualitative shift in ideas and understandings about society.
Rodgers identifies a shift away from aggregate macroeconomics that dominated the economics profession from Keynes through the 1960’s to a microfoundational approach to macroeconomics that stressed the reduction of macroeconomic analyses down to the individual as the unit of analysis. He starts with the impact of marginalism on the economic profession and its integration by Alfred Marshall at the end of the nineteenth century, a marginalism which he says brought a modern ideal of the market into the economic discourse. That is, until Paul Samuelson of MIT synthesized John Maynard Keynes’ macroeconomic insights into the profession, which focused on aggregates, not individuals engaging in exchange. Keynesian aggregates dominated the profession until the turmoil of the 1970s, and the failure of Keynesian models (Phillips Curve) to account for stagflation, brought with it a renewal of the dedication to individual understandings of macroeconomically significant phenomena from Monetarists like Milton Friedman–Friedman’s monetarist models didn’t hold up very well either. This debate would coincide with the influx of law and economics devotees like Ronald Coase and Richard Posner on to law faculties who incorporated an understanding of the market and efficiency into the study of law–an infusion that was not without its critics. Conservative supply-side economics also developed during this period.
Moving onto discourses of power in the latter half of the twentieth century, Rodgers notes that discussion about power and its sources became less concrete and more fragmented and dispersed. One important reading of power was rooted in game theory and economics and stressed that politics and politicians could be analyzed along the same lines of individual, rationally self-interested behavior as the market had been. The new field of public choice economics, led by figures like James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, William Riker, Garrett Hardin, Kenneth Arrow, and Mancur Olson stressed that self-interested behavior was prevalent in the field of politics and that it could bring about serious systemic inefficiencies–government failures usually more serious than so-called market failures. For the left, power was social, and for E.P. Thompson it was intimately connected to classes and an understanding of domination. Thompson rejected vulgar Marxist determinism in favor of an “active, contingent, historical element of class formation,” meaning the formation of the English working class depended on its circumstances and was not inevitable. Thompson infused the importance of culture in the formation of the working class, while Antonio Gramsci would see the impact of culture from the top down, asking the question of “How do the rulers rule?” and answering through a culture of hegemony, or the imposition of the ruling class culture of the rest of society, made to appear the natural order of things. Language and its influence became a dominant motif in the social sciences as well. J.G.A. Pocock described the American Revolution as a competition between systems of language, and Clifford Geertz read diverse societies, drawing expansive conclusions out of small, but rich ritualistic events that tried to find meaning in these anthropological recurrences, not explain their structures. Michel Foucault carried the obsession with power to a new level, beginning by studying institutional power in which power was projected by projected by authorities to discipline the body and then the mind of the individual, using the prison as his archetype, but also focusing on discourses of power which “classified” and “regulated” the individual by creating “regimes of truth” in which the individual both affected and was affected by power.
In the realm of race, Rodgers examines the changing understandings of race in the final decades on the twentieth century. Starting with the inclusion of African-American Studies classes on college campuses in the sixties, “African Americans took the language of race–with all its stigmas, its social disadvantages, its pains and injuries–and reshaped it as a point of pride”; from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, to Alex Haley’s Roots, each reshaped African American identities through recasting their history “as a story of generations of pride, unquenched desire for freedom, and heroic struggle”–a new consciousness of race (116-117). Underlying this was a conviction of a common experience that united African Americans, which would be questioned starting in the seventies. William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race argued that middle class black Americans no longer shared the same experiences of domination that the rest of black America felt. Conservative Dinesh D’Souza argued that black culture was primarily responsible for the inability of blacks to catch up to whites, not overt racism.
Looking at gender, Rodgers finds a destabilization of marriage, a restructuring of the labor force that absorbed scores of women in the 1970s, and a variety of court decisions and legislative changes tackling gender inequalities in the law. We see the discussion of patriarchy evident in this outpouring of writings by feminists, a concept that could mean “a labor system rooted in men’s expropriation of women’s unpaid family labor; for others, it was a system through which men gained domination over women’s reproductive powers by trading women as commodities in marriage and kinship exchanges; for still others, it was a system of outright physical domination constituted in rape and sexual violence.” Overall, feminists during the sixties wanted to create a unified voice for women whose understandings of the world stemmed from their own experiences, rather than those of men. The problem was, of course, that there was fractures in the feminist camp, with differential focuses and goals that did not always reconcile with each other. There were also counterfeminist groups that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and helped grind its state ratification success to a halt. By the 1980s, the women’s alliance had nearly collapsed, with a renewed focus by women on family and a rebuke against the homogenization of women’s experiences and desires they felt feminism was bringing about, especially along lines of race and class. Feminists searched for new modes of analysis, with many settling on the gendered nature of language, some focusing on literature, others establishing the new field of Critical Legal Studies that “unmasked the hidden arbitrariness of the law’s language.” French Poststructuralists focused on hierarchical power in opposing binaries like mind/body and male/female, where one side of the equation was given a default status of normal or natural, with the other subordinated to it–language disguised the arbitrariness and instability of language. Some of the cultural backlash came from conservative women and men who read into the equal rights amendment a denial of gender differences, an assault on the family, or an uncomfortable acceptance of homosexuality, which culminated in a conservative defense of the family to counter these trends.
The era was also one in which Americans rethought their concepts of community and collective obligation, coming to new answers than the preceding decades. John Rawls’ pivotal work, A Theory of Justice, was a political philosopher’s attempt to answer what justice requires that we owe each other, taking a thought experiment–the Veil of Ignorance–and concluding that in such a situation, self-interested individuals who knew nothing about their relative talents would choose an egalitarian system of justice that focused on the well-being of the least well-off in society, making sure no one was desperately impoverished. Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick challenged Rawls’ formulation four years later in 1975 with Anarchy, State, and Utopia, formulizing justice not as an end-state, which inevitably required coercion by the state into the autonomy and liberty of individuals, but as a process–if the given, or original, distribution was just, and exchanges were just, then the distribution resulting from the exchanges must be also just. Conservatives felt themselves torn between articulating a vision of community somewhere between Nozick’s perceived atomism (or leftist nihilism) and Communistic leviathan, ultimately settling on a “local” rhetoric praising the virtue of civil society and citizenship on a small scale–”little platoons of society”. They saw universities as an avenue for promoting common experiences that develop civic-minded and virtuous individuals, so they became distressed when they saw universities eliminating traditional common experiences such as teaching the “Great Books,” as well as promulgating political correctness and instituting speech codes that stifled free speech and open inquiry on campus.
Rodgers brings Age of Fracture to a close discussing school voucher implementation, textbook wars, Constitutional originalism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has an epilogue on 9/11 as a unifying force against the late twentieth century’s trend of fracture.
- In Chapter two, Rodgers frames the shift toward microeconomic foundations for macroeconomics and the increasing importance of economic concepts in social debate as “the puzzle of the age.” He says “the riddle is that so abstract an idea of efficient market action should have arisen amid so much real-world market imperfection,” in which he includes “worldwide ratcheting up of global oil prices during the Arab-Israeli War of 1977,” high inflation rates, deflationary actions taken by the Federal Reserve, the Mexican government’s default of 1982, and Carter’s oil and gas price controls; is this really a tale of market imperfection?
- What does it mean for the black experience that race is socially constructed and not essential? Does this draw into question black racial identity and their experience with racism? Is identity totally fluid, or are there limits to what identities we can embrace?
- Debate into the proper method of recourse for blacks who had been harmed by racism abounded in the latter portion of the twentieth century. Does justice require individual claimants with individual wrongs, or, as Thurgood Marshall put it, is it “unnecessary in twentieth-century American to have individual Negroes demonstrate that they have been victims of racial discrimination”?
- Does Rodgers identify a causal mechanism for this fracturing of America? Or does he only identify the ways these intellectual currents reflected the fracturing without truly explaining the causes
- Rodgers first looks to how Ronald Reagan changed presidential rhetoric from a Cold War emphasis on solidarity to a “psychic optimism” that emphasized America’s positive future and the boundless dreaming on Americans that produces that future. For Rodgers, this rhetorical shift is symbolic of the larger shifts occurring in the intellectual arena, in academic journals and newly established think tanks. As an introductory analogy, detailing the more individualist, disaggregated view of American society that was developing. Is this chapter only useful as an introductory analogy to the change in the intellectual sphere, and otherwise out of place in his work, or does it play a more significant role in his thesis?