Dec/Jan 2011

Things Fall Apart

A tour of the fragmented course of contemporary social thought

Robert Westbrook


In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels offered one of history's best-known characterizations of modernity. In the "bourgeois epoch," they said, "all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned."

This formulation was an exaggeration—it appeared in a manifesto, after all. But unlike Marx and Engels's hope for a communist future, their insights into modernity remain perspicacious. Capitalism is still very much with us, communist prospects have never been dimmer, but the ground of modernity continues as it did in 1848 to shift and shake under our feet.

Since Marx's day, artists and intellectuals have sought to meet the challenge of modernity by remaking our conceptual categories so that they might better capture and embrace—or resist—this fluidity, this profane melting of shared experience. And at times, this project has taken on an accelerated pace and urgency. The last generation has proved one of those times, not least in the United States.

That, at any rate, is the claim of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers in Age of Fracture, and he makes a compelling case for it. Since the early 1970s, "through more and more domains of social thought," he argues,

the terms that had dominated post–World War II intellectual life began to fragment. One heard less about society, history, and power and more about individuals, contingency, and choice. The importance of economic institutions gave way to notions of flexible and instantly acting markets. History was said to accelerate into a multitude of almost instantaneously accessible possibilities. Identities became fluid and elective. Ideas of power thinned out and receded. In political and institutional fact and in social imagination, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s had been an era of consolidation. In the last quarter of the century, the dominant tendency of the age was toward disaggregation.

To highlight this "disaggregation," which cut across conventional categories of right and left, Rodgers offers a series of penetrating soundings into the social thought of the end of the twentieth century. He considers the recasting of terms in economic theory, the reconceptualizations of power in social theory, the attacks on "essentialism" in race and gender theory, and the diminished notions of obligation in political theory. Finally, he stresses our own curious encounters with the disaggregated past, via glib interpretations that impart an "increasingly malleable, flexible, and porous" quality to history.

Drawn to those fields "where the heaviest public intellectual ammunition of the era was mobilized, where academic thought and public policy met with the sharpest implications," Rodgers centers his analysis on many of the widely discussed "big books" of the past few decades. It makes for an eclectic but quite revealing syllabus, including Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970), John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971), Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1977), William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (1978), George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty (1981), Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice (1983), Charles Murray's Losing Ground (1984), Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990), and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History (1992). As he builds out his argument, Rodgers deftly links the theoretical perspectives of these works to debates over pivotal matters of public policy: supply-side economics, affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment, welfare reform, "originalist" jurisprudence, and the efforts of Western experts to remake the post-Soviet bloc of the 1990s largely in their own image.

Again and again in the dominant modes of thought in these years, Rodgers finds institutions, identities, social bonds, and even history itself thinning out and coming apart. "The terrain of common sense shifted," he says. "Notions of power moved out of structures and into culture. Identities became intersectional and elective. Concepts of society fragmented. Time became penetrable." Seldom had liberty been so strictly defined simply as freedom from constraint.

"I'm not for a solid anything," Cornel West told a New Yorker reporter in 1994, and as Rodgers demonstrates, West was far from alone. Amid the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, leading economists started to abjure Keynesian economic theory, which stresses macroeconomics, imperfect markets, and the effects of powerful institutions, in favor of an extraordinarily abstract microeconomics of individual choice, frictionless markets, and strategic games. At the same time, for social theorists, power took on an increasingly atmospheric, symbolic, and micropolitical cast. ("Power is everywhere," Foucault famously asserted, "not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.")

Critical race theorists on the left declared that racial identity was a fiction. (OK, conservatives such as US labor secretary nominee Linda Chavez gleefully responded—if that's the case, then affirmative action was built on an arbitrary category.) Feminism fractured into an "unruly multiplicity of women's voices," and poststructuralists such as Butler rendered gender identity purely performative and destabilized. It was no longer clear who the subject of "women's" liberation was.

"There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher insisted in 1987, and confident libertarians such as Nozick went about proving it. Finally, many adopted deeper metaphysical ambitions, as Rodgers puts it, to "short-circuit time, to imagine being propelled across the tortured processes of history in a single bound." Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and other conservative jurists proposed to venture into a wrinkle in time and emerge free of two centuries of history, able to read the Constitution in its pristine, "original" form.

Meanwhile, Rodgers is particularly acute in showing the dilemmas that have tripped up conservatives in their odd, Janus-faced quest to recover continuity, tradition, and a schema of absolute values while also celebrating a capitalist marketplace allied with the destabilization, counterhistoricism, and relativism of their opponents. "The conservative Protestant protagonists of the culture wars," he wryly notes, "found themselves caught up precisely in the culture they feared: sacralizing, refashioning, fusing, and appropriating the transient fads and products of 'postmodernity' even as they tried to ward them off. There were sex manuals and sexual-enhancement videos for Christian married couples. There were theme parks and fashion products to let conservative evangelical Americans participate in the whirling market of consumer goods."

Although Rodgers casts a wide net, he does not aim at a comprehensive portrait of American intellectual life at the end of the past century. Plenty of important thinkers—Christopher Lasch, Jackson Lears, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Putnam, Richard Rorty, Michael Sandel, and more—are absent from his roster or only put in cameos. Yet his portrayal of the past quarter century as a forum for "disaggregation and its critics" is persuasive—and it's testimony to the strength of his argument that we could all fill out its broad contours with footnotes, even chapters, of our own.

Still, for all the critical acuity of Rodgers's engagement with the "age of fracture," he offers a less comprehensive explanation for its origins than one might hope. He hints, much like Marx and Engels, that at the bottom of things lay the powerfully destabilizing impact of capitalism. More specifically, he descries a crucial rupture of the postwar economic boom in the mid-'70s. Many postwar social observers believed the prosperity of their age promised a long and healthy future for a New Deal order built on a "mixed economy," employing a mildly interventionist Keynesian state to referee a partnership of industrial corporations and labor unions. Here was a seemingly solid material and political foundation for a thicker, less vertiginous society than the one that actually arrived. The collapse of the New Deal order unleashed the destabilizing forces of finance capital and libertarian politics, which hailed the whirl of the market as king and derided the state as little more than the instrument of theft.

For a time, Rodgers observes, the terrorist attack of September 11 promised a forceful recoil from this radical thinning of "marketized" society, suggesting a potentially "re-aggregative" moment in American history. Flags began to fly. "Solidarity was the lesson of the day: a shift in the field of the social imagination from small to large, from individual choice to patriotic duty, from the little platoons of civil society to the nation imagined as one." President George W. Bush ventured at the outset of 2002 that in the wake of 9/11, "we were reminded that we are citizens with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. . . . We have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like. We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self."

But this moment was short-lived, not least for Bush, who quickly slipped back into the rhetoric of freedom as unconstrained choice. By the middle of the decade, prophets of a "flattened world" such as Thomas Friedman were again at the top of the best-seller list, and readers were assured that "power was diminishing, time was foreshortening, structures could be remade in a virtual instant, people were a legible bundle of desires and preferences, choice was on the march." The dominant ways of thinking that had governed the previous quarter century were "pressed into new service, stretched hard over the new realities."

Meanwhile, the most recent collapse of American capitalism has furnished a sharp sense of how oddly sturdy our intellectual will-to-disaggregate has grown. Halfhearted efforts by the Obama administration to rein in markets and gin up at least a feeble awareness of mutual obligation have proved largely unavailing. Center stage in our politics is now held by the Tea Party movement, which Mark Lilla has nicely termed a "libertarian mob."

Rodgers withholds an explicit judgment on the story he narrates. Yet he appears to regard the new dispensation of American social thought with less equanimity than does Rutgers historian James Livingston, who argues in The World Turned Inside Out (2009) that American cultural history at the end of the past century has provided a rich and supple legacy for future thinkers and social critics.

Exuberant modernists have long contended that a world in which all that is solid melts into air presents an exhilarating prospect. Meanwhile, its detractors insist that such a world makes for an unsettling, even frightening, vision of the future. Number Livingston among the exhilarated and Rodgers among the unsettled. I will take my stand with the frightened.

Robert Westbrook teaches intellectual history at the University of Rochester. His most recent book is Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Cornell University Press, 2005).

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