Our Fractured Age
The disconnect between what seem to the common interests and needs of most of us – now the 99% of us – and how we think about ourselves collectively has fascinated and troubled me for quite some time. Daniel T. Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton, has recently published a very interesting book entitled, “Age of Fracture,” that explores the intellectual basis for that disconnect. Looking at a broad set of social, economic, philosophical and political intellectual traditions, Rodgers explains how the intellectual underpinnings of our thought processes have shifted from the idea of collective identity to one of individualized freedom, but freedom from reality. Reviewing the intellectual history of the late twentieth century until now, his analysis crosses the left-right divide to show how all of these different disciplines can by synthesized because they all vector in the same direction, this idealized sense of individual freedom.
Rodgers starts by describing the political rhetoric Presidents have used in their speeches. Presidential speechwriters rely on tropes that resonate because that rhetoric helps bolster Presidential leadership: The better the rhetoric connects to the prevailing mindsets of the people, the more effective the “bully pulpit.” Presidential rhetoric has interested me ever since I read Gary Wills’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.” In essence, Wills analyzed President Lincoln’s use of rhetoric to show that it both reflected but helped reify a change in the concept of the nature of our country: Our concept of American changed from, “The United States are . . .” to, “The United States is.” Rather than going back that far, Rodgers begins with the rhetoric of our Cold War era Presidents – for example, Kennedy’s “Ask not what this country can do for you; ask what you can do for this country” – calling us to gird our loins and stand united to advance our collective national interest in order to better confront the menace we faced by the menace of Communis and the Soviet Union. With the ending of the Cold War, President Reagan’s rhetoric moved away from that sense of collective identity and obligation toward an idealized, almost dream-like, sense of individual “freedom,” including freedom from the actual conditions of our lives as well as our from much sense of collective obligation. That predominant mindset allows us to escape hard choices and to assume a perfected life will be easy to achieve. It is not as if a Reagan’s rhetoric by itself caused the shift. Rather, presidential rhetoric both reflects but also amplifies the ideas that are already settling into our unexamined background mindset.
Having launched this project through the lens of presidential rhetoric, Rodgers then looks at developments across a wide swath of our intellectual life. He starts with economic theory and describes how the earlier macroeconomic Keynesian theory was supplanted – he quotes economist Robert Lucas, “The term ‘macroeconomics’ will simply disappear from use” — by microeconomic theory, the idealized world of individual rational actors motivated solely to maximize their profits. While he shows how disconnected this was from reality, Rodgers fits microeconomic theory within the broader conceptual view of the world of the individualized but unreal “freedom” reflected in President Reagan’s speeches. Rodger’s next chapter moves to politics and political theory. He traces the shift from Galbraith’s earlier view that the overwhelming economic power of megacorporations gave them extraordinary political power to the microeconomic view that disconnects economic from political power by its focus on individual economic actors focused solely on their own economic agendas. In an interesting take, Rodgers shows how political theory moved toward rational choice analysis with its exclusive focus on the “power-seeking saturated world of politics” means that the problems of our powerless subordinated groups slip “out of the categories of analysis.” In a tour de force, he then describes how the divergent views of Gramsci, Genovese, Geertz and Foucault, nevertheless when taken together, conceptualize power as dispersed extremely broadly in “spheres of culture, ideas, everyday practices [and] science.” In sum, if microeconomic theory is all about individual economic gain disconnected from politics, political gain is all about special interest “rent seeking” divorce from collective needs and power is defined so broadly that it is so diffused as to exists everywhere, Rodgers asks whether power is in fact “nothing at all.” If power is nothing at all for us, that leaves most of us collectively powerless.
The book is so rich with ideas that a full review is beyond a blog. But I would like to briefly note a bit more about the rest of the book. Rodgers carries forward the theme of intellectual dispersion and granulation in two very interesting chapters on race and gender by arguing that confronting essentialism left conceptions of group solidarity fractured. I won’t say more because these chapters will require a lot more thought on my part. In his chapter, “The Little Platoons of Society,” Rodgers pulls off another tour de force by connecting Rawls with Hayek, Novick, Murray and Walzer and showing how together they left the intellectual foundation for social solidarity “thinner and more fragmented.” In “Wrinkles in Time,” Rodgers moves from the “imagined community” of Reagan’s rhetoric to the disaggregation of “history” into “histories,” Fukuyama’s “end of history,” the debate over constitutional “originalism” and the microeconomic shock therapy used to “rescue” Eastern Europe countries from the throes of Communism. He characterizes how all these different intellectual disciplines resulting in the “folding of the future into the present.” The idealized world could be transformed into a new and better world overnight with little difficulty. All that existed before would fall before these “better ideas.”
Throughout the book, Rodgers juxtaposes this idealized intellectual backdrop with its disconnect from the real world. His Epilogue starts with the shock of 9/11 that disrupted the thrust of the vectors that all pointed toward an idealized world of the freedom to satisfy individual desires. He explains why that disruption was short-lived. Our underlying intellectual superstructure rebounded quickly in part through the efforts of the special interests that benefit from the prevailing mindset but also because these are so deep-seated that they have become a law of nature, not the consequence of human action: “At every level the 9/11 responses brought to the surface the complexity of thought and desire in the late twentieth century: the crosscurrents that ran hard beneath its ascendant themes. But a culture and an administration steeped in market models of human action did not throw them off quickly. Visions of society as a spontaneous, naturally acting array of choices and affinities had been the most striking intellectual production of the age of fracture [and] those market-imbued visions pervaded the crisis moment.”
Though I fear that my description is woefully inadequate, the Age of Fracture ties together threads from divergent intellectual disciplines to show that their vectors all point essentially in the same direction: free markets, but also a dreamy and unreal sense of individualized freedom unlinked from our actua condition or much real sense of community or collective obligation. At most, we all have the sense that there are multiple and distinct “communities” to whic we may belong. All of this blinds us to the real world and to our collective condition and the needs we share. To be optimistic, we may be seeing a shift toward new views of collective identity arising from the bottom up. It is far from clear what, if anything, the recent events in Wisconsin and the Occupy Wall Stree Movement will come to mean but the “Age of Fracture” may help mark a turning point toward a renaissance of thought pointing toward the value of collective identity and obligation.