Whither the ‘social’ in society?
Age of Fracture
Daniel T. Rodgers with Christopher Sheil
Are we on the brink of a new constellation of social ideas and imagination? Daniel T. Rodgers discusses his award-winning Age of Fracture with Christopher Sheil.
Age of Fracture: the book
CS: Age of Fracture is an unusual title in having no article or subtitle. The absence of a subtitle is especially unusual in conjunction with a figurative title. Can you tell us a little about the background to this rarity.
DTR: If I had been more cautious, I might have titled it: ‘Transformations in American Social Thought in the Last Quarter of the Twentieth Century’. If I had aimed the book only at academic readers, I might have called it: ‘The Dwindling Place of the “Social” in Recent American Thought and Writing’. Both titles would have been accurate enough. But I had in my mind Richard Hofstadter’s magnificent book, The Age of Reform. No subtitle, no dates on its paperback cover. Age of Reform and Age of Fracture bookend the great modern era in the social imagination. Ideas of society and the possibilities of social reform rose out of the atomistic market individualism of the nineteenth century, radically reshaped the intellectual and political world, and then began to break apart at the end of the twentieth century. For the U.S., that is the big story.
CS: As a principle of selection, you’ve chosen social ideas where intellectual resources were the most concentrated and the most consequential in a public and policy sense. You then deal with these ideas successively, as they were entailed in the transition from Cold War rhetoric, economics, power, race, gender, civil society, and time, followed by an epilogue on 9/11. How adequate is that as a flat technical description?
DTR: That’s good enough. But I would add that Age of Fracture is not a history of ideas as one might catalogue them in a ‘culture of the times’ or ‘spirit of the age’ manner. More fundamentally, it tells the story of a wide-ranging, multi-sited set of transformations in the ways that selves and society were imagined. It is the story of the way in which microeconomic theorising elbowed macroeconomics aside, in which strong ideas of the social sources of human personality gave way to a new celebration of individual ‘agency,’ in which ideas of power grew less institutional and more abstract, in which rights talk acquired new political reach, and in which ideas of the slow, inertial forces of custom and history were succeeded by claims that the world was instantly malleable to human will. Not all histories are fundamentally concerned with change. Age of Fracture is.
CS: The book works on two levels. Empirically, it presents an extraordinary intellectual survey.
To illustrate with chapter two—‘The rediscovery of the market’—you start by reprising classical economics, the marginal revolution, Keynesianism and the stagflation crisis, and then you deal with monetarism and the Chicago School, deregulation, rational expectations, supply-side populism, and the globalisation of microeconomics. Chapter three—‘The search for power’—begins with J.K. Galbraith’s institutionalism, corporate power, 1960’s radicalism and the eclipse of industrial by financial capital, before you focus on interest-group pluralism, conservative ‘New Class’ theory, rational and public choice theories, social class theory (as led by E.P. Thompson), Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, the cultural and linguistic turns, Foucault and post-structuralism, and the futurism exemplified by Alvin Toffler.
These are simplified inventories and I’m ignoring the narrative to stress the staggering amount of territory you cover. We run through ideas about race in chapter four (from Roots to post-essentialism), gender in chapter five (from the defeat of the equal rights amendment to the culture wars), conceptions of civil society and community in chapter six (from John Rawls and Robert Nozick to Charles Murray and more), and time in chapter seven.
If we leave aside the bookends on Cold War rhetoric (chapter one) and 9/11 (the epilogue), which are in a different form, all this is accomplished in little more than 200 pages. It’s impossible to imagine anyone reading the book without profit, but for the moment I’m interested in the composition. The condensation of so much, including many of the most esoteric ideas ever thought, doesn’t come at any apparent cost to the work’s lucidity. On the contrary, each entry in the procession of ideas is introduced and defined with critical yet remarkably dispassionate clarity and precision, without recourse to subtitles or even any changes of pace. Indeed, the book becomes progressively more accessible and compelling, as the work of each chapter is turned to help elucidate those that follow, such that it often felt like reading a novel as much as a history book. How did you decide on the book’s order and what were your aims in its composition?
DTR: Age of Fracture developed in my mind over many years of teaching and writing. From the beginning of my teaching, way back in 1971, I had been determined to bring my courses in American ideas and argument into the world in which my students lived, that is, right up to the present. Since the present moment kept changing so unexpectedly beneath me, the last sections of those courses were always a challenge. As I tried to keep my bearings on this shifting terrain, students were a constant source of suggestion of things to read and ideas to take seriously. They told me about the writers who had changed their minds. If I hadn’t read them already, I quickly did. Out of this collective endeavour, the breadth of the book came to me early.
It was when I began to dig more deeply into the way in which macroeconomic ideas had literally slid from the core to the periphery of economics textbooks, I realised that I had something to describe that lay deeper than general impressions. The rest of the book’s organisation worked its way out from there: from the economists’ retreat from structures, to social theorists’ arguments about where, if anywhere, power was to be found; from the intense debates among writers on class and race to the intellectual background to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no society’ and to Thomas Friedman’s pronouncement that the world was ‘flat.’ I was not trying to unearth new voices but to give the big, topical ideas of the era a deeper intellectual context and to make visible the sometimes unexpected connections between them.
CS: What’s the secret to the eloquent condensation of such highly intellectually charged material? Multiple drafts, saturation in the material, elaborate planning or filing systems, metaphorical virtuosity, acute and generous readers of drafts?
DTR: Multiple drafts: absolutely. Writing isn’t just an act of writing down what you already imagine you know. Writing is a way of thinking. It means writing, standing back critically from what you’ve done, and rethinking until you get it right and clearly. Smart, generous, and critical readers are absolutely indispensable, too. One can’t do any of this without them.
CS: Australia doesn’t figure, and the only Australians I noticed flitting past were Meaghan Morris and Owen Harries in his U.S. employment. This was not unexpected, and yet it is a history that I still felt was personally familiar. There are exceptions. Most obviously, the bookends are pieces of America, but even these most particular of the chapters deal with history of international significance in being about the end of the Cold War and 9/11. You recognise that ‘the arenas of twentieth-century social thought were global and transnational’ and plead for ‘a much fuller, global history of social thought and social argument’. Were you conscious of writing for international readers? I only noticed one baseball metaphor, for instance.
DTR: Others have put your question to me more critically: ‘after having written so strongly about the need for historians to think outside the box of the nation state, how did you end up writing a book which stays so close to U.S. history? Your Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age was a big-panorama account of the ways in which ideas and projects travelled back and forth between the industrialised nations of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It repositioned Richard Hofstadter’s story of American progressive politics on a transnational stage; it broke apart the idea that U.S. social thought and politics have always been driven by exceptionalist dynamics. How did you end up, this time, leaving all those tightly interwoven transnational stories out of your book?’
It’s a very acute question. I can only plead that a full story of this later era’s transformations in social thought needs more than one book, more than one author, and deep familiarity with many different cultures and contexts. It can’t be undertaken by a single historian without risk that too many of its nuances and variations will be washed out in translation. It’s a global story of transfers, imitation, and domination in which the global reach of Thatcherism (to Australia among other places) is a part. But it’s also a story of limits and resistances. If Age of Fracture contributes to our collective writing of that much larger, global story, I’d be delighted.
CS: The other level is theoretical or thematic. It’s clever and amusing that the book is tied together by a subject that’s untying, an age defined by its own fracturing, by which you don’t just mean splitting but fragmenting, thinning out, decentering, dissolving, and disaggregating generally. In other words, it’s about the idea(s) of society in an age wherein that society’s ability to form an idea of itself as an age falls away; the ‘age of the non-age’ so to speak. In this, you’ve taken on the formidable task of proving an historical negative. Did you have any models or analogues in mind? What other works would you put the aims of Age of Fracture next to?
DTR: I didn’t think of Age of Fracture as only telling the story of dissolution, though that theme is certainly strongly present. The other theme is the ascendance of the idea of the socially unencumbered, rights-bearing, choosing individual as the centre from which every piece of the social and moral imagination must radiate. That’s a fantastical notion of the human condition, when stretched to its farthest point. Most persons thought so when the age of fracture began. But in many sectors of contemporary thought and politics, the idea of the unencumbered self has an extremely powerful presence. It stands in their minds for freedom itself.
So one set of ideas thins out and, at the same time, another shoulders its way into its place. Carl Schorske’s wonderful Fin-de-Siècle Vienna told a history of modernism’s eruption into bourgeois culture in something of this way. E. P. Thompson’s epically dramatic The Making of the English Working Class carries, in a different way, an analogous story. James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory uses a similar frame to describe the destabilising of ‘certainty’ in late-nineteenth century academic thought. All these and many more stood on my bookshelves as I was writing.
Age of Fracture: the argument
CS: Your first intellectual touchstone is Stuart Hall—who sadly died not long after the book was published. In the introduction, you quote Hall to define an historical ‘age’: ‘What is important are the significant breaks—where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.’
The quote’s context seems a little different from your application. Stuart was discussing the disruption of ways of thinking about culture caused by the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, and he was concerned with refereeing their relationship with the ideological structuralists (Levi-Strauss, Althusser and Foucault). To be sure, you catch up with both lines of thought in your chapter on the search for power, but don’t you recast Hall’s formulation somewhat in assigning the ‘break’ to the mid-1970s and displacing the regrouping to the following decades—or, as the epilogue might be read, after the fracturing of the age you deal with?
DTS: I did use Stuart Hall’s phrase in a slightly different way than he did himself, though I’d like to think he would have approved. Some breaks in the reigning constellation of ideas happen quickly. The ‘paradigm’ shifts that Thomas Kuhn helped us see in the history of scientific thought often work in precisely that way. In other cases, the process is much more drawn out and the struggle much more protracted. Sometimes the old shatters before the new is fully articulated. In other cases, it’s the electrifying force of the new that shoves the older structure of ‘common sense’ aside. In my mind, these are all empirically different variations on the insight that Hall caught so brilliantly.
CS: Compared with the clarity and precision with which you discuss even the most difficult of concepts as the content of the book, the distinctions between what you describe as ‘ideas’ (or ‘ideation’) and Stuart Hall’s usage of ‘ideology’ and ‘common sense’ struck me as fuzzy or loose.
Couldn’t you also invoke Hall to describe your book as about ideology (or ideologies). ‘By ideology’, Hall wrote, sounding rather like you to my ear, ‘I mean the mental frameworks—the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and systems of representation—which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, define, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.’ Hall also made much effort to distinguish between ideology as a philosophy (of some sort) and ‘practical, everyday popular consciousness … the “taken for granted” terrain’ defined by Gramsci as common sense. The latter also sounds like you when you talk of the ‘mental frames and pictures that, in the end, come to seem themselves natural and inevitable—ingrained in the very logic of things’. In sum, have you been deliberately loose or conflating in your usage of ‘ideas’? I guess I’m also asking how you see your work in relation to Stuart Hall’s?
DTR: In both these contentions Hall was writing closer to classical Marxist assumptions than I would. ‘Ideologies’, as Hall defined them in those passages, were imagined as the products of distinctive, already existing ‘class and social groups’. Their rise out of those groups’ everyday consciousness occurred when they were distilled into the coherence of a philosophy. That was the left intellectuals’ great hope for the working class (and for themselves, of course). Some critics understand the relationship between contemporary social thought and the rise of finance capitalism in that way now.
I myself think of the relationship between ideas and ‘classes and social groups’ as more complicated and volatile than that. Social groups are not fixed in advance of the terms that name them. They break apart on fault lines which are not all visible in advance. The pictures of the world that rise to dominance in any sphere and in any era are often much less coherent than sharp distinctions between philosophy and common sense allow. No one should doubt that ideologies—market liberalism, left or right libertarianism, etc., etc.—have a powerful presence in our contemporary world. But they only represent a fraction of the much bigger, messier, continuous struggle over which frames of thought and action will prevail.
CS: Could you elaborate a little on your own approach to the theory and practice of history? You dismiss Robert Putman’s popular claim about declining civic association. Bowling leagues became rarer, but other associations such as megachurches ‘held their own or flourished’. You then pitch your case against three other interpretations of the period: (1) explanations based on a change in the national mood or psyche (such as the ‘age of greed’ or the ‘culture of narcissism’), which you reject as figments of journalistic convenience or partisan fancy (and a misreading of Christopher Lasch); (2) the effects of the conservative project to warren the world with think-tanks that promote market-sympathetic ideas; and (3) materialist explanations that see the shattering of social thought as a reflection of the changing economics of production. You concede a good deal to explanations (2) and (3), but find the former an exaggerated half-truth and the latter too simple and in any event chronologically incorrect. This leaves you with an explanation based on the experience of the age and the effort of its contemporaries to make sense of it, opening the way for you to tell an intriguing story of rising, falling, battling, slipping, stealing, and perhaps above all protean social ideas. The outcome of these tensions was a new and unpredictable disaggregation of social thought, which shaped the age in turn.
Insofar as that is a reasonable representation, it strikes me as a kind of Thompsonian approach to history, detached from his class focus. The debt seems to echo in your concern with ‘rescuing’ social thought from stereotypes and simplifications. To adapt EPT’s words, would it be fair to say that your account relies on the assumption that social experience is largely determined by the historical circumstances and your subject, social consciousness, refers to the way this is handled in cultural terms: if the experience appears as determined, so to speak, social consciousness is not?
DTR: Your first part is right on. We have too many ungrounded claims of shifts in ‘mood’. We have too many books in which Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman are made to seem not simply figures with delayed but powerful influence but the origin points of virtually everything important about modern times. I grew up too deeply immersed in the radical changes of the 1960s to imagine that they came in any straightforward way out of the conditions of economic production—that is to say corporate, consumer capitalism—of their moment. The terrain of ideas is a terrain of continuous and critically important contest and argument, not a side show to all the other historical forces at work.
But is it helpful to think of either consciousness or experience as ‘determined?’ In the famous paragraph on consciousness and experience to which you refer, Thompson was not arguing that the working class was imprisoned by the productive relations into which it was born. Where there is only ‘determination’, after all, there can be no politics, ideational or otherwise. What I think Thompson meant was that although human beings are born into powerfully structured social contexts they make their social consciousness within these conditions. I agree. In losing that sense of social constraints, social thinkers by the end of the age of fracture had lost hold of a terribly important human and historical truth. But does the notion of ‘determination’ help, or does it get in the way of understanding how those processes happen?
CS: While the story of what happened is engrossing, why it happened, and especially why it should happen across the board of social ideas, seems more elusive. What’s the common causal thread? This question didn’t occur in the chapters on economics and power, but tended to bother me when I got to race and gender, partly because the earlier chapters have self-contained explanations, and partly because these solidarities are such famous features of the 1960s and their fracturing is so pronounced that your case is effectively made by these chapters. I was left a little wide-eyed when the race and gender stories reached their post-essentialist terminals. To be sure, the content was not entirely foreign, but foregrounding racial and gender social identities as elective jarred against a social background so deeply marked by non-elective race-based riots etc. and vital women’s struggles over abortion and so on. However stimulating and individually liberating and entertaining the work of intellectuals such as Reginald McKnight and Judith Butler, their ideas seemed disturbingly remote from the social experience of African Americans and women. I began to wonder how far the notion of ‘fracture’ was a useful narrative device rather than an historical process, with the ideas taking on a ‘structural’ life of their own. Can you be more explicit about how you account for these fractures historically?
DTR: Judith Butler and Reginald McKnight didn’t stand in the mainstreams of feminist or black thought, of course. But that gender and race can be elective scripts or even ‘choices’, that they are far more fluid and ‘provisional’ than older generations of social theorists imagined them, would have seemed unthinkable when feminist and black intellectual politics were reborn in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1990s, theirs were the ideas at the cutting edge of academic race and gender studies. Solidarity was passé, to simplify but not by much; hybridity and cultural mulattoism were in. That’s the shift I wanted to highlight.
But you have put your finger on one of the great tragic ironies of the present moment in the United States. At the same time that the weight of racist and sexist stereotypes bears down massively on most Americans, at the same time that Black Lives Matter advocates and those who speak out against pervasive sexual harassment and discrimination struggle to find their voices, a significant part of the avant-garde prides itself in thinking beyond race, opening new spaces for trans identities of all sorts, celebrating from the left the market intellectuals’ theme of choice. These new emphases are not wrong in any absolute way; they speak to very important aspects of human experience. But at a moment when bringing the structures of power back into general consciousness is vitally important—when it is essential to speak back against the notion that only individual bad actors are responsible when things go wrong—the thinning out of the language of social and institutional power seems particularly tragic.
What happens when the dominant social thought is not adequate to a society’s dominant experiences? That is one of the concerns I felt most keenly in writing Age of Fracture.
CS: One of the refreshing things about your account is that it’s not about today’s politics dolled up in historical fancy dress. On the contrary, the history features people and ideas frequently crossing political boundaries. Were you onto this from the outset, or did it come as a surprise in the work?
DTR: No one watching the political parties swipe each other’s ideas and poach each other’s constituents as eagerly as the American political parties have done since the end of the New Deal era should have been surprised that the ideas I wrote about did not stay within fixed political boundaries. What it seemed to me important to add was that a deep intellectual seriousness often stood behind these shifts in costume—that they were not simply the products of the opportunistic political manoeuvring that they so often appeared to be.
CS: The price of such intricate condensation is that we can’t possibly discuss each of the chapters, but I’d like to jump to the last one, chapter seven, ‘Wrinkles in time’, where the themes come together generally.
This chapter tickled me most. This was partly because I felt your account of Constitutional originalism was always on the verge of tipping into comedy, and partly because I tend to think of the ability to write about time over (and necessarily in) time as the sign of a master historian. Marc Bloch wrote of the ‘vast indifference’ to time for people in the European middle ages; Lucien Febvre wrote of ‘fluid time’ in the Renaissance, when there was no concept of ‘saving time’; in an essay you cite, Thompson wrote of time no longer being ‘passed but spent’ in the early modern period; Eugene Genovese discussed the differences between plantation and slave time in the American South. You write of the radically compressed time embodied in the idea of the spaceless, frictionless, instantly adjusting, freedom-generating, choice-facilitating, perfect market.
More clearly here than anywhere else, you show changes in social ideas changing society in turn, to the extent that time was imagined as penetrable, instanced not only by the farce of originalism but the disaggregation of the idea and practice of history, the upsurge of Biblical End Times prophecy (extending to the Fukuyama endism craze and postmodern aesthetics), and the tragic results of the fancifully imagined ‘shock therapy’ dished out to the ex-communist countries. It also reminded me of the unmoored way that Stuart Macintyre concluded his Concise History of Australia in 1999, where he signed off with the idea that history ‘works backwards and forwards to rework our understanding’.
You write that the ‘microeconomic idea of time was brought out of perfect market theory and thrust into the world at large’, as if the idea of the market grew so ubiquitous and contagious that it effectively remodelled the prevailing assumptions about human nature. To bring this dimension out a little further, I’d like to quote the concluding sentences: In the middle of the twentieth century, history’s massive inescapable, larger-than-life presence had weighed down on social discourse. To talk seriously was to talk of the long, large scale movements of time. Modernization theory and Marxism, theories of long-term economic development and cultural lag, the inexorabilities of the business cycle and the historians’ longue durée, the structures and endurance of archetypes in the psyche: these framed the language of social thought and debate. But now time had wrinkled. One might reach nostalgically for a fragment of the past, but the time that dominated late-twentieth-century social thought was now.
This is very powerful, and brought home the profound importance of the point you make in the chapter on economics, i.e., the market was not actually ‘rediscovered’, but rather, ‘under the skin’ of the old word ‘market’, something quite new was imagined. Am I stretching you too far?
DTR: No, you’ve got that exactly right. Of all the chapters in Age of Fracture, ‘Wrinkles in time’ came closest to writing itself.
CS: It bodes ill for policies to address climate change?
DTR: The era’s growing emphasis on the immediate and the micro did not preclude the possibility of any kind of long-term thinking. Even as the dominant shape of common sense shifts, there are always multiple possibilities in play. The emergence of public consciousness of global warming occurred, after all, right in the midst of the fracturing of other social and historical categories. Still, the political difficulties of dealing with the threat are certainly compounded by the power of intellectual short-termism.
You could say the same about many of the major problems facing the contemporary world today. How do societies manage to rebuild civil trust and coherence after civil war shatters them so violently? How can massive structural shifts in economic regimes be managed without enormous cost to persons caught in the creases of that transition? How can a new long-term sense of common endeavour and common welfare be constructed within the fluid, fiercely competitive politics of momentary advantage? None of these will be solved by quick fixes, no matter how ingenious. Like the need to address the potential catastrophe of global warming, they ask us to stretch our sense of time to larger dimensions.
Beyond the Age of Fracture
CS: What parts of the story were you most aware of leaving out? As you say at the outset, the ‘generation and circulation of ideas are radically open processes’ and it’d be ‘impossible to deal with more than a fraction of the ideas in motion across an age’. Of the other places where ideas were made, you mention ‘radio talk shows, the movies, in arguments at bars, lunchrooms, and workplaces, in churches, clubs, and classrooms’.
Although they often figure in the story, you don’t directly focus on the social as represented by the content of the arts, where I’d anticipate reflections of a general fracturing of the imagination. You don’t, for example, go to the novel for the social consciousness of the age. To take a quintessential post-1960s American writer as a possibly fruitful case, I’d hazard that no one has better captured the dominance of ‘now’ than David Foster Wallace did with his 1996 novel about America’s addiction to entertainment, Infinite Jest, i.e., the novel revolved around the idea of terrorists creating a video so entertaining that its viewers were compelled to watch it on an endless loop, with the inevitable result that they died from pleasure. Indeed, Wallace strikes me as an interesting test of your thesis for various reasons, as he was a biting critic of the fractured ‘postmodern’ forms of writing that he himself mastered to a degree that few others have matched, but this was because he wanted to enlist or press through these forms in a quest for redemptive social meaning. In this respect, he presents as both a proof and a contradiction.
When thinking of the U.S., I cannot but also think of rock music as the sine qua non of 1960’s mass culture. On cue, it began to fracture from the mid-1970s, dissolving into heavy metal, prog-rock, punk, disco, reggae, alt-country, cow-punk, techno, house, grunge, hip-hop, and so on and on, in a disaggregating cascade. Could not a lyrical focus be amenable to the argument, infused as songs so often are with the currents of the times? It occurs, for example, that the most famous and enduring cultural embodiment of the 1960s, American Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, produced masterpieces up until your pivotal year of 1975 (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), but he wouldn’t be widely received again before 1997, with the ghostly Time Out of Mind — a title that might have been coined for your argument. On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen first came to wide notice following the release of Born to Run in the pivotal 1975 and transitioned to a mainstream superstar without loss of credibility during the Age of Fracture. Stuart Hall observed that ‘Springsteen is a phenomenon that can be read, with equal conviction, in at least two diametrically opposing ways … he’s both in the White House and On the Road. In the 1960s you had to be one or the other. Springsteen is somehow both at the same time. That’s what I mean by fragmentation.’
What I’m trying to probe is the length of your book’s legs. The mania for biography and memoir that emerged in the period seems another illustration of disaggregation. How far and along what avenues have you imagined that your argument could be amplified or extended?
DTR: There are more aspects of modern social and cultural life that Age of Fracture does not deal with than I can count. For starters, Age of Fracture left popular cultures of all sorts at the margins. Literary theory and literary production are outside its frame as well. Formal philosophy barely gets a nod. Scientific thought gets virtually no attention at all. I could go on.
But since we’ve been talking about method, let me defend myself by making a distinction between the encyclopaedic and the emblematic modes of writing and thinking about the history of ideas and arguments. There’s a bit of both, of course, in Age of Fracture. I wanted to underscore for readers how far and wide the transformation of ideas proceeded in the last quarter of the twentieth century. I wanted to illuminate how extensively certain key words and metaphors—rights, choice, the possibilities of ‘now’—had spread through the domains of social thought. I wanted readers to sense how extensive the erosion was of the older language that had foregrounded the forces of history, society, and institutions. Still, the emphasis of Age of Fracture is on the domains of social thought that I thought most influential and most emblematic and reflective of the broader turns in the general intellectual culture.
Of course, there’s some tacit reflection of myself in that, too. Authors have to write about things they know about; they can’t adequately just work something up. But no book should ever be taken as the last word. I would be delighted if others would fill the spaces I left blank. I would be even more delighted if their work didn’t simply replicate the themes of Age of Fracture, but found ways to complicate and deepen them at the same time.
CS: You ignored the internet. It’s a technology rather than an idea of course, and it didn’t turn up until the 1990s, toward the end of the age, but it already seems impossible to imagine society without it. In your recent article about ‘post-truth’ (which the Evatt Foundation republished), you refer to the perverse way in which the internet’s information overload hasn’t expanded but has cut across Benedict Anderson’s conception of nationally imagined communities, reducing rather than broadening the social imagination by creating ‘clumps of information users … that are much more widely diffused geographically and yet much more tightly knitted ideationally.’
Although you don’t refer to the internet in Age of Fracture, it seemed implied. Indeed, you begin chapter one with the internet-sounding statement that ‘There had not always been so many words’, and you often say things like ‘communication proceeded at a pace unimaginable … in the 1970s’, ‘symbolic bombardment’, and there are many other examples. When I first saw your title, I even presumed that the technology’s fragmenting effects was the very subject. There’s also a parallel here with Infinite Jest in that Wallace’s book was published before the internet and yet it’s often read as a ‘cybernovel’ and ‘the first great Internet novel’.
The spooky teleological impression I get from both Age of Fracture and Infinite Jest is that they refer to or arose from a period in which society was being thoroughly primed in anticipation of the internet, long before it arrived to escalate the fracturing process. The internet’s long pre-history is underlined by your observation that Reagan was ‘the last president to preside over the common audience that television network news had made, where a single voice could be imagined to speak to and for the nation’. How do you think of the historical sequence and the relationship?
DTR: I’ve been asked this question many times: didn’t the internet, powered into dominance just at the end of the period I was writing about, change everything? Your answer is better than my own. Of course, almost two decades on from the moment when Age of Fracture’s story ends, the mammoth impact of the internet has now become vividly clear. Politics, marketing, news, education, parenting, friendships, animosities, even love—they are all being transformed under our eyes by those who see new markets and new possibilities in the internet. I don’t pretend to have anticipated all of this. But the internet did not already hold all these consequences in the very nature of its technological capacities. (We are back to the determinism question again.) The internet has been put to the uses that were already, largely, pre-imagined for it. ‘Society was already being primed,’ you say, by the disaggregation of its key social categories, before the internet arrived ‘to escalate the fracturing process.’ Yes, I agree.
CS: Finally, I’d be glad of some reflections over the time since publication. To round off, the epilogue on 9/11 concludes the work with an air of great pathos. As the U.S. recovered from the shock of the attack on the World Trade Centre’s towers, the raucous appeals to social unity, responsibility and purpose that the event shot into the air subsided beneath the restoration of market-imbued social frames, exemplified by the disastrous conceptualisation of the war in Iraq. You leave the reader with a picture of a society whose interdependence was as true as its inability to give this expression. The disaggregation of the ideas from the middle of the century was complete and there was no going back to them, but major new intellectual and imaginative ways of picking up the pieces to resolve the relationship between self and society were not in sight. To be sure, on an upbeat note, you find that ‘a broader range of being human was tolerated’, and that there genuinely were more ideas and selves and aspirations from which to choose, but the relationship between the choices was more anxious and much harder to articulate.
Looking back over the work from the present, and bearing in mind Evatt’s interests, I’d like to raise two issues. First, the growth of economic inequality is one of the subtler themes running through the account, but the firmness of your conclusion that ‘Equality had come and gone as a social idea with traction, even among liberal intellectuals’ brings home how sudden and unexpected the great upsurge of interest in this issue has been. The phenomenal success of Thomas Piketty’s 2014 blockbuster, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, would surely qualify for careful consideration, if you were writing your book for today. More broadly, the growing inequality and the attendant consciousness strikes me as the most compelling explanation for the world’s concurrent political volatility. How significant is the issue in your view? Apart or arising from the volatility, do you see potential for the concern over inequality to revitalise social ideas and force fresh resolutions to questions about what living in a society means?
The other observation that has been contradicted in at least some sense over the time since the publication of Age of Fracture is your conclusion that the concept of ‘‘‘class” had virtually fallen out of use’. As it subsequently happened, I think I saw more references to the ‘working class’ in the American context over the months immediately before and after the 2016 presidential election than I’ve seen over the rest of my life. To sharpen the question, I’d like to try to put it in the context of the book, where ‘class’ features in two senses. You tell the story of how Thompson liberated class analysis from determinism and effectively seized the American history academy, only for the concept to be fractured along axes of race, gender, region and ethnicity, to be diverted in the pursuit of the power of popular conservative forms of subordination, and to be undermined by the actual decline of trade unionism. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues amplified the Trotskyite focus on managers and bureaucrats to encompass professionals at large, aggregating them as the ‘New Class’ and making them the butt of conservative resentments over the welfare state, the media, consumer activism and the environmental movement—a propensity that has since been extended (in Australia at least) to conjure up the idea of everyone in or directly associated with government as the ‘political class’.
Against this backdrop, the ‘working class’ was rediscovered in the recent election, and appears to have had some purchase on the result by being pitched against the ‘New Class’, as conflated with ‘the elites’ and a foreshortening of the traditional idea of ‘the Establishment’ to apply to the Obama/Clinton led Democratic Party. For the sake of the argument I’d hazard: (1) the so-called ‘working class’ was a much smaller aggregation than the 50 per cent of American adults that Piketty has found to have had no income growth from selling their labour since the 1970s; (2) there seems scant correlation between Donald Trump’s rallies and the passionate, younger and apparently educated folks who rallied in favour of redressing inequality behind Bernie Sanders; and (3), insofar as the concept was detailed, it tended to be represented as a white, male, uneducated, unskilled, poor, rural so-called ‘working class’ that was convinced to vote against its interests (to my mind, thinking of raising the minimum wage, improving health insurance, wider access to university for their children, etc.). I don’t wish to underplay the alienation and disaffection of American workers by any stretch, and yet this would be a long way from the classical application of the class frame. Watching from Australia, it’s tempting to follow Marx and cast Trump as the ‘chief of the lumpenproletariat’, the ‘old crafty roué … the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history’—a case of history occurring, as it were, thrice, the third time as twitter. Before I get carried away, I’m wondering whether you think this revival of an aggregate working class could be read as another case of reworking progressive social ideation?
DTR: Very few of us taking stock of social and political ideas and culture in 2011 anticipated the world we have somehow stumbled into six years later. The economic forces of change were already clearly visible. The ascendancy of ‘flexible’ capitalism, with its temp jobs, its merely provisional attachment to place, and its erosion of security, all powered by free-moving finance capital, was clearly the new order of the day. ‘Neo-liberalism’ packages all of this a bit too neatly into the old ‘stages-of-capitalism’ scheme. James Ferguson and others have written acutely about the misfit between that term and the economic conditions under which most of the world’s population lives. Still, it’s useful shorthand for some of the trends that have grown still more powerful and striking since Age of Fracture’s publication.
What very few of us anticipated was the eruption of the language of solidarity in the new, angry, ethnically and racially charged way that has destabilised so much of U.S. and European politics. The world in which Donald Trump’s voters lived was not a world that celebrated the freedom of autonomous, unencumbered selves. It was a world in which a partial but extremely powerful sense of a collective ‘we’ overrode every other political passion. Trumpism does not play in the first instance on the economic grievances of U.S. voters. The truly poor did not vote for Trump. Trump voters were more often persons fearful of losing their jobs than persons who had actually lost them. But they voiced an extremely powerful claim that the elites had forgotten them, that their voices were dissed and rejected in the halls of power. They were not angry at capitalism per se (if they had been, they wouldn’t have rallied to a man as dripping in gilt as Trump), but angry at the consequences of capitalism’s newly exaggerated flexibility: its indifference to place, its indifference to loyalty. All this, I think, played a much more powerful role in the U.S. election of 2016 than inequality itself. What Piketty documented most working-class persons already knew instinctually. What mobilised them politically was the appeal of an extremely wealthy man who (as they explained their motivations to reporters) spoke their own language of resentment and seemed eager to pay attention to them.
Does that mean that the forces of disaggregation I tried to outline in Age of Fracture have run their course? Is ‘fracture’ over and has a new age of angry, resentment-laced ethnic nationalism taken its place? I think not. Trumpism already seems much less powerful at steering the economy than it initially seemed. The Republican Party is committed to a small-government, low-tax, minimal social responsibility program that is far closer to libertarianism than the party has ever stood before. The disaggregation of the ‘social’ is not only an ideological but a practical political project for them. On the terrain of popular politics, I think the forces of disaggregation continue as well. The mass rally and the internet gave Trump voters a rush of power. But by their very nature those are temporary, ephemeral, disaggregated communities. In that sense, though in much more volatile terms than I anticipated, the fracturing of the social and the anger-fuelled efforts to find compensation for it continues.
Was I right, on the other hand, in suggesting that the concepts of ‘class’ and ‘inequality’ would fall altogether out of use? Clearly not. There’s been a sharp rise, as you say, in talk of ‘class’ in the U.S. The current debates among Democratic Party strategists have overly polarised the difference between identity and class-based politics. But the debate itself is an important sign of the times. So, of course, was Bernie Sanders’ ability to rally crowds of young voters to a program that hadn’t been so clearly articulated in the Democratic Party since Johnson’s Great Society and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Even the conservative nationalists around Donald Trump talk in new class language about the ‘deep state’. There’s clearly a new concern with inequality and a newly acute interest in understanding the forces that have accelerated it.
For the moment, however, the loudest voices in the political room are the libertarian ones. Free up the economy from excessive regulation, free the wealthy from taxation so that they can ‘create’ more jobs, free up the schools from the school teachers’ unions, and all boats will rise. Outside the U.S., variations on this mantra have radically complicated the fortunes of the labour and socialist parties that once seemed a permanent fixture of political life. A replacement for the hollowed-out language of the ‘social’, adequate to the cultural economic institutions of our time, is still barely in sight.
Are we, like the progressive figures in Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, shaken by the economic depression of the 1890s, on the brink of a new constellation of ideas and social imagination? If so, it will take not simply a break in circumstances but a lot of work, in every dimension of social thought and action, before we get there. In that task, I’d like to think that knowing where we have been, what we gained and what we allowed to be lost in the age of fracture, will be crucial to mapping out something better for our times and our societies.
Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. The Age of Fracture was published by Harvard University Press in 2011 and won the Bancroft Prize in 2012. Christopher Sheil is the President of the Evatt Foundation.
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Rodgers, Daniel T., with Sheil, Christopher, 'Whither the ‘social’ in society?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3, July 2017<https://evatt.org.au/whither-the-social-in-society>