Things fall apart - Age of Fracture

An unholy and unwitting alliance of conflicting political and economic interests have over the last half-century undermined American society – and it's only going to get worse.

** ADVANCE FOR USE FRIDAY, JAN. 28, 2011 AND THEREAFTER ** FILE - This Jan. 28, 1986 file picture shows U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

It may seem counterintuitive to treat American politics and culture as zones of intellectual combat. To the outside observer - or, indeed, to its citizens - the United States appears to be a society in the grip of passions more often than ideas. Public life swings between moralistic surges of religious fervour and strikingly amoral displays of uninhibited ego. Philosophical debates about defining the good, the true, and the beautiful can be ignored; the highest values are wealth, power and fame. The most remarkable thing about the historian Richard Hofstadter's book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, as someone once said, is that he kept it to one volume.

But this is a caricature. The features are recognisable, though not proportional. American universities enjoy a global prominence among institutions of higher education; they are linked to the mass media and public-policy elites of the US by a thousand threads. (Sneering at "the ivory tower" always involves a certain obtuseness about academia's worldly role; it, too, commands its share of the country's stock of wealth, power, and fame.) The influence of scientific research on the nation's economy, and the globe's, is obvious. But debates within the social sciences and humanities also have consequences, for good or ill, within American society and well beyond it.

In Age of Fracture, Daniel T Rodgers surveys American intellectual life over the final decades of the 20th century with an eye to unravelling important strands of thought in various fields (philosophy, economics, sociology, cultural analysis, and historiography itself, among others). In some cases, the arguments are connected directly to disputes within the public sphere, where concepts may be turned into to sound bites - or projectiles, hurled between duelling pundits. Rodgers has a knack for characterising and assessing ideas without reducing them to their strictly polemical dimensions. But he also conveys the urgency and consequence of intellectual debate: the sense that it has stakes.

Yet all of the stakes may not be visible to participants in a debate at any given time. When serious thinking takes place in what Rodgers calls "the diverse and intellectually compartmentalised societies of modern times", it tends to be "piecemeal, context-driven, occasional, and… instrumental". Hence the value of historical writing that casts a wide net - gathering up the ideas developing in a number of disciplines, the arguments being made in a variety of ideological camps. Trends that would not be visible up close can be seen from a distance. And doing so while also covering decades of intellectual life will tend to find still deeper patterns, unfolding at a pace that may seem glacial.

But perhaps that ice-age image is misleading. As Rodgers tells the story, it is a mistake to think of Ronald Reagan as having presided over a new Cold War - at least within American culture, which by the 1980s had discarded the rigid modes of thinking that took shape in response to the challenges of Stalin and Khrushchev. Rodgers gives a sweeping but recognisable account of the intellectual style prevailing at midcentury: one in which the self was embedded in a society that was solid and cohesive, with institutions that reinforced one another's authority. "Society, power, and history pressed down on individual lives," he writes, "as inescapably dense and weighty presences."

Overthrowing this idea of order was the goal of all the upheavals generally lumped together as "the Sixties" - although even the counterculture tended to retain some notion of a powerful, massive "system" or "establishment" still inhibiting it. But a still deeper transformation began during the 1970s. The simultaneous increase in both unemployment and inflation ran against the received wisdom of Keynesian macroeconomics. The role of the state in regulating capitalism - something often taken for granted in the wake of the Great Depression - was ever more emphatically challenged by the idea that the market (and only the market) could generate optimally rational outcomes for the myriad economic transactions taking place among individuals.

This entailed more than a shift to free-market policies. It carried in its wake a whole series of arguments about decision-making and human interaction. The notion of "society" tended to dissolve into a flux of "detached … economic actors, free to choose and optimise … governed not by their common deliberative action but only by the impersonal laws of the market." The "dense and weighty presences" of history and society dissolve into so many operating expenses and opportunity costs. Everything solid melts into air.

Age of Fracture traces the spread of ideas about the logic and flexibility of the marketplace across various disciplines - and their triumph within American politics (not only among the Republicans, by any means) is obvious. But this is not the only vector in American intellectual life that Rodgers charts. The civil-rights and feminist movements that emerged in the 1960s had reason to think about the embedded injustices of social institutions and the need for solidarity in changing them. And steadily growing economic inequality raised questions about what (if anything) citizens owed to one another.

The chapters on these matters are full of well-turned accounts of the arguments that took shape during the final three decades of the 20th century. By the early years of the 21st, all of the basic positions had been staked out. But in each case Rodgers finds a kind of exhaustion taking hold well before that point. The possibility of joining forces with others across differences in background diminished as expressions of identity became the very essence of politics. And ideas about identity became ever more fluid. One came to hear of gender, for example, as "performative", which is certainly better than regarding anatomy as destiny, though hardly a substitute for laws requiring equal pay for equal work.

"Viewed by its acts of mind," Rodgers says, "the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture." It provided "fewer intellectual resources… for understanding the ways in which the past pressed its legacies on the present," and it became much harder to conceive or imagine "the webs of dependence and connection" holding society together. The situation cannot be blamed on the failures (intellectual or political or both) of either the American left or the right. Rodgers's point is that the ideas deployed by each side have usually been both symptoms and catalysts of disaggregation.

His book's fundamental gloominess is not exactly offset by Olympian gesture of calling down a plague on both houses. But as an American who grew up during exactly the period covered by it, I will say that Age of Fracture provides a frequently insightful narrative of recent public intellectual life in this country - and also some understanding of its precarious situation now.

The financial heart attack of 2008 put the free-market worldview into question for a time. But no strong alternative conception arose to take its place. The election of the first African-American president inspired a certain amount of talk about "post-racial" society, but this soon collapsed. And there is no serious discussion of how US culture will develop as it becomes ever more deeply linked to Latin America. The age of fracture that Rodgers chronicles is not yet over. One suspects it has barely even begun.

Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.