Age of Counterrevolution

17 Oct

In the newest issue of the London Review of Books I have a review of Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture. It’s behind the paywall, which is a pity. Not just because it’s my review, but also because it’s a terrific book. Easily the most comprehensive intellectual history of postwar American social thought that we’ve seen, it deserves ongoing attention and discussion. As I make clear in my review, it’s also a flawed book. Though he doesn’t see it this way, Rodgers’ topic is not merely fracture but counterrevolution. Here’s a taste:

If you look at books published in the years between 1944 and 1963 – books like An American Dilemma, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Power Elite, The Organisation Man, The Feminine Mystique and The Making of the English Working Class – you’ll find they depict a world moving towards an almost claustrophobic cohesion. Classes consolidate, whites push down on blacks, blue collars are hemmed in by white collars, and grey flannel suits march down city streets lined with offices and banks. Auschwitz may have been a world away from Levittown, but in Hannah Arendt’s vision of totalitarianism – ‘destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other’ – postwar writers found an apt description of social life as a whole. When Betty Friedan reached for the concentration camp as a metaphor for women’s estate, it was the reflex of a generation trained to think in terms of blocs of men and women constrained, shaped or otherwise constituted by social patterns.

The decades since have seen the publication of The Declining Significance of Race, In a Different Voice, Free to Choose, Gender Trouble and Freakonomics. Unity is either gone or on the wane. Norms are out, outré is in. All that’s solid (if there ever was such a thing) has melted into air. But where Marx was melancholic and ecstatic over that notion, thinking it reflected a genuine dissolution of the social world, writers and scholars now view fragmentation not simply as the way of the world but as the very condition of knowledge.

The intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers calls this the Age of Fracture, noting the tendency among intellectuals of the last four decades to replace ‘strong readings of society’ with ‘weaker ones’. Between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th, he argues, ‘social thinkers had encircled the self with wider and wider rings of relations, structures, contexts and institutions. Human beings were born into social norms, it was said. Their life chances were sorted out according to their place in the social structure; their very personalities took shape within the forces of socialisation.’ Then things fell apart. Not only in the external world – things have been falling apart, after all, since the onset of modernity; the last quarter of the 20th century was scarcely more fractious than the first quarter of the 17th – but also, and especially, in ‘the field of ideas and perception’. ‘One heard less about society, history and power, and more about individuals, contingency and choice.’ Rodgers traces this ‘disaggregation’ of social categories across a range of discourses: economics, law, political science, history, anthropology, race, gender and philosophy. And while some of the trajectories he plots are familiar – from patriarchy to performance in women’s studies, from interest-group pluralism to individualist rational choice theory in political science – the cumulative effect of reading the same story again and again across so many fields is arresting. When Ronald Reagan begins to sound like Judith Butler and right-wing evangelicals make the linguistic turn, it’s clear there is something in the air.

What Rodgers may be narrating, in other words, is less the story of an intellectual fracture or even a shift in the basic modes of capitalism than of a political counter-revolution (that’s what Friedman called his project), organised in the highest circles of the economy and academia, and which radiated throughout the culture, often sweeping up its most self-conscious opponents. If Mises was correct that ‘even the opponents of socialism are dominated by socialist ideas’ – and the administrations of Macmillan and Eisenhower suggest, broadly speaking, that he was – it seems plausible that opponents of the free market counter-revolution (from liberal technocrats to feminist theorists) would come in turn to be dominated by its ideas. Not necessarily by its policy prescriptions – though many in the Democratic Party came to favour monetary over fiscal policy and developed a knee-jerk recourse to cutting taxes – but at the deepest level of its political imaginings, in particular its way of seeing the world in terms of the unplanned, spontaneous, unco-ordinated actions of a billion fractious particulars, and a corresponding scepticism about mass movements.

There are historical precedents for the association between fracture and counterrevolution. In response to the debtor insurgencies which took place in America in the 1780s, and which threatened the interests of creditors and property, James Madison observed that in small societies it is possible for democratic majorities with clear and distinct interests (usually inimical to property) to cohere and impose their will on the minority. But ‘extend the sphere’ of society, he wrote, ‘and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.’ After the French Revolution, doctrinaires like François Guizot and Pierre Royer-Collard, and their student Tocqueville, came to similar conclusions about the counter-revolutionary value of pluralism. And in the Old South, John Calhoun formulated his theory of concurrent majorities – an already fragmented society would be further fragmented by the near impossibility of the national government’s taking concerted action on behalf of the majority – as a counter to the abolitionist North.

Fracture need not always be a counterrevolutionary device. Neither must every counter-revolution follow the path of fracture. But the fact that the two are so often twinned does cause one to ask why fracture is so threatening to revolution and reform, and so friendly to counter-revolution and retrenchment. Why are unity and cohesion a necessary if not sufficient condition for any kind of democratic movement from below?

Movements of subordinate classes require the concerted action of men and women who, individually or locally, have little power, but collectively and nationally (or internationally) have potentially a great deal. If they hope to exercise it, such movements must press for and maintain their unity against many challenges: not only divisions among themselves (such movements hardly lack for heterogeneity of gender, race, status, religion, ethnicity and ideology) but also the power of their superiors. For these movements, unity is a precious and precarious achievement, always under threat from within and without.

Counter-revolutionary movements, by contrast, are multiply served by the forces of fragmentation. Political and economic elites, with their independent command of resources, do not need to rely so much on unity and co-ordination. What they require instead is the disunity of their opponents: the reverse of Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum that ‘the most important desideratum’ in any struggle is ‘the utmost possible unity of the leading social democratic part of the proletarian masses’. That disunity, it turns out, is fairly easy to achieve. Not only does fragmentation splinter the counter-revolution’s opponents into roving bands of ineffective malcontents; it also makes it more difficult to identify any ruling class or clique. No longer is there a simple target for mass action (the Bastille, the Winter Palace); there is just a pleasing spray of power, attached to no one group or individual in particular, potentially available to one and all. This, it seems to me, is one of the great obstacles the left has faced for the last half-century or so. With the Occupy movement, and its pitch for unity, one so grand (‘99 per cent’) it makes ‘workers of the world’ seem practically poststructural, we may at last be leaving it behind.

12 Responses to “Age of Counterrevolution”

  1. Robert October 17, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    This is good, Corey. I will pay to read the rest, but I wonder how Rodgers has managed to add much to what Frederic Jameson, Perry Anderson, Loren Goldner and other Marxists have been writing on this very process for some years. In fact, one could argue that Jameson was writing about it “in real time” when he first published his piece on The Cultural Logic in NLR. Your “Reagan sounding like Judith Butler” line made me think of Goldner’s Vanguard of Retrogression.

    • Corey Robin October 17, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

      It’s an excellent question, Robert. Rodgers does discuss Jameson et al, and I discuss his discussion in the review. But I’m still not certain of the answer.

  2. Mitchell Freedman October 17, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    Might as well give a nod to Alvin Toffler, who said in Future Shock (1970) that diversification, narrowcasting, and the like was the future. It would be an increase in choices in society along many different lines. Sounds like the “fracture.”

    • Joanna Bujes October 18, 2012 at 12:24 am #

      I think the defining trick is the substitution of choice for freedom. I think most people today not only equate the two but find it impossible to believe that freedom might mean that everyone agrees to do one thing.

      The identity movements of the sixties formed the beginning of this trend, which was brilliantly exploited by Madison Ave and political think tanks.

      Fragmentation/counterrevolution loves choice and abhors freedom.

  3. mhudson1971 October 17, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    Great post. The book (and the full review) are on my list. It does occur to me that the ruling class, even with their independent command over resources, may not be so free of the need for unity and cohesion as you suggest, though it is undoubtedly easier for them to achieve. I recall a quote, I think from Michael Useem’s “The Inner Circle” in which a CEO and member of the elite policy planning network was asked about whether the capitalist class could forego organizing and coast on the power of their wealth and ownership. The response was essentially that the ruling class couldn’t afford to find out. The amount of time and resources dedicated to establishing cohesion among the ruling elite suggests that they, at least, seem to think that unity is important. None of this to say that it isn’t immeasurably harder to establish unity among the ranks below the ruling class.

    Mark Hudson Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology Coordinator, Global Political Economy Program 333 Isbister Building University of Manitoba Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2 p: (204) 272-1655 f: (204) 261-1216 e: mark.hudson@ad.umanitoba.ca ________________________________

  4. joseph October 17, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    I am unable to get past the paywall. I wish I could because this is interesting.

    I must admit to having an adverse reaction to the grouping of Judith Butler with Milton Friedman and Steven Levitt. I’m convinced you can group them under some broad but coherent postmodern turn. They each represent breaks with a modernism of sorts: Friedman against Keynesian technocratic policy; Levitt as a child of the move away from macro-policy oriented macroeconometrics to isolated microeconometric studies; and Butler as a critique of modernist/essentialist views of gender and identity. Ok, fine, But I don’t think anyone seriously reads Butler and thinks that she has a similar social ontology as Milton, or Levitt, or Reagan (??). If Butler and Reagan sound similar I think we need to listen more closely.

    Again, I can’t get behind the paywall so I have to make assumptions about where this heads, but it reads like guilt by casual association. Are we supposed to think Butler’s work is counterrevolutionary because it has a superficial similarity to Friedman?

  5. rebellol October 17, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

    I am unable to get past the paywall. I wish I could because this is interesting.

    I must admit to having an adverse reaction to the grouping of Judith Butler with Milton Friedman and Steven Levitt. I’m convinced you can group them under some broad but coherent postmodern turn. They each represent breaks with a modernism of sorts: Friedman against Keynesian technocratic policy; Levitt as a child of the move away from macro-policy oriented macroeconometrics to isolated microeconometric studies; and Butler as a critique of modernist/essentialist views of gender and identity. Ok, fine, But I don’t think anyone seriously reads Butler and thinks that she has a similar social ontology as Milton, or Levitt, or Reagan (??). If Butler and Reagan sound similar I think we need to listen more closely. (I think that last sentence reads more snarky than I intended it to. I’m really feeling no snark. But I will apologize and leave it as is because I think it accurately sums up my feeling).

    Again, I can’t get behind the paywall so I have to make assumptions about where this heads, but it reads like guilt by very casual association. Are we supposed to think Butler’s work is counterrevolutionary because it has a superficial similarity to Friedman?

  6. Seth Edenbaum October 18, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    As always reading these sort of arguments, what’s lacking are the comments of historians of the transition from the medieval to the renaissance and modern, before the barbarism of the modernist.

    The best I can do on short notice quote again from Panofsky, cribbed from and belittled by the idiot Bourdieu.

    “Thus the Renaissance conception of humanitas had a two- fold aspect from the outset. The new interest in the human being was based both -on a revival of the classical antithesis between humanitas and barbartias, or feritas, and on a survival of the mediaeval antithesis between humanitas and divinitas. When Marsilio Ficino defines man as a “rational soul participating in the intellect of God, but operating in a body,” he defines him as the one being that is both autonomous and finite. And Pico’s famous ‘speech’ ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is anything but a document of paganism. Pico says that God placed man in the center of the universe so that he might be conscious of where he stands, and therefore free to decide ‘where to turn.’ He does not say that man is the center of the universe, not even in the sense commonly attributed to the classical phrase, “man the measure of all things.”

    It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from this two postulates result responsibility and tolerance.”

    Unfortunately that’s not the definition of humanism you’re familiar with.

    I’ll add a second passage:

    “The late Scholastic logicians devised amusing helps to memory by which the many forms or figures of syllogism (conclusions from a major and minor premise) could be remembered. These mnemonic devices consisted of words of three syllables partly real and partly made up for the purpose. Each syllable stood for one of the three propositions, and the vowels therein signified the character of these propositions. The vowel a, for instance, denoted a general and positive statement; the vowel o, a partial and negative one. Thus the nice name Barbara, with its three as, designates a syllogism that consists of three general and positive propositions (for instance: ‘All men are mortal all mortal beings need food consequently all men need food”). And for a syllogism consisting of one general and positive proposition and two partial and negative ones (for instance: “All cats have whiskers some animals have no whiskers consequently some animals are not cats”), there was coined the word Baroco, containing one a and two os. Either the word, or the peculiarly roundabout fashion of the main of thought denoted by it, or both, must have struck later generations as particularly funny and characteristic of the pedantic formalism to which they objected in medieval thought , and when humanistic writers, including Montaigne, wished to ridicule an unworldly and sterile pedant, they reproached him with having his head full of “Barbara and Baroco,” etc. Thus it came about that the word Baroco (French and English Baroque) came to signify everything wildly abstruse, obscure, fanciful, and useless (much as the word intellectual in many circles today). (The other derivation of the term from Latin veruca and Spanish barueca, meaning, originally, a wart and by extension a pearl of irregular shape, is most improbable both for logical and purely linguistic reasons.)”

    And I’ll add a contemporary parallel for such “baroque specialization”:
    “The sociology of modern knowledge production empowers the scholar over the humanist, and the collective / communal enterprise of scholarship over the inspiration of the individual thinker.”
    The author has it absolutely backwards. He’s described the model for modern anti-humanism.

    Humanism as now defined has the same relation to humanism in history as the Federalist Society has to the historical definition of federalism.

    A third from Panofsky, in 1955:

    “If the anthropocentric civilization of the Renaissance is headed, as it seems to be, for a ‘Middle Ages in reverse, a satanocracy as opposed to the medieval theocracy…”

    We’re leaving the dark ages again. And you want us to stay there.

    • Mark October 18, 2012 at 1:39 am #

      Is that a call for some more “theology and geometry, some taste and decency”?

      • Seth Edenbaum October 18, 2012 at 7:59 am #

        The unity of theology and science was a hallmark of the gothic. The renaissance began with a new acknowledgement of their separation.

        It’s the geometry that’s fracturing. HIstory repeats.

        “The sociology of modern knowledge production empowers the scholar over the humanist…”
        Stanley confuses his terms; scholars are humanists by definition. His model is a scientist and his model of “collective / communal enterprise” is a Universal Church of reason.

        Philosopher Alex Rosenberg says “History is bunk”. John Quiggin calls art an “enemy of the people”. The majority of the many 20th century Savonarolas were atheists, but the atheism was never the problem. Savonarolaism was the problem. If you imagine the world in Manichean terms you’ll build one in that image.

        Colin McGinn: “Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?”

        Democracy governed by law is relativist as to truth but strict as to process. The rule of reason ends in barbarism.

        Chris Bertram: “The right frame, in my view, is to think of the state as “we, the people” and to ask what conditions need to be in place for the people, and for each citizen, to play their role in effective self-government. Once you look at things like that then various speech restrictions naturally suggest themselves.”

        Once again, destroying democracy to save it.

  7. Seth Edenbaum October 18, 2012 at 1:04 am #

    I should amend that. Marcus Stanley, the author of the quote about “the sociology of modern knowledge” was honest in his anti-humanism; it makes no sense to accuse him of something he’s proud of. Better simply to say he doesn’t understand the consequences.

  8. Seth Edenbaum October 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    I’ll add another example of reactionary academicism, from Eric Rauchway. His reappearance at CT reminded me. Here he is in 2008 writing about academic freedom “in this anti-elitist day and age”.

    “Academic freedom predates free speech.” It should apparently therefore not be defended in terms of the free speech of the public, in language rising from below, but in language descending from above, in terms granted in the Kingdom of Prussia, in 1850.

    Henry Farrell’s response is to question academic freedom as such.
    Rauchway refers to powers of self-regulation; Farrell counters with the need for scholars to justify themselves to the public. From elitism to vulgarianism, from decadence to barbarism, without the intervening period of civilization.
    If these are your “revolutionaries” we need something better.

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