Age of Fracture

[Here’s my contribution to a roundtable on the new book by Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture, which will take place on Friday, November 18th, at the US Intellectual History Conference, CUNY Grad Center.]

It’s a pleasure to be here to comment on new work by Daniel T. Rodgers.  As intellectual historians, we’ve been obliged to read whatever he wrote since the dissertation book on the work ethic—or rather, as students of this thing called America, whatever our specialization, we’ve been obliged to keep up with what he’s writing about our thing.  You can’t say that about very many historians.

As some of you know, I wrote a book about the same period covered by Age of Fracture.  It is by far the better book on the intellectual history of the late 20th century—I mean his, of course.  I wish I had tarried with the negative as long as he has in this painstaking elegy, this elegant tombstone, this heartbreaking funeral oration—I almost said jeremiad—but then I had cartoons to cover.  There’s no better book on the subject, and I can’t imagine there will be in my lifetime, maybe yours as well.

In its ambition and scope, Age of Fracture reminds me of nothing so much as James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory, the definitive work on the Atlantic world of intellectual development at another fin de siecle moment (again, there’s no better book on the subject, however pointed your disagreements with the author might be).  Still, there’s a huge difference between these books.  It’s hard to put into words because it resides in the tone, the pitch, the timbre of the texts, not in some telling lyrical content I can quote.  And I suppose the difference could be explained simply, by the fact that Professor Kloppenberg was removed from the scene of the intellectual innovations he studied, whereas Professor Rodgers is a participant-observer, present at their creation, and can’t yet report any victory, however uncertain, for any side in an ongoing struggle.  But look at the difference from another angle.  No matter how you read Uncertain Victory, it’s the promise of uncertainty that sticks with you.  No matter how you read Age of Fracture, it’s the threat of uncertainty that sticks with you, whether it’s the risk created by undisciplined market forces or the chaos determined by intellectual anarchy.

Read almost any book on the turn of the earlier century and you will come away knowing that every previous truth was whirled away in a tidal wave of change that spanned every possible dimension of human experience, from the economic and the social to the political and the intellectual, from the private to the public, from the domestic to the trans-national.  You will come away from these books knowing that every brute inversion of received wisdom could be called progress because the truth was suddenly fungible, like property and personhood at the law.

You will come away knowing that William James had the last word on the topic when he offered this cruelly semiotic rendition of the truth: “Day follows day, and its contents are simply added.  The new contents are not themselves true, they simply come and are.  Truth is what we say about them.”

Indeed the books focused on the last fin de siecle demonstrate that our own age of fracture is neither a beginning nor an end: it’s a new variation on old themes which has nonetheless changed what we can see and hear and feel—what we take for granted in the here and now.  What great writers, artists, and intellectuals could glimpse by standing at the heart of change a century ago, telling us where it would lead, we can now see clearly, as embodied in our everyday lives: what was then evident yet unknown, except to the avant garde, is now common sense.  That’s why “post-modernism” became a household word in the late 20th century—also an epithet, a slogan, even radio call letters, just another item in the inventory of popular culture.  That’s why the de-centering of everything, including the familiar sources and sites of power, could begin at the same moment to look normal if not normative, in Eastern Europe as well as the United States.

James compared the potential consequences of pragmatism and its cultural predicates to the effects of the Reformation—he thought of both as social-intellectual movements that made truth plural, extra-institutional, and practical, rather than unitary, bureaucratic, and metaphysical.  It was a playful, hopeful metaphor, but it retains some cash value, I think, in understanding the late-20th century, when the political valence of protest against the powers that be became unpredictable, even indecipherable, sometimes regressive and often murderous.  That’s what happens when the dispersal of power from the clerics to the congregation, or from the state to society, becomes normal if not normative.

As that dispersal did become normal in the late-20th century, with the rise of cultural-sexual politics on the one hand and a neo-liberal movement toward deregulation on the other—not to mention the more dramatic breakdown of fossilized states in Eastern Europe—so did the languages needed to address the fugitive complexities of power become more various, more cultural, more oblique, more tentative, and more useful.  I mean that these languages and their attendant categories didn’t “thin out,” as Professor Rodgers argues; instead, they proliferated, along with the aliases and addresses of power.

We might even treat the emergence of rational market ideology as an instance of the same dispersal.  Professor Rodgers assumes that this ideology willfully or ignorantly  obscured the institutional determinants of economic power.  Let’s grant him that assumption.  What if that was the point, all along?  Could it be that these economists were abstracting or abstaining from the question of power as traditionally construed, just like the Foucauldians on the other side of campus, and trying to redefine its habitat and its effects, as if the institutional determinants—like corporations, trade unions, and state regulatory agencies—were becoming less important than the echoes of the algorithms?

Could we then treat rational market ideology as an interesting, maybe even productive dimension of the intellectual earthquake that turned the world inside out in the late 20th century?  Could we treat it as something more (or less) than a retreat from reality, as a new way of grasping what James called the “existing beyond”—that is, the impending future—as a vital dimension of the present?  In other words, could we treat the “financial model” derived from the Black-Scholes algorithms as distant echoes of Irving Fisher’s mathematics and Albert Einstein’s relativity theorems (both published 1905-1907), thus as a new way of incorporating time into the calculations of the market?  Or rather, wouldn’t Professor Rodgers be on firmer ground—oops—if he argued that rational market ideology was a redefinition rather than a displacement of time, historical and otherwise?

I know, free markets and political progress don’t mix—deregulation is the cause of all our troubles!—so why would I look for the latter in the former and use my discoveries as a criticism of Age of Fracture?  Good questions, but only if you assume, as Professor Rodgers does (and I’d bet everybody else in this room does too), that markets and socialism are the terms of an either/or choice, or that capitalism and markets are synonyms, or that the commodity form is the solvent of all that is precious, or that anything with a price is by definition an affront to authenticity.

I’m trying to say that I agree with the broad arc of the narrative Professor Rodgers offers us—rational market ideology becomes the regnant paradigm in allocating worldly goods as well as academic or intellectual rewards, thus installing price systems as the foundational metaphor of late-20th century thinking as such—but I can’t enter the same complaint that he treats as the self-evident moral of the story.  Here’s why.

Stagflation in the West and political-economic impasse in the East coincided in the 1970s.  The outsiders, the radicals, the dissidents, and the misfits in both places offered perestroika as a solution to the problem they faced—more “marketization,” as the Polish and Czech economists put it in their manifestos, having anticipated, even planned for, the Prague Spring, and then been disillusioned by the experiment before the tanks rolled in.  “Deregulation,” as the American economists and politicians put it—Alfred Kahn, Jimmy Carter, Teddy Kennedy, and Felix Rohatyn out front—in an attempt to revitalize competitive market forces, in keeping with the anti-monopoly, anti-trust tradition that galvanized American politics in the 19th century.

The “marketization” of more assets, including ideas, followed in both parts of the world, East and West, as Vaclav Havel had predicted.  So did better prospects for political democracy, cultural pluralism, and intellectual innovation, as the dispersal of power from state to society became normal, and finally normative.  Meanwhile, underneath or alongside the “marketization” of more assets—and perhaps as a direct result of this process, as when the family was codified as the principal bulwark against the anonymous forces of the market?—came a strange new phenomenon that I have elsewhere called primitive disaccumulation.

In Atlantic Crossings, Professor Rodgers began by drawing our attention to the “de-commodification” of things and ideas at the very moment industrial capitalism triumphed, in the early 20th century.  He quickly and inexplicably dropped this promising notion as he traced the intellectual vectors of reform and regulation that reshaped the political landscapes of the US and the UK.

But is it not worth pursuing as the secret history of an age of fracture determined by “marketization”?  Isn’t primitive disaccumulation happening under our feet—right under our noses—and thereby making the victory of markets and neo-liberalism uncertain at least?

Consider these facts.  More people have easier access to better information than ever, and they don’t have to pay for it, whether by enduring TV commercials or buying a newspaper subscription.  More people read more stuff, meanwhile producing and distributing their own writing via the blogosphere, than ever before, but it’s mostly free.  More people listen to more music, and more people produce and distribute their own music than ever before, but they’re not buying CDs—they’re not paying for it, they’re downloading it.  You can buy a used book by a semi-famous author just weeks after the publication date for one sixth the cover price; ask any editor outside of trade publishing, and she’ll tell you that her business model is not something to bank on.  You can be sure that in ten years, maybe five, newspapers as we buy them now will be gone, regardless of how the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times or the paper of record now try to protect their contents.

And movies?  The CEOs here are a step ahead of their counterparts in the music or the newspaper business, but it still looks like YouTube is the future of your viewing pleasure.

In sum: The reading, listening, and viewing audiences are larger, but the commodity form organizes less of their attention—the markets and the price systems that used to deliver the relevant goods are now options, not unavoidable structures that govern every approach to these goods.  This is the incomplete reversal of primitive accumulation, the process by which almost all things, even human nature itself, became commodities.  Primitive disaccumulation, I like to call it.  And it coincides with the apparent triumph of rational market ideology.

You would never know it from reading Age of Fracture.  Here you will find yet another complaint about the ascendance of markets and their nefarious attendants, in accordance with the academic Left’s assumption that deregulation is the cause of the current crisis and that re-regulation is the cure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Professor Rodgers has neglected a side of the subject that happens to be my special interest, as in those reviews that wonder why the author didn’t argue what the reviewer wanted to, if only he had written the book.  I’m suggesting instead that an inchoate, open-ended ambivalence about capitalism is a central, unavoidable dimension of late-20th century intellectual history, perhaps because the Internet made the disposition of and reward for intellectual property such live cultural issues.  Neo-conservatism itself  is predicated, pretty clearly, on this ambivalence, as even a casual reading of Irving Kristol, the founding father, would suggest.  It begins with doubts about Hayek and Friedman, not enthusiastic embrace.

“The” market doesn’t ever exist as an inert externality or a unitary device.  Markets do, of course, exist, but their languages vary, and they don’t emerge or endure in the absence of rules, symbols, gestures, and thoughts that change over time and space.  Moreover, these variations never cancel the progressive, democratic possibilities still resident within socialism—socialism, by the way, is not necessarily progressive or democratic—even though, and even when, we frame the issues as an either/or choice between markets and social democracy.  I’m one of those people who believes, on historical grounds, that liberty and equality require markets as a social-intellectual presupposition; but I also believe, on the same grounds, that if they are to work properly, markets require democracy.

In these terms, Robert Westbrook is right to place me at a respectful remove from the position that Professor Rodgers has so poignantly and brilliantly mapped in Age of Fracture.  I still see the promise of uncertainty: I don’t want to know where we’re going, not just yet.  I like to think that for all the mourning that Professor Rodgers does in this indispensable book, he doesn’t want to, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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