Archive for the ‘ideology’ Category
Very quietly, on his own blog, David Frum has written the most important conservative article in recent memory. Ostensibly a critique of a National Affairs essay by Yuval Levin, Frum’s article “Two Cheers for the Welfare State” in fact represents a rejection of conservative economic policy at the level of abstract principles. It is not only an example of the oft-talked about rifts in American conservatism, but also, just maybe, a precursor to a dramatic shift leftward for the conservative intellectual class in the United States.
Frum notes that he “changed his mind” as a result of the recent financial crisis. Earlier in his career, he supported the “doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years.” But with the recent collapse, he decided:
Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.
And then, this massive revelation:
GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.
Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.
First, it’s fairly remarkable for anyone, left or right, in our political discourse (and in academia), to admit to being wrong. This is just not something the punditocracy does. I guess people did this about the Iraq War, particularly the left wing humanitarian hawks. And Richard Posner “became a Keynesian,” which I wrote about here. Most notably, Diane Ravitch, former champion of charter schools and standardized testing and opponent of teacher’s unions, has done a complete 180, and now blames America’s education problems on poverty and inequality.
Frum hasn’t changed that much. Sure he was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for criticizing the Republican Party. But I suspect that has more to do with his disdain for the recent wave of conservative anti-intellectualism, symbolized by the Tea Partiers who have made heroes out of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. He shares that disdain with other conservatives like David Brooks and Christopher Buckley. But those disagreements were more about style than substance. On foreign policy I suspect Frum is still a hawk, and probably still far too conservative for my taste on economic issues as well.
Nonethelss, Frum is moving in the right (by which I mean the left) direction. Especially interesting is how he justifies this change. He invokes Irving Kristol the way socialists invoke Marx, libertarians invoke Ayn Rand, and Christians invoke the Bible. This is a classic intellectual move. Frum appeals to the ultimate neoconservative authority to advance the notion of a “conservative welfare state.”
Here is the Irving Kristol quote Frum uses:
The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.
Whatever works for you, Mr. Frum. What I see is a smart conservative realizing that conservative economic policies aren’t so smart.
There’s a great guest post at US Intellectual History blog by Corey Washington and Johanna Carr about the problem with ideology.
It is clear that for most people support for their policy views follows from an underlying ideology rather than from strong evidence. They argue for no taxes because they believe small government is better. They argue for legalizing cocaine because they believe in the right to privacy. In very few cases, do they present a well-formed opinion based on research and evidence. And as any rational person knows only evidence, not ideology, is a sound basis for such empirical claims.
My friends are not unusual. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, are usually based on very weak, and selective, evidence. People tend to have the same political orientation as their parents, which may result from environment, i.e. growing up in their parents’ household, or a genetic predisposition to a particular political orientation, as recent studies have indicated. People also often develop views as a result of hanging around others with a certain political orientation. Once formed, political views are maintained and reinforced by reading material that supports one’s positions and by discounting material that conflicts. Likewise, people often embrace views advocated by the “experts”, they find idedologically appealing, while discrediting those with equivalent credentials, whom they do not. (When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.)
In short, ideology seems to be the equivalent of religion, without the God stuff.
Definitely worth reading the whole thing.
I don’t agree with everything in the post. I think leftists and libertarians can and do point to the lack of evidence of success in the drug war in support of their views on drug legalization, much like atheists point to the lack of evidence for God in support for their atheism.
Still, Washington and Carr moved me because I am definitely guilty of holding Paul Krugman up as a divine-like authority, just as others do with Karl Marx or Ayn Rand. I think Krugman is more pragmatic and less ideological than those two, which is why I think that more extreme ideologies, like Marxism or Rand’s Objectivism, are more pernicious in the ways they resemble religion.
I’ve long associated anarchism with modernity. I think of figures like Emma Goldman (left) or Mikhail Bakunin (right) at the vanguard of a movement associated with the industrial revolution, Marxism, feminism, technology, and radicalism of all kinds, moving society forward; swiftly, violently, but always forward.
At a recent American history workshop at NYU, I got to hear University of Washington historian Moon-ho Jung present a terrific paper, a work in progress from his upcoming book The Unruly Pacific: Race and the Politics of Empire and Revolution, 1898-1941. Without giving away anything significant from that project, one thing I did realize was that, in the rhetoric surrounding the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, commentators linked anarchism with barbarism, with savagery, with a pre-modern lack of civilization.
In a way, this makes perfect sense. Thomas Hobbes‘ (below) major book, Leviathan, a staunch defense of conservative government, contrasts the stability of a regime governed by an absolute sovereign with barbaric, pre-modern “state of nature” where life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Despite it’s conservatism, Hobbes’ government is progress.
If we return to the Old Testament (or as I like to call it, The Bible), there’s a sense in which the pre-historic past, in the Garden on Eden, is one that is prior to government. The introduction of the law is what leads to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. Again, government is progress (though there is a strong anti-authoritarian strain in the Hebrew Bible as well).
The ancient Greeks too seemed to distinguish between their own culture, epitomized by democratic Athens, as the height of civilization, as distinguished from the non-Greek barbarians they encountered in warfare. Rome, as a republic or an empire, shone above the barbarian hordes waiting at the gates to destroy it, bringing about the “Dark Ages.”
Of course, the links between anarchism and pre-modernity need not be entirely pernicious. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (right) posited the existence of a pre-modern, non-European state of equality to be envied, if not necessarily emulated.
So despite my association of anarchism with modernity, one can just as easily link anti-government thought to the pre-modern, even the pre-historic, either to celebrate that state of nature for its lack of oppression or to condemn it for its violence and chaos.
Again, all this is somewhat intuitive if you just stop to think about it. I guess I just never did.
Humanitarian rhetoric has ramped up recently. Do we have a moral duty to intervene on the behalf of those civilian populations in Libya being targeted by Qaddafi (or in Bahrain, or Yemen, or Egypt, or Cote d’Ivoire)? Is it our responsibility to respond to the ‘humanitarian’ disaster following the earthquake in Japan (or New Zealand, or Haiti, or Chile)?
Accompanying this increased (over)use of ‘humanitarianism’ has been a growing reaction against it. Pundits from Fox News to the Guardian who pointed to a humanitarian crisis before the intervention are now questioning its relevance – do we need to intervene because it is a humanitarian crisis? Or is it a humanitarian ‘crisis’ because we need to intervene? And once we’ve intervened, what comes next? State-building? Humanitarian relief? Regime change?
The blogosphere is wondering whether or not economics is a science. Ryan Avent and Mathew Yglesias say yes, and Krugman thinks maybe not. Atrios says “Basically the ignorant bullies took over the profession to some degree.”
There seem to be a couple of obvious things missing from this debate, that perhaps this humble intellectual historian could add. First thing lacking is any critical understanding of what science is. The general assumption seems to be: if economists can operate in some sort of “objective” world, in which value and personal bias don’t structure your results, where in good Gradgrindian fashion “facts and nothing but the facts,” determine your answer to a given question; in which scholarly debate can come to final conclusions about matters; where political power, ideology, and hegemonic values aren’t determining the results; where predictions can be made with some confidence, etc… If these things exist then we’re scientists!
Unfortunately, by most of these standards most scientists aren’t scientists either. In other words, even when dealing with cells and atoms this is a hard ideal to reach. To me, if there is one thing that historians, especially intellectual historians, can remind the world is that people are always the product of their time. They never exist in the rarified abstract space that is imagined here, where politics, discourse, and ideology don’t affect them. This isn’t to advocate some vulgar nihilism, but rather to remind people that conclusions are always provisional and always affected by the positionality of the observer.
And if I could posit a general theory of human knowledge here: one’s ability to even approach the scientific ideal of detached neutral observation gets harder and harder the more you study people and the less you study not-people (official scientific term there). And though you would excused in not realizing this when you read most economists, the profession is still ultimately concerned with human issues: wages, economic inequality, human motivation, environmental destruction, etc… Remember, after all, that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, not a physicist. The idea that anyone could be drily scientific and objective about these issues– that their own personal biases, preferences, and, frankly, self-interest–would not color what they do is ludicrous and almost comically naive. Read the rest of this entry »
I tried to read The Fountainhead. I really did. But after ten or fifteen pages, I gave up. The text was so poorly written, so comically absurd yet mind-numbingly dull at the same time that I had to put it down. In my snobbery, when I see a smart friend’s profile on Facebook which lists one of Ayn Rand’s books as their favourites, I feel a sense of tremendous disappointment, the way I used to feel when I saw similarly smart people list The Da Vinci Code. Except The Da Vinci Code, however stupid, is a quick, entertaining read, and doesn’t turn its readers into sensational assholes (also, Dan Brown may be a bad writer, but he never really hurt anyone except the Catholic Church, and they had it coming). I could get through The Da Vinci Code. I doubt I’ll ever be able to stomach Atlas Shrugged.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you about how bad Ayn Rand’s books are, or how stupid her philosophy of Objectivism is, or how much harm its adherents (converts?) have done to the American economy. I’ve addressed that a little bit here, and so has Wiz here, and so did GQ‘s Andrew Corsello in a hilarious hit piece titled “The Bitch is Back.” Corsello compares reading Rand (pictured left) at age 19 to “devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting. During: irresistible, bracing, the thing at hand imparting vitality, fertility, potency. After: bleccchh.” I never got to the irresistible part, but the urge to vomit came soon enough.
I think Rand’s work can best be summarized with an old intellectual putdown my father taught me: “Ayn Rand’s writing is both interesting and original. Unfortunately, what is interesting is not original, and what is original is not interesting.” I’d add that it’s also inaccurate and harmful and even downright pernicious, but that’s enough for now.
Perhaps the best short takedown of Rand can be found in The Nation, by Corey Robin. But if you’re looking for something a little longer, but don’t have the stomach for Rand herself, try this superb intellectual biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns.
In Burns’ book, we learn about the crazy cult of Objectivism, which Rand ran like an authoritarian tyrant. To call it quasi-religious might be a bit mild. As Burns writes on page 203:
Although Objectivism appeared a way to escape religion, it was more often a substitute, offering a similar regimentation and moralism without the sense of conformity. Rand’s ideas allowed students to reject traditional religion without feeling lost in a nihilistic, meaningless universe.
And yet three pages earlier, Burns compared the adoption of Objectivism to a similar religious experience.
In many ways the overwhelming impact of Rand’s ideas mimicked Marxism’s influence. Arthur Koestler’s memory of conversion to Communism echoes the sentiments expressed by Rand’s readers: “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question; doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past.” Only a small portion of Rand’s readers became as feverishly devoted to her ideas as Koestler did to Marxism, but the basic dynamic was similar. A twenty-four-year-old woman told Rand, “you have combined all my stray thoughts into an orderly, workable pattern–this alone is worth many years of my life.” Rand’s perspective could bring refreshing clarity to the unfocused, replacing doubt and uncertainty with passion and conviction.
It’s no accident that Burns used the word “conversion” to describe Koestler’s Marxist turn, nor that Koestler the himself used religious, even miraculous language to recount how he saw the “light” of scientific socialism. Objectivism, like Marxism, and most religious doctrines, are absolutist and all-encompassing philosophies.
When I first seriously studied Marx (pictured right) in the Dawson College Liberal Arts program (with Nemo among my classmates), our wonderful professor David Mulhall frequently used the term “millenarian” to describe Marxist thought. To Mulhall, and of course he was not the first to say this, Marxism was a fundamentally messianic faith, with its belief in the withering away of the state and an eventual Communist utopia, despite the mask of materialism. That description stuck with me.
When I studied Marxism as an undergraduate, I did so in the context of European intellectual history, with the brilliant Peter Gordon. With Gordon’s guidance, I came to understand Marx primarily as a “Left Hegelian,” someone who did not merely stand “Hegel on his head,” as Marx’s own cliche would have you, but in fact simply adapted Hegel to a more practical, materialist framework. Hegel’s messianic “world spirit” became Marx’s messianic working class, both operating in dialectical fashion.
When I finally studied Marx as a graduate student, in a History of the Left class (along with Wiz) taught by the excellent professors Molly Nolan and Linda Gordon (no relation to Peter, as far as I know), I had had enough. As a moderate social democrat and strong supporter of the welfare state, I was the class fascist, by far the most conservative, and probably the most vocal participant. This was certainly a strange scenario as a Canadian among mostly American students. I won’t lie: I relished the role. More important, I learned a great deal in these class discussions.
Of course, the stakes were pretty low. As my free market friend Josh once quipped: “the only place you’ll find real Marxists is in the humanities departments of universities, which is a good thing, because they can’t hurt anyone there.” This remark isn’t all that different from an observation made by the late Irving Kristol in his 1979 essay “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals.” Kristol wrote, “if you want to meet active socialists intellectuals, you can go to Oxford or Berkeley or Paris or Rome. There is no point in going to Moscow or Peking or Belgrade or Bucharest or Havana.” Much as I loathe Kristol, he, and Josh (who I quite like) may be on to something. As the semester went on, much as I enjoyed it, I became exasperated.
You see, I felt that the class, like much of academia, venerated (and venerates) Marx in a way that is totally inappropriate, and frankly ahistorical. This will offend some readers (and possibly writers) of this blog, but when I hear obviously Marxist academics make obviously Marxist arguments, my eyes secretly glaze over (or perhaps not so secretly, if my subtlety is wearing thin) much in the same way they would if I had to listen to a Creationist defend the Biblical account on the universe’s origins, or an Intelligent Design advocate attempt to mesh Darwin with God’s divine plan. It’s like that feeling you get when you meet very smart and devoutly religious people and you think to yourself “how do intelligent people believe this nonsense?”
I remember being spellbound by the fantasy history of the Soviet Union woven in his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge by the elderly Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher (published in 1967 under the title The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967). The form so elegantly transcended the content that we accepted the latter on trust: detoxification took a while. Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.
This is not to say that Marx is entirely devoid of “originality and depth of content.” I don’t really think Marx is nonsense. The funny thing is, I love Marx. I really do. I think his writing was and is sensationally inspirational. Politically, I think his vision is impractical but nonetheless alluring, his goals noble and moral. I even think that his observations about working class life in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution reaching full steam, was incredibly astute.
But there’s the rub. As a historian, I can’t help think we’d be better off looking at Marx in his context. Yes, his description of worker alienation, and commodity fetishization can still ring true, in certain very specific circumstances, like in the developing world today. But on the whole, one cannot escape the fact, and yes it is a fact, that Marx got a whole lot wrong. He thought nationalism was a weak force, but in fact it was (and is) a very strong one. More important, he never recognized the power of a middle way, of strong welfare states offering a restraint on, rather than the destruction of, the market economy . He never imagined the compelling appeal of unions, like those of Samuel Gompers (pictured right) that offered “bread and butter” benefits to dignify workers within a capitalist framework (minus Gompers’ racism and sexism).
More important, Marx didn’t realize that most workers wanted to cease being workers, or at least, ensure that their children would not have to work like they did. Indeed, the story of eastern European Jews in America serves as a spectacular refutation of Marxism. Many came with dedication to socialism in hand, or more likely one that they learned on the job. They were active in left wing politics on New York’s Lower East Side and elsewhere. They worked in sweat shops, and lived in dilapidated tenement apartments. But eventually, they sent their kids to public school, and their kids became doctors and lawyers and entered the middle class. They mostly (though not all) remained on the left, but typically the mainstream left, of the Democratic Party. Their class consciousness was no more, if it ever really existed.
There’s no way Marx could have anticipated any of this, let alone i-phones and the Internet and a million other kinds of technological, scientific and philosophical and historical developments that have laid waste to his theory. Which is why, as I said earlier, we should understand Marx in context. And the same goes for Rand. Incidentally, that’s precisely what Burns does: her Rand responded to her upbringing as a middle-class Jew in Russia and then the Soviet Union, her disillusionment with the New Deal, and her distaste for the Judeo-Christian religiosity of mainstream conservatives, and role as a fierce Cold Warrior. But she too, like Marx, could not anticipate history.
As I’ve written here before, one of the biggest problems with Marxism, as the great philosopher Sir Karl Popper (pictured below) elucidated many years ago, was it’s utter imperviousness to “falsifiability.” As Popper wrote, “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” Marx’s socialism, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, could not be scientific, because they couldn’t really be proven or disproven. As I wrote then:
[Popper] criticized Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian economics on the ground that they were not falsifiable. Their advocates found evidence in every result, even ones that seemed to blatantly contradict these “theories.” The Marxist revolution never happened, so Marxists tweaked the theory, rather than abandon it. They forced a strange fit of theory and fact, rather than simply form a new theory. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, is a valid theory, because it is testable, the results came in, proving it right. If different results has come in, the theory would have been proven wrong.
I think the same of course, can be said about those who remain faithful to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, or who remain staunch believers in free market capitalism, even after the recent troubles of the American economy. Whatever the facts, they will find some way to make them fit the theory.
One of the biggest problems I have with Rand and Marx is this implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim to inevitability. I don’t think anything is inevitable. I know that many, perhaps most Marxists, abandoned inevitability by the 1930s, including, Sidney Hook, who attempted to meld Marxism with John Dewey’s pragmatism in his 1934 essay “Communism Without Dogmas.” I would argue that by abandoning inevitability, these “Marxists” had actually abandoned Marxism entirely, and tweaked it save the theory, as Popper’s critique noted.
Because, annoyingly for them, history got in the way. As I just said, I don’t think anything is inevitable, and I don’t think that Marx is to be blamed for the gulag. Nonetheless, with all the horrors of the 20th century, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China and many others in the name of some kind of scientific socialism, Marxists, if not Marx, have a lot to answer for.
So too do the Randians today, some of whom (Paul Ryan, Rand and Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and so on) simply ignore her militant atheism (as Burns recounts, she once told William F. Buckley that he was “too intelligent to believe in God”). More significantly, many of Rand’s adherents ignore her inability to deal with historical reality and economic facts.
But I think the basic similarity between Rand and Marx comes in their misjudgment of human nature. Rand, as a hyper-individualist, had absolutely no sense of the joys of human love and companionship (hence her unfulfilling marital life, substance abuse, and chronic depression), the warmth of community, and most famously, the dignity of altruism. Indeed, she despised fellow libertarians Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman because they argued that libertarianism was actually good from a utilitarian standpoint, that Adam Smith’s invisible hand would bring the greatest good to the greatest number. Rand didn’t care about that. She thought altruism was wrong, plain and simple. People should act selfishly and only selfishly, no matter what happened to anyone else. Not only did she think Christianity led to socialism, or at that it basically was socialism, she believed that self-sacrificial altruism, the very essence of Christianity (Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, but for yours), was immoral.
Rand seems to advocate the basic philosophical principle of psychological egoism, without any awareness of its simplicity and flaws. Psychological egoists say: “people are selfish because they always do what they want,” without taking into account that what people want differs greatly. Some people want to work in soup kitchens, others want to be investment bankers, still others want to be axe murderers. Each are doing what they want, but we can evaluate their desires as having different moral standings.
Marx went the other way. First, his community is too large: he has no use for ethno-cultural particularism, gender solidarity, or anything that moves beyond class. Second, his philosophy does not understand the thoroughly strongly individualistic aspect of human nature. Sure, Sidney Hook (pictured below) tried to argue against that proposition:
Communism is hostile to individualism, as a social theory, and not individuality, as a social value. It seeks to provide the material guarantee of security without which the free development of individuality or personality is an empty or impossible ideal. But the free development of personality remains its ideal; difference uniqueness, independence, and creative originality are intrinsic values to be fostered and strengthened; and indeed one of the strongest arguments against capitalism is that it prevents these values from flourishing for all but a few.
I’m not sure this distinction is true in theory, as Marx has no use for individual expression that derived from national or ethno-cultural traditions. In practice, it has meant even less. Experiments in socialism have often bred uniformity, with Mao’s cultural revolution perhaps the most egregious example, and the limits placed on Soviet art a close second. I think one can argue that strong welfare states in a capitalist context allow for a good amount of “material security” along with the “free development of personality.”
Furthermore, Marx and Marxists discount the importance of individualism, not just individuality, to human beings, who often do place their first loyalties to themselves and to their families, well above class and community. Indeed, this little ditty my father taught me may provide more insight into class relations and human nature than anything Marx or Engels or other Marxists theorists ever wrote:
The working class, can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.
Again, I do think much of Marx is valuable, and inspirational, orders of magnitude more than Rand. But like Rand, historically it doesn’t hold up, and politically it seems to contradict human nature as I understand it. Which is why, much as I think pragmatism is a silly philosophy with which to pursue scholarship (I believe in objectivity, but not Objectivism), I think it’s useful, or dare I say, pragmatic, when it comes to politics. It allows for the flexibility to change your opinion, to make compromises, to account for new evidence and realities. Of course, not all compromises are good, and principles are important too, which is why I support a progressive, principled pragmatism.
I think one can do this and remain on the left. One can remain committed to left-wing policies and politics without adhering to any sort of Marxism. Tony Judt will be remembered as a leading advocate of social democracy. Yet some on the left often forget that he cut his teeth as a STAUNCHLY ANTI-MARXIST thinker, criticizing French Communists who ignored, downplayed, or apologized for Stalin’s crimes.
My point here is not to venerate pragmatism or Tony Judt’s political views, both of which have their flaws. My point is simply to say that one can uphold progressive politics and fight the legacy of Ayn Rand without succumbing to the philosophy of her much smarter, much more moral but similarly dogmatic and messianic alter ego, Karl Marx.
What does Judith Butler have in common with Ronald Reagan? How about Jerry Falwell and John Rawls? Cornel West and Milton Friedman? In his sweeping history of American social thought during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers argues that these figures share more in common than one might think.
According to Rodgers fracture or what he (less poetically) calls “disaggregation” characterizes the main currents of intellectual life from the early 1970s to our own day. He argues that a mid-century focus on the social power of tradition and institutions, whether economic, political and religious, gave way to competing models of social life that stressed individual agency, historical contingency, and the amorphous power of culture. Early on in Age of Fracture, Rodgers sharply contrasts the social thought of the Cold War and the period that followed in terms of human nature. Rodgers writes,
Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. (Rodgers, 3)
In economics, Rodgers argues, this transformation was especially acute and would have serious consequences for social policy and social thought more generally. As the repeated financial crises of the 1970s seemed to discredit the effectiveness of Keynesianism, a number of schools of economic thought stepped into the fill the vacuum (often with major funding from recently established conservative think tanks)—all with strong libertarian tendencies.
Proponents of monetarism, rational choice theory, and supply-side economics might have disagreed on certain principles, but all believed that the best economic outcomes were produced when individuals made their way into the open market without interference from labor unions and government regulators. Individualism ruled; deep notions of power waned. At the same time, social theorists started to blame the rise of an urban “underclass” on the very government agencies created to serve them (while downplaying years of de-industrialization, institutional racism, and declining tax revenues due to white flight).
One of the most striking contributions of Rodgers’ book, however, is to show that shrinking ideas of the “social” were not limited to free-market economists, but also characterized nearly every sphere of the period’s intellectual life. Across the era’s social sciences, Rodgers notes an interest in thought experiments involving game theory, prisoners’ dilemmas, and “veils of ignorance” (in John Rawls’ famous Theory of Justice) that showed little concern for context, history, and power. Attention shifted toward abstraction and individual choice. Legal originalists discounted centuries of jurisprudence and social context to uncover the “true” meaning of the constitution at its foundational moment. Meanwhile, leading economists believed they could ignore the legacy of the past and shepherd Eastern Europe into a capitalist future through “shock therapy.”
As the social movements of the 1960s moved forward into the 1970s and 1980s, Rodgers sees fragmentation across the board. Inspired by the New Left idea of participatory democracy, influential liberal thinkers embraced pluralism and communal participation, which served to downplay earlier visions of a national social contract and economic redistribution (on the right, many showed a similar concern for the well-being of “mediating institutions” supposedly threatened by an intrusive federal government).
Feminists who had once believed “sisterhood is powerful,” now debated the usefulness of the concept of “woman.” Did it risk further marginalizing the distinctive voices of black women, working-class women, and queer women? At the same time, influential black intellectuals in the United States and England such as Paul Gilroy, Cornell West, and Henry Louis Gates rejected one-dimensional understandings of a unified black experience—and instead called for an understanding of blackness that conformed to the complex legacies of life within the African Diaspora.
For all the commonalities Rodgers sees running through the period’s social thought, this is not a consensus history of the 1980s. Even with though he sees the pull of “disaggregation” leaving a mark across the period’s ideological spectrum, he remains sensitive to political conflict, for example, noting contentious battles over Central America, nuclear weapons, and social issues such as abortion.
Nor is Age of Fracture yet another declension narrative about irresponsible radicals and “identity politics” somehow bearing responsibility for the revival of the country’s political right. In fact, Rodgers sees a major difference between the social thought of the 1960s, which tended to focus more closely on the power of institutions and social forces such as the government, the military, and capital in shaping inequality, and the period that followed with its emphasis on fracture, agency, and culture. Rodgers also sees much to praise in social thought since the 1970s, particularly the way it has helped legitimize racial and sexual difference.
He does believe, however, that the era’s strong emphasis on culture, rupture, and agency has lead to a neglect of key questions about power and history. At the end of his chapter on race, Rodgers argues that the,
growth of more complex understandings of identity was also the retreat of history. A culture reshaped in the choices and present moment preoccupations of a market-saturated society had transposed the frame of argument. In a liberation that was also the age’s deficit, a certain loss of memory had occurred. (Rodgers, 143)
Is this really the case though? Is it true that thinkers such as Cornel West and Judith Butler really had less of a concern with institutions, history, and power than their predecessors? Or was it that they aimed to capture a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the way history unfolded, power functioned, and identities were created? No one who has read Foucault for a graduate seminar would be unfamiliar with questions of power and institutions—even though the answers he encourages might not be as straightforward as a Marxian or even an “interest group pluralism” reading of the concept might provide. Does a focus on everyday performances of power really have to come into conflict with one attuned to the power of history and institutions?
In addition, is Rodgers correct to lump most of the period’s social thought under the concept of disaggregation? Can we really see any commonalities between the interpretive strategies of an influential anti-foundationalist literary critic like Stanley Fish and a biblical fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell? Rodgers acknowledges that the period’s conservative thinkers (and many self-proclaimed liberals) tended to obsess over combating the moral relativism and multicultural fragmentation that they saw characterizing intellectual life. Conservative Christians, in particular, proclaimed a universalistic understanding of human nature and longed for fixed gender binaries totally at odds with celebrations of gender trouble or the indeterminacy of texts.
Rodgers argues, however, that even among the religious right and cultural conservatives, one finds dissension on questions of gender, free speech, and foreign policy. While this is surely the case (when was any social movement wholly unified?), Rodgers might have done even more to explain how evangelicals fit into his broader theme of fracture.
While some readers may take issue with the book’s conceptual preference for lumping rather than splitting (though Rodgers always does an excellent job describing particular ideas), others might feel that the question of causality is left too open-ended. If fracture characterized the age, what exactly caused it to break out? Rodgers notes the value of works by David Harvey and Frederick Jameson, which examine the economic roots of the “post-modern condition,” but rejects what he sees as the determinism implicit in such models. Rodgers believes that ideas about fracture often preceded economic change and helped condition responses to it. It’s hard to disagree with this point, but it’s not surprising that discussion has already begun over the question of causality and the book’s principal argument.
Whatever minor issues readers find with the book however, they are likely to be impressed by its scope, its analytical ambitions, and its sensitivity to nuance, not to mention its readability. For many years it will serve as a key reference point for scholars investigating particular questions about social thought since the 1970s. In addition, Rodgers implicit normative stance, which calls on scholars to engage deeply with history, institutions, and power—particularly when dealing with questions of inequality—rings very true today, as we continue to live through the legacy of the age of fracture that he describes so effectively.
Over at Pandagon, I found Amanda Marcotte’s excellent dissection of the latest scientific findings that claim to demonstrate that political beliefs are correlated to particular physical qualities in brains. “Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.”
Amanda is having none of it. “This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves. While it gives us a temporary thrill to think of conservatives as just being kind of broken, the implication of this is that they can’t help themselves. And I strongly disagree. “
I think Amanda is correct. And so, it seems would Hegel, who in the Phenomenology of Spirit argued that “it must be regarded as a thoroughgoing denial of reason to treat a skull bone as the actuality of conscious life.”
Hegel was arguing against the new fad of phrenology—the belief that the shapes and contours of the skull demonstrated inner dispositions of character and intellect. The skull supposedly developed in particular ways because the brain was pushing against it. I’m not going to try to summarize his argument, partly because I’m never very confident that I fully understand Hegel. But, at least according to Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay on the topic “Hegel on Faces and Skulls,” it partly has to do with history. “A particular historical situation cannot on Hegel’s view be dissolved into a set of properties.” Thus, the skull cannot explain actual activity in its historical circumstance, which involves too many complicated outer phenomena. In the context of Amanda’s post, that would mean that we cannot understand why the particular brain types we are looking at under the microscope correlate to conservatism without understanding the particular economic, social, and political forces that are operating on the individual.
Phrenology, the nineteenth century study of skulls, became a massive fad in America in the 1830s and later. Many of the original phrenologists were actually quite progressive—Walt Whitman was a big fan, for instance. As David Reynolds has pointed out, Leaves of Grass abounds in Phrenological terms. And Melville has a (tongue in check?) chapter in Moby Dick on the skull of the Sperm Whale.
But the study of brains and skulls also, of course, became completely wrapped up in a racist project of defending polygenism—the idea that there had been multiple creations and thus that Indians and African-Americans were inherently different species than white people. Thus a patriotic racist could still believe that “All men were created equal” since African-Americans, Indians, and others were simply not defined as “men.” The most influential of these “scientists” was Samuel Morton, of course, author of Crania Americana (analyzing the brains of Native Americans) and Crania Aegyptiaca (intending to prove that ancient Egyptians had different brain structures than modern Africans, and thus that Africans had never demonstrated the ability for civilization.) Morton’s crude experiments involved filing the skulls of various peoples with small ball bearings and counting the size of the cavities that way. The late Steven Jay Gould went back, by the way, and redid the experiments, demonstrating that, even on his own terms, Morton had done bad science, that there was no real difference in skull size between various races.
But the broader point is that there seems to be some sort of strong cultural desire, perhaps tied to the rise of nineteenth century celebration of science, combined with the desire to categorize, survey, and thus control the population, which has long sought to demonstrate clear links between the biological qualities of the brain and skull and some sort of outer truth about their immutable essence. As humanists we should reject this reduction of ourselves into our mere biological form, and as universalists we should be wary of the ways such categorization will inevitably be used to demean certain people. Even in this latest finding, the suggestion seems to be that conservatives have some sort of biological failing, are less human, in a sense, than others. I’m no fan of conservatism, but replace conservative with the word women, or black people, or whatever, and you can see where this logic can go, and why it should be rejected.
Perhaps all previous scientific attempts to do so have been ludicrous, and this one is the real thing. But count me as a skeptic.