Monday, 24 September 2012

The Age of Fracture (and Canadian Politics?)

Were the Liberals really the party of the twentieth century? Was the government party really only the governing party for Canada at a particular historic moment that now seems to have ended?

Increasingly people are answering these questions with a 'yes' and 'yes'.

As to why this might be so, there isn't much agreement. But historian Kenneth Dewar has published a wonderfully insightful little essay in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald that uses the ideas of historian Daniel Rodgers (in his great book Age of Fracture that I talked about here) to explain how Canadian politics is changing.

Dewar is especially insightful in explaining how the politics of today are different from earlier decades but also, perhaps, similar in some respects to the era of John A.

Well worth a read here.


  1. I'm not sure that I buy the "age of fracture" theory, because it seems to rely too much on invoking a fixed & stable point of comparison that never really existed (at least not for very long).

    In my reading, many people living in the past, whether the 1920s or 1820s, felt that they were living through a tremendous age of fracture, too. The end in the 1970s of the short-lived keynesian consensus is one thing, but I'm not sure whether this marked the onset of a new era of unprecedented change.

    Given the revolutionary intellectural and cultural ferment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what stands out is the relatively short period of comparative stability after the end of the Second World War. The fracturing that Rodgers identifies in the last quarter of the twentieth century could well be a reversion to a longer pattern of disruption wrought by the transition to modernity, which Louis Menand chronicles so well in his _Metaphysical Club_.

    Still, it's an idea worth pondering and debating, and you've given much food for thought. Thanks for your posts and links.

  2. These are some good points Jerry. I confess that I'm happy to see you picked up on my one major reservation with the book: that is, Rodgers uses the seeming social consensus of the mid twentieth century as a foil against which to gauge the changes that came after. He doesn't admit, as you point out, how tenuous and short-lived was that version of 'common sense' that broke down in the 70s and 80s and after.

    That said, I still found much of what he says to be of use in assessing the changing mentality of the late 20th and early 21st century - especially when we include in this discussion the changing media and sources of cultural information. As much as TV and radio were new to the middle decades of the 20th century, they still quickly became all-consuming aspects of daily life. And the mass society model of thinking that they represented became all pervasive. We can see this falling apart all around us now. And ironically the same kinds of intellectuals who would have been the ones warning against the dangers of mass society back in the 40s are often now the ones warning of the dangers of its demise.

    This is, of course, only one small part of what Rodgers is talking about. And I certainly agree that, as you say, the idea of living in an age of fracture is a very old one indeed. I suppose, though, it's useful to gauge what people mean precisely when they say this. When we get down to the specifics, there is often a story to be told that is more meaningful and precise then the generalities implied in the title or the phrase.

  3. If I could throw in my two bits’ worth here – belatedly, I realize, but someone has just told me about Christopher’s posting – I don’t think Rodgers is saying that nothing like his “age of fracture” has ever happened before. He’s just trying to get a handle on what happened at the end of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first that undercut the authority of the hemi-demi-semi-social democratic damn-near consensus of twenty or thirty years before.

    Maybe consensus is the wrong word; maybe dominance, or something like it would be better, but we don’t have to think it was fixed. It wasn’t, it was moving – it’s ideas he is talking about – but the movement occurred within a framework of discussion that held certain terms to be valued and certain questions to require answers. It may even have been short-lived, though I think the period of its rise and achievement was Hobsbawm’s short twentieth century.

    One explanation of what happened was offered by Richard Cockett’s Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983 (1995), which argues that think-tanks founded and funded by rich men and their rich foundations changed the way politicians thought about economic policy. It’s interesting and persuasive (and Rodgers mentions it at the beginning of his book) but what I found interesting about Rodgers – once I got past its thoroughly American focus – was his attempt to get behind specific actions to a shift in the prevailing way of thinking.

    Why is it that today, not only do we have a right-wing government, but a right-wing discourse. The terms of discussion, the things once taken for granted, have changed. Rodgers may not have the answers, and I certainly don’t want to sound like some kind of disciple, but I think he’s interesting because he asks the right questions.

  4. Thanks for this Ken. Very thoughtful. And I appreciate the reference to Crockett's book which I haven't read. Your final questions are especially pertinent, and these are the kinds of things I'm always asking myself, and in my classes. How the hell did we get to where we are? Rodgers is very good on this. I think I especially like him because my own research tends to dwell much more on culture and mores, and he pushes me over into political economy in ways I know I should think about.