I wonder if that mother of all bombs, a mommy with an utterly phallic name, isn’t the air power version of the great skyscrapers which, according to stock-trader lore, typically are completed at the end, rather than the beginning, of one or another cultural-economic epoch.
It was a conversation at plain blog, and some recent reading, that returned me to this habitual frame of mind. Jonathan Bernstein asked his commenters to take a position on a multi-part question:
[H]as the last thirty years been [a period] in which conservatives dominated US politics and policy? Has it been, in other words, the Reagan era? And if so, did that end in 2006 and 2008, or are we still in the Reagan era?
My own view is that there are fundamental problems with this set of questions, or at least with any attempt to answer them from some narrowly “political” perspective. The invocation of terms like “era” and “age,” any notion of “U.S. politics and policy” being “dominated,” already implies and requires some super-political, world-historical and philosophical theory or standpoint, some position outside of the moment that the question assumes may still be ongoing. Depending on how one went about defining the age, certain key claims, even including a claim that it was over or that it had never actually occurred, might end up situating the claimant entirely within it.
Eventually, poor dead Foucault was dragged into the discussion, his appearance serving to underline these difficulties. While I was thinking about how to respond, I also happened to be finishing Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (see also our headline thread). Its conclusion turned out to be right on point: “Conservatism,” Robin claims, “has dominated American politics for the past forty years…. The conservative embrace of unregulated capitalism and imperial power still envelops our two parties.” He goes on to suggest that the legislative assaults on labor and on women’s rights since the 2010 mid-terms frame something like the final battle in conservatism’s war against 20th century social progress.
What’s interesting, and I guess predictable, is Robin’s final dialectical turn. Throughout the book, which mainly consists of political-historical essays written over the last fifteen years, Robin describes reactionary conservatism as a movement that cannot live without an enemy, and that, as felt in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, is therefore endangered by its own success. This observation can bring us full circle to the beginning of the Age of Reagan – both an actual historical Age of Reagan as well as conservative Steven Hayward’s monumental or at least rather massive two-volume work of the same name (the cover at the right is from Volume I). Hayward’s epic – a better work, I think, than the author’s subsequent career as rightwing intellectual might lead you to expect – begins by describing the Democratic landslide of 1964 as the victory from which, as seen from the perspective of 2001, liberalism still had not recovered. Hayward convincingly renders his rise of Reagan as near-perfectly symmetrical with the “Fall of the Old Liberal Order.” They are effectively the same process.
Sooner or later, we may always end up seeing our own moment as the hinge point of some grand historical narrative – a danger that Foucault and others have warned us against while tempting us with it all over again. Resisting that temptation, or taking cognizance of its dangers, should not prevent us from being aware that the plates do shift, sometimes at the precise moment they seem to have gone completely still.
“Can’t live without an enemy”
To my mind, one of the notable features about the AoR is the extent that its partisans see defeat in their supposed ascendency. If it’s been the AoR for 30 ish years, what’s all this “take our country back” talk?
Framing things in the Age of ______ format can yield insights as long as the framers don’t loose sight of th limitations of their project/projection.