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Rorty the Politico
Criticizing a philosopher who criticizes the Left
Rorty the Politico
who criticizes the Left
By Michael Albert
In his recent book, Achieving Our Country, one of Americas foremost philosophers, Richard Rorty excoriates leftists as spectators not actors, promotes reform to exclusion of revolution, and advocates increased attention to class at the expense of cultural politics. Is he worth heeding?
Rorty says todays leftist intellectuals practice arcane, cultural, in-group communications, spectating events but no longer affecting them. Rorty targets post modernists but never names anyone explicitly and often brandishes the label left intellectual as if referring to every leftist in academia. These vagaries aside, Rorty says, with justification I think, a contemporary American student may well emerge from college less convinced that her county has a future than when she entered, and that the spirit of detached spectatorship may already have entered such a students soul. But Rorty is mum about the origin of spectator intellectuals or about how to avoid becoming one other than saying, in essence, that one shouldnt set aside involvement, not even to philosophize. What might have been interesting and revealing would have been for him to ask why some types of philosophizing or theorizing reduce activity whereas other types enhance it. Rorty barely addresses this question. He tells us that nobody knows what it would be like to try to be objective when attempting to decide what ones country really is, what its history really means, any more than when answering the question of how one really is oneself, what ones individual past really adds up to. The problem is that while Rorty may be saying that people who think objectivity is a worthy aim tend toward spectating, most post moderniststhe actual spectatorsagree with Rorty about eschewing objectivity. Worse, those who disagree with Rorty include virtually all activists who regularly strive to tell what actually happened, as it happened, regardless of whether it fulfills our prejudices or furthers our careers or hopes.
Rorty urges that efforts to explain what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity. Why arent they attempts to forge a moral identity that strive for accuracy? Isnt that what Howard Zinn, Gar Alperovitz, William Appleman Williams, Linda Gordon, and other left historians do? One hopes Rorty doesnt think historians should set aside accuracy and say whatever strikes their fancy to promote a preferred moral identity. Rorty often uses the word story and I have to agree with him that expositions of history that reject seeking objectivity are stories, but for me, as such, they no longer constitute serious historical reports and can usefully serve only as propaganda or manipulation. Is Rorty saying that everything is propaganda and manipulation so there is no difference regarding objectivity between what Howard Zinn and what Henry Kissinger do as historians?
And as to what any of this has to do with spectating, Im not sure. Presumably Rorty is telling us that those who think they can be objective wind up spectators. How does he arrive at this? Perhaps he has retold history to himself in such a way that his story no longer includes that those who strive for objectivity are often activist and the group that he pinpoints as spectators rejects objectivity. Whateverone story is as good as the next, Im sure he would say.
Rorty next claims that the U.S. left has mistakenly forsaken reformism for revolution, yet Rorty quotes admiringly that to be just a future America cannot contain castes or classes, because the kind of self-respect which is needed for free participation in democratic deliberation is incompatible with such social divisions. This is confusing. For me the sentiment means we have to transcend defining institutions that divide us into hierarchically arrayed castes or classes, which is revolutionary. I wonder what the sentiment means for Rorty, instead?
Rorty says, I propose to use the term reformist left to cover all those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong. Rorty adds that his label, reformist left, therefore includes lots of people who called themselves communists and socialists, and lots of people who never dreamed of calling themselves either. In fact, his label reformist left actually includes anyone who ever fought for any positive change short of actually overthrowing the old order in one swoop. Rorty continues: I shall use New Left to mean the peoplemostly studentswho decided, around 1964, that it was no longer possible to work for social justice within the system. Taken literally, this reduces the New Left to zero membership, there being no one who operated in those or any other years entirely outside the system, that being an utter impossibility for anything but a recluse.
Rorty tells us in my sense of the term, Woodrow Wilsonthe president who kept Eugene Debs in jail but appointed Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Courtcounts as a part-time leftist. So does Lyndon Johnson, who permitted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children, but also did more for poor children in the United States than any previous president. Rorty appears to be forthright, telling us what his terminology yields even when it is disturbing to the ear. But Rorty isnt telling us that his narrow conceptualization prevents us from even identifying the stance that vigorously fights for reforms but also seeks basic transformation. Rorty also fails to mention that his categorization would include Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Newt Gingrich, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Adolf Hitler (who carried out a social revolution that helped enormous numbers of Germans, which is why he was so popular) in his reformist left.
So what about being for or against reforms? A reform, remember, is any change in the social system, whether in its institutions, roles, policies, laws, etc. Ending a war, getting a raise, instituting a welfare system, ending Jim Crow, and winning affirmative action are all reforms. Anyone fighting for change is, therefore, fighting in considerable part for reforms. Still, there are folks who fight for reforms as ends in themselves, with no broader aspirations, who are aptly called reformists. Then there are other folks who fight for reforms while seeking to have their efforts contribute to changing the societys defining institutions, who are aptly called revolutionaries.
The reformist fights for a reform as something to win and thats it. The revolutionary fights for perhaps the same reform, but as part of a trajectory toward further change. The revolutionary wants to win the proximate aim and also create a new playing field on which further victories become more likely. The revolutionary will try to build infrastructure and develop consciousness differently than the reformist, even when seeking the same short-term gains. This distinction between these two different ways of fighting for immediate changes disappears, however, if one uses Rortys proposed terminology. This is not due to a deep analysis that reveals that reformist as compared to revolutionary is a distinction without a difference. No, Rorty drops this distinction because he wishes to remove from sight the idea of a non-reformist approach to winning reforms. He wants to enhance the appeal of his favorite approachperhaps I ought to say his favored moral identityand to propel it he leaves us with only two activist options to choose from. We can fight for changes that benefit folks now, with no broader foundationalist aims, as left reformists. Or we can fight for instant transformation of all defining structures, acting as though we sit on a perch outside history from where we need pay no attention to immediate needs and desires of suffering people, as what Rorty derisively calls New Leftist revolutionaries. Other lefts, and the New Left, for that matter, are excised from Rortys conceptual map.
Rorty says, The academic, cultural left retains a conviction which solidified in the late Sixties. It thinks that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. He is technically correct, and not just about the academic, cultural left. Every left that I am aware of that sincerely seeks to eliminate castes or classes, as Rorty says he does, thinks that reforms within defining institutions are good, but not enough, because if existing institutions persist, so will opposed castes and classes.
Rorty tells us that revolutionary minded folks felt that because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called naming the system takes precedence over reforming the laws. But this is absurd. Either Rorty has superficial knowledge of his subject, or he is, again, playing word games to get his way. Those who aspire to a revolution believe that private ownership of the means of production, market exchange, patriarchy, racism, and/or other basic institutional structures produce debilitating oppressions rather than the fullest development of human potentials and fulfillment of human needs. Naming the system means uncovering its defining relations and developing concepts that pinpoint them not for brownie points in an intellectual contest that is its own end, but so we can effectively fight against them. Rorty removes from sight serious alternatives to what he favors, in tune with his belief that when you talk about history you should further the moral identity you favor, objectivity be damned.
Even if manipulative, Rorty sometimes captures part of a larger truth. For example, he says: The system is sometimes identified as late capitalism, but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decision making. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. Rorty carefully refers to the cultural Left, but he likely has in mind every leftist other than the reformists he favors. Still, here Rorty accurately describes many post modernists and other leftists as well.
Rorty says: The cultural Left inherited the slogan power to the people from the Sixties Left, whose members rarely asked about how the transference of power was supposed to work. Do people in the cultural Left widely proclaim power to the people? Maybe, though I havent heard much of it, but yes, not only the cultural left, but many other leftists are vague about what they want. Power will pass to the people, the Sixties Left believed, only when decisions are made by those who may be affected by their results. Rorty is right that this was a tenet of the New Left though it has been since refined to the view that decisions ought to be impacted by individuals and constituencies in the proportion that these decisions impact those individuals and constituencies. This means, says Rorty, that economic decisions will be made by stakeholders rather than shareholders, and that entrepreneurship and markets will cease to play their present role. When they do, capitalism as we know it will have ended, and something new will have taken its place. This too is fair, assuming stakeholders means all those affectedworkers, consumers, neighbors, etc.and that owners no longer exist.
But what this new thing will be, nobody knows, says Rorty. Of course no one knows. No one knows the future. But Rorty fails to note that some folks do have serious ideas about these matters. A host of different kinds of market socialists and traditional advocates of Soviet style economies, for example, have clear and developed ideas. And those who favor participatory economics have developed ideas as well. Rorty could have easily uncovered any and all of these viewpoints to assess. Why didnt he? Perhaps it would interfere with the story he wants to tell.
The Sixties did not ask how the various groups of stakeholders were to reach a consensus about when to remodel a factory rather than build a new one, what prices to pay for raw materials, and the like. Sixties leftists skipped lightly over all the questions which had been raised by the experience of nonmarket economies in the so-called socialist countries. They seemed to be suggesting that once we were rid of both bureaucrats and entrepreneurs, the people would know how to handle competition from steel mills or textile factories in the developing world, price hikes on imported oil, and so on. But they never told us how the people would learn how to do this.
This is fair, too, though revealing in its focus. There was certainly a lack of coherence in the New Left about such matters, I agree. And I think that this has largely persisted for most of the left in the years since, though some have tried hard to correct the problem. But what is most interesting is that Rorty seems to think the big problem is the difficulty of explaining how `the people would learn how to do [expert economic functions]. But clearly people will learn how to be active partners in decision making the same way anyone learns anything: in schools, by upbringing, by training, by experience, etc. The interesting question, which is outside Rortys cognitive map, is what kinds of institutions can accomplish production, consumption, and allocation (as well as cultural identification, political adjudication, socialization, child rearing, and so on), in ways consistent with participatory self management as well as other preferred values. If Rorty had asked this question, however, we would wonder what the possible answers are. The issues, once raised, would have to be seriously addressed and Rorty would rather not.
Rorty tells us that [the New Lefts] insouciant use of terms like late capitalism suggests that we can just wait for capitalism to collapse, rather than figuring out what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate distribution. Actually, the New Left had a firm commitment to making things happen. As Carl Ogelsby put it, the old left provides only an almost carrion bird politics wherein distant and above it all the revolutionary cadre circles, awaiting the hour of the predestined dinner. Capitalism weakens, layoffs and inflation converge, a rash of strikesthe bird moves in. Notice how Ogelsbys New Left, which was the real one, rejects the standoffishness that Rorty says New Leftism embodied. But not so fast, continues Ogelsby, writing in his New Left Reader, the government also moves. A different money policy, stepped up federal spending, a public works project, selective repression of the militantsthe bird resumes its higher orbit. The New Left was not interested in waiting on anything at all, and certainly not for capitalism to collapse of its own accord.
The young public, says Rorty, the public which must be won over if the Left is to emerge from the academy into the public square, sensibly wants to be told the details. It wants to know how things are going to work after markets are put behind us. It wants to know how participatory democracy is supposed to function. Here I think Rorty is right. Indeed, I read this and had hopes he would report what different leftists had to offer young folks seeking vision.
Rorty continues: The public, sensibly, has no interest in getting rid of capitalism until it is offered details about the alternatives. Nor should it be interested in participatory democracythe liberation of all people from the power of technocratsuntil it is told how deliberative assemblies will acquire the same know-how which only the technocrats presently possess. Even someone like myself...cannot take seriously...defense of participatory democracy against ...insistence on the need for expertise.
Notice how again Rorty thinks the public is beneath having the expertise that only the technocrats presently possess. This is a big stumbling block to participatory progress only for an elitist armchair intellectual out of touch with the potentials of humanity, or for a member of the technocratic class intent on defending its monopolization of skills and knowledge as maintained by oppressive social relations. There is no recognition that each member of the public is the worlds foremost expert in his or her own needs and desires. There is no recognition that the knowledge necessary to partake sensibly in decision-making is not so esoteric that it is beyond the available time (much less mental capacity) of normal folks.
To decide whether to use lead paint on my walls I dont need to study the innermost secrets of molecular chemistry. I need to be able to judge information brought to my attention, and to know my values and wants, and virtually everyone can do that, probably even philosophers. Starting from there, perhaps we can conceive institutions that would allot each actor the time and training, the circumstances and income, the respect and dignity, sufficient to partake of social and economic life as a full participant. If one sincerely favors eliminating castes and classes, one wont easily dismiss the New Lefts desire to create a world in which folks take responsibility for their lives on the elitist fear that folks who are now excluded from decision making wont be smart enough to partake sensibly, or that teaching mechanisms wont be sufficient to prepare participants.
Yet, Rorty concludes without additional analysis and having never systemically addressed any institutional issues at all, that I think that the left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy. That is, we cant possibly offer any answers that transcend the basic defining institutions of our economic life and we cant possibly struggle for reforms that ameliorate pains and win new pleasures in the present but that also point to and lead toward a redefined future. How does Rorty know this? How does he have the gall to proclaim true liberty impossible?
Rorty adds, lest he be thought too pessimistic: Someday, perhaps, cumulative piecemeal reforms will be found to have brought about revolutionary change. Such reform might someday produce a presently unimaginable non-market economy, and much more widely distributed powers of decision making. Is it presently unimaginable because Rorty hasnt imagined it? Is it going to come about without even being sought? What will prevent something else which others are actively seeking, such as Stalinism, coming about in its place?
In the meantime, Rorty says, we should not let the abstractly described best be the enemy of the better. We should not let speculations about a totally changed system, and a different way of thinking about human life and human affairs, replace step-by-step reform of the system we presently have. Why must we choose between arrogant callousness and Rortyish reformism? The connection with Rortys earlier ruminations is now evident. First Rorty defines his terms so that no one concerned with changing basic defining structures can simultaneously be concerned with lesser alterations as well. In particular, no one can favor immediate gains on their own account and also as part of reaching larger future aims. Then Rorty gives us a choice of whats left: we can ruminate on the abstractly described best, or we can seek step-by step reforms that benefit real people. Well, I opt for what he is hiding in his third hand, thank you: winning reforms conceived to better current lives and also lead toward better defining institutions, as best we can conceive the latter.
By now Rorty is on a roll and has no more time for the niceties of logic. We should concede Francis Fukuyamas point (in his celebrated essay, The End Of History) that if you still long for total revolution, for the Radically Other on a world-historical scale, the events of 1989 show that you are out of luck. Why should we concede this or anything like it? Rorty never tells us. How can Rorty conclude from the fact that one abysmal system died (1989 refers to the fall of the Soviet system), that another abysmal system will last forever? By fiat, it seems.
Fukuyama suggested, and I agree, Rorty reports, that no more romantic prospect stretches before the Left than an attempt to create bourgeois democratic welfare states and to equalize life chances among the citizens of those states by redistributing the surplus produced by market economies. But Fukuyama offers no reason for his history-ending conclusion, and neither does Rorty. How do they refute the counter claims that: (1) In fact, bourgeois democratic welfare states necessarily preclude fully equalizing life chances. And (2) Institutional arrangements other than the Soviet model are possible, attainable, and worthwhile.
Rorty urges that we stick to small experimental ways of relieving misery and overcoming injustice. He gives no reason why we should so limit ourselves much less any examples of what he has in mind. More to the point, he doesnt even comprehend that the real issue is how do we find methods to relieve immediate misery that also foster further gains, including removing the causes of our miseries.
Here is more from Rorty. The events of 1989 have convinced those of us who were still trying to hold on to Marxism that we need a plan for making the future better than the present, which drops reference to capitalism, bourgeois ways of life, bourgeois ideology, and the working class. I think that not 1989, but the whole history of the Marxist project and the character of its conceptualizations reveal that Marxism is, despite many strengths, an inadequate conceptual framework. In fact, 1989 didnt tell anything new about Marxism. But does it follow that because a broad framework has limitations, therefore every concept it used and every insight it offered is thereby false? That is idiotic, yet that is the import of Rortys comment. If Marxisms analysis of class is incomplete, inadequate, even misleadingly self-serving, all of which I happen to think true, still, that doesnt prove the concept class is worthless, nor that capitalism is not worth our attention. Rorty offers no supporting argument, just assertions.
The leftist use of the terms capitalism, bourgeois ideology, and working class, says Rorty, depends on the implicit claim that we can do better than a market economy, that we know of a viable alternative option for complex technologically oriented societies. Actually, as a simple point of logic, one could use those terms to understand existing economies even thinking that there is no way to ever transcend them, and many do. But, yes, if we use the terms to pursue an agenda beyond capitalism, then Rortys claim is broadly true. But at the moment, at least, we know of no such option [beyond markets], says Rorty. Whatever program the left may develop for the twenty-first century, it is not going to include nationalization of the means of production or the abolition of private property. Supposing that we did know of no such optionstill, how would that entail that the future could not include an option beyond markets? What we dont know, we cant ever know? What kind of logic is this? No kind, even ignoring that such options have, in fact, been offered and that as another indication of his relative ignorance about his chosen topic, here Rorty confounds markets and private ownership.
Since capitalism can no longer function as the name of the source of human misery, says Rorty, or the working class as the name of a redemptive power, we need to find new names for these things. Lets not give Rorty a reading that isnt his intent. He doesnt mean capitalism isnt the source of human misery because there are other sources too, or that working class isnt the redemptive power because there are other agents of change, too. He means we need not refer to capitalism or the working class because tracking these aspects of the social world has no use value for people trying to make the world a better place. Rorty continues: But unless some new metanarative eventually replaces the Marxist one we shall have to characterize the source of human misery in such untheoretical and banal ways as greed, selfishness, and hatred. We shall have no name for a redemptive power save good luck. The other concepts should disappear, their referents being unworthy of attention. I guess if one only has banal things to propose, it is serviceable to suggest that the proper correction to myopia is banalitybut it certainly isnt honest. Why cant we get beyond thinking that one social division (class) encompasses all critical aspects of social definition and struggle, to thinking that class is one important focus among others that also matter? Why cant we get beyond focusing on too few institutions by focusing on more, not none? And why cant we develop a conceptual framework that recognizes the paramount importance of economics but also of kinship, culture, and polity? Rorty rules out these ways forward a priori because following these paths would negate the moral identity he favors.
For Rorty we shall have to get over our fear of being called bourgeois reformers or opportunistic pragmatists or technocratic social engineersour fear of becoming mere liberals as opposed to radicals. For me, in contrast, the issue isnt what someone calls us, but what we actually are. For Rorty, We shall have to get over the hope for a successor to Marxist theory, a general theory of oppression which will provide a fulcrum that lets us topple racial, economic, and gender injustice simultaneously. For me, quite the opposite holds. While struggling with daily realities, we shall have to develop ways of thinking about the world that combine concerns about racial, economic, political, and gender injustice to replace the underlying causes of each with institutions we prefer in their place. That Rorty rules this out by fiat, as if mere maturity or perhaps philosophical standing tells him that the future can only be different shades of ubiquitous immorality, exceeds my comprehension.
Rortys last major political theme is that leftists need to renew their concern with class even at the expense of their concern with race or gender. Rorty tells us that the study of philosophymostly apocalyptic French and German philosophyreplaced that of political economy as an essential preparation for participation in leftist initiatives. This is pretty true in the university, and I agree it is a step backward. Rorty adds: Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our countrys laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous. I think Rorty is right on this as well. The New Left was infinitely better at addressing interpersonal dynamics then at developing infrastructure and affecting societys institutions. Lets see where this leads Rorty.
The heirs of the New Left of the Sixties have created, within the academy, a cultural Left [that] thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed. Why are these folks the heirs of the Sixties? Why not those who pay attention to institutions bearing on race, gender, sexuality, political power, and also economics? Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not other in the relevant sense...[being] a victim of socially acceptable sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness. Here Rorty is eloquent, and hes right that relatively few are setting up these type studies (ignoring the implication that whether there are studies or not is the right gauge for whether there is attention or not). But are we supposed to conclude that they were squeezed out by attention to race and gender? A little more viewing would show that these studies werent there to be squeezed out when race and gender gained visibility. They werent there in the Rorty-favored early part of this century either. Why didnt they arise, then or now? Thats a good question, but Rorty is silent about it. Was it due to a lack of a real working class orientation among many left intellectuals, as compared to just an anti-capitalist orientationor were there other causes? Rorty hasnt a clue.
Rorty tells us that the American academy has done as much to overcome sadism in the last thirty years as it did to overcome selfishness in the previous seventy to make our country a far better place. In fact, the American academy is marginally responsible for those gains, and by and large was pushed into what it did, with the real heroes being the organizers and participants in the Civil Rights movement, the womens movement, gay and lesbian movements, etc. Still, if we think in terms of what Rorty calls cultural (race/sex/gender) and class focus, here it sounds like Rorty wants to augment the former with more of the latter, a welcome suggestion. But not so fast.
Nevertheless, says Rorty, there is a dark side to the success story I have been telling about the post-Sixties cultural left. During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. Yes, and is the juxtaposition supposed to be an argument for a causal relation between the two? It is as if, Rorty adds, the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a timeas if one either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa. This is a bit simple, but on the plus side it suggests that Rorty will now tell us to pay attention to both realms of concern rather than falling into the same false opposition. What else could possibly follow? Well, here is what did follow, with no added argument or explanation: The present cultural left would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma.
Why does paying more attention to economics require paying less attention to race, gender, and sexuality (subsumed under the label stigma)? No reason is offered. Rorty injects himself into an important political discussion, pronounces a result, but offers no evidence or argument, just as with his entry into the reform/revolution discussion above. That is why, despite finding little of value in Rorty the politico, I am moved to explore Rorty the public philosopher. I want to see if Rortys inadequate thinking as a politico stems from his having reached into a domain where he is largely ignorant, or whether it has roots in his philosophy. Well take that up next month.