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Reading Rorty, Reading Trump

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Mrs Clinton cast too widely, be it a basket or a net. However her general sentiment was right. The election of Trump was the latest entry to the list of American deplorables, following from Iraq, Reaganomics, Vietnam, Jim Crow, slavery, the genocide of indigenous people--to name just a few whoppers.


But while past deplorables were typically enacted by agents of the state, Trump's election is a failure of the people. (And it is pointless to complain, at this stage, about the 3 million surplus in the popular vote; the electoral college functioned exactly as designed.) This deplorable act comes without the bureaucratic cushion typically relied on by the Left to maintain some comforting separation between acts of the American government and the morality of the American character--a morality on which the Left's aspirations necessarily rely. Instead, Trump's election is a direct reflection of the American character, and it leaves the Left little doubt about its own long-brewing crisis.


Reams have been written about what Trump's election might mean, about how much blame various factions of the Left ought to shoulder: the soullessly entrenched establishment reformers who cowed to the Right's power games in the hope of changing the system from within, the atomising obsession with the politics of identity, the academic spectatorship of critical theory ever more hysterical in the looming shadow of nihilism it inflates, plus probably some communists, too, at the back. I'm being unfair, of course, but in reading and conversations around the elections, as well as over the past decade or so, these have all been real-life sentiments I've encountered, and in various circumstances I've found myself agreeing with or objecting to each of them.


Of most comfort to me has been a series of lectures given 20 years ago by Leftist philosopher Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country. Not as a pat-on-the-back, don't-blame-yourself-kiddo kind of ego salve, but as a clear statement of the schisms in the thinking among various Leftist persuasions, in particular the break between the New Left, driven to political despair by the horror of the Vietnam war, and the Old (Reformist) Left, as inspired by the socialist-humanist visions of Dewey and Whitman, and the inherent goodness of the Left's motives--to make the world a less cruel, greedy, iniquitous place. "The left, by definition, is the party of hope," Rorty asserts. "It insists that our nation remains unachieved."


As I sit through footage of President Trump waving his deplorable executive orders around in front of that deplorable crowd like a spoiled kid showing off his birthday presents, at no other time in my life have Leftist ideals felt more woefully un-achieved.


Rorty identifies several landmarks of the Left's journey into its current wilderness, and there's comfort in this re-orientation. He places Vietnam as the event that "splintered" the political Left, when "it began to build up to the full-throated calls for revolution with which the decade ended." The Left turned inward, focusing on a narrative that emphasised insight and knowledge (theory) over campaigning for specific reforms (hope). It became a movement obsessed with the ideal of purity, some supernatural Platonic impossibility, abstract to the point of uselessness and leaving the Left further from any practical engagement with the status quo, deplorable though it always seems to be.


Rorty says this turn "made it easy to stop thinking of oneself as a member of a community, as a citizen with civic responsibilities. For if you turn out to be living in an evil empire, (rather than, as you have been told, a democracy fighting an evil empire) then you have no responsibility to your country; you are accountable only to humanity."


Having spurned hope in daily realities of American society, resulting in a suspicion of any establishment presence as being inherently corrupt or impure, Rorty says the Left developed an almost Marxist cult of the proletariat, "the belief that there is virtue only among the oppressed", the early vibrations of identity politics. What remained of the Left’s economic vision grew "more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens." The seeds of the current rise of populism are apparent: "Many writers on socio-economic policy have warned that the old industrialised democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overrun constitutional governments." He cites Edward Luttwak who suggests "fascism may be the American future."


Rorty takes Luttwak’s prediction further:


"Members of labour unions, and organised unskilled workers will sooner or later realise that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realise that suburban white collar workers--themselves desperately afraid of being downsized--are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.


"At that point something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and will start looking around for a strongman to vote for--someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodern professors will no longer be calling the shots... Once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen."


But Rorty does make predictions, some eerily on the nose: "The gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans and by homosexuals will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion... All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet."

So here we are. And here lies the second part of Rorty's consolation, a path forward.


For years we've lamented among ourselves over the rightward slip of the Overton window--the boundaries of acceptable discourse--lamented because the slip has come in the face of the significant gains the politics of identity affords us. But far from condemning the politics of identity (a popular whipping boy in recent months, all you snowflakes) Rorty cleaves to it as an inherently positive force: identity politics can make us a kinder people. Nevertheless, these cultural advancements have been largely ignored, rejected, even ridiculed by huge swathes of the population--a rejection instigated by our abandonment of practical work that affects the lives (i.e. wallets) of the masses. The Left's failure to engage seriously in economic policy has delivered the nation into the hands of those who would immiserate the masses for the gains of the few. Unions and laborers were abandoned by the Left only to be desiccated by the elitist Right's trite sermons of heroic individualism preached to the very people it exploits to maintain power, then decimated by Reagan’s union-busting policies. Rightward ho, the window slipped, and with it went effective political power. By cloistering into increasingly narrow cultural circles, the Left gave up its fight in the mass-market arena of ideas, refusing to compete for control of the national economic narrative and indeed showing little interest in the national narrative at all for its view that national frames of reference have become obsolete (or, even worse, inherently and intractably corrupt). "The trouble with this claim," Rorty says, "is that the government of our (or any) nation-state will be, for the forseeable future, the only agent capable of making any real difference in the amount of selfishness and sadism inflicted on Americans."


Rather than merely bemoaning New Left’s adoption of identity politics (and he accuses the reformist, economically focused Old Left of a casual contempt for homosexuals and women, and little interest in helping black people at the risk of alienating Southern white voters--a dilemma that seems as problematic as ever), he is instead frustrated by the Left’s critical lack of ambidexterity: "It is as if the Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time--as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa." It is this inability to fight on multiple fronts which Rorty suggests got us here, and which we must fix, urgently.


Ultimately, we have lost the battle of narratives. And Rorty is clear that this is the principal battlefield we must retake. Rather than sitting in pretty confidence of our special perception of reality (and I do think the Left has a richer, more nuanced and humane narrative on offer than the Right), we must re-engage in the grimy competition for the national narrative, and re-engage the audience members we have alienated. We must rediscover economic pragmatism rather than fiddling idly with arrogant concepts such as Late Capitalism--as if we exist in some supernatural state beyond time in a privileged view of the full arc of history--while we await that Great Leap Forward.


Rorty is emphatic: there will be no Great Leap. And if there is, we won't enjoy it, as Great Leaps nowadays tend to come suffixed with an Inc., get floated on the market, then bought out by Exxon or Nestle or News Corp, and finally sold back to us at a profit. The Left must reinvigorate its bond with the unions, provide new competing narratives against greed, fight for finite and achievable steps toward redistribution and reclamation of the economic gains for all of society. We must be narrow in our criticisms and broad in our appeals. The Old Left must recognise the anti-establishment rage that successfully ended the Vietnam War and strives today for gender equality and minority rights, while the New Left must recognise that the stain of money, economics, and all the compromises wrapped up in attaining political power are necessary if it wants to truly bring about change, rather than screaming fruitless demands at an ever-entrenched ruling majority of the Right.


The sickening promise of Trump’s presidency will be a reality until at least the 2018 mid-term elections, when Democrats will get their next shot at carving away the Republicans’ hold over congress--victory which frankly seems like a pipe dream, at this point. But last year’s dark horse success of Bernie Sanders signals real hope for the project of forming an imperfect union between the two Lefts--the compromised Old and feverish New--as does the steady heroism of establishment campaigners like Elizabeth Warren. The alternatives, it has to be said, are deplorable.

Discussion 7 Comments

  • Rod 31st Jan 2017

    Deplorable as Trump may be, there are probably also positive aspects about his presidency. The manipulative, salesman tactics so prevalent in politics today are in full display here, possibly showing to a larger audience that the whole political game (including the corporate media) is failing.

    It also creates a space within the left for self-criticism, which seems sorely needed. Rorty made some good points 20 years ago. The distinction between Old and New left is useful and one that wasn't part of my vocabulary. A critical look at identity politics also seems useful (I haven't made up my mind yet though).

    My personal hope is that we somehow will be able to not just unite the left, but also find enough common ground with the right. The strong antagonism in politics these days often seems superficial and artificial, like something propped up by the corporate world to divert attention from the real power centers. The result is that governments have lost a considerable amount of power over the last 50 years, while multinational corporations are growing in power with every political cycle. Meanwhile nature is rapidly getting sicker.

    Perhaps we need a new narrative, one that's not merely aimed at people's grievances (which tends to lead to populist and divisional politics), but aimed at what's best for humanity (and ultimately nature) as a whole. There are some indications that we're moving towards that kind of narrative (for instance, with concepts like the Anthropocene), but it's too early to tell how this will develop.

    In any case, it's good to think more about the short and long term future of politics, both left and right, and how we can overcome the mistakes of the past.

    • Ben Rogers 2nd Feb 2017

      Hi Rod,
      That's a hope I have for it as well. It's like the deep pustule finally breaking the surface, demanding a response.
      And you're right--moving beyond grievances is important. I think the right positive messages can be just as mobilising, as well.

  • reader 1st Feb 2017

    Hi Ben et al., Is there a London IOPS meeting coming up? I'm going to be in town this month and would like to attend if there is. Or meet up with folks for coffee.

  • Ben Rogers 2nd Feb 2017

    Hi Perry. I don't know of any but I'd be happy to organise a meetup. My schedule's a little funny, as I am a stay at home dad during the day and a private tutor most nights, but a Monday or Tuesday night would likely be free for me.

  • reader 2nd Feb 2017

    Hi Ben, would Monday 2/13 work for you? I'm flexible.

  • Dave Jones 10th Feb 2017

    The call by Rorty for "economic pragmatism" is Clintonesque, a dissembling of the true nature of the crisis of capitalism and demeaning of those trying to point to it.
    To champion "re-distribution" is to accede to the original system of distribution. In other words, surrender. To be "against greed" (a la Bernie) is to accept the argument of Steve Bannon that all capitalism requirees is a Judeo-Christian foundation. Again, surrender.

    The end of economic growth has to be celebrated as the key to survival. This requires a far more creative narrative of the future than that provided by Elizabeth Warren. Above all : Want what you truly desire.

    • Ben Rogers 13th Feb 2017

      Hi Dave,

      I understand the anti-revolutionary bitterness inherent in Rorty's pragmatism. But where I find Rorty's pragmatism most convincing is in his staunch support for the moral and humanistic values that drive us to pursue, as you very rightly put it, "a far more creative narrative of the future" coupled with his charge that the left do a better job of dealing with and finding real improvements to reality as it currently is.

      "You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as what you know it to be now."

      There is indeed a bitter element to his message which at times made it challenging (chastening?) to swallow, and he certainly seems dismissive of certain strains of leftist theory (though I don't think it's intended as deliberately demeaning, though it may be taken that way).

      That doesn't mean we shouldn't feel disappointment at the compromises, or pretend like the compromises offered up by the Democratic establishment (or even Rorty) are ultimately satisfactory. Rather I take it to mean we should value each small victory, and continue to organise and campaign, "proposing changes in the laws of a real country inhabited by real people who are enduring unnecessary suffering, much of which can be cured by governmental action." I don't read that as an outright and unequivocal endorsement of the status quo power structures (despite the admittedly implicit "legitimisation" of the structures in this compromise, an ironic dilemma, as the argument could be made that any system privileged with state/economic power is the very epitome of what it is to enjoy a "legitimisation") but rather as a challenge to action with the best, most readily available means at hand. It requires compromise, and compromise doesn't allow for much in the way of theoretical purity or satisfaction, but it can enact material and even moral improvements in society, something people like Warren and Sanders have spent a years fighting for, imperfect allies though they may be.