Achieving Our Country? Part 1
In This Economy?
Around the time of the election in 2016, there was a flurry of interest in the philosopher Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. This was largely due to this prophetic-sounding passage, which was reproduced in blogs and the newspapers:
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At this point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for-someone will ing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words "nigger" and "kike" will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
This was not Rorty’s singular vision; he was actually summarizing and then riffing on other authors predictions about the direction of the country in the wake of globalization:
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize 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 realize that suburban white-collar workers-them-selves desperately afraid of being downsized-are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for any one else.
The Current Situation
So did Rorty, et. al’s prophecy come to pass? Well, yes and no. The picture, unsurprisingly, has been a little more complex and the timeline more fractured.
Partly in response to the “strongman” threat of Trump, the country did not witness an unambiguous collapse of the humanizing norms around race, gender, and sexuality. In fact, there was a furious upsurge to shore those norms up and “make the revolution permanent” in the face of reaction. The Trump years saw #MeToo and the explosive nationwide demonstrations after the George Floyd killing. A concern with the possibility of a downward spiral and social collapse made many middle-class Americans, at least superficially, even more sensitive and introspective, leading to what the right dismissively calls “The Great Awokening.” And the Trump administration was fairly weak and disorganized; it had no coherent movement or political apparatus that could help it carry it its program. The Trumpschina certainly went better than I thought it would: I imagined something like Charlotesville or January 6, but on a weekly basis, giving way to pogroms and then who knows what. Still, the damage is extensive.
A pessimist might now see in all the upheaval of the past fews years the last paroxysm of American liberalism: unable to cope with the right wing’s assault, it spent its energy in desperate and ultimately futile ways. I don’t think one can argue that the American left, understood broadly as encompassing every tendency from the most radical socialist to the mildest liberal democrat, is in good shape. The seizure of the Courts and state legislatures, the gutting of basic civil liberties and the administrative state, the continued defections of lower middle class and working class voters to the G.O.P., the cynicism, calcification, and inflexibility—as well as just the sheer age—of Democratic leadership, all have delivered terrible blows to the friends of progress in the United States.
The front in the culture war appears to be giving way and the feared reactionary break-out looks to be upon us, overwhelming even what appeared to be long-settled accomplishments of basic social liberalism. The new aggressive of tide of right-wing opinion around transgender and gay rights and with it the appearance of mobs in the suburbs and countryside braying for blood is deeply disturbing. Inflation limits the public appetite for expansive fiscal policy. American society seems more frayed, fearful, and tense than I can ever remember. It seems no one and nothing, not the strictures of the activist “woke” left, not the tribunes of the socialist left, not old fashioned establishment liberalism, is able to lead and rally the country’s popular and democratic forces.
Of course, many of these changes, like the striking down of Roe, are broadly unpopular and the Right may have overplayed its hand this time. Perhaps an electoral backlash to the backlash is brewing and a quick counter-attack will stanch some of the bleeding. But relying on the shift in public opinion as it were some natural process is not a political strategy. That is the same sort of disastrous complacency that lead to the belief that demographic changes would deliver Democratic victories. Politics doesn’t work that way. It’s not reducible to clear essences, but is fluid and delivers apparent paradoxes, like Trump running in 2016 on unalloyed racism and anti-immigrant sentiment and then making serious inroads among minorities in 2020.
What Rorty Says
But you know all this. I want to return to Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, which like many others I read shortly after Trump’s election. The title comes from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “If we-and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers , insist on , or create , the consciousness of the others do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are , to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country , and change the history of the world.” Rorty’s basic argument is that the American left, and thereby America as a whole, has given up any positive vision for the future of the country, any utopian end-point to strive for, and there’s a need to recapture a sense of “national pride” as moral and emotional precondition to changing things for the better:
National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one's country-feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies-is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame.
According to Rorty, the “cultural left,” imbibing too much European theory, has surrendered the entire idea of an American civic religion to the chauvinist right:
Such people find pride in American citizenship impossible, and vigorous participation in electoral politics pointless. They associate American patriotism with an endorsement of atrocities: the importation of African slaves, the slaughter of Native Americans, the rape of ancient forests, and the Vietnam War. Many of them think of national pride as appropriate only for chauvinists: for the sort of American who rejoices that America can still orchestrate something like the Gulf War, can still bring deadly force to bear whenever and wherever it chooses.
Rorty would have us recover the optimistic, democratic faith—and it is really almost a replacement for religion—that he attributes to the poet Walt Whitman and the philosopher John Dewey. These two figures represent two sides of the democratic possibility: Whitman represents love, and Dewey respect, the forces that will assail the great afflicters of our country, sadism and selfishness:
There is, I think, little difference in doctrine between Dewey and Whitman. But there is an obvious difference in emphasis: the difference between talking mostly about love and talking mostly about citizenship.Whitman's image of democracy was of lovers embracing. Dewey's was of a town meeting. Dewey dwelt on the need to create what the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has called a decent society, de fined as one in which institutions do not humiliate. Whitman's hopes were centered on the creation of what Margalit calls, by contrast, a civilized society, defined as one in which individuals do not humiliate each other-in which tolerance for other people's fantasies and choices is instinctive and habitual. Dewey's principal target was institutionalized selfishness, whereas Whitman's was the socially acceptable sadism which is a consequence of sexual repression, and of the in ability to love.
Coming from the pragmatist tradition, Rorty believes that the conception we have of our country is a practical disposition, a basis on which to act, not a matter of scientific accuracy:
Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity. The argument between Left and Right about which episodes in our history we Americans should pride ourselves on will never be a contest between a true and a false account of our country's history and its identity. It is better described as an argument about which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forgo.
Rorty believes we on the left should not wring our hands over America’s crimes and failures, but embrace a kind of pantheon of progressive accomplishment:
…It would be a big help to American efforts for social justice if each new generation were able to think of itself as participating in a movement which has lasted for more than a century, and has served human liberty well. It would help if students became as familiar with the Pullman Strike, the Great Coalfield War, and the passage of the Wagner Act as with the march from Selma, the Berkeley free-speech demonstrations, and Stonewall. Each new generation of students ought to think of American leftism as having a long and glorious history. They should be able to see, as Whitman and Dewey did, the struggle for social justice as central to their country's moral identity.
To bring this about, it would help if American leftists stopped asking whether or not Walter Reuther's attempt to bourgeoisify the auto workers was objectively reactionary. It would also help if they emphasized the similarities rather than the differences between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin, between Susan B. Anthony and Emma Goldman, between Catharine MacKinnon and Judith Butler.
(One could say here, Okay, but but many of those figures have the sorts of critiques of American society that Rorty thinks passes over into being overly censorious.) Still, for all his criticism of the academic left, Rorty, is not yet another critic of identity politics or political correctness:
The American academy has done as much to overcome sadism during the last thirty years as it did to overcome selfishness in the previous seventy. Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call "politically correct" has made our country a far better place. American leftist academics have a lot to be proud of. Their conservative critics, who have no remedies to propose either for American sadism or for American selfishness, have a great deal to be ashamed of.
For what it’s worth, I think this is pretty much the “correct line” on political correctness and what’s now called “wokeness,” to which one can also add the Marxist Stuart Halls’s remark form the 1990s: “One finds oneself fighting on multiple fronts at once: defending the importance of the issues raised; trying to unmask the politically motivated hype, while at the same time distancing oneself from some of the undeniable idiocies committed in the of ‘anti-racism’ or ‘anti-sexism’ or anti-homophobia’ by the militants. Our enemies are bad enough; God save us from our friends.”
Is It True?
I’m not really interested in a metaphysical or epistemological discussion of pragmatism and its criterion of truth as what its useful. You can read that on a philosophy blog if you want. Instead, I want to subject Rorty’s idea to a very pragmatic test: Yes, this all sounds good, but does it work? The results are mixed
What were the politics of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders but variations on these themes? Of course, a Rortyan might object that Obama didn’t follow through, and didn’t deliver on the substantive economic justice part, and Sanders was still too dour, and too tied to the Marxist tradition and didn’t fully embrace the Whitman-Lincoln-Dewey-F.D.R-Civil Rights pantheon. (He wasn’t and he tried, but whatever.)
Having the correct ideas or rhetorical inspiration is not a recipe for success. Trump was not just a natural consequence of the economic distress in the country; he was also a political reaction to the election of Obama and the vision of multi-racial America he represented, which in Rorty’s scheme ought to been a transcendent moment in America’s Song of Itself. Bernie hewed even more closely to the democratic faith and combined it with Rorty’s concern for redistribution, and he did not win the nomination. Even if he did, it’s not certain, he would’ve been able to triumph.
There is also now a much larger “reformist left” of the kind that Rorty said he would like to see: people preoccupied with practical issues, like developing policy papers or labor organizing, rather than abstruse theorizing about culture and power.
What Rorty does not fully account for is the ferocity and organization of the reaction. The New York Times’ 1619 Project was pretty much such a Rortyan effort to reimagine a kind of more inclusive progressive civic nationalism—the infamous Nikole-Hannah Jones’s essay endorsed patriotism but was pilloried as some kind of scary afropessimist, black nationalism. Whether or not it was successful on its own terms, I will leave aside, but it was attacked furiously as being an insult to American national pride—and not just from the right—justifying to some degree the belief, which Rorty thinks is counterproductive, that American’s positive self-conception could not be divorced from white supremacy.
To be fair to Rorty, I don’t think he thinks that his ideal is a magic formula. He doesn’t think the goal is pre-ordained; America can still fail. Even though he criticizing the sense of “despair” inculcated by the cultural left, he even at one point doubts a new sense of commonality can be developed. He thinks it would be “helpful,” a more productive set of assumptions. But how to actually put it into practice?
Although Rorty takes up a lot of time attacking Marxism in the book, I actually think it’s the socialists and Marxists (I know these are not synonymous) in the United States that would agree most with his analysis, for both good and ill. Many socialists, including Rorty’s fellow pragmatist Cornel West, think the left should abjure identitarianism and embrace a more bread-and-butter approach that would include less dwelling on historic wrongs. In the 1619 controversy, the Trotskyist left was eager to defend the fundamentally progressive character of the American revolution and so you had the funny spectacle of conservatives tweeting out essays from the “World Socialist Website.” (Interestingly, Rorty doesn’t really deal with the founders at all—his Americana begins with Whitman and Lincoln.) Further out on the internet fringes, some truly bizarre sects of the left are trying to combine Stalinism and American patriotism, thereby stitching together a kind of zombie national socialism.
In a recent interview, Mike Davis, perhaps America’s foremost Marxist writer, said this, “I vote for those [progressive Democratic] candidates. I think they should be supported, but the movement’s more important. And we’ve forgotten the use of disciplined, aggressive but nonviolent civil disobedience. Take climate change. We should be sitting in at the headquarters of every oil company every day of the week. You could easily put together a national campaign. You have tons of people who are willing to get arrested, who are so up to do it. Nobody’s organizing that.” Rorty, as part of his critique of Foucauldian idea of power as everywhere and nowhere, essentially says the same thing and endorses civil disobedience, saying before at least you could sit down in the doorway of a congressman’s office. Both defend the legacy of the New Left as well as the Old. Rorty believes, as does Davis, that the protest movements of the New Left helped end the Vietnam War.
For both Davis and Rorty, the current issue is the same: the lack of leadership and the feeling of demoralization. Many people still possess the democratic faith but are unsure how to practice it. Davis: “… the biggest single political problem in the United States right now has been the demoralization of tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of young activists. Part of the problem is the lack of organizational structure, particularly of organizations of organizers. There’s no leadership to give direction.”
I think here is where the class-based analysis of the Marxist tradition, which Rorty doesn’t have much time for, might actually be helpful. As good pragmatists we should look around for whatever’s useful, right? After all, the right have made their own appropriations of Lenin and Gramsci in recent years. But I will have to deal with that in Part 2, because this is getting too long.
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