Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Richard Rorty: The thinker who foresaw Trump and Brexit

I have been meaning to write an article for Liberator about Richard Rorty for years, if only because I was attracted by the possible headline ‘RORTY BUT NICE’.

In the last issue of the magazine I finally got round to writing it, but I am not sure it is much good.

I had imagined I would write about the ideas in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, but the quote from Achieving Our Country foreseeing the coming of Trump was too good to ignore and that book rather took over the article.

Having written about it, I wonder if the book’s distinction between the reformist left and the cultural left is ultimately much different from the claim of a thousand dull newspaper columns that the left has abandoned the working class and become too concerned with what they call political correctness.

And when I did get around to Contingency, Irony and Solidarity its arguments were so fragile they fell apart in my hands.

Maybe the moral is that, ultimately, we value thinkers for an approach to the problems of living that they represent rather than the fine detail of their doctrines.

Rorty, for me, stands for a recognition that the institutions of the liberal democratic state are among the most valuable things the human race has devised. But he combines that with a recognition that they are far from perfect and that there is much of our lives that they do not touch.

Anyway, let me know what you think of the article.

The thinker who foresaw Trump and Brexit

The days when we expected philosophers to be prophets are long gone, but the widespread sharing of this quotation after the election of Donald Trump reawakened interest in the work of Richard Rorty:

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—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 nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and 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 postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….  
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…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
What particularly impressed people was that Rorty wrote this back in 1998 when Bill Clinton had been elected for a second term and Tony Blair was enjoying his extraordinarily long honeymoon with Britain’s voters.

Rorty, who died in 2007, is the most interesting liberal philosopher of recent decades. He managed to combine being at the cutting edge of postmodern thought in rejecting the idea that philosophy’s role was to discover ‘The Truth’ or ‘Things as They Really Are’  – so much so that his name carried with it a whiff of brimstone in more traditional academic departments – with a reasoned defence of the institutions of the liberal democratic state and draw for enlightenment upon the Western literary canon.

Beyond that, as the quotation above shows, he stood out among philosophers – particularly postmodern philosophers – for the clarity of his prose and his commitment to carrying the non-specialist reader with him. So much academic work today is written to be published rather than read, and so many philosophers seem determined to dazzle or obfuscate rather than enlighten. To those who doubt this I say two words: Slavoj Žižek.

That quotation comes from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. In the book Rorty draws a distinction between the reformist left that flourished in America until the 1960s and the cultural left that supplanted it.

The reformist left, he argued, shared “the conviction that the vast inequalities within American society could be corrected by using the institutions of a constitutional democracy – that a cooperative commonwealth could be created by electing the right politicians and passing the right laws.”

This reformist left covered a broad spectrum of opinion from Marxists to moderate Democrats, but they were united by a belief in pragmatic reform. There were no purity tests for membership – some of the reformist left cared little for the rights of American Blacks, others were keen supporters of war in Vietnam – but, says Rorty, they were “feared and hated by the Right because they laid the foundations of the modern welfare state.

Rorty was well aware of this, but in a characteristically wry style, he pointed out that “in democratic countries you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts.”

It was Vietnam that broke this coalition. It was not just that the war was morally wrong and impossible to win: it was that younger leftists saw it as in indictment of America as a whole. And that meant, argued Rorty, they lost interest in the idea of moderate reform:
For if you turn out to be living in an evil empire (rather than, as you had been told, a democracy fighting an evil empire), then you have no responsibility to your country; you are accountable only to humanity. If what your government and your teachers are saying is all part of the same Orwellian monologue – if the differences between the Harvard faculty and the military-industrial complex, or between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, are negligible – then you have a responsibility to make a revolution.
I thought of this when I heard Harriet Harman interviewed by Peter Hennessy recently and she said had gone into politics wanting to “change everything about society”. Change everything is an expression of personal despair, not a programme for government.

This trend towards cultural leftism accelerated on the British left after Iraq. Tony Blair won three consecutive general elections, but his name is really heard in Labour circles – unless it is part of the insult ‘Blairite’. We Liberal Democrats suffered our own miniature moral catastrophe over the Coalition’s decision to increase tuition fees.

Instead, the left has embraced Jeremy Corbyn, a figure whose appeal lies precisely in the fact that he has never held power and is thus innocent of the compromises it demands. Labour now expends little effort on policy formation as its 2017 general election manifesto, an unconvincing document that escaped proper scrutiny during the election campaign because of the supreme incompetence of the Conservatives. 

A style of argument flourishes on the left, perhaps encouraged by social media and certainly most apparent there. It is summed up in a widely used quotation whose origin is not clear: “The right looks for converts, the left looks for traitors.” Someone’s words – and it is usually words and not actions – are examined until they are found guilty of some departure from the prevalent moral view on the cultural left, whereupon they can be given a pejorative label and their opinion on every subject ignored.

The right has not been idle while this has been going on. Rorty, confirming his uncanny ability to see where politics was leading in 1998, wrote: “While the Left’s back was turned, the bourgeoisification of the white proletariat which began in WWII and continued up through the Vietnam War has been halted, and the process has gone into reverse. America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie, and this process is likely to culminate in bottom-up revolt, of the sort [Pat] Buchanan hopes to foment.”

If all this sounds familiar from a thousand comment pieces blaming the left and ‘political correctness’ for the rise of Trump or of Ukip, it is worth emphasising that Rorty came from a left-wing background himself and his sympathies already remained with what he described as the reformist left:
For the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness. The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved.
And even when being critical of the cultural left in the New York Times in 1994, he paid it a generous tribute, saying it was “doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.”

But he warned in the same article that “A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt.”

So it is not such a surprise to find that the opening words of Achieving Our Country are: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

If these words seem strange on the left today, Rorty would no doubt have said, it is because the reformist left has been displaced by the cultural left.

For a way out of this impasse we could turn to an earlier (1989) book of Rorty’s: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. It has many virtues, among them this descripton of it is that we actually argue about politics and other important things
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. ...  
A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as “true,” “good,” “right,” and “beautiful.” The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, “Christ,” “England,” “professional standards,” “decency,” “kindness,” “the Revolution,” “the Church,” “progressive,” “rigorous,” “creative.” The more parochial terms do most of the work.
Rorty also emphasises the importance of being an ‘ironist’. That is, we should recognise that our own beliefs cannot ultimately be grounded on bedrock beyond our own chosen ‘thick’ vocaulary yet still be prepared to act upon them. He approving quotes Joseph Schumpeter: “To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.”

These days the idea that studying the great writers can teach us lessons about how to live our lives is deeply unfashionable in English departments with their poststructuralists  (and quite possibly postpoststructuralists too). Yet it is too this rather traditional view of literature that the avant-garde philosopher Rorty turns in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, with chapters on Proust, Nabokov and Orwell.

He suggests that what Orwell did in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was to give readers an alternative vocabulary with which to understand totalitarianism. 

Postmodern liberal or not, I still want to say that Orwell gave us a picture that is nearer the truth, but however you describe it Orwell’s view of the subject prevailed for many decades. Indeed, while one could have suggested 20 years ago that this view was now of only historical interest, it seems again compelling in the world of 2017.

We liberals like to insist that we are not mere centrists but have a radical view of our own. I see nothing wrong with centrism in as far as it represents a defence of institutions like the National Health Service and public service broadcasting that made Britain a better country to live in.

But if we seek something more exciting, then the postmodern world view, which accepts the breakdown of the great narratives and is tolerant of local difference, is a promising one to explore. And there is not better guide to it than Richard Rorty.

1 comment:

Tristan W said...

A very interesting Article. Rorty goes on my reading list - more accurately, my Amazon wish list.

I was however struck by this:

"For the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past."

and in particular the juxtaposition with your next post which mentions the Peter North blog which I had seen yesterday. I don't think North can possibly be described as other than "Right" in political terms, and yet he concludes:

"I actually prefer [a 10 year recession] to the prospect of maintaining the 2015 status quo ....."

And in the last paragraph: "Eventually it gets to a point where any change will do. I prefer an uncertain future to the certainty I was looking at".

Perhaps North's approach simply falls outside the left/right spectrum.