Richard Rorty: The Dark Years
The philosopher's vision of what is dangerous and yet possible
The passages below are selections from “Richard Rorty: The Dark Years.”
No one was more acute than American philosopher Richard Rorty in echoing and epitomizing the accusations and taunts of his critics. In “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” he tells us that conservative culture warriors characterize him “one of the relativistic, irrationalist, deconstructing, sneering, smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fibre of the young” (Rorty 1999:2). Leftist radical thinkers accuse him of being one of those intellectual snobs who care only about the learned cultured elite to which he belongs. “I am sometimes told by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts” (Rorty 1999:5). These sharp criticisms and the dismissive reviews of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity provoked Rorty to write his autobiographical essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” where he explains how he came to his present views, especially about the relation of philosophy and politics and why “they were not adopted for frivolous reasons” (Rorty 1999: 5).
Rorty was clearly responsible for some of these caricatures. He taunted Marxist critics by championing “bourgeois liberalism”; he accused conservatives of being “greedy and selfish”; he defended the need for patriotism at a time when many academic leftists thought this was little more than an apology for American imperialism. Nevertheless, the portrait of Rorty as a clever, light-hearted, sneering intellectual snob is a gross distorting caricature. It misses the dark side of his thinking and his profound worry about the fate of liberal democracy. When we fully appreciate this dark streak in Rorty, then many of his key concepts including contingency, irony, solidarity, and social hope take on a deeper and richer meaning.
Consider Rorty’s essay “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096,” originally published in the New York Times in 1996. [i] In this imaginative reconstruction of America’s history, Rorty claims that “our long, hesitant, painful; recovery, over the last five decades, from the breakdown of democratic institutions during the Dark Years (2014-2044) has changed our political vocabulary, as well as our sense of the relation between the moral order and the economic order” (Rorty 1999: 243). Rorty adopts the optimistic stance that by 2096 there has been a recovery from the Dark Years. According to Rorty’s narrative, a sense of fraternity and moral progress had characterized America from its origins, despite many setbacks and shameful events in its history.
The Fate of Liberal Democracy
Rorty feared the reality that we are now living through. Here is the full passage from which selections went viral on social media.
[M]embers of labor unions, and the unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or 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. 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 names Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is likely to happen is that the gains made in the past fifty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back in fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having manners dictated to them by college graduate will find an outlet (Rorty 1998:89-90).
But how is this pessimistic — or rather, all too realistic — scenario related to the themes that resonate throughout Rorty’s corpus — themes such as contingency, solidarity, irony, and social hope? Rorty is not only concerned with the contingency of language and selfhood, he is deeply concerned with the contingency of a liberal community. The practices of a liberal democratic community are the result of a series of fortunate chance events in the past. There are no metaphysical, philosophical, or political guarantees that these practices will continue to survive.
The Academic Left vs. Real Politics
Rorty’s critique of the academic left is that it too frequently assumes a detached spectatorship in condemning the “system,” “global capitalism,” “neoliberalism.” Frequently, academic critics seek to outdo each other in the theoretical sophistication of their critiques. What is lacking in these endless critiques is the attempt to connect with “real politics,” with formulating and advocating specific social policies and legislative programs that can alleviate human misery. Despite Rorty’s many sharp criticisms of Marx, Rorty does think that Marx was absolutely right in stressing the importance of the economy in determining the character of human life, but today the idea of a proletarian revolution no longer makes sense. In a Deweyan spirit Rorty thinks that the only “realistic” alternative for achieving equality between the rich and the poor is gradual social reform. The Left for Rorty is the party of hope. Rorty hopes for a reinvigorated Left that will combine the virtues of the Reformist Left and the cultural legacy of the New Left — a Left that will fight against both selfishness and sadism, a Left that will mobilize Americans to become political agents for social change. The Left needs to realize that America has never been a morally pure country. There has been a history of extreme violence in America as well as the projection of democratic ideals. But if one focuses exclusively on the intense shame of past (and current) horrors then there is no possibility of encouraging ordinary citizens to work for reform. If the Left wants to persuade citizens to mobilize themselves to further a type of solidarity that can effect improvement then it needs to “remind the country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past–episodes and figures to which the country should remain true” (Rorty 1998: 3-4). This is what Rorty does in celebrating the democratic visions of Whitman and Dewey. The history of leftist politics in America “is a story of how top-down initiatives and bottom-up initiatives have been interlocked” (Rorty 1998: 53). Top down initiatives come from people who generally have security, power and money but are nevertheless concerned with people who have less. They include the muckraking journalists, novelists and scholars. “Bottom-up left initiative comes from people who have little security money, or power and who rebel against the unfair treatment which they, or others like them, are receiving” (Rorty 1998: 53). Rorty cites a number of examples in American history where these two initiatives reinforced each other such as the early attempts to organize unions to fight for decent working conditions and the civil rights movement. “The people at the bottom took the risks, suffered the beatings, made all the big sacrifices, and were sometimes murdered. But their heroism might have been fruitless if leisured, educated, relatively risk-free people had not joined the struggle. Those beaten by goon squads and the lynch mobs might have died in vain if the safe and secure had not lent a hand” (Rorty 1998: 54).
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Richard J. Bernstein is Vera List professor of Philosophy at NSSR. His most recent book is Why Read Hannah Arendt Now.
[i] The essay was originally published with the title “Fraternity Reigns”