Rorty the Politico

Society’s Pliers

Rorty the Politico

a philosopher
who criticizes the Left

By Michael Albert


In his recent book,
Achieving Our Country, “one of America’s 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 today’s
“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 student’s 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 shouldn’t 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 one’s country really is, what its history really means, any more than
when answering the question of how one really is oneself, what one’s 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 modernists—the
actual spectators—agree 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 aren’t
they attempts to forge a moral identity that strive for accuracy? Isn’t that what
Howard Zinn, Gar Alperovitz, William Appleman Williams, Linda Gordon, and other left
historians do? One hopes Rorty doesn’t 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,” I’m 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.” Whatever—one story
is as good as the next, I’m 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 people—mostly students—who
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 Wilson—the president who kept Eugene Debs in
jail but appointed Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court—counts 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 isn’t 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

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 society’s defining
institutions, who are aptly called revolutionaries.

The reformist
fights for a reform as something to win and that’s 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 Rorty’s 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 approach—perhaps I ought to say his favored “moral
identity”—and 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 Rorty’s 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 haven’t 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 affected—workers, 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 didn’t 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 Rorty’s 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 Left’s] 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 strikes—the bird moves
in.” Notice how Ogelsby’s 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 militants—the 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
democracy—the liberation of all people from the power of technocrats—until 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 world’s 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 don’t 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 won’t easily dismiss the New
Left’s 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 won’t be smart
enough to partake sensibly, or that teaching mechanisms won’t 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
can’t possibly offer any answers that transcend the basic defining institutions of
our economic life and we can’t 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

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 hasn’t
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

“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 Rorty’s 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 what’s 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
Fukuyama’s 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.

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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 Rorty’s comment. If Marxism’s analysis of
class is incomplete, inadequate, even misleadingly self-serving, all of which I happen to
think true, still, that doesn’t 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 Rorty’s 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 option”—still, how would that entail that the future could
not include an option beyond markets? What we don’t know, we can’t 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.” Let’s not give Rorty a reading that isn’t his intent. He
doesn’t mean capitalism isn’t “the source of human misery” because
there are other sources too, or that ‘working class’ isn’t “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 banality—but it certainly isn’t honest. Why can’t 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
can’t we get beyond focusing on too few institutions by focusing on more, not none?
And why can’t 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 engineers’—our fear of becoming
mere ‘liberals’ as opposed to ‘radicals.’” For me, in contrast,
the issue isn’t 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.

Rorty’s 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
philosophy—mostly apocalyptic French and German philosophy—replaced 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 country’s 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 society’s institutions. Let’s see where this leads

“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 he’s 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 weren’t there to be squeezed out when race
and gender gained visibility. They weren’t there in the Rorty-favored “early
part of this century” either. Why didn’t they arise, then or now? That’s 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
orientation—or were there other causes? Rorty hasn’t 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 women’s 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.

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 time—as 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

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 Rorty’s 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. We’ll take that up next month.