“At that point, something will crack”: How to disturb Rorty’s prescience?

The pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, appears to be prescient about the 2016 U.S. presidential race in this extract from 1997 lectures. Can we see how to disturb his critique of the “American Left” and the unfolding of the scenario he predicted?

For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere-to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, including the occasional brief and bloody war, the super-rich will have little to fear.

Contemplation of this possible world invites two responses from the Left. The first is to insist that the inequalities between nations need to be mitigated-and, in particular, that the Northern Hemisphere must share its wealth with the Southern. The second is to insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advantaged citizens. These two responses obviously conflict with each other. In particular, the first response suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.

The first response comes naturally to academic leftists, who have always been internationally minded. The second response comes naturally to members of trade unions, and to the marginally employed people who can most easily be recruited into right-wing populist movements. Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders-as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse, we often seem more interested in the
workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens.

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-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 start looking around for a strongman to vote for-someone wiling 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.

But such a renewal of sadism will not alter the effects of selfishness. For after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international super-rich, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists. He will invoke the glorious memory of the Gulf War to provoke military adventures which will generate short-term prosperity. He will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization? Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?

Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 1998, pp. 87-91

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to “At that point, something will crack”: How to disturb Rorty’s prescience?

  1. padibby says:

    Thanks Peter. I hadn’t read the entire passage from Rorty, only the third paragraph from the bottom in your excerpt…

    Whatever optimism I have left fails as I remember Occupy and the conversation about income disparity that that movement raised in the public dialogue — squashed by the police. NoDAPL — which should be about our energy policy and clean water and First Nations — is going the same way, about to be “cleared out” by the authorities.

    There are so many dystopian novels on the bookshelves, are we/our youth being taught that it’s inevitable that the future is dystopian?

    Do we set up an underground? A shadow government?

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