Philosophy and Social Hope
by Richard Rorty
Penguin Books, 1999
In his second attempt to bring his vision of the American Left to a wide audience, Richard Rorty has collected his recent, non-academic writings in Philosophy and Social Hope. Unlike its precursor, Achieving Our Country, Rorty's new book is a fragmented affair that touches on numerous contemporary issues in philosophy, politics, law, education, and academia. However, all of the writings included are tied together by a single thread: Rorty's attempt to revitalize an American Left that has been divided and conquered in the post-Vietnam era. By addressing issues such as globalization of capital and growing class inequity in the United States, Philosophy and Social Hope offers Rorty's most complete anaylsis of what a viable progressive movement should look like.
Rorty's view of the Left in the United States has already been well documented in his previous writings. His main concern up to this point has been the infamous 'split' that occurred between the intellectual and labor wings of the Left. Rorty dates this split around 1964, when intellectuals retreated into the Universities, gave up on organizing, and founded disciplines such as Women's and African-American studies. This new cultural Left pursued what has been derogatorily referred to as victim studies, documenting the treatment such groups have received at the hands of historical American power constellations. The unions, and other organizations operating at the grassroots level, were thus left exposed to the Republican onslaught of the 1980's.
This characterization of the post-Vietnam era Left has, rightly, been seen as highly problematic. For example, it cannot adequatley explain the Reagan Democrat phenomenon, as union losses in the 70's and 80's were surely as influential as their abandonment by the academic Left. Probably for this reason, Rorty included to essays on globalization, which sees the decay of union power as a direct result of the increasing mobility of capital. The focus on globalization and the traumas it has caused around the planet also allows Rorty to generate a new response for those who would attack him as a "post-modern relativist." The loss of faith in reason and liberalism is not a result of the influence of German nihilists and critical theorists on American youth, but rather an "increasing inability to believe that things could ever get much better than they are now."
These essays bring us to the core of Rorty's political thinking: the need to return to class based politics. Rorty's political heros, besides other pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey, include figures like Walt Whitman, who pushed the vision of America as the world's first classless society. It is the loss of this ideal, both in theory and practice, that troubles Rorty most of all. But as much as Rorty loves to talk about his favorite writers, the real heroes that emerge in Philosophy and Social Hope are those on the front lines, who endure the violence, the humiliations, and the hardships in the fight for social and economic justice.
Although in his earlier writings Rorty has argued for specific political reforms such as the public funding of political campaigns, here he focuses squarely on the courageous acts of union members. The gains made by the left in the first half of the twentieth century were not brought about through political means; it was the will of the workers standing together that forced compromises on the part of capital.
Philosophy and Social Hope is a book of enormous importance for the American left. Unfortunately, the likelihood of a rapid reversal of the asymmetric economic growth the United States has experienced in the 1990's appears small. Unless the unions can organize successfully in the new service economy, little will improve. For Rorty, failure to organize the new economy along progressive lines opens the door for political movements lead by people like Pat Buchanan and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Rorty suggests we defend ourselves against these threats by reestablishing a connection to the history of American progressivism. The movement that includes such diverse figures as Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers, Franklin Roosevelt and John Dewey. Despite some obvious flaws (such as homophobia and racism) it was this movement, particularly its labor activists, that were responsible for the gains made by workers in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of all, Rorty wants us to remember that it is civil disobedience and not the ballot box or the grand theories of the Left that have brought about social change in America.