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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

OWS and the Ghost of Richard Rorty

I've just read Richard Rorty's short and highly readable book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America.  I confess that I'm not particularly a fan of the book.  But I did find a number of passages that seem to have a strong bearing on the OWS movement and might therefore be of interest.  

An appendix to the book is titled "Movements and Campaigns."  Movements, Rorty writes, are big and amorphous, touched by what Kierkegaard called "the passion of the infinite."  They are religious or quasi-religious, like Christianity or Marxism.  They seek the emergence of something truly new and revolutionary.  "This kind of politics assumes that things will be changed utterly, that a terrible new beauty will be born."  They appeal to an underlying purity, asking the adherent to "will one thing," and to see "everything as part of a pattern whose center is that single thing."  For Rorty, this side of left politics, which believes in the possibility of "the people" as a "redemptive preternatural force," is strongly touched by a strain of American religion, in which sin is everywhere and power is "the name of an invisible, ubiquitous, and malevolent presence."

Campaigns, by contrast, are small-bore and goal-oriented.  A campaign is "something finite, something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed."  "Each campaign is finite, and there is always another campaign to enlist in when the first fails or goes rancid.  The realized impurity of a movement can destroy the person who has identified himself with that movement, but the impurity of a campaign can be taken in one's stride: such impurity is just what one expects of something finite and mortal."  Rorty favors campaigns over movements, because he prefers a "reformist and pragmatic" left to a "revolutionary" one.  He writes:

The cultural Left has a vision of an America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the v oting to be done by members of previously victimized groups, people who have somehow come into possession of more foresight and imagination than the selfish suburbanites.  These formerly oppressed and newly powerful people are expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were diabolical.  If I shared this expectation, I too would want to live under this dispensation.  Since I see no reason to share it, I think that the Left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy. . . . [W]e should not let the abstractly described best be the enemy of the better.  We should not let speculation about a totally changed system . . . replace step-by-step reform of the system we presently have.

Of course I'm not suggesting any perfect correspondence between what Rorty writes and debates about and within OWS (or the Tea Party).  But because Rorty is ultimately describing a longstanding conflict within American culture and politics--a conflict between those who have quasi-religious beliefs about both the evils of our country and its perfectability, and therefore hold out belief in real revolutionary change, and those who who see less of a sweeping narrative and focus more on "piecemeal reform"--I think he offers us a useful way to think about OWS and American politics and culture.  I should add that for these purposes, I am not taking sides, although my own inclinations certainly tend toward the "campaign" way of thinking.

Incidentally, Rorty's description also seems to me to apply nicely to the recent online discussions of legal education and reform as well.  If you read the commenters on Paul Campos's blog and in many other places, you can see a frequent divide between those who are seeking specific reforms and those who see legal education as an evil force that is ultimately part of larger forces, and who believe nothing short of total revolution is needed--and that total revolution is both possible and inevitable.  I think the latter group is much more wrong than right, but then I would think that.  That doesn't matter to me as much as the usefulness of simply seeing the way that both sets of ideas are at work in this discussion.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 2, 2011 at 08:08 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Yes, that makes sense. It helps explain the need for demons and the belief that something called salvation is possible.

Posted by: EH | Nov 2, 2011 11:05:55 AM

EH, your suspicion is fair, and I'm sure angst and frustration are playing a substantial, probably the predominant, part. I do think, though, that it fits in nicely with what Rorty says elsewhere in the book about one form of tendency in American thought: the survival of ideas about sin and evil as a deep strain in thinking about American history and politics, even when it becomes unrooted from specifically religious thinking.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 2, 2011 10:46:35 AM

Yes, you are right that there are occasional calls for something more transformative. I guess I'm just more suspicious of their actual commitment to revolution in America-- particularly when some of the most apocalyptic commenters place so much emphasis on the evil of professors; people who are not driving overall society to any serious extent. A lot of personal angst and frustration gets dressed up as a desire for revolution.

Posted by: EH | Nov 2, 2011 10:09:41 AM

EH, I very much appreciate your comment; as I said, although I have my own leanings, I was more interested in the way Rorty frames the conversation than in taking sides in this post. As to the commenters on the law school debate, of course many of them don't fit into the "movement" category. But my regular reading of these commenters, especially those on Campos's blog, suggests that while some of them are interested in more campaign-like reform, whether piecemeal or more wholesale, others see the issues surrounding legal education as inextricably linked to a society-wide sickness that requires radical revolutionary change. Thus the occasional eruption of one commenter calling another blind of naive for suggesting anything less than overturning the whole system. That's not everyone, of course; I agree that some would be satisfied with debt relief, or a job. But others see the debate as part and parcel of everything else, and that seems to me to typify what Rorty writes about movements.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 2, 2011 9:42:57 AM

I lean toward "movements". While the ultimate goal may never be achieved, dreaming "big" can often get you closer to where you want to go than perpetually settling for increments. In any event, I'm not sure the commenters you refer to fit into the "movement" category. Just because they demonize legal education does not mean that they have some larger vision of a transformed society in mind. Their focus is decidedly narrow; on the debts they incurred getting a legal education and the perfidy of professors. If the debt could be dealt with, I believe they would be satisfied. The professor-hating part has its roots in something deeper than the present crisis.
It would be possible to enact reforms that improve the positions of those hobbling under the weight of debt; going back to the pre-2005 (was that the year?) status quo when student debt was dischargeable in bankruptcy. That would not be a "revolution". That's a reform, and it's what, I think, most of them would want. This is not visionary stuff.

Posted by: EH | Nov 2, 2011 8:55:33 AM

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