Surveying academia, for example, he observes that “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 the ‘other’ in the relative sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.”
For Rorty, a Left that neglects victims of economic selfishness will not only fail; its neglect of class will trigger a terrible backlash that ultimately ill-serve the very groups that Leftist identity politics are intended to help. “The gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will very likely be wiped out,” he worried. “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.”
Thankfully, the backlash hasn’t gone that far. Yet.
To avoid that future, to compete in national politics, Rorty believed that the Left would have to find a way to better address the consequences of globalization, and that it could only do so by “opening relations with the residue of the old reformist Left, and in particular with the labor unions.” What’s more, the Left “would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma.” In service of that transition, he advised the Left to “put a moratorium on theory … to kick its philosophy habit” and to “try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans.”
What exactly did he mean by “kicking the philosophy habit”?
The contemporary academic Left seems to think that the higher your level of abstraction, the more subversive of the established order you can be. The more sweeping and novel your conceptual apparatus, the more radical your critique…
Recent attempts to subvert social institutions by problematizing concepts have produced a few very good books. They have also produced many thousands of books which represent scholastic philosophizing at its worst. The authors of these purportedly “subversive” books honestly believe that they are serving human liberty. But it is almost impossible to clamber back down from their books to a level of abstraction on which one might discuss the merits of a law, a treaty, a candidate, or a political strategy.
Even though what these authors “theorize” is often something very concrete and near at hand—a current TV show, a media celebrity, a recent scandal—they offer the most abstract and barren explanations imaginable. These futile attempts to philosophize one’s way into political relevance are a symptom of what happens when a Left retreats from activism and adopts a spectatorial approach to the problems of its country.
This disengagement from practical politics “produces theoretical hallucinations,” he added. “The cultural Left is haunted by ubiquitous specters, the most frightening of which is called ‘power.’” This obsession with power elicited scathing words:
In its Foucauldian usage, the term “power” denotes an agency which has left an indelible stain on every word in our language and on every institution. It is always already there, and cannot be spotted coming or going … Only interminable individual and social self-analysis, and perhaps not even that, can help us escape from the infinitely fine meshes of its invisible web.
The Ubiquity of Foucaldian power is reminiscent of the ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquity of original sin—that diabolical stain on every human soul ... in committing itself to what it calls “theory,” this Left has gotten something which is entirely too much like religion. For the cultural Left has come to believe that we must place our country within a theoretical frame of reference, situate it within a vast quasi-cosmological perspective.
What stories about blue-eyed devils are to Black Muslims, stories about hegemony and power are to many cultural Leftists ... To step into the intellectual world which some of these Leftists inhabit is to move out of a world in which the citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce ... in which all the daylight cheerfulness of Whitmanesque hyper-secularism has been lost, and “liberalism” and “humanism” are synonyms for naiveté—for an inability to grasp the full horror of our situation.
In his estimation, however, the Foucauldian Left and its focus on cosmopolitan identity politics, enforced through stigma, is easily the more naive approach to advancing justice.