Takes issue with Richard Rorty

Lukes, Steven

Richard Rorty's case for "prosecuting campaigns" ("Movements and Campaigns," Dissent, Winter 1995) rather than "defining movements" rests on a carefully built construction of superimposed...

...You do not have to adhere to a grand rácit of "inevitable progress" or "immanent teleology" to retain that margin of hope...
...Richard Rorty's case for "prosecuting campaigns" ("Movements and Campaigns," Dissent, Winter 1995) rather than "defining movements" rests on a carefully built construction of superimposed oppositions: tactics versus strategy...
...concern with "what the strong are doing to the weak" rather than with "deep questions about the spirit of the age or about underlying causes of social and cultural change...
...To what extent that promise, in different cases, was unfulfilled or betrayed is another story...
...For ever since its invention in Versailles in August 1789, the left (in its various incarnations liberal, radical, socialist, reformist, revolutionary) has always been defined by its proclaimed commitment to "fighting injustice" and to protecting and empowering the weak...
...reformism versus changing things "utterly...
...plurality versus a pattern centered on a "single thing...
...Others, like the late Friedrich von Hayek, believe that most such disadvantage is, in any case, a matter of bad luck, not injustice...
...Are feminists, antiracists, environmentalists, gay rights activists, civil rights groups, prison reformers, trade unionists, pressure groups for one-parent families or the aged or the handicapped all fated forever to go their separate ways because there is no longer any reason to see these various forms of involuntary disadvantage as having wider and deeper underlying causes and therefore no prospect of any overall strategy to remedy them...
...But this construction is a house of cards...
...Some think that advanced industrial societies are so complex that the left's project of seeking such causes is doomed...
...focusing on "what is to be done here and now" rather than on the "significance of events...
...Some think so, and perhaps Rorty does, too, though he gives no reasons for doing so...
...a "sense of the finite" rather than "a passion for the infinite...
...It is, however, true that it commits you to hoping for "a process of enlightenment and emancipation" and to believing that such a process is, universally and not merely locally, better than a slide into barbarism and slavery...
...All such arguments (none of which Rorty here embraces) are arguments against the very project of any left argument, to which Rorty's article appears to lend support...
...pragmatism versus "fantasy...
...fighting injustice" versus selfpromotion in "intellectual or political circles...
...Such a vision of politics is not an alternative for the left but an alternative to it...
...But that support is, as I have suggested, a house of cards...
...issue-based campaigns, with no interconnections among them and no prospect SPRING 1995 263 Arguments of strategic connections to link them up at national or international levels...
...To be on the left, in short, was precisely to have a larger view of how different instances of involuntary disadvantage, deprivation, oppression, exploitation, exclusion, and so on were connected and to have a program (whether reformist, radical, or revolutionary) that promised to rectify them...
...or that there could be a larger strategy within which individual campaigns might be related to one another...
...If you believe that these distinctions either coincide with or entail one another, then you will believe that to be concerned with wider issues of political strategy, the significance of events, and the deeper causes of social and cultural change is or leads to self-promotion, utopian fantasy, revolutionary radicalism, monism, religious or quasi-religious identification, and a passionate commitment to the exploded grands recits of the past...
...Most important, those campaigns were always seen as united by an overall strategy and sense of the "wider significance of events...
...There is really no reason to think that to be on the left (as I have defined it) is distinctive in that it requires you to be devoted to intellectual or political selfpromotion, utopian fantasy, monism, quasireligious self-surrender to a larger cause, revolutionary romanticism, or outmoded grand narratives...
...seeing history as an "endless network of changing relationships" and a "process of random mutation" rather than as an "immanent teleology of maturation" leading to "a process of emancipation and enlightenment...
...Reactionaries, as Albert Hirschman has suggested, typically argue that every attempt at rectification is either perverse (worsening the situation it is intended to ameliorate) or futile (leaving it unchanged) or else jeopardizes other valuable aspects of life...
...q 264 DISSENT...
...taking things "in one's stride" versus total identification, "self-purification," and "self-surrender...
...Is all that is left a politics of fragments, of local (how local...
...You will then be ready to accept Rorty's proposed alternative conception of politics for the left: a tactical, issue-based politics concerned with "fighting injustice" and protecting the weak against the strong, free of the illusion that there are deeper causes for that injustice and that weakness, or that there is a wider point of view than the local (how local...
...Is the age of such politics finally over...
...Its pursuit of that commitment, and in certain times and places its betrayal of it, can be recognized only because it has advanced successive but distinctive visions or theories of justice and of the structure of power that made clear in what injustice consists and who were weak and why: that is, in whose name and on what side it fought its political campaigns...

Vol. 42 • April 1995 • No. 2


 
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