Richard Rorty’s 1998 work, Achieving Our Country, reads like the masterplan of Barack Obama’s successful presidential election campaign. In the book, Rorty calls for a reconfiguration of the American Left. He argues that, since the 1960s, progressives in the United States have been engaged in a cynical and detached ‘politics of spectatorship’. Inspired by Continental and poststructuralist philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault, left-wing intellectuals have become disillusioned spectators of their country, unable to have pride in any of its achievements and exhibiting deep cynicism about the possibility for any real change (short of a wholesale elimination of the United States and total rejection of all its social institutions). The Left portrayed America as an incorrigible genocidal, imperialist, racist, sexist and homophobic nation, and thus, undermined progressives’ will to meaningful agency in favor of a detached and profound skepticism: what reformist change could possibly matter when the whole enterprise of America is so beyond repair? At the same time, the American Left became a purely ‘cultural Left’ by focusing on ‘niche’ issues and ‘sadist’ social structures, such as racism, sexism and homophobia, while avoiding discussions about what really matters: economic inequality, selfishness and class oppression.

Rorty’s critiques of the Left’s ‘politics of spectatorship,’ and its sole focus on ‘cultural politics’ were adopted very successfully by Barack Obama’s campaign. From day one, Obama emphasized ‘hope’ for change and the ability of all people to exercise agency both for their individual gain and for the common good represented by their country. He also provided a replacement narrative of American history, which took pride in what the country had achieved (the Constitution, civil rights, and winning the Cold War), but viewed its ‘ultimate morality’ as still achievable, as expressed in the need to strive towards ‘a more perfect union.’ Thus, Obama restored a ‘will to agency’ to the U.S. Left: he provided a revision of the standard depressing and pessimistic left-wing historical narrative by portraying America as an ‘imperfect, but perfectible nation.’ Furthermore, he avoided divisive issues in the campaign, while focusing on the common good and bread-and-butter economic issues that had a high probability of diminishing some of the profound material inequalities that exist within the country. Overall, the Obama campaign seemed to follow – word-for-word – Rorty’s advice for the American Left: (1) restore hope in America and inspire people to exercise agency; (2) focus on economic issues and avoid polarizing ‘cultural’ debates.

While I agree with Rorty on the need to replace the ‘politics of spectatorship’ with a ‘politics of hopeful agency,’ some of his other claims are highly dubious. First of all, his insistence on a distinction between ‘real (economic) politics’ and ‘cultural politics’ is crude and will not help us achieve unity on the Left. Rorty implies that the ‘victim politics’ of queer rights, feminism, disability and racial justice is somehow secondary to (and separate from) ‘real’ concerns about economic inequality and caste stratifications in U.S. society. This view echoes Alan Sokal’s critique of postmodernism as supporting a trendy focus on superficial ‘identity politics’ that cannot concretely benefit the working class.

Nevertheless, the notion that ‘identity politics’ has no relation to economic justice is a false one. Take the example of queer rights: how could a movement that questions the sexual and gender restrictions that we place on ourselves not have anything to do with a critique of economic injustice and exploitation? As Judith Butler points out in her article, “Merely Cultural,” queer activism is important to a movement for economic emancipation because it undermines and problematizes one of the key institutions by which caste and class distinctions are maintained: compulsory dyadic heterosexuality. Why have sexual restrictions in the United States focused so much on limiting peoples’ ability to form intimate relationships across class and racial divides or within their own gender? Because such relationships could very well undermine the caste system on which economic inequality is based. To (re)produce this system, people cannot legitimately copulate with those that the system is designed to oppress: they must seek relationships among ‘their own kind’ (class and race), and those relationships must be heterosexual ones that can produce offspring to carry on and (re)produce the caste distinction. The queer movement’s questioning of the sexual restrictions we place on ourselves (and its re-thinking of the general purpose of sexuality) can, thus, legitimately contribute to action against economic inequality by opening up space for a breakdown of the sexual mechanisms by which classes and castes are (re)created.

Secondly, Rorty falsely blames the postmodernist or ‘cultural left’ for failing to engage with unions and the American poor, who have now become a hot constituency for Pat Buchanan and other radical right-wing populists. At least in the case of the queer rights movement, I do not think that the ‘cultural left’ can be blamed for this discrepancy. Radical groups, such as Queer Nation, Act-Up and Gay Men’s Health Crisis have focused considerably on critiquing social injustice in all its forms. It is the mainstream, assimilationist gay rights movement (which reached its zenith in the 1990s and 2000s) that has compartmentalized sexuality issues away from the broader Left-wing social and economic critique. As I demonstrated in this previous post, assimilationist gay activists have sought to portray homosexuals in the least offensive way possible: as a group that will not engage in ‘radical leftism,’ that will support the class and caste structures of corporate America, and that will not work to eliminate racial injustice and sexism. Thus, responsibility for ‘compartmentalizing’ identity politics away from forming broad alliances against social and economic injustices falls squarely on the shoulders of assimilationist social movements.

Overall, Rorty is right that a ‘politics of hopeful agency’ must replace the detached spectator-like cynicism of the American Left, and we are very lucky that President-elect Barack Obama has championed this agenda. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the work postmodernists and identitarians have done should now be pushed to the side in favor of a ‘real’ economic politics. In order to build unity on the Left, we need to develop an understanding of how the various injustices in our society – economic, sexual, gendered, racial, and disability-based – work together and reinforce each other. We cannot suppress our differences in order to build unity; we must instead build unity on the basis of our particularity and diversity. Only then, will a comprehensive and truly hopeful Left-wing politics be possible.

***For More Information***
Definitely have a look at Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country and Barack Obama’s campaign website for evidence of a reconfiguration on the American Left. For a very intelligent reply to Rorty and other critics of the ‘cultural’/postmodern Left, have a look at Judith Butler’s “Merely Cultural.”

Creative Commons License