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Rights + Justice

Why the American Left Failed, and What Canadians Can Learn

Prophetic book argues progressives abandoned fight for workers in favour of culture campaigns.

Crawford Kilian 14 Aug

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Charlottesville didn’t come out of nowhere. The violence we saw this weekend was an aftershock of the U.S. school integration battles of the 1950s, the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the 1960s, and the white terrorism of Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s. In theory, the American left won those struggles against the far right; in practice, it settled for an armed truce.

This is a good time to reconsider the thoughts of Richard Rorty, an American philosopher, who 20 years ago published this book: an insightful analysis arguing that the American left abandoned its working-class base and cleared the way for the far right to offer workers an alternative. After the 2016 election, some passages from his book appeared on Twitter and were endlessly passed along:

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

“At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots....

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.... All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Rorty was clearly a prophet, and we should remember that ever since the Old Testament prophets have been policy wonks; their grim warnings describe predictable consequences of bad policy. Still, it’s striking how much more he predicted than just the coming of Trump.

Rorty argues that American socialism was a potent force a century ago, grounded in the optimistic national pride of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Socialism might have become even stronger after the First World War, but the Russian Revolution offered a fatal attraction for the impatient. The American left broke up in a schism as momentous as Protestant and Catholic Christianity or Sunni and Shia Islam. National pride was out; international communism now set the terms of debate.

Rorty’s parents first chose communism, but returned to the anti-communist left soon after his birth in 1931. He grew up, therefore, in an ignored splinter party while the communists got all the attention (and most of the blacklisting and jailings).

In the 20 years after the Second World War, the trade unions were purged of their communist members, and often taken over by crooks and gangsters. Old-fashioned American socialists, with CIA funding, supported the Cold War and promoted a kind of cultural leftism that ignored the workers.

But unionized workers made a lot of money in those 20 years, enough to buy their own homes and send their kids to college in a rapidly expanding post-secondary system. Long before Justin Trudeau started talking about “people working hard to enter the middle class,” American and Canadian workers’ children were moving into that class. They had a rare chance for social mobility — careers in teaching and other professions.

From agents to spectators

And here Rorty makes a crucial point: by the mid-1970s, the left had been astutely steered from active “agents” of change to passive “spectators” of the triumph of the right. Instead of organizing, the left was content with criticizing.

Vietnam, Rorty rightly observes, was the turning point. The old left was exhausted; a new young left forced the U.S. to abandon the Vietnamese adventure. But the anti-war marchers were college students, not workers. When they marched past construction sites, the patriotic hardhats booed them and they booed back.

Rorty thinks stopping Vietnam saved the U.S., but the long-haired leftists of the 1960s became the young faculty and middle managers of the 1970s. Their interests were no longer those of their working-class parents. Meanwhile the hardhats voted for Reagan and the crippling of the unions that had made them strong.

The academic left, Rorty says, didn’t completely abandon the fight. But emphasis shifted from the political left to the cultural left. Workers had long been the objects of concern. Now the left’s concern was for minorities of all kinds — racial, ethnic and eventually sexual.

This amounted to desertion of the workers, and when free trade took away American jobs, it met only feeble resistance from the cultural left. “Globalism” now seemed as inevitable as communism once seemed. The workers who lost their jobs went into history’s ash can.

Foreseeing the ‘cosmopolitans’

Rorty was no fan of globalism; he was too much of a nationalist. In another eerie foreshadowing of Trump, he warned about the rise of a “cosmopolitan upper class,” entrepreneurs with no real roots in the U.S., much less in the working class. This “overclass” was served, he said, by “cultural cosmopolitanism,” the professors and managers who enjoyed comfortable lives serving the overclass while promoting racial, ethnic and gender equality and ignoring the workers.

In describing this process, Rorty makes a useful distinction. Selfishness, he says, causes the oppression of classes; sadism causes the oppression of minorities. The cultural left has fought for half a century against the sadists (of all classes and ethnicities), and scored some real victories. The sadistic right wing squawks about “political correctness,” but the term simply means showing respect for kinds of people the right wing would rather bully.

But the cultural left has abandoned the workers to the selfish right wing, which now owns most of the world’s wealth. The workers themselves often despise minorities (immigrants, Muslims, gays, First Nations) like their hardhat fathers, and no one’s willing to teach them better; no wonder Trump and his Republicans won so many of their votes.

The cultural left has brought a lot of people out of some suffocating closets, and that’s a worthwhile achievement. But it’s pointless if minority workers are still underpaid, and immigrant workers can’t find housing, and work itself is as rare on First Nations reserves as drinkable water.

Seen in the light of Rorty’s critique of the left, the last 20 years make a kind of horrible sense. The overclass has continued to amass most of the world’s wealth, with the eager help of the merely rich. Minority rights have improved, but economic inequality has grown worse.

Now a few astute racists and reactionaries have seized on the situation Rorty described, and exploited the workers on behalf of Trump and the overclass. They have cynically stolen the left’s old skepticism about globalism and free trade and made it a pillar of the new right wing.

The moral for Canada is pretty clear. The Canadian left has also largely deserted the workers while supporting minorities. The Liberals pretend there is no working class, only hard-working folks trying to escape it. The Conservatives’ scare themes, like hijabs and “barbaric cultural practices,” distract attention from workers’ real problems.

Canada’s left should focus instead on creating an educated, resilient working class — of all ethnicities and genders — that can demand its fair share of the nation’s wealth and respect. Richard Rorty’s book is a useful primer for anyone who wants to embark on helping create such a class.  [Tyee]

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