Posted August 15, 2015, updated August 25, 2015
Achieving Our Country
Book Review by Carl Freitag
Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country reviews Leftist thought in America during the Twentieth Century. He describes how the social democratic Left shaped the policies of the Democratic Party from 1910 to its collapse in 1965. It was called the old or reformist Left and was composed of intellectuals and unions who gave us the progressive era. Rorty considers that this period was American Leftism at its best.
Richard Rorty was an American philosopher in the pragmatic tradition. He disparaged the narrowness and theoretical practices of philosophy departments and felt the point of being human was to fight social injustice. es, he was controversial and was strongly opposed by the political Right.
Rorty writes much of Walt Whitman’s and John Dewey’s American exceptionalism but in a secular rather than the divine form so prevalent today. He said Whitman and Dewey wanted the national soul to be a struggle for social justice and be our moral identity.
When the Taft-Hartley Law was passed in 1947 we forgot what we owed the unions and what they did for America. The unions and the academic intellectuals helped prevent us from becoming the property of the rich and greedy. He writes that it was these liberal institutions who said America will be true to itself only if it turned left. He felt the left or socialism in some form or another can protect the weak from the strong.
So the United States entered a war between individualism and communitarianism. Since the conservative backlash and their emphasis on individualism we have moved toward an undesirable distribution of wealth which created a dividing line between the Left and the Right. Today the government, instead of protecting the people, has become the spokesman for the rich and powerful.
Rorty writes how the superrich encourage both Left and Right politicians to specialize in cultural things like ethics, religion and sexual issues. They feel the people will then be distracted from the more important activities of the corporations and national security interests.
Recently progressives have appeared to be winning the cultural wars. With the Supreme Court validating the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage one gets the feeling that conservatives are on the run. But, alas, the same week the Trans-Pacific Partnership was advanced. In the long run economics and money spent on the Military-Industrial Complex will have a more profound effect on the people’s well-being.
Starting in 1965 the New Left became cultural rather than political. In the 1970’s idealism was stalled when the Democratic Party distanced itself from unions and any form of re-distribution of wealth. It retreated from activism, became passive, and joined the Republicans in propping up right-wing dictators. Meanwhile, conservatives discredited and invaded universities and corporations started interfering with public education.
One could say on the plus side that the revolutionaries of the 60’s did end the Viet Nam war and saved us from becoming a garrison state and, although the Right sneers at it, “political correctness” has made America a far more civilized society. How we talk about women, blacks and gays is now very different than it was thirty years ago. The New Left has done much for minorities but as a political party it is still wandering aimlessly.
Rorty says the non-functioning Left has allowed our country to reach a great disparity of wealth and lets the rich rule. We are a far cry from Whitman’s and Dewey’s dream country of social and economic justice taking precedence over individualism. Nothing will change in America as long as the votes of legislatures can be bought and the rich fight against public financing of campaigns. Today, I would add Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. As long as we have a non-functioning political Left, will we ever have a chance to achieve our country?
The Left is fooling themselves if they think making progress in social and cultural issues is strengthening the Democratic Party. None of these issues have as much effect on disparity of wealth as unfettered Capitalism and National Defense spending, which is where the money is. For instance, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will hurt American workers by allowing capital free to roam across borders with cheaper labor, weaker unions and looser or non-existent regulations.
Another indicator of how corporations are secretly winning is how Occupy Wall Street was strongly suppressed by the elite to the point of being completely dispersed. The movement was taken very seriously by the rich because it was a threat to their bottom line.
Maybe it’s too late. The rich seem to barely tolerate individual nations who get in the way of their accumulation of wealth. In fact the nation state has ceased to be the elemental unit of capitalism. Globalization seems to make national governments irrelevant. Maybe we should return to the old left when unions were “international”.
The wide disparity of wealth affects the entire planet. Perhaps a vigorous `progressive movement to stop the one percent from taking everything will require a world-wide effort.
Carl Freitag is a retired psychology professor and a member of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance