Paul Crider’s recent piece Intersectional Liberalism is good evidence for how expansive the word “politics” has become. He says, “Any liberalism worth defending must be intersectional,” where intersectionality is defined as a “descriptive understandings for how lives can be shaped by identities and their interactions when they overlap.” “A liberalism that does not attend to intersectionality,” he adds, “simply defaults to a racialized and gendered liberalism that silences the voices, needs, and desires of the oppressed and marginalized.” Intersectionality is thus “true, and powerful, and vital.”

I don’t deny the fact that intersectionality is both true or powerful, but “true” doesn’t always mean right and “powerful” isn’t always the expression of a good kind of power. It stands to question then: Is intersectionality, and the attendant political correctness and identity politics that usually come along for the ride, really “vital” to the future of liberalism?

In seeking an answer, one could do worse than to consult the work of Richard Rorty. A common criticism leveled at Rorty throughout his life was that his politics were old fashioned and out of touch. Casually remarking on this, he once said:

Richard Posner has always said that philosophically I’m on the right track, it’s just that I had no sense of concrete economics or socioeconomic policy: “Rorty is still talking about ‘oligarchy’ and ‘the bosses.’”

There are two related sides to this charge of having old fashioned politics: on the one hand, it’s the idea that he was still talking about “bosses” and “oligarchs,” emphasis on the still as if the time to talk of these things has long since passed; on the other, the fact that he wasn’t talking about socioeconomic policy. One might add to the latter, the fact that he refused to talk about or see the importance of identity politics, seeing them as, at best, distracting and at worst, a fight that had wandered onto the wrong battlefield. We can see Rorty’s self-described “minimalist liberalism,” as well as his insistence on there being a split between the political and the social, as springing from both his admiration for the Old Left of the New Deal —which he relabels the “reformist” Left—and his discontent with the New Left’s attraction to identity politics. The split, for Rorty, was the Vietnam War: the point at which people could no longer take pride in their country, what it was and what it still might become.  

Love and money

In 1992, Rorty wrote a short essay entitled “Love and Money” in which he riffs on E.M. Forster’s Howards End. The piece places Rorty’s thought in a fairly black and white light but is nonetheless useful for setting a foundation to his further thought. Forster’s hope, Rorty tells us, was that someday there would be enough wealth to go around, and that this would make “tenderness” toward others and love pretty much ubiquitous. Although not the first or only to realize this, it was seeing the primacy of the economic over and against the political that caught Rorty’s attention. Seen from this vantage point, “the distinction between Marxism and liberalism was largely a disagreement about whether you can get as much, or more, wealth to redistribute by politicizing the marketplace and replacing the greedy with government planners. It turned out you cannot.” Even though the Marxists were wrong about things getting better once you turned the whole system upside down—and this little experiment has been pretty much universally realized to have failed—they were right to point out that the soul of history is indeed economic. Rorty draws from this conclusion that since Marxism isn’t really of interest anymore, “we are back with the question of what top-down initiatives we gentlefolk might best pursue.”

Put simply, what Forster understood, and Rorty took pains to point out, was that the adage “only connect”—or its Christian spin, that the only law is love—is only possible when people can relax long enough to think about things other than mere survival or whether or not they can pay their next bill. Rorty picks up on this Forsterian theme and says that “tenderness only appears … when there is enough money to produce a little leisure, a little time in which to love.” This argument should be familiar to us considering “economic anxiety” seems to be the motivating force behind much of our political activity—or so the analysts and social critics tell us. Indeed, as Rorty points out: “The pre-Sixties Left”—by which he means the pre-Vietnam Left—“assumed that as economic inequality and insecurity decreased, prejudice would gradually disappear.”

Rorty’s only point in this rather brief essay is that the ends we want—love, leisure, friendship, happiness, tenderness—won’t be realized through a revolution in values or from ditching wholesale “Western ways of thinking.” The reason we don’t love each other isn’t because we don’t know how and need to be pointed to the Bible or a few more feminist tomes, it’s because we don’t have the time or security—in short, the money. The reader will no doubt see a barb aimed at both the Right and the Left here: rarely has virtue transcended deplorable conditions; and the concrete, deplorable conditions of millions are scarcely remedied by talk of “the patriarchy,” important as those criticisms are. Rorty of course acknowledged the great strides we’ve made in treating people more humanely as a result of more diverse scholarship in these areas, but, he laments, the laws and socioeconomic status of most people has largely remained the same. Though writing in the mid-1990s, one still wonders how much progress we’ve made on the latter front.

Crudely, the issue is this: some liberals—old fashioned liberals still talking about bosses and oligarchs—want to talk about money and the concrete ways in which we can maximize people’s comfort and security; other liberals want to talk more about love, hoping that a revolution in the nation’s moral sensibility about, say, homosexuality will bring about the desired effect. The latter type of liberal “prefers not to talk about money. Its principle enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements—a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism.” One may well see our modern obsession with identity as an extension of liberals’ movement away from hopes of spreading the wealth around and toward hopes of spreading the love and changing the culture. This, of course, turns the pre-Sixties formula on its head: a change in a culture’s sensibilities will lead to economic progress.

However, Rorty agrees with his fellow pragmatist Robert Brandom that what matters to us “morally and so ultimately, politically” cannot be understood in the framework of the naturalist. In other words, our highest end as a human community is not, in fact, the “avoidance of mammalian pain.” Rather, it is “the capacity each of us creatures has to say things that no one else has ever said… Our moral worth is our dignity as potential contributors to the Conversation.” Here, we see an obvious tension is Rorty’s thought: if, as Brandom says, “pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation, have a second-hand, but nonetheless genuine, moral significance” as compared to our participation in the Conversation, how do we square Rorty’s preference for Romanticism and the imaginative creation of new vocabularies and linguistic practices with the idea that concrete security and comfort ought to be the motivating ideals of the Left? Put another way, if adding one’s note to the symphony of humankind is the highest end to human life, why worry so much about people’s socioeconomic situation?

In a telling passage, Rorty says that because “pain is our best example of contact with reality,” our most pressing moral duty is to “relieve the social and economic deprivation which fills so many human lives with unnecessary pain.” But, he goes on,

If asked why that is our duty, I think the best answer is that we want everybody to be able to lead a specifically human life: a life in which there is a chance to compose one’s own variations on old themes, to put one’s own twist on old words, to change a vocabulary by using it. Brave New World—still the best introduction to political philosophy—shows us what sort of human future would be produced by a naturalism untempered by Romance, and by a politics aimed merely at alleviating mammalian pain.

Clearly, Rorty privileges the the relief of unnecessary suffering—an adjective that invites a host of other problems—only because it leads to participation in a full human life, which consists in the imaginative recreation of ourselves and the vocabularies we employ in that service. He agrees, in the last analysis, with Brandom that “our overarching public purpose should be to ensure that a hundred private flowers bloom,” though he acknowledged that public efforts to increase freedom and decrease suffering ought to be piecemeal and incremental, staying as far away from the sweeping political programs promising Utopia offered by radicals and Marxists.

Bosses, Oligarchs, and Identity

The adjective “private” accompanying “flowers” above is important. Rorty maintained that there ought to be a distinction between public and private, and this was mostly due to the fact that “the demands of self-creation” and of “human solidarity” are “equally valid, yet forever incommensurable.” In other words, our public projects and private pursuits differ radically and the attempt to fuse the two often ends in disaster. It is in this sense that Rorty sees the movement toward identity politics as both a misreading of the situation and as an expression of hopelessness about prospects endeavoring to spread the wealth around.

The misreading comes from people’s privileging the philosophical—ideas—over the political. “Philosophy,” Rorty says, “is responsive to changes in the amount of political hope, rather than conversely.” He goes on:

I cannot believe that the degree of Utopian hope manifested by the public, or even that manifested among the intellectuals, is greatly influenced by changes in opinion among philosophy professors.

Similarly, Rorty sees a turn toward identity politics as evidence of this loss of hope in the traditional Utopian narratives put forth by the post World War II generation. The narrative went something like this:

These intellectuals thought that peace and technological progress would make possible hitherto undreamt-of economic prosperity within the framework of the free market. They believed that such prosperity would bring about successive political reforms, leading eventually to truly democratic institutions in every part of the world. Prosperity would make it possible to establish welfare states of the Scandinavian sort in all democratic countries. The institutions of such welfare states would ensure equality of opportunity among the children of a city or of a country would become the rule rather than the exception.

Of course, Rorty is one of these “intellectuals” who subscribes to this narrative. It’s also why he was caught between Conservatives and reactionaries who urged him to be more serious (read: less socialist), and the followers of Foucault and Derrida who urged him to talk more about identity and difference.

Concerning the last point, Rorty thinks that all this talk of “difference,” “identity,” and “the group” is bound to be “politically sterile” in large part due to the fact that “philosophy is a good servant but a bad master.” Rorty agrees with Harold Bloom that the texts of Derrida and Foucault have mostly led to large swathes of people seeing the “study of literature and philosophy simply as a means to political ends,” and that this school of people can be labeled with little exaggeration “the School of Resentment.” Rorty thinks that those who belong to this school are lacking in the sort of romance Whitman, Dewey, and Lincoln had; “they view themselves as ‘subverting’ such things as ‘the humanist subject’ or ‘Western technocentrism’ or ‘masculist binary oppositions.’” They have convinced themselves that through the chanting of various “Derridean or Foucauldian slogans” that they are fighting for human freedom. All of this seems to be of a piece with Rorty’s philosophical aversion to identity politics.

But we should put Rorty’s aversion to identity politics into a political context as well. “Heaven knows,” Rorty pleads, “I have nothing against these movements,” and we ought to take him seriously. He isn’t one more curmudgeon bemoaning the fact that people don’t want to hear what he has to say about African American liberation movements. Rorty’s is quite the odd criticism: he doesn’t see feminist, gay rights, or intersectionality movements as anything new—any new way of seeing or approaching normal, run-of-the-mill politics. He merely sees them as adding “further concreteness to sketches of the good old egalitarian Utopia.” Famously, Rorty once claimed that we haven’t really gotten beyond Mill; all these movements, while necessary and good in their own right, don’t really dissolve, solve, or add anything to Mill’s insight that “everybody gets to do what they like as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s doing the same.”

In a line anyone would skip over, Rorty tips his hat to the role of these movements. In a nod to the public-private distinction, he says:

The effect of these new movements is to say such things as: In a just global society, not only would all children have roughly equal chances, but the girls would have the same sort of chances as the boys [and] nobody would care about which sex you fall in love with, any more than about the lightness or darkness of your skin.

These movements are, as Rorty has said elsewhere, cultural battles for the hearts and minds of the populace; for lack of a better way to phrase it, they are not the most urgent political matters in light of the fact that national and global overclasses unaccountable to any single nation’s laws now make all the major economic and political decisions.

In light of a crumbling U.N. and increasing disillusionment with globalization, it seems somewhat quaint for Rorty to advocate a “global polity, which can develop some sort of countervailing power to that of the super-rich.” I still very much think we need that power, I’m just unsure what form it will need to take in the 21st century. So to is it difficult to resist the quasi-conspiratorial idea that those at the top fan the flames of cultural difference and identity so that the spotlight is perpetually fixed upon “the people” in all their bickering—an idea that Rorty himself tips his hat to when he says, “If I were the Republican oligarchy, I would want a left which spent all its time thinking about matters of group identity, rather than about wages and hours.”

If we think Forster and Rorty are mostly right about money, identity politics and the claims of intersectionality can only be seen as important but nonetheless secondary matters. I pretty much agree with Matt Taibbi that “Big money already has a stranglehold on the process of government. It outright owns most of the member of Congress, and its lobbyists write much of our important legislation.” Lending even more credence to this conspiratorial whispers, we sometimes forget how much the two parties in this country agree about—the surveillance state, trade, defense spending, torture—and instead choose to focus on the disagreements—essentially, just abortion and guns, and lately immigration.

Furthermore, I think Rorty is right to point out that acknowledging identity and group affiliation is a choice. Part of Rorty’s anti-Platonist, anti-foundationalist philosophy is refusing to believe anything is written in the stars or that we are obliged to anything but our fellow citizens: there’s nothing—no law, no text, no authority—that says we must privilege identity and our group over and against, say, one’s class or one’s country. Identity and group belonging, Rorty says, are just one lens among others, as Paul Crider in his piece  rightfully acknowledges. “You can forget about it; you can embrace it; you can do various things in between,” but—and this is where Rorty parts with most of the modern Left today—what’s frustrating is the “suggestion that you have some duty to embrace [your identity and your group] rather than forget about it.” He goes on: “Why are we talking about the politics of difference? I just don’t see what was wrong with the politics of individuality, conjoined with the usual attempt to repeal this or that law, overcome this or that prejudice, and so on.” Our identities and the groups we choose to affiliate with  “don’t need recognition of their ‘cultures’; they just need not to be pushed around.” To the rather obvious retort of “Well, why focus on class instead? Isn’t it just as arbitrary either way” Rorty has no convincing answer other than “because it’ll probably be more useful in getting what we want.”

I think Rorty is still right to worry about bosses—the most immediate and consequential form of authoritarianism in everyone’s lives as Elizabeth Anderson points out—and oligarchs—the ones calling most of the political and economic shots. As I’ve said before, most political conversations seem to be moot until we can somehow manage to get money out of politics or mitigate or reverse the consequences of Citizens United. Whatever else one thinks about civil society writ large, communities, culture, and other intermediary institutions, our political system seems to have money, other people’s money, at its nucleus. If this is my starting point, it makes sense that people like Rorty and I see identity politics and intersectionality as, at best, a necessary cultural fight but at worst, a distraction from increasingly pressing political issues. Perhaps Rorty is still right about the central questions:

[T]he central political questions are those about the relations between the rich and the poor … how can the working class in a democratic society use the power of the ballot to prevent the capitalists from immiserating the proletariat, while still encouraging business enterprise? How can the state be a countervailing power, one which will prevent all the wealth winding up in the hands of an economic oligarchy, without creating bureaucratic stagnation? How can the political order take precedence over the economic while still leaving room for economic growth?

Indeed, I think these questions are still very much central. Our task as liberals is to fight the political and economic war just as much as the rhetorical, cultural one—it just so happens that the latter has crowded out the former to an uncomfortable degree. Put another way, Rorty knows these incursions into academic warfare over intersectionality, feminism, and identity are, at their heart, good and noble causes. The way he saw it, though, was that an unpatriotic and smug Left obsessed with identity, intersectionality “will eventually become an object of contempt.”


Featured image is Campus protest march against hate speech, by Fibonacci Blue

Adrian Rutt

Adrian Rutt is an editor at a small publishing company in Cleveland, Ohio.

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