BY MATTHEW HERBERT
The harshness of Richard Rorty’s words must have jarred his own ears when he wrote, in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, that America was lurching toward a brutal new phase in politics. He said:
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.
Overturning governments? That sounds extreme. How might this come to pass in America? Rorty lays out his reasons with cool precision.
First, the Left and Right would collude to affirm organized money as the country’s real political master. In 1998, this process was already well under way. Most senators were millionaires before they ran for office. Washington was being flooded with business lobbyists, who increasingly wrote the content of our laws (especially tax codes and financial regulations), and gerrymandering was promising near-automatic election wins by local poitical machines which would not have to deliver on any substantial promises. Developments post-Rorty (d. 2007) topped up this cocktail. The financial bailouts after the crash of 2008 proclaimed that bank presidents’ bonuses would now be treated as too big to go unpaid, and in 2010 Citizens United vs FEC gave organized money free speech rights the same as yours and mine, ensuring that we will never, ever be heard again by our elected officials until we have made our first billion and start throwing it around. And voilà, our democracy was remade into a plutocracy.
But the masses know too many sappy patriotic songs and slogans to accept this kind of thing without protest, right? Cradle of freedom and all that. We can’t really expect the $10-an-hour crowd to rise for the national anthem and sing praises to wage slavery? Well, yes, a “Weimar-like state” is an inherently unstable condition precisely because the proles feel permanently trod upon and are constantly on the verge of figuring out who is doing the treading. How to divert them from the sight of the huge golden trough from which the plutocrats sup? How to sate their demand for democracy? Fake democracy ought to do the trick. As Rorty puts it,
For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might some day make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians of both the Left and the Right to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere–to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores.
Have you ever wondered why the editors of the Wall Steet Journal bother publishing opeds about abortion, gay marriage, or Black Lives Matter? Because they are too polite to simply tell you to mind your own fucking business, but they know there are magic potions for getting you to “specialize in cultural issues” instead of bottom line politics. As Gore Vidal once sagely pointed out, politics used to be about deciding who got how much public funding to do what. It is now about getting a nuclear-grade hate on for people who think differently from you about sex, religion, or authority.
But wait. Can it really be this easy to keep the proles in line? Let’s get back to that bit about Weimar being unstable. The wage earner who would have worked steadily in a factory 30 years ago but who now strings together two or three McJobs without benefits must feel a real loss of security that cannot be diverted by his participation in a debating club, even one turbocharged by abortion and social media. Again, Rorty is to the point:
Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for workers in America.
This is the most combustible element in American political life, and it must be kept lidded. Can the working poor forever be engrossed in culture wars funded by organized money? We’ll see, I suppose.
Meanwhile, we have achieved a Hegelian synthesis in political consciousness that Rorty predicted in 1998. As downsizing and offshoring begin to cut into white collar jobs, he wrote, the working poor will 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.
If you think I am giving Rorty too much credit for being spot on in his prediction of Trumpism, I would like to point out one telling detail that he actually undersold. Through one of its favorite fronts in the culture wars, the myth of rugged individualism, organized money has succeeded in persuading many working poor that there are actually several classes beneath them, clawing for their hard-earned tax dollars, and they (the working poor) are, like their white-collar compatriots, too dignified to underwrite this kind of profligacy. Thus we have the working poor rejecting even the glimmer of affordable healthcare on grounds that they don’t want to subsidize it for the really wretched of the earth. We can’t have any slacking, you know. As Christopher Hitchens observed of moments this low, it’s enough to make a cat laugh.
A Hegelian synthesis preserves the opposites from which it arises. This is the beauty part, if you are Trump. Faced with a choice between the keeping the ever-worsening status quo and agitating for real, popular revolution, the working poor have instead chosen a plutocrat’s counterfeit version of popular revolution–gaudy populist chauvinism. Organized money sits serenely atop the new sound and fury. If you wonder what its intentions are, consider that the only thing Trump has put any serious effort into so far has been raiding future healthcare budgets to secure tax breaks for the rich.
I read Rorty’s Achieving Our Country sandwiched between two other books that also cast a clear, bracing light on the age of Trumpism: Tony Judt’s 2010 Ill Fares the Land, and Timothy Snyder’s 2017 On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century.
Ill Fares the Land tries to remind liberal democrats that they never had it so good as the middle 40 years of the 20th century, when the state was uncontested in its role as advocate of its citizens’ well being. During FDR’s New Deal and the reconstruction of post-WWII Great Britain, all the humble citizen had to do was look around to see the horrible, overwhelming power of the tectonic forces that could ruin the lives of millions. If the state was good for anything, it was good for fending off the worst of these forces–poverty, sickness, war. And so for a few golden decades, many westerners accepted the main principles of social democracy–capitalist economic development harnessed to a system of progressive taxation designed to maximize economic security through public works.
Judt is careful to point out that we are not social democrats by default, that it took the force of the Great Depression and WWII to persuade the masses they were better off with the kind of government willing to redistribute private wealth for social security than with the kind who thought its job was simply to stay out of the wealth-seeking individual’s way.
This sort of thing is against our religion these days, of course. If your political instincts lie even a micron to the right of the far left, you likely started to stiffen or breathe audibly at that sentence about redistributing wealth. (I hope to make time in the future to write about two uses of redistribution that Rorty, Judt and Snyder pass over too lightly, I believe, which fail to disturb us–the construction of a lavish social safety net for the super rich and the unquestioned existence of a gargantuan defense budget that funds our addiction to military chauvinism. These things never perturb us.)
Like Rorty, Judt is prescient about the rise of the working poor as the revivifying force behind populism. The dynamics of globalism and automation have produced a new class of precarious labor that used to be able to take its security for granted. Ever the historian, Judt points out that this taking-for-granted was the outcome of deliberate government choices in the 1930s and 1940s, not the natural arc of unfettered market forces, as we would like to believe.
As a non-historian, I cannot judge the quality of Judt’s account, but to hear him tell it, the tale of social democracy’s demise was a simple one. Just as the post-WWII generation got comfortable in its prosperity, it began to replace its Keynesian assumptions about the benefits of collectivism with a new gospel being written at the University of Chicago that said all our lives would be better if the state stopped taxing and spending and simply left us alone.
It was an appealing idea. Americans especially like the idea that everything worth doing, we do on our own. And, as it took hold, it attracted powerful benefactors. For the past 30 years, Judt says, think tanks, newspapers and politicians have pushed us to believe increasingly that our highest freedom consisted in being left alone by the state. But alone to do what? Well, if President Reagan was right about Adam Smith and the workings of the Invisible Hand, all we had to do was try to get rich and the full commodities of public life would simply fall into place.
There is a catch, though, according to Judt. Even in flush times, accepting that the purpose of life is to acquire wealth erodes the possibility of trust, and trust is the only reason we willingly pay our taxes. Judt writes:
As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics, but also by many of its staunchest defenders.
There is, of course, a further catch: times aren’t always flush, and when economic security declines, the economy’s losers will start to feel betrayed by the established ideology. For 30 years Americans have been taught that public spiritedness was fine in the abstract but once you started putting tax dollars behind it, it became socialism, which was very bad, because look at the USSR’s gulags and China’s Great Leap Forward. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.
Here is how far we are willing to take our faith in the free market. By the 2000s, all the major indices of economic well-being showed America in steep decline, says Judt. Despite the gold-standard healthcare created by our immense wealth, life expectancy in America sank from a high in the 1970s to a place just below Bosnia and above Albania in the 2000s. Social mobility collapsed as well: for the first time ever, by the 2000s, young Americans could not reasonably expect to outpace their parents in terms of education, employment or well-being. McJobs and ill health awaited most of them. Small wonder, then, that the things Judt calls standard symptoms of being “chronically superfluous to the economy” went up as well–depression, alcoholism, obesity, gambling, and petty criminality.
But we stuck to our guns, says Judt. We continued to revere the self-made tycoon as the personage most worth emulating. Thirty years of propaganda underwritten by the economic worldview of the University of Chicago have convinced us it is noble, not crass, to measure our self worth in terms of possessions acquired.
We Americans accept that life is an adventure, and that adventures have real winners and losers. For the middle 40 years of the 20th century, there were enough of us bootstrapping our way up to prosperity to believe that winning at life was primarily a matter of will. Whoever lost out just wasn’t applying themselves. But as our jobs started to escape on the upcurrents of market forces such as offshoring and automation, the myth began to seem less credible, or at least it should have. Myths die hard, though, and we still wish to believe that our own grit and intelligence are the main determinants of our fate. Weren’t those market forces benevolent in the final analysis? Didn’t our faith tell us they have to be?
Timothy Snyder’s 2017 book, On Tyranny, reminds us that there are worse things the established powers can do than laugh at us while we entertain such childish thoughts. They can exploit our confusion.
The logician will tell you that any proposition whatsoever follows from two contradictory premises. (It’s a mildly technical matter; you can Google the argument ad absurdam if you’re curious). The government propagandist doesn’t need to know the whys and wherefores of this principle: all he needs to know is that once you get most of the people believing passionately in nonsense most of the time, you can play much more freely with the kinds of things you would want them to believe.
The first desideratum of the tyrant, says Snyder, is for us to accept his self-centered worldview as the truth, easy for us because it is a variant of our own narcissistic wish to simplify the world and assign blame for perceived injustices. The following, though, is a precis of how this attitude played out in the 20th century:
Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people.
As a philosopher, I feel the same giddiness at this sort of thing that vulcanologists must have felt in 2010 when Iceland’s largest volcano erupted, disrupting transatlantic air travel and suddenly calling their arcane musings into vogue. Trump’s assault on truth, knowledge and honesty have suddenly made it highly useful to know a thing or two about what constitutes those ideals.
Snyder considers Trump’s attack on truth as a campaign consisting of several modes. He is worth quoting at considerable length on this onslaught:
The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld.
The second mode is shamanistic incantation. As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. The systematic use of nicknames such as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” displaced certain character traits that might more appropriately have been affixed to the president himself. Yet through blunt repetition over Twitter, our president managed the transformation of individuals into stereotypes that people then spoke aloud. At rallies, the repeated chants of “Build that wall” and “Lock her up” did not describe anything that the president had specific plans to do, but their very grandiosity established a connection between him and his audience.
The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. The president’s campaign involved the promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on both social policy and national defense. These promises mutually contradict. It is as if a farmer said he were taking an egg from the henhouse, boiling it whole and serving it to his wife, and also poaching it and serving it to his children, and then returning it to the hen unbroken, and then watching as the chick hatches. . . .
The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience. What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. At the end of the war a worker told Klemperer that “understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Führer.”
Rorty, Judt and Snyder would all say it is up to us to determine whether this kind of abject faith will become our own. Have we surrendered the idea that we can act on collective purposes other than maximizing military might? Various parts of our history indicate we were once capable of contemplating radically different priorities. Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman, Twain, James Baldwin, and hundreds of others all told of a different place, where it was possible to measure our self-worth in terms of liberties won, experience broadened, and minds illuminated. There may be no going back to this place, but we should have the self respect to try.