The Strongman in our Future

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I took Philosphy 101 from Richard Rorty in 1968. I was a semi-literate 18 year old; I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know. All I remember of the experience was Rorty’s patrician elocution and that he first introduced me to the term “qua”. A few college courses later I began to glimpse the outlines of my ignorance and my interest in philosophy was launched. However it was decades later before I returned to Rorty. My learned friend J.M. recommended “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity” which spurred me on to the rest of Rorty’s work.

Later in his career Rorty left the strict confines of academic philosophy. His book on American politics “Achieving our Country” was based on lectures he gave almost 20 years ago. I am going to exercise crude editorial license and provide a long extract.

America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie and this process is likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt…Since 1973, the assumption that all hardworking American married couples would be able to afford a home and the wife could then, if she chose, stay home and raise the kids has begun to seem absurd…Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. The world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers that the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises…in 1979 the kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were 4 times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter: now they are 10 times more likely…The old industrialized democracies are headed into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments..(in America)…members of labor unions and unorganized unskilled workers will sooner or later recognize 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…white collar workers themselves afraid…are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point something will crack….the electorate…will decide that the system has failed and look for a strongman to vote for – someone who will assure them that the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and post-modern professors will no longer be calling the shots…One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans and homosexuals will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.

Rorty is certainly not alone in espying the lineaments of fascism within liberal democracies; Antonio Gramsci, Edward Luttwak and Tony Judt also come to mind. But the last two sentences of Rorty’s quotation convey a particulary painful and American prescience.

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