On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIIC Procedural Democracy & the American Left Rorty versus Rawls

Let’s presume we subscribe to the primacy of defending human rights, with the premise that the responsibility and opportunity of individuals is to develop and exercise their natural endowments, and that this goal must be protected, and that such a program must be carried out within a system that protects those most disadvantaged. However, if we find that such a foundation is not only inadequate to advance justice internationally but unintentionally compounds the problem domestically. As globalism advances, where do we find alternative ethical premises on which to construct a new international ethical order when you favour duty over sentiment, universal validity over the historical and context and space in which you find yourself?

We begin by understanding the core critique of the John Rawls’ political manifesto. Even though I never offered a theoretical critique of John Rawls, Rawls’ ethical political theory began based on an assumption that an autonomous political domain that was self-sufficient and free-standing had to be presumed to provide a starting point to provide a foundation for the conception of citizenship that may be shallower – yes, shallower – but embrace a broader conception of the citizen.

Rawls not only brackets but is indifferent to whether those citizens are opportunists who lack any moral compass whatsoever but justify their position on the basis of the survival of the fittest, or whether they are ethical but have radically different foundations for what they believe. They may be religious believers, liberal intellectuals or Marxists or quasi-Marxists who believe in latching onto historical forces to determine what is ethical in the political sphere.

In contrast, Richard Rorty cares, cares about whether you retain and maintain a moral sensibility and a conscience, whether you are a Donald Trump, an ultra-orthodox Jew, a liberal intellectual or a quasi-Marxist radical. For Rorty, an ethical political realm can only be founded when everyone shares a belief in secular humanism, at least when it comes to the foundation for norms in the political sphere. America offered a secular religion of democracy, aspiring to achieve social justice and liberation for all members in society. You have to be a political liberal and not just a centrist agnostic. You certainly cannot be a self-centered narcissistic individual engaged in politics as a shill game.

I have used only a very few selected texts as reference points:

PMN 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

CIS 1989 Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

AOC 1999 Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

PCP 2007 Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers

Does it matter whether you are an institutional liberal who believes in operating within an accepted normative frame that can only be modified very cautiously and according to strict second-order rules? Does it matter whether you are a progressive who allows the goal of human betterment to offer a way around restrictive political institutions? Even if both groups are embraced as a sine qua non of a democratic polity, a secular conversion is required as a precondition so that citizens are infused with a passion for the American dream, not as a dream of personal financial success, but of the American liberal democratic dream that insists that the political realm be governed by such a mission as the polity engages in political discourse and the “rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective.” It is a belief in procedural democracy. The foundational democratic principles of liberty and equality must be tied to a future vision of an improved, but not a perfect, democratic polity in which all humans are free and have an equal opportunity because they have both the right and the actual opportunity to decide how to correct faults and failures in the political realm.

Rather than an abstract starting point, Rorty insists that a utopian end point is a pre-condition for an ethical democratic polity. John Rawls, in contrast, requires a clear articulation of the conceptions of justice, of the nature of the state and of the role of the rule of law. For Richard Rorty, what is required is a conviction about process, about discourse, about conversations that permit cultural criticism and that enhance one’s political consciousness. Rather than a Platonic prerequisite of conceptual clarity requiring a univocal conception of the basic “forms” for a polity, the measure in not an ideal but a focus on shortcomings, on what is found lacking. It is a focus on incompleteness, inadequacies, contradictions and incoherence without presuming a meta-historical law that can reconcile these inadequacies and contradictions. You do not need a utopian consensus about the end. You do need a pragmatic consensus about the process.

Richard Rorty offers a melioristic rather than a utopian project. It differs from the realist meliorism of thinkers such as Amartya Sen or Bernard Williams by remaining married to Rawls moralism without his utopianism. For Rorty, we may not need purely articulated moral ideals, but you do need foundational second order rules. Rawls and Rorty, as well as Sen and Williams, may be pragmatists, but they are pragmatists of different stripes.

Rorty, unlike Rawls, is preoccupied with how democracy is realized in actual practice, in particular, in democracies that operate in accordance with the premises and traditions of a liberal industrial society. Even when Rawls ventures into the world of practice in his later works, it is through conceptions such as an “overlapping consensus” and a vision of “public reason.” In contrast, Rorty’s focus is on how a majority consensus is actually constructed and how one engages in productive reasoning in the political sphere.

I, on the other hand, am engaged in an effort that is in some ways closer to Rawls in his later philosophy, determined to make explicit the implicit political culture of a democratic society. However, whereas Rawls remains a Platonist convinced that there is one such ideal culture, I am convinced there are many and, in this series of blogs, I refer to ethical philosophers to render explicit the underlying premises of the different strands of the liberal left to ascertain whether and to what degree a consensus can develop and, more importantly, how that discourse can be shaped to achieve such an end. While Rawls is drawn to an ahistorical utopianism, ironically characteristic of centrists, my approach is distinctly historical and not only not utopian, but anti-utopian. It is the utopianism of centrist moralists like Rawls engaged in the problems of real political works that leads to their mindblindness.

The issue is not one of a presumed social cooperation, but how such cooperation is developed in a world in which even the definition of a free and equal citizen is a matter of debate and not a given, in which the “well-ordered society” looks increasingly more disordered, a world in which society no longer seems to have a fundamental social structure that holds it together for even those who are nominally committed to each of these conceptions. These conceptions are interpreted in different ways such that the divisions weaken the proponents of a democratic polity and strengthen those who want power but disdain democratic premises.

Paul Berman in the third of a series of three articles in Tablet entitled, “The Philosophers and the American Left,” (25 November 2018) quoted Rorty from AOC to demonstrate his prescience in describing the earthquake that American democracy was veering towards.

“At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban 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. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

What happens when there is no overlapping consensus or when that traditional overlapping consensus is being rapidly eroded by the rising sea levels of the intolerant right? What happens when “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” is under enormous strain and appears to be breaking down? What happens when the premises of a democratic industrial society need to be replaced by premises more suited to the information age and where industrialism, in all its varied senses, is being exported, but without the traditions of democracy which wrapped around those liberal societies? What happens when the very premise of the rule of law as fundamental is being attacked by using democratic means of free discourse and democratic legislative practices to undermine the democratic system?

What happens when the electorate chooses for its leader a person who believes in disrupting basic structures, in discarding truth as the fundamental ground of any rational discourse, in conceiving of patriotism as narcissistic self-serving instead of an expression of loyalty and self-sacrifice? It then becomes impossible to separate personal morality from the ethical underpinning of social and political structures? For those same structures have selected a person actually dedicated to destroying them.

Thus, this two-sided conundrum. The democratic polity uses its practices to select a person who could not care less about those democratic processes. On the other hand, those same democratic practices might not have sufficient heft and strength to counter the predatory behaviour of a non-democratic populist. The theoretical failing of Rawls becomes a source of danger to the actual practice of democracy. For it was the centrists, those who most notably expressed in practice a Rawlsian point of view, who provided the extra lift and rationalization to allow such a non-democratic leader to be chosen.

Liberal theory, in particular that of Richard Rorty, is supposedly there to save the day. For Rorty’s liberalism includes a patriotism that puts off limits selling one’s nation out to a rival nation for the purpose of either self-interest and/or the supposed universal welfare and peace of humanity. You cannot be a traitor to your nation. You cannot collude with a state dedicated to undermining the very basic principles that are the foundation of your state. Nor can you commit felonies that abrogate democratic practice by accepting emoluments while serving the public or corrupting the democratic processes by using money illegally to advance your own quest for power. Most importantly, you cannot ignore the rule of law and give the finger to legal norms that bind the procedures developed by a democratic polity.

These connections between personal and public morality, which are ignored by Rawls, become the critical second order rules for ensuring a truly democratic dialogue. That is the essence of liberalism, not substantive norms but procedural ones, ones which tie together personal and public morality rather than segregating them. The problem is not instantiating ethical principles in actual practice, but preventing corrupt practices from undermining the democratic project. The problem is not moralism, but how to exclude immorality from seizing power. There is no basic structure, just limits to a variety of alternative structures that can be developed within boundaries.

The stress on those boundaries is very different than an emphasis on a foundation. In attempting to demonstrate how classical utopian political and philosophical ideals could be synthesized with a contemporary industrial democratic society, Rawls not only included the wealthy beneficent plutocrats within the democratic polity, but the wealthy amoral anti-democratic populist mobsters who were given plenty of space and opportunity to gain power. A liberal polity had to be dedicated to creating barriers that prevent such a takeover. It is tough to admit it, but it was precisely utopian idealism and do-goodism that made room for nogoodniks to gain power.

Democracies do not share a basic conceptual architecture but have different architectural expressions and designs rooted in different histories. They bear only a Wittgensteinian family resemblance to one another. What they do possess in common are sets of second order rules, often relatively weak, to keep scoundrels away from the levers of power.

This means that the selection of a leadership class may not be concerned with moving towards the greatest good, but that the structures will be used to prevent the process itself from being seized by the unscrupulous and by anti-democratic forces. Rawls never paid attention to the role of multinational corporations. Marxists, proto-Marxists, and even progressives did. Like Rawls, neither did centrists belonging to the liberal camp. With one exception; they had to protect the norms of discourse essential to a democratic polity from corruption, a goal that became particularly acute as the information age displaced the industrial age at the head of the line of history.

Rawls insisted that, “The idea of an overlapping consensus is introduced to make the idea of a well-ordered society more realistic and to adjust it to the historical and social conditions of democratic societies, which include the fact of reasonable pluralism.” However, reconciling pluralism and a well-ordered society can be done through populist democratic means which sacrifices and limits that pluralism, ostensibly for the sake of preserving the society. Hence the attack on immigrants. For the one universal premise is that which Michael Walzer insists upon, that the most important decision any democratic polity can make is who it admits into citizenship.

The other side of the coin is who is excluded from membership. Consensus can best be reached by making the boundary conditions narrower for entry so much so that such a step undermines the goal of spreading the democratic polity throughout the world. It is the latter that Rorty insists must be the mission of a liberal democratic society. And it must pursue that task by emphasizing personal virtues, enunciating and practicing a set of procedural norms already well established, and seeking to expand those norms to the international and inter-state sphere. In doing so, we cannot rely on the powers of practical reason, as Rawls does, but must do battle with the powers of irrationality. Abstract theorems of political philosophy offer an escapist nostrum to avoid the realities of democracy on the ground.

We need more case studies rather than neo-Kantian theoretical developments. We need in-depth historical understanding to advance the liberal enterprise. As Bernard Williams wrote, liberalism must, “start with what is at hand,” and not with an ideal of what should be. For Rorty, we must start with the historical and political situations that confront us.

That demands that we not only understand the takeover of traditional conservativism by an immoral right-wing populism, but the divisiveness amongst and the inadequacies of left liberals that allowed such a situation to emerge. That is precisely how you can have an ethical polity without either an abstract foundation or utopian ideal, but a system of government that arises from and improves upon existing practices, specifically of a liberal democracy.

However, if working at that improvement requires, for Rorty, hope, what is the source of that hope? Where can hope be found in the practices of a liberal democracy? For hope is not a practice, but it may be a necessary precondition for believing in progress, believing that we can improve within the confines of the historical situation in which we find ourselves to both extend and deepen those moral values.

But what if this hope, this secularized religious faith, is akin to Rawls’ utopian ideal such that it induces a mindblindness both to dangers creeping in from the side and inadequacies that we fail to notice as we naively seek to better the world?  Hope, which can be viewed as a necessary resource to improve the world, may be the very reason why depravity creeps in. Further, it induces us to neglect other resources that are far more important than hope in the polis to make it both safe and democratic.

Do we have to move past Rawls and Rorty? But where can we find a guru in these troubling times?


With the help of Alex Zisman


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