As I’ve written about elsewhere, the last five or six years for me have been a time of pretty dramatic political change. Obviously we had the Trump presidency, the emergence of the DSA, the MMT theory getting a lot of airtime, and many other factors in national and international politics. I started out 2016 with a vague leaning toward the left, a sort of sure, I’m a socialist intention. Living in San Francisco put me a lot closer to actual socialists and caused my actual political allegiances to shift. Basically, I was appalled by what I saw in some of that leftism and started to see things on less a left-right spectrum than a spectrum between libertarian and institutionalist futures: that the west coast left & right were both heavily invested in libertarian ideas. I found myself gravitating more toward institutions, more towards reform, toward skepticism that there’s some emergent, functional “people” who can take care of their own communities without a national entity and without government as a profession.
Reading The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn confirmed these feelings, that anti-statism and smallholder capitalism is the politics of the NIMBY city dwellers and, to some degree, the New Left as well. I’ve been digging to find the roots of some odd ideas on the left – a class politics that reveres the proletariat, a conception of capitalism that vilifies markets but considers housing wealth to be good and non-capitalistic. In the depths of it, I was in a comment thread with some socialist who summed it up that owning a house is not capitalist, renting is. What I saw in the DSA in SF was an interest in socializing new industries, but no enthusiasm for making sure that existing government capacities could keep going. They wanted a city-run bank, but weren’t especially interested in fighting budget cuts for the library or transit systems.
So, anyway, I’ve been frustrated. None of this lines up with my ideas for the future. It was in this funk, in the midst of reading some Marx directly to figure out whether that’s where this all came from, that a friend lent me Achieving Our Country. He’s been raving about it for years, that it was the most pivotal read of his political evolution.
And, man, it really is great. This is a book that fills in the other side of left history for people who have only really lived through the post-1960s New Left. It’s extremely convincing and motivating: I came away convinced that a better future is possible and that it’s not automatically treason to consider reform or “class collaboration.” I also came away realizing that this reformist left had its own prominent intellectuals that we already talk about. Even the socialism of Eugene Debs, which I’ve seen referenced in leftist circles – he got a shoutout at a performance of the San Francisco mime troupe – a performance which got a rave review in the area’s NIMBY newspaper – something to think about. Even Debs’s socialism was pretty distinct from what we see now, it was less obsessed with purity, less interested in fully dismantling the system, and even a tad patriotic.
So, wow. What a book. The core of the book, the essays The Eclipse of the Reformist Left, and A Cultural Left are concise, readable, and free of jargon. The intro and outro are much harder: Rorty’s discussion of Hegel, Kant, Henry Adams, Heidegger, and more was well beyond what I can understand with my faint knowledge of those readings in college.
There’s also a bit of biography thrown in there that reminded me of Nona Willis Aronowitz in Bad Sex. Rorty, like Aronowitz, was an heir to an intellectual tradition. His relatives are real names in the left tradition. So his childhood includes some amazing anecdotes and connections. I think he carried the torch well. It’s just funny how some people have a lot of family with Wikipedia pages and others, myself included, don’t.
If you’ve found yourself drawn to leftism but repelled by some of its modern quirks, this is the book for you.