I’ve already posted quite a bit on Rorty’s books, and why they resonate so strongly with me. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is no exception. CIS serves as a book-length summary of his argument that if we deny a fixed, essentialist notion of human nature, we must see moral philosophers, social theorists, and much of literature as simply providing vocabularies and arguments for how societies can or should respond to historical contingency. If we accept that moral philosophy cannot give us ultimate truth, but only good arguments to use in discussions with each other, and if we accept that science can tell us pragmatically how things work, but not what decisions we should make, then Rorty’s approach to liberal social hope is both necessary and compelling.
For me, the most compelling section of the book is Rorty’s reading of Orwell’s dual accomplishments in 1984. On the surface, and for the first two thirds of 1984, what Orwell is doing is redescribing totalitarian, Stalinist Russia. This redescription is obviously meant to serve as a cautionary tale to those liberals who, prior to WWII, were fascinated with the fantasy (rather than the reality) of Stalin’s "worker’s paradise." In Rorty’s view, Orwell’s first great accomplishment in 1984 was dispelling the myth that liberal social hopes depended upon the success of the Leninist-Stalinist social experiment. He did so, not by demolishing Marxist theory or arguing (as Hayek would) that freedom and economic planning were incompatible, but by sensitizing his readers
to a set of excuses for cruelty which had been put into circulation by a particular group — the use of the rhetoric of "human equality" by intellectuals who had allied themselves with a spectacularly successful criminal gang.
If this is all that Orwell accomplished in 1984, then his critics would have a reasonable case that Orwell’s work will not age well, and along with most dystopic fiction, may be ephemeral in the literary sense. Fortunately, in creating the character of O’Brien, Orwell ensures that 1984 will retain its value long after Soviet Russia has the same kind of historical immediacy to our descendants that the Kaiser’s Germany has in our time. In Rorty’s view:
Orwell was not the first person to suggest that small gangs of criminals might get control of modern states and, thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever. But he was the first to ask how intellectuals in such states might conceive of themselves, once it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future. O’Brien is his answer to that question.
We are accustomed to viewing Stalin and his ilk as "moral monsters," men for whom the "natural" moral sense did not exist and who therefore represent an aberration. And certainly such men are moral monsters, but the deep message of 1984 is that we cannot prevent such men from developing again so long as we solely consider them aberrations or deviations from a "natural" moral order. For Orwell, in the characters of O’Brien and Winston Smith, is demonstrating the importance of historical contingency and the malleability of our world views given that contingency. In Rorty’s view, Orwell’s importance is that he:
helps us see that it just happened that rule in Europe passed into the hands of people who pitied the humiliated and dreamed of human equality, and that it may just happen that the world will wind up being ruled by people who lack any such sentiments or ideas….The triumph of Oligarchical Collectivism, if it comes, will not come because people are basically bad, or really are not brothers, or really have no natural rights, any more than Christianity and political liberalism have triumphed (to the extent they have) because people are basically good, or really are brothers, or really do have natural rights. History may create and empower people like O’Brien as a result of the same kind of accidents that have prevented those people from existing until recently — the same sort of accidents that created and empowered people like J.S. Mill and Orwell himself.
This is an important point, one whose relevance extends well beyond evaluating a specific, dystopian vision of society, or even our fascination for dystopias in general. Rorty’s argument goes to the heart of why those who believe in the basic liberal project must reject the notion that there is a specific, "natural" way to describe our efforts. Rights-based discourse is powerful, but no more "natural" a way of describing liberal hopes than articulating specific and local reasons for our solidarity as people. I take this point to be congruent with the notion (held by Berlin and Gray) that liberalism, in order to continue to grow and function in a multicultural world, must shed aspects of Enlightenment rationalism, in particular those parts which would suggest that there is a single, universal rationale for liberal hopes and projects. Instead, what liberals must share is simply the realization that we are the lucky inheritors of a political tradition which is unique and valuable, but also the outgrowth of historical circumstances which may not repeat themselves everywhere in the future. Part of our job as liberals is to stop assuming that liberal freedoms will always exist, or that democracy and liberal freedoms are synonymous, and that our task is simply to figure out how to win elections; instead, we must also consider how structural trends in our society and economy, historical accidents, as well as the discourse of our intellectuals, may serve to either perpetuate or snuff out the liberal experiment in melding freedom and equality.