Pragmatism: a compass rose

American conservatism and liberalism diverge philosophically. Furthermore evangelism, in conservatism’s orbit, and different leftisms, in liberalism’s orbit, and environmentalism, mostly in liberalism’s orbit but a certain environmentalism orbits around conservatism, guide liberalism and conservatism away from each other. Money’s ability to finance conservative philosophy and politics, especially politics, has made American conservatism dominant where the “price of life”, a term that can be applied to how Reaganism led to both expensive universities and hospitals, among other based on the principle that such things should not be cheap and that everyone (black, brown, indigenous, etc) should not have access to them. Despite diverging philosophically, conservatism and liberalism converge cynically, as part of a revolving door that capitalism puppets. As this happens, everyday life in America, its tradition and character, loses out to the urgency to instate liberalism and to fight their cynical convergence. Something has happened however that can change all of this. Social movements that orbit liberalism have become very popular, not only the Black Lives Matter movement but also the tenant movement and what remains of Occupy Wall Street. They now have the power to squash contemporary liberalism and found a new platform, whether it be a turn back to progressivism or socialism or something new. Through pragmatism – in dialogue, activism, pedagogy, mutual aid, visual communication, etc – this new platform will come into existence and give birth to a new society and the states, counties, municipalities, laws, and governments that will ensue from this.

In American philosophy, pragmatism, the pragmatism of William James, and of Cornel West, amongst others has been the one to achieve clarity and often in a practical way. Jackson Lears illustrates this in some of his writing. Jackson Lears is an historian whose essays I often go back to. What I love about Jackson Lears, which I love about many American voices is that American life is never banalized: it is heavily scrutinized. In an essay in The New York Review of Books titled “How The Us Began Its Empire” Lears writes:

The anti-imperialists’ arguments were rooted in the immediate experiences they cited as historical examples. Whether or not they considered themselves pragmatists, as William James did, they remained true to the fundamental philosophical meaning of pragmatism: a concern to evaluate principles with respect to their consequences. Anti-imperialists shared a pragmatic tendency to judge ideas and policy proposals by their likely impact on both the empire and its subjects, an impact that could be inferred from historical as well as contemporary evidence. They were worried about what happened to fundamental values—the separation of powers, the consent of the governed—when a republic became an empire. And since imperial expansion depended on violence, anti-imperialists were equally pragmatic in their concern for the consequences of war, perhaps the least predictable of human enterprises.

Further on, Lears makes the amazing point that it’s with obscurity that American imperialism (a stage of capitalism) validated their actions, and even came to govern American society. Obscured concepts like “America”, “valor”, “courage” fueled war after war and continue to fuel war after war. “The end of communism” for example has never clearly set in stone how such a thing affects the daily life of a person in the United States, ie the price of food, or rent, the beauty of the landscape, the clarity of river water for a family’s day off, and how it matches with humane values.

Pragmatist clarity, making clear every single aspect, allows for an elevated form of popular participation and also a strong conscience. How clear are social movements today? Very. Take the demands that the tenants movement is making: cancel rent. Why? By canceling rent, you are not only aiding communities, but allowing the economy not to shift money from tenant to landlord but from tenant to community and less to landlord. How about the landlord? That’s a bit more complicated. Though theories exist out there about nationalizing housing, etc, what happens to the landlord is a crossroad that the movement must walk through as it guides itself before the American public. Such a question leads us right into: how free should one be to do business in this country? What kind of economy and society do we want and is such a society achievable through politics but also through activism (which it should be)?

In other words, pragmatism can be our compass rose. The Democratic Party attempts to be this society’s compass rose but the contradictions in policies and rhetoric are too obvious. If Jimmy Carter (the “malaise”) and Barack Obama (every single speech) both had succeeded at being a compass rose, which they tried to, the social movements today would not be as popular. They, the party, failed, and it is from this failure that a new platform can be created. Without clarity it will not be created: Americans work too hard and suffer too much to just agree with everything you tell them. They may cheer for you at a rally but their minds are not completely set. Poet Arthur Sze says the following in his poem “Compass Rose,” that I’ll leave you with, words with which this society can blossom “if she decides ‘this is nothing,’ let the spark ignite horse become barn become valley become world”.