Richard Rorty is in danger of attaining the sort of eminence which today is normally reserved for French philosophes. footnote1He is one of the few English-language thinkers whom defenders of postmodernism feel able to cite along-side the continental icons of Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. He has been described, for example, as ‘one of the major US philosophers of the post-modern movement’.footnote2 As such, Rorty can be treated as a representative of wider cultural, ideological trends.footnote3 Roy Bhaskar takes this line in his recent Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom. ‘Why Rorty?’, he asks, having devoted the bulk of his book to criticizing the American philosopher. Bhaskar answers his own question by claiming that Rorty’s philosophy, with its anti-realism and celebration of irony, provides an ideology for intellectual yuppies.footnote4 There is nothing new in seeing the tones of conformity in Rorty’s professed postmodern liberalism. Nancy Fraser has accused Rorty of failing to acknowledge patriarchal assumptions. A few years ago, Richard Bernstein saw Rorty as a Cold War theorist.footnote5 Indeed, Rorty himself writes that ‘the left’s favourite word for me is “complacent”, just as the right’s is “irresponsible” ’.footnote6

I will argue that Rorty is very much a figure for his times, but not quite in the way that some critics have suggested. If Rorty were offering a remodelled version of Cold War ideology, then his importance would be declining. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, us foreign policy no longer needs to be based upon an unrelenting anti-Marxism. Fear of communism gave Cold War politicians, such as Reagan or Bush, a moral certainty. Now, a new era—with a younger face in the White House—offers a more open-spirited rhetoric and further possibilities for a global Pax Americana. Rorty’s philosophy captures this mood with its ironic iconoclasm and its rejection of old strident certainties. Yet, it also contains hegemonic themes, well suited to these so-called post-marxist, post-ideological, postmodern times.

The key to understanding Rorty as an ideological voice of his times lies in nationalism. At the outset, it might be objected that this is absurd. Perhaps Rorty can be accused of sexism, elitism, or liberal self-satisfaction. But nationalism is altogether too fierce an accusation. Certainly, Rorty is no romantic conservative, reconstructing a heroic national past. Nor, by any stretch of the imagination, is Rorty an ‘ethnic cleanser’, glorifying the ‘pure’ race. Surely, there must be some mistake in raising the issue of nationalism.

Yet the mistake may lie in failing to recognize how deeply nationalism is embedded in contemporary consciousness. There is much talk today about ‘globalization’ and ‘the decline of the nation state’, as if the postmodern world is going to be a post-national one.footnote7For the time being, the world is still a world of nation-states, and, thus, a world of nationalisms.footnote8 Nationhood remains the major ideological force which can mobilize populations for war. This is evident as rival nationalisms dispute for the territory of the former Soviet empire. Nationalism is not confined to social movements, which aim to create new nation-states, but it is also the ideology of established nations.footnote9 If nation-states are to exist (and, indeed, if they are to combat those nationalist movements which threaten their integrity), they need to reproduce their own sense of nationhood. In Benedict Anderson’s terms, nation-states must continually recreate themselves as ‘imagined communities’.footnote10 To accomplish this, the contemporary nation needs its shared self-identity, its sense of distinctiveness, and its representations of ‘others’. More generally, it will also depict ‘nationhood’ as a natural feature of the world.

There is a further reason for thinking the ‘decline of the nation-state’ to be premature. The collapse of the Soviet empire has produced a situation in which one nation is bidding for hegemonic power. As the Gulf War showed, the removal of the ussr as a rival superpower permits the United States to mobilize an alliance of nations in pursuit of a global Pax Americana. Moreover, the Gulf War, like the Falklands War, revealed how quickly and intensively Western publics will support wars ostensibly fought in the cause of national integrity.

Nevertheless, the nationalism of Western democratic nation-states is not straightforward, for it does not present itself as nationalist. The members of Western nations tend to imagine their nations to be tolerant and non-nationalist: ‘others’ are the bigots and the ethnic cleansers. Discourse analysts have shown how commonly this way of talking is used in Western democracies, especially when appeals are being made for stricter immigration laws to keep ‘others’ outside ‘our’ nation. According to the analyses of Teun van Dijk and other researchers, these discourses are shared by mainstream politicians, journalists and ordinary members of the public alike.footnote11 The denial of ‘our’ nationalism is nationalist, for it is part of the common-sense imagining of ‘us’, the democratic, tolerant, reasonable nation.footnote12

There is a further reason why the specific nationalism of the Pax Americana might have a complex rhetoric. The nation which aspires to lead the other nations of the world cannot appear to speak for itself—it must speak for all the world. If flags are to be waved internationally, they must be waved for ‘all of us’. A complex rhetoric of hegemony can be expected: the cause of a nation, which imagines itself to be non-nationalist and which bids to be the voice of the world, must appear to transcend narrow nationalism.