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  • A Drift and Mastery for Postmodern Postcapitalists
  • Brian Lloyd (bio)
James Livingston. Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. xiii + 392 pp. Notes and index. $39.95.

It is a measure of the maturity of the pragmatist revival that serious discord now reigns in the ranks of its steadiest proponents. As eager as ever to dispense some distillation of Peirce, James, or Dewey as remedy for assorted practical ills and philosophical bad habits, the pragmatists among contemporary historians have at no time been farther from agreement about what it is, exactly, that they are pushing. At one level, these disagreements represent the hardening of differences endemic to what has been since its founding an amorphous tradition. That they should surface just now among historians, however, reflects the ripening of a contradiction present in the article that reclaimed for pragmatism a share of the profession’s spotlight. In 1980, David Hollinger proposed to give shape to the tradition by isolating a distinctive combination of assertions about modern culture that historians might call, with confidence, “pragmatist.” However serviceable for historians, his conception differed in one particular from the one then being promoted in philosophical circles by Richard Rorty: where Hollinger highlighted pragmatism’s scientific aspirations, Rorty believed these worked at cross-purposes with its best, chiefly aesthetic, ambitions. Where the tough-minded among pragmatism’s advocates thought that the tentativeness of knowledge made all the more invaluable a trustworthy, scientific method of seeking it, those in the tender-minded camp rejected both the object and technics of truth-seeking. Rorty’s sudden notoriety turned the once prim pragmatist neighborhood into an intellectual Haight-Ashbury—a mecca for every kind of antipositivist, postempiricist, or otherwise nonfoundationalist outcast, none of whom had reckoned seriously with the founders’ pretensions to realism or paid dues for as long as Rorty as a Cartesian straight. The realists in this neighborhood have grown testy of late because, like Haight hippies after the Summer of Love, they fear that its hard-won identity is being jeopardized by an ever-growing influx of ever-woollier idealists. 1 [End Page 285]

With Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850–1940, James Livingston joins the exodus of left-leaning historians whose rebellion against the now staid conventions of the new social history has led them to seek out the company of the postenlightened. The author previously of a “class analysis” of Progressive-era banking and monetary reform, 2 Livingston got the urge for going after deciding that social history has become, in its single-minded pursuit of “subaltern studies,” a “barrier” to the entry of new goods into the historian’s “marketplace of ideas” (p. xvi). He endeavors with great ingenuity to smuggle past this tollgate a notion that he hopes will undercut the tightly managed trade currently conducted, as he sees it, in romantic and artisanal nostalgia: the story of “the transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism” is best read as “the first act of an unfinished comedy rather than the residue of tragedy” (p. 98). Historians straining to hear in this twice-told tale the new, upbeat moral Livingston finds there need only abandon “the standpoint of the ‘new social history’” for the “narrative form of pragmatism” (p. xvi), a piece of advice premised on his conviction that William James and John Dewey greeted in just the right way the triumph of corporate capitalism and the spread of a consumer culture. Pragmatists and literary naturalists like Theodore Dreiser, he argues, were foremost among those Progressive-era artists and intellectuals who saw in these events “promise and possibility” rather than portents of doom. Specifically, these observers perceived in the trust movement and the ceaseless commodification that accompanied it the prospect of rewarding, if “unproductive,” work and an opportunity to negotiate, at long last, “a passage beyond the realm of necessity” (p. 66). While sundry partisans of small producer capitalism fought to save endangered, republican notions of character and selfhood, they used the ideological materials first brought to market by the agents of consumer culture—e.g., metaphors of credit and speculation—to fashion a social, forward-looking conception...

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