Saturday, February 18, 2012

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

is a fine and insightful book. I wasn’t surprised, as I’d also been impressed with Fear several years ago (though that one gave me more to argue about).

Robin wishes to counteract what he views as misconceptions about conservatism. He argues that, contrary to the presentation of the movement by both the left and the right itself as more attitudinal than intellectual, conservatism has in fact been “an idea-driven praxis” (p. 17). Related to this, and despite his title, he wants to move away from popular accounts that root conservatism in, or indeed reduce it to, alleged psychological tendencies to ground it in both social contexts and a real and enduring intellectual tradition. He wishes to develop the “notion of the right as a set of historical improvisations on a continuous theme” (p. 38), characterizing it as a “politics of backlash” in which, across centuries and continents, we can discern “a unity, a coherent body of theory and practice” (p. 33).

Robin argues that people learn little about the history of conservative thought, and the chapters, covering Burke, Hobbes, Antonin Scalia, Ayn Rand, and a multitude of others, draw out the thinking at the heart of conservatism throughout its history. Most broadly, Robin situates the conservative tradition in the history of rebellion from below and reaction from above:
This book is about the second half of that story, the demarche, and the political ideas—variously called conservative, reactionary, revanchist, counterrevolutionary—that grow out of and give rise to it. These ideas, which occupy the right side of the political spectrum, are forged in battle. They always have been, at least since they first emerged as formal ideologies during the French Revolution, battles between social groups rather than nations; roughly speaking, between those with more power and those with less. To understand these ideas, we have to understand that story. For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back. (p. 4)

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite. (p. 7)
Although there’s much attention paid to conservatives seeking to protect unequal wealth and control over resources, Robin (as the passages above suggest) focuses on the defense of power, of hierarchical orders of rule. He points to “the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligations of deference and command” (p. 8). The “animating purpose” of conservative (including libertarian) movements, he argues, is “the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere” (pp. 15-16). These practices of coercion and deference in everyday contexts like the family and the workplace, the “most personal relations of power” (p. 10), are central to the fears that propel conservative movements:
Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. (p. 10)

When the conservative looks upon a democratic movement from below, this (and the exercise of agency) is what he sees: a terrible disturbance in the private life of power. (p. 12)
This is the common thread tying instantiations of conservatism together. As Robin reminds us,
Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests. But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question, whether in the context of revolution or reform, his predecessor was in all likelihood against them. (p. 27)
He argues that this has important implications. Conservatism appeals not just to those at the top of hierarchies of rule, but also – and perhaps with special force - to those closer to the bottom. As he writes of white people in the Old South:
Though the members of this ruling class knew that they were not equal to each other, they were compensated by the illusion of superiority – and the reality of rule – over the black population beneath them. (p. 55)
This illusion of superiority and the sense of self as master are what’s threatened by liberation movements from below, and that, Robin argues, can make reformists into reactionaries (p. 12). He points to the fact that the constituency of the conservative movement is those experiencing this loss or its possibility:
People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. (pp. 58-59)
He correctly points out that it’s the Right that is currently reminding the “losers” of this, but it’s worth noting that of course the Right has created and lives by the situation in which these hierarchies exist in the first place, and that in the larger sense the losses are less than the gains, even for those who are not at the bottom. (Power is not, as Robin suggests, zero-sum. The assertion that the patriarchy and other hierarchies hurt everyone is not merely feel-good platitude or a cynical ploy by liberation movements to make their demands more palatable; it is a fact.) In any case, he’s right when he notes that here lies “what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history” (p. 97).

Contrary to simplistic and common characterizations of conservatism from those on the Left and from conservatives themselves portraying it as about tradition or prudence or resistance to (or fear of) change or newness, Robin makes clear that it is a particular set of movements arising in reaction to particular demands from below:
[I]t is important that we be clear about what the conservative is and is not opposing in the left. It is not change in the abstract. No conservative opposes change as such or defends order as such. The conservative defends particular orders—hierarchical, often private regimes of rule—on the assumption, in part, that hierarchy is order. (p. 24)

Conservatism is about power besieged and power protected. It is an activist doctrine for an activist time. (p. 28)
This foundation means that conservatism as an ideology and practice is often characterized by extreme and even radical doctrines and actions. It’s a social movement of reaction, but that doesn’t make it any less a social movement. The story often heard about a proper “conservative conservatism” that lost its moderation or has been taken over by radicals is historically inaccurate, Robin argues:
What this story of decline over-looks—whether it emanates from the right or the left—is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices. They were seen as virtues. (p. 43)

Whether in Europe or the United States, in this century or previous ones, conservatism has been a forward movement of restless and relentless change, partial to risk taking and ideological adventurism, militant in its posture and populist in its bearings, friendly to upstarts and insurgents, outsiders and newcomers alike. (p. 42)
In this, conservatives have learned from and mimicked the mobilization techniques and language of the Left and used them to their advantage. They’ve worked to build a mass movement to “make privilege popular…which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.” (p. 43) Robin sums up:
That is the task of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting the power of elites or, more precisely, to harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites. Far from being a recent innovation of the Christian Right or the Tea Party movement, reactionary populism runs like a red thread throughout conservative discourse from the very beginning. (p. 55)
What is the intellectual underpinning of this attachment to hierarchy? Robin argues that it is a particular “vision of the connection between excellence and rule” (p. 15). Conservative thought is “[n]o simple defense of one’s own place and privileges” (the conservative “may or may not be directly involved in or benefit from the practices of rule he defends”), but “stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” (p. 16) “For many,” he says,
the word ‘reaction’ connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power. But reaction is not reflex. It begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others—and then recalibrates that principle in light of a democratic challenge from below. This recalibration is no easy task, for such challenges tend by their very nature to disprove the principle. (p. 18)
There’s much in the book that’s fascinating about romantic notions of struggle and excellence and the conservative focus on “sublimity” through hierarchy and violence, including counter-revolutionary violence – how the conservative intellectual tradition has seen hierarchy, pain, and danger as positively affecting the self. “Indulging in political romanticism,” Robin asserts,
they draw from the stock-in-trade of the counter-Enlightenment, celebrating the intoxicating vitality of struggle while denouncing the bloodless norms of reason and rights. (p. 113)

Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, the conservative has been enlivened by it. (p. 217)
Robin makes it a point to note that when he talks about the centrality of violence in conservatism his “concern is with ideas and argument rather than character or psychology. Violence, the conservative intellectual has maintained, is one of the experiences in life that makes us feel the most alive, and violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively” (p. 218).

The sections on conservative writing about the so-called sublime and the experience and effects of hierarchy are, as I said, fascinating, and the examples – from Burke to Tocqueville to Schmitt to Fukuyama – do show a continuing set of themes that tie conservative thinkers together across time and place. The ways in which they see secure power and material comfort as dangerously softening and regard combat, counterrevolution, and struggle as reinvigorating and forging of excellence make for, as Robin mentions several times, a complex response to capitalism and religion. The brief discussions of conservative views of capitalism and religion are intriguing, but incomplete and not the strongest in the book.

Which brings me to the book’s flaws. Its main arguments are insightful and solid, and the quotations and historical examples are vivid illustrations (though they generally jump from centuries ago to the 20th and 21st centuries, with little about imperialism, colonialism, or even fascism). The book should have been organized around these themes. Instead, it’s a collection of writings from the past several years that have appeared elsewhere. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like the selling of books of collected pieces like this without presenting them fully as such. In this case it’s especially disappointing, as, first, the articles don’t necessarily reflect Robin’s current thinking on the questions they discuss, and, second, he wasn’t pushed to develop the ideas in them further or in engagement with the specific historical and theoretical literatures involved. (This was especially problematic in the sections about security, which were quite interesting otherwise.) It’s not difficult for the reader, having read the introduction, to pull many of the threads together, but I think it would have been a better book had Robin done that himself, and then developed his insights further. This would have taken it beyond a collection of essays. Overall, though, a useful and recommended book.

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