Few political science books have stirred as much controversy as Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. In its initial review, the New York Times dismisses the book as a diatribe preaching to the converted. On the other hand, Nobel Prize winning economist and well known liberal Paul Krugman describes Robin’s interpretation of conservatism as the best guide available. Finally, there were those who praised the book’s ambition and erudition, but decried its polemical style and lack of structure. The book was initially released in 2011, and covered the history of conservatism from Burke to Sarah Palin. Oxford University Press has recently published a radically restructured version of the book. Robin has included a new introduction to the text and new essays on the rise of Trumpism etc., and either edited or removed a few others. The result is a very new book, which has generated a whole new wave of anger and praise, with some claiming that Robin has been “vindicated” in his harsh assessment of the conservative tradition. Since its publication, Robin has been defending and elaborating the book’s conclusions, most recently in an interesting article for the New Yorker.
This kind of vitriol and praise is rare for an academic book. But Robin is a rare kind of academic. He has been making waves since the 2004 publication of his excellent book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which won praise for its lucid style and application of complex philosophical ideas to the analysis of American society under the Bush administration. The Reactionary Mind has many of the same genes as the earlier book, right down the reappearance of certain prominent quotations by figures such as Christopher Hitchens. Robin is a great writer, leagues above most of his peers. He is capable of combining incisive insights with biting commentary, and even genuinely funny satire. On top of his academic work, Robin has been a vocal public intellectual, criticizing the rise of right wing populism—“post-modern conservatism” as I call it—in a number of different forums. The danger of these talents is that they can distract from the actual substance of Robin’s arguments. As some critics have mentioned, Robin’s stylistic abilities sometimes give his writing the quality of a well-written polemic, rather than a sober analysis of a political tradition.
In Defense of Hierarchy
The title of Robin’s book invokes Russell Kirk’s classic 1953 book The Conservative Mind. Like Robin, Kirk traces the origins of the modern Anglo-American conservative movement back to Edmund Burke. Kirk argues that in the centuries since then conservatism has been defined by “six canons”:
- Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. This makes political problems fundamentally religious or moral in nature.
- Affection for the variety and mystery of human existence over homogeneity and uniformity
- A belief that civilized society requires order and classes, therefore rejecting arguments about creating an egalitarian society
- A conviction that property and freedom are closely linked
- A distrust of “rational” designs for society, and faith in “custom, convention, and old prescription” as checks on progressives’ desire for power
- An acceptance that society must change, but that a good politician will look to the transcendent order for wisdom and prudently innovate rather than hastily demand reform.
Robin’s argument in The Reactionary Mind is that figures like Kirk and his progeny (see also Roger Scruton’s romantic Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition), who characterize conservatism as a sentimental and gentle philosophy concerned with order and prudence, are looking at it through highly rose-tinted glasses. Robin also rejects the claims of people like F. A. Hayek (who famously claimed not to be a conservative) and Irving Kristol, who invoke reason or realism as a justification for their positions. Neither prudent belief in a transcendent order and traditions, a devotion to reason or hard-eyed realism genuinely characterize the conservative mind. Robin claims that the real basis of conservatism is a reactionary impulse against any efforts to alter social hierarchies. As he puts it:
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, and agency the prerogative of the elite. Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality and the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For, in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.
According to Robin, this disposition against equality explains why many conservatives have not consistently been the stalwart defenders of order and quiet stability one might expect. If anything, conservatives are often characterized by a fundamental conviction that the world as it is is teetering on the brink of disaster. He observes that conservative critics from Burke down to Ayn Rand have characterized the actual societies and times in which they lived as debased and immoral. Rather than having a sentimental attachment to the way things are, Robin claims that conservatives desperately wish to change things in order to establish or reaffirm moral hierarchies that place figures they regard as more virtuous at the top of the social totem pole. But they are continually challenged in this by progressives, who seek to establish a more egalitarian and participatory social order. Because Robin considers the conservative as fundamentally a reactionary, his relationship with these progressives is invariably complex. Conservatives typically lack a sophisticated philosophy of their own, but instead seek to block or push back against the efforts of progressives, which they find instinctively distasteful. This means that the tradition is in fact much more beholden to its adversaries than others. Robin points out that conservatives from Joseph de Maistre onwards display an odd mixture of repulsion and attraction with regard to progressive strands of thought. On the one hand, they claim to detest the vulgar efforts of progressives to destroy the worthwhile traditions and functional hierarchies necessary to preserve society. On the other hand, they often view progressives as tremendously powerful and influential figures who dominate that same society. This means that conservatives often adopt a Manichean and even apocalyptic vision of reality, seeing themselves as lone figures desperately fighting against a world sliding into darkness. This is true whether they are trying to defend market hierarchies against omnipresent socialist conspiracies, or defending group inequalities against civil rights activists and feminists. Moreover, Robin points out that this worldview provides the conservative with a sense of excitement and purpose, the feeling of fighting against a great enemy who stands for everything evil and corrupt in the world. This is why, even in their moments of triumph—for instance after the American victory in the Cold War—conservatives will quickly search for a new enemy to fight against, and decry the peaceful societies in which they live for their decadence and immorality. As Robin puts it:
Conservatives thrive on a world filled with mysterious evil and unfathomable hatreds, where good is always on the defensive and time is a precious commodity in the cosmic race against corruption and decline. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and an almost barbaric virtue, qualities conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity.
For Robin, this mindset explains the strange contradictions one finds in conservatism, particularly the odd tendency of conservatives to regard themselves as both defenders of the traditional status quo and persecuted victims fighting against ubiquitous social forces demanding greater equality. Robin holds that the conservative worldview is first and foremost a reaction against equality, not a substantive position in itself. Conservatives are therefore continually forced to make compromises, in order to preserve the particular hierarchies they cherish against efforts by progressives. Robin points to several examples, perhaps the most telling being the efforts of nineteenth-century aristocrats in the American South to make slaves more available to poor whites. They believed a certain amount of interference in the market for slaves was necessary if poor whites were to support the institution of slavery, which they would do if they obtained a sense of superiority through owning and commanding black slaves. Robin observes that this tendency of conservative elites to call upon lower classes to support inegalitarian policies is a necessary strategy to preserve what one can of social hierarchies.
This strategy persists to the present day. Donald Trump and others have appealed to working class whites by invoking the specter of unworthy immigrants and minorities seizing their privileges. In return for supporting Trump—and in turn his tax cuts for the wealthy and blatant self-promotion— Trumpism grants these people a sense of superiority over others. This is done in lieu of actually reforming the institutions that are genuinely responsible for major social inequalities: for instance by changing the tax system, providing better health care, improving access to education and retraining, etc.
Robin’s is in many ways an excellent book. He displays extraordinary erudition in his treatment of a wide array of intellectuals from Hobbes, through Burke, to Scalia, and is equally talented at showing how these ideas apply in more concrete settings. Robin makes a convincing argument that many strands of conservative thought and practice are marked by strange tensions. This observation has special currency now, when many right wingers like to present themselves as counter-cultural or punk-like figures. Robin demonstrates that this weird tendency to present oneself as both a status quo defender and a rebel fighting against the powers that be is hardly novel: it stems from deep propensities embedded in the reactionary mind. He also convincingly argues that many variants of conservative thought have a much more dialectical relationship to their progressive counterparts than we might expect. Particularly noteworthy is his observation that the very originators of conservative thought—figures like Burke and De Maistre—defined themselves through opposition. This helps account for the fixation with mercurial figures like Trump, despite their myriad enemies across society.
But Robin’s book is unconvincing in its central claim that all stands of conservative thought and practice fit into this pattern. It is not hard to think of conservative figures and movements that look far less like reactionaries and more like principled advocates of a valid worldview. The least convincing chapter of The Reactionary Mind analyzes the birth of neoliberalism and its defense by figures like Hayek. I think Quinn Slobodian is far closer to the mark in arguing that neoliberalism was in fact a sustained intellectual worldview, which its proponents thought would benefit the mass of mankind.
This points to a deeper theoretical problem with Robin’s analysis: he seems to interpret any defense of hierarchy as fundamentally reactionary. But certain hierarchies may serve useful and even vital functions, and the neoliberals, for example, had good arguments for why their particular conception of economic hierarchy should prevail. Now one may argue that they were wrong, but it is wrong to claim that the neoliberals were simply concerned that the lower orders wanted more equality, which would threaten the freedom of their superiors. The argument of people like Hayek was that—even though economic hierarchy was artificial and arbitrary, not based on merits or virtues pertaining to the individual market actors—these hierarchies were none the less vital, to preserve incentives that would ultimately benefit almost everyone. Robin also doesn’t deal that consistently with more powerful libertarian arguments, such as those of Nozick, that there is a genuine conflict between the pursuit of equality and the preservation of liberty. If these arguments have some validity—and I think they do even though I reject them—it problematizes Robin’s characterization.
And, most problematic at all, Robin doesn’t adequately examine why many non-elites are attracted to conservative doctrines. His account does a good job of examining some of the strategies used by figures like Trump to generate support, but doesn’t look that deeply into why many millions of individuals have found something worthwhile in his proposals. This is a significant gap, though Robin’s earlier book on fear goes some way towards filling it. But The Reactionary Mind seems to lean heavily on an implicit sense that the lower classes are suffering from some form of false consciousness when they support conservative figures. If this is true, the book would have been stronger for explaining the appeal, perhaps by connecting it to Robin’s arguments that fear can be a powerful political emotion, which can push individuals toward esoteric solutions.
Despite these problems, The Reactionary Mind is a very thought provoking and well written book. Whether arguing with it or nodding in agreement, one is always impressed by the erudition and ambition on display. Anyone who wants to understand the history of conservative thought—not to mention the current political moment—will surely want to read it.