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The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. Book Review

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.

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14 comments

  1. It is good to try to figure out what the fundamental differences are between progressives and conservatives but it seems to me that Robin has made it far too complicated. Progressives believe that once we have government control over everything, then everything will be perfect. Conservatives believe that nothing will ever be perfect and that in fact government control very often makes things worse so it should be kept to a minimum.

      1. Would you care to elaborate? To strawman someone is to caricature *their* argument. I do not caricature Robin’s argument, I say that it is overly complicated. If you disagree that’s fine, but it is not a strawman, it is, in your opinion, too simple or maybe just wrong.

        But is it too simple? There are many who hold that one’s position on the progressive-conservative spectrum is held based on the most gut level instincts. And instincts tend to be rather simple. Or do you simply disagree? In any case I made no strawman of Robin.

        1. “Progressives believe that once we have government control over everything, then everything will be perfect.”

          No they don’t, that statement is so spectacularly stupid as barely deserve a reply. I get that it’s a common place lazy charactiture some conservatives are keen on, to avoid having to engage in serious thinking, but it doesn’t make it even vaguely true.

          1. Ah. So then your complaint is not that I’m strawmaning Robin, which of course I’m not, your complaint is that my own idea is spectacularly stupid. Tell me, is this the first time in your life you’ve seen a juxtaposition of two ideas put forward in a way that quite deliberately exaggerates both ideas for purposes of focusing in on the essential difference between them? Perhaps you are very young, but you will find that this sort of thing is done all the time and you will learn to unpack the aphorism, not take it literally.

            Which of these statements do you find to be spectacularly stupid?:

            Progressives tend to have faith in the value of government regulations.
            Conservatives tend to be distrustful of government regulations.
            Progressives tend to believe that the government should redistribute wealth.
            Conservatives tend to believe that people should be able to keep their own money.
            Progressives tend to believe that we can get much closer to utopia even if not make things actually perfect.
            Conservatives tend to believe that there is nothing new under the sun and that efforts to move towards utopia often backfire.

            In short, progressives tend to believe in progress and conservatives tend to believe in hanging on to what we’ve got. This is spectacularly stupid in your view?

            1. “I was only pretending to be retarded” followed by “But of couse you wouldn’t understand that, young’in” is pretty poor form, pops. You were called out on your hyperbole and now you’re backpedalling.

              1. Hyperbole is a very common rhetorical device, nothing wrong with it when it is used in a aphorism or other very short saying of the sort we use every day. “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” It is not actually true, but it makes a point and is not meant to be taken literally. Sorry for giving you the benefit of the doubt, but it might have been the case that you really don’t understand this.

  2. The reaction to Robin’s thesis from Conservatives is a predictable one. It’s common place to see them claim that Progessives simply see them as ‘the other’, mental defectives etc. Whilst that may be true of a certain branch of the modern left, who are clearly in thrall to their own self righteousness it’s ultimately a strawman as it ignores all the intellectually rigorous critiques from Paine onwards.
    Having said that, having only your review to go on Robin’s thesis does seem to unjustly dismiss the views of people reasonably held in good faith.
    Whilst so many of the terrible ideas the modern left have attached themselves to are relatively speaking new, ‘false consciousness’ is an old terrible idea that really needs to put in a dustbin never to be revisited.
    Even if was true (which I don’t believe it is) from a strategic perspective it’s awful. That idea that telling people who you believe should rightly be on your side, that the views they currently hold aren’t genuine but that they’re essentially just dupes who haven’t thought about things properly, is at best a really terrible way to win them over.
    If I could wish for one thing, it would be that both the left & right take people who appear to be arguing in good faith at face value (I’m down with concluding Nazis & Stalinists are probably beyond convincing) and give them the dignity of responding in good faith.
    On this point neither the left or the right should start throwing stones.

  3. All this is all rather familiar. Same old story since the 1950s when progressives discovered that Freud could explain away anyone who dissented from progressive dogma. Hofstadter was the master of this genre. Here’s the plot: Conservatives don’t believe what they say they believe; they’re really motivated by irrational fears and hatreds—they’re mental defectives, in short. Armchair psychiatry makes things so much easier. Now we don’t have to deal with their arguments. We don’t have to explain why Kirk’s six principles are wrongheaded, for example, we just have to insist that Kirk was wrong in the head.

    What’s sauce for the goose, however, is sauce for the gander. Here’s the plot of my counter-narrative: I say Robin’s conservative crazies are really negative projections from Robin’s self-conception. His internal monologue says progressives are good and intelligent people; some people don’t agree with progressivism; progressivism can’t be wrong because good and intelligent people believe in it; therefore, non-progressives must be evil and stupid; I must now write up a story that affirms my conceit to moral and intellectual superiority—I’ll call it The Reactionary Mind.

    So what do you think of my story? I realize I borrowed a bit from the narrative that smug teenagers tell themselves about their parents, but if the shoe fits.

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    1. I would suggest that is an uncharitable reading of Robin’s work, which involves extensive readings of many of the great figures in the tradition. Perhaps the finest Chapter is on Burke’s theory of value, which is comparatively little explored and very insightful. But no doubt he is too harsh on thinkers like Hayek.

      Out of curiosity, given we seem to be having these exchanges across mediums now, perhaps you could email me your real name? I’ve valued your criticisms in the past, but find it odd referring to you as “X Citoyen.”

      1. You might be right. I didn’t read the book. I went by your analysis of what Robin says really drives conservatives, which, as you suggested, is irrational reactance and hatred of the lower classes.

        You say he did careful studies of different conservatives. He obviously didn’t read even the Wikipedia page on Kirk, who left the academy and the money and security that came with it—as matter of principle—and eked out a living in a country farmhouse by writing ghost stories, all while taking in neglected people the way some take in stray cats. At least one of the many transients through the Kirk household was an ex-con looking for a second chance—there may have more, I’m not an expert on Kirk’s life.

        How does this rural-living man of meager wealth taking in the cast-offs of human society fit with the image of the wealthy low-class hating conservative of Robin’s dreams? Come to that, how many people of any stripe—let alone ex-cons—has Robin or any other progressive humanitarian writer you’d care to name ever taken in? We both know the answer in none. But I’m digressing now. The point is he’s also rather callous toward Kirk too.

        As for the other thing, I prefer Platonic anonymity. Like the master, I think the arguments matter, not the man. But I can email you from my Citoyen address if you have something interesting to say offline.

        1. “is irrational reactance and hatred of the lower classes.”

          That would certainly not be true of this conservative, who is himself a member of the lower classes and was almost a commie at one time (got as far as union radical). Then the progressives started telling me that I was Privileged, that everything I had was stolen, that I was a Patriarch who spent his days Oppressing (even when I thought I was looking out for the less fortunate). That my culture was entirely rotten, had never achieved anything good but was, on the contrary, responsible for everything bad. That I was a racist, a xenophobe, a cis-normalizer, and, as Hillary put it, entirely Deplorable. I even still think that there are only two sexes so I must be a Nazi.

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