The Conservative Mind = The Reactionary Mind?

I keep trying to find conservative contributors, without much success. Perhaps this is not an accident, but a consequence of the nature of the conservative mind. Thinking about my experience, and reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, gets me wondering.

Sure, when I asked in my last post, where are the conservative intellectuals, there were a number of sensible suggestions. Michael Corey pointed to a conservative institution of higher learning, Hillsdale College, and Regina Tuma and Lisa reminded me that there are some individuals, self-identified as conservatives, who are worth reading, David Frum and Andrew Sullivan (though if I am not mistaken, Sullivan has recently publicly renounced his identification with the label, given its crazy turns in recent years).

But I am looking for debate and for intellectual power, which forces me to pay attention and question my commitments, looking for committed conservatives that require respect. I have been reaching out to some conservative professors, with no success thus far. And while Frum is occasionally interesting, he is not really challenging, and Sullivan is fleeing from conservative orthodoxy. He is hard to pigeonhole. Perhaps that’s a hint of where I should go, seek “un-gated contributors.” Indeed, that is what I often do, as the editor of Deliberately Considered and in my reading, writing and teaching.

Over on my Facebook page, some friends have suggested that I may be delusional in my search for conservative contributors. One friend declared, “You are a Diogenes for our time, although with worse odds.” Another asked “Where is Ann Coulter when you need her?” Another wondered, “Are you going to play with necromancy?”

I realize that these ironic remarks imply a serious judgment. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally problematic with the conservative position, and that, therefore, my search is mistaken. Could it be that serious reflection on the events of the day shouldn’t include those on the right? Could it be that the center has shifted so far to the right that those who are now called conservatives are in fact beyond the pale of intellectual interest and decency, that  the reactionaries, the counter revolutionaries and the conservatives are all the same, and fundamentally indecent? If this is so, therefore, conservatives should be appraised and opposed, but not taken seriously on their own terms.

This is how I understand the position of Corey Robin in his book. It is a provocative and illuminating collection of inquiries. It has opened a serious discussion about the significance and meaning of the power of conservative thought and practice in the last decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first. The Reactionary Mind received the full New York Review of Books treatment. A prominent scholar, Mark Lilla, has negatively reviewed the book, dismissing it by outlining the book that he thinks should have been written. Robin has rightly called foul, and Lilla has gotten in the last word. Lilla thinks that a book should be written to explain conservatism, to recognize its distinguished contributions, and to critically appraise its present intellectual quality and political application in its diversity. He gives an outline. I think it would be an interesting book. He criticizes Robin for not having written it. This criticism is not fair. Robin’s project was to present an argument, a sharp reading of conservative, counter-revolutionary and reactionary thought (he identifies the three) as a defensive reaction against social emancipation. It’s a strong, though of course not complete, argument.

Robin formulates his project in a variety of different ways. In the opening pages he explains: “conservatism is: a meditation on — and the theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” A few pages later, he explains a bit more fully. After discussing John Adams’s resistance to Abigail Adams’s proto-feminism and the resistance of slave owners to emancipation, he presents some details of what conservatism is and is not:

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty – or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians and warriors, for that fusion is infused by a more elemental force – the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

The libertarians, according to Robin, like all other conservatives and reactionaries, defend challenged hierarchy. I have no doubt that there is something to this, but I am also sure that there is more involved. What he calls the byproducts of conservatism, may include the real cultural accomplishment and intellectual challenge.

I also must make myself clear. I sometimes want to be on the other side of the revolutionary barricades. I know that defending established ways is sometimes imperative, that some social projects enacted in the name of emancipation actually enslave. Being a veteran Central European hand, a long- term observer of the politics and culture of the old European killing fields, the contrasts in Robin’s account between progress and regress are too sharp for me. I am reminded of an essay of Adam Michnik, first given as a public lecture at the New School, beautifully entitled. “Grey is Beautiful.” (I wonder: perhaps my difference with Robin can be ultimately be explained by the fact that when he thinks about the cold war, he thinks about Latin America, while I think about the Soviet Union and its neighbors.)

In a quick Facebook post, I called Robin’s approach reductive. He responded and rightly called me out. I was overly casual (and dismissive) in the style of the social networking site. His position is richer than my quick post suggested. He provoked me to write this piece, publicly recognizing and critically appraising his work. Robin knows that the conservative position starts with a defense of hierarchy, but then goes on in a variety of different ways to cover a lot of ground, “from Burke to Palin.” He has interesting things to say about Anthony Scalia, Hobbes, neo-conservatives and, ex-neoconservatives (I found these reflections particularly intriguing). The essays taken separately linger on the details of the cases he studies, but the frame of the book makes the big statement, and the details recede. I am more interested in the cases than the frame, which I think is too roughly drawn.

But, I must admit, I have some self-doubts. Robin’s argument could explain why my project of breaking down the gates is mistaken. On balance, I still don’t think so, but it is a possibility.

  • Vince Carducci

    What would you do with Fukuyama?

  • Lisa

    I do not think that the center has moved so far right—- I think that they think that is has. And it may be that misperception that loses them the election. But no one over on that side of the aisle with much basic political wisdom is speaking up—- when I hear Palin talk, I wonder why on earth anyone allows her to continue. My 11 year olds laugh because I ask them to listen closely and repeat what she says — “energy is important because we rely on it”— they felt that was very first grade.

  • Larry Damms

    John Gray? (Haven’t read him, although I’ve been meaning to, along with a million other things. A real conservative, a Tory before Thatcherism, who became critical of capitalist globalization in the 1990’s for the ways in which it runs roughshod over local cultures and traditions, i.e., criticizes globalist neo-liberalism for its ‘utopian’ pretensions.) Then there’s Paul Gottfried, a bona fide paleoconservative with some rather “unsavory” associations (Confederate nostalgists, e.g.), but he’s a serious intellectual, like a Pat Buchanan with actual gravitas. He’s far more than just a demagogic propagandist for the Republican talking points of the day. It’ll probably be tough to agree with much of anything he writes though.

  • Larry Damms

    Even though I don’t think I really politically identify with where you are coming from, I think you are correct that in its full sweep, Robin’s overarching message is too reductive. Certainly his insistence on not taking conservatives’ claims about their political philosophies at face value is the appropriate one — how can any critical intellect disagree with that? But in exposing what he believes to be conservatives’ actual motivations and orientations (the rabid defense of social hierarchies), along the way he tends to dismiss the substantive value of what conservatives say they are really about. Maybe he is basically right that most conservatism is not about what it says it is about, but why not examine the worth of some of these ideas that conservatives claim to defend? And while I have my own radical democratic leanings myself (tempered by other commitments), I also don’t care much for the way in which Robin presumes social egalitarianism is self-evidently good.

    Corey would probably say two things in reply: 1) “It is not my task in this book to adumbrate my own political philosophy.” Fair enough, but if you believe that the descriptive and the normative bleed into one another, then those are weasel words. In fact you are already registering evaluative judgments throughout the book. 2) “That I support social egalitarianism is not the point, that the groups that stand to benefit from it have advocated it on their own behalf, and grappled with conservatives along the way, is the point.” But justifying social egalitarianism on the basis of a vulgar materialism is really a bogus move, since it is middle-class left-liberal intellectuals who have often been the biggest mouthpieces for social egalitarianism, not the groups at the bottom of various social hierarchies themselves.

    Maybe what I kind of don’t like about the book is that despite all the fanfare surrounding it and Robin himself (fanfare on the left, that is), the political philosophy underpinning the effort is standard-issue (although very learned and clever) left-liberalism disguised as something more innovative or radical, and I can’t get very excited about that. But maybe I just have an irrational disdain for emergent celebrities. (A political philosophy known as “haterism”.)

    Finally, I agree that while in this case, the whole is less than the parts, there are many excellent and useful parts in the book. Also, I agree that Lilla’s review is plain awful and unfair.

  • Uday Jain

    What about Prof. Mansfield at Harvard? He is quite a well-known and well-respected conservative public intellectual who has some thoughtful criticisms of the contemporary left. I’m sure he would have some interesting answers to your questions. I’m also quite interested in what he might have to say about Robin’s “Reactionary Mind”

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    Yes. He is a distinguished scholar. It would be quite interesting to hear from him. I am pretty sure he would just find Robin’s book offensive.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I suppose he is in a sense conservative and I would be interested in his point of view. It is informed and certainly different from your and mine.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I also think that the crux of the problem isn’t a rightward shift. Rather the problem is more specifically about a tendency of right wing ideologues supported by Fox and company developing a habit of substituting assertion and fiction for reason and evidence. The left isn’t immune to this by any means, but it is an acute problem of the right. For this reason I am quite interested in those on the right who respond to this problem. This is the position of Andrew Sullivan, I believe.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I suppose one can’t take anyone at face value, i.e. one should be critical. But the challenge is to take positions with which one agrees and disagrees seriously on its own terms. This is what I am trying to do here both the conservatives and their critics, such as Robin.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    Is Gottfried still active? I wonder how he might be approach to contribute to our discussion. He is extreme (perhaps in the sense of extremism in defense of liberty is no vice), not sure he really is interested in speaking to the unconverted.

  • Lisa

    again, Andrew Sullivan.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I have reached Gottfried and he promises a post on the reactionary mind.

  • Larry Damms

    Wow, fantastic. I eagerly await what he has to say.

  • Larry Damms

    Ah, I see, he already posted a while ago. Shows you how recently I was last here. I will digest what he has to say and comment when time permits.

  • Gary Morrison

    It has always seemed to me that in trying to draw a distinction between the conservative mind and that of the contemporary right wing radical, we are seeking to split hairs. The bottom line for the last three hundred years or so has been simply this; power occupies its mind seeking to constrain the will of those without the means. Economies that distribute wealth and power upward, drain the resources of those below while seeking to maintain the legal appearences of equality, eventually to accumulate enormous resources for sustaining just such a social construction.
    What impresses me about the intellectual pretensions of conservatives as a movement in today’s terms is a romantic attachment to the past liberated from any recollection of what has actually occured over the course of the past one hundred and fifty years.