Review: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robins, Oxford University Press, USA (2011)

So much for the Utopianism of the left, we have to understood the inverse utopianism of the right?  At least, that is what I thought, but it appears that I may have been premature on this assessment. For those who read this blog, many of you know I reference Corey Robin’s quite a bit and I have quite enjoyed his interviews and his essays.  Indeed, The Reactionary Mind is a braid of linked essays divided into two related sections.  The first section is the popular manifestation of conservative intellectual tradition, and the second is on the profound relationship between conservatism and violence.

First, a few caveats:  there are a few points in which I have somewhat profound disagreements with Robins, and second I found some of the essays slightly repetitive because they were written to be read individually so many themes and points are hit upon blatantly by restatement because it would have been necessary in the original printing of these reviews and essays. While Robin’s style is punchy, often funny, and yet intellectually serious, the nature of the essays themselves sometimes grated on me when reading the book as a whole in a few sittings.  When I read the book as a collection of essays and ignored that Robin’s essentially laid out his thesis in the introduction, I enjoyed these much more as reading qua reading.

Robin’s thesis is highly illuminating:  conservatism is not traditionalism of either capitalism or the ancient regime, although it is tied to both. Conservatism is the reactionary impulse to preserve real privileges and ways of life. Furthermore, conservatism maintains itself in the popular mode by mimicking left tactics to expand the circle of contempt:  every man and every woman becomes lord of someone who they can take part in the oppression writ small.   It’s enough to make you wonder if perhaps David Brooks isn’t really Calhoun with a friendly face.

Robin’s does show, quite convincingly, there is a consistency to the Euro-American right since it emerged after the French revolution.  It was fundamentally different from the soft traditionalism that supported the ancient regime before the French Revolution.  Oddly, however, my favorite essay on the topic was the departure from that theme: the essay on Edward Luttwark and John Gray which Robin’s partially disowns.   Indeed, in this essay, Robins seem to hint that some of the values of pre-capitalist world are antithetical to the world conservatives have actually created and the abandonment of people like Luttwark and Gray betray that vision.  Yet in opposition to modernity in entirety, their may support the welfare state and accept the cultural contradictions of capitalism, as even Daniel Bell acknowledged, they cannot come up with a coherent politics to support it.

Another theme touched upon by Robins, but only touched upon, primarily in his essays on the Anton Scalia and Ayn Rand, is that liberalism particularly has not been up to the job of actually opposing the right. Indeed, Scalia is allowed a rhetoric wit and scathing barbs in the court, but no liberal or moderate on the court returns the favor. In fact, when barbed Scalia is often thrown off his game.  Furthermore, in the Ayn Rand section, “Garbage and Gravitas,” Robins points out that often liberal and left readers of Ayn Rand have tried to give her more credit that she earns out of a want to show that large portion of the American public is enamored with someone as contemptuous as Rand.  Yet as even a conservative friend of mine once said, “Rand is popular because she is elitism for the masses. It’s that simple.”

Another thing the second half of Robin’s book is good for is an antidote to Andrew Sullivan and Sam Tanenhaus (as well as lesser known and more radical conservatives like Thomas Woods) that conservatism has traditionally been anti-war. While there is a conservative tradition that Robin’s ignores that does live up to this standard–Jay Alfred Nock and the America First tradition is explicitly anti-war–the practice of the majority of conservatives since Burke has to glorify in violence as an expression of sublimity even if that violence actually leads to a more mechanized view of power, which is essentially what the conservatives wanted to avoid.

This, however, brings me to my critique of the book: to maintain a consistent view of conservatism in both sections, Robins did have to ignore parts of the conservative tradition and include other thinkers who reactionary credentials are questionable. As I have already noted,  Robins does not comment on the traditional anti-war conservatives in America nor does he mention the anti-war conservatives who opposed George W. Bush and their libertarian allies.  Indeed, one of the largest anti-war sites was run by primarily be paleo-conservatives and libertarians such as Justin Riamondo. Ron Paul got his street-cred, however questionable you find it, by opposing the warfare state.   Furthermore, following Paxton, Robin’s sees fascism as essentially conservative and enlists George Sorel’s as part of his argument on the decadence cycle and the relationship to violence.   I find this misleading, even in his so-called proto-fascist stage, Sorel’s was essentially advocating anarchistic syndicalism and his relationship to both Marxism and anarchism is important.  Fascism, while I think was a means of maintaining a form of capitalism which functioned like mercantilism, has much more than just a tactical similarity to left-wing thought. While idiots like Jonah Goldberg like to equate liberalism and fascism for incredibly facile reasons, fascism was not merely a defense of the ancient regime.  It was an attempt to be both progressive and conservative at once: to ape socialism and keep a ruling class, but also to fundamentally produce a new society not rooted in old privileges.   Also, Robins ignores the admittedly hyper-majority of the new far right such as radical traditionalism because these thinkers are not merely defending past privilege like Burke or even Reagan. They truly are inverse utopians.

This flaws aside, Robin’s book is still entirely worth engaging with and the overall thrust of his thesis is, in my opinion, correct.  Conservatism may be on its death throw because it has nothing really to oppose: leftism has been thrown out of the sphere and is only reemerging from its own ashes, New Labor and Democratic Leadership committee has become the current traditionalism of the liberal establishment unable to do anything new but ape the right and empower the business class, and so the right has become decadent and overreaching.  Robin’s end note is one of hope rooted in conservative fears of the decline of their own movement in a lack of real opposition. Indeed the view idea of conservatism implies it: one must be on the defense to be interested in conserving something.  This is obviously no longer the case in for most conservatives.

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One thought on “Review: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robins, Oxford University Press, USA (2011)

  1. Pingback: Review The Shipwrecked Mind by Mark Lilla (NYRB Press, 2016) | Symptomatic Commentary

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