The Reactionary Mind: Preserving the supremacy of the few

Corey Robin trashes the portrayal of conservatism as the refuge of a prudent elite steadfastly resisting change in favour of a status quo that guarantees its privilege.

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
Corey Robin
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For anyone trying to make sense of the spectacle of the Republican primaries in the United States, a new book on conservatism is eminently welcome.

The questions baffling even the pundits flow one after another: what, if anything, links such disparate candidates as the free-market tycoon Mitt Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts; Newt Gingrich, a discredited ideologue from the Reagan era; and Rick Santorum, the new darling of fundamentalist Christians? Can the Republican Party endure such centrifugal forces without splintering apart? Why do blue-collar workers back politicos who eschew affordable health care and modest taxes for the ultra-rich? What accounts for the Tea Party's popularity and where does it fit into the confounding equation of the US right?

Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind doesn't tackle any of these questions head-on, unfortunately. Neither Romney nor Fox News are mentioned even once, while Sarah Palin and the Tea Party make only cameo appearances. A chapter scrutinising these actors is critically missing. Yet Robin, a New York-based political scientist and regular contributor to publications like The Nation and the London Review of Books, has written an original book with an armful of theses that shed revealing light on the whys and wherefores of right-wing politics in the United States and beyond.

Postwar American conservatism has been supremely successful, argues Robin, having run roughshod over the proudest emancipatory social movements of the 20th century, including the women's and civil rights campaigns. One of its secrets, he claims, is that it so cleverly disguises itself, creating chimeras that appear to defy logic and analysis.

Indeed, most observers get conservatism all wrong. Robin trashes the portrayal of conservatism as the refuge of a prudent elite steadfastly resisting change in favour of a status quo that guarantees its privilege. Likewise, the common tenants attributed to conservatives, such as belief in the free market, meritocracy, ordered liberty, limited government and religious devotion, are eyewash. In given historical circumstances, conservatives may indeed embrace these values for tactical reasons - and in others oppose them. But, regardless, they are byproducts, not its raison d'être.

According to Robin, it's all about privilege but there's nothing measured, elitist, or old-school about the means of securing it. Conservatism is fanatical, populist, aggressive, and inherently violent. It's elemental force is "opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere". Conservatism from the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke to the Tea Party, he argues, all boils down to "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". Making sure they don't is anything but an afternoon tea party.

Conservatism is a supple and dexterous ideology that adapts impressively to the situation at hand, argues Robin. It doesn't have a consistent manifesto like the various ideologies of the left. Since Burke's searing polemics against the French Revolution, the classes or orders that conservatives have sought to overturn or suppress have shifted with time, contingent upon the challenges of the day, be they from French republicans, German workers, African Americans, or women liberationists anywhere in the world. The constant is that they threaten to upend - or have already upended - a system that had one group in the driver's seat and another at its feet.

The politics of conservatism, argues Robin, are intensely personal. They are a reaction to a threat to power relations lived and experienced in everyday private life. Conservatism responds to the personal grievances experienced in changing relations between master and slave, husband and wife, the owner and the worker, the officer and the soldier. As Burke put it in a 1790 address to the British parliament: "The real object [of the French Revolution] is to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination."

An egregious misunderstanding, argues Robin, is that conservatism is impervious to change, stubbornly bent on preservation. In fact, it is a highly proactive force - take the Bush-era neocons, for example - that seeks radical change in the name of maintaining or regaining supremacy. The old order isn't defended, but attacked for its shortcomings. In the classic words of Italian novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa's famous protagonist in The Leopard: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." Make no mistake, this means war, whether it be on the battlefield of the marketplace, culture, or Saddam Hussein. So unlike the feudal lord or divinely empowered ruler, modern conservatives are "not born with privilege or right; they seize it for themselves without let or permission."

The right is unimaginable without the left, in the form of liberation movements. An ideology of backlash and reaction, conservatism is inherently counterrevolutionary: it responds to defeat or the prospect of one and as it does it pilfers tactics from the movements it opposes. Where conservatives spot a good idea, like the left's culture wars born of the 1960s and 70s, they have made it their own - and then beat the left at its own game.

Moreover, contemporary right-wing movements are populist. After all, they have to be. Those who will enjoy the fruits of power are the few, but they need the potency of the many to secure it, another lesson learnt from the left. This is where racism and sexism and nationalism come in, mechanisms that convince the little man that he's getting something out of it all, too. "The masses must either be able to locate themselves symbolically in the ruling class or be provided with real opportunities to become faux aristocrats themselves in the family, the factory, and the field," argues Robin.

So, what does this tell us about today's menagerie of conservatives trying to unite their party and unseat a black, liberal American president? In a way, argues Robin, they're all victims of conservatism's success as it has reigned supreme in American politics for 40 years. The "conservative embrace of unregulated capitalism and imperial power still envelops our two parties." This is why they all seem to be struggling to find an enemy movement to react against. At the moment, there isn't one.

The Republicans lack a galvanising, inspiring idea that wins the imagination of the masses as Reagan and Bush II had. All conservative movements rise up and feed on defeat, argues Robin. Failure is the wellspring of conservative renewal. The loss of power, prestige, and status - like that suffered by white supremacists in the 1960s or husbands in the 1970s - is what fuels conservative innovation. They need a monster to destroy.

Although the pickings are slim, the author argues that the Republicans are taking aim at the last, tattered rights of employees and women, the final strongholds of liberal values. If the counter-revolutionaries finally gut the labour movement and eviscerate Planned Parenthood, they will have won it all, he believes. The right will have crushed the great social movements of the 20th century and left them with nothing but a black president.

So, asks the author in his three-page conclusion, is the Tea Party the final spurt of a spent conservatism or its rejuvenating spark? Sadly, he doesn't answer it.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.