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On "The Reactionary Mind"

Corey Robin's book

Reading The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011), by Corey Robin. An elegant and erudite elaboration of an obvious thesis, that the essence of conservatism, in all its seemingly contradictory permutations, has always been the impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality. Conservatism is “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Yup. Nothing could be more obvious than that. Still, it’s a very good book.

A point that Robin doesn’t make—maybe because it might muck up his argument—is that insofar as conservatism “begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others,” most intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen are, at least implicitly, conservatives. Even the ones who call themselves liberals. ‘We superior people are supposed to run the world; the masses are “meddlesome outsiders” whom we have to distract and delude, for their own benefit.’ The whole establishment is, loosely speaking, conservative, always trying to tame and often to destroy democratic movements. During times of upheaval, the conservative colors of nearly everyone with some power and privilege shine bright (for everyone wants to defend his power and privilege as soon as he sees it threatened). But it’s true that not everyone in the establishment is robustly conservative.

Here are some interesting thoughts on what (among other things) is common to all conservatives from Burke to the present:

Conservatism also offers a defense of rule, independent of its counterrevolutionary imperative, that is agonistic and dynamic and dispenses with the staid traditionalism and harmonic registers of hierarchies past. And here we come to the conservative’s deepest intimations of the good life, of that reactionary utopia he hopes one day to bring into being. Unlike the feudal past, where power was presumed and privilege inherited, the conservative future envisions a world where power is demonstrated and privilege earned: not in the antiseptic and anodyne halls of the meritocracy, where admission is readily secured—“the road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course”—but in the arduous struggle for supremacy. In that struggle, nothing matters, not inheritance, social connections, or economic resources, but one’s native intelligence and innate strength. Genuine excellence is revealed and rewarded, true nobility is secured. “‘Nitor in adversum’ [I strive against adversity] is the motto for a man like me,” declared Burke, after dismissing a to-the-manor-born politician who was “swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator.” Even the most biologically inclined and deterministic racist believes that the members of the superior race must personally wrest their entitlement to rule through the subjugation or elimination of the inferior races…
The battlefield is the natural proving ground of superiority; there, it is only the soldier, with his wits and weapon, who determines his standing in the world. With time, however, the conservative will find another proving ground in the marketplace. Though most early conservatives were ambivalent about capitalism, their successors will come to believe that warriors of a different kind can prove their mettle in the manufacture and trade of commodities. Such men wrestle the earth’s resources to and from the ground, taking for themselves what they want and thereby establishing their superiority over others…

In revolving around the worship and defense of power, conservatism naturally incorporates the attitude that has come to be called Social Darwinism. Actually, in a sense, the general agonistic ideal is appealing to me, the ideal of testing limits, testing oneself against others, triumphing over adversity and all that. Probably most people find it at least somewhat attractive. It’s one of the pleasures of games, for example. (Contending against others and playfully proving one’s “superiority,” in a sense.) It becomes noxious only in certain forms, in collectivist contexts and when millions of lives are at stake. It’s noxious—and wildly simplistic—when it’s used as a legitimation of power.

Anyway, it’s clear from what Robin says above that, even on the purely intellectual plane, the seed of fascism exists in all conservatism, including American libertarianism (which incorporates Social Darwinism).

While I always find it intriguing to trace and probe ideas and intellectual history, I’m too much of a Marxist to think there’s anything of foundational value in a book like Robin’s. When you get right down to it, conservatives and the powerful are little more than tools, indeed embodiments (metaphorically speaking), of particular institutional relations and pressures, of agglomerations of resources that are defined by certain interests, which conservatives serve. From the perspective of power-structures, these people are nothing but useful idiots, tools possessing the strange and inconvenient quality of consciousness (and some free will), which compels them to invent, for the sake of their own self-esteem and need to deceive themselves, all sorts of rationalizations and idealizations of power’s impulse to defend itself and augment itself. Power sets its conscious robots in motion to do its bidding, obey its orders and rationalize them for public consumption and the robots’ own self-justification. But what matters, ultimately, isn’t what the power-loving automatons say but what the institutional dynamics are that they serve and reflect.

In other words, Marx and Chomsky are right: institutions are the main actors, not the individuals who happen to bear (and thus want to defend) particular institutional roles. Consciousness is less important than social being.

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