My interview with Corey Robin on “The Reactionary Mind”

Conservative leaders from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin have relied on outsider appeal. (Roger H. Goun // Creative Commons)

WEB ONLY// FEATURES » NOVEMBER 10, 2012

Born Losers

Political scientist Corey Robin believes a sense of loss animates modern conservatism.

BY Micah Uetricht

Pining for the good, old days of sensible American conservatism has become a well-worn liberal cliché in recent years. Every time some right-winger proposes ever-expanding levels of misery for everyone but the rich or coins a new, reprehensible phrase like “legitimate rape,” those left-of-center want to know: What happened to the sensible conservatives of yesteryear? The ones who could be reasoned with? Those who, despite their reactionary nature, did not defend and pursue political and moral absurdities?

Corey Robin, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center who blogs for Crooked Timber and Jacobin, doesn’t see much of a qualitative shift in the Right’s politics, even over the past few centuries. Rather, he sees a striking continuity at the heart of conservative thought since the first stirrings against the French Revolution, specifically, an unabashed defense of the rights of society’s “betters” to rule.

Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind explores this thesis in a wide array of essays that examine torture under the Bush administration, closely read the political thought of Edmund Burke, and take note of the “conservatism that would have been recognizable to Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century” in Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion in a professional golf case.

If Robin’s thesis sounds like a provocation directed at the Right, that’s because, well, it is. It’s difficult to imagine many rank-and-file conservatives accepting his analysis that conservatism’s raison d’être lies in a defense of power and privilege for elites and a reaction against expanding liberty for more and more of society. But Robin takes the Right quite seriously, noting that reactionary ideas are not simply base emotions, but rather legitimate and powerful ideas that must be engaged with as such.

What’s more, the book has received some praise from the Right, and has sparked some remarkably candid reflections from conservative intellectuals. Speaking with Robin in an episode of BloggingheadsThe American Conservative’s Michael Brendan Dougherty said, “I actually have not settled on some of these bigger questions myself, like whether I’m a modernist or medieval.”

Robin, whose embrace of modernity seems to be a fairly settled matter, spoke with In These Times (before the presidential election) from his home in Brooklyn.

You argue that one of conservatism’s principal appeals is its recognition of and willingness to speak to the real sense of loss that people who once held power, whether real or imagined, experience in the wake of liberatory movements. Conservatism promises to restore that which has been taken from them. How does recognizing that centrality of loss challenge prevailing analyses of conservatism?

There are multiple understandings of conservatism, but there is one among academics which posits conservatism as a philosophy of slow evolutionary change that isn’t opposed to change, but rather is about the management of change. The prevalent view assumes that there’s this seamless transmission of ideas, traditions, institutions and values across time. But conservatism arises at moments when that seamless transmission across time has been called into question by some kind of a reformist or revolutionary movement. Emphasizing loss challenges the conventional interpretation because it shows that conservatism is forced to confront this experience of discontinuity, which is radical and wrenching and central to its imagination.

It also challenges more positive interpretations of conservatism that began with Reagan, emphasizing its “sunniness” and optimism. Conservatism is not simply a backwards-looking philosophy—it’s also future-oriented. It’s not a simple, sunny philosophy; it’s a philosophy in which the vision of a brave future is embedded in and grows out of this experience of loss.

Also, movements of the Left have often been Universalist movements, beginning with the French Revolution. That revolution stood for not the rights of Frenchmen, not the rights of Englishmen, but the rights of man, and it marched across Europe in the name of these universal rights. And conservatives have always responded, “No, we don’t stand for Universalist principles. We stand for more particular traditions.” But I think loss is the Right’s own version of universalism. Because loss is something that everybody, no matter what, has confronted or will have to confront at some point in their life. Life is loss—loss of childhood, loss of the past, loss of a loved one; it’s embedded in human experience.

Now, conservatism is about a very particular kind of loss—the loss of power. But conservatives have been very successful in weaving their particular narration of loss into a more universal and cosmic notion of loss.

What lessons should the Left take from that? Should the Left adjust its projects based on that knowledge?

When the Left is doing its work, it’s going to be engaging in the business of dispossession, and there are going to be winners and losers. The Left used to understand that. Now, that doesn’t mean you temper your project—quite the opposite. But it does mean you are aware that there are real power interests at stake and that people don’t let go of those interests without a fight.

I think a lot of people on the Left think that somehow or another they’re going to persuade everybody that we’re right. That’s never going to happen.

The more liberal types say, “You have to trim your sails, and be careful what you say and do; we can’t alienate people.” But you couldn’t have a feminist movement without alienating a good part of the population. If we think feminism was a serious project, which I think everybody on the Left believes, how would it have been possible to dispossess men of their standing and privileges (which were quite real) without them screaming in rage? It just doesn’t happen.

The Democratic Party’s trajectory over the last several decades has fled further and further from that kind of politics.

Yes. There are those who say, “Well, we have to be realistic,” etc. I’m not sympathetic to that argument, but I at least understand it. But there’s a brand of intellectual journalist who thinks that because there was a backlash against the Democrats coming out of the ’60s, the Democrats were doing something wrong, and that they could’ve done it differently to avoided that backlash. I think that’s just not possible.

From a strategic point of view, though, how can that backlash be dealt with?

That’s a very hard question. I think there are two types of backlash: the elite backlash, which I don’t think you’re going to do anything about, and the populist backlash. What makes the Right modern and so distinctive is that it’s managed over time to appeal to people who, from the point of view of the Left, ought to be on their side. It has managed to do that not through symbolic politics and distraction, but by giving people lower down the social totem pole real forms of power that they benefit from. Capitalism is very good at giving you a sense of privilege and power—privilege and power over other people—that feels within your reach. It’s those people who the Left really has to try to think about.

How does that expansion of those “real forms of power” to the lower classes play out, historically and contemporarily?

The first is in the Right’s victimization rhetoric. The Right really claims to speak for the victim, the loser. The loser at the very top, first and foremost. That has a universal appeal; it’s a seductive language that the people on the bottom can identify with because they feel like losers. You see this all the time on the Right today: the emphasis on the persecution of the Right. The whole category of political correctness originated on the Left, but the Right seized upon it because they could turn the historic notion of persecution and repression on its head and say, “Yes, there is real repression and persecution. But it’s actually the beneficiaries of power who are being persecuted.”

The second is in outsider politics. Historically, some of the most important intellectuals and politicians on the Right have come from outside the halls of power. Edmund Burke was the first: an Irishman in England at a time when the Irish were thought to be just one step above black Africans. He was also a bourgeois in an aristocratic polity; so he really was an outsider. Benjamin Disraeli, also a great conservative statesman, also an outsider, Jewish. And so on up until today, to Sarah Palin, who was also an outsider.

I think the outsider appeal is strategic, but it’s also sincere. It speaks to this need on the Right to renew the ruling class, to rejuvenate it with fresh blood and an outside perspective from somebody who sees what the ruling class looks like not from within it, but from without it. That’s always been critical to the Right.

The last thing is what I call democratic feudalism. This is how the Right really responds to democracy and the claims of democracy. The Right, rather than simply reiterating the traditional defense of privilege, comes up with a new justification for privilege and distributes privileges to a broader group of people. The promise of democracy is that people have equal rights; the Right’s answer to that is, let’s create a more inclusive ruling class. Let’s multiply the ranks and privileges beyond the elite. For example, the supervisor of the maid, the foreman at a factory, the overseer of the slave, the manager of an office—all of these low-level supervisor positions give ordinary people a taste of lordly power.  These positions help make feudalism democratic.

In reading the book, I was struck by how seriously you take conservatism. I think it’s a seriousness that isn’t found very often on the Left. You write, “Liberal writers have always portrayed right-wing politics as an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion.” Elsewhere: “It remains an unfortunate reality of American higher education that social scientists and historians can get through their training with only the most passing acquaintance with conservatism.” It seems like many on the Left feel it unnecessary to treat conservatism as worthy of careful examination because the soundness of the Left’s ideology speaks for itself; why, then, would we need to waste our time with this obviously absurd set of beliefs, conservatism?

I think it goes a little deeper than that. There’s an assumption that comes from the Left but which has been popularized: that morality has to have certain categorical features, namely the recognition of autonomy, moral equality of all men and women. Any philosophy that would depart from that notion, people believe, is no longer morality. It’s not even a philosophy but something else—emotion or selfishness and greed—and though it exists, it has nothing to do with ideas.

Part of what I’m trying say is, “No, there are people who believe in certain ideas of hierarchy, and they are really ideas—moral ideals.” I think to claim you have a vision of a good society that is premised upon radical forms of inequality is just unthinkable to many people—they can’t wrap their minds around that framework.

You have an entire chapter on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He comes across as a kind of gleeful opponent of the Enlightenment. You quote him from a few years ago saying to an audience of conservative Christians, “We must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world, a world that will have nothing to do with miracles. We have to be prepared to be regarded as idiots.” What’s the takeaway about conservatism as a whole that we get from someone like Scalia?

I think what’s interesting about Scalia is that he’s not simply an opponent of the Enlightenment. He is very much an opponent of equality and liberty—of freedom—and the unity of those two ideas. And it’s how he does it. He brings this unabashed, unashamed audaciousness to that project. He’s not the traditionalist. He gives tradition (or his idea of tradition) a revolutionary flavor. He sounds like a Jacobin in his scorn and his contempt for the assumptions of legal liberalism.

Part of what he hates about the Left is that he thinks there is a kind of easygoingness to it—an assumption that conflicts will work themselves out, that peace is good and conflict is bad. He hates that. He appreciates the value of conflict, not for its own sake, but because there are real differences in the world. That’s part of his appeal and his importance. Because as I’ve said, on the Left, we have all these middle-of-the-roaders saying, “Oh no, we can’t be disruptive, we have to be polite.” The irony is that Right’s genius lies in its appreciation of the value of disruption and conflict. The Left completely misses the story on that.

The last thing is something nobody has really picked up on in the reviews and commentary of my book, but which I thought was very important to that chapter: the opinion Scalia offered in this golf case, PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin. In that opinion, he offers a vision of hierarchy and privilege that is not your conventional “Whoever is the most meritorious should reap the most.” Nothing like that. It’s a real vision of supremacy and struggle, and that’s why he’s so fixated on the value of games, and why he sees games as a form of Homeric contest. Once you eliminate antagonistic competitiveness, Scalia believes, the world really becomes decadent and dead; you need to remain antagonistic and striving in order to be valuable and alive.

In reading your work, I sense a desire on the one hand to go to battle with the reactionary mindset in order to further the project of expanding liberation, but on the other hand a kind of fundamental respect for conservatism’s appeal. Is that accurate?

Well, it depends what you mean by “respect.” I want to acknowledge its integrity and the depth of its appeal. But I don’t have any love or admiration for it. Conservatism is a vision I would like to see defeated. I don’t think it ever will be, but it’s one I would like to see defeated.

You write that conservatives have a nimbleness in their response to the Left, precisely because they are reacting to what these movements for liberation are doing. “Unlike their opponents on the left, [conservatives] do not unfurl a blueprint in advance of events. They read circumstances of situations, not texts and tomes; their preferred mode is adaptation and intimation rather than assertion and declamation. … They possess a tactical virtuosity few can match.” It seems the Left is at a structural disadvantage that doesn’t allow it to effectively fight back against counter-revolution, precisely because it doesn’t have that kind of nimbleness and willingness to adjust tactically that the Right has.

Exactly. When it’s doing its job, the Left is engaged in a politics of initiation. By that I mean, it’s beginning a cycle of politics, of overthrow, of challenge.

Take a union struggle: you’re trying to start something, and in order to do that, you need to articulate a coherent ideology, and you have to include people who have never been included before in collective action. To do all of that, you have to make claims about the world, about their rights and all the rest of it. Once you get people to believe all of that, you can’t go back very easily. So there is an inherently democratic imperative at the heart of left-wing politics that is very hard to handle.

This doesn’t mean the Left isn’t hierarchical—often times it can be extremely hierarchical. But it has trouble with those hierarchies and wrestles with those hierarchies, and it’s always a very conflict-ridden project.

You argue that conservatism’s entire raison d’être is to respond to threats from the Left. We’re currently at a moment when the Left has largely been vanquished by the counter-revolutionaries. But instead of celebrating its victory, the Right continues to conjure up this wildly powerful Left. It’s as if, if there aren’t radical leftists under every rock, or a surreptitious Marxist in the White House, then the reactionaries have nothing to react to. Is this the inevitable result of conservatism in power, that it can’t help but see a deep and dangerous radicalism even in a mostly defeated Left?

Yes, in some ways. Something of what I argue in my conclusion is that what you’re seeing today, with things like the hysteria of the Right about Obama, that he’s a Kenyan Muslim Socialist, etc. What that’s about is really the exhaustion of the Right. They have to reach back into ancient history in order to come up with a language to vilify this man, Obama, who’s really a moderate Republican. It shows you that they’re not present in the moment; they’re somewhere else. And that’s a sign of both their ultimate weakness and long-term demise, I think.

And it’s not until we have a real Left again, that we’ll see a renewed right.  I don’t think Occupy is that left, at least not yet. People have made the claim, but the fact is that most Republicans ignore it. I don’t think too many conservatives are remotely interested in it. I think it’s because they rightly see that it probably will not, in its current form, threaten any relationship of power.

Compare the current right-wing rhetoric and mobilization against Occupy to that against the disorders of the 1960s; there’s just no comparison. Until that threat materializes, I think you’re going to see conservatives on a continued downward slope. The ultimate proof of this is the most recent Republican presidential campaign, of how long it took the GOP to get their act together and rally around Romney. It’s sort of unthinkable in modern political history for the Republican Party to have been that disorganized. I don’t think it’s because there’s bad leadership or lack of talent.  I think it’s because they don’t have the disciplinary force on the other side that would force them to really get their act together.

You were recently on Up With Chris Hayes with someone from Frum Forum. There’s an attempt, seen most explicitly in David Frum, by some on the Right who think the Conservative movement needs to modernize if it’s going to stay relevant in the future. What do you think about the prospects for those kinds of projects given your analysis of the nature of conservatism?

Whatever you think about what Frum is trying to do, the fact is that he lacks that disciplining force on the Left that would make his arguments persuasive, or even frankly coherent. I think most people on the Right listen to his stuff and think to themselves, “What the hell are you talking about? Look around you, we’re not in power, and yet things are kind of going our way. We have a president who’s scared to raise taxes, who’s cutting entitlements, who’s killing Muslims abroad. We have a Democratic president elected by an overwhelming majority with extraordinarily strong with the majorities in both houses of Congress, and what is he doing? He’s bailing out banks!”

The Republicans try to whip up this rhetoric to get people out, but it doesn’t work because there is a reality that they can’t overcome. So when Frum comes along and says, “We have to modernize, or it may be a disaster,” it’s a response to a hypothetical problem in the future, not a present problem. And a response to actual threats on the grounds is the conservative modus operandi.

So without those threats—not future demographic threats, I mean real threats of actual political forms of dispossession—I think the things that Frum warns against don’t make that much sense to the Right.

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