Three Key Ideas About Conservatism. Review of “The Reactionary Mind”

Daniel Avatar

1. The right is always in a dialectical tension with the left’s platforms, social movements, and ideas. Key to this dialectic is the fact that conservative thought begins and ends with nothing. Notice how the faith in the free market following the Cold War became a desolate and barren place to rest ones hat. Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, and John Gray all arch Cold War conservatives each found the conservative platform dried up at the end of the Cold War, not only because it lacked an enemy, but because it had depended for too long on a deification of the market, but the market itself became too boring, and with no ideology to defend it against, what you had was a searching for new windmills. Indeed, it is the conservatives that are more prone to tilting at windmills, to chasing imaginary ghosts and enemies than any other party.

2. The conservative movement since the French revolution has at its core no original or foundational values, ideas, or agenda. It is purely a receptacle for remaining with the existing social order. Conservatism’s most defining trait is that it refuses to change and this is why it was so resistant to every major social movement, and also why conservatives have never started an authentic and original social movement.

3. Conservative thought and its expression is highly repetitive and predictable. This is why latest wave of conservative thought is always seen as an anomaly, as something that it uniquely new, and never before experienced. Robin points out the ways in which conservative movements share common features.

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin is a book whose time has come! Robin argues that conservative thought is born out of failure and disappointment, and latches onto the left in dialectical asymmetry until it has out-done even itself, and then like a vampire lacking blood, it comes crawling back when nihilism sets in, hungry for more.

While The Reactionary Mind does not shed too much light onto conservatism’s latest wave of populist hysteria a la the Tea Party, on the contrary, it argues, against conventional wisdom, that the Tea Party and the Neoconservatives are not anomaly’s within conservatism’s long history since the French Revolution. Robin’s main proposal in the book is that conservative thought has, since its inception after the French revolution, been a reaction to left wing and popular social movements. It has sought, time and again to co-opt, respond and or react to left-wing thought, eventually absorbing the very basis of the left-wing discourse it owes its very existence to in the first place.

Robin points out through biographical sketches as well as some very keen interviewing of diverse conservative thinkers on the right, including everyone from William Buckley, John Gray, Ayn Rand, Hayek, Nietzsche, Irving Kristol, Justice Antonin Scalia, Barry Goldwater, to Ronald Reagan, some central overlaps in what would otherwise be a quite distinct set of political thought. On the contrary, Robin’s book is so important for our time precisely because it shows that the Tea Party and the neoconservative movement is not an anomaly of conservatism. Like its forebears, these movements present predictable, and even repetitive traits from historical iterations of conservative thinking and conservative movements.

William F. Buckley Jr.

Beginning with the French revolution, the right as we know it today became a group composed of outsider political refugees who argued that tradition and the ruling order must be preserved. From the pen of Edmund Burke himself, writing following the momentous event of the French revolution, we find the contours of conservative’s relationship to power, to the ideal form of power. Burke favors the use of power for power’s sake. This type of power he refers to as ‘sublime’ and dichotomizes two forms of power, beauty and sublime. Beauty consists of mediocre mass movements to petition for a change in the political order, whereas the sublime “abhors mediocrity”. Burke’s recommendation to the right was to write tracts of philosophy that would defend religion and the status quo. Much of what Burke feared was the very idea of a life wrought in revolution because he argued – and this became a central tenet of conservative thought – that a revolution threatens to disturb fragile interpersonal social relationships. Years later, conservatives would argue for the preservation of slavery based on an unwillingness to disturb the delicate social arrangements. Citing American founding fathers John Adams, who argued against the involvement of the masses in democratic processes, Robin points out how this idea is founded on the relationship the common man has to the monarch.

Robin invokes Hobbes to show the tacit support for the idea that each man has the right to rule an other in society, as if he were a monarch. Even though conservatives don’t necessarily place a high premium on political agency, they adopt the importance of political agency from the left’s privileging of the power of the masses.

The Dialectical Co-Opt of the Left:
While the major and perhaps most interesting examples of the right’s co-opting of the left comes from the 1960’s civil rights movement, sought to gain greater rights and representations for minorities (women, blacks, etc). This emphasis on rights was abhorred by the right as an unequal extension of government, but was in reality a threat to the status quo of interpersonal relations between a white owning class and the lower classes that sustained that structure. Over the past forty years the right has stripped the gains of the welfare state into a hollow set of lingering agencies that are largely impotent. From the Reagan revolution, which now absorbs democratic presidents including Clinton and Obama, to the attempted destruction of the labor movement, to the picking apart of women and minority rights, the right has nearly exhausted its reason de’etre.

In every major social movement from women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, gay rights, to the civil rights movement, conservatives have defended the ruling order. One of the more interesting arguments for preserving the existing order involves a defense for preserving the network of existing interpersonal relations. This of course involves an incredible wave of populism which is very much linked to the type of Tea Party hysteria over immigration (build an armored fence on the Mexican border, ban all Shariah law at the local courts). It did not take long for conservative writers against feminism to point out that women have the ‘right’ to receive support from their husband in their arguments for preserving the traditional nuclear family arrangement, and advocating that women not enter the workforce in a more robust manner (105). In a similar vein, conservatives, as we find in Mannheim’s writing, modified the definition of freedom in the international arena towards a realist states rights approach. By arguing that freedom is the protection of the rights of the nations, which to Mannheim represents the new feudal aristocracies, conservatives re-defined freedom as the preservation of unequal and distinctive privileges among states, and within states.

In the 1960’s, following the Kent State massacre, right wing student groups adopted what they referred to as victim language into their expansion of conservative student groups. Putting the small business owner and the entrepreneur as a victim, just as the liberal and socialist students were placing blacks, Vietnam draftees, etc., the right was again able to absorb and co-opt political discourse (107). Nixon co-opted the black struggle by ushering in a new strategy that targets white ethnic minorities (Polish, Irish, Eastern European) and he rose them to levels of prominence in his administration.

The Onset of Nihilism at the End of the Cold War
Ever since the French revolution, a dialectic which conservatives have picked up upon is the eave of romantic expressions of the enlightenment versus cold hard enlightenment expressions. This trend is still with us as we see shards of it from Glenn Beck in his blasphemy of ‘social justice’ churches. This is a trend he picks up from neocon thinkers who pointed to the Soviet Union as the coldest expression of enlightenment, while the free market was the enlightenment’s romantic partner, spontaneous and prone to ever-widening degrees of self-expression. For Beck, the emergence of ‘social justice’ churches represents this quelling of the life force of romantic enlightenment – it represses society.

Similar to Beck’s mildly psychotic anti-intellectual ravings, the neoconservatives, particularly John Gray (who is really a former Neocon) points out how the entire cold war narrative of the Soviet block and communism in diametric opposition to the capitalist world became the fetish object that enabled conservatism to remain vibrant. But following the end of the Cold War, Gray argued that the free market required the state, that the state was a necessary evil, whereas his Hayek inspired free market religion during the Cold War refused to remain dependent on a strong state.

As Bill Kristol points out, “capitalism is the least romantic conception of a civic order that the mind has ever conceived of”. At the end of the day (or at the end of the imagined enemy/other), the right really lacks a political imagination. This was picked up by William F. Buckley Jr. when he claimed that if he were a young person today he would “probably be a socialist, maybe even a communist.” He ventures down this road in part due to the build up boredom at defending the same ideologies, but also for lacking a sufficient ideology in the first place. After all, conservatism over the last forty years has become too concerned with business and corporate interests, it needs either the creation of a new arena for which its romantic juices can be extracted, or at least a left that can again resuscitate it with some fresh blood.

One response

  1. The Best Books of 2011: A List | Spirit is a Bone

    […] – a lovely piece of intellectual history that is well documented and well put-together. I wrote a review of this book, and I highly recommend […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: