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Political scientist Corey Robin believes a sense of loss animates modern conservatism.
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.
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 Bloggingheads, The 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.
Micah Uetricht is the Associate Editor of In These Times. He is also a contributing editor at Jacobin and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. He has written for The Nation, the American Prospect, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, the Chicago Reader and elsewhere. He previously worked as a labor organizer.