The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind

Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are used more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.

This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.

Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview precludes it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency. 

The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left.

The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling.

This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.

This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.

There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe. Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.

There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims.

Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.

This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if not for the consistent pattern that can be seen across the centuries. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter.

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8 thoughts on “The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind

  1. Reactionaries maybe have something akin to a religious impulse. They are destructive without knowing what they want to create, simply wanting to eliminate what they see as broken and failed. They are like fundamentalist terrorists seeking to force God’s hand and so to bring on Apocalypse, which will then bring the New Earth or Second Coming. They support Trump because they see him as being able to keep one and only one promise and that is to destroy the present system. If they can’t fix it, they’ll make sure it is completely broken.

    • This was just a quick thought. Actually, it was based on something my friend said.

      The reactionary mind, when pushed to the extreme, can become religious-like or even prone to overt religiosity. I’ve noted how many right-wing libertarians were raised as religious fundamentalists. Libertarianism becomes their new religious ideology. I’m thinking of people like Robert M. Price but I also have a second cousin that fits the pattern. And then there are religious fundamentalists like Palin and Beck who are drawn to right-wing libertarian rhetoric.

      But to be fair, there are also mild forms of the reactionary mind. The average reactionary isn’t at the extreme, at least not under normal conditions. In a society like ours where the reactionary has become so dominant, it’s hard for anyone to avoid the sway of the reactionary mind.

      This is how some on the political left, in dealing with reactionaries on their terms, end up playing into the reactionary mindset. The reactionary is kryptonite to the liberal mind. This is how so many liberals become conservative, as so many conservatives become right-wing. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans who are moderately liberal are either ignored or called radical left-wingers.

  2. I have the perfect name for reactionaries. From now on, I’m going to call them the Faceless Men. That is what the assassins are called in Game of Thrones. They are masters of disguise who can take on the appearance of anyone. And they worship the Many-Faced God, which is a perfect description of reactionary’s non-ideological ideology.

    By the way, who gets called a reactionary is somewhat subjective. Since the establishment of our society is ruled by reactionaries, it’s not a partisan phenomenon and can be found in many guises.

    I’d call Hillary Clinton a reactionary, although she isn’t the most extreme variety. Clinton is able to be many things to many people, changing her face as her audience changes. In impersonating a liberal progressive, she is like Arya Stark impersonating Walder Frey. And the liberal class and other partisan Democrats are like the Frey family drinking the poisoned wine. They never see it coming.

    Reactionaries are a dangerous enemy. This is because, as Faceless Men, they can be anywhere in any form and speaking in any voice. You can see this in how the political right has co-opted political correctness and wielded it against the political left, such as denying being racists even as they promote racism and then acting offended by the allegation. The smartest among them know how to say all the right things. They are chameleons. They know how to fit in, when it serves their purpose.

    Anyone who follows my blog, immediately would see the connection to my own theory of symbolic conflation. This is one of the reactionary’s most powerful weapons. Dog whistle politics is an obvious example, but most of the time it is much more subtle in its obfuscation. You have to learn to listen beyond the surface level of rhetoric and talking points, of words and labels.

  3. You may have left out the other half of their co-opting. What they can’t use for themselves, they can use against others. Look at how easily they have turned the proud term “Liberal” into a pejorative. To be “Elite” was something to be proud of or look up to, now is a label of being out of touch. What they can’t take, they corrupt.

    • It is a two-part strategy. Co-opting and denigrating go hand in hand. Either can work. Co-opting is the more powerful tactic. But failing that, denigration can be an effective tool.

      The political right has gone back and forth on the label of liberalism. Earlier last century when there was still a strong memory of liberal progressivism, many conservatives like Eisenhower and Nixon felt the need to praise liberalism. But they were never able to claim it as their own and so it became a target of derision instead. Still, some on the political right go on trying to steal it, although their claims of classical liberalism end up being not all that compelling.

      It’s not just labels. The political right goes back and forth about lots of things, as they blow with the wind. Political elites loved Thomas Paine during the revolution because he was useful to their agenda. But after independence was won, Paine became a liability to their plutocratic aspirations. So, for two centuries, Paine became mostly forgotten, only to be occasionally remembered in order to be dismissed again. Yet, every now and then, someone on the political right will try to use Paine to prop up their ideology. Glenn Beck attempted to do this, which is a dangerous strategy because it might cause Americans to read Paine’s radical writings for themselves.

      Reactionaries don’t mind courting danger, though. It doesn’t really matter if they are able to convince many people. It’s simply throwing out lots of claims and counter-claims, just to create confusion. Reactionaries aren’t interested in winning debates, as long as they make sure their enemies lose. Their only goal is power and influence. It’s a game and what excites them is playing it. Corey Robin explains how easily reactionaries get bored with their games and so move on to some new game. This is why their rhetoric is always shifting and why it’s so hard to pin them down. They have no ideological loyalty, other than their commitment to the reactionary mindset itself.

      You make an interesting point about the idea of an ‘elite’. Once that had a connotation of pride and honor, duty and obligation. It was part of a moral order of noblesse oblige, such that with great power comes great responsibility. Now elite has come to mean raw power and crude material wealth. But that is because those who have co-opted the position of elites in our society no longer act according to that traditional worldview. In some ways, reactionaries love to be hated or to rile up divisiveness in general. They flourish in these conditions. Many elites are reactionaries and they relish that the people hate the elite because it simply proves how powerful they are, as they believe they can’t be touched.

      Being hated, in their mind, proves that they are right. They require the melodrama of fighting existential battles. Listen to people like Trump, he constantly plays up this idea of division. Trump portrayed himself as an elite who would have no loyalty to the elite, even as his entire life was mired in the establishment elite. It was a jujitsu maneuver to draw support. Words have no inherent meaning. Consistency means nothing. This makes it hard to understand what motivates all of this or why so many fall for it. Corey Robin does the best job of any person I’ve come across to explain the phenomenon.

    • I actually think it’s worse than the once proud term “Liberal” having been turned into a pejorative. The reactionary mind has become dominant and the reactionary atmosphere pervasive. It’s hard to escape it. Under these conditions, it’s hard to find a genuine liberalism operating anywhere within public view.

      The Democratic Party is just another variety of the reactionary, even as those like Clinton pose as liberals. But many were noting the reactionary tendencies among the liberal class long ago, ever since the middle class became a major political force allied with the upper class.

      The closest we’ve come to authentic old school liberalism is Sanders. But even he ended up bending the knee to the reactionary establishment controlling the Democratic Party. Sanders had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he blew it. If he had stood strong for liberal principles, we could already have a new third party organizing to challenge the bipartisan stranglehold.

      That further strengthened the reactionary right-wingers in their argument that liberals are weak and unwilling to fight. That is the very reason Trump won in the first place, as he promised to fight. It doesn’t matter that Trump was spouting bullshit.

      We not only have to be willing to fight. We have to take that fight to the reactionaries and push them back to reclaim the ideological territory that has been lost.

    • A major thing I left out of the post is the insidious nature of the reactionary worldview. It would be somewhat comforting if the reactionary dynamic was limited to overt reactionaries. But it isn’t. It’s like pollution in the air we breathe. Even as some get the worst of it, no one can fully avoid its effects.

      Reactionaries redefine words, whether co-opting them or denigrating them. They distort rhetoric and obfuscate the real issues. The problem for the rest of us is that we live in the same world they are creating. And few realize this.

      The average person comes to take the results of this reactionary worldview as normal. It’s all we have known, since it became established long before we were born. The degraded meaning of words becomes the standard usage of those words. Those calling themselves ‘liberals’ or whatever else are almost inevitably falling into the reactionary worldview, because the reactionary framing is so powerful and pervasive.

      When I’ve tried to use words like that in a meaningful way, I constantly spend my time trying to redefine them. And still many people get confused. It makes communication feel near impossible or so tiresome that most quit trying. It’s easier to go along with the dominant paradigm. I can write a post like this. But what good does it do? It doesn’t change the state of vast ignorance in our society. We aren’t taught the history of ideologies and labels. And few people are curious enough to learn on their own.

      This is why reactionaries are able to have so much influence. They are master game players. And the rules of the game in our society have been written by them. If you enter into public debate and public politics, you are inevitably entering their field of play. They aren’t just the players but also the coaches, referees, and team owners. Reactionaries aren’t just trolls online but also activists, partisans, politicians, pundits, talking heads, talk show hosts, think tank intellectuals, producers of entertainment media, CEOs, etc.

      Such things as the gatekeepers and propaganda model of media are fully reactionary. For those of us who would like to reclaim ideological territory, that would mean fighting the entire system.

      In some ways the pseudo-liberal reactionaries in the Democratic Party are the greater threat. The Democratic political elite act as representatives of liberalism, which goes a long way in explaining why the label has so easily been denigrated. Yet oddly someone like Obama has never even called himself a liberal. It’s just assumed he is a liberal elite because the reactionaries say so and as part of the reactionary ruling elite he plays along with this perception.

      How do we effectively fight against that? Most people so much want to believe the comforting and occasionally inspiring rhetoric of professional politicians and demagogues. To begin questioning and doubting what you are told is to invite in pessimism. It’s not a happy feeling to lose faith in one’s own society. But that is the necessary first step for seeking to create a better one. Still, that is a lot to ask of most people. Few will agree to even this first step, unless conditions become so desperate that they feel they have no other choice.

      So, it’s a waiting game requiring much patience in knowing that the benefits of this fight might not come in our lifetimes. It took a long time to create this reactionary society and it will take a long time to replace it and undo the damage. Meanwhile, we should prepare by coming to understand our enemy better than our enemy understands us. When the opportunity is right, that knowledge will become a powerful weapon. But that opportunity is not quite here yet.

  4. Here is some context in understanding how quickly the reactionaries established power in the United States. By way of the unconstitutional overturning of the Articles of Confederation, the coup of the Constitutional Convention was just the first step. That made possible the standing army that so many feared and it was quickly used to suppress those demanding democratic reform. Then the first central bank was created in 1791. And the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798.

    All of this led to the backlash in the early 1800s. Jackson rode that wave of outrage into the presidency. It was into that world that Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes were born. Both became presidents based on populist demands. Lincoln went so far as to say that labor precedes capital, something he likely learned from the labor value of Marxism (as Marx regularly was published in a newspaper he read and he had a Marxist in his administration). Hayes became president in the decade following Lincoln’s assassination. Here is the conclusion he came to about the young democratic experiment:

    “The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital. Hundreds of laws of Congress and the state legislatures are in the interest of these men and against the interests of workingmen. These need to be exposed and repealed. All laws on corporations, on taxation, on trusts, wills, descent, and the like, need examination and extensive change. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”

    Those words still resonate to this day. If anything, they are more true now than they were then. The plutocratic corporatism we now know came to power largely because of the machinations of reactionaries. It’s a re-creation of the rigid hierarchy of concentrated wealth and power that the American Revolutionaries and generations of reformers had fought against. But the memory of this fight, by way of reactionary rhetoric, has been almost completely erased from the public mind. The revolutionary ideals and democratic vision have been co-opted as yet more propaganda in defense of the ruling establishment.

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