Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are wielded 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. This is the reason conservatives today, as reactionary as ever, use rhetoric far to the left of liberals of centuries past.
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. The enemies of Federalism defeated Federalism by adopting the word and making it meaningless. It’s a genius subterfuge, a masterful tactic.
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, soft fascism, 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 (Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’).
This was admitted by the infamous right-winger Murray Rothbard: One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83). 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. The story of this appropriation is told by Angela Saini, in describing Steve Sailer’s email list from the 1990s:
“Others joined in their dozens. By the summer of 1999, Sailer’s roster of members was astounding. Along with prominent anthropologists such as Marks, there was psychologist Steven Pinker, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and economist Paul Krugman. In hindsight, the large number of economists in the group might have been a warning. There in the mix, too, was the controversial author of The Bell Curve, political scientist Charles Murray. That should have been another red flag. […]
“What intrigued him especially was that Sailer happened to be brandishing Marks’s own neologism, calling his list the Human Biodiversity Discussion Group. […] That school of racism was long dead, he assumed. Yet her on this email list, something strange was happening. Observing the conversations that Sailer steered through the group, Marks noticed the term “human biodiversity” being used differently from the way he had originally intended. Members were using it to refer to deep differences between human population groups. […] When Sailer talked about human biodiversity, he didn’t appear to be using the phrase in a politically neutral way, but as a euphemism. He had spun the language used by liberal antiracists to celebrate human cultural diversity to build a new and ostensibly more acceptable language around racism.
“For those sucked into Sailer’s electronic arena for the intellectual discussion of race, his email list was just a taste of the virulent racism that would later be seen far more often in the shadowy areas of the internet, then more openly on social media and right-wing websites, and finally in mainstream political discourse. Many more soon took hold of the phrase “human biodiversity,” giving it a life of its own online. Today it’s nothing short of a mantra among self-styled race realists. […]
“To be fair, few could have guessed that the email list was a precursor to something bigger. But as the group slowly went defunct, Steve Sailer’s political convictions became increasingly obvious. He and other members of the list went on to become prominent conservative bloggers, writing frequently on race, genetics, and intelligence. […]
“But it all came as a more of a surprise to academics like Jonathan Marks. “I was working on the assumption that these guys were the lunatic fringe. If you had told me twenty years later that they would be part of a political mainstream wave, I would have said you are absolutely crazy. These guys are antiscience. These guys are positioning themselves against the empirical study of human variation and they are clearly ideologues for whom empirical evidence isn’t important,” he says with a laugh. “But I think they were a lot cleverer than us professors” “ (Superior: The Return of Race Science, pp. 88-92).
About his legacy as a scholar, Marks writes: “For me, it increasingly seems as though my lasting contribution will be to have coined the phrase “human biodiversity” in my 1994 book of that name. Unfortunately it has come to mean the opposite of what I meant, due to the distortions of internet racists. In fact, they have even abbreviated “human biodiversity” as a meme for the semi-literate, HBD. […] To have provided racists with a scientific-sounding cover for their odious ideas is not something to be particularly proud of, but I can’t take it back. All I can do is disavow it” (I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.). That is sad. Yet more of the ideological battleground is ceded to the political right.
With almost fatalistic resignation, the political left accepts defeat too easily. 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.
The reactionary, by the way, isn’t only limited to the overtly right-wing. The liberal class has a long history of falling under the thrall of the reactionary mind. Jonathan Marks indirectly points out that the New York Times, a few days after declining to publish his above linked essay, “published a column by Bret Stephens on Jewish genius (or, Jewnius©) that actually cited the horrid 2005 paper on that subject by the late biological anthropologist Henry Harpending. Harpending was regarded by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a White Nationalist.“
Think about that. The New York Times is what goes for the far left of the supposedly liberal MSM. This is how the corporate media and corporatist politicians, across the narrow ‘spectrum’ of elite opinion, have managed to push the Overton window so far to the extreme right, beyond the bounds of the radical progressivism of the silenced majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; & American People Keep Going Further Left). The reactionaries aren’t limited to the overtly authoritarian right-wingers and the crazed alt-right. The entire system of concentrated wealth and elite power, including the privileged liberal class, is reactionary. What they are reacting to is not merely the revolutionary left for, more importantly, they are reacting to the threat of the American public.
We on the political left struggle against enforced ignorance and amnesia. This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if these were isolated incidents but that is not the case. The consistent pattern of rhetorical manipulation and ideological game-playing can be seen across the centuries and it has a lasting impact on the entire society, distorting everything and destroying any hope of a free and healthy society. 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. In language, there is immense power, to be used for good or ill.