Reactionary Mind Is Not Normal

“To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological transformations, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution. Anxiety in the face of this process is now a universal experience, which is why reactionary ideas attract adherents around the world who share little except their sense of historical betrayal.

“Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.”
~ Mark Lilla, Our Reactionary Age

What if we are all more reactionary than we’d like to admit? Related to that, what if we are all more splintered and dissociated as well?

We have this sense of knowing who we are, as though we are singular stable identities. And we defend those identities with ideology or rather with ideological rhetoric, a wall of language with metaphors as the sentries. It is easy to rationalize and narratize, to make coherent the divided self that plagues the modern mind. It makes me wonder that maybe none of us is as we seem. We look at people with serious personality issues and we might call them dissociated or something similar. But what if we are all disconnected on some basic level. If that is our default state, then it isn’t really dissociation for there is no other supposedly normal state to be dissociated from, no unified whole that only later becomes fractured.

I’ve observed those who can say something to another person, walk into the next room, and say the complete opposite to someone else. It’s an amazing thing to see for how naturally it comes. There is no sign of intentional deception or self-awareness. Of course, this is not so easy to observe in oneself. If one were doing the exact same thing, how would one know? Yet we are constantly splitting ourselves off in this manner, just to get by in this complex society. Who we are with family is different than when with friends. And who we are at church is different than when at work. Egoic consciousness (from a Buddhist, Humean, and Jaynesian view) is always a limited construct, not as grand and encompassing as it presents itself.

We are all raised in a society full of lies, half-truths, and just-so stories. When we are young and innocent, we might occasionally challenge authority figures in their dishonesty and deceptions, their self-serving explanations and commands. But the response of authority challenged is almost always negative, if not punishment then gaslighting. This creates each new generation of schizoid adults. Not every kid gets this kind of mind game to the same degree, but I suspect this is what happens to all of us in various ways. It’s the way our society is built.

The trickster quality of the reactionary demonstrates this. And it makes us feel better to accuse those others of being reactionaries. But maybe the reactionary frames everything, existing at the periphery of our vision at the dark, blurred edges of liberal idealism. We live in a society of instability and uncertainty, of stress, anxiety, and fear — the fertile black loam of the reactionary mind. That would explain why it seems so much easier for liberals and left-wingers to become reactionaries than the other way around.

In my gut-level hatred of this reactionary madness, I feel most judgmental of those who turn reactionary, especially those who should know better such as a well-read left-winger mindlessly repeating racist beliefs or a well-educated liberal obliviously being converted while following their curiosity into the “Dark Enlightenment”. It’s sad and frustrating. I can sympathize for the lost souls on the right who were simply born into a world of reaction. They don’t know better. But when those most aware of the dangers of the reactionary mind are lured into its temptations, it further chips away at what little hope I have remaining for humanity. It makes me worry for my own mind as well, as I sense how overpowering reaction can be when one is immersed in it.

Our intellectual defenses are weak. That is what makes the reactionary mind flourish under these unnatural conditions of capitalist modernity. It must be what it was like in the late Bronze Age when the first authoritarian leaders arose in the growing empires. There wasn’t yet the rhetorical capacity among the population to protect against it, as would later develop in the Axial Age. Millennia later, in this ever increasingly reactionary age, authoritarianism grows worse as its rhetorical skill manages to stay one step ahead. We are inoculated only to the reactionary mind as it expressed in the past, ever expecting it to repeat the same way with the Nazi brownshirts goosestepping in the streets.

Corrupt power is what it is. Filled not only with authoritarians but social dominators, psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians. Those people, for all the problems they cause, are a miniscule proportion of the population. They could not rule, could not cause damage if there weren’t those who could be manipulated, riled up, and led to commit horrors upon others… and then the intellectuals and media hacks who come along to rationalize and normalize it all. This is why I fear the reactionary mind, the sway it holds even over those not explicitly reactionary. This is why we desperately need to come to greater self-understanding. Even simpleminded fools like Donald Trump are able to seize power and play us like fools, only because the reactionary mind has seized the entire political establishment and body politic with the grip of a heart attack. The kindly pseudo-liberal reactionaries of the Democratic Party are no better — if anything, far more dangerous for their masked face.

Still, maybe there is a hint of hope. When looking at some other societies, one doesn’t see this kind of full reactionary dominance. I’m particularly thinking of more isolated tribes maintaining their traditional cultures and lifestyles. The example I often turn to is that of the Piraha. Daniel Everett noted how they lacked any evidence of stress, anxiety, depression, and fear of death. And along with this, there was no expression of authoritarianism and social dominance. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that traditional communitarian societies, if they were to survive, could not tolerate psychopathy as we do in such careless fashion. We modern Westerners are far too tolerant of this threat, as if we believe we are above it all. That is a dangerously naive attitude.

Related to this, in understanding human nature, the diversity of identity indicates there is much more we don’t understand. Many hunter-gatherers don’t have rigid ego boundaries, don’t have permanent unitary selves, don’t have a sense of individualistic isolation from others and from the world around them. They aren’t divided, splintered, fractured, or dissociated. An open and loose embrace of a complex psyche is their natural way of being and maybe it is the default position for all humanity. Our carefully constructed egoic structures are rather flimsy, not a great foundation upon which to build a civilization. No wonder we are in a constant state of fear and anxiety, ever worried about the whole thing collapsing down around us. We are without the calm confidence found among many indigenous people who know their place in the world, know they belong without needing the authoritarian control of a clenched fist nor the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of a demagogue to keep everyone in line.

The reactionary mind may be the norm for our society. But it is not normal.

* * *

Let me leave some brief commentary on Mark Lilla and Corey Robin, the two main scholars on the reactionary mind. They are correct to place nostalgia as the taproot of this phenomenon. Lilla is also right to link it back to early thinkers like Plato who reacted, as I see it, to both Athenian democracy and the ancient poetic tradition. But he is wrong to separate the reactionary and the conservative, a mistake Robin avoids.

But I’d argue that Lilla and Robin are further missing out on how the reactionary is linked to the liberal, two sides of the same paradigm. All of these co-arise. The reactionary isn’t only a counter-revolutionary that is only found after the revolution for the leaders who co-opt revolutions typically are reactionaries, from the likes of George Washington to Maximilien Robespierre.

Some conservatives seek to distinguish themselves by identifying as ‘classical liberals’, in the hope of separating their identity from both progressives and reactionaries, but they fail in this endeavor. For one, many of the classical liberals were revolutionaries, as some were reactionaries, since liberalism as a paradigm has been a mix right from the beginning, even in terms of looking to its precursors in the Axial Age.

To demonstrate this confusion of ideological rhetoric, Mark Lilla himself in reacting to the failings of the liberalism he hopes to defend ends up turning to reactionary nostalgia. So, when even a scholar seeking to defuse the reactionary bomb falls prey to it, you know that it is potent stuff not to be handled lightly, even for those who think they know what they’re doing.

* * *

In conclusion, here is my alternative view as an independent. There is something I’ve never seen anyone acknowledge. This is my own insight.

Some see it all beginning with the French Revolution and Edmund Burke’s response. But it’s a bit complex, since Burke himself was a progressive reformer for his era and belonged to the ‘liberal’ party. His reactionary stance came late in life and yet this never led him to abandon his former left-leaning positions. He was a liberal and a conservative and a reactionary, but he was no revolutionary though he initially supported the American Revolution, only because he hoped for progressive reform. The standard story is that reaction was the counter-revolution following revolution. That doesn’t quite make sense of the facts, though. To clarify this, look to the French Revolution. The Jacobins, I’d argue, were reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

They were reacting to the old authoritarian regime of French monarchy but not to eliminate rigid hierarchy for they used the same tactics of oppressive violence to defend their preferred hierarchy, precisely as Corey Robin describes the reactionary agenda. It was a power grab and unsurprisingly it led to an even greater anti-democratic authoritarianism. And they were counterrevolutionaries fighting against what the American Revolution had unleashed. The radical and revolutionary social democrat Thomas Paine, we must remember, sat on the right side of the French National Assembly opposite of the Jacobins. The French Revolution didn’t begin with the Jacobins for they only managed to co-opt it long after it had started. They were counter-revolutionaries within the revolution.

I’ve come to a more complex view. I tend toward the theory of Robin. But I don’t entirely agree with him either. My present assessment is that conservatism is the reactionary and the reactionary is simply the other side of liberalism. It’s all of one cloth. They co-arose together (and continue to do so), going back to the precursors in the Axial Age. This puts the liberal in a less comfortably righteous position. There is no liberalism without the anxiety and hence nostalgia that leads to reaction, and conservatism has nowhere else to stand except right in the middle of the chaos.

This comes to a breaking point now that ‘liberalism’ has become the all-encompassing paradigm that rules as unquestionable ideological realism. Reactionary conservatism can offer no alternative but destruction. And liberalism can offer no response but defense of the status quo. So, liberalism becomes increasingly reactionary as well, until there is nothing left other than reaction in all directions, reactionaries reacting to reactionaries.

That is the final apocalypse of the ideological worldview we take for granted. But apocalypse, in its original meaning, referred to a revealing. Just as revolution once meant a cyclical turning that brings us back. Reaction, as such, is the return of the repressed. This is far from nostalgia, even as we have no choice than to carry the past forward as society is transformed. The reactionary age we find ourselves in is more radical than the revolutions that began it. And what, in our projections, is reflected back to us flatters neither the right nor the left.

It’s an ideological stalemate for it never was about competing political visions. All rhetoric has become empty or rather, to some extent, maybe it always was. It never meant what we thought it did. We find ourselves without any bearings or anchor. So we thrash about on a dark sea with a storm brewing. No sight beyond the next wave looming over us, casting its cold shadow, and ready to come crashing down.

* * *

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

The Ex-Cons
by Corey Robin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry

Wrong Reaction
by Alex Gourevitch

Why reactionary nostalgia is stronger than liberal hope
by Carlos Lozada

The Shipwrecked Book: Mark Lilla’ Nostalgic Prison
by Robert L. Kehoe III

The Revolutionary Nostalgia That Gave Rise to Trump – and ISIS
by Shlomo Avineri

Is a Conservative Crack-Up on the Horizon?
by Samuel Goldman

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

First there was revolution. And then there was counter-revolution. Therefore, reaction follows what it is reacting to.

This is a simple analysis and, I’d argue, overly simplistic. It is the narrative reactionaries have been telling about themselves for a couple of centuries. It is also the narrative that Mark Lilla repeats in his recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind, which is a useful survey, summary, and synthesis of modern ideological history but not essentially original in framing.

The problem is the reactionary mind is not a modern invention. Many arguments could be made about when it first emerged. For example, I’d place it firmly in the Axial Age or, better  yet, in that earliest of dark ages when the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed and the Jaynesian bicameral mind was lost.

By the time Plato came up with his authoritarian republicanism as a reaction to Athenian democracy, the reactionary mind had already been developing for some time. That was the era when, as Julian Jaynes points out, lament rang out across many populations of the silence, loss, or abandonment of the divine. Nostalgia in one of its most potent form was born.

As with Corey Robin, Mark Lilla is right to mark out nostalgia as an expression of the reactionary. But focusing too much on that can be a red herring. Robin is better than Lilla in pointing out that reactionaries can co-opt almost anything, even radical utopianism or revolution itself.

That is where my own thoughts come in. The modern reactionary mind initially took shape not after the early modern revolutionary period but during it — maybe before it, depending on when one defines the beginning of that period. The reactionary mind as a modern phenomenon was well on its way at least by the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution, although some consider the Peasants’ Revolt an incipient form of this societal shift through conflict and class war.

The point is that the French Revolution was late to the game. That reactionaries finally found their voice following that is not entirely relevant to understanding the reactionary mind and its historical development. What the French Revolution does help us with is in showing another example of how reaction arose within the revolution itself, co-opting it as happened with the American Revolution (related to the rarely acknowledged fact that the American Revolution was a precedent for what followed, including large-scale destruction and violence).

Thomas Paine demonstrates the connections well, but his example also serves to show the complex relationship of reaction to revolution. He was a radical in the American Revolution and his radicalism was profound in its democratic vision. When he was welcomed into the French National Assembly during the French Revolution, he actually sat on the right side with the moderate reformers. It was actually his radicalism for democracy that made him moderate or aligned with more moderate forces.

What Paine specifically advocated was a democratic constitution and leniency to the king, rather than violent despotism and violent vengeance. The Jacobins are called radicals but in reality they were reactionaries or at least the leadership was. They were using the same means that the monarchy had used in enforcing power and silencing opponents. So, the Jacobins, as is typical with reactionaries, wanted to create a new and improved version of the old order by ensuring a rigid hierarchy remained. They weren’t interested in democracy, that is for sure.

That is what Mark Lilla misses. The French reactionaries, like the American reactionaries, took over the revolution through political coup — and this happened during the revolution itself, not afterwards. In France, it happened by the Jacobins seizing power. But in the United States, the Federalists did it through an ironically unconstitutional Constitutional Convention and then afterward they crushed the ongoing revolution.

The relationship between revolution and reaction is entangled. If this isn’t understood, it is likely that the reactionary mind itself can’t be understood. This creates a trap for the mind, in not understanding history we dangerously don’t understand ourselves.

Reactionaries aren’t limited to those other people, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. The potential for reaction exists within all of us. A surprising number of Marxists, socialists, communists, and anarchists fell under the sway of early 20th century fascism. The same pattern is seen today with left-wingers who almost unconsciously become fascinated with or drawn toward reactionary thought, often with the rationalization of studying the enemy but it is clear with some that it is more than mere curiosity. The reactionary mind is dangerous for the very reason we see it as something other.

The confusion in all of this is that the reactionary mind is chameleon-like. I’ve come to call them Faceless Men, based on Game of Thrones. Reactionaries rarely present themselves as reactionaries. That means that anyone, under the right conditions, can get pulled into the mindset without realizing it. Reaction is simply an expression of fear an anxiety, once it fully takes hold. The human mind gets weird under high levels of stress (Keith Payne examines one angle on this by way of inequality, in his book The Broken Ladder). It really is that simple.

We need to develop intellectual, ideological, and psychological defenses against the reactionary mind. None of us are born with an immunity. But before we can do that, we have to learn how to identify the pattern of thought and behavior, to discern its incipient forms and the development that follows, to recognize the conditions and causes that make it possible.

This leads to me to another thought. Philip K. Dick has the notion of God in the Gutter. Let me decontextualize it from the monotheistic tradition of deus absconditus. Any powerful ‘god’ that rules over us, over our minds our society, such a ‘god’ is always hidden. And its ability to remain hidden is what I call symbolic conflation, a method of deception, obfuscation, and most importantly misdirection. That is the source of its power. That is also what makes it hard to analyze. Someone like Mark Lilla is taking the reactionary mind at face value, how it presents itself. That is problematic for obvious reasons. Corey Robin is more effective in peeling away the mask to see what is behind.

That is what we all need to be doing in these reactionary times. Lets start rummaging around in the gutter, looking below our normal line of vision, looking through the garbage or what appears to be garbage. But let’s do so with great care.

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth