Conservatism & The Reactionary Mind: some thoughts

I came across an interesting book: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. I haven’t read or even purchased it yet, although I plan on doing so.

I was intrigued by his proposition that conservatism is reactionary in nature. This makes sense just in the basic meaning of ‘conservatism’. There is something conservatives are seeking to conserve (from being lost) or if (perceived to have been) lost to regain… not that the non-conservative would agree with this reactionary, often revisionist take on the past, the perception of the past that informs what the conservative movement seeks in the present. In an unchanging society such as  an isolated hunter-gatherer tribe, there probably would be nothing for the conservative to react against… but that isn’t the conservatism that we know now or, as Corey Robin argues, as we’ve known throughout the history of civilization. Corey Robin isn’t necessarily talking about conservatism in the psychological sense as I sometimes use it. Instead, he is referring to the political conservatism that arose, especially in the US, in response to the French Revolution. This conservatism is inherently counter-revolutionary, i.e., reactionary.

My disagreement is that Corey Robin separates the conservative mindset from the conservative movement. The conservative movement may have “always been” reactionary since its inception in post-Englightenment Western politics, but that is relatively speaking a short view of human society. With civilization, the conservative mindset was radicalized. With modernity, this radicalized conservatism became a specific reactionary conservative movement. Still, humans and human society existed before all of this. Psychological research shows there are distinctions to be made between the conservative mindset and right-wing authoritarianism, although modern politics have brought the two into close alignment within the conservative movement.

Nonetheless, for practical purposes of dealing with modern conservatism, Corey Robin’s conclusion is essentially correct. I think it’s important, though, to hold onto the understanding of a conservative mindset that can be found in many places, whether inside or outside of the conservative movement. Actually, if one really wants to find the conservative mindset rather than merely the conservative movement, one would be better off looking at the Democratic Party, the moderate centrists speaking about bipartisanship and compromise and the socially conservative religious black demographic, both Democratic groups seeking to conserve US society as it is with the gains of social rights and freedoms and with the gains of the protections against poverty and oppression.

So, maybe it is helpful to separate the conservative movement from the conservative mindset since many in the conservative movement have sought to separate themselves from the conservative mindset. Corey Robin argues that conservatism is a modern movement. In the comments section of a blog post (Bobo’s Reactionary Mind by Scott Lemieux), there was an interaction that touches upon this issue and the distinction made by Robin:

Incontinentia Buttocks says:
September 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

But is this exclusively true of modern conservatism? Doesn’t Cicero, e.g., suggest that virtuous behavior involves choosing the harder path?

Corey Robin says:
September 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

There’s definitely a precedent in Cicero and others (though I’d say that “modern conservatism” is redundant; my argument is that all conservatism is modern. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish). The difference is that they were writing within the framework of virtue ethics (and other modes of ethics). Brooks and the romantics are not: they’re writing within the framework of a concern about the self, not its virtue or flourishing or anything like that, but its very survival as a self.

Anyway, I wanted to get a better grasp of this book before I bought it. The Amazon reviews were positive, but not thorough. My web search first brought me to a review by Sheri Berman in the New York Times Book Review. Her review is negative and I sensed it wasn’t fair. I was glad to see that Corey Robin responded to the review in a way that was intellectually fair. In checking out some other web search results, I found a nice discussion that refers to this book. Here is the section where he mentions Robin’s book:

Strangely, my own brief trip through the right–the paleo-conservative and far right–has led me to be a more passionate “leftist” as I get older.   I am sure that people will psychologize my drift, but I think my personal experience agrees with Corey Robin’s conception of the reactionary mindset.  That there is a Utopian element to their thinking.

While conservatives (and many left liberals) have called Libertarian-ism the Marxism of the right.  Yet even traditionalism itself has a kinship to utopian socialist thought.  They want a different society and they see the structural elements that keep the status quo going as a negation of a past. In fact, I have accused conservative ideology, or more specifically, paleo-conservative ideology as being utopian in reverse.   It involves an invented past to which they long to return.

I wrote a comment which I posted there and thought I would post here as well (although my following thoughts are only indirectly related to the book in question):

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A very interesting analysis. Your transition over the years has given you useful perspective.

I’ve never had such a transition. I’ve never had any allegiances and so have never switched them. The Republican Party these days seems morally repugnant and the Democratic Party seems weak sauce. There is lots of rhetoric in the two party system, but none of it means much to me. The radical right too often seems to have become disconnected from reasonable debate, not to mention factual reality. The radical left has become almost irrelevant, ignored by both parties in power.

I’ve always clearly been a ‘liberal’, although my liberalism is more of an attitude than an ideology: open-minded, intellectually curious, prone to relativism and occasionally utopian longings, critical of theocrats, desiring to believe in the goodness of people and the potential of collective humanity, hyper-individualism and mindless group-think neither make sense to me, etc. So, I’m liberal-minded, liberal in the psychological sense. Neither conservatives/right-wingers nor mainstream democrats understand the fundamental impulse of liberalism.

I do have some radical leanings, but I’m not a radical in the reactionary sense. I prefer reason and the endless conflict of partisan politics is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s not as if we lack historical examples to guide ourselves by or lack plenty of data to make informed decisions, but none of that seems to matter. It’s all about winning at any cost. No matter who wins, those with wealth and power maintain their influence. Even though I’m not a reactionary radical, neither am I a ‘moderate’ in how it is normally used. I know what I value and believe. Maybe I’m a person who would like to be a moderate if we lived in moderate times, but in this world as it is I find myself drawn to the ignored radical visions. The radical ideologies that get attention are those with money and power backing them, but few people in the mainstream remember the true radicalism of someone like Thomas Paine when he wrote ‘Agrarian Justice’.

My radical leanings do make me often agree with Derrick Jensen in his analysis of what is wrong, but I don’t seem to be able to follow him where he wants to go. I really don’t have much desire for revolution unless it becomes unavoidable. Derrick Jensen does have more than a small amount of nostalgia in his anarcho-primitivism. I must admit it resonates with some part of me, although in the end nostalgia seems like empty calories. If the civilization ends, so be it… but If so I will be sad to see it go.

I live in a liberal college town. I voted for Nader and I dislike Obama only slightly less than I dislike Bush. I participated in the anti-war protests during Bush’s administration. I’ve even been to a Marxist meeting once. On the other hand, I have conservative parents and my dad is of the more intellectual bent. I find that I often can agree about certain things with my parents or come to a middleground of understanding. Unlike right-wing pundits and reactionaries, my parents are capable of reasonable thought and discussion. They don’t let their principles get in the way of caring about actual people. That is all I ask for.

As a Gen-Xer, I grew up with the culture wars. It’s all I’ve known. I came of age in the 90s just when the right-wing militants were on the rise and the culture war was in its second phase of anti-abortion protests including the assassination of doctors and of course the various bombings in protest. I was born into a world of social conflict and national decline. I’m tired of the culture wars, the identity politics, the partisan tribalism, the politicized religion, the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the war on terrorism, the war on illegal aliens, war on everything, and on and on. I’m tired of all the bullshit. Sadly, I see my generation produce the worst examples of all this that just egg it over the edge, the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks. On the bright side, my generation also has produced Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Comedians all of them, a generation of clowns.

Even though I didn’t swing from one side to the other as you have done, I still feel that sense of not having a clear sense of where I belong in American politics..I’m definitely not in the middle. I feel like I’m somewhere to the side of the typical left/right spectrum. However, when I look at polls of public opinion, I find I often agree (or at least don’t strongly disagree) with the average American on many issues. Obviously, mainstream media and politics is disconnected from much of the rest of the population. I don’t know where this leaves me.