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The Reactionary Mind, by Corey Robin

I just finished reading Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind. I read it in too haphazard and long-winded a manner to write any sort of proper review, so I'm going to limit myself to a few disjointed observations.

The first is that I'm breaking the cardinal rule of reviewing, because as I discovered relatively quickly this just isn't the kind of book I like. Even where it's on its point - disappointingly rarely - the main thrust of the argument Robin wants to make is historical: to look at Edmund Burke, or Thomas Hobbes, or Antonin Scalia, and fit them within a long-running current of conservative thought. That kind of exercise is, to me, far less interesting than a conceptual exposition of what conservatism is and whether it's right.

Those, of course, aren't entirely separable, but that ends up being more harm than help to Robin. He's not in the slightest sympathetic to the conservative cause, and the result is passages like this:
"From revolutions, conservatives also develop a taste and talent for the masses, mobilizing the street for spectacular displays of power while making certain power is never truly shared or redistributed. That is the task of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting the power of elites. Far from being a recent innovation of the Christian Right or the Tea Party movement, reactionary populism runs like a red thread throughout conservative discourse from the very beginning."
It's well-written - as, I should say, is everything in the book. (I remember reading somewhere Robin defending the work from accusations of inaccessibility by saying it was an academic work; I don't understand either side of that - it's not an academic work, it's mostly magazine articles, but the writing is more than accessible.) But the combination of focus on the historic origin rather than the conceptual nature with a barely concealed hostility to the ideology being discussed means that not much emerges other than a caricature, with no flesh on its wicked-looking bones.

That's not to say that the picture of conservatism the book presents is inaccurate, a point on which I'm obviously not qualified to comment. But it leaves me, at least, feeling deeply unsatisfied. I come away from this book with a sketchy idea of what conservatism is, and even some broad ideas about why people might subscribe to it. There's no sense, though, that it's an even vaguely respectable ideology or that the reasons people have might be good ones. It's an ideology, Robin wants to argue, built on hostility to equality - of whatever kind seems to be trendy - which people subscribe to either out of their own desire to "rule over an inferior [rather] than dispossess a superior" and their "passion for supremacy", or out of some bizarre commitment to rigidity, struggle and hierarchy which is never satisfactorily explored. There's nothing to admire in the conservatism of The Reactionary Mind. This book belongs clearly to the sphere of informed but opinionated comment, designed to rally conservatism's opponents rather than plausibly clarify its tenets, a damning exposé more than a helpful exposition. That's fine and, as I say, an error of mine rather than Robin's, but I came to this book wanting something other than hostile historicism.

But there really is one overarching problem with this book.It's composed entirely, apart from its introduction and conclusion, of essays published previously in other places. This isn't frustrating just because most of them can be found online for free. The real problem is that when you read a book subtitled "Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin", the dust jacket of which promises to expose conservatism's "hostility to emancipating the lower orders ... [its] impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality", you expect a sustained argument. Reading a scattered decade's worth of ruminations just isn't the same.

I started reading this book after reading a lot of Robin's writing online. Often, those articles read like glimpses of something much larger and more comprehensive than any of them actually put forward; they seemed to refer or allude to, or lean on, an overarching theory of conservatism which they themselves only allowed you to extract an outline of. Reading the essays in this book left much the same impression. I finished this book broadly knowing what its thesis was, but not feeling like I'd ever read an argument for it. Apart from the introduction and the first chapter, the case that conservatism is fundamentally a defence of power is much more referred to than actually argued.

And that's a shame, because even if the historical-interpretive style of the book isn't my favourite thing, it's worthwhile - and there's a lot in this book that seems to hit the nail exactly on the head. The survey of perverse excitement in the aftermath of 9/11 - in "Remembrance of Empires Past", the book's best essay - is chilling, and adds significant power to Robin's assessment that conservatives do not aim for freedom or peace or prosperity, that
"[t]heir vision is more exalted. They aspire to the epic grandeur of Rome, the ethos of the pagan warrior - or moral crusader - rather than that of the comfortable bourgeois ... they have taken up the call of empire, providing the basso profundo to a swelling chorus ... They seek to create an international order that will be a monument for the ages, a world that is about something more than money and markets."
There is at least a grain of truth, too, though perhaps a slightly less compelling one, in the account of counterrevolution Robin puts forward. There are two underlying strands to this story. The first is that "conservatism adapts and adopts, often unconsciously, the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy", one which is aptly proved with reference to everyone from Hobbes to Burke to Phyllis Schlafly.

The second is that the "cause of hierarchy" conservatives fight for is mutable - that as long as it entrenches order, and subordination, and unflinchingly identifies both the excellent and the wretched, any hierarchy will serve. And this strikes a chord, suggestive of the crypto-aristocratic tendency that seems to lie tacitly beneath so much conservative argument. Not many people stoutly defend titles of nobility these days, but its lukewarm remaining supporters are often the same people who see in free markets not just technocratically useful efficiency, but an opportunity for the best - the elite, the "women of calibre" - to rise to the top and get their due. (This kind of myopic obsession with merit and calibre is something I used to be very guilty of.) Conservatism, in this story, is a shape-shifter: it doesn't matter, so much, what precise principle society is organised on, so long as that principle admits the irrefutable superiority of some and weakness of others. When one kind of hierarchism is threatened, the counterrevolutionary's task is not so much to defend that ancien régime as to establish a system - any system - which upholds that one sole truth.

It is, as I have said, an uncharitable account. But as historical account, it makes sense of why the political tradition that once defended an untouchable nobility and sneered at mercantilism now pursues a radically free market - a puzzle which otherwise leaves us scratching our heads. There is, though, a far simpler story: one where Britain's Conservative Party and America's conservatives really did change their nature, where the new wisdom of economics and fresh empirical realities caused conservatism to change its course.

Bringing coherence to conservatism's story is not an approach that should be dismissed out of hand. But I wonder what frightening conclusions might be reached by a similar attempt to unite the constantly changing programmes of 'the left'. And I feel, overall, that no matter how worthy the project Robin's format does his thesis no justice. Persuading us that Edmund Burke and Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and William Buckley and Paul Ryan belong in one unified story, rather than in a movement which has with time changed the core of its nature, would have required a systematic, holistic, methodical approach. Ten years' piecemeal essays - beautifully written and fascinating though they all are - are not up to the task.