Thursday, June 8, 2017

B ook Review: Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind

Corey Robin: The Reactionary Mind, Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Oxford University Press, 2011, 248 pages, chapter notes, index.

".. an inspired move, characteristic of all great counterrevolutionary theories, in which the people become actors without roles, an audience that believes it is onstage. (emphasis added)

"'A free act is only that which proceeds from the free election of the rational will'. And 'where there is no consideration nor use of reason, there is no liberty at all.' Being free entails acting in accordance with reason or, in political terms, living under laws as opposed to arbitrary power." 

             Prof Robin's approach to Conservatism and socio-political Reaction (he does not distinguish the two) is iconoclastic. He rejects the idea that the core of Conservatism is a desire to hold onto the good things of the past - "Tradition" - and, instead, sees a power dialectic at work:

“Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.” In Robin’s understanding, conservatives aren’t traditionalists who seek to maintain the status quo, but counterrevolutionaries: “People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing.”
            While I might harbor some doubts as to the identification of conservatives and reactionaries (note 1), Robin's portrait of the conservative / reactionary co-incides pretty well with my own observations of true reactionaries. Traditional definitions of Conservatism tend toward the bucolic, toward the idealization of the "pastoral" and (supposedly) simpler - and better - life of the past. Conservatives are said, and themselves often claim, to respect Tradition. 

            However, reactionaries I have met - and most of the conservatives I know are reactionaries - , schoolmates, neighbors and family members, don't fit these traditional depictions. My reactionaries tend to be mavericks, wild cards, innovators, iconoclasts (or, at least, see themselves as such). On one point in particular I concur with prof Robin, reactionaries seek power and, specifically, power over others (as opposed to power wielded to empower, liberate or heal others).

                          Can you identify these two famous reactionaries?

              Today, and since at least the end of World War II, the forces of political Reaction are in ascendancy in the West. This is true despite some tactical, battlefield victories like second (or third) wave feminism, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (U.S.A.), the decolonization of third world countries, the founding of the United Nations, the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa and the fall of Communism. However, if one looks closely, one sees that these (apparent) victories for Reason and the empowerment of minorities and the oppressed are, at best, partial, incomplete or truncated revolutions. Thus, racism is still very much alive and well, despite attempts over the last five decades to render it politically incorrect and to empower its victims. Witness the recent shootings of young black men in the U.S.A. and Canada, the oppression of the Roma in central and eastern Europe, the general rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, and growing religious intolerance and fanaticism. Liberal and progressive forces may still be able to win battles, but the forces of reaction seem to be winning the war (note 2).

             The cultural signs of the rise of Reaction are everywhere, if one takes the time to look.

"In 1998 readers responding to a Modern Library poll identified [reactionary Ayn Rand's] Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as the two greatest novels in English in the twentieth century.." Page 76
".. the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. When [conservative theoretician Edmund] Burke adds,.. , that the "great Object" of the [French] Revolution is 'to root out that thing called an Aristocrat or Nobleman and Gentleman', he is not simply referring to the power of the nobility; he is also referring to the distinction that power brings to the world. If the power goes, the distinction goes with it. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in post-war America that unlikely alliance of the libertarian, with his vision of the employer's untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father's rule at home; and the statist [fascist], with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his own way subscribes to this typical statement, from the nineteenth century, of the conservative creed: 'To obey a real superior.. is one of the most important of all virtues - a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.'"

               We are now left with a plausible - but yet to be empirically tested - mechanism to explain the rise of Reaction today, particularly in its populist forms: Donald Trump, Marie Le Pen in France, Putin's appeals to Russian chauvinism, the anti-drug war of Duterte in the Philippines, the Brexit campaign in the UK. 

populism: definition Encyclopedia Britannica 

               In Western democracies, the populace is taught that the people is king. Some, of course, are "superior" to (more gifted than) their fellows; these are the "natural rulers" lauded by novelist and reactionary theoretician Ayn Rand. The problem is that today the average citizen (the "King" of democratic societies) feels himself threatened from all quarters: climate change, environmental degradation, the loss or risk of loss of employment as blue collar jobs are off-shored to third world sweatshops, incomprehensible and incredibly violent international terrorist movements capable of striking our homeland, uppity minorities and "deviants" who refuse to accept their status as inferiors.. The general sentiment today is one of loss of control or power, a generalized attack on status (climate change threatens to destroy everyone's status!) Since many of these threats are "tentacular" - hard to comprehend and omnipresent - , deep, but poorly focused, fear is generated. Now fear is perhaps the greatest incitement to violence (the classic "fight or flight response"). To provide temporary relief from chronic invasive fear, scapegoats are sought. Attacking the scapegoat provides temporary stress reduction but, since it does not affect the root cause of fear, its effects soon wear off and, like the junkie, another "fix" is soon needed. 

              It is interesting to note how contemporary populist leaders lash out against vulnerable - and expendable - groups: immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, drug addicts, gays, transgendered,.. and how they promise to deliver the harrowed populace from their enemies, real or imagined. All of which coincides with prof Robin's definition of Reaction as a response to a sense of impending loss.

              Since our social, political and economic institutions seem helpless either to address - or even  to adequately define the challenges we collectively face - , Reaction must surely grow till a social explosion (war, revolution) occurs. We are in the early stages of that detonation today..

             Perhaps because I am a congenital optimist (who sees the glass as half-full as opposed to half-empty), I don't see The Reactionary Mind as a doom and gloom book. My take away is a positive message. Prof Robin argues that a language of displacement and falsification is employed by reactionaries. Rather than frame political struggle in terms of power and powerlessness, reactionaries falsely frame struggle in terms of security. Thus Hitler tried to protect the Aryan race from the nefarious Jew. Trump wants to protect Americans from criminal Mexican illegals. The Reactionary Mind teaches us to look past the verbal smoke and mirrors of security-speak to the real issue of empowerment. 

                                  interview with Prof Corey Robin


1- I have encountered "red Tories" who describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and social progressives. One red Tory mother held up American president John F. Kennedy and his civil rights project as an exemplar for her children to emulate. When speaking of red Tories and moderate conservatives (on a case by case basis), we may indeed be justified in adhering to traditional definitions of Conservatism (such as the valorisation of Tradition, Hierarchy and Authority). In the case of the red Tory, one's rank in the social order is determined by earned merit, not inherited status or Machiavellian thuggery. I would therefore nuance my appreciation of Robin's thesis by making a pragmatic distinction between more moderate conservatives and reactionary power trippers.

2- Reaction will probably win the war for a number of reasons, the most salient being  a growing perception (often unavowed) that the world is going to hell. Climate change, for example, threatens disruption of major regional agricultural systems in the near future which will trigger regional conflicts and (most likely) intensified global terrorism. ISIS terrorism in Europe is probably only a foretaste of the globalized terror to come. Those who have - the peoples of the West in particular - (consciously or not) are afraid of losing what they have and becoming have-nots.


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