The Reactionary Mind

Lilla_1-011212_jpg_230x420_q85Mark Lilla reviews Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, in the NYRB:

Robin is a lumper, an über-lumper, which may please his beleaguered readers on the left, but makes his entire enterprise incoherent. He fails to see that it is based on a glaring fallacy of composition: he posits a class, isolates a characteristic of one of its members, and then ascribes that characteristic to every member of the class. Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre and George W. Bush are both on the right in Robin’s scheme; following his logic, since Maistre spoke flawless French, Bush must too. Which would be some national secret. Yet that’s exactly how Robin proceeds, until he has corralled everyone he doesn’t like into a pen and labeled them all conservatives and reactionaries and right-wingers, terms he fails to distinguish. (More on that in a moment.)

But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past century, it is that la destra è mobile. The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again. In the 1970s, if you thought that public schools were being used for social indoctrination, that power over them should be decentralized, and that children would be better off learning at home, that put you on the far left. Today those views put you on the right. Are we to think that these shifts were only about how best to keep power from the people?

Alex Gourevitch responds to Lilla, in Jacobin:

[T]he aim of Robin’s book is to connect an account of the essence of conservatism to the obvious fact of its historical variation. That is why the book is mostly composed of a series of chapters examining concrete, historical examples—Hobbes, Burke, Rand, neoconservatism. The organizing assumption of these chapters is that conservatism revolves around a political principle that is consistent yet adaptive, an idea that is sensitive to context and capable of producing a wide array of concrete, if conflicting, prescriptions. The common principle binding together strange bedfellows is the rejection of the quest for equal freedom: “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.”

That conservatism is reaction makes it no less principled. Rather, reaction is inscribed in the political principle itself. But as reaction conservatism will assume a variety of forms depending on the particular struggle it is mobilizing against: “If conservatism is a specific reaction to a specific movement of emancipation, it stands to reason that each reaction will bear the traces of the movement it opposes….Not only has the right reacted against the left, but in the course of conducting its reaction, it also has consistently borrowed from the left. As the movements of the left change—from the French Revolution to abolition to the right to vote to the right to organize to the Bolshevik Revolution to the struggles for black freedom and women’s liberation—so do the reactions of the right.”