- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 2 edition (November 10, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0190692006
- ISBN-13: 978-0190692001
- Product Dimensions: 8 x 1 x 5.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,522 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump 2nd Edition
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"The Reactionary Mind has emerged as one of the more influential political works of the last decade."
"Robin is an engaging writer, and just the kind of broad-ranging public intellectual all too often missing in academic political science. Robin's arguments deserve widespread attention."
--The New Republic
"A very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism."
"The common opinion on the Left is that conservatives are fire-breathing idiots, who make up in heat what they lack in light. Robin's book is a welcome correction of this simplistic view and puts the debate where it ought to be: on the force and content of conservative ideas."
"This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times."
--Times Higher Education
"...written with panache. The series of scholarly strikes Robin makes against conventional wisdom are often exhilarating."
"The Reactionary Mind is a wonderfully good read. It combines up-to-the-minute relevance with an eye to the intellectual history of conservatism in all its protean forms, going back as far as Hobbes, and taking in not only restrained and sentimental defenders of tradition such as Burke, but his more violent, proto-fascist contemporary Joseph de Maistre. Some readers will enjoy Corey Robin's dismantling of different recent thinkers--Barry Goldwater, Antonin Scalia, Irving Kristol; others will enjoy his demolition of Ayn Rand's intellectual pretensions. Some will be uncomfortable when they discover that those who too lightly endorse state violence, and even officially sanctioned torture, include some of their friends. That is one of the things that makes this such a good book."
--Alan Ryan, Professor of Political Theory, Oxford University
"A fascinating exploration of a central idea: that conservatism is, at its heart, a reaction against democratic challenges, in public and private life, to hierarchies of power and status. Corey Robin leads us through a series of case studies over the last few centuries--from Hobbes to Ayn Rand, from Burke to Sarah Palin--showing the power of this idea by illuminating conservatives both sublime and ridiculous."
--Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University
"It is a thoughtful, even-tempered sort of book. The old maid tendency that dominates liberal polemic in the U.S.--the shrieking, clutching at skirts, and jumping up on kitchen chairs that one gets from a Joe Nocera, a Maureen Dowd, or a Keith Olbermann--is quite absent. "
--The American Conservative
About the Author
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and the London Review of Books.
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Robin’s proposal is that conservatives of various stripes (religious, libertarian, neo-con, etc.) are held together and defined by a reactionary, counter-revolutionary impulse that sees in democratic challenges to social hierarchy a fundamental order that must be defended and re-established. ‘Nature’ (even when we concede the socially constructed nature of our understanding of it) reveals inherent inequality and any attempt to deny that nature and flatten inequality socially, politically, and economically is actually unfair even immoral to the strong and skillful. Inasmuch as the conservative seeks to defend “liberty” or “democracy” it is only in the service of preserving the “private life of power”—man over wife/household, boss over employee, parent over child. That promise of preserved power in private life serves to animate the support of larger systems of social inequality, something of a neo-feudal order, unfettered capitalism, governed ultimately by the market whose supreme citizen is the businessmen.
I’m not a political theorist. As a scholar, I’m not a philosopher. My response to Robin’s book was and is intensely personal. Over the last two decades I have moved from a youthful, religious-inflected conservatism through a period of profound disenchantment and horror at the real, living, actual beliefs and practices of conservatives from the grassroots to the halls of Washington. Living now in something of a political, religious, and intellectual wilderness, Robin’s book helped make sense of things I had and have experienced as a conservative that had until recently remained intuitive and impressionistic.
Contradictions I kept running in to especially as my religious, evangelical conservatism vied to maintain an uneasy peace with the largely right-wing political and economic conservatism in which that religious practice lived and breathed are both named and explained by Robin’s thesis. Strange bedfellows all, the rag-tag band of Rand Paul, James Dobson, and the Koch brothers makes much more sense when you put the counterrevolutionary frame over their movement as a whole and proposed (or tolerated) socio-economic/political programs.
Robin helpfully traces this theme from the writings of Burke all the way to the figure of Antonin Scalia before pivoting to consider the curious case of Trump—revealing the conservative movement to be, in the end, a “show about nothing.” I cannot evaluate his reading of each of the theorists he engages. I defer to scholars of each in that regard. Whether he has read THEM correctly, I suspect he has correctly read the way they are received. One small example: As a young teenager in the 90s, given to playing video games with Rush Limbaugh playing in the background, I distinctly remember Rush making the point that the rich needed to be rich in no small part to drive innovation—they buy cutting edge technology so that it can be developed and refined and eventually mass-produced so that the rest of us could one day afford them. In Robin’s work, I discovered this point in Hayek (I don’t recall Rush ever citing his sources—I was under the impression at the time his were mostly original thoughts). More importantly Robin situates that point in a larger framework whereby for the conservative the market and the economy are “battlefields” of sort and the rich have proven their worth much like soldiers. To “limit” them by expansive democratic norms, regulation, or taxes is to defy them their rightful place at the top of the heap—and to threaten ever so subtly to take away the generous fruits of the modern market (for if the rich don’t buy iPads first—how oh how will we ever get them?!).
That said, Robin does what the best synthesizers of others’ work do: develops a taste for reading them yourselves. Thanks to Robin, I have a renewed interested to go and read Hayek for the first time, revisit Burke and Hobbes, even Nietzsche. I’m curious to read a biography of Antonin Scalia, God help me. [Though I am even more excited to read Robin’s forthcoming book on Clarence Thomas. I refuse to try to re-read Ayn Rand, however. I’ve had quite enough of that bilge. Robin cuts down her philosophy/worldview such as it is quite gleefully—more importantly situating it into the dynamics he’s identified in conservatism. And that is enough for me, thank you very much.]
I wish Robin had said more about how religious conservatism expresses the counterrevolutionary impulse in concert with more “economic” expressions of conservatism. The chapter on Scalia hints at how that part of the alliance works. From my own experience, his overall assessment rings true that conservatives seek anti-democratic hierarchy in their private lives and are thus prepared to support it in the broader society and economy provided that’s the payoff. Churches, family, para-church organizations were all tiny fiefdoms headed by at least one or a small cadre of men (never women). Their interest in maintaining their own authority at the expense of anything like truth becomes clearer the older I got. [As an aside: At the core of this drive—whatever sense of pride, self-importance, desire to prove themselves strong and worthy may lie at the heart of conservatism—I suspect is a deep abiding fear. I plan to check out Robin’s Fear: The history of a political idea having read The reactionary mind.]
The specter haunting the world proposed by Robin’s assessment is the absence of a serious program of the Left in the world right now. Most clearly seen in the last chapter on Trump, conservatism’s reactionary dynamic subsists only in the face of an insurgent, effective Left—committed as they usually are in principle to broad-based, egalitarian democratic participation. Trump’s impotence as an Executive, Robin argues in the final chapter (and has continued to provide real time evidence in frequent public FB posts), is further evidence that conservatism is the victim of its own success. Neoliberalism having won (as evidenced by the capitulation of the Clinton and Obama administrations to its basic logic, the shrieking of conservatives notwithstanding) has left conservatives’ counterrevolutionary instincts lacking a substantive target. With its representative party essentially in control of all three branches of government, the movement still struggles to really accomplish much. The muscle memory for tax cuts and war has been hamstrung by the failures of the Bush administration and the personal indiscipline of the GOP’s de facto party head. That this weak a movement could not be defeated reveals an even weaker Left.
If you’re a conservative, this isn’t a huge problem (though tying your fortunes to an erratic, barely literate plutocrat might make it challenging to keep a straight face with arguments going forward for the cool, disciplined realism of conservatism….). If you have any sympathy with the Left, it is indeed a problem. Robin has chronicled elsewhere the ways in which, despite all the huffing and puffing, Trump and his party is not in fact enacting some new, neo-Hitlerian resurgence but rather is singing the same old conservative songs, albeit with slightly more desperate and dumber arrangements. But if you want something other than the death of the counterrevolution, you will have to continue to make a case for the positive vision for an egalitarian, democratic world.
So, in one respect, Robin’s thesis is extraordinary. In another, it is a very small step in a larger project. He has accurately named the specific core of an historically powerful ideological movement which at the moment is calling all the shots on the right and (I would argue) in the center and center-left. That is no small thing. But The reactionary mind is not a program for Resistance®. Robin, I think, provides an example for how to dismantle amidst the rhetorical guerrilla warfare of day-to-day ideological engagement the fundamental conceit of conservative’s claim to being “naturally fit” in the field of battle/market/etc. His chapter on Scalia is a very good example of how pointing out the ways in which even the most strident of conservatives is propped up by the good will of others (“that’s just Nino”) chips at the foundations of counterrevolution’s conceit. Relentlessly illustrating our social, political, and (if you’re so inclined) spiritual connectedness is part of the way to dismantle the core neo-social Darwinian, socio-political sadomasochism of the Right. But a competing vision will need more than that. And it will need it on a broad, democratic, grassroots scale.
The insurgency of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, the growth of interest in The Jacobin’s evangelistic work for socialism are interesting and telling. Perhaps more hopeful is the effectiveness of BLM (a fiercely moral argument for democratic inclusion if ever there was one). Regardless, that vision will be necessary and is outside the scope of Robin’s work.
Given my response and engagement with the book, my personal hope is that conservatives read it and wrestle with its central claims. I would like to think (perhaps against my better judgment) that most grass roots conservatives are not so cheerfully willing puppets of inequality. If you consider yourself a conservative in a social, political, and/or religious sense, I strongly recommend you read this book and confront that very real possibility.
In this book, Robin shows that many leading conservative thinkers over the centuries have had a conception of human existence similar to what Nietzsche and Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.” They believe that competition breeds unequal outcomes and that this inequality is entirely proper and just. They disagree with Adam Smith, the father of free market theory, whom Robin quotes as advocating the need for state intervention to address the gross power inequality inherent in the relationship between capital and labor. They also do not share Smith’s concern about economic exploitation and big business control of government. Robin discusses how figures like Antonin Scalia and Friedrich Hayek have justified economic inequality. Hayek, of course, was not against a strong state when it came to guaranteeing the flourishing of economic elites. Robin notes that Hayek was a strong influence on the Pinochet regime and was very friendly toward the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal.
Robin also shows that seminal conservative thinkers over the centuries have described how an elite presiding over significant social and economic inequality can become corrupt and complacent and thus weaken itself in the face of a revolutionary challenge. He quotes Edmund Burke as castigating the clergy, aristocracy and monarchy of France’s ancien regime for its corruption and complacent enjoyment of its wealth, which weakened its ability to withstand the revolution which overtook it in 1789. Another quote he uses in this vein is from Senator John C. Calhoun warning in 1837 that his fellow slave holders were too immersed in “easy living and willful cluelessness”(Robin’s words) to unite and face properly the danger of abolitionism.
One aspect of conservative strategy over the years has been to rebrand themselves in response to the strides made by their political enemies, especially through adopting the language of those enemies. Robin notes, for example, Phyllis Schlafly, using the language of feminism to argue against the Equal Rights Amendment. In particular, right wing rhetoric on race has changed over the decades. Robin quotes a Lee Atwater interview from 1981 where that top Republican campaign guru explained that by 1968 politicians could no longer say the n-word publicly in addressing racial issues. Appealing to the racial aspects of white backlash became more a matter of speaking in code—exploiting issues like forced bussing and state’s rights. Eventually more abstract things like tax cuts shifted to the front of Republican ideology and with this level of abstraction, according to Atwater, “we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.” (If only racial demagoguery had actually been done away with by the Republican Party). Robin also quotes H.R. Halderman’s report in his diary of Nixon’s comments--I believe on the drug war though Robin doesn’t indicate to what the quote is referring--that the blacks were the problem and you had to design policy with that in mind but without saying so publicly.
Robin argues that race has indeed been a prime field which conservatives have linked with their ideas and strategies designed to further elite rule. Robin shows how it has been a tool since slavery times with which to bind non-elite whites to elite white rule. Relating to the racial arena, one idea utilized by conservatives has been that the social hierarchies which they favor are human-made and thus require human intervention to maintain them. As an example of this, Robin quotes an editorial in William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1957 arguing that whites should ensure that they dominate areas of the south where they did not “predominate numerically.” NR argued that the white race had to make itself dominant in those situations “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” As far as other strategies, one has been for conservatives to brand themselves as revolutionaries. As an example, Robin quotes the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens as proclaiming in 1861 that the Confederacy was the first nation in history founded on what he, Stephens, believed to be a universal principal (that the black man was inferior and deserved to be enslaved). Another strategy has been appealing to the sense of victimhood of white Christians (and Whites in general): a race related example of this strategy, according to Robin, was connected to the rise of the modern religious right. In response to desegregation of the public schools, many southern Christians moved their children out of public schools and into all white private religious schools. By 1970, according to Robin, 400,000 children were attendees of “segregation academies.” It was the removal of public subsidies for these schools—such as the IRS tax exemption revoked by Nixon—which was, as Robin quotes the New Right direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, “the spark” for the rise of the religious right’s involvement in politics. The defenders of these segregated schools used the argument that they were staving off attacks on their religious freedom, not that they were attempting to prevent racial intermixing among their kids. They also used the re-branding strategy mentioned above, speaking not in terms of race, as in previous epochs, but of freedom.
A prime thesis of the book is that conservatism is at its strongest when it has a strong reformist or revolutionary force on the left with which to set itself up against. Conservatism in America flourished in opposition to Soviet Communism, the New Deal, the civil rights movement and Great Society programs. With the conservative victory over international socialism and so much of the domestic welfare state, Robin sees the conservative movement as stagnating. He interviewed William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol in 2000 and both indicated the feeling that conservatism had become rather boring since the fall of communism—I think Robin included more quotes from Buckley on this topic in the first edition of the book than he does here. Kristol declared that he was disgusted that the prime issue in the Republican presidential primary of 2000 was a pedestrian matter like prescription drugs for the elderly. The influence of business culture hurt conservatism’s imagination, he believed. He clearly pined for the opportunity to take part in a great ideological crusade against a foreign enemy. 9/11 of course occurred the following year and Robin writes that many neoconservatives viewed that event as a chance to rid America of the softening effect supposedly produced by the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years.
His last chapter is devoted to Trump and in that great man Robin sees a reflection of significant weakness in the conservative movement. The conservative movement has achieved a great many victories in rolling back the welfare state and civil rights protections. In spite of such movements as the Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter, the left is weak. For the conservative, there is much less to fight for and against than in past eras. Trump had difficulty achieving most of his agenda during his first year in office. Pretending to be an economic populist during the campaign, he has governed pretty much as a boring orthodox elite Republican, putting aside the exhibitions of his bizarre personality. He won the election by galvanizing angry white people on traditional white backlash themes and promising to make their lives better but, according to Robin, even there he shows a weakness. Robin argues that the conservative project requires galvanizing a large enough number of non-elites; however he notes that Trump won only 46 percent of the popular vote and is president only because of the Electoral College. One might also add, though Robin doesn’t mention it, that Trump won only around a quarter of eligible voters. Of course Republican (and Democratic) presidents since Reagan have all won elections with numbers of eligible voters that are similar to Trump's. Many Americans are actively disengaged from the voting process and the political process in general.
Another aspect covered in the chapter on Trump is Trump’s thoughts on his business career and what motivates him to practice business--as discussed in The Art of the Deal. When you look at some of Trump's thoughts about the world before he set up shop as a right wing demagogue, it seems possible that he is not quite as stupid as has been reported. But who really knows?
This book has some interesting things in it. It is a book of political theory by a college professor who is not afraid to give laborious textual analysis. Some of the thinkers discussed or alluded to in the book include Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes ,Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, the founders of marginalist economics, Theodore Roosevelt, William Graham Sumner, Friedrich Von Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Michael Oakshott, Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia.