A Response to Corey Robin

A Response to Corey Robin

I recently reviewed Corey Robin?s new book, The Reactionary Mind, for the New York Times. Robin then posted a response to my review on his blog. An editor at Dissent asked me to respond in turn, and I am happy to oblige, both because I respect the endeavor Robin is engaged in and because the issues raised by his book are ones the Left needs to discuss. My review of The Reactionary Mind was critical of both its style and substance. Robin disagrees with both criticisms, and I will address each in turn.

In his response, objecting to my contention that his book is a criticism of conservatism, Robin says that his goal in writing The Reactionary Mind was to ?understand the right,? to ?get inside its head? and ?examine its leading ideas.? As Robin is a serious scholar, one would expect such an effort to yield a work of careful analysis, one that takes the ideas and thinkers in question seriously. Yet as I noted in my review, his book is shot through with tendentious and polemical attacks. He repeatedly characterizes conservative leaders and thinkers as manipulative, repressive, ?enlivened? by violence, and committed to the oppression of the ?subordinate classes? or ?lower orders.? He dismisses conservatives? own characterizations of their views and motives, arguing that to give credence to factors such as a commitment to limited government or individual freedom would be to be tricked into missing the ?more elemental force? at work, which is ?the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors.?

In addition to its derogatory treatment of conservatives, the book is also filled with exaggerated and simplistic portraits of U.S. policy. My review noted that these tendencies reach a crescendo in an essay on national security, revealingly entitled ?The Protocols of Machismo.? One might have expected Robin to tread somewhat carefully here, since he is a political theorist rather than an expert in foreign policy or international relations, but instead he barrels ahead, insisting that the entire concept of national security is merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world?s marginalized peoples. In his response, Robin claims that my characterization of the chapter?s argument and tone is unfair. I find this charge puzzling, however, since the chapter is so unabashedly contemptuous and vitriolic, and I suggest interested readers examine it and come to their own conclusions.

My review used several quotations to illustrate the style of this and other chapters. I noted, for example, that Robin refers to America?s leaders as ?perennially autistic,? driven by a ?restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything.? He claims that even ?a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that the rules of evidence will be ignored in practice, but also that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists, on these rules being flouted.?

Similarly, he argues that ?like the theater, national security is a house of illusions.? Once statesmen start contemplating ?the hard ways of the state….we have the justification of every felonious stage mother throughout history, from the Old Testament?s rule-breaking Rebecca to Gypsy?s ball-busting Rose.? Robin also believes that there are ?few degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib….[W]hen an idea routinely accompanies, if not induces, atrocities?Abu Ghraib was certainly not the first instance of a country committing torture in the name of security?second thoughts would seem to be in order.? I could pile up many other quotes like these. I suppose it is possible that Robin himself does not consider his tone deliberately mocking or problematic, but I have no doubt what readers who do not already share his political views will think. This is not a complaint that his book is insufficiently ?politic,? as he argues in his response. It is simply an observation that the book?s style is incompatible with producing a work of serious scholarship that goes beyond firing up the faithful to attract a broad audience and move debate forward.

More important than style, however, are questions of substance. In his response, Robin says that he is not arguing that the term ?national security? is content-less but rather that it is ambiguous, and that this ambiguity is what allows politicians to use it to justify repression and violence against the world?s ?marginalized people.? As I noted in my review, there are certainly cases (like the Bush administration?s handling of Iraq) that give unfortunate credence to such views, but it is at best an oversimplification and at worst misleading. Yes, as Robin states, ?national security? like ?God? is an ambiguous term, but if anyone argued that the ambiguity of the term ?God? led religious people always and necessarily to abuse it in the service of repression and violence, I imagine howls of protest would be raised. It is one thing to claim a term is ambiguous and sometimes abused; it is another to argue that it is best understood as a tool used to justify nefarious purposes. This problem might have been partially vitiated if Robin even briefly recognized in this chapter or his response that the concept of national security is something any state must have and that defending ?national security,? however defined, is an absolute necessity. But such recognition is absent, I assume, because this is not something he believes.

My disagreement with the substance of The Reactionary Mind goes beyond divergent opinions over the nature of national security. In his book, Robin defines conservatism as a doctrine or movement concerned with ?the assertion of agency by the subject class.? He claims 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. Submission is their first duty, agency the prerogative of the elite.? I believe this definition is not only wrong, but exculpatory to boot.

Robin says that the existing literature on conservatism is marred by a ?lack of comparative and historical perspective,? but it is precisely these flaws that mar The Reactionary Mind. For example, the book devotes little attention to the actions and experiences of actual conservatives and conservative movements throughout modern history?even though many of its subjects are politicians and activists rather than thinkers. A truly comparative and historical analysis of conservatism since the French Revolution would show a movement that has gradually but inexorably expanded its reach to the masses.

The ?feudal,? ?elitist? and hierarchical conservatism that Robin stresses did exist, but it was the conservatism of the ancien regime?and it is a tradition conservative thinkers and activists have been slowly abandoning ever since. As I noted in my review, by the late nineteenth century, the most powerful and dynamic right-wing movements in much of Europe and in the United States were populist. They were mass movements with cross-class appeal that were neither led by elites nor working on behalf of them. Indeed, they were often explicitly opposed to the old order, which they saw?correctly?as excluding society?s lower orders. When such movements came to power, moreover, they could be very effective in transforming or even destroying any parts of the old order that remained.

The culmination of this trend occurred in the interwar years, with the rise of fascism and national socialism, but it has continued throughout the postwar period. The most powerful movements claiming the conservative mantle during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have not been feudal, elitist, or hell-bent on keeping the masses down; just the opposite. The contemporary American Tea Party or the numerous European right-wing populist parties, in short, are not exceptions to recent historical trends but the rule.

This is an important point, but Robin?s definition of conservatism makes it difficult to appreciate. His perspective leads him to see populism not as a real manifestation of popular frustration, an attempt by those who feel excluded from power to capture and transform the system, but instead as a trick or tool used by mysterious forces behind the scenes to reinforce their own power, prerogatives, and privileges. In his response, Robin disagrees with my argument that he ?dismisses? or ?explains away? right-wing populism, saying that in fact he sees it as fundamental. But if one examines closely his characterization of this phenomenon, it becomes clear that this is in fact what he does.

Taking right-wing populism seriously means accepting that those who support it believe what they say and have agency, rather than viewing them as being used or manipulated in the service of elites. Robin clearly does not believe these things. He tries to explain his views of populism using a variety of odd and even nonsensical terms. For example, he says one way to understand populism is as ?democratic feudalism,? which means ?giving real, not imaginary, power to the members of the lower orders to wield over people beneath them? (emphasis added). Well, who then is ?giving? power to the lower orders? And why are they doing so if not in the service of their (the givers? or elites?) goals? Or how about ?upside-down populism,? which means ?get[ting] the lower orders to identify with the higher orders? (emphasis added). Again, the use of the passive tense is instructive: as we all know, it is used in order to avoid identifying the real protagonist of a particular action.

As I see it, my dispute with Robin over the nature of right-wing populism is straightforward: either it is a real expression of the resentment, frustration, and goals of the masses or it is best seen as a tool used by elites to manipulate the masses for their own ends. Robin?s definition of conservatism supports the latter view, whereas I think the former is more accurate. I want to emphasize my dispute with Robin is over how to interpret right-wing populism, not over the desirability of its goals. It is perfectly possible to see the goals of a movement as wrong and counterproductive without seeing the members of the movement as manipulated or insincere.

In short, Robin?s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma. If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must?by definition?be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery. One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas. But if one instead accepts that such rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment are real, then the question becomes: why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has it found its home so often on the right rather than the left? This is a question that The Reactionary Mind leads directly to; it is not one that Robin?or the Left more generally?can or should avoid.