Booked: The Revenge of the Ruling Class, with Corey Robin

Booked: The Revenge of the Ruling Class, with Corey Robin

Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, 2011 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Booked is Dissent’s monthly series of Q&As with authors. For this edition, co-book review editor Timothy Shenk spoke with Corey Robin about the second edition of his book The Reactionary Mind: From Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, out on October 28 from Oxford University Press. Listen to the full interview, or read a transcript, edited for length and clarity, below.



Timothy Shenk: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump is the second edition of the book that was published a few years ago as The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. What—other than a chance to update the subtitle—brought you back?

Corey Robin: There were several reasons. First, I felt that we had yet to come to terms with Donald Trump. I had yet to come to terms with Donald Trump. I hadn’t been at all surprised by his ascension in the Republican Party and his capture of the nomination. I was surprised, however, by his victory in the election, and I felt that I had been paying more attention to what was going on in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. It was time to come to terms and figure him out.

I also felt that the conservative movement in its modern iteration—beginning with the New Deal, culminating in the victory of Ronald Reagan—had been on the wane. This had been my very brief conclusion in the first edition of the book, and it got no attention whatsoever. What I came to realize, paradoxical as this may sound, is that the election of Donald Trump actually confirmed that assumption—that conservatism is on the wane—as opposed to repudiating it. And so I began writing almost immediately after the election, about all the ways in which I thought that the Trump administration would actually be extraordinarily weak. 

Shenk: Even before Trump took office, you were arguing that he was set to become the right’s Jimmy Carter. Can you explain the logic behind the analogy?

Robin: There’s two dynamics. One I derive from the political scientist Stephen Skowronek. Like Carter, Trump rises in the Republican Party as a reformer of the party, as someone trying to change the party’s direction, precisely at the moment that the regime that party has created—the Reagan free-market regime—is being called into question. Carter was in a similar situation with respect to Democratic Party liberalism. Like Carter, Trump was also an outsider to the party, but he engineers this hostile takeover—much like Jimmy Carter did.

The second dynamic derives from my account of conservatism. Conservatism is a reactionary form of politics, reacting against emancipatory movements of subaltern classes seeking to act on their own behalf. Conservatism is strongest, derives its greatest energy, when it is defending an old regime that has been toppled. That defense forces the right to reconstruct the old regime, to slowly help that regime and its ruling classes crawl back to power. In slowly crawling back to power, conservatism reconstructs the old regime in a completely new and different way.

If all of that about the reactionary nature of conservatism is true—and many on the left have come to accept that part of my argument—the question becomes: What happens when conservatism succeeds? What happens when it defeats the left and successfully reconstructs the old regime?

Shenk: And it has nothing to react against anymore.

Robin: Exactly. And I think that’s what we have been seeing over the last ten to fifteen years. The right has succeeded, but it doesn’t have anything to react against anymore. It doesn’t mean that conservatism doesn’t achieve electoral victories, obviously. It can do that. But its energy starts to wane, its ideas start to get sclerotic, it loses its political elan and political rationale, its sense of purpose. That’s how I read the failure of the Trump administration—failure in terms of achieving its own ends.

Obviously some part of that failure is peculiar to Donald Trump. But there is a deeper fissure in the party, a break-up in its governing rationale, that we’re seeing every day, in the increasing splits between the Bannon wing of the party and the McConnell wing.

Shenk: You point out early in the book that in order to understand your argument about Trump you have to understand your argument about conservatism more generally. I think now is a good time to step back a little bit and think about that broader subject. The title is a good place to begin because Reactionary Mind is also a reactionary title—you’re playing off of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. And whatever your differences with Kirk, you both believe that Edmund Burke is a decisive figure in this story. Why?

Robin: At the heart of the conservative vision of the good life is a vision of the best, most excellent men—although they need not be, they’re usually men—ruling over lesser beings.

That idea did not originate with Burke. It goes back to Plato and the ancient Greeks. What makes Burke a conservative, and what makes Burke modern, is that he’s promulgating this idea in an age of mass politics, the age of revolution or the democratic age. Why do we read Edmund Burke? Because he wrote a book called Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Shenk: It’s not Reflections on My Political Theory, Which I’ve Developed Way Ahead of Time. He’s reacting in the moment.

Robin: Exactly. A lot of people who talk about Burke don’t pay close attention to how he goes about reacting against the Revolution, how he makes his arguments. What made it possible for the French Revolution to happen? In Burke’s reading it was that the ruling class had grown weak. It had gotten soft. The ruling class was ultimately responsible for its own demise because it had lost the art of rule—it had grown too comfortable in its own power.

Then he looks at the Jacobins, and is filled with rage and contempt. But at the same time there’s this not-so-secret envy and admiration—the Jacobins were men of talent, energy, and vision—small vision, he thought, but nevertheless, he sees that Jacobinism was where the energies of modern politics lay.

In that collision right there—the sense that the Old Regime is soft, and that all the dynamism is on the revolutionary side—is the crucible of modern conservatism.

What conservatism is, then, is a politics of privilege for a mass democratic age. That specific privileges that are stake are going to change across time, but what’s continuous across time is that conservatism is a politics of reaction, defending privilege in a mass age.

Shenk: This brings us to one of the critiques the book received the first time around. According to your critics, you lumped conservatives together indiscriminately.

Robin: Exactly, and what’s vaguely irritating about that criticism is that it presumes what I was trying to argue against. When people say that calling conservatives reactionaries lumps them together and omits differences, they’re assuming that reaction is just some kind of mindless, timeless, inarticulate, demonic force that does not need any kind of art, or artifice, or thought. But I argue against that. The title of the book is The Reactionary Mind, it is not The Mindless Reactionary, and there’s a big difference between those two things. Conservatism’s greatest practitioners have always been extraordinarily attuned to the specificities of the revolutionary challenge that they’re facing, which means that the nature of their reaction is going to change across time.

Shenk: And starting from the eighteenth century, one of those challenges is a growing sense that customary values can no longer be taken for granted, which raises the question of how value can be measured. One popular answer is that value can be determined on the battlefield; another is that value can be determined in the marketplace. The military answer looks to politics, the commercial answer to economics. In the first edition of the book, war was clearly the dominant theme. In the new edition, you spend a lot more time on markets. What brought about the change?

Robin: I started writing about conservatism during the Bush years, when the big questions were questions of warfare, torture, and the American Empire. That vision, which animated neoconservatism, dominated the first edition of the book. The only chapter on the right’s economic vision in that first edition was my chapter on Ayn Rand.

One of the challenges I got from readers of the first edition was, “Where does libertarianism fit in all of this?” In fact, I had a lot of libertarians say to me, “I agree with you about the right, but we’re not the right, we’re different.” That always struck me as implausible insofar as libertarians and defenders of the free market were a critical part of the modern conservative movement.

Then Occupy happened in response to the financial crisis. I was getting to know a lot of younger journalists, younger academics like yourself, who were interested in political economy, socialism, and Marxism. That was different from my intellectual upbringing. When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, a fairly well-known Marxist political theorist at the Yale political science department said, “We don’t really read Marx anymore except for antiquarian purposes.” There was this idea that the real questions of politics were questions of being and belonging—you know, nationalism, multiculturalism, recognition, and so on. That’s the environment in which I came intellectually of age.

Shenk: Yet at the same time politicians were saying that the great question of the age was how to make a global market economy work. Politicians were embracing a kind economism, and political theorists were trying to move beyond economics altogether.

Robin: And so after the first book came out, I was in conversation with people at Jacobin and n+1 and people in Occupy, and those conversations started pushing me to think about the question of political economy and whether and how the libertarian free-market vision fit with my account of the right. My first stab at it became a chapter in this book—

Shenk: An epic piece in The Nation connecting Nietzsche to the birth of marginalism.

Robin: Yes. What came out of that piece—which in addition to examining Nietzsche and marginalism also looked at the Austrian school of economics, Hayek and Mises and Schumpeter—for me was a sense that we’re insufficiently attuned to the ways in which conservatives have thought of the free market as a recreation of classical forms of politics, of what Nietzsche called “grosse Politik,” great heroic politics.

Shenk: The market becomes war by other means.

Robin: Exactly. And again, if you look at a lot of the right-wing literature on the market—Chainsaw Al Dunlap or George Gilder or Schumpeter, if you want to get a little bit fancier—it’s very aware of all the ways in which modern market economies are driven by the kind of aristocratic spirit and passion that once found expression either in the polity or on the battlefield.

Shenk: Now with all that as background let’s get back to Trump. How does he fit into this story?

Robin: When Trump first became a phenomenon and I was blogging and writing about him, people kept talking about his recklessness, his contempt for the rule of law, established institutions, his racial dog whistling—more than dog whistling, the hardcore racism. But that was the part of Donald Trump that was the least remarkable to me. That was the part of Donald Trump that was continuous with everything we know both about the conservative movement going back to Burke. Again, in Burke there is this hostility towards established ways of doing and knowing things, and to the ancient constitution and the established order.

But when I started reading Trump, what struck me as his novelty and the innovations were on the one hand that he was playing to this idea of the economy as the battlefield of great men. I did a close reading of The Art of the Deal, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, where you see this repeatedly—the market is the sphere where men prove their mettle in a way that no other sphere in the modern world allows, which was Schumpeter’s argument.

At the same time, there was a subtext of questioning that vision. Of saying that basically, is that all there is? There was a real emptiness at the heart of it, which you don’t see in someone like Ayn Rand. And you saw that in his campaign as well—the critique of the plutocracy, which we haven’t seen from a successful Republican candidate in a long time.

Shenk: If the system is rigged, winning is no great accomplishment, especially if you already had some some power at the start—say, because your dad was a real estate tycoon.

Robin: And then there was a kind of knowing wink to all of his audience of, “This is all a fraud. I’m a fraud.” The other part that really surprised me is there’s this consistent pattern where he tees up what seems to be this supremacist vision of the American state acting in the world and yet the follow-through is always extraordinarily economic.

Shenk: We’ll have better deals with China. 

Robin: He starts off by saying that China is a military threat, so then you think he’s going to say, let’s build up our navy near China, let’s build up our East Asian military presence, let’s do some war games there. Instead his answer is almost always economic. We’re going to fight them on trade. Or “I’m going to take you to court!” It’s the most bourgeois notion of power.

Shenk: Your assessment of conservatism, though, is tied up with a theory of left politics—the reactions, in your telling, are always responses to movements from the left. In a way, it’s inspiring to see the left at the center of the story; in another way, it’s incredibly depressing to say that every left success will inevitably be met by a backlash. Why is the left so vulnerable to counterattacks like this?

Robin: If the left is serious about the proposition that people with power and privilege are dedicated to that power and privilege, what makes us think they won’t fight back? Of course they’re going to fight back.

Shenk: But, as you know, the trick is that it’s can’t just be a movement of the powerful. It has to be movement that can enlist a majority on its behalf. So the question is why the party of the people, as the left would like to think of itself, can prove so perennially unpopular.

Robin: The first thing to remember is that these ruling classes preside over comprehensive regimes that have managed over time to elicit multiple forms of consent and collusion and collaboration from men and women throughout—up and down—the social order. The French Revolution is instructive because it showed just how nested the aristocracy was with the church: that was the comprehensiveness of that old regime. So when the revolutionaries set out to topple the aristocracy they were on a collision course with the church. If you’re talking about the church, you’re talking not only about bishops, but also parish priests, and if you’re talking about parish priests, you’re talking about parishioners.

So that’s the way I think of what the left is doing: it’s tackling this comprehensive regime, and many of the people who are nested in that regime get something from it. That something can be anything from meaning and membership to status and material privilege. White supremacy is the easiest way of thinking about this way of thinking in the United States, although I think there are other examples. The upshot, though, is that when the left is toppling old regimes, it’s threatening not just the interests and values of people on the top; it’s also threatening the interests and values of people throughout the regime, up and down the social ladder.

Shenk: So this is a book that has a lot on the left and a lot on the right but not much on liberalism. Where do the liberals fit in your account?

Robin: I was originally thinking that I was writing a book on counterrevolution more generally, and there’s a line in the book where I say “not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative . . . but all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary.” What that quote is a nod to is that liberalism has often times served as a counterrevolutionary ideology. First and foremost in France at the turn of the nineteenth century, liberalism arises as an anti-Jacobin ideology with Benjamin Constant. It often, though definitely not always, acts as a counterrevoultionary force, and it’s interesting that I don’t talk more about this here because I came of age when liberalism was moving into that kind of terrain of being a kind of counterrevolutionary philosophy of politics, basically.

Shenk: This is a topic you’ve tangled with Jonathan Chait over. By your telling, the Democratic party at the middle of the twentieth century had adopted a kind of social-democratic liberalism, and by the end of the century it had taken a neoliberal turn.

Robin: Right, exactly. I guess the long and the short of that is that that liberalism is a complicated ideology that can really go either way. There are moments when it is counterrevolutionary, and there are moments when it is allied with the left, pushed to the left, as it was in the 1930s and 1940s. Those latter moments are not just alliances of convenience.

Shenk: Does that make liberalism a fairweather friend? When the left is on the rise, as it is in the first half of the twentieth century, liberals gets pulled left. When the right is advancing, as it was in the second half of the century, they get pulled right.

Robin: I would just say it’s just politics. Liberalism’s in a difficult moment right now. 

Shenk: What seems to be animating a lot of self-described liberals right now isn’t really a vision of politics; it’s just the need to defend norms.

Robin: Well, yes and no, because I think there are ideas at the heart of liberalism that are antinomian and explosive. I mean, the idea of liberty can be an extraordinarily disruptive force—it just needs a kind of social traction.

Shenk: But do actually existing liberals ever want to disrupt anything? I’m probably being too harsh, but it does seem like the “America Is Already Great” section of the Resistance is complacent about everything except Trump.

Robin: Yeah and that is true, but you know if you go back again to the 1930s and the 1940s or go back to the Freedom Budget liberals of the 1960s—you see the kind of radical elements of liberalism I am talking about. Eleanor Roosevelt has a great line: “If you’re going to compromise, make sure you compromise up,” and that to me is liberalism at its best, liberalism in its heyday. Even Arthur Schlesinger back in the day said class struggle is intrinsic and critical to the project of freedom as liberals understand it.

Shenk: And acknowledges that politics can be a zero-sum game.

Robin: Absolutely. I just think we are living in the long half-century of liberalism’s twilight. I don’t think liberalism is a permanent fixture, you know—it could either disappear altogether or it could be reinvented. The history of liberalism suggests that it undergoes quite a bit of reinvention. I think this is where political theorists actually can be helpful to the broader left of the academy. Because I think for historians, aside from historians of the New Deal or something, there is this sort of sense that liberalism is X.

Shenk: As if it were a set number of principles you can see throughout time.

Robin: Right and that it’s always allied to the free market. Well, that’s just not the case.

Shenk: This discussion of Schlesinger reminds me that one thing that’s striking about you as a public figure today is that you’re both steeped in that mid-twentieth-century moment when a market was emerging for public intellectuals writing about complicated ideas for wider audiences, and that you’re also trying to update this model for the age of Twitter. How have you tried to work out this balance in your career?

Robin: When I was coming up in graduate school and then got my first job, the model was the engaged pubic intellectual and that was uppermost in my mind and I set out to write long essays in little magazines. When this book came out it was the moment that social media was really exploding on the scene. I started writing more on my blog, defending this book against some really terrible, terrible reviews.

Shenk: The old model would be: You publish a book, and if the Times and the New York Review of Books don’t like it, then the gate closes. That’s the end of the conversation. But you kept that conversation going.

Robin: There’s obviously still a lot of hierarchies and gatekeepers, but I do think there has been a kind of opening up. And you know, there continues to be this sort of poo-pooing of Twitter and of Facebook. I have my frustrations, obviously, with a lot of social media but I’ve just been extraordinarily impressed that I get to write about Hannah Arendt or Philip Roth or Irving Howe on social media and people actually read it, read it seriously, and respond to it seriously. I once did a post about reading Ricardo as a kind of Machiavellian of the margin, about seeing in Ricardo’s theories of the margin a reprise and comment on some of Machiavelli’s theories about founding and decline. And people read it, and talked about it, people who aren’t academics. What a time to be alive!

Shenk: But do you think becoming a social media presence has changed the way that you write?

Robin: There are some drawbacks and perils. Less in how I write than in the amount of time I spend on it. It’s very addictive.

Shenk: The problem of carving out space to think and to write when part of you always wants to be checking your mentions.

Robin: I literally get on the subway to do my reading because if I’m at home, I can still check my email.

Shenk: This is a jump, but I think that when future historians are trying to make sense of politics in 2017—resurgent white nationalism on one side, an ascendant left on the other—they’ll give a lot of weight to social media’s ability to create instant communities around previously marginalized identities. We’ve seen how this has played out on the right. Where do you think the left is going from here?

Robin: I was buoyed by the Bernie Sanders campaign and seeing what was going on in Britain and in Europe more generally. And so on the one hand I have been extraordinarily hopeful. But there are two things that make me very nervous and make me feel like we might be in for quite a long night here. And the first is that even with someone like Sanders, it seems like the vision of the left remains small. If we got a $15 minimum wage, healthcare, and free college—which would be fantastic, I’d be thrilled—it would still be, when you think about all that is wrong with the American economy and what people are really facing, a drop in the bucket.  

I think the last politician who had a genuine narrative about the American political economy, and where it was going, and how it might move forward was Bill Clinton. It was bullshit! But he had a vision and he really understood these forces of globalization and his answer was skills, which was nothing but he had a story he could tell. Since then there’s been nothing I can think of. 

Shenk: I think you’re right—Obama had a political narrative, but he didn’t have much of an economic narrative, even after the crisis. But don’t Sanders or Warren at least have elements of something like that?

Robin: I would defer to you on this because I think you study these questions a lot more closely than I do, but from what I’ve seen it just seems like it’s nowhere near up to the task.

And then the second thing that worries me is that, I do think that the conservative movement, the Republican movement, is weak but that doesn’t mean it’s going to give way. We live in a bipolar political system and if there’s nothing to offer in response, my worst nightmare is that we could be sitting for the next ten, twenty years with this hardcore ethnonationalist party toggling against this neoliberal, corporate multicultural party.

Shenk: When Ivanka beats Chelsea in the presidential election of 2040?

Robin: Exactly, and with the dynastic element being the rule. There’s no reason why it can’t just go back and forth like that. 

Shenk: You saw a lot of liberals reaching for the Obamas after the election—“It’s Michelle’s turn next. She’ll run in 2020, and that will fix everything.”

Robin: It’s shocking to me. We keep seeing, especially from liberals, this mindless reiteration of established truths, as evidenced by their obsession with political dynasties. Social systems like that can go on for a long while, and we could be stuck here for years.

I think the left, we’re out of practice. My generation, we’re the lost generation. We didn’t think about any of these economic questions. But it’s extraordinarily gratifying to see people your age who are way smarter than we are about this kind of stuff.

I think about something like the New Deal and they had twenty years before 1932 and all those policy apparatchiks—those political organizations—to coalesce at a moment of capitalism’s greatest crisis. We haven’t had that experience and I’m worried we don’t have the time. It’s as if we’re not in 1930 but in 1912 or 1910, working our way through those little laboratories of democracy. We’ve still got twenty years to wander through the wilderness. But we may not have twenty years.

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