Philip Pilkington: The Reactionary Mind – The Truth About Conservatism; An Interview with Corey Robin Part I

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His latest book, The Reactionary Mind, is available from

Interview conducted by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland.

Philip Pilkington: The overarching thesis of your new book The Reactionary Mind is a provocative one. In it you contend that conservatism has always been a radical doctrine. Most of us conceive of conservatism as seeking, well, to ‘conserve’ the existing state of things. Could you begin to explain how you arrived at this conclusion?

Corey Robin: It was really by accident. I had been commissioned in 2000 to write a piece for Lingua Franca, which is now defunct, on John Gray and Edward Luttwak. Gray, as your readers probably know, was a fairly hard-core Thatcherite throughout the 1970s and 1980s but after the Cold War was moving away from the right. Not quite to the left, but somewhere in that direction. Luttwak had been one of Reagan’s military intellectuals, a frequent contributor to Commentary, a fairly standard-issue neocon – or so it seemed – and yet he too was breaking in the 1990s with the right.

In the course of researching and writing that article, I came to see that both of these guys had been inspired, throughout their intellectual and political careers, by a kind of brooding romanticism. A spirit that was not especially friendly to tradition or stasis or the status quo but was, in fact, partial to disruption, agonistic struggle, and the like. That is what had once drawn them to the right – for Gray, the libertarian/free-market right; for Luttwak, the militaristic right – and was now pushing them away from the right.

I had always known about the presence of romanticism on the right, going back to Coleridge, the early German Romantics, and so on. What surprised me was: a) seeing that same romanticism alive and well in the late 20th/early 21st century; b) seeing it not in a defense of Gothic cathedrals or landed estates but in a defense of the “free market” and war. I mean the “free market” is many things, but I had never thought of it as particularly romantic. But my research on Luttwak and Gray got me thinking: How is it that romanticism could be found in something as seemingly un-romantic as the “free market”? What connection is there between the disruptive and agonistic elements of romanticism and the obviously disruptive elements of capitalism, which everyone from Marx to Schumpeter to Hayek had written about? And what about warfare as well? While it now seems obvious to me that one of the hallmarks of war is its disruptiveness – Burke writes somewhere that war “never leaves where it found a nation” – at the time, I had thought of it as an instrument of the status quo.

But that article made me think about something else. Modern American conservatives often refer to their movement as a ‘three-legged stool’: one leg is the libertarian/free market; the second leg is the national security/militaristic state; the third leg is religion and cultural traditionalism. If the kind of romantic disruption I saw in Gray and Luttwak was propping up two of the three legs of the stool – I’ve since come to believe it props up the religion/cultural traditionalism leg as well – perhaps it’s more central to the conservative tradition as a whole than I or others had realized.

So I went back and started reading and teaching the canon of conservative thought. And once you have this partiality to disruption and agonistic struggle in mind, you begin to see it all over the place: in Burke’s moral psychology and counterrevolutionary writings; in Maistre’s attack on the French Revolution; in the slaveholder’s defense; in Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean thought; in fascism; and in the mobilization of the free market ideal against communism, socialism, and the welfare state.

I’ve come away from all of this convinced that conservatism is not really about conservation at all – except in one sense: the conservation of established relations of hierarchy and privilege. But what matters there is not the conservation per se – in fact, as I show in my book, conservatives will turn the world upside down in order to turn it right side up – but the hierarchy/privilege.

PP: Yes, that was going to be the issue I raised next. In the book you say that conservatives are only really interested in conserving hierarchies of power. It’s obvious that you find this in aristocratic thinkers like de Maistre and Nietzsche, but what about in the libertarian thinkers? I’ve often got the impression that they believe the market mobilises the masses and disperses them according to ability – in short, I’ve always thought that their philosophy is meritocratic. But surely this cannot be considered as an ideological defence of privilege. Have I misconceived this movement or are they just used as an ideological justification for the powers-that-be?

CR: It’s an excellent question, but we have to be careful here. Mine is not a theory of motivation: i.e., conservatives are interested in – or merely want – to preserve established hierarchies of power. Therefore whatever they say is window-dressing to that motivation or project. My argument is different: it says that conservatism is a theory, a moral and political argument, of hierarchy and elitism, which believes that all that is good in the world – all that is fine and beautiful and superior and excellent – is the product of not only superior people but superior people presiding over a society of unequals. Inequality, in their minds, is the condition of greatness – individual greatness and the contributions that greatness makes to all of civilization.

Now the people who make these arguments are not necessarily themselves at the top of the pecking order: many of them are outsiders, hardly to the manor born. Burke himself was an outsider: Irish, son of a Catholic mother (and very likely only a recently converted Protestant father), a lawyer among the landed, bourgeois rather than aristocratic. What’s more, as he makes clear in his Letter to a Noble Lord, he knew it, and at times could express a genuine Jacobin rage against his social betters: “At every step of my progress in life (for in every step I was traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to shew my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my Country… Otherwise, no rank, no toleration even, for me.”

But here’s the interesting thing about that Jacobin rage – and how it relates to your question about libertarianism. In Burke’s fury, you see the glimmers of an argument that will come to play (and indeed, did play, from the very beginning) a huge role in conservative theories of hierarchy and privilege: it is precisely because he comes from outside the customary paths of power, that he was not to the manor born, that he had to fight and claw his way into power, that he was so able to defend, and so ably, the powerful and the privileged. He writes, “Nitor in adversum [I strive against adversity] is the motto for a man like me.” That adversarial sensibility – that willingness to force one’s way into the halls of power, to wrest from the privileged a measure of one’s own power – becomes the model of a new ruling elite that will save the old elites from themselves. As Burke says in the Reflections: “The road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course.” Not impossible – you want the opportunity to be there – just not too easy.

The reason conservatives like Burke – and you see similar arguments throughout the 19th and 20th century – believe that the established elites need to be renewed by a band of outsiders is that they believe comfort and privilege are corrupting: not in a civic republic sense (i.e., people become more private and selfish) but in the Nietzschean sense of decadence: elites become weak, sclerotic, unimaginative, and so on. If the halls of power can be made more permeable – and in the 19th century the battlefield will be praised as the vehicle by which the truly great man, lost in the shadows of the poor or the forgotten classes, can emerge (Napoleon being the obvious example) – they will be made more secure.

I think libertarianism fits within this tradition. But where the older theorists thought warfare would be the proving ground, you see in the late 19th and early 20th century a new idea that the marketplace will be the proving ground. That’s critical to Schumpeter’s theory of rising and declining family dynasties; it plays a big role in von Mises’s book on Socialism (where he praises the first man who seized property for himself; such a man was a genius of violent transgression; yes, it was theft, but so imaginative was that theft that it validates its own actions); it also plays a role in Hayek’s theories of consumption and taste; and it plays a huge role in Ayn Rand’s theories of the industrialist and the genius (again, in her novels, there’s always a strong element of the outsider being this kind of criminal transgressor who bring a new measure of energy to the defense of capitalism, which the insiders cannot provide).

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that in the conservative imagination – whether it’s French counterrevolutionary or the Southern slaveholder or the American libertarian – inequality is a condition of greatness and excellence, but to really secure that greatness, it must be a dynamic inequality, in which old and established classes are constantly being injected with new elements, and in which their power and privilege should never be too secure or assured.

PP: Interesting point about the conservative ideologue being an outsider. That brings to a point that you raise in your book which I found fascinating as it really chimed with my personal experience: namely, that conservatism is the ‘politics of the loser’. In talking about this realistically I think we risk opening up criticism on two fronts: on the left, if we are frank, we break the pact of political correctness and open ourselves up to criticism in that vein; while the right will simply accuse us of getting our political knives out. But no matter because I think this should be spoken about quite clearly.

Conservatism is an ideology that seems to appeal to people with a chip on their shoulder. That sounds strange because this is usually the argument raised against the left; most profoundly in the Nietzschean vein of the priest appealing to the ressentiment of the masses. But in my experience – and I’ve spoken with others who move in such circles in private and they agree with me – conservative ideologues are often people with enormous chips on their shoulders. Many are afflicted with some disadvantage or other – or, at least, something that they seem to think a disadvantage.

Even those who lack personal experience in this regard can see this all over the place: from Glenn Beck crying like a child on television, to all those bizarre evangelical sex scandals in the US. Theodor Adorno once pointed out that much of Hitler’s appeal was that he was a loser that was trying to overcome his loserness at a time when all of Germany felt like losers – which fits perfectly because Mein Kampf translates, of course, into ‘my struggle’ or ‘my battle’. And we won’t even talk about the irony of Joseph Goebbels, who suffered from club foot and was laughed at in Nazi circles for being a cripple; yet he ran propaganda campaigns against people with disabilities.

It’s often people of this disposition that stand up in defence of power. And there seems to be some sort of psychology behind it that’s not often talked about – the phrase ‘identification with the aggressor’ certainly comes to mind, for example. How deeply does this psychology run in conservative doctrine? And how do you make sense of it?

CR: Again, I want to stress that mine is not a psychological theory of conservatism. I’m leery of speculating about the psychic states that lead men and women to subscribe to one theory or another, particularly since so many of those states seem like universal experiences, elements of the human condition that can’t be limited to one set of the population or another.

But I will say this: the sensibility you describe – experiencing or identifying oneself as a victim — is a consistent feature of conservative thought. Regardless of whether the ideologue or camp follower of conservatism sees him or herself as a victim, the idea of victimhood plays a critical part in conservatism. Going back to Burke. Marie Antoinette is the first great victim of the conservative canon. The sovereign who Joseph de Maistre recommends be restored to power once the counterrevolution prevails – someone Maistre describes as being schooled in the ways of adversity, who’s been brought low by fortune and thus learned a thing or two – he’s a victim (and Maistre recommends him to power on the basis of that victimhood). William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man” is another victim. Nietzsche’s master class, in fact, is a victim. So is Nixon’s silent majority. And so on.

Initially, I thought this was all instrumental and cynical: understanding that the lingua franca of democratic thought is the democratic appeal to the masses, the conservative turns the possessor into the dispossessed. But over time I’ve come to think that the victim is a far more fundamental, and sincere, figure in the conservative canon. Because not only does he appeal to us as a figure of compassion or pity, but he’s also someone who has a very particular claim on us: he demands to be made whole. In other words, he’s a rallying figure, someone whose losses – a country house, a plantation, a factory, a white skin – ought to be recompensed.

What’s more, when you turn your privileged class into a group of victims – not just rhetorically but in reality (the French Revolution really did produces losses among the aristocracy; Emancipation really did divest the master class of privilege and property) – they come to possess an attribute that is universally shared: loss. Their loss is quite different from that of the ordinary run of humanity, but loss is loss. I’ve sometimes wondered whether that might not be the right’s singular bid for universalism: it speaks for the loser everywhere.

But as you say, it speaks for the loser not by democratizing society – making things more equal – but by making it more elite, more privilege, more unequal.

PP: To tap this vein a little deeper, I don’t think you deal with this directly in the book, but some other writers have linked conservatism to a sense of nostalgia. When I read what you wrote about the ‘politics of loss’ – essentially the other side of the coin to the ‘politics of the loser’ phenomenon – this pervasive sense of nostalgia was strongly evoked for me. What is there about this sense of loss in conservatism and how is it linked to nostalgia – if, indeed, it is linked at all?

CR: In many conservative writers, you certainly see traces of nostalgia, but I would distinguish that mood from the themes of loss that I discuss and trace in my book. Nostalgia is a mood of inchoate longing, sometimes even pain. But, it seems to me, its fundamental premise is that the object of longing is no more; it can never be recovered. All you can do is long for it, savor its memory, and situate yourself among the ruins. And again, you certainly see some of that in certain conservative writers, but that is usually preparatory to something else entirely.

Because conservatism, remember, is an activist philosophy; it promises to make loss whole. So while it certainly traffics in some of the same materials as nostalgia does – loss and the like – it assumes a much less melancholic mood and a less impotent form.

It’s certainly difficult for me to imagine a politics organized simply around the melancholy of nostalgia: what would it even look like? Because even if there were a conservative politician who was trying to encourage his constituencies to come to terms with loss – to acknowledge its reality, to offer consolation and the like – that would still look quite different from nostalgia. And the closest I can even think of in that regard is someone like Peel, who had a very difficult time convincing his followers to accept the terms of contemporary debate.

I suppose you could make the case that someone like Reagan indulged in a politics of nostalgia, but his sense of the past was so caught up with a sense of the possibilities of the future – and his sense of time was so fragmented (all of us lived in some past, present, future that had no sense of continuity) – that it’s hard for me to see that as nostalgic, as I understand the term.

PP: Something that always struck me about the conservatives – and it’s something that is certainly underlined in your book – is their willingness to engage with, and sometimes even co-opt, elements of radical thought. In the American canon perhaps the most striking manifestation of this is the neoconservative movement. Already at the outset foundational figures like Leo Strauss were tarrying with existentialism and then you see this carried on even more strikingly in the next generation with Normon Podheretz, for example, famously recommending Norman O. Brown’s Freudian-Marxist work to Lionel Trilling.

To me this always looked like a sort of perverse fascination on the part of the conservative movement with the thing they claim to most abhor. The image of a preacher obsessing over the ‘evils’ of pornography while clearly deriving some sort of pleasure from the rant comes to mind. What do you make of this engagement with radicalism that shoots straight to the heart of conservatism?

CR: Just a quick side point: I think when Poddy was recommending Brown to Trilling he was probably still on the left, no? There was a major dialogue with Freud in the 1950s, particularly his more unconventional ideas (the death instinct, for example), and it’s something that I don’t know can be classified as right or left: you had figures like Herbert Marcuse, Phillip Rieff, and Norman O. Brown – and even Trilling in a shorter stand-alone book that gets rarely cited anymore – all grappling with Thanatos, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and more. It was an immensely fruitful and generative discussion that again I don’t think falls on one side or the other of the political spectrum.

Anyway, your basic point stands, and it is, as you say, a big theme in my book. I think conservatism’s relationship to radicalism assumes several different forms, and can be analyzed in several different ways. The simplest one is that from the beginning conservatism has defined itself in opposition to the left. In my book I cite a great number of theorists and politicians and scholars who make this opposition almost constitutive of the tradition itself: conservatism is the opposition to radicalism.

And yet as you note, there is often a not-so-secret affinity between conservatism and radicalism. At its most basic, the conservative often realizes – indeed, this can be a condition of his coming to awareness of himself as a conservative – that if he is going to oppose the left, he must borrow from, imitate, and even in some way become like, the left. That can mean everything from the rhetoric of the left (freedom and rights, for example, are two tropes that the right often borrows from the left) to the tactics of the left (street protest) to the underlying worldview of the left (that men and women have it in their capacity to order the political world as they see fit).

This borrowing can be very self-conscious and instrumental. You have folks like Margaret Thatcher saying that the other side have got an ideology, we’ve got to have one too. But more interesting, to me at any rate, is when it’s not self-conscious or instrumental, when it happens – as it were – almost behind the back of the conservative, without him or her realizing it. Think about it: there is the conservative arguing, day in and day out, against his antagonist. At some level, that argument has to start shaping the way he thinks about his own views. Sometimes that means he will sharpen and come to a deeper awareness of his own beliefs and their presuppositions. But sometimes it will also mean that he be influenced by his antagonist, that he will – again, without even realizing it – let slip an argument, or betray an assumption, a way of thinking and speaking, that came from that opponent.

There are a couple of moments like this in Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace. These were four letters he wrote toward the very end of his life, on the French Revolution (and against moves in Britain to reach a compromise and peace with the French government after Thermidor). In his second letter, Burke defends the liberty of Britain, and while that’s not surprising or new – he had been doing that his whole career – he speaks of liberty now in extremely individualistic terms. He says of the modern state that it “has cultivated the welfare of every individual. His wants, his wishes, even his tastes have been consulted.” It almost sounds like Benthamite utilitarianism – and that, it seems, is a new way of thinking about liberty that I suspect came out of his encounter with the French revolutionaries, who he had previously criticized for thinking of the relationship between the individual and the state in such atomized, individualized terms.

There’s another moment in his last letter where he makes fun of his contemporaries in Britain for obsessing with the change of clothes of the now more conservative French government – no more rags and sans culotte, now it’s more bourgeois and officious. And Burke says it’s all a load of crap: different clothes, same person (i.e., rabid revolutionary). And he then invokes some conversations he’s had with his friend, the great actor David Garrick, on the disparity between the actual person and identity of an actor (a ruffian) and the role he plays on stage (something far more exalted). What’s so interesting to me about that move is that in Burke’s earlier work – the Reflections on the Revolution in France – he had praised the costume and pageantry of the Old Regime. Not because it was beautiful but because costume and pageantry were the essence of a civilized society: costumes, clothes, etc., protected us from being seen for who and what we were (naked animals). Without such costumes, we’d be reduced to the status of animals. What made us human, in other words, were our clothes. But here’s Burke now – drawing from the same Jacobin language of stripping the person of his costume, his social role – and using it against the French Revolution.

Anyway, these are some small examples but they point to a larger truth which I think Nietzsche captured well in Beyond Good and Evil: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

PP: Ha! One of my favourite quotes. That leads nicely to my next question. It seems to me that if you look closely many left-wing political discourses are, in fact, discourses of conservation. Ecology would be the obvious example here, the desire to retain a certain ‘natural’ state against the ’disruptive’ forces of change. A more refined example, I think, would be Christopher Lasch – whom I hold to be the 20th century’s most interesting political theorist (an overview of his ideas can be watched here). He discovered that the older, populist tradition of radicalism was often very conservationist. This movement – perhaps best summed-up in the figure of William Jennings Bryan – often found itself fighting the forces of modernisation, monopoly and big banking in favour of the small landowner and his ideas of individual liberty, religion, morality and the family. (Although the tradition has certainly been perverted I believe it contains the seeds of modern libertarianism). What do you make of this conservationism that can be found in the radical tradition? And how do you think it relates to conservatism proper?

CR: In some ways what you say here is one of the unstated – or at least not loudly stated – premises of my book. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on the question of preservation and conservation. And the reason for that is that preservation/destruction is not really the question on which left and right part ways. If conservation and preservation maintains a system of egalitarian freedom, the left will be in favor of it and the right will oppose it. If the past can serve as a standard of freedom and equality, of greater autonomy and egalitarian solidarity, the left will look to the past (E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams created a whole way of thinking based on that premise). So it shouldn’t surprise us to see some leftists embrace the past or a politics of preservation because that isn’t really the axis of argument.

PP: But surely there is some truth in the right-wing caricature of the left as a political movement constantly engaged in subverting the powers-that-be. The left’s sympathy for certain types of cultural and ‘identity’ politics is well-known and, in my opinion at least, undoubtedly true. How do you tally this with your unstated thesis?

CR: Sure, but subverting the powers that be does not rotate on the same axis as preservation/conservation versus destruction. The welfare state, for example, involves an ongoing intervention in the distribution of resources. From one vantage, it is always subverting the accumulations of power, making sure none becomes large or enduring. At the same time, the welfare state, at least in some countries, is now going on 100 years old. Leftists who support the welfare state will be conserving that state – and will also be constantly intervening to stop changes that undermine some broad system of equality. I just don’t think trying to understand that phenomenon through the lens of time – is it oriented to the past, present, or future – is the right way to think about it. And you could make a similar case for conservatives.

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  1. JG

    The modern American conservative is neither reactionary or right-wing. He is an egalitarian. He is an internationalist. He is a captialist (or wishes to be). He is whatever the TV tells him to be.

    The neoconservative movement is not conservative. It is amoral Judaic warmongering nationalism. The Judaic neo-cons care nothing for tradition and order. They want war for Israel and a divided America. Nothing more. The American conservatives did not “accpet” neo-cons. The neo-cons used the gains from usury to buy virtually all right of center publications in America. The average American conservative has never in his pityful life been exposed to a reactionary idea.

    Absurd piece from A to Z.

    1. Moneta

      In my own experience, as a general rule, I have noticed that conservatives want people to suffer while liberals want no suffering.

      1. Peripheral Visionary

        In my experience, conservatives recognize the reality of suffering, while progressives hold it as an article of faith that if only the right people and policies are put in power, all suffering can be abolished (the entirety of human experience to the contrary).

      2. Lidia

        Conservatives’ world view is predicated on suffering: no suffering, no redemption. No win/win or lose/lose: only win/lose is an acceptable moral outcome.

        1. F. Beard

          Conservatives’ world view is predicated on suffering: no suffering, no redemption. Lidia

          According to the Bible, causing or allowing suffering is not man’s duty. Instead:

          He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

  2. Fraud Guy

    I had been thinking that it was the Democrats were were conservatives, Republicans who were reactionary, and very few who were liberal/progressive.

    And that’s an annoying hanging tag.

  3. Foppe

    The argument Robin presents seems to neatly complement the arguments put forward by Graeber in his essay “Manners, deference, and private property in early modern Europe” (also part of Possibilities), and in Debt.

  4. Schofield

    After reading Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” Second Edition I’m sure that he would say that Conservatives search for certainty based on shallow assumtions and they are in effect intellectually lazy with very few exceptions.

  5. Schofield

    Ooops. Intellectually lazy typo!

    After reading Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” Second Edition I’m sure that he would say that Conservatives search for certainty based on shallow assumptions and they are in effect intellectually lazy with very few exceptions.

  6. j.grmwd

    This is spot on. My charitable interpretation of traditional Burkean conservatism has always been that it asks us to preserve the institutions and morality handed down to us because while they may not appear fair or efficient they can at least be said to “work”. Given what has happened when revolutionary utopian movements (right or left) come to power, I think it’s an insight most people can agree is valuable. The uncharitable interpretration, of course, is that it’s all just an excuse to deploy the same argument against any change no matter how sensible, gradualist, and well-thought out. We go from “beware the unintended consequences of revolutionary change” to “this hierarchical power structure is ordained now and forever more as just and right.” Anyway, this kind of conservatism certainly doesn’t characterize the modern movement. Taking radical action and damn the consequences seems to be a point of pride for most. I don’t blame them. It’s a lot easier to be a principled Burkean conservative when you’re already in power and fighting against the radicals. You can’t achieve the dream of drowning the government in a bathtub and forcing everyone to go to church and to live in a nuclear family with reasoned debate and incremental change. Not in a Western democracy. Not if you have to win 50% of the vote.

  7. PDC

    mmm… seems to me that CR goes back to the old categories which were present in the political struggle of ancient times: democrats vs arystocrats. You can find them fighting for power in the Greek “Poleis” during the Peloponnesian war, or in the republican Rome of Mario and Sulla… Interesting idea.

  8. Brick

    I find this post a little disconcerting because in my view it misrepresents both conservatism and liberalism/lelftism in a way which will focalises thinking. My view is that both conservatism and liberalism both have roots in the idea of fairness, but look at the issues from different angles and are then both are subverted to maintain idealogies and power.
    Perhaps there is an element I can agree on in the post that conservatism starts with fairness in terms of why another individuals entitlements should be curtailed so that the cost to the individual can be reduced. This could take the form of being upset with bank bailouts, bad regulation, limits on individual taxation, curtailment of welfare. The problem is that this gets subverted into things like no regulation, no tax rises for the rich, maintenance of the money power structure.
    Where I think the post fails is in not pointing out that liberalism suffers from many of the same problems. Liberalism starts out with the fairness concept that the underpriveledged should be helped. This takes the form of support packages, legislation to prevent inequalities. The problem is that this gets subverted into things like support packages for uneconomic political favourites, legislation which maintains the status quo/power structure and costs the individual more.
    For me I find it worrying that the post does not critique both sides of the political spectrum and focuses on the differences without pointing out the similarities. What I see is that ideology gets in the way of doing proper cost benefit analysis on policy and think there is a policy vacuum around the concept of real fairness. While politics is really only open to the elites this is unlikely to change in my opinion. Then again perhaps I need to read the book to get a better picture of the argument and perhaps he is talking about conservatism in a non political sense in which case I might be sympathetic to the views presented here.

    1. digi_owl

      I found myself pondering a example of “traditional” Japanese parenting. When a child would fall over, the parent would not race to aid it in getting up. Instead said parent would stand where they are and expect the to kid get back up and walk over to the parent. This similar to the reactions we have seen to Keen’s suggestion of a debt jubilee, that it would just encourage more bad behavior by those that caused the problem in the first place. Or perhaps the old saying “no pain, no gain”. Or simply the use of physical punishment for perceived bad behavior.

  9. Jim Tarrant

    The Pilkington-Robin dialogue has been very interesting to follow. While a lot of the discussion revolved around conservation/preservation, disruption and hierarchies, it really boiled down, to me, to a discussion of how and why institutional change occurs. Particularly, if we understand institutions to encompass socio-economic units from the primordial family/clan/tribe all the way to international organizations. In times of abrupt and fundamental change such as ours, when globalization is rapidly re-writing national and sub-national “rule sets”, and the Internet and mobile telephony revolutions have seemingly removed all boundaries, a lot of people with a need for the comfortable, the familiar order of things and hierarchy become highly vulnerable to manipulation by cynics and those who want to perpetuate or extend their own political economic power. I believe fear of rapid change and uncertainty are what mainly provide the energy behind the American conservative movement – and much of the other reactionary movements around the world too.

    1. Fiver

      Why not fear rapid change when that change now consists of running a succession of live experiments involving the entire human race? Take the Internet. Something that did not exist 15 years ago is now absolutely indispensible. Should it go down for a couple weeks, the global economy would instantly seize-up. The massive convulsion of a sudden, complete termination of the Internet could quite conceivably trigger a global civilization collapse.

      Do you recall anyone ever asking whether we ought to proceed with this Experiment? Is it really a good idea to make everyone dependent on huge, integrated global systems, or might it simply be smarter to have multiple eggs in multiple baskets rather than 1 Big Global One.

  10. Jill

    I think an honest treatment of “the reactionary mind” must include any group that exhibits these characteristics. This would include many people who self identify as liberal and progressive as well as all people sited in the article.

    If you look at what just happened with the NDAA, a “liberal” president just took the power to imprison anyone, anywhere without trial on his own say so. This superpower comes from his assertion that we are in a state of permanent warfare, a war which takes place on battlefield earth–hence the Global War on Terror. His supporters consider themselves liberals yet what does any of this have to do with being a liberal?

    The NDAA was passed/signed by “liberals” as well as “conservatives” and supported by both groups in the general population gives the lie to the idea that “the reactionary mindset” belongs to conservatives alone.

    1. Cris Kennedy

      So sad, so true, Jill. The intellects have become so distracted with their arguments over liberal-conservative, left-right, reactionary-radical that they lost track of humanity’s battle for freedom–the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.
      This article is trash.

      1. Jill


        I am really tired of intellectual dishonesty. I don’t think the whole article is trash but because it does contain intellectual dishonesty it does a real disservice to the topic. The ruling junta is all of a reactionary mind set and they have their willing supporters among those who are called “liberals” and “conservatives”. How it came to be that so many people have embraced the reactionary mindset, including god fearing unitarians, is of real interest to me.

        LucyL. That was funny about Buddy!

    2. Aquifer


      It seems to me part of the problem is we haven’t agreed on what authority has the right to “define” what a lib, con, prog. etc is. Everyone seems to have their own definitions and applies them with regard to themselves and others quite “liberally”. So one might say “Well the “libs” did this – aren’t they AHs!” But another would say “Well if these folks did this, it certainly proves they are NOT “libs”!”

      I have had, and observed, sooooo many discussions that never got much beyond a fight over who was a “resl” lib, or lefty, or whatever. Somehow, for me, it doesn’t matter – if so and so did such and such and i think it stinks, i want so and so out of there no matter what they, or anyone else, call them(selves). A stinkweed by any other name smells as bad …

      1. Jill


        In this case I think terms do matter. This is a description of a mindset and a caste in our society. As I read what others wrote, I thought the description, “authoritarian” is more accurate and doesn’t confuse the issue by pitting evil conservatives against angelic liberals who would never, ever have an authoritarian impulse-like voting to indefinitely detain other people without trial.

        I completely agree with you about the need to staunch the blood but to me, using accurate language is one of the first steps in diagnosing what is wrong with the patient. The misuse of language has been a real part of the disaster we live under. Orwell showed the importance of language. He showed why the powerful do not allow others to accurately describe reality. Because then we would know what to do.

        Those are my thoughts and thank you for writing yours.

        Sincerely, your self-identified liberal blog mate! :)

        1. Warmowski

          Obviously NDAA’s detention provisions have nothing to do with liberalism. Then again, that is to be expected, as the provisions in question are only codifications of existing powers seized in 2001 by a (neo)conservative administration as well as of SCOTUS decisions in 2004 and 2007.

          The wider point about the false liberalism of Obama and the mainstream Democrats certainly stands – these people are authoritarian, neoliberal centrists, not liberals.

        2. Aquifer


          I agree, words do matter, a great deal. i like them a lot (obviously), but i think some of the comments as well as some of the posts illustrate what i am saying. I may choose to call myself a progressive, believing it means one thing, only to find that that is a dirty word in some lefty circles; i will be rejected a priori, by the connotation that has for them so that just about anything i have to say will be then be rejected or adversely considered by that connotation. If, on the other hand, i talk about my particular approach or aspirations without a “label” i may find that the other individual and i do, in fact agree and we can proceed to have a meaningful conversation ..

          So where is the official dictionary of political definitions that we all can go to so that we all know what “liberal” or “conservative” or “progressive” means and all agree to use those definitions so that we can then proceed to have useful discussions? And do the definitions change when the words are capitalized? Of course, even after denotations are agreed on there is still the sticky wicket of connotations ….

          In formal debates the First Affirmative started out by defining the terms and then the discussion proceeded with those definitions in mind – to assure that everyone was on the same page. Too often folks wind up talking past each other because they think that their terms “of course” mean the same thing to the other as they do to them …

  11. Lambert Strether

    The “lost cause,” a noxious trope that persists even today in the former slave states whose political establishments dominate so much of our discourse, is a similarly disruptive form of romanticism, with wannabe aristocratic (“cavalier”) roots.

  12. Lambert Strether

    “so imaginative was that theft that it validates its own actions”

    So, is that what the 1% thinks of the bailouts — the largest upward transfer of wealth in world history? )(Jamie Galbraith)

    1. LucyLulu

      Being clever is a trait that earns a membership in the meritocracy.

      How many bailouts have the less creative finagled out of Uncle Sam? Which would be why the 99% are still working three jobs in the pursuit of the American dream.

      Tweet (seriously) from Buddy Roemer last night: “I’ve got enough votes now to start a bowling league.”

    2. Lidia

      the only way I can *bear* to think of it is to consider that, to benefit as certain people do, one would have to be surrounded by and schmooze with these people all the time: Dimon, Fuld, Paulson, Summers, Greenberg, Marcus, Bloomberg, Romney, and dozens more like them (or climbers and possibly worse).

      All seem exquisitely unpleasant to be around.

      So there is that… that we don’t feel constrained to frequent them or their wives or their faux-charity galas.

  13. Hondo

    Every agency among the now prolific government came from a reactionary mind…the reactionary mind was not trying to do good but trying to enrich himself through patronage in order to gain wealth, self esteem and reelection. The longer one stays the richer one gets. You can see this clearly at the town hall meetings where your elected official thinks everyone but him is an idiot (including his money donor who he really thinks is a fool). One needs to protect ones wealth from the reactionary minds (which are constantly spinning in solution trying to come up with ways to steal your wealth).

  14. James

    The American Conservative is first and foremost an American Exceptionalist, hence the appeal of Reagan and the unquestioning and seemingly undying support for all things military and patriotic. (Was a time the patriotic orgies before televised football games was at least somewhat discreet, now they’re beginning to resemble Soviet military parades.) Likewise support for the 1%, even in the poorest of locales. The 1% are, after all the most exceptional of all! In the 60s and 70s this was completely understandable, with the WWI generation still holding sway. What’s totally remarkable is the continued support among baby boomers and the Vietnam generation. The lessons of war so hard won back then were evidently drowned out by the siren’s song of unlimited wealth and influence in the world promised first by the neo-cons (a very fitting moniker if there ever was one) and whatever the current clown posse in charge goes by. And a very clever strategy it is too, since it basically paints all of its opponents as Un-American at worst or surely less American at the very least. Watching Romney gush like a little school girl before the cameras in Iowa this morning I couldn’t help but notice his campaign slogan in the background: “Believe in America.” Shades of Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Simple slogans for simple minds, always the marketer’s/propagandist’s first choice. Or McCain’s simpler and more direct, “Put America First!” Now there’s some truth in advertising for ya!. Enough to make any of the litany of failed 20th century dictators proud.

  15. orionATL

    this is an important argument and very, very insightful.

    the key concepts here that i have observed myself in the rhetoric of contemporary american conservatives, neo-cons, free-market ideologues, blue dog dems, nat’l security dems, and the like are


    an inclination toward pointless social change, aka, rolling chaos,


    reverence for social hierarchy and those at the top of such a hierarchy.*

    * e.g., “masters of the universe” is not entirely sarcastic, goldman-sachs always gets treasury, and uncle alan greenspan has been an alisa rosenbaum acolyte since he was a teenager.

    1. Jill


      Thanks for stating things so clearly. I do notice what you say and find it very creepy and cult like, especially this: “…reverence for social hierarchy and those at the top of such a hierarchy.*”

  16. Antifa

    This interview dances all around the mulberry bush.

    Conservatives are not romantics — that is just poesy for their utter focus on power and authority. Their first concern is who is in charge, and their second is to get in line behind the boss. To fit in, to follow, to belong, to be with the winners, to not be free, to not be alone.

    See Professor Robert Altemeyer’s decades-long study of conservatives, “The Authoritarians.”

    He describes a psyche born to follow. Wired from birth to first of all seek hierarchy and authority and to fit themselves and then the whole world into it. Such persons can no more see the world as a free-for-all of independent creatures relating spontaneously than a Picasso can find fulfillment in the Marine Corps.

    Conservative minds are radical only in that they will burn down this whole crazy world — books first and people later — if that’s what it takes to make it all look and work just like the ordered world in their heads, where everything makes sense. This world doesn’t make sense to them because of all the absolute freedom in it.

    Conservatives are wired this way. Can’t help it, can’t change it. Starting always with a bearded God in Heaven, they simply must organize their own minds, their own lives, and then the world around them to follow the rules — and always in obedience to the rules, to authority flowing from the top down.

    They feel that privilege and power and wealth are properly rewarded to the obeyers, the faithful, the self-deniers who put God and country and law and honor and duty and manners and propriety and patriotism and whatever other invented burdens and restrictions they can pile onto themselves as opposed to simply living here on Earth, a day at a time.

    Authoritarians do not really live in this world. They live in a perfect world in their heads which will come to pass out here as well just as soon as everyone follows all their rules and precepts. Call that romanticism if you wish. It is better tagged as totalitarian delusion.

    Conservatism/Authoritarianism is all on a sliding scale, of course. You do not find black and white examples only. Every human mind is to some degree wired to learn the ropes and use the existing rules to get along, to get ahead, to get and enjoy some status, membership, privilege. To some degree. Some are more capable of dancing free of such rigidities. Some are not free in the least.

    Kurt Vonnegut’s advice, “Listen, you were put on this Earth to dick around. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently” is precisely what authoritarian minds are not capable of conceiving or following. It is the definition of meaninglessness and madness to them.

    To the extent that Kurt’s comment horrifies you, to that extent you are authoritarian.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      Equating conservatism and authoritarianism is eeply misleading. You just have to look at Burke and Nietzsche to see this. Frankly, I think doing so is just a cheap left-wing attack.

      1. Masonboro

        I don’t know dip about Burke and Nietzsche (in 1960 I couldn’t spell engineer – four years later I were one) but Antifa’s critique of Conservatives fits my personal life observations. I like to say that the Conservative response to a problem is an exercise of power whereas a Liberal will attempt to exercise reason.


        1. Phil

          Not necessarily true. The passage of the New Deal and the Great Society, to name two prominent examples, were signal liberal achievements, but they were exercises of power. Much of modern conservatism is about restricting the exercise of power in the pursuit of equality.

          That said, I do not see a distinction between a defending a hierarchy and advocating authoritarianism (which Wikipedia defines as “a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority”). There might be a question of degree — authoritarianism tends toward absolute power, where a hierarchy might be flexible, and CR suggests that some amount of mobility is ideologically necessary to conservatism, so the insurgent elite can come in and defend the old guard.

          I would welcome clarification. Perhaps I’m missing a subtle (or not-so-subtle) point.

      2. Kukulkan

        I think Antifa is using “authoritarian” in technical sense rather than whatever usage you’re familiar with. The study she cites by Professor Robert Altemeyer defines an authoritarian as someone who sees society in terms of hierarchy. A secondary feature is that they tend to seek to fit into the hierarchy, following those above them in the pyramid, leading those below.

        This doesn’t mean that an authoritarian regards a given hierarchy as fixed. They tend to try and work their way up, seeking to achieve as high a position in the pyramid as possible. They expect everyone to do this and regard it as one of the strengths of a hierarchy — the competition ensures that only those qualified for a particular position actually reach that position. This, of course, creates a bit of circular reasoning in which the argument is that one should follow those above one in the hierarchy because the fact that they are in that position demonstrates their worthiness to give orders.

        Authoritarians also accept that sometimes things go wrong and an unqualified person may end up in a position of power. Such aberrations are treated as temporary, though; the competition for status will soon dislodge them and they will fall to their appropriate position. Further, they will actively work to undermine someone they regard as unqualified. They will not outright revolt — the presumption of hierarchy means they will respect the office, if not the man — but they will follow only grudgingly.

        They may even regard a particular hierarchy as invalid and seek to overthrow and replace it with one they find more congenial.

        The default, however, is always hierarchy.

        This contrasts with non-authoritarians who regard hierarchy as a form of organisation with strengths and weaknesses which can be employed as required. However, sometimes, other forms of organisation may work better. To them, a hierarchy is valid only so long as it produces good results and accomplishes the goals it was set up for. This means non-authoitarians are perfectly capable of ignoring orders and leaders they think are foolish. Hence the oft-quoted observation that organising liberals is like herding cats. Every order or instruction has to be explained and justified; it’s not enough that it’s an order or instruction. “Because I said so” is not a reason for a non-authoritarian.

        If anything Burke and Nietzsche only confirm this. Both clearly believed in hierarchies. They may not have liked certain hierarchies or felt that the criteria those hierarchies used to determine position were valid — partially because the hierarchies didn’t recognise Burke and/or Neitzsche’s talents to the extent that each felt they should be recognised — and they may have longed for better, more idealised leaders, but neither gave any hint that they could conceive of any form of organisation that wasn’t a hierarchy.

        Part of the response to the Occupy movement – “Who are the leaders?” — displays a similar inability to conceptualise a non-hierarchical structure. The only way they can see almost everything is in terms of leaders and followers. Any other organisational structure simply seems to baffle them.

        Given all that, Antifa, Robert Altemeyer and Corey Robin all seem to be saying the same thing: conservatives are hierarchical. Robin and Altemeyer support this with research.

        How is pointing this out a cheap left-wing attack?

        If anything, it seems a genuine attempt to understand how conservatives think so as to be able to better communicate and accommodate them.

      3. Lidia

        Please explicate a conservative position that is not backed up by arbitrary authoritarian force (eg. national exceptionalism, patriarchy, theology).

    2. Otter

      Antifa sez : “Conservatives are not romantics — that is just poesy for their utter focus on power and authority. Their first concern is who is in charge, and their second is to get in line behind the boss. To fit in, to follow, to belong, to be with the winners, to not be free, to not be alone.

      See Professor Robert Altemeyer’s decades-long study of conservatives […]”

      I believe he merely promotes his own choice of boss to follow and belong to.

    3. Lidia

      Antifa, really interesting that you bring up Picasso. Over the holidays, I was forced -for the nth time- to defend Picasso’s function as an iconoclast. I actually dislike him as a personage and much of his work leaves me cold, but one cannot deny the power of ‘Guernica’ in conveying the chaos and mindlessness of war-as-massacre (outside of Goya and Picasso, wars had been generally been portrayed, in the artistic canon, as heroic from someone’s point of view).

      Both ‘modern’ artists sought to parry the romanticism of war with its reality.

  17. jsmith

    It’s really a wonder – or maybe not – that academics like Pilkington and others haven’t caught on to what most grounded people around the world have noticed for some time.

    Namely, that what the elite call themselves and what supposed doctrines they ascribe to no longer matter and they will do whatever needs be done to retain their holds on power/wealth.

    This includes joining this party or that party, subscribing to this philosophy or that philosophy, labeling oneself a conservative, a liberal, a socialist, etc etc.

    From the socialists and Communists in Europe to the Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers in the US, the nuances and difference between any of these factions only exist so that the talking heads/academics will create a false dialogue about false differences.

    Once this dialogue is created it is used to lull the masses into a false sense of security in that they perceive that the politics and political philosophies of today are no different from that which have preceded the present – just those crazy leftists and righties slugging it out, nudge, wink.

    A perfect example is the above interview and it’s two participants.

    I would ask NC readers this question: what really is the point of all the funded think tanks/corporate-dominated universities(especially in the US) and the “debates”, talking points and issues they address and help promulgate through the media?

    Sure, one could argue that these institutions really are addressing differing visions of the way in which the respective members/faculties feel the world should be run.

    Or one could step back and see that those funding said think tanks and universities – no matter what “side” of the debate they’re on – are all from the same socioeconomic class, all members of the same club in other words.

    That being the case, that all of the funding for these various “thinkers” comes from the same class – all of whom will benefit from the same economic policies – then is it really a stretch to believe that all of this banter – e.g., the above interview – is just a window dressing/smokescreen for the rule of the elite, by the elite?

    From the fraudulent state of economics and the complete and total bastardization of economics/business schools to the fake science of global warming denial, given this evidence of the creation of elaborate, chimerical and staged “academic” farce, why should the intelligent observer NOT think that all discussion concerning the battle between left and right as supposedly seen in our political environments – ha! – is merely a superstructure set up and propagated by the elite to keep the masses busy with whatever the “smartest people in the room” tell us to keep busy discussing.

    Sure, the differences might be real enough for the commoner but when the elite have finally figured out that engaging in such heated opposition amongst themselves is antithetical to their positions of power and wealth, isn’t it time to stop the bantering of the commoner and instead help educate them as to the true nature of the reality now around him/her?

    That there really is only one difference to worry about: they rule and you don’t.

      1. The Reverend Paul de la Nuit

        “Nihilism no longer wears the dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian, fuliginous colors of the end of the century…..Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyze it.” – Jean Baudrillard “On Nihilism”

      2. demons - yes, including Maxwell’s

        “The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference. I will leave it to be considered whether there can be a romanticism, an aesthetic of the neutral therein. I don’t think so – all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance.

        Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.”

      3. Fiver

        He was not addressing what Ought to be, but what for all practical purposes Is.

        I’d add that many of the most important decisions now are not even up for public discussion, let alone democratic discussion. Did anyone, anywhere seek public input as to the creation of an Internet that must never be unplugged lest the global economy completely collapse? Cell phones we already know are a health hazard but are nonetheless deemed “indispensible” though they’ve only been around en masse for a decade? Monsanto mono-culture madness replacing thousands of years of decades/centuries-long trials producing the dozens of varieties that constitute our staple food supply replaced by 1 global corn or 1 global wheat – any idea how stupid that is? Any chance whatever of putting wide-scale, very rapidly falling entry cost-enabled, virtually un-monitored genetic modification of all kinds back in a box? Nano-technology products soaring though we have no understanding whatever of how they react over time in the environment? We’ve handed the entire globe over to corporate technologists to conduct live experiments with the biosphere and it never, ever gets 5 seconds thought – while the farce that passes for “politics” in our “democracies” produces nothing but a steady diet of total bullshit. That is about as dysfunctional a public discourse as can be imagined.

        1. Aquifer

          Here, here! or hear, hear! or hear, here! whatever …

          You have encapsulated one of my own favorite and oft repeated rants – the logical absurdity of “progress” as defined by technological “innovation”. We are so clever we are doing ourselves out of a habitable world ..

    1. orionATL


      i sympathize with your frustration and anger. on bad days i’m inclined that way myself.

      but corey robbins is doing something exceptionally useful to us all:

      he is analyzing a philosophy and constructing an argument based on that analysis. as he says:

      “… CR: It’s an excellent question, but we have to be careful here. Mine is not a theory of motivation: i.e., conservatives are interested in – or merely want – to preserve established hierarchies of power. Therefore whatever they say is window-dressing to that motivation or project. My argument is different: it says that conservatism is a theory, a moral and political argument, of hierarchy and elitism, which believes that all that is good in the world – all that is fine and beautiful and superior and excellent – is the product of not only superior people but superior people presiding over a society of unequals. Inequality, in their minds, is the condition of greatness – individual greatness and the contributions that greatness makes to all of civilization…”

      analyses like this one can be very helpful in understanding what’s happening in our social systems and that is a necessary first step to effective change.

    2. psychohistorian

      I agree with calling out the obfuscation that this posting provides.

      We live in a class based society where one-tenth of 1% of the population control the narrative and they still convince Philip and his interviewee to call it conservative vs liberal to obfuscate the inheritance/accumulated private ownership of property issues.

      How quaint.

      1. Jeremy

        I think what you’re pointing out is actually the best reason for Corey Robin’s book. Those of us who want to actually do something about the inheritance/private ownership of property issues that create the massive inequality of our society need to know what sort of game the other side is playing. The right has its intellectual defenders, and they aren’t all simply shills for the top of the pyramid. I’m all for raising class consciousness, but there’s a whole slew of BS defending the current order. And for too long the left has been willing to treat right-wing arguments on the right-wingers terms.

        If you’ve ever wanted to gag reading Andrew Sullivan talk about how everything he likes is “true conservatism” and how everything he finds distasteful, no matter how conservative, is “radical” or even “Jacobin,” this is a book for you.

        This great review of the book puts the case much better than I can ->

        “[I]it’s no great surprise that the New York Times–that great bastion of spineless bourgeois liberalism–hates Corey Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind. So much so that the author, Sheri Berman, dubs Robin the left-wing Ann Coulter. But we can forgive Berman. If her crowd was to actually accept Robin’s arguments, they’d be faced with two options: 1. accept that they are little more than chumps basking in the same cushy privileges forged by the long conservative counterrevolution or 2. tip over the dinner table and drive a salad fork into David Brooks’s eye-socket.”

  18. Rich

    Corey & Philip,

    I think the word “conservatism”, at this time in history must now apply to the emotional state of conservatives, rather than their political agenda. It is fear, loss and resentment conservatives harbor, makes them feel vulnerable and therefore react “conservatively” in their trust of others. It is a shared feeling of unspoken vulnerability, no matter what its source, that binds the conservative club together.


    1. Jill


      I’m asking you an honest question. Do you think this only describes people who identify as conservatives? “It is fear, loss and resentment conservatives harbor, makes them feel vulnerable and therefore react “conservatively” in their trust of others.”

      In my experience people who self identify as liberals act in this same manner. I think this is an authoritarian mindset. It is why people on the left and the right are prepared to support candidates who are now ore will in the future engage in: torture, imprisonment without trial, massive spying on our population, who will kill civilians in their many wars of empire and who will protect their fellow elites from the rule of law. “Conservatives” may not even constitute half the number of people who will vote for the president or other far right candidates.

      1. Rich

        Yes. If you are saying that vulnerability avoidance can be a way to understand both the far right and the far left, then I think you are right. They seem both motivated largely out of fear. And what do you do when you are scared, you are defensive or “conservative”.

        I am using a more emotional definition of the word rather than a political one. I think if you do, you can better understand the behaviors and politics at the extremes.

        But what about between the extremes or the political “middle”? Is emotionally liberal the correct term them? I think yes. If we define the extremes as motivated by fear, then the middle will include everyone not motivated by fear. It then follows that non-defensive ideas and solutions should be offered by the middle. Isn’t this what we see?

        OK, so this might be an acceptable thesis, but I think using the emotional definitions of the terms also offers a path to much deeper research and explanation. Why, because vulnerability avoidance is fundamental to any animal: it is perhaps the most fundamental trait that animals have. It has likely evolved at the earliest point in life and remains today to manifest itself in both fundamental as well as complex behaviors. Societal, personal and yes economical behaviors. If you start looking at individual, societal, economic behavior through the lens of vulnerability avoidance, then understanding at all those levels becomes clearer. And vulnerability avoidance has an evolutionary/scientific body of evidence to draw from.

        So, while I largely agree with Corey’s thesis, I think using the more personal or emotional definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” will both better predict behavior and give perhaps more fundamental explanations.


        1. Fiver

          There are very good reasons to fear a good deal of what has been underway, and accelerating, for decades now. You cannot consider the current state of the world and not see that Humanity + Oil has created the greatest peril for humanity and all other large species since the Ice Age – there are billions too many of us (with another 2 on the way) to live as we do in the developed world, and only one, rapidly shrinking earth.

          These facts are neutral – and terrifying for anyone who takes the time to understand why they are facts, no matter where on the spectrum of “fear” in the abstract. About a billion times more “fearful” than the fear of another “terror” attack, for instance.

          1. Rich Howard

            Yes, there are lot’s of things to be fearful of. Some of them can and maybe will be catastrophic. But, letting fear be the main driver of ones thoughts is the mistake. Not fear itself. Letting fear drive thoughts often leads to incorrect conclusions. So for example, yes global climate change is real and getting worse with only accelerating rises in temperature so far and maybe until catastrophe strikes. We still must use level headed thinking not driven too much by fear to see correct solutions.

            (Personally I think taxing carbon looks obviously like the best way to me, but that’s another story. :)


  19. Rehabber

    Hierarchy is necessary because Men are not equal in ability, and existence does not guarantee equality of outcomes. Inequality is inherent in existence. The alchemy of the “progressive,” pure democracy, cannot vote it away.

    The best that can mediated is equality before the Law. That’s the purpose of the State – to ensure equality before the Law. Not to pick winners and loosers, a priori. And we both know that’s the real goal of the progressive movement. Progressives want to seize power to favor their goals and constituencies. As Chesterton noted, “Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible– at any rate, without believing in some infallibility.”

    1. Lidia

      How is it, then, that the more obesiance conservatives show to “hierarchy”, the more of a mentally-retarded leadership they seem to obtain (GW Bush, Rick Perry, Sanford, Kasich, Walker, Arpaio and Brewer, Sarah Palin, Bachmann, etc.)?

      Compare: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”
      William F. Buckley, Jr.

      Ostensibly, hierarchy implies individuals, groups, or castes more capable of leadership; conservatives should be drawn to such. Yet in reality, almost the opposite seems to be the case: William F. Buckley himself interestingly stated that he would rather be ruled by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by 2000 members of the faculty of Harvard (at the same time he was enraptured by the concept of “the poem of the man-god”): the rule of the numinous and abstract—whether religious elite, monarchy, or utterly random proletariat—preferable to the rule of more-exacting bean-counting-and-boring reality?

  20. wolverine

    PK:..”Conservatism is an ideology that seems to appeal to people with a chip on their shoulder.”….

    the corollory of the above statement would be those attracted to any other idealogy dont have a chip on their shoulder.Now would that be true or false?

    If the pop psychology,as above, is weeded out of this interview all that is left is a description of a struggle for power.

  21. David Gorodess

    Maybe it’s that conservatives believe that those who are spiritually gifted or better should rule (in accordance with Plato) but forget that Plato, like the left-wing, insisted that everyone share the wealth equally and that the rulers should have even less materially than the people?

    1. Lidia

      “Maybe it’s that conservatives believe that those who are spiritually gifted or better should rule (in accordance with Christ) but forget that Christ, like the left-wing, insisted that everyone share the wealth equally…?”

      1. gruff

        Christ said nothing about sharing wealth equally. On the contrary, “The poor ye shall always have with you” is a clear acknowledgement that the social utopia will never happen.

  22. Hugh

    Well, at least we know now that when George Bush wasn’t deciderating, he was reading his Burke. I take Cheney to have been more of a Nietzschean although I’m thinking he must have missed that part about becoming the monster you’re fighting.

    It’s a really good point made above that much the same could be said about liberalism as conservatism. This should not come as a surprise since liberalism has shown itself every bit as accommodating to kleptocracy as conservatism.

  23. Aquifer

    I find academic discussions of theory in the social sciences fascinating, but the older i get the more I tend to want to take an instrumentalist approach – “what does this mean for x,y,x?” and “what do we have to do, in light of this?” In the process of trying to figure that out and come to a “satisfactory” conclusion, I often find that what i come up with, though it was initially conceived in, say, a “progressive” milieu, often winds up with “solutions” or elements of same that could well be claimed by the “other’ side. So more and more i am eschewing labels – “Is this liberal? Is this conservative?” I find myself responding, “Who the hell cares! The important thing is will it take us where we need to go!”

    Of course, that inevitably involves a discussion/debate about where it is we need to go and one can argue that is where the lib/con “reasoning” comes in. But is there a way of starting with some first principles, some basics that are universal to all simply by virtue of us being sentient carbon based organisms on a dynamic but limited planet. Could we not look around and say “what are the mechanisms that life used to survive for 4 billion years and should we not incorporate them into our artificial economies?” And the second layer “What are ‘rights’, who or what has them? what does it mean to have them? how are they secured?”

    i suppose i am very naive to believe that folks could have such a discussion from a “neutral” {non lib/con) point of view – but, IMO, we really do need to try …. To tell you the truth, unless we make a conscious concerted effort to do so, we will have little or no chance to survive, let alone prosper, in the coming times …

    I can’t help coming back to a “healing arts” approach – when someone comes in the door squirting blood, the first, second or third approach is not to figure out the con or lib thing to do, nor to inquire as to whether the person is a con/lib, but to stop the bleeding – i.e. the hemorrhaging is the problem. Once the bleeding has stopped, then the nuances of “why was he bleeding?” come into play. Is there a way to approach other issues in this way? I think that this is the approach we need and i find myself thinking that this lib/con dichotomy is not useful, nay, may well be counterproductive, in such an approach …. Too simple? Too simplistic?

    More and more i find myself thinking that the way to avoid the Sword of Damocles is to step out from under it and use it to cut the Gordian Knot (sorry, surgeons tend to use sharp objects …. :))

    1. Lidia

      I agree, Aquifer: we all need to get out from under 90% of what our sad stand-in for a society offers.

      Yuo can’t fight it on its own terms: you can only opt out and withdraw support/consent.

  24. Economom

    I find this discussion fascinating, and similar to some things I have been thinking about in the past few years. It really seems to me many of the people who call themselves conservative, but don’t seem to really understand what that means, are really just people who are looking for something to target their frustrations on. I think this includes many religious people, as well as economically dispossessed, and those who are frustrated at the lack of responsiveness and the bureaucracy of the government. I think there are many reasons for their frustrations, including a sense of having been the butt of the condescension of liberals over the years who have at least appeared (and often did) treat them as ignorant, prejudiced and closed minded. I say this as someone who is left of center, but who has observed those same traits on display on the left.
    Nonetheless, the far right appears to have taken on the mantle of victimhood, which can be exploited in so many ways. It provides a sense of self-righteousness, a way to vent frustrations, and a common ground for those who might not otherwise have any. It plays into the Christian tendency of martyrdom, the outsider status of the working class. Even followers of Ayn Rand can relate—her “creators” are clearly portrayed as being victimized by the rest of us “parasites”—so much so that that they must go on strike to claim the respect and appreciation they supposedly deserve.
    And I agree that the left should start calling this behavior out. The hypocrisy of acting like a self-motivated, independent doer while at the same time reveling in self-pity is absurd. The left also needs to start pointing out fact that society doesn’t need Ayn Rand’s “creators”. If they go on strike—guess what?—others with real creativity and self-motivation will take their place. That is how a truly free market operates.

    1. reason

      “The left also needs to start pointing out fact that society doesn’t need Ayn Rand’s “creators”. If they go on strike—guess what?—others with real creativity and self-motivation will take their place. That is how a truly free market operates.”

      This is not quite right. It does need such people – it is just that it is a mistake to think that any one individual is irreplaceable (or for that matter to think that the process of progress is not a collective one).

      1. Economom

        That is what I am saying. The people currently in power, who think of themselves as the “creators”, aren’t the only ones capable of leading, managing, etc. They happen to be there by fluke, not because they are so incredibly special. Somebody will take up the helm–that is the way societies work. But Rand makes it out that thare is an elite group who are so much more talented and brilliant and hardworking that the rest of us are hopeless, lazy losers who need them to carry us. That is BS, but that is how a lot of people in power think, which is why her book is so influential, even though it really is kind of stupid. The left needs to call this out.

  25. Fiver

    Very interesting discussion, but:

    1) Have to agree with some comments re whether this sort of exercise seeking intellectual grounding for action in general, aimed as it always is at persuading an opposing portion of the learned elite, really carries any weight anymore – the people who’ve been running the show for decades are a combo of managers and opportunists who will ditch or acquire a “value” or “position” at the drop of a poll, or a clause from the contract. And at the national level, it’s an open question as to whether one portion of the opportunists (the politicians) make any of the important decisions at all. Did the Fed’s brand of economics become THE mainstream economics because it was the best thinking or because it was the best capturer of the profession? How many even knew the fight was happening?

    2) Re the “Chip On Shoulder” as supposed identifying characteristic:

    I’ve seen plenty with shoulder chips but no conservative/liberal bias. All are angry. Some have good reason. Some seek to openly dominate. Others the dig behind the back. Some seek to ensure it cannot occur again. Others look for trouble of exactly the same sort and lose again. Bad losers come in all shapes, sizes and political stripes.

  26. b.

    By their deeds know them. “Conservative” historic record on family values, environmental conservation, preserving society, or even upholding the rule of law and the constitution speaks for itself.

    In German politics during the Schmidt era his critics made – sometimes unfairly – points about “secondary virtues” (e.g. punctuality and diligence in a concentration camp guard) and “structure” vs. “value” conservatives. It only became clear during the era Kohl that it was perfectly possible to have “conservatives” that preserve neither structure nor values. But then, we have “christians” that would burn the written sermon of the mount along with anybody not yet resurrected who dares to mouth it, so chalk this up as another post-modern miracle.

  27. Mike B)

    Politics is the power to control or make other people do things in some way or another. Power is the first principle of politics.

    Left and Right in politics: The major subtext revolves around the question of who is to own wealth:

    Where you stand on the left/right political spectrum relates to the division of control and/or ownership of property. Property usually comes in two different forms: land (aka Nature) and capital. Property is what most people call, “the economy”. Property in this sense is not your underwear, your cat, your glass, your room or your personal belongings in general, including your car and home. Property is for example: a factory, an apartment complex, a TV station, a supermarket corporation, a small business, a coal mine, a pizza franchise, a petrol station, a bank. These places, unlike your home or your cat, are where wealth and more property are created.

    Property is created by everyday people like you and me. Even if it is just land, property in this sense is the mutual recognition amongst people living in a society that this or that is owned and/or controlled by this or that person or group of people and is suitable for sale. The recognition that property is for sale is codified in laws of the State. Ownership and control of the property people create and own is political because it involves “The First Principle” of politics: the power to control people or make people do things.

    Most property these days is created by employing labour and using its skills to produce commodities for sale with a view to profit. Employers hire workers to use their skills to produce goods and services, which they then own and sell as commodities for profit. In combination with the natural resources which exist and are owned as property and the various pieces of land and buildings owned by landlords, these goods and services constitute the wealth of society.

    The wealth of society is measured by dollars. This means that a lot of useful activities and things are not counted as important i.e. they are not valued in money. For example: parenting has no exchangeable value, because that activity doesn’t make anybody else money or, doing the dishes around the house or, mowing your own lawn. However, outside the home, a group of workers may sell what they are able to do to an employer who owns a pizza parlour. The employer buys their skills and time. This becomes their wage or salary in short, their way of making a living. Once their time and skills are purchased, the workers engage in the labour associated with making and delivering pizzas. The profit created by making and delivering the pizza belongs to their employer. The wealth, which is represented in the wages which the workers get from selling their skills and time to the employer, belongs to them.

    Who has control over the wealth produced by workers is the question which defines peoples’ political stance as being on either the left or right. The political position of the right is that the wealth employers accumulate should remain in their hands, to do with as they please. On the other hand, the leftist position is that the people who produce wealth should be allowed to at least have some ownership and/or control of the property they produce.

    Most societies have a mix of ownership for this property/wealth. The government decides who gets what in this mix or, to go back to our first principle : the government has the political power to control or make other people do things in some way or another. In most modern societies, the government is based on the “rule of law”. In democratic republics, the rule of law and the laws themselves are created and administered by elected politicians along with their appointed officials in the government’s bureaucracy : for instance, the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Education or the judiciary e.g. the Supreme Court. In some democratic republics, some of the judiciary is elected by the people.

    Democratic republics get the power to govern from the governed themselves. Everyone is supposed to be “equal under the law”. The laws are made by politicians elected by the people and largely enforced by the acquiescence of the people to the law. This is known officially as, “The Rule of Law”. It differs from the old “Rule of Kings”, where the aristocracy was above the law–as they were officially sanctioned by God e.g. “Dieu et mon Droit”. When anyone breaks the law, they are supposed to be met with the force/power of the government, that is, the people the government employs to enforce the law: the police, prison workers and the military. So, politicians represent the people who elect them. But first, they must be selected. The selection of politicians to run for office is a fairly complicated and expensive matter, but this is where the left/right control of wealth begins to tell as people who have control of more wealth, tend to be able to amplify their voices in the selection process more than people who do not have as much wealth.

    Politicians and the political parties tend to represent either the right or the left. The key word is “tend”, as none of the political parties or elected politicians are ever absolutely left or right. Politicians of the right will tend toward political decisions which end up being in the interest of the people with wealth/property, allowing them to retain control and ownership over what they have legally accumulated. Politicians of the left tend toward passing laws which result in a greater sharing of the wealth between worker-producers and the people who own the wealth which is being produced. Simply put, the further left a politician goes, the more wealth she or he will want to divert back to the poorer sections of the community and by extension, the working producers of the wealth. The more right the politician is, the more he or she will refrain from proposing or passing legislation which interferes with wealth holders. The rightist justification will usually be framed in a manner which makes it seem that more of the community will eventually benefit, if these property holders do more of what they do best : employ workers to create more wealth.

    How does this left/right axis work out for us in everyday terms?

    Let us consider taxes. Taxes constitute the money (the wealth) which governments take from employers and workers to hire the police, purchase land for schools, keep the military paid and pay the garbage collectors and health care workers in States where there is a functioning public health system. The question is: who should pay the taxes to fund these government services or should there be government services at all?

    The left position would tend to keep these services in the hands of government and put the question of who should pay the taxes to support them in the hands of the representatives the people elect, but always with a tendency to have the more wealthy sections of the community pay proportionally more of the tax which is needed. The right position would tend toward keeping these services in private hands or pushing them there, if they’re currently under public influence, to make them profitable and not part of the governmental system at all. For example, the more right position would be for education become a profit making business, whereas the more left position would be for education to be publically funded by taxing wealth and funneling that wealth back to the education industry. As a compromise between the left and the right, the government might settle on a position whereby both public and private schools are funded to some degree by taxes collected from the public as is the case in Australia at present.

    Ultimately, the question of right and left boils down to, “Who benefits”? This is the second principle of politics. The right says that the best society is one where the legal owners of property are allowed to use their control to hire workers to make more wealth. The left says that the best society is one where the owners of wealth produced by workers are legally made to share their property with those producers.

    Practical everyday questions and applications of left and right:

    Do those people who work for wages and salaries benefit by seeing more of their wealth or their employer’s wealth being taxed away to fund government services like: schools, roads, hospitals and fire protection?

    Do the people who own property benefit by seeing more of their accumulated wealth being taxed away to fund government services like: police, military, prisons, roads and hospitals or should that burden be put in the marketplace for commodities to be rationed on the ability to pay?

    What actually is necessary in a society, is a matter which revolves around the control of wealth and property. Who owns and controls property’s disposal and who has the power to make the decisions in order to benefit larger or smaller portions of the society as a whole “by making people do things?”

    Who controls these decisions and whom do those decisions benefit? The more these decisions benefit the vast majority of the people, the more the society is leftist. The more legislators direct the control and ownership of wealth toward the legal owners and away from the vast majority of wealth producers, the more the society is rightist.

    “Who has the authority?”

    The third principle of politics is based on the answer to this question, which is also intertwined with the two other principles of politics. If politics is the power “to control or make other people do things in some way or another” and is related to, “Who benefits” from the distribution of the wealth in the society then, who is it that has this power?

    Answer: it is the people who control and own the wealth produced in society. To the degree that power and authority over the wealth of society is shared equally, the society is more democratic and self-managing. To the degree that the control and ownership of that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, the society is less democratic, more authoritarian and bureaucratic. Another way to put this is to say, the more that political power in society flows up from the majority, because of their conscious desires for self management, autonomy and sovereignty, the more democratic the society is. But, the more political power comes down on the majority from individuals above them in order to manage them, “for their own good”, the more bureaucratic and authoritarian the society is.

    The way these three principals intertwine and intersect make each nation different. For example: one nation can be leftist to the degree that it shares the wealth created within its borders more or less equally, but at the same time, it can be authoritarian/bureaucratic in the way that wealth is controlled. It is also possible for a country to be rightist to the degree that wealth created by worker producers is concentrated in a few hands and not shared, but still democratic to the degree that those people living within the society are free to choose politicians to represent them and free to criticize these politicians–civil liberties remain in force. Other possibilities include societies which are both rightist and authoritarian-bureaucratic or leftist and self-managing and democratic.

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