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.