Kabaservice Contra Corey – Thoughts About How To Think About Conservatism

by John Holbo on September 13, 2018

Geoffrey Kabaservice:

One of the more influential studies of conservatism, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, insists that such seemingly disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Milton Friedman and Sarah Palin are all more or less the same, sharing the overarching goal of preserving the ruling order’s power and privilege against liberationist movements from below. In his view, the ideals conservatives tout (greater freedom, robust public morality, economic growth and deference to the Constitution) are nothing but fig-leaf cover for oppression, and anyone outside the elite who thinks otherwise is a victim of false consciousness.

Our Corey emitted a sigh over this, over on Facebook. This line of criticism of his book [amazon] was done to death years ago, no? Back when Mark Lilla was advancing the same criticisms – no better, but no worse? I will, as in days of yore, reply on Corey’s behalf. Since I think I can add a bit I haven’t said before.

The form of the objection is weird. “But, Socrates, how can you say that all triangles have three sides? That implies that all triangles are the same. But we all know that there are blue ones and red ones, big ones and little ones …”

How could you fail to see the fallacy in this pattern of reasoning?

There is nothing inherently illegitimate (‘reductionistic’) about looking and seeing whether all the things we call ‘X’ have something in common, plausibly explaining why they are grouped together.

Yet (as Corey himself says, over on Facebook) Kabaservice is smart. His book [amazon] is good. So why does he go wrong in this way – like Meno, to whom it simply does not occur to seek what all virtue cases have in common, rather than what makes them different?

Because politics ain’t triangles!

Very true. So let me put it another way. (And I’ll start calling Corey ‘Robin’. Because it sounds more official to refer to him that way!) Robin objects to what we might call the standard view. Let me quote a representative formulation by Peter Berkowitz. He’s introducing Varieties of Conservatism in America:

This book challenges the reductionist tendencies of the moment by bringing into focus the varieties of conservatism in America …. Whereas to many critics all conservatives look alike, conservatives themselves disagree, sometimes sharply, about what it means to be a conservative and who is entitled to bear the name. To be sure, all conservatives agree that it means committment [sic] to conserving moral and political goods that are in danger of being lost or degraded. But which goods? Is it traditional morality and religion that conservatives seek to conserve? Or is it rather the basic legal framework of a free society? Or is it the manners, mores, and principles of a self-governing people? And what are the most pressing dangers to which the American political order gives rise? The quest for unfettered personal autonomy? The trampling of rights of property and contract? The consumption of the moral capital on which freedom depends? These are the questions that divide conservatives in America today. The chapters in this book demonstrate the variety of answers put forward by classical conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives.

The book’s structure and style reinforce the conviction that conservatism in America represents a family of opinions and ideas rather than a finished doctrine or a settled creed.

Robin thinks the standard view is wrong. But Kabaservice takes Robin’s failure to affirm the standard view as indicative of weird unawareness of it. Which is implausible. (As we see from the Berkowitz passage, it is a standard move for conservatives to pretend the standard view is a semi-esoteric insight, rather than – what it really is – a familiar assumption. That’s fine. But we don’t need to take that sort of rhetorical framing too seriously.) Furthermore, as formulated, the standard view has an obvious, quite serious problem. Namely, all political philosophies and partisan outlooks in some sense ‘seek to conserve moral and political goods that are in danger of being lost and degraded’. So what Berkovitz is putting forward as an approximate, preliminary characterization is actually none whatsoever. He isn’t providing so much as a clue as to what unites these views, making them varieties of one thing – conservatism.

Robin, by contrast, proposes a candidate common characteristic:

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, and agency the prerogative of the elite. Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom. (pp. 7-8)

Now, in fairness to critics, there is a looseness here. Robin is quite deliberately straddling motive and argument. What do conservatives want? What do conservatives argue? This straddle threatens ad hominem entanglements one might wish to avoid. (Maybe you can’t, but you could probably try harder than this paragraph.) There could be counting trouble. One animus? One argument? ‘The most consistent and profound argument’. That ‘the’ does suggest – fair enough – that there is only one argument. I call that an incidental slip. The rest of the book, in which Robin emphasizes that there are different arguments – yet similarly targeted – ought to put to rest doubts that he is literally saying, as his critics say he is saying, that conservatives are all basically philosophically indistinguishable.

It is worth arguing how the conservative common denominator could be pinned down more exactly. I think Robin’s book as a whole manages ok. But, for post purposes, I want to push past that. For purposes of what I will argue next, let’s thumbnail the alleged common denominator by tagging it ‘aristocracy’. Even more economically: A. All C’s are A. All varieties of conservatism are aristocratic (per the quoted bit). To many critics, this seems like it could not possibly be a correct view. Not because it’s loose. Rather, it is felt to be, on its face, the wrong sort of answer. Why?

Here’s one explanation. The reason objections to Robin’s book have an insufficiently Socratic quality (per above) is that they are, in another sense, too Platonic. Robin’s critics act like they are urging appreciation of real variety but, in fact, they are illegitimately insisting on a kind of ideal unity that, realistically, may be lacking.

How so? Plato is sure the more coherent things get, the closer we must be to the Form of the Good. I think there is a tendency to assume something of the sort about how political philosophy in this area should be done. All that rises must converge. But, contra Plato, it is not an a priori truth that this is going to work out.

There are all these different varieties of conservatisms – libertarianism, traditionalism, etc. We want to see the best that each can be.

There is also the fact that all these varieties go together. They form a set. We want to maximize the coherence of the set. How intellectually consistent can this complete set of various conservatisms be made out to be?

Robin is basically being faulted for ‘idealizing’ only in the second way, not the first. But it’s not guaranteed that we can successfully idealize in both ways at once. And if we have to give one up, it makes sense to hold onto the second, letting the first go, for purposes of theorizing conservatism – that is, the whole set.

The (Platonic) hope would be that you can have it all. Somehow the best conservatism, overall, must be the one that manages to extract the best features of each variety of conservatism and combine them, harmoniously. But perhaps, at their individual bests, the varieties just pull apart, going their separate ways, ceasing to have so much in common, perhaps ceasing to seem ‘conservative’. Perhaps they are maximally mutually coherent – they have most in common, are most characteristically ‘conservative’ – when they are not, individually, at their best.

Let me state it particularly. Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk are very different. Yet it’s not hard to see why you might like Ayn Rand and also Russell Kirk if what appeals to you is, as it were, the aristocratic, feudal, romantic side of each. An aristocratic few, rightly exerting firm authority over the lowly many! (‘The pathos of distance!’ to take a Nietzsche line Robin likes.) If that vision appeals to you, both Rand and Kirk may appeal to you. Furthermore, following your heart, you can construct the Randian philosophy that is maximally feudal, to pull it as close to Kirk as it can go. Simultaneously, you can emphasize the elements of Kirkian traditionalism that fit best within the rugged, individualistic profile of a Randian protagonist. But the version of Rand that is most consistent with Kirk is maybe not the best version of Rand – and certainly not necessarily the most compelling version of libertarianism. And the version of Kirk that is most Randian is maybe not the best Kirkianism – and certainly not the most compelling traditionalism.

Let me say it more generally. You can ‘idealize’ conservatism as political philosophy in either of two ways.

1) Maximize ‘the Good’ for Each Variety of Conservatism

You can seek the best – most ideal, most rigorous, most attractive – version of any philosophy, some form of which is currently recognized to be in the ‘conservative’ camp. More comprehensively, you can seek the best version of each philosophy, any form of which is currently to be found in the ‘conservative’ camp. The smartest libertarianism, bar none. The most compelling philosophical defense of traditionalism, whether or not it can play nice with any version of libertarianism. So forth.

2) Maximize The Coherence of All Varieties of Conservatism

You can take all the philosophies that currently are recognized as having some footprint in the ‘conservative’ camp. You can ask what’s the version of each philosophy in the camp that best fits with the others. What’s the libertarianism that ‘goes best’, philosophically, with traditionalism plus neoconservatism? (What’s the traditionalism that best fits with libertarianism and neoconservatism? So forth.) That is, given that these are the philosophies we in fact have in this Big Tent, what’s the most philosophically fitting way to tailor them, so they really do cohere maximally?

Think Thomas Aquinas, synthesizing Aristotle and the Bible. The items to be fitted are pre-fixed. You are just trying to think about the best way to regard them, and adjust them, so that they are maximally coherent.

Robin is doing something more like 2 (although admittedly he doesn’t put it this way.) I think what bothers Robin’s critics is that, given that he is doing 2, he isn’t doing both 1 and 2. But, to repeat, there is no guarantee you can do both. And if you have to pick between 2 and 1, 2 makes sense as a target.

Just 1, not 2, doesn’t strike people as odd. See Berkovitz’ little book. It’s all 1 and no 2. That’s ok. It is what it is.

Just 2, not 1, bugs people. My comparison with Thomas Aquinas suggests why. It’s weird to work so darn hard to make Aristotle fit with the Bible. Because you probably aren’t getting actual Aristotle, or the best that Aristotle could be. Or the actual Bible, or the best reading of the Bible.

Isn’t Robin’s book sort of like that? He looks at each conservative thinker or school in turn, but he isn’t scrupulously descriptive or maximally charitable. He’s working with an eye for roping them all together in the end. So they all end up roped together in the end. But what does that prove? Isn’t there a risk that, as in the case of good St. Thomas, we are building a cathedral of confirmation bias?

There are real concerns about how the operation can go wrong in that way. But there is real value to the exercise all the same. One way to put it is: they were already roped together when he found them. (If they hadn’t been, then it would have been odd to insist on it, yes.)

That’s probably enough for one post. (Because if I went on from here, I’d probably have to write another 2,000 words to make the next point. And then I’d have to write another 2,000 words about Trump.)

UPDATE: I can see there are going to be objections of the form ‘if this is right, why is Robin’s project interesting?’ I think there are good answers to that question. But it’s a reasonable question. Maybe once we see exactly at what level Robin is working, it looks a bit narrower than we thought. That insulates him from some wrong-headed criticism, but it may insulate some folks from being interested in what he’s up to, as well. That’s possible.

{ 117 comments }

1

Lobsterman 09.13.18 at 2:35 am

Enablers work very hard to obfuscate that what they are doing is enable abuse. A good way to do that is to get lost in the details of whether or not or how the abuse is taking place.

2

John Holbo 09.13.18 at 2:51 am

Your comment does not enable me to tell who you think is the abuser here, Lobsterman. Care to elaborate?

3

Mike Huben 09.13.18 at 2:52 am

> How intellectually consistent can this complete set of various conservatisms be made out to be?

Why would anybody bother trying to find that red herring? What matters to conservatives is that they rule, not their philosophical consistancy. It’s the same basic problem that you face in asking the meaning legislation that different factions have combined to vote for. They may all have different interpretations which caused them to vote for it, and so no one interpretation is correct.

You can dissect the heterogeneity of conservatism for classificatory purposes, but I prefer an ecological analogy: an ecology might have keystone species and distinctive characteristics, but that does not mean that there is something that unifies the numerous species beyond their presence.

4

CDT 09.13.18 at 3:18 am

I don’t know if Corey’s thesis can fairly be characertized as asserting that oppression — economic, social, racial, whatever — is the unifying, common goal of conservatives. But it explains those who claim the conservative label better than anything else. Other than rooting for the overdogs and hypocrisy, what else explains the consistently ineffectual “conservative” opposition to Trump by GOP leadership and purportedly intellectual “thought leaders”?

5

John Holbo 09.13.18 at 3:37 am

“Why would anybody bother trying to find that red herring?”

Do you wonder this generally about political philosophy? That is, consistency/coherence is never interesting? Or is it just dull in the case of conservatism?

“an ecology might have keystone species and distinctive characteristics, but that does not mean that there is something that unifies the numerous species beyond their presence.”

How can you tell what counts as a member of the species?

6

John Holbo 09.13.18 at 3:40 am

I realize the St. Thomas analogy makes it sound like I’m saying Corey is doing something scholastic – with all the negative connotations of that: angels dancing on a pin. Probably I leaned into that a bit too much. But I mean to compensate for the Kabaservice allegation that it’s all just power, no ideas.

It’s a good question: why is it interesting to see that there really is something that all the conservatisms plausibly have in common, philosophically? But it takes a bit of elaboration. I’ll be back later. Maybe I’ll write the next 2000 words in comments!

7

LFC 09.13.18 at 4:11 am

It’s late here and I’m tired, so I haven’t read Holbo’s post w maximal attention to all its nuances. (Or close to it.) Will say however, as will become clearer below, that Holbo’s framing — how best to “theorize conservatism”? — seems to assume that this is a problem in political philosophy, without acknowledging that it is also a problem in intellectual history: i.e., how best to characterize or portray a particular intellectual/political tradition or worldview? Holbo says the problem, per his approach #2, is how to tailor each strand of conservatism so that the “ism” comes out being maximally coherent. Well ok, but that’s how an analytic philosopher might put it. Holbo is an analytic philosopher but Robin isn’t (and _The Reactionary Mind_ isn’t analytic philosophy), so the choice of words in the OP strikes me as a bit off.

Anyway the basic problem confronts anyone who wants to write about a given intellectual/political tradition: can you find enough coherence or commonality among different figures in the tradition to justify talking about the tradition in the singular? And if so, how do you strike the balance between the elements held in common and the variety that exists?

Yes, conservatives were roped together when Robin “found” them, just as socialists were prob roped together when for example Alexander Gray “found” them in his The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin (1946, pb ed 1968). Roped together enough, that is, to allow Robin to talk about the reactionary mind and to allow Gray to talk about the socialist tradition — and the conservative Kenneth Minogue thought liberals were roped together enough to allow him to publish The Liberal Mind in the early ’60s.

One can like Robin’s book without liking Minogue’s, and vice versa. But the point, to repeat, is that this is a problem facing basically anyone who wants to generalize about an “ism.” I’m not sure there’s *one* correct way of dealing w the problem. Robin chose to deal w it one way, which I think is ok. As Holbo says, Robin sees the different conservative arguments being similarly targeted. (Someone else perhaps might see different Marxist arguments having a similar target.)

*Obviously* most conservatives were bound to dislike *any* book by Robin that generalized about conservatism, because Robin is hostile to conservatism (just as most leftists are bound to dislike any book by say Roger Scruton that generalizes about leftism, because Scruton is hostile to leftism). It takes an effort for anyone w strong political views to look past the bias that all authors have and to ask how persuasively, starting w the unavoidable bias they possess, they have managed to portray the worldview in question. It’s obvious that Robin (for v. understandable reasons, in my view, but put that to one side) is hostile to conservatism, but it’s also obvious that he took the trouble to read conservatives closely enough to construct an argument that hangs together reasonably well. “Hangs together reasonably well” is not *necessarily* the same as “correct.” It just means that there is an underpinning to the argument (or the portrayal or the characterization, use whichever word you prefer) and that he takes the views he dislikes seriously (and also in one or two particular respects perhaps even sympathizes w them). Well I’ve rambled on long enough.

p.s. I’m not on Facebook, so haven’t read C.R.’s reply to Kabaservice there.

8

J-D 09.13.18 at 4:21 am

In 1992, the Gallup poll started asking people in the US whether they identified as ‘conservative’, ‘moderate’, or ‘liberal’. Why did they start doing that, and why in 1992 (rather than in, say, 1982, or 2002, or 1972)? and why don’t opinion polls in other countries ask people the same question?

9

Lobsterman 09.13.18 at 5:27 am

I view conservatives as the abusers and establishment libs such as Kabaservice as paying tribute to his enabling.

10

Lobsterman 09.13.18 at 5:28 am

“What matters to conservatives is that they rule”

That’s the consistency.

11

John Holbo 09.13.18 at 6:40 am

“that Holbo’s framing — how best to “theorize conservatism”? — seems to assume that this is a problem in political philosophy, without acknowledging that it is also a problem in intellectual history”

Ah, this is one of those things that I take to be so obvious that I didn’t bother to mention it. The point of the post is that Robin is operating at an intermediate level – it’s not ideal theory, it’s not real politics or intellectual history. It’s in between. And it’s not self-evident why that intermediate place is interesting. I think it is. But the post doesn’t really explain why, admittedly

12

Matt 09.13.18 at 7:39 am

The point of the post is that Robin is operating at an intermediate level – it’s not ideal theory, it’s not real politics or intellectual history. It’s in between.

I might add that this is an exceedingly tricky area to try to operate in because there is so much potential play to slide between the three other areas (and maybe more!) as desired to get the results one wanted at the start. My impression is that Robin does that a fair amount. I’m super busy, and not in fact interested enough in the project to want to spend time on it anyway, so I’ll not bother to try to substantiate this here. That’s really weak, I know, and I don’t expect anyone to be convinced by this, but I do think that to do really good work in this area, you have to be super self disciplined and careful, or you slide easily into something less than fully admirable – often, at best, advocacy dressed up like scholarship or analysis. My impression is that Robin too often slides into that. He’d be better off as a straight advocate or in a more internally disciplined area of inquiry, it seems to me. Again, without support, I don’t expect this to be convincing, but this is my impression.

13

Roger Gathmann 09.13.18 at 7:43 am

I am a bit surprised that the Wittgensteinian/Needham notion of classification is not brought out in this post. Berkowitz is overtly calling attention to Wittgenstein’s “family resemblence” remark. Perry Anderson’s gigantic essay on polythetic classification makes a lot of good points against it – with, I think the central point being a positivistic one: we have to have very good reasons to resist a reductionist program. In that sense, Robin is operating in the classical positivist vein. To which he joins a sub rosa structuralism. Instead of focusing on “freedom”, I think, Robin has chosen to focus on “obedience”. If conservativism is basically in the business of legitimating a certain kind of obedience, then you have an organizing principle that works better than family resemblence to identify the varieties of conservativism. In other words, the reductivist approach is the right approach for a social scientist to take. There has to be some truth that is irreducible and outside the reductive framework in order to reject it. That truth, it seems to me, can’t be that the varieties of conservatism disagree, or that they accuse one another of not really being conservative. That is simply saying that they are varieties. And of course you have to have some way to go from your reduced structure to the way varieties are generated. I suspect that the reason Kabaservice throws in Sarah Palin is to say: all these great thinkers and Sarah Palin? they must be engaged in utterly different enterprises. But that is not a good criticism. In fact, if Sarah Palin can’t be explained except by adherence to the view that she belongs to a variation of conservatism, you are basically saying there is no explanation of conservatism in social science. I’d like to see Kabaservice defend that point of view.
Methodologically, Robin represents the overwhelming mainstream of social science. I don’t think this is emphasized enough in your post, John.
Here’s the Perry Anderson article.
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n08/perry-anderson/the-force-of-the-anomaly

14

Stephen 09.13.18 at 8:51 am

Consider CR’s definition, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity”. Consider also the often very eloquently expressed view that it was the subordinate classes – stupid, ignorant, ill-educated, non-metropolitan lower orders – who predominantly supported Brexit, and therefore the recent UK referendum decision should be ignored or reversed. I believe a similar view may have been expressed about those who voted for Trump.

Does it follow that Remainers, or opponents of Trump, saying such things are in fact conservatives?

No. All owls fly at night, but not everything that flies at night is an owl. (To complicate the analogy further, owls sometimes fly in the daytime, and there have been owls that did not fly at all; but don’t let’s follow that.)

Still, if CR’s definition of conservativism applies to many people who are not, or would never consider themselves to be conservatives, it does leave one wondering about the definition.

15

Z 09.13.18 at 8:52 am

My position is close to LFC’s: whenever we think about a political ideology, we face some variety of that problem (what is socialism? liberalism? etc.), and the rare thinkers who actually try to think about different national incarnations of what is supposedly a single ideology face it in spades (also, like LFC, I’m not aware of the existence of the thing called Facebook so I don’t know what Corey said in reply).

It seems to me part of the reason for that state of relative confusion comes from the fact that the vocabulary we developed to refer to modern political ideologies – those born after the Protestant Reformation, say, so absolutism, liberalism, socialism, fascism… – seemingly means to refer to stable, somewhat coherent circumstances (states, in the first sense of the term) when not to Platonic forms as in type 1) idealization in the OP, and that vocabulary is commonly used as if it were appropriate to use this way, while in fact the real-world referents of these terms describe a long process of transitions, a flux. So all these -ism when properly conceived are moments, or to be more precise specific reactions to a particular moment, not ideas or theories.

The moments conservatism is a reaction to is (in chronological order) the majority of the population achieving primary then secondary education and asserting as a consequence its political agency (and horresco referens, there goes absolute monarchy and the rule of the aristocracy), then the popular classes doing the same (ditto for the State as tool and private property of the moneyed elite), then finally all oppressed groups doing the same (ditto for white supremacy, patriarchy…). As Corey says very well, each time the conservative mind had to reinvent itself in reaction to a new group asserting its agency, it did so by taking into account entirely new circumstances that could never be undone (so a flux), and by invoking entirely new values, discourses, principles and methods. The structural nature of the new circumstance, the impulse behind it and the nature of the reaction nevertheless remain the same. That’s what makes conservatism a coherent historical moment (and of course, it is nothing special in that respect, all the other -ism are similar in that respect).

Note that seen through that transitional historical perspective, Reagan, Bush II and Trump are not really part of the same reactionary dynamics as Burke, Nietzsche, Maurras, Hayek, Chauncey Sparks or Phyllis Schlafly (the latter sought to reverse or block a historically irresistible rise in political agency drawing its vitality from powerful social and educative changes, the former exacerbated a historical downward trajectory in political agency caused by equally powerful but very different social and educative changes). The reaction in the primary sense of the term is, I think, more Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Donald Trump, these days.

16

Thomas Beale 09.13.18 at 9:58 am

I’d suggest that the two strains of ‘conservatism’ that matter are:

a) maintaining oppression/rule over subordinate classes to prevent them up-ending the status quo (the Robin view) and

b) maintaining philosophical +/- cultural values fundamental to a civilised society, typically so-called enlightenment values, freedom of mind, body and property etc. These are understood in a wide spectrum of concrete interpretations, from free-market purists to social democrats, and don’t therefore correspond to one kind of on-the-ground politics.

Progressives tend attack a) (a non-philosophical form of conservatism – it’s just about preserving a power structure), and usually claim that b) (the one that matters) doesn’t exist or isn’t ‘conservative’, or else ignore it.

We have the basic problem of same term, variable referents…

17

Heshel 09.13.18 at 10:59 am

Lumpers over splitters!

18

oldster 09.13.18 at 11:26 am

What unifies my friends is their noblest common aspirations.

What unifies my enemies is their lowest common denominator.

19

Donald 09.13.18 at 11:34 am

I think Thomas Beale is correct, though like him, I haven’t done the work either. But one does come across conservatives who seem genuinely motivated by principles other than keeping the peasantry in line. I am thinking, for instance, of Larison over at the American Conservative, whose views on the evils of US foreign policy are determined in part by his sense of moral outrage at the suffering we cause.

That said, he seems to be a member of a fairly small minority, so Corey is probably right most of the time.

20

Donald 09.13.18 at 11:54 am

Probably a better example would be Burke, who obviously felt moral outrage about British actions in India. I haven’t read Corey’s book, so I don’t know how that fits into his thesis. And I will also stop posting after this.

21

Lee A. Arnold 09.13.18 at 12:19 pm

The level between the ideal and the history is where the action is!

Contemporary conservatism is premised on the fiction that everyone can move up into the modern open aristocracy, by their personal effort in the free market.

However, this doesn’t happen. When globalism took the jobs away, the people did not invent new goods and services to get back in the market game. Why not?

Instead of dealing with the failure of the premise that there are endless goods and services to invent, conservatives (and libertarians) find other ideas to explain, or to blame: the people are naturally unequal, or they are failing to live up to past cultural standards, or immigrants are overwhelming the system, or government gets in the way.

Round and round they go. The drama might be called Waiting for Rando.

22

Mike Huben 09.13.18 at 12:28 pm

> “Why would anybody bother trying to find that red herring?” Do you wonder this generally about political philosophy? That is, consistency/coherence is never interesting? Or is it just dull in the case of conservatism?

After roughly 40 years of opposing libertarianism, I have come to agree with the idea that people choose a position and then make justifications post hoc. Because no single justification works for everything, you get this flowering of innumerable excuses for what is basically an emotional choice.

In the USA, the keystone libertarian (and maybe conservative) influence as best I can tell is the Kochtopus. Those organizations exploit the efflorescence of justifications and steer them to the central goals of the Kochs.

>How can you tell what counts as a member of the species?

I’m a biological systemacist, and it is obvious that species can have fuzzy edges, no matter which concept of species you use (and several are used depending on the group you are studying.)

23

Alex SL 09.13.18 at 12:40 pm

J-D,

Looking from outside of the USA, I have always been puzzled by the contemporary insistence of boxing everybody into liberal or conservative (with potentially an “independent” box in the middle). Some people seem to go as far as to characterise liberal and conservative mindsets with the implication that they are generalisable across all of human history and the whole globe, as opposed to a parochially American dichotomy. I just did a quick Google search, and the third hit was already an exasperating “Scientists have studied the brains of conservatives and liberals and …”.

For starters, ‘liberal’ has a very different meaning in many countries. In my country of citizenship it means what an American would call moderate libertarian. Any country with a proportional representation system would find the idea of having only two political science boxes to sort people into a complete non-starter. And that is before asking whether such a question would have made sense to the ancestors of today’s Americans 300 or, say, 10,000 years ago.

Of course it makes sense to ask what defines the conservative intellectual tradition in Europe and the Anglosphere, but the way that category is treated by many pollsters and journalists feels odd.

24

Sebastian H 09.13.18 at 1:10 pm

“The form of the objection is weird. “But, Socrates, how can you say that all triangles have three sides? That implies that all triangles are the same. But we all know that there are blue ones and red ones, big ones and little ones …”

The problem with Robin’s book (and really large parts of his project as seen on his writings here and elsewhere) is that Robin is the one implying that because all triangles have three sides, that all triangles are big and red based on the fact that he can point to at least one or two triangles that are red and has heard of one that was big. He does this by selectively using analytic techniques in grossly tribal ways—by applying leaps in the argument that would never be applied to members of his own tribe. He applies these Jonah Goldberg style leaps both backwards and forwards in time, erases distinctions between people with whom he disagrees while drawing hyper tight distinctions on behalf of people on his own side. He does it by looking at cherry picked outcomes which cut against his enemies, while limiting talk to stated desires without respect to outcomes of his friends. I’m broadly on his side of a lot of arguments, but my upbringing in an evangelical church has left me highly allergic to that kind of preaching to the choir.

25

Sebastian H 09.13.18 at 1:25 pm

“Instead of focusing on “freedom”, I think, Robin has chosen to focus on “obedience”. If conservativism is basically in the business of legitimating a certain kind of obedience, then you have an organizing principle that works better than family resemblence to identify the varieties of conservativism..”

This is precisely the type of problem I’m talking about. You can only get that from an analytic frame where you ignore huge swaths of conservative thought as propaganda and by cherry picking the real world outcomes of movements you label conservative. But if you apply that exact same technique to huge swaths of leftist thought and get to cherry pick into the gulags or even just hyper vigilant policing of thoughtcrimes or purity politics on the left, you can find the same type of enforced obedience that he wants to criticize on the right. So he doesn’t. Leftists get a completely different analytic treatment. They get to keep their rhetorical gestures toward the importance of freedom, their cherry picked outcomes are Sweden not Venezuela.

The problem with that is that he claims to be discovering something particular about conservatives. But he isn’t. He is drawing with such a broad brush that he would implicate a large portion of leftism if we were applying his techniques in the same way to them. So his insights don’t help us understand what makes conservatives and non conservatives different.

26

Z 09.13.18 at 1:27 pm

@Stephen Does it follow that Remainers, or opponents of Trump, saying such things are in fact conservatives?

I wrote my comment before yours could be read, but as I wrote, conservatism is a specific reaction to a specific moment, or to a specific series of moments. That series is now finished, so I generally see little point in trying to fit contemporary political movements in squares belonging to a previous socio-political epoch. Trump, Brexit, Macron, AOC, Salvini, Merkel are cases in point.

27

Mrmr 09.13.18 at 1:41 pm

I’m in a similar place to Matt @12. I’d just add the following: as someone who has neither read the book nor is a scholar of the relevant area, my far off estimation of scholarship based on social epistemic cues, and, in this case, they are all giant red flags. The ONE uniting idea of conservatism is obviously perfidious? It’s just so convenient. And then to hear—well, sure, the project is of a special kind where the account isn’t really beholden to historical details (too messy) or to doing best justice to the arguments (too diverse), it’s unified at some intermediate level… it’s easy just to assume that this level was chosen precisely because underdefined and slippery, and that it’s probably a polemical, highly motivated account that’s not worth paying much attention to. And then it doesn’t help that I see people citing the book in public discourse in a very incautious way. And it’s worth emphasizing that these indirect cues are essential for managing how we approach a world full of way too much info to directly evaluate, and that they are often highly reliable.

This is admittedly all weak. I haven’t read it. But it’s some explanation for the purely sociological suggestion that many commenters may be going in extremely suspicious. And if they go in very suspicious, it’s not that surprising that they’re going to be less charitable to the intermediate level project described above.

28

bob mcmanus 09.13.18 at 1:43 pm

13: Gonna really miss Anderson and Jameson. From the cited piece:

‘war is the concern of the rich and powerful, that the poor should have nothing to do with it “…Marc Bloch

‘Morocco is not and has never been an Arab country.’ …Marcel Mauss

Also reading Adolph Reed on Dubois, and his principled progressive elitism;also a book on Lenin walking back his “cooks can run governments”

Liberals love hierarchies; the battles between conservatives and liberals involve only which elite should rule the masses, and has more to do with Pareto’s foxes and lions than any general egalitarianism; the built-in enthusiastic hierarchies liberal capitalism automatically generates are it’s point, and why actual leftists like Anderson and Jameson spend so much time attacking the center and left-center ( as essentially a variant of conservatism) and barely bother with the Right. I like Robin, and believe he gets it; I just really don’t understand him.

It’s about factions, power and opportunism; rising demographics in transition.

Kaepernick and BLM Cash In …BLM got a freakish 100 million from Ford Foundation, with stipulations of course. They’ll behave. Meanwhile, black men keep getting killed by cops, Dallas, manslaughter instead of murder. BLM can commission a tv ad produced by their friends. That’s power. That’s hierarchy. But that’s fine because we like them.

Resisting Trump is easy. Resisting BLM or Clinton is really hard, which is why leftists focus there. Cause otherwise it’s just out with the old boss, in with the new, and the war goes on.

29

mpowel 09.13.18 at 1:48 pm

Since there are a lot of reasonable ways to approach the classification problem, I think one of the most important questions to ask is how useful any particular approach is. And it depends on your goals. I can think of 3 broad categories of goals in this case: 1) persuade the undecided, 2) rally the troops, 3) improve academic understanding. There is maybe a 4th: advance your position in a political fight on your own side, but that’s a little trickier to analyze. I view Robin’s approach to be mainly aimed at 2). I think it’s effective for that purpose, but it’s not that high of a target to aim for either.

30

CDT 09.13.18 at 2:47 pm

@Thomas Beale 16 and John @ 11:

At least in the U.S., since Reagan “conservatives” in category a have repeatedly tried to characterize their craven interest in dominance as category b, “principled conservativism,” even as conservative principles like balanced budgets, non-intervention, and personal liberty against government intrusion are abandoned. Paul Ryan will somehow still retire as a perceived committed deficit hawk. U.S. political conservatives have worked for decades to dress up their ideology of dominance with some faux intellectual rigor. This purported intellectual rigor is used as a mask for mean-spirited policies–for instance, “I regret having to cut social welfare programs, but I am a principled budget balancer and the math demands it” See The National Review. That’s why there are so many leftish critics who puncture this pretense. The vast majority of U.S. conservatives who claim to belong to category b are really just providing intellectual cover for the obvious category a political actors.

31

Dave 09.13.18 at 3:03 pm

@4

Other than rooting for the overdogs and hypocrisy, what else explains the consistently ineffectual “conservative” opposition to Trump

It’s part of the con.

32

casmilus 09.13.18 at 4:21 pm

@5

“How can you tell what counts as a member of the species?”

A start is that they live and breed together. In the case of conservatives (and other political species) they dwell in the same cultural spaces and cooperate on getting the same political candidates elected and support similar programmes, and oppose the same alternatives.

That seems to me to be how it is that Randianism can count as part of conservatism even when it is as philosophically objectionable as Marxism to some other conservatives (see for example Whittaker Chambers’s review of “Atlas Shrugged”, but there are plenty of other examples. Rod Dreher has been grappling with conflicts for a while now as well). It lives on the US Right because it has no friendly habitat on the Left, because it can at least support the Republican Party. And it has virtually no purchase at all in the UK, an interesting anti-phenomenon worth wondering about.

33

casmilus 09.13.18 at 4:27 pm

@14

“Consider also the often very eloquently expressed view that it was the subordinate classes – stupid, ignorant, ill-educated, non-metropolitan lower orders – who predominantly supported Brexit, and therefore the recent UK referendum decision should be ignored or reversed.”

It is often expressed, then you’d be able to offer a genuine example of it. Rather than a different view which you are badly caricaturing.

What I hear more often is that it was *the old* who voted for Brexit, precisely because they are already comparatively comfortable and will not have to suffer the consequences. Although it’s been forgotten, in the days after the Scottish Referendum result you could also find a few anguished Leave voters wailing that the elderly shouldn’t be allowed to vote as they voted Remain.

34

politicalfootball 09.13.18 at 4:53 pm

The whole conversation is definitional: What is conservatism? As John points out, answering that question requires that we select some factors as more important for our purposes than others. What is our purpose in asking the question?

Kabaservice’s purpose is to whitewash an ugly history. So he removes or downplays Donald Trump as part of the conservative tradition and seeks to shoehorn liberal Republicans into conservatism.

This leads him into gibberish. Many Republicans disagreed with William Buckley and took a liberal view of civil rights. Such liberals, per Kabaservice, were part of the conservative tradition — unlike conservative Democrats of the time.

It’s a ridiculous reading of history.

This bit is revealing:

But Perlstein’s subsequent works, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, portray conservatives like Richard Nixon and Reagan as cartoon villains, all but ignoring the progressive parts of Nixon’s record and the pragmatic dimension of Reagan’s.

Kabaservice’s evidence that Nixon wasn’t a cartoon villain? Nixon wasn’t entirely conservative. Thus Kabaservice himself conflates conservatism with cartoon villainy.

35

Adam Roberts 09.13.18 at 5:30 pm

‘Hypocrisy’, though a tendentious sort of word, is the key, I think. In electoral politics 40% on either side are going to vote the way they vote regardless of how persuasive the electoral campaign of candidate A, or the unfittedness of candidate B; so the game is: persuading those 20% who used to be called ‘floating voters’. And the way you do that is by blank-screening yourself and letting the electors project onto you, by presenting yourself as Conservative even though you’re Labour (as Blair did), or conversely presenting yourself as radical even though you’re a straight-down-the-line tax-cutting defense-budget-ballooning Republican. Trump’s campaign persuaded many that he would in no way ‘conserve’, but would rather tear down the establishment. Brexit was masterminded by a group of elite hard right wingers who somehow managed to persuade a large tranche of the electorate that it Remain were all metropolitan elites and that they were the true voice of the people. The real challenge is not finding a definition of conservatism that can bracket a genius like Burke with a moron like Sarah Palin; it’s finding a definition that enables a billionaire playboy to define himself as a man of the people; that allows him to promise eg free healthcare for all and kicking Wall Street out of politics on the campaign trail without losing his Conservative bona fides.

36

anonymousse 09.13.18 at 5:39 pm

As, probably, yet again, the only conservative in the comment thread:

Given your characterization of the argument (conservatives are ‘feudal’, ‘authoritarian,’ and demand agency only for rich people), why would I, or any conservative, bother (hint: I, and we, won’t)?
So, yet again, you’ve set up an argument that involves no one but fellow-travelers.
And thus, your theoretically interesting post (what kind of good is being discussed here: maximizing individual and independent goods, or maximizing coherence) is wasted: you’ve yet again got your echo chamber (though, admittedly, its not your fault this time: blame Corey), and that interesting argument thus becomes just a Augustinian debate over angels dancing on the head of a pin.

anon

37

Chip Daniels 09.13.18 at 8:28 pm

@Thomas Beale

Maybe the second form ends up not mattering because it can be manifested in virtually any political ideology- for instance, how same sex marriage is fundamentally affirms conservative values of family formation and sanctity. Or how universal birth control would reduce the rate of abortions to near zero.

The fact that people doggedly insist that such universal values can only be found in a manifestation that also has as its main effect the preservation of existing hierarchy seems to reveal where the priority lies.

38

Moz of Yarramulla 09.13.18 at 8:47 pm

For example in Australia affirming your principles, stating your case, citing the facts and making a symbolic gesture of resistance incites rage and condemnation from those whose sense of status and authority depends on uninterrupted rituals of mindless obedience.

… conservatives strongly opposed to individual freedom of conscience, offended by statements of truth and demanding coerced speech. CR might be on to something.

39

Adam 09.13.18 at 9:58 pm

I would add something which I still don’t see enough of on the left, which might be tackled somewhere which I haven’t read: we are still not considering enough the *psychohistorical* contribution to the phenomenon of conservatism, which applies both to the aristocracy and to the “peasants”. The aristocracy supports conservatism for greedy, material reasons, but also they have psychological investment in believing themselves part of an uber-race – this genuinely fortifies their emotional state. Likewise for “peasants” – people see it as a virtue to not question authority, and to revere those with power, because they are conditioned to by authoritarian values in their upbringing. I’m not sure whether understanding this actually leads to a productive political project, but I think it’s still an important ingredient. Alice Miller presents this in an interesting way in “For Your Own Good” when she talks about how Nazis responded emotionally to Hitler.

40

Lobsterman 09.13.18 at 10:27 pm

(b) doesn’t exist. Conservatives are, as a group, in eager favor of concentration camps for toddlers, the drug war, unrestrained surveillance, American empire, civil forfeiture, mass incarceration, extrajudicial police execution, etc. etc. They have internal disagreements on how much to do those things, but the consensus is for all of them without meaningful constraint. And they are always justified in terms of (a).

41

John Holbo 09.14.18 at 1:09 am

“Given your characterization of the argument (conservatives are ‘feudal’, ‘authoritarian,’ and demand agency only for rich people), why would I, or any conservative, bother (hint: I, and we, won’t)?”

That’s not the argument, anonymousse. That’s the conclusion of the argument.

42

john c. halasz 09.14.18 at 2:44 am

Casmilus @ 32:

“A start is that they live and breed together.”

You mean like the Melungeons?

43

Jerry Vinokurov 09.14.18 at 3:00 am

As already pointed out by several commenters, the reason why Thomas Beale’s (b) doesn’t qualify as any kind of identifier of conservatism is because it applies to pretty much everyone. It’s like saying that you’re for the good things and against the bad things, when of course the actual contest is exactly over what constitutes good and bad. Anyway, the entire history of postwar American conservatism is one of so-called “philosophical” conservatives providing cover for the revanchist lunatics and crooks who actually make all the decisions. In exchange for this, the scribblers get lifetime sinecures from the billionaires who are more than happy to pay their AEI or Heritage salaries; who ever got so much for so little? If anything leads one to doubt this, the fact that virtually every conservative in the States, even the majority of the “Never Trumpers” eventually, quite happily lined up right behind him. Because, vanishingly few individuals aside, they’ve never been here for the principles, but for the status fights, the unadulterated racial resentment, and the hoarding of money.

44

CDT 09.14.18 at 5:33 am

I actually thought of mentioning Daniel Larison as an examle of a principled, paleoconservative. Few of his ilk survived the arrival of the nepcons.

Anonymousse, since you contend we are being unduly hatsh about the conservative ontellectual project, please tell us which principled conservatives with influence and courage we are ignoring. I’m stumped.

45

casmilus 09.14.18 at 6:41 am

I think this discussion is teetering close to the edge of the abyss from which we can hear the voices of the damned echoing: “Actually, the Nazis were left-wing because they were National Socialist….”

Meanwhile,

@28

“Resisting Trump is easy. Resisting BLM or Clinton is really hard, which is why leftists focus there.”

What an astonishing statement. I can only make sense of it by inferring that “resistance” is some sort of individual performance that carries no peril beyond ostracism on social media or on campus. And also maybe that “leftism” is a distinct phenomenon from an actual Left politics – simply a peculiar bourgeois lifestyle option that has appropriated aspects of revolutionary Left culture and history, such as bashing liberals, but with no strategic goals beyond that. No wonder it’s enamoured of an academic gasbag like Jameson, who occupies a comfortable ecological niche in the higher education industry and represents a profitable career path. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism if you’re not attempting to imagine the latter and rely on secondary sources of other people’s imaginings of the former.

46

Collin Street 09.14.18 at 7:01 am

But seriously, what happens when anonywhatsit stops listening to us? What are the consequences here; it’s plainly presented as something of significant import, but I really can’t see how it affects me.

Can someone enlighten me? Does he have some sort of policy veto so that only ideas he likes or agrees with will happen? I don’t thibk so, but maybe anywhatsit thinks he does….

47

Thomas Beale 09.14.18 at 7:38 am

Lobsterman@40
(b) doesn’t exist. Conservatives are, as a group, in eager favor of concentration camps for toddlers, the drug war, unrestrained surveillance, American empire, civil forfeiture, mass incarceration, extrajudicial police execution, etc. etc.

Maybe b) doesn’t really exist. But, keeping it simple, numerous voters in countries I am familiar with (Australia, UK, US, Brazil) who identify as conservative don’t fit this description by any stretch. I’m not here to defend people like Trump, Bolsonaro etc, for whom such people may vote (many are happier to vote for the Romneys, Kasichs, Neves, Amoedo etc if given the choice) but the most I detect in such intentions is social conservatism – prohibition of abortion, support for ‘the family’ (usually code for banning gay marriage etc) and/or economic disciplinarian. Maybe not great, but pretty far from concentration camps. I would say that the above is a caricature of a certain reported state of affairs in ?Trump’s/recent America, not a general definition of conservatives more globally or historically.

Vinokurov @ 43
As already pointed out by several commenters, the reason why Thomas Beale’s (b) doesn’t qualify as any kind of identifier of conservatism is because it applies to pretty much everyone. It’s like saying that you’re for the good things and against the bad things, when of course the actual contest is exactly over what constitutes good and bad.

Well, I postulated it precisely because it doesn’t apply to pretty much everyone. There is no end of people a) from the radical left who are quite happy to think in terms of revolution and tabula rasa and b) of a postmodernist mindset, who don’t see any particular set of values (say, Universal Human Rights, which they would deride as a Western cultural artefact) as worth more than any other (everything’s relative), and therefore worth preserving. It’s not hard to find people who identify as conservative who mainly rail against these two positions, e.g. Thomas Sowell.

Nevertheless, I agree with you on what the contest in that space is about.

(I don’t really know what a ‘conservative’ is, interested to find out though…)

48

Collin Street 09.14.18 at 9:45 am

Correct me if I’m wrong, Thomas, but as I understand it Brazil’s historically had some problems with, well, death squads, and argentina certainly did.

Have any of your conservative brazilian aquaintences ever expressed regret or opposition to this? “Throwing drugged people out of helicopters and lying to their children is completely indefensible”, sort of thing?

(I mean, Canaris was a hero because his choices weren’t common)

49

J-D 09.14.18 at 10:31 am

Alex SL

J-D,

Looking from outside of the USA, I have always been puzzled by the contemporary insistence of boxing everybody into liberal or conservative (with potentially an “independent” box in the middle). …

You explain your objections: I don’t quarrel with them, but my question isn’t ‘What’s wrong with this idea?’ but rather ‘Where did it come from?’ Did the Gallup poll in the US invent the model in 1992, or was it being adopted from another source? Is there a Trope Namer or Trope Maker, presumably a US political scientist or sociologist or historian who applied the analytical model and in whose wake Gallup and others followed? Or what?

50

Moz of Yarramulla 09.14.18 at 11:14 am

Thomas Beale @47: the reason you don’t hear conservatives in Australia defending concentration camps and some of the other horrors is that those have wide support in Australia (specifically, The Greens are the only major party opposed to them and they get about 10% of the compulsory vote). The “midnight arrest, trial with secret evidence, indefinite imprisonment” laws barely raised a murmur, surveillance is ubiquitous and uncontroversial, and so on. We also don’t have conservatives here desperately defending or opposing slavery because the only slavery here is the stuff no Western pundit dares mention (prison labour and casualised work).

In Australia conservatives have largely moved on from gay marriage (apparently it ruined Australia but no-one noticed) and are now focussed on destroying the Liberal Party (that’s the conservative one, the liberal party is called Labour), subsidising coal fired electricity generation, and removing the Great Barrier Reef. They’re also upset about sex education, unions breaking the law (they’re our Hilary Clinton), opposing any inquiry into bank lawbreaking (they lost, the resulting inquiry found wholesale, systematic lawbreaking), corporate lawbreaking in general for that matter and the ongoing battle for consequence-free speech by conservatives.

51

ph 09.14.18 at 11:50 am

@40 Most here voted for or supported Obama whose record of incarcerating and persecuting journalists, punishing whistle-blowers, extra-judicial executions including citizens of the United States, placing children in cages, violent regime change abroad, spying on citizens, and expanding the security state was as bad or worse as that of Bush and Trump, in some cases by some margin.

The current heroes of the ‘resistance’ lied America into Iraq or Libya, hacked into the computers of the elected representatives/lied about it, and support torture/enhanced interrogations, all under Obama. ‘Liberals’ lionize these clown criminals along with ‘responsible’ republicans whilst embracing open bigots such as Farrakhan. And, yes, if one is willing to share the podium with Farrakhan that’s tacit support of his views.

Conservative as a political category post 1750 works and the basic argument of the OP holds. The comments not so much.

52

bob mcmanus 09.14.18 at 12:35 pm

What Would Malcolm Think? …better article on the transformation of BLM and black nationalism. I knew from that first video with Sanders those two women were pros.

” In December, it openly took up the cause of black capitalism, partnering with the Fortune 500 advertising agency J. Walter Thompson to produce a national black business database. In February, BLM marked Black History Month by marketing a “black debit card” (the “Amir Visa debit card”) with OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the U.S. All this and more might surprise many of the progressives who eagerly embraced the #BLM brand in the name of fighting racist police violence.”

How does a socialist push back on this? BLM has at least 5 degrees of overdetermination to ground claims of bigotry and brosocialism. Any restrictions on BLM’s bankster partners by Warren or Sanders will cost BLM big money, darnit, and is really only sexism, racism, or homophobia.

Booker or Patrick or Gillibrand or some other Wall Street dollar Democrat will understand.

The end of capitalism is inconceivable. The end of the world is in plain view, and coming on like a freight train, and the woke identity left is selling tickets.

53

Thomas Beale 09.14.18 at 12:49 pm

Collin Street @ 48
Correct me if I’m wrong, Thomas, but as I understand it Brazil’s historically had some problems with, well, death squads, and argentina certainly did.

Indeed… and many people have living parents or grandparents who were survivors of all kinds of horror. I know some…

Have any of your conservative brazilian aquaintences ever expressed regret or opposition to this? “Throwing drugged people out of helicopters and lying to their children is completely indefensible”, sort of thing?

Well, the people I know just express horror at it (but tend to be PT or centrist). You won’t find many normal Brazilians who were part of the dictatorship and believed in its atrocities. That powerful minority certainly existed and some probably still do. I’m not saying there are not ‘conservatives’ of that stripe, in Brazil or elsewhere, just that they are most likely only representative of the thin psychopath end of the conservative spectrum. The hardest conservatives I meet in Brazil are more like a soft version of Marine le Pen – they just want the law applied and for society to function properly. You can argue that their idea of the latter may be wrong, but it’s a moot point if your society is not functioning in terms of its own laws.

I’m not trying to defend anything, just get clarity on the definition. W.r.t to the OP, it seems clear that Robin’s definition is up at the oppressive / psychopathic end of the spectrum, and for that variety of ‘conservative’, sure, his critique holds water. But then he’s not saying much that any decent person wouldn’t say – it’s not really a critique of a political theory: keep the plebs I exploit away from my castle is just an odious worldview. Where does that leave the Sowells, Lillas, Kabaservice, not to mention Nozick, Cohen, Burke, and why not all the way back to Plato?

Re: Australia, I voted there for 35 years; the point isn’t that the Liberals/Nationals aren’t mostly terrible, like the Tories here, the point is: what is the mindset of self-identifying conservatives who vote for them? Remember, many people don’t vote for horrors like Howard or Abbott, they vote for their local MP and for what they perceive as their direct concerns, usually economic. Are the 3.9m ‘hard right conservatives’ who voted UKIP in 2015 all oppressive landlords or psychopathic racists? Of course not, they just have a problem with the economy, and think (rightly or wrongly) that getting rid of the EU and immigration will fix it.

54

Z 09.14.18 at 2:49 pm

Thomas Beale prohibition of abortion, support for ‘the family’ (usually code for banning gay marriage etc) and/or economic disciplinarian

Leaving aside the new social circumstances that I think nowadays prevail (and which make the terms “conservative” equivocal at best, if not meaningless), someone who supports a prohibition of abortion wants to take the decision of carrying a pregnancy out of the hands of the woman experiencing the pregnancy; someone who supports “the family” under your interpretation wants to take the decision of entering an existing legal arrangements between loving couples out of the hands of certain loving couples; someone who supports economic “discipline” (I’m guessing this means supporting policies that favor upward redistribution rather than policies that favor downward redistribution) wants the currently poor to have even less choices and opportunities in the ways to go on about their material lives than they do now (hard to defend as something promoting individual freedom, unless this discussion takes place in a country where the poor already have plenty of such opportunities already whereas the burden placed on the rich is already considerable, which seems to me hard to argue at least for the UK, US and Brazil).

So I find these political choices quite in agreement with the thesis of “conservatism as animus against the agency of the subordinate classes”, myself. And I think a consistent conservative would have to agree (and say for instance that yes, he wants to deny the agency of a pregnant woman because he gives a higher value to the sanctity of life or that yes, he wants to deny the agency of the poor, because the agency of the rich is much more valuable, perhaps because they have demonstrated that they have higher creative powers, or are morally superior or whatever…)

55

Nigel 09.14.18 at 5:27 pm

‘And, yes, if one is willing to share the podium with Farrakhan that’s tacit support of his views.’

So… your support of Trump is tacit support of his views on women, black people, Muslims, immigrants, immigrant families, open corruption, the environment, climate change, coal, the Central Park Five, kneeling for the anthem, sexual assault and paying employees? Not to mention his support of the Iraq war, lying about it, and lying in general? That’s your ‘hero?’

56

TM 09.14.18 at 8:05 pm

“But, Socrates, how can you say that all triangles have three sides? That implies that all triangles are the same.”

I’m surprised nobody pointed out what a poor analogy this is. Triangles *by definition* have three sides. In political science, even how to classify concepts like conservative or liberal is highly contentious. When Robin’s classification is questioned, pointing to geometrical definitions as an anlogy is hardly helpful.

Robin’s isn’t in the business of making trivial, tautological observations – “look what I just discovered – all triangles have three sides! How surprising”. Presumably he is proposing novel insights about his field of study. Holbo’s analogy just seems to trivialize the debate.

57

John Holbo 09.14.18 at 9:49 pm

“I’m surprised nobody pointed out what a poor analogy this is.”

You have misunderstood the analogy, TM. Read the post again. If you still don’t get it, ask again and I will try to explain. (Busy, busy!)

58

ph 09.15.18 at 2:17 am

@55 You make a fair point.

I suspect you don’t really understand what I think, but that’s cool, too!

I believe Bill Clinton and Trump are twins separated at birth, that the US presidency is a corporation masquerading as an individual, and that nothing brings Americans together like killing brown people. I also believe Labour in the UK supports pretty much all the scummy activities we see from US presidents, as do the Socialists in France. And that’s my point. I’m delighted we can see the true face of American ‘exceptionalism’ on display everyday. The last thing I want to see is ‘back to normal.’

What I really like about your stance on Trump and ‘not us’ is that you’ve evidently convinced yourself that finding the worst in others is the path to virtue.

Good luck with that!

59

Faustusnotes 09.15.18 at 3:01 am

That Berkowitz quote is a special kind of slimy, and illustrates the problem of arguing with these slippery traitors. He suggests that conservatives are interested in preserving “the manners, mores, and principles of a self-governing people” as if leftists don’t want this basic moral outcome; and he juxtaposes the conservative quest for total personal autonomy as if leftists don’t want that. And, since by now conservatives are a minority, essentially he does exactly what Robin accuses all conservatives of doing: sets conservatives up as an elite with special insight and autonomy that must be defended against a lunpen mass that don’t understand or care for these things. Beale above makes the same gross little error when he says conservatives aim at “maintaining philosophical +/- cultural values fundamental to a civilised society”, presumably juxtaposing them with the broad mass of society who don’t want this rarified moral good.

We can see the moral and cultural values that conservatives consider to be fundamental to a civilized society in the behaviour of Trump and his enablers. It’s theft, sexual assault, dishonesty, racism and treachery. The Berkowitz s and Beales of the world want us to judge conservatives by the words of a few of their “thinkers” (Milo, perhaps, or Tucker Carlson?) But we can see the moral values in their actions far more clearly than their words. Everyone of these scum has a mistress he will pay to have an abortion, and bribe politicians to hide; every one of these scum will sell out their country and any moral value for money; they will allgo to great lengths to cover up each others’ rapes and robberies. Yet the Beales and Berkowitz s of the world want us to think that they stand for anything except murder, rape and theft, and worse still that they are the only defenders of the moral values fundamental to civilized society. Why would we believe them, when by their actions they show that their only interest is to hold power so that they can keep taking, killing and stealing?

60

J-D 09.15.18 at 4:47 am

It was anonymousse, lest we forget, who favoured us with a comment about ‘crotch-bleeding maniac biddies’:

http://crookedtimber.org/2018/09/08/absurdism/#comment-738212

For clarity, I am not tarring all self-described conservatives with the same brush.

61

nastywoman 09.15.18 at 5:52 am

– and I liked this bigly:

”So… your support of Trump is tacit support of his views on women, black people, Muslims, immigrants, immigrant families, open corruption, the environment, climate change, coal, the Central Park Five, kneeling for the anthem, sexual assault and paying employees? Not to mention his support of the Iraq war, lying about it, and lying in general? That’s your ‘hero?’’

That’s the easiest way nowadays to think about ”Conservativism” – and y’all don’t have to pass this comment – it was just made for Mr. Holbo -(and my fellow comedian ph)

62

Thomas Beale 09.15.18 at 6:59 am

Faustus notes @ 59
I made no statements about actual conservatives (whoever they may be). I made some comments about possible definitions of the term ‘conservative’, which appears to be the primary question here.

I do believe your deep hatred of conservatives has prevented you from actually bothering to read properly…

63

Thomas Beale 09.15.18 at 7:52 am

Z @ 54
I don’t agree with people who are against abortion or gay marriage either; but it’s easy enough to find people in society who take one or both of those stances (usually because of faith, or being part of an older generation) who are pro universal healthcare, taxes on the rich / corporations, and live modest lives.

The problem is that for us who live in pluralist societies, the full set of opinions held by most individuals don’t sort cleanly into the boxes we’d like to sort the individuals into. A good concrete example is Brazil: Christian faith is very strong there, in standard and evangelical varieties, across all socio-economic levels; separately, many in the middle class want a better deal for poor people (10s of millions), and are in favour of better economic distribution rather than concentration (why? Because they see what a raw deal the poor have, it’s in your face in Brazil; they also know about Petrobras, Odebrecht corruption sucking the life out of the economy). if you ask them about abortion and universal healthcare, you are likely to get answers that don’t fit into your preferred political categories.

So while you might be able to show that opposition to legal abortion is philosophically of a piece with far more egregious kinds of deprivation of liberty and dignity, the reality is that most people holding the former kind of opinion don’t hold the latter. As long as they respect democracy, we all get to live in peace.

64

Nigel 09.15.18 at 9:41 am

‘What I really like about your stance on Trump and ‘not us’ is that you’ve evidently convinced yourself that finding the worst in others is the path to virtue.’

‘I suspect you don’t really understand what I think, but that’s cool, too!’

https://twitter.com/dril/status/473265809079693312?lang=en

65

Faustusnotes 09.15.18 at 11:11 am

Thomas there is nothing in your comment that suggests you don’t see definition b) as a valid definition of a type of conservative. Don’t be shy! And your definition clearly separates the world into those with morals (conservatives) and those with no morals (non conservatives). You could have chosen “traitors, liars and rapists” as your option b), which would have been a more functional definition, but you didn’t, because you were presenting a definition you think is valid and applies, and bemoaning leftists’ unwillingness to engage with that definition.

It’s a slimy trick and it really doesn’t work when your orange hero is tweeting his denial of the Puerto Rico death toll. I suggest you deal with the facts in front of you, not your fantasy vision of a non existent movement, especially when that fantasy definition includes an implicit accusation that all non conservatives lack morals of any kind.

66

Lee A. Arnold 09.15.18 at 12:14 pm

“Protection of aristocracy against the agency of the subordinate classes” could be a good first pass at describing the Wittgensteinian family resemblance of all conservatisms. In the mid-18th Century the final public inversion of theories of dispensation from the Absolute (i.e. the Great Chain of Being), inverted in the face of increasing scientific knowledge and technological advance, served to overthrow the privileges of aristocracy and divine right, and brought forward the question of the will of the rabble as a new, constant norm in the political process (i.e. “democracy”). The left-right divide blossomed.

We may still be living in an era of shadow cast from that event. It could be that some “language games” perpetuate as dialogical, rhetorical, antiphonal, oppositional. Yet the referents can change, as in any emotional argument. In the case of a language game emerging to the immediate concerns of property ownership and political power, it might persist over time in the emotional shadow of the ancien regime, yet it would transmute over time in response to change and contingency, and use varying political issues of the moment to stay alive. So we have a sort of dialogic meta-organism with an autopoietic (i.e. self-maintaining) social ontogeny, leaving behind itself the tracks of a dialectical history.

In our present moment, the “protection of aristocracy against the agency of the subordinate classes” has transmuted to “protection of the free market as a way for any subordinate person to ascend by personal effort into the modern open aristocracy”.

But this could be the end of that game. Yes, it is a clever trick: it perpetuates the belief in individualism, because anyone can try to do it. But it is also fatally flawed. Not everyone can do it because there are formal limitations: over long periods of time some few people invent new goods and services and achieve success, but at any one moment there is a lot of unemployed and underpaid. In addition some members of the modern open aristocracy are pushing programs that increase inequality and environmental destruction, and these results become more visible to the public.

“Protection of aristocracy against the agency of the subordinate classes” moved historically to “protection of the free market as a way for anyone to become one of the aristocrats” — and now may finally be eclipsed, because that is not believable. It would be the end of the pro-hierarchic bent of conservatism. Mainstream conservatives won’t have much to distinguish themselves from progressives, who otherwise believe in individualism and personal achievement. The social-conservative varieties would spin off to single-issue advocacies. We may see a book entitled, Varieties of Conservatism Against One Another.

67

James Wimberley 09.15.18 at 12:59 pm

In Robin’s theory of conservatism, do the lower orders have to be human? Will an army of robot slaves do? If the objective of the ruling class is simply “more freedom to do what I want”, robots are actually better than serfs, who may always potentially answer back or rebel. But what if it is in part to enjoy the submission of the serfs to their will? That is the pattern of sexual predation: the wife (or another man’s wife) beaten or tricked into subservience is more gratifying a sexual object to Valmont than the prostitute who provides the same services under a dick’s-length contract.

68

Nigel 09.15.18 at 7:30 pm

‘ I’m delighted we can see the true face of American ‘exceptionalism’ on display everyday. The last thing I want to see is ‘back to normal.’’

Trump supporter delighted by Trump policies, behaviour, film at 11, or something. Seems like you’re the one finding the worst and embracing it as a path to virtue here.

69

likbez 09.15.18 at 9:58 pm

I think it is impossible to discuss modern conservatism, especially its neocon variety without discussing neoliberalism. Too many people here concentrate on superficial traits, while the defining feature of modern conservatives is the unconditional support of “hard neoliberalism.” There is also a Vichy party which supports “soft neoliberalism” …

See Monbiot at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative.” But, as Hayek remarked on a visit to Pinochet’s Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied – “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.” The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.

Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining mean the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.

The other important area is the attitude to the existance and maintaince of the global US empire and the level of indoctrination into “American exceptionalism” which I view as a flavor of far-right nationalism. But here we need to talk not about conservatism but neofascism.

In a way, the current crisis of neoliberalism in the USA (one of the features of which was de-legitimization of the neoliberal elite which led to the election of Trump) develops with strange similarities with the events of 1920-1935 in Europe.

70

J-D 09.16.18 at 1:17 am

Lee A. Arnold

In the mid-18th Century the final public inversion of theories of dispensation from the Absolute (i.e. the Great Chain of Being), inverted in the face of increasing scientific knowledge and technological advance, served to overthrow the privileges of aristocracy and divine right, and brought forward the question of the will of the rabble as a new, constant norm in the political process (i.e. “democracy”). The left-right divide blossomed.

The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ were first used with political meanings in the context of the French Revolution (so, in the late eighteenth century), but that doesn’t mean that similar contrasts didn’t exist earlier than that; for example, in the context of the Putney Debates (so, in the mid seventeenth century), I think the Levellers can fairly be described as the left and the Grandees as the right.

71

arcseconds 09.16.18 at 3:00 am

Thomas @47

There is no end of people a) from the radical left who are quite happy to think in terms of revolution and tabula rasa and b) of a postmodernist mindset, who don’t see any particular set of values (say, Universal Human Rights, which they would deride as a Western cultural artefact) as worth more than any other (everything’s relative), and therefore worth preserving. It’s not hard to find people who identify as conservative who mainly rail against these two positions, e.g. Thomas Sowell.

Sure, conservatives rail against these things, but is it really the case that “no end” of people advocate for these things in a way that justifies the constant railing?

As far as I can tell, the ‘radical left’ desiring revolution rather than evolution is a negligible, politically impotent minority. In the Australian Senate vote, which is proportional and preferential so presumably there’s no problem with putting your personal preferred candidates first, I can only see two parties that might count as revolutionary in this sense, the Socialist Equality Party and the Socialist Alliance Party, together getting 0.13% of the vote in 2016. Even then the Socialist Alliance Party does not seem to advocate tearing down all of society’s structures, just nationalizing a lot of things. The Animal Justice Party seems a much greater threat to the traditional way of life of Australians (no more shrimp on the barbie!) with 1.15% of the vote.

As far as postmodernists are concerned, there are perhaps more people who profess ethical anti-realism, but I strongly suspect most of these people only have this metaethical scepticism “at their desk in the study” (or wherever it was that Hume entertained his sceptical thoughts, which he dropped when he entered the street), and in their daily lives are functionally indistinguishable from anyone else. I imagine some of them may even identify as conservatives. At any rate, there’s absolutely no reason why someone couldn’t be an anti-realist about ethics, or even a postmodernist, and still support enlightenment values as a practical matter, and in fact often the relativism is actually there in support of the rights of, say, indigenous peoples. They are not in fact neutral when it comes to native title on the one hand and cultural genocide on the other.

A lot of conservatives in the USA fancy themselves to be deriving their values from a secure source (i.e. God) and think everyone else is just making stuff up to suit themselves, and rail against ‘postmodernism’ accordingly. We should not be deceived by this: they are inevitably just as culturally bound as anyone else, and their opponents are often just as realist about morality as they are.

72

Daniel Beek 09.16.18 at 3:21 am

One can imagine, in theory, someone liking both Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk. Yet having been involved in conservative and libertarian politics for over 30 years, I have yet to meet anyone who actually fits that description. Which calls the whole enterprise into question.

73

arcseconds 09.16.18 at 4:23 am

A couple of thoughts about Robin’s thesis (unfortunately I haven’t read the book, but I have tried to get a cliff note’s understanding):

(1) As Holbo says, they were ‘roped together’ to begin with, so it makes sense to ask what they have in common. But even if Robin is right that reactionary oppression is a commonality, why is that the most important organising feature? It may be, for example, that the strongest ties are really Wittgenstinian family resemblance / rope fibre type things that don’t extend across the whole set, so e.g. Burke might be A + B + C + D, and de Maistre might be B + C + D + E, and Hayek C + D + F, Torqueville A + C + D + F, etc. where D is reactionary oppression. And maybe D is less important than the other factors. If what is actually binding you to the next nearest conservative is a bunch of things, and oppression is the least of them, then we might not be looking at the most salient features that explain why they are traditionally grouped together.

And I wonder whether the explanation of some of this kinship might not just be sociological. Libertarianism as an ideology doesn’t on the face of it seem very conservative, and appears to have common cause with the Left in terms of social issues. They have on the whole tended to form political alliances on the Right, but not universally so. A cursory inspection suggests UK libertarians currently feel politically homeless, and do care about keeping politics out of the bedroom, so it’s not clear to me that if the situation was different — constantly facing a Franco-style right wing party being both big state and highly traditionalist, say — that we might not see liberatarinism as a specie of radical thought, with its natural home on the Left.

(On the other hand, in the States, libertarianism has fused with right-wing populism and conservative white evangelicalism. Robin’s thesis is potentially explanatory here, I admit. )

(2) I get the impression that Robin’s book looks primarily at thinkers, with a couple of politicians thrown in.

But the rank-and-file of any political persuasion don’t necessarily follow or even resemble the thinkers of that movement, and I suspect this is more true of conservatives than left-wingers. One can see this in Kabaservice’s hand-wringing about Trump: to put it just a little melodramtically, he’s seen the face of conservative populism and he neither likes it one bit nor recognises it as part of his intellectual tradition.

So does the ‘reactionary oppression’ explain the motivations of Trump supporters? I’m not going to fall into the trap of characterizing them as being particularly poor, but many of them surely count as ‘the lower orders’ nevertheless (at any rate, most of them are not the political elite nor have the ear of the political elite). It’s implausible to suppose they are consciously voting for their own oppression, in fact they appear to have been expecting some kind of elevation of their condition as a result of voting for Trump.

74

Thomas Beale 09.16.18 at 7:28 am

Faustusnotes @ 65
I will just point out that from what was written earlier you somehow got to this:

Yet the Beales and Berkowitz s of the world want us to think that they stand for anything except murder, rape and theft, and worse still that they are the only defenders of the moral values fundamental to civilized society. Why would we believe them, when by their actions they show that their only interest is to hold power so that they can keep taking, killing and stealing?

Somehow you claim to know that a) I am some sort of conservative, b) what I (or Berkowitz for that matter) really ‘stand’ for, and that c) I am secretly a rapist, murderer and thief. You even got the definition part wrong.

I suspect emotional subjectivism to be getting in the way of basic comprehension… not conducive to a reasoned discussion of ideas.

75

roger gathmann 09.16.18 at 9:32 am

72, I can not only imagine someone liking Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk in theory, I think I see the face of that someone. His name is Paul Ryan. Here’s a review from the Kirkcenter that mentions the one time Rand acolyte: https://kirkcenter.org/reviews/faith-and-twelve-presidents/
What does it say about him? “Joe Biden and Paul Ryan represent different ends of the Catholic theological spectrum—the more liberal social-justice focus and the more conservative pro-life, conventional-morality emphasis respectively.” And there I was, expecting a denunciation of Ryan for following the Rand kook.
It is interesting that conservatives who denounce the Reactionary mind for missing the manysplendored multiplicity of the right don’t similarly denounce Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. I think that is b/c they know he is writing from the inside.

76

Thomas Beale 09.16.18 at 10:08 am

arcseconds @ 71
As far as I can tell, the ‘radical left’ desiring revolution rather than evolution is a negligible, politically impotent minority. In the Australian Senate vote

I may be overstating the case wr.t. political parties, although the Momentum movement + John McDonald here in the UK has a strong Marxist/postmodernist feel.

At any rate, there’s absolutely no reason why someone couldn’t be an anti-realist about ethics, or even a postmodernist, and still support enlightenment values as a practical matter

This is more or less what I was originally getting at re: the definition of the term ‘conservative’. My aunt in Australia votes Liberal, but supports enlightenment values. Is she a conservative? If so, then how can it be that all conservatives are evil oppressors of the common man? If not, then what do we call her? Either way, we still don’t have a working definition of the term…

77

Faustusnotes 09.16.18 at 10:51 am

Thomas, your definition b) and the cited Berkowitz definition stake conservatives out as the only holders of any moral values (in your definition they’re the fundamental values on which society is built). It’s obvious from the way you frame the definition that you agree with it and rue the fact that leftists focus so much on definition a). I’ve seen you play this game before where you lay out a conservative position and defend that position then claim not to be a conservative when you are lumped in with the rapists and liars who now run that side of politics. In this case i doubt you presented a definition of conservatives that casts all non conservatives as amoral without being in broad agreement with it – unless you really think of yourself as lacking any civilized moral values.

I’m not interested in beating around this bush. You think conservatives defend the moral values underpinning civilization, despite ample evidence that actually existing conservatives are rapists, traitors and liars, or enablers of traitors, rapists and liars. If you have a way to square this circle I’m all ears, but I doubt you are going to have a good case for the moral rectitude of the movement of Trump, manafort and Milo.

78

Faustusnotes 09.16.18 at 10:56 am

I mean recently hereabouts we have seen a lot of effort to sell ben Shapiro as an example of a modern conservative thinker in the vein of your definition b). How’s that working for you in light of manafort’s plea bargain?

Does it ever occur to people trying to present a new model of conservative intellectualism that whatever dude they’ve shackled themselves to is going to turn out to be a traitor, a liar, a rapist, a philanderer and a hypocrite? Does it occur to people trying to do this to wonder why this fall from grace always happens to their new hero?

79

Peter T 09.16.18 at 1:05 pm

I found Robin’s book persuasive as a typology, but I don’t think the implications are as damning as he makes out (or as Kabaservice and others assume). There’s surely a reasoned case to be made that hierarchies are essential to complex societies, that customary modes of selection for the top often do as well – or no worse – than proposed alternatives, that while “merit” is a fine catch-cry, it is impossible to define or to implement in practice in any objective way and so on. In other words, someone has to be at the top and therefore someone else at the bottom.

But these arguments cannot really be elaborated in any depth – they then almost immediately involve local particularities, local remedies, local challenges to whatever the customary arrangements are. Moreover, deployed in times of near-constant change (that is, pretty much any time in the last two centuries), they generalise into defences of the indefensible or the plainly obsolete, or are seen as (and often are) special pleading. Maybe they’ll have more resonance when things settle down.

80

Heshel 09.16.18 at 1:55 pm

Conservatism is C-fibers firing

81

Thomas Beale 09.16.18 at 2:49 pm

faustusnotes @ 77
points for persistence I guess.

Ok. I posited two possible strains of ‘conservatism’ – arguably two ends of a moral. This is simply paraphrasing the definitions of people like Robin (the a) kind) and something like the Berkowitz view, i.e. the ‘conservatism’ comes in many stripes.

You appear to think that only the a) version exists. You also appear to think that people like Berkowitz, Kabaservice, and presumably some other writers I mentioned (Lilla, Sowell etc), who are normally classed as and consider themselves conservatives, are either not, or else secretly the a) kind. The latter is clearly not the case for many so-called conservative thinkers (just as it may indeed be the case for many other so-called conservative thinkers).

You also don’t seem to want to account for the millions of voters who for whatever reason vote Tory, UKIP, Aus Lib/Nat, US/Rep, who are not land-owning rentier sharks, dictators-in-waiting or anything else (again, I don’t say there are not other conservative voters who do believe in Nauru, ejecting all immigrants from the UK or whatever other terrible things you care to imagine).

I have no problem if the world agrees that the the definition of ‘conservative’ is the Robin / type a) one. I just ask: what do we call all those others who don’t classify there, but who are currently identified or identify as conservatives?

Aside: why do you keep mentioning Trump, Milo, Manafort etc? These are vulgar clowns with no interesting ideas.

82

Stephen 09.16.18 at 4:11 pm

Peter T: contrariwise, if it is that as you say “There’s surely a reasoned case to be made that hierarchies are essential to complex societies” and “someone has to be at the top and therefore someone else at the bottom”, is it legitimate to suspect that a fair proportion (not all, of course) of those advocating progressive change believe that after the defeat of the evil conservative forces, there will still be an essential hierarchy, only they will be on top?

See nomenklatura, etc.

83

Sebastian H 09.16.18 at 5:27 pm

“is it legitimate to suspect that a fair proportion (not all, of course) of those advocating progressive change believe that after the defeat of the evil conservative forces, there will still be an essential hierarchy, only they will be on top?”

Usually yes, but they will be benevolent so we don’t have to worry about them. That is why there are a lot of naïve progressive rule proposals that make me want to scream “what if someone less pure than the purest person you ever met gets a hold of it”? Though I usually just say “what if Ralph Nader were in charge…?”, but that is admittedly trolling. For the most current example see the EU copyright rules. The same people who complain about conservative twitter mobs think that telling facebook, twitter, and google to automatically screen out copyright violations and somehow automatically allow fair use of copyright is going to work out well.
I suck at guessing at malignant uses of technology and I can already see the Russian copyright upload experts getting prominent left wing voices tied up in interminable litigation over political speeches. Or some troll reporting the entire internet as copyrighted in one paragraph increments. Or the speech censorship discussions. Dissolving free speech norms is 1000% more likely to be used against left wing voices than right wing ones if they get mainstreamed.

84

likbez 09.16.18 at 9:16 pm

@Lee A. Arnold 09.15.18 at 12:14 pm (66)

In our present moment, the “protection of aristocracy against the agency of the subordinate classes” has transmuted to “protection of the free market as a way for any subordinate person to ascend by personal effort into the modern open aristocracy.”

That is a very deep observation. Thank you!

Protection of inequality as a “natural human condition” is the key to understanding both conservatism and neoliberalism. The corresponding myth of social mobility based on person’s abilities under neoliberalism (as Napoleon Bonaparte observed “Ability is of little account without opportunity” and the opportunity is lacking under neoliberal stagnation — the current state of neoliberalism ) is just icing on the cake.

As soon as you accept Hayek sophistry that the term “freedom” means “the freedom from coercion” you are both a neoliberal and a conservative. And if you belong to Democratic Party, you are a Vichy democrat ;-)

85

likbez 09.16.18 at 9:50 pm

@Stephen 09.16.18 at 4:11 pm (82)

“is it legitimate to suspect that a fair proportion (not all, of course) of those advocating progressive change believe that after the defeat of the evil conservative forces, there will still be an essential hierarchy, only they will be on top?”

In a way yes ;-)

Neoliberalism/conservatism means that the state enforces the existing hierarchy and supports existing aristocracy (“socialism for rich”). If you deny the existence of a flavor of the Soviet nomenklatura (aristocracy in which position in social hierarchy mainly depends on their role in the top management of government or corporations, not so much personal fortune) in the USA, you deny the reality.

So the question is not about hierarchy per se, but about the acceptable level of “corporate socialism” and inequality in the society.

The progressive change means the creation of the system of government which serves as a countervailing force to the private capital owners, curbing their excesses. I would say that financial oligarchy generally should be treated as a district flavor of organized crime.

The key issue is how to allow a decent level of protection of the bottom 90% of the population from excesses of unfettered capitalism and “market forces” and at the same time not to slide into excessive bureaucracy and regulation (“state capitalism” model).

For a short period after WWII the alliance of a part of state apparatus, upper-level management, and trade unions against owners of capital did exist in the USA (New Deal Capitalism). In an imperfect form with multiple betrayals and quick deterioration, but still existed for some time due to the danger from the USSR…

Around 80th the threat from USSR dissipate, and the upper-level management betrayed their former allies and switched sides which signified the victory of neoliberalism and dismantling of the New Deal Capitalism.

After the USSR collapse (when Soviet nomenklatura switched to neoliberalism) the financial oligarchy staged coup d’état in the USA (aka “Quiet Coup”) and came to the top.

We need depose this semi-criminal gang. Of course, the end of “cheap oil” will probably help.

86

Peter T 09.16.18 at 11:40 pm

Stephen

Some, but a “fair proportion”? Probably not. Advocacy of progressive causes usually involves punching up – an inherently more dangerous occupation than punching down. People forget that the older nomenklatura won their positions in World War II, when being a commissar meant leading from the front, being shot out of hand by the Germans, rallying the partisans in mountain villages to another desperate defence and similar. Survivor bias – we don’t see the dead.

In more genteel times, the outspoken progressive will often face social ostracism, lack of promotion, attacks in the conservative press…

Human motives are complex – no doubt there were confederates who genuinely believed the fight was for states rights, and no doubt there are libertarians who genuinely believe that the poor will have it much better in a free market utopia. I doubt the proportion, either counting individuals or in the swirl inside minds, is very large, but there’s always some.

87

Faustusnotes 09.16.18 at 11:45 pm

Now we’re making progress Thomas. The Berkowitz definition is sleazy, and sets up anyone not conservative as an amoral lump in need of guidance, or worse still as dangerous to society. Perhaps that’s why Hayek (a supposedly type b conservative) had his opponents thrown out of helicopters. Or was that Friedman?

The appeal of conservatism and it’s electoral success is easily explained. Because their real ideology is just treachery, theft and rape they need to hide these ideas from normal people, who already in general support the moral ideas fundamental to civilized society regardless of their politics. So they hide their true agenda through appeals to racism, or by cloaking themselves in the type b definition (isn’t this robins point?!) In doing this they benefit from the work of yeomen like you, who insist that conservatism is a real moral project rather than banditry. In most countries they also only win when the left is divided, and only when their elite friends are pouring money into corrupt media. If they didn’t have these advantages, these lies, and help from people like you they would never succeed.

I focus on Trump et Al because they are the leaders of your sect,the people who sell your ideas (manafort was a campaign manager ffs), and the people who turn the ideology into action. Didn’t you learn in primary school to judge people by their actions, not their words? And why would I ignore these particular conservatives because they’re “vulgar clowns”? You’re all dangerous, vulgar clowns.

88

Jerry Vinokurov 09.17.18 at 2:28 am

At any rate, there’s absolutely no reason why someone couldn’t be an anti-realist about ethics… and still support enlightenment values as a practical matter

Hi, a pleasure to meet you (I elided “postmodernist” because I wouldn’t call myself that).

89

J-D 09.17.18 at 5:51 am

Aristotle wrote (in his Politics) that ‘there are cities in which they [the oligarchs] swear, “I will be an enemy to the people, and will devise all the harm against them which I can”‘. Bertrand Russell (in his History Of Western Philosophy) cites this and comments, ‘Nowadays, reactionaries are not so frank.’

From a different perspective, we have this:
https://www.theonion.com/nation-s-rich-and-powerful-wondering-when-rest-of-ameri-1826268763

As for the relationship between Trump (and his like) and their predecessors, I think this:

‘… Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own.’

‘… I agree … Those who call for Nonsense will find that it comes.’
(CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

90

Z 09.17.18 at 8:44 am

On the triangle fallacy, here is a recent quote from Pierre Rosanvallon (one of the most distinguished French political philosophers) “One should not give the misleading idea that there is just one school of [reactionary or conservative] thoughts. There are different temperaments. Essayists in a rush and more erudite authors. Approximate journalists and deeper meditations. But this galaxy shares something. Something politically very important. They all share common passions, common repulsions, common irritations, common accusations. Against Mai 68 for instance. They all rail against the society of human rights.”

I take Corey’s thesis to be that the common passion they all share is the love of private hierarchies and the dislike of their abolition.

@Thomas Beale 63 the full set of opinions held by most individuals don’t sort cleanly into the boxes we’d like to sort the individuals into

Of course (and by the way, I’m not American, so Universal Health Care and abortion occupy no special places in my formalization of the political space and favoring one while opposing the other doesn’t upset my “preferred political categories” one bit). But the way I understand Corey’s project is quite simple in that respect: among all the political passions, there is one that has animated many people in the 1650-1970 period, the one ignited in people’s hearts and minds by the waning of private hierarchies and the desire to reinstitute them. It’s a passion. A mind, per the title. Corey is very clear that people moved by this passion often (if not systematically) embraced new methods and mobilized new political positions. So political positions and political mode of actions in themselves change, but the ultimate goal has a core common characteristic.

As Peter T writes, the implications of Corey’s thesis (assuming he considers my presentation to be accurate) are actually quite morally neutral, in the abstract. He phrases it philosophically or theoretically but the way I see it is historical: there was this deep, epochal socio-historical change that deeply transformed society and the way we think (the masses gaining autonomy and political agency as the result of revolutionary and convergent gains in educative achievements), some people rode the wave, some tried to roll it back. Now we are in the midst of a new socio-historical change that is deeply transforming society and the way we think (a substantial part of the population separating itself from the rest as the result of divergent gains in educative achievements), some people are riding the wave, some people are trying to roll it back.

Somewhat amusingly, many ideologies born in the first wave-riding (resp. wave-containing) period, like socialism or economic democracy (resp. Austrian economics or the discipline of the free market) are now being recycled but with opposite positions in terms of the direction of change. Somewhat less amusingly, immediately before the socio-historical change is completed, we observe an authoritarian crispation around an ideology of national palingenesis (in my mind a different phenomenon from first period conservatism, so if “from Edmund Burke” is spot on, I actually disagree with the “to Donald Trump” part of Corey’s book’s subtitle).

91

thundermonkey 09.17.18 at 3:34 pm

Facebook posts are not often not accessible for those who refuse to join, and furthermore they are hard to find via searching – Corey Robin’s FB rebuttal to Kabaservice is not indexed by Google, for example. This is a sore point with me, so I reprint his post below for the record. Robin later approvingly commented on FB about the OP, and a link to that is here.

Geoff Kabaservice, who wrote a very good book about the Republican Party, has written a critique of a bunch of books about conservatism from the left. His critique focuses on the work of Rick Perlstein, Heather Richardson, Nancy MacLean, Lisa McGirr, and yours truly. As the only non-historian in the bunch, I feel honored.

Here’s what he says (my response below):

“In fact, one of the more influential studies of conservatism, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, insists that such seemingly disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Milton Friedman and Sarah Palin are all more or less the same, sharing the overarching goal of preserving the ruling order’s power and privilege against liberationist movements from below. In his view, the ideals conservatives tout (greater freedom, robust public morality, economic growth and deference to the Constitution) are nothing but fig-leaf cover for oppression, and anyone outside the elite who thinks otherwise is a victim of false consciousness. Robin—who, full disclosure, helped make my Ph.D. years miserable by leading a grad student unionization effort at my university—advances his argument with considerable force and erudition. But his reductionist thesis is the mirror image of the sloppy right-wing canard that liberalism is no different from socialism, or even communism.”

A couple of things.

First, I’m always struck in reading this version of the critique, which I’ve been reading for years, how otherwise smart people cannot distinguish the claim “All of these figures are part of the same family or formation” from the claim “All of these figures are the same.” The two claims, as any social scientist will tell you, hell, as any child will tell you, are not the same thing.

My book is an attempt to make sense of how the proponents of otherwise contradictory and seemingly incommensurable commitments can nevertheless come together and see themselves, in a fairly deep way, as connected and cathected. Most accounts of the right—whether synchronic or diachronic—don’t do that. They simply narrate a series of disconnected figures across time (from Burke to Friedman) or bring together a series of disconnected figures at a moment in time (social traditionalists and hardcore libertarians and statist warriors), without explaining the connective glue. My book really wrestles with the challenge of modern conservative historiography: Why did a group of figures putatively committed, above all else, to liberty, find themselves in a coalition with a group of figures committed, above all else, to authoritarian state and private power? That’s a puzzle that needs to be solved. My book is an attempt to solve that puzzle. Most histories and studies of the right just reaffirm or sidestep the puzzle. Precisely b/c I’m trying to make sense of a commonality amid difference, it’s bizarre to claim that I don’t see the differences.

Second, the charge of reductiveness also strikes me as a case of really lazy and shallow reading, one, I hate to say it, that I see even among sympathetic readers of the book. Reductive arguments generally seek to dismiss the role of ideas and ideologies; they dissolve them into power and privilege or material interest. They end their accounts, in other words, with power and privilege.

My book does the exact opposite. I *begin* with the notion that conservatism is a defense of power and privilege, and then I look at how conservatives actually go about doing that. In other words, the ideas and ideologies are, for me, the absolute key to understanding how conservatism works, to what makes it so endlessly fascinating and interesting, to what makes it so variable. As I say repeatedly—and as I show in the chapters that come after the introduction (which unfortunately is the only chapter that too many friends and critics of the book read)—conservatism will take multiple forms across time; it will by necessity be different in different moments. This is why the chapter on Ayn Rand looks so different, and makes such different arguments, from the chapter on Burke and Smith. The task of the scholar is to see how that difference gets created. But again to see that difference, to understand the true innovation of that variability, you have to recognize the common starting point.

One last point: A lot of non-conservatives have a very difficult time grappling with the notion that a commitment to inequality, that a belief in the inherent superiority of some people over others, that one group has the the right to rule and dominate others, is a moral belief. For many people, particularly on the left, that idea is not so much immoral as it is beyond the pale of morality itself. So that’s where the charge that I’m being dismissive or reductive comes from, I’m convinced. Because I say the animating idea of the right is not freedom or virtue or limited government but instead power and privilege, people, and again I see this mostly from liberals and the left, think I’m making some sort of claim about conservatism as a criminal, amoral enterprise, devoid of principle altogether, whereas I firmly believe I’m trying to do the exact opposite: to focus on where exactly the moral divide between right and left lies.

Anyway, read Kabaservice’s piece. He’s no dummy; he’s a very good historian. But like a fair number of critics, he doesn’t understand that showing commonality is often a pathway to seeing real difference (just look at Louis Hartz’s book on liberalism) and that broaching the question of material power and privilege is not a way of shutting down a discussion of ideas but a way of opening it up.

92

arcseconds 09.17.18 at 11:02 pm

Thomas @ 76:

I may be overstating the case wr.t. political parties, although the Momentum movement + John McDonald here in the UK has a strong Marxist/postmodernist feel.

You say ‘Marxist/postmodernist’ as though that were perfectly natural, but Marxism is almost the antithesis of postmodernism on every score. Marxism commits itself to a single theory, which it believes is true, a particular metaphysics (materialism), a particular account of society, and one set of social arrangements. Moreover it’s a political and economic philosophy, and normally its adherents are almost ludicrously serious about the whole thing.

Postmodernism on the other hand is a loose collection of somewhat related art movements (to be sure including a philosophical movement), characterized by being opposed to ‘metanarratives’ and absolutes, against grand theories (and, often, ‘truth’), deliberately undermining expected norms, and being eclectic and ‘playful’. And, also, a reaction against modernism, and Marxism is a pretty modernist sort of a movement.

I suppose it’s not impossible for someone or something to be both marxist and postmodernist in some sense all the same, but some important aspect of one or the other would have to change, as far as I can see. I mean, you can’t be both against all metanarratives and pro historical materialism… so what interesting amalgam are you attributing to Momentum and John McDonnell (I presume this is whom you mean)?

Having perused the relevant webpages, Momentum appears to be a perfectly ordinary left-wing political organisation, hardly distinct from Labour, rallying around Corbyn, more activist and more left than the mainstream Labour party, comparable perhaps to the youth wings of any main left-wing party. Nothing strikes me as either particularly marxist or postmodernist, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be any kind of ‘tabula rasa’ revolutionary extreme left.

John McDonnell does indeed have a Marxist lean. But no signs of postmodernism? He does say he wants to overthrow capitalism, but is that enough to count as a ‘tabula rasa’ extreme left revolutionary? He apparently wants to do this through normal parliamentary procedure (or else why be a Labour MP), so presumably not revolutionary in the sense he’s proposing a literal revolution, and it’s a bit of a stretch to think that the Labour Party is ever going to clear the slate completely.

93

Another Nick 09.18.18 at 1:21 am

“I firmly believe I’m trying to do the exact opposite: to focus on where exactly the moral divide between right and left lies.”

The central common conservative denominator is fear.

a) People who fear ‘losing at social darwinism’

b) People whose fear of having less money trumps their morality, their “enlightened values”, allowing them to align with a)

Does that more or less cover all conservatives? It covers all the ones I know, friends, family, work colleagues, neighbours, right wing politicians and columnists of various shades.

94

Peter T 09.18.18 at 3:13 am

I tried to think of conservative thinkers who were neither reactionary nor in favour of oppression. The closest I can come is Lord Salisbury, the C19 British PM (described by one historian as the most intelligent leader the Conservative Party has ever had). Excoriated Indian officialdom over famines, remarked that “when I am told that my ploughmen are capable citizens, it seems to me ridiculous to say that educated women are not just as capable.”, stood up for the London poor against developers, introduced various humane reforms in education, housing and tenants rights. All the while remaining distrustful of mass politics and tenacious in defence of existing rights and privileges. His biography (by Andrew Massie) is well worth a read.

95

arcseconds 09.18.18 at 5:04 am

(in my mind a different phenomenon from first period conservatism, so if “from Edmund Burke” is spot on, I actually disagree with the “to Donald Trump” part of Corey’s book’s subtitle)

Robin thinks that different conservatives are different phenomena already, a point made abundantly clear by thundermonkey’s quote @ 91 (thanks,thundermonkey), so I don’t think there is any real disagreement here. He thinks the importing uniting feature is an inclination to reactionary oppression. So to disagree with Robin about Trump means to think that Trump has no important inclination towards reactionary oppression…

96

arcseconds 09.18.18 at 5:59 am

Thomas @ 76,

regarding aunties:

This is more or less what I was originally getting at re: the definition of the term ‘conservative’. My aunt in Australia votes Liberal, but supports enlightenment values. Is she a conservative? If so, then how can it be that all conservatives are evil oppressors of the common man? If not, then what do we call her? Either way, we still don’t have a working definition of the term…

Why can’t conservatives support Enlightenment values? Robin surely thinks they can do so, and presumably thinks that this is often their justification for their oppression. He thinks neoliberals like Hayek count as conservatives for his purposes.

My impression is that Robin is not offering a definition, rather he is noting that there is a group of people and movements who are frequently grouped together (as conservatives, or right-wingers), and who moreover find common cause with one another, e.g. Hayek’s support of Pinochet, libertarians supporting the Republican Party, etc. And he is asking the question “what do these people actually have in common with one another?”, and proposing that the real answer is reactionary, oppressive inclinations.

His book deals with conservative leaders — thinkers, writers and politicians. Obviously I don’t know your aunt, but it’s possible that rank-and-file followers of right-wing parties may not be motivated by the same things that motivate the movers and shakers, as I mentioned in a previous comment. Perhaps they like strong leaders or are voting according to family tradition. Or maybe they just don’t like paying taxes, which might make them selfish and short-sighted but perhaps not actually motivated by reactionary inclinations.

I get the impression Robin thinks the rank-and-file are tricked into supporting people who oppress them, at any rate they presumably are not usually consciously voting for their own oppression. The trickery may be e.g. being sold a picture where wealth will trickle down to them, or lionizing successful people and characterizing the right as being pro-success, and the left as being anti-success. Or pro- business, etc.

But a lot of it is fear, right? Fear of the terrible hash Labour will make of things once they are in power, at least. But also fear of immigrants, indigenous people, the poor, and criminals. The justification of course is often enlightenment values, once again: these people don’t respect the social contract, property values, hard work, the rule of law, etc.

And what remedies are proposed (and enacted) to remedy these things? It’s never welcoming different people to the table and enabling them, but always shutting them out, shutting them down, and removing them from society (or never letting them in in the first place), i.e. oppression.

(If it were just enlightenment values that were at play here, why isn’t there a sizeable ‘Conservatives for Native Title’ movement? Property rights, after all… oh, I forgot, they all follow Locke wrt. terra nulla, rather than Kant. Funny that. )

97

Hidari 09.18.18 at 8:50 am

I think this is an incredibly important point here:

‘One last point: A lot of non-conservatives have a very difficult time grappling with the notion that a commitment to inequality, that a belief in the inherent superiority of some people over others, that one group has the the right to rule and dominate others, is a moral belief. For many people, particularly on the left, that idea is not so much immoral as it is beyond the pale of morality itself. So that’s where the charge that I’m being dismissive or reductive comes from, I’m convinced. Because I say the animating idea of the right is not freedom or virtue or limited government but instead power and privilege, people, and again I see this mostly from liberals and the left, think I’m making some sort of claim about conservatism as a criminal, amoral enterprise, devoid of principle altogether, whereas I firmly believe I’m trying to do the exact opposite: to focus on where exactly the moral divide between right and left lies.’

Both the Right and the Left, think that they are moral. And yet they disagree about moral issues. How can this be?

The solution to this problem is to see that when Rightists and Leftists use the word ‘moral’ they are using the word in two different (and non compatible) senses. I won’t dwell on what the Left mean by morality: I’m sure most of you will be familiar with, so to speak, your own moral code.

What the Right mean by morality is rather different, and is more easily seen in ‘outliers’ e.g. right wing intellectuals like Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot rather than politicians. Intellectuals can be rather more open about their true beliefs.

The first key point is to understand the hostility towards ‘abstraction’: and what purposes this serves. Nothing is more alien to right wing thought that the idea of an Abstract Man: right wing thought is situational, contextual (one might even call it relativistic) to the core. de Maistre states this most clearly: ‘The (French) constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.’

This sounds postmodern to us, even Leftist (and of course Marx might have given highly provisional approval to this statement). But the question is not: is this statement true? It’s: ‘what do the right do with this statement?’

Again to quote another reactionary thinker Jose Ortega y Gasseett: ‘I am myself plus my circumstances’. Again this is simply a definition of contextualism. So what are your circumstances? They are, amongst other things, your social circumstances: i.e. your social class.

Since, according to this argument, you are amongst other things, your social class, I cannot judge your moral actions unless I understand your social circumstances. But morality is a form of judgement, or to put it another way a ranking. Morality is means nothing unless I can say: ‘you are more moral then him, she is more moral than you’ and so on. (Nietzsche: ‘Man is Man the esteemer’ i.e. someone who ranks his or her fellow human beings: human beings cannot be morally equal or the phrase has no meaning).

But I can’t hermeneutically see what moral role you must play in life, I cannot judge you, unless I have some criteria for this judgement, and for this I must know what your circumstances are.

Therefore, unless people have a role in life (i.e. butcher, baker, candlestick maker) then morality collapses (this is the weak point in the argument and if you wanted to tear the whole edifice down you would start here). Because unless we know what one’s social role is then we can’t assess whether or not people are living ‘up to’ that role. And of course this social order must be hierarchical, or else anyone can be anything one wants to be, and in that case, who will sweep the streets? ‘

And if anyone has any smart arse points to raise about that idea, God usually gets roped in to function, literally, as a Deux ex Machina.

‘ The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.’

Clive James put it best when discussing Waugh: ‘With no social order, there could be no moral order. People had to know their place before they knew their duty…he (and, more importantly society) needed a coherent social system (i.e. an ordered social system, a hierarchical social system)’

In other words Conservatives believe that without hierarchy, without ranking and without a stratified (and therefore meaningful) social order, morality actually disintegrates. You simply cannot have a morality without these things: everything retreats into the realm of the subjective. Conservatives don’t believe that things like the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, the Great Terror, the Cultural Revolution are bad things that happened to happen: they believe that they are the necessary and inevitable end result of atheistical, relativistic, egalitarian politics. Social ‘levelling’, destroying meaningful (i.e. hierarchical (‘organic’ is the euphemism usually used)) societies will usually, not always but usually, lead to genocide and/or civil war. Hence the hysteria that seizes most Conservatives when the word relativism is used. And their deep fear of postmodernism, a small scale, now deeply unfashionable art movement with a few (very few) philosophical adherents: as it destroys hierarchy and undermines one’s capacity to judge and therefore order one’s fellow human beings, it will tend to lead to the legalisation of pedophilia, the legalisation of rape, the legalisation of murder, war, genocide etc, because, to repeat, morality depends on order. No social order= no morality.

Hence the Right’s deep suspicion of the left’s morality. To the Right, the Left has no morality, as they understand the term, and cannot in fact do so. Leftist morality is a contradiction in terms, in this worldview.

98

Z 09.18.18 at 9:02 am

arcsecond @95 Robin thinks that different conservatives are different phenomena already,

Sure, I agree that this what Robin thinks, and I agree with the statement.

so I don’t think there is any real disagreement here.

Unfortunately (?), there is indeed one.

He thinks the importing uniting feature is an inclination to reactionary oppression.

Again, I agree that this is what he says, and I agree with the statement.

So to disagree with Robin about Trump means to think that Trump has no important inclination towards reactionary oppression…

And finally I agree with your logic. So you correctly concluded that I am logically committed to the statement that Trump has no inclination towards reactionary oppression. How can that be?

The trick is that I fully agree that Trump has violent inclinations towards oppression and that they are daily on display. What I disagree is that the oppression he favors is reactionary in the sense of being a re-action against something. Reactionaries of the past were immersed in a tremendous social change – lower orders were asserting their agency – and they re-acted to it by trying (in theory or in practice) to keep them in their subordinate positions by a variety of means, some novel. It’s Tancredi famous dictum: everything has to change so that everything will stay the same.

At the moment, we are immersed in a tremendous social change that in itself puts back the lower orders in even more subordinate positions, so theories or policies which are intensifying the level of oppression they suffer (as Trump’s do) aren’t reactions properly construed. They are just riding along. As I said above, same ideas, same theories (sometimes), same political passion (surely) but the historical arrow of change has switched sides, so the proper characterization of what is happening should be changed as well (if we want to maintain intellectual clarity).

A couple of years ago, Corey Robin actually expressed similar sentiments (mostly on his own blog, IIRC). At the time, he was upon occasions theorizing that conservatism might die as an ideology because it had triumphed in putting the lower orders back in their place (turning the arrow of change, in the terminology above).

99

Thomas William Beale 09.18.18 at 5:22 pm

arcseconds @ 92
You say ‘Marxist/postmodernist’ as though that were perfectly natural, but Marxism is almost the antithesis of postmodernism on every score.

Indeed and I didn’t mean to imply that with my shorthand, which should have been ‘Marxist+postmodernist’. I took it for granted that people here wouldn’t mistake the intention. McDonell and others (possibly Corbyn) are the Marxists; my impression from various campaign material is that significant numbers of younger members in Momentum are in the radical SJW mould, which is a kind of postmodernism viewpoint, since it usually rails against any critical look at cultural or religious practices.

100

Thomas Beale 09.18.18 at 9:17 pm

Clearly the questions of hierarchy and inequality are important. For some they are intentional design
features of particular types of societies that could be erased in the perfect social democracy.

That’s a great idea, but the evidence of the entire history of humankind is pretty well against it. A better reading of real societies and civilisations over time is that inequality and hierarchical structures are unavoidable emergent phenomena of complex systems (i.e. societies) comprised of individuals of variable capabilities and interests. They are unavoidable because society’s members are not identical.

I don’t say hierarchy or inequality are good or bad – they just are. Do some reading on complexity science. In a society a lot of either is certainly bad. But erasing them both – to zero – does imply a Khmer Rouge kind of approach – absolute and total control.

So as unpalatable as it may be to some, there will always be some inequality and some hierarchy/ies. There will in fact be some lazy people, and some stars, some who lead, earn more, others who follow, earn nothing and write poetry. (I discussed this recently in passing with Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, she agreed that inequality will always be there, just a question of how much).

So if the presence of hierarchy/ies and inequality is the decider between the progressive and conservative conceptions of social life, then the real implication is the Left are Utopians rather than realists. (Personally I think this is only true of a minority of the Left).

There is no doubt that many conservatives think hierarchy and inequality are great, as much as possible please (The American Dream is after all built on just that idea). But there are thinkers who see hierarchy and inequality as inevitable natural features of society that need to managed as well as possible without unduly curtailing individual liberty or responsibility, i.e. without governments directly managing people.

That mindset puts liberty above equality when it comes to sorting out conflicting interests – i.e. they want as much equality as is available without subjugation; from their point of view, the Left is always ready to take away too much liberty in the search for an unattainable Utopia of equality. Perhaps these people are just ‘liberals’?

101

Peter T 09.18.18 at 10:19 pm

Hidari’s point is important. To extend it, a lot of people see society in organic terms, and think the maintenance of the whole over-rides the welfare of any particular bit – even if that particular bit happens to be themselves (Trump recently hit this theme when he tweeted that “patriotic” Americans were prepared to sacrifice for the greater good in the trade war). This conception makes explanations around “delusion” or false consciousness unnecessary.

Couple of points on Thomas Beale: the SJW hardly “rails against any critical look at cultural or religious practices.” Most of the campaign is against what they see as unjust or arbitrary cultural or religious practices.

Heirarchy is probably unavoidable, not for reasons of individual difference but because one-to-many organisation is the only form that scales readily. We can all have an equal voice on a jury, but not when building a henge or a operating a car-factory. The key issues are what this entails in terms of the liberty and welfare of the lowest groups, and who the top should be selected. I think it’s fair to say that answers continue to elude us, but it’s also fair to say that conservative thinkers do not have a great record on the first: no conservative advocate of greater liberty for the lower orders springs readily to mind.

102

Cranky Observer 09.19.18 at 12:39 am

= = = Hidari @ 8:30 AM
[…]Clive James put it best when discussing Waugh: ‘With no social order, there could be no moral order. People had to know their place before they knew their duty…he (and, more importantly society) needed a coherent social system (i.e. an ordered social system, a hierarchical social system)’

In other words Conservatives believe that without hierarchy, without ranking and without a stratified (and therefore meaningful) social order, morality actually disintegrates. You simply cannot have a morality without these things: everything retreats into the realm of the subjective. […] = = =

Thoughtful post Hidari and worth detailed thought.

However, during the course of reading this thread I also observed the following observation on a Twitter thread by Amanda Marcotte:

AM: “That conservatives are exponentially better at creating and enforcing social lies, where everyone piously repeats it but no one believes it, isn’t a surprise. Most of their value systems are based on that ability.
Take the religious right. They maintain the polite fiction that premarital abstinence is a reasonable expectation that is routinely followed in their social circles. They say this while roughly 95% of them had sex before marriage.”

In reading conservative self-descriptions of morality, purity, cultural values, social order, etc it is necessary to keep the concept of the unreliable narrator in mind as well.

103

arcseconds 09.19.18 at 5:51 am

Hidari @ 97:

This reminds me of George Will’s pearl-clutching at people wearing jeans — it’s fine if stevedores wear jeans, but not Steve Jobs, everyone who isn’t working the docks or the ranch (and perhaps has reached a certain status in society?) should be taking their sartorial marching orders from Fred Astaire and Grace Kelly.

You’re right that conservatives like hierarchies and rankings and orders, and also I could add rigid categories here — it’s all a bit OCD. This informs e.g. their reaction to same-sex attraction and transgender: these things violate fundamental properties of the universe and transgress fundamental, fundamentally disjoint categories (and, also, mess with hierarchies).

However, this seems to me to apply to conservatives sensu stricto, not the wider definition Robin is using. Or at least, it applies to them more than others. What do you say about libertarians? The ones that aren’t also Republicans or white evangelical Christians, at least. They don’t seem so concerned about ‘organic’ societies and people having fixed roles (and wearing the right clothes). They have some hangups that maybe look a bit similar from an angle, if you squint, but I think you’d have to be pretty handy with a crowbar to fit them in to your account as written.

Also, I’m wondering whether the genocide/civil war thing is a bit melodramatic. Certainly some conservatives believe something like that, but I’m wondering whether for the likes of George Will, it’s not that everyone will die horribly in a fire, but just that all fine and good things will be lost. Everyone wearing denim (distressed! zut alors!) and using slang is horrors enough.

Finally, the concern about ‘postmodernism’ is a hangup particularly of some Christian conservatives, and what they mean by ‘postmodernism’ isn’t actually postmodernism at all, but anything which doesn’t clearly derive morality from a source of moral certainty, i.e. God (as you say) / a ‘literal’ interpretation of scripture (they don’t distinguish the two). Often it’s actually just other forms of Christianity that are being tarred with this brush — that is to say, those accused of postmodernism may also believe in God, and believe that morality is tied up with God, but dare to suggest that human reason (and human bias) can come into interpreting scripture and applying it to the lives of today.

(What’s at stake here isn’t so much hierarchies and roles and situatedness, but another hang-up conservatives often have — the need for certainty and clarity and lack of tolerance for doubt and difficulty. )

I don’t think the conservatives that harp on about ‘Enlightenment values’ are anywhere near as invested in the whole postmodern threat thing. Of course sometimes you see complaints like Thomas Beale’s, but they don’t seem to be a lead-up to horror on earth, just intellectual laziness and more god-damn political correctness and irritating woolly lefties.

(Actually, it’s pretty common for scientists and analytic philosophers to have a bit of a hangup about postmodernism too, and they’re usually not otherwise notably conservative)

104

b9n10nt 09.19.18 at 8:48 am

Thomas Beale @100

Equality and liberty are correlates, not opposites. They both expanded for the great majority of individuals in societies where they were collectively, cooperatively acheived:

when chattel slavery was nearly abolished, when voting rights, workers rights, and social protections were expanded, when health care became a public good, when education became a public good, when consumer protections were acheived, when environmental laws were passed, when women, lgbqt, disabled persons all gained in political power relative to able-bodies heterosexual men,

By claiming that “equal” = “less free”, you supply evidence for
Hidari’s (and perhaps Corey’s) point that a conservative’s definition of “liberty” is simply a synonym for “private privilege”, which was and is most certainly threatened by the on-going (nonlinear) expansion of liberty/equality.

Any social mammal would agree: alphas on top and betas below, this is the keystone to a social architecture that provides for order and prosperity for a natural population. We,
blessedly, are not “any social primate”. Neither nature nor god has yet to punish us for occassionally defying an atrophied instinct to rule and be ruled. Quite the contrary…

105

Hidari 09.19.18 at 9:11 am

@103

‘What do you say about libertarians?’

That’s a very good question. It’s actually discussed (sort of implicitly) in Corey’s book. As I said in my OP, if you really want hierarchy, ‘using’ one of the Abrahamic religions is really the way to go. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are hierarchical religions (with Roman Catholicism being the most hierarchical and anti-democratic of all: no wonder Waugh and the various South American dictatorships loved it). Ultimately, God steps in to ‘plug any holes’ in the hierarchical ‘argument’.

Why inequality? ‘Cos God. An irrefutable argument.

But what happens when faith in God falters?

According to Corey, Nietzsche set out to answer that very question (and others followed in his footsteps, especially, of course, Heidegger). And not just philosophers. Austrian economists were also saturated in Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean atheistical thought: as was, of course Ayn Rand who plagiarised him relentlessly (without attribution). Nietzsche’s answer was of course similar to the points made in @100 above: ‘Yeah sure, talk about egalitarianism all you want: at the end of the day, inequality will spontaneously arise’ (Pareto, of course, also made the same point).

It really just depends on whether or not you are honest about your elitism or not. Hence the glee with which Conservatives fall on (e.g.) inequality and de facto class differences in ‘Communist’ states. Their point is not: ‘weren’t these communist states awful? What a shame.’ It’s ‘You see? It doesn’t matter how much you want to abolish hierarchy and inequality. It always comes back. Better, more honest, to admit it and just deal with it, rather than lie about it, as communists do.’

Again, Corey talks about this when talking about Scalia. Now Scalia was not a libertarian, he was a Roman Catholic (and given his love of hierarchy and hostility to democracy, there are very good reasons why he would find Catholicism congenial, as discussed above). But there are some similarities to libertarian thought.

Specifically, there is one case when Scalia is discussing sport (I think it’s golf). Now Conservatives love sport: not frisbee or scuba diving, but competitive sports. Scalia makes this explicit: he loves sport (e.g. the 100 metres sprint) because it demonstrates objective and unarguable hierarchy, inequality. At the end of the day, the machines don’t lie. You either won or you lost. Gold Silver and Bronze are objective markers of inequality, partially because of genetic differences, partly because of how much work you did, but also partly because of the Schopenhauerian Will: how much you wanted it.

To conservatives, life is a sprint (or a marathon, or golf or whatever: i.e. not a team sport). It’s you against the world. Egalitarians can play their word games all they want, but at the end of the day, winners and losers spontaneously emerge. In capitalism money functions as a Gold or Silver medal: an objective measure of your Will: how badly you wanted it (whatever ‘it’ is).

But to return to the OP above: morality is also like this. Again, hence the attraction of Roman Catholicism: the saints in the Catholic pantheon function as objective measures of moral goodness. Doubtless there is a genetic component. Also being moral is hard work (remember that Conservatives tend to see morality as the expression of Duty, your Responsibilities to your society (which generally means to your social class)). But it’s also an expression of the Will: how badly you want it. This was first stated in Schopenhauer, then passed onto Nietzsche and then via the Austrians to the American Right more generally. The attraction of course is that it is a way of expressing hierarchy without having to rope God into it. Indeed, Ayn Rand and Mises etc. were openly hostile to Christianity because they thought certain phrases in it (e.g. ‘Love thy neighbour as yourself’ and the insistence that ‘God loves everyone’ might start giving the masses ideas: Ayn Rand openly believed that the broad mass of humanity were simply worthless and were simply incapable of rising to the moral/physical/financial heights achieved by Entrepeneurs (who function as a secularised form of Plato’s Philosopher Kings in Rand’s Weltanschauung)).

‘ I’m wondering whether the genocide/civil war thing is a bit melodramatic. Certainly some conservatives believe something like that, but I’m wondering whether for the likes of George Will, it’s not that everyone will die horribly in a fire, but just that all fine and good things will be lost.’

In Notes Towards a Definition of Culture: T.S. Eliot made the points that I have made vis a vis morality vis a vis culture: according to Eliot, aesthetic judgement is another kind of valuing, and again presupposes hierarchy, not just that certain works of art must be better than others, but also that (e.g.) my taste is better than yours, hers is better than mine, and so on. In other words, for Eliot, Art must cease to exist in a genuinely egalitarian culture. No social order, no morality, yes, but also no social order, no Art. And of course T.S. Eliot roped in God to justify all this, ultimately (or, if you were being cynical, to plug any holes there might be in his argument: faith filling in for Reason).

@102

Of course the extent to which all of this is simply self-serving bullshit by heterosexual wealthy white cis males who just want to hold onto their money and property must remain a moot point. But there’s no point pretending that the arguments they use to protect their privilege are self-evidently stupid (or self-evidently wrong, for that matter).

106

Thomas Beale 09.19.18 at 11:46 am

b9n10nt @ 104
By claiming that “equal” = “less free”, you supply evidence for

I don’t claim that; I am saying that achieving total equality in a complex system which has (some level of) inequality as one of its unavoidable characteristics necessarily requires some deprivation of liberties of its members.

That’s because you eventually have to force agents in the society to behave in certain ways to fit the required definition of the truly equal member of the society. For example, the only way to equalise private property is to take it away. Nice in theory, but history has shown it has no hope whatever of working. The reality is some want more, some want less. It’s a relative game, not a game of absolutes.

There will always be some ‘private privilege’ – trying to erase that to zero requires totalitarianism. Reducing it to levels that fit within a society’s reasonable and achievable moral minimum requires (perhaps a la Rawls) is a much more realistic game to play. Your list of historical achievements are exactly the right kinds of things to achieve this. Stalin, Mao, Shining Path, Cambodia are exactly the wrong ways…

107

Matt 09.19.18 at 11:52 am

(with Roman Catholicism being the most hierarchical and anti-democratic of all:

ah…. I think that Patriarch Kirill might want to have a word with you about the truth of this claim (at least about the “anti-democratic”, – the hierarchical bit is there, for sure, but maybe more complicated.)

108

Z 09.19.18 at 12:43 pm

Thanks Hidari for stimulating an interesting discussion!

Thomas Beale inequality and hierarchical structures are unavoidable emergent phenomena of complex systems (i.e. societies) comprised of individuals of variable capabilities and interests.

Yes, different people pursuing different things with different strategies and different capabilities will end up living in different ways and producing different things. But that doesn’t mean we should conceptualize these differences as fundamental inequalities, and likewise different ranking of quality does not necessarily entail a hierarchy (with the connotation of increasing power as one climbs up). Let me be concrete.

Most everyone able to have an opinion will agree that the math I have produced as of today is of higher quality than the math my current PhD student has produced as of today, but of lower quality than the math my colleague next door has produced as of today, and then again that the math Peter Scholze has produced as of today exceeds his in quality. That means that our math productions are unequal, and indeed ranked. Now the question is the extent to which these very particular unequal productions should affect other aspects of our social existence, for instance the nature of our respective political, legal and social rights, our material conditions of living, our standing in the society… Very few people deny that it should have some effect, some may think that it should have an effect strictly within the confines of the inequality observed (so Scholze’s voice should count more than mine to evaluate other people’s math, but he and I should have the same salary), some may think that some sort of transitivity (so to speak) is warranted (so they would consider it desirable that all else being equal, the best mathematician receives a higher salary as mathematician, or has a larger impact on the administration of research…) etc.

Seen from that perspective, the reactionary mind (the hierarchical mind more precisely, the reactionary mind being the hierarchical mind when challenged) holds a striking position: it is the mind that affirms that there exists one or a few qualities* the ranking of which should determine essentially all aspects of social life. Those on top of these particular few rankings should be on top of all hierarchies, they should have more power, more respect should be given to them, they should have more rights… Especially, they should dominate private interactions. Hidari quoted de Maistre above, let me illustrate with another quotation of his “But what is a nation? my dear friend. It is the sovereign and the aristocracy. Voices should not be counted, but weighted. I don’t know how many servants you have, but should you have fifty, I would take the liberty to esteem their united voices slightly below yours.” Everybody (able to have an opinion) will readily agree that Scholze is worth more than 50 of me in terms of mathematical production, but according to de Maistre, if you are of the “aristocracy” (whatever that means), you are valued like 50 commoners on every aspects.

That propagation of some particular form of ranking to every sphere of social and personal interactions is far from obvious, not by far a logical consequence of emerging properties of complex systems and the characteristic sign of the hierarchical mind. The exact converse of the hierarchical mind as above (or as Hidari described it) is not the Left, exactly (the Left is one particular incarnation of an opposite disposition under specific social and historical conditions). The hierarchical mind takes one or a few perspectives, and declares them of universal applications. Its opposite, then, is the habitude of thinking that can conceive of a multitude of perspectives which are all in principle equally valid (in terms of political philosophy, it is closest to Deweyan liberalism, probably, but notions like overlapping consensus or indeed the veil of ignorance also come somewhat close).

*Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few reactionaries make the effort of specifying what these qualities might be. Not surprisingly because if they were to make the efforts, they would have to confront with the glaring arbitrariness of the choices (and probably their own desperate inadequacy according to their own standards; de Maistre himself was an average magistrate in the lowly province of Savoie, not quite the aristocrat). That’s what I always answer to proponent of restricting suffrage to those able to complete some kind of test: I’m all for it, and I propose would-be voters should demonstrate a reasonable degree of competence on the Harry Potter series, hip-hop dancing, Polish cuisine and mammalian cladistics.

109

bob mcmanus 09.19.18 at 1:45 pm

no conservative advocate of greater liberty for the lower orders springs readily to mind.

I am probably all confusion over “liberty” vs ” freedom” but from my retrograde perspective religion played an important role here. People were taught for millennia that “freedom” was alternatively freedom from power, property and privilege. Midas and Richard Cory weren’t all that. I understand the theory that this asceticism was just misogyny and a an opiate to quiet the masses, but is our utopian socialist liberty really about a Lexus for everybody, drunken bachelorette parties in Memphis, and a thousand enthusiastic employees? The math doesn’t quite work, does it, but honestly it isn’t supposed to, cause this is about simple displacement instead of equality. And will inevitably end in a ruined world.

I don’t think Marxism is quite an asceticism, but we are open to liberty and equality at a much lower level of competitive consumption and personal power expression. I’m a big fan of enforced Mao pyjamas, dorms and creches.

110

b9n10nt 09.19.18 at 6:27 pm

Thomas Beale:

I think perhaps you’re doing a motte and bailey:

@100

“That mindset puts liberty above equality when it comes to sorting out conflicting interests – i.e. they want as much equality as is available without subjugation; from their point of view, the Left is always ready to take away too much liberty in the search for an unattainable Utopia of equality. Perhaps these people are just ‘liberals’?”

Thus, you posit a Right that sees relevant tradeoffs between equality and liberty, and a Left that is “always” getting the balance wrong. I read you, perhaps mistakenly, as implicitly endorsing this conception of liberty vs. equality.

@106

“Your list of [social democratic, err democratic socialist, …] historical achievements are exactly the right kinds of things to achieve this. Stalin, Mao, Shining Path, Cambodia are exactly the wrong ways…”

Now you’re seemingly retreating to the claim that only particular extremists are getting the balance wrong.

I argue that there is no balancing (except in rare, extreme circumstances): liberty and equality can both increase at the cost of privilege. Your rightful condemnation of coercive hierarchical nondemocratic leaders who in extremis radically (seek to) increase mass equality at the expense of liberty has as much relevance to contemporary politics as Relativity Theory has to ballistics.

Because your framing of of liberty vs. equality is common in center/right ideology, and you report it uncritically, you appear to endorse it….wrongly. (Did I mention the “wrongly” part?)

111

Thomas Beale 09.19.18 at 7:39 pm

Z @ 108
the reactionary mind (the hierarchical mind more precisely, the reactionary mind being the hierarchical mind when challenged) holds a striking position: it is the mind that affirms that there exists one or a few qualities* the ranking of which should determine essentially all aspects of social life.

Good observation (also the preceding Hidari posts). In the past this was aristocratic status / land ownership and over time various other things, converging on wealth. In a modern society whose organising principle is capitalism this is purely personal wealth; it’s what counts when getting healthcare, education and a house in the US for example. In the UK or Sweden however it is not the single organising principle, and you have equal access to excellent healthcare regardless of your wealth (you can of course spend your own money to get it a bit quicker, but it’s not better), and there is a bottom level for social housing which is pretty decent in the UK (modest houses, often in prime locations).

And yet there are ‘conservatives’ in the UK who are perfectly happy to support the NHS and other social functions that clearly go against the linear wealth-based ranking idea. (Don’t worry I am aware of others who would dearly love to privatise everything tomorrow, but they are known to be a minority). And much as I dislike the Tory party, looked at objectively (for example by watching parliament channel, voting patterns, reading publications) there are decent Tory MPs. Some are trying to block the hard Brexit maniacs right now. The previous Conservative government raised the tax-free threshold by £1000. Are these Conservatives not ‘conservatives’? We get back to the original difficulty with the Robin definitional approach – in fact it’s rather easy to find counter-examples to his and every other definition in this discussion so far (and some of them are quite good).

Aside: what separates your reactionary I wonder from the communist (one assumes a non-conservative…) for whom fidelity to the revolution is the single ranking quality?

112

Thomas Beale 09.19.18 at 8:07 pm

b9n10nt @ 110
Thus, you posit a Right that sees relevant tradeoffs between equality and liberty, and a Left that is “always” getting the balance wrong. I read you, perhaps mistakenly, as implicitly endorsing this conception of liberty vs. equality.

There are certainly people on the Left who get the balance wrong – communists for a start. But there are many who in my view who have it about right (If I didn’t think that, I would not have voted Labour all my life). Indeed, there are people on the Left and Right who understand the reality of society being a balancing act of equity and limitations on freedom. My problem is with those who think in absolutes on either side – Leftists who just cannot admit the reality of how human actors or real nations function, and Right-wingers who just cannot admit that there is any need for such a thing as society or community.

I endorse the idea that the costs of achieving perfect equality (remember, it’s an outcome variable, not a controllable one) must always be consciously weighed.

Your rightful condemnation of coercive hierarchical nondemocratic leaders who in extremis radically (seek to) increase mass equality at the expense of liberty has as much relevance to contemporary politics as Relativity Theory has to ballistics.

You don’t have to go to totalitarianism to find examples of failing to check the balance. On the Left: destructive ideas like (most) affirmative action; the stupid concept of trying to make the gender and racial representation in every film, company and university department a direct copy of the aggregate statistics of society (this kind of thinking is a category error of trying to control output variables by just directly manipulating them – a totalitarian concept). On the Right: numerous e.g. privatisation of publicly owned infrastructure and services. Unfortunately these are popular ideas today.

113

john c. halasz 09.20.18 at 5:55 am

Hidari made a really good contribution here, which greatly improved the quality of the subsequent discussion. But I just want to point out that many of the points he made, about the suspicion of abstraction, the appeal to concreteness , the idea that “morality” is and must be embedded objectively in social relations and the desire for an integrated “organic” account of human society are not simply conservative, but can also be found in strains of clearly left-wing thought.

What’s more, there is confusion playing out here between two different notions of “hierarchy”: a traditional vertical concentric conception and a lateral structural-functional conception of institutional and correspondingly discursive differentiation. as the hallmark of modernity. This is basically just bog-standard sociology. It means that the developmental tendencies of modern societies will tend to both generate and require and impetus toward equality and generate new institutional hierarchies on its own account, which functionally require increasing degrees of “freedom”. I think it was Hegel who first fully recognized and conceptualized the problematic, (which is why he declared an “end of history”, since the newly emergent horizon of modernity could not be suppressed or gotten back behind, but rather would subsequently “determine” the course of events), which is why he is at once the last of the old grand metaphysicians and the first fully modern thinker. Marx’ critique of Hegel’s political philosophy, while containing considerable “force”, nonetheless seems to miss or elide this dimension of Hegel, which accounts for some of the weaknesses and lacunae in his thinking, for all that he benefited in systematic rigor from a revised adoption of Hegelian conceptual dialectics.

I’ve never bothered to read Robin’s book, but from reviews and his writings here and elsewhere, I can see lots of problems with it: his conflation of conservative with reactionaries, (e.g. the Whig hireling Burke with the counter-revolutionary terrorist de Maistre), the lack of historical context, the “close”, i.e. literal, reading without considering the works ” as a whole” and the issues being contested in the historical era, the assumption of an ahistorical continuity (rather like neo-classical economists discussing the wage rate in the 14th century), the presumption that history is clearly progressive and culminates in the terminus ad quem of bien pensant left-liberal thinking, ( when that might actually be obstructive of “progress” in “freedom” and “equality”, which I myself tend to think of as existential facts rather than abstract norms), and his evasion of core issues of political thinking or “theory”, such power, (just how is it generated, concentrated, and redistributed), authority (unavoidable and “necessary” in any human society) and legitimation and its possible sources (which are groundless in modern societies). That these sorts of issues might have vexed a whole lot of political thinkers and participants of various persuasions and perspectives over centuries can’t interfere with partisan affirmations and corresponding disqualifications, rather than attentively listening to the various distressed voices in a time of political regression and civilizational and environmental crisis, when further “progress” might just not be in the offing, but might fail to address what is actually needful.

114

Hidari 09.20.18 at 7:59 am

@107 Fair point! I had forgotten about the Eastern/Russian Orthodox Church.

@113

‘But I just want to point out that many of the points he made, about the suspicion of abstraction, the appeal to concreteness , the idea that “morality” is and must be embedded objectively in social relations and the desire for an integrated “organic” account of human society are not simply conservative, but can also be found in strains of clearly left-wing thought.’

Of course this is true, but I think this is symptomatic of a much deeper issue, which is that most thinkers in the Anglo-American tradition are simply not aware of the influence of Hegel (and also, Nietzsche) on mainstream European thought, both right wing and left wing. For example, it simply cannot be stressed enough that neo-conservatives are ‘right’ Hegelians (Fukayama made this point explicit of course: the End of History Thesis is simply Hegel as seen by Kojeve) and that Austrian economists are…well..Austrian. They owe little to ‘utilitarian’ English or American political traditions (e.g. Locke, Hume, Hobbes). Even other thinkers like Karl Popper only really make sense in a European, not British or American, intellectual context, much as Popper himself might have denied this.

Much of the history of 19th and 20th century political thought is simply a debate about Hegel and who got Hegel ‘right’: the Hegelian left or the Hegelian right. As I said, many Anglo-American political thinkers simply don’t understand this.

115

Hidari 09.20.18 at 8:03 am

@108
‘Yes, different people pursuing different things with different strategies and different capabilities will end up living in different ways and producing different things. But that doesn’t mean we (have to) conceptualize these differences as fundamental inequalities, and likewise different ranking of quality does not necessarily entail a hierarchy (with the connotation of increasing power as one climbs up). ‘

Yes, and this is obviously the fundamental weak point of the whole right wing argument. If you wanted to tear apart the whole intellectual edifice, you would start here.

116

Z 09.20.18 at 9:12 am

Thomas Beale @111 And yet there are ‘conservatives’ in the UK who are perfectly happy to support the NHS and other social functions that clearly go against the linear wealth-based ranking idea. […] We get back to the original difficulty with the Robin definitional approach

The way I see it, individuals and socio-political movements of course reflect a multitude of factors, so trying to provide a single definition is pointless (and I don’t think Corey was trying to do that at all). On the other hand, the effort to isolate common principles (whose formulation will necessarily be idealized) is a valuable task. I take that’s what Corey tried to do, and that is certainly what I was trying to achieve with my characterization of the hierarchical mind.

Aside: what separates your reactionary I wonder from the communist (one assumes a non-conservative…) for whom fidelity to the revolution is the single ranking quality?

A good question, which would require a discussion of many angles if it is to be treated seriously. Briefly put, I would like to be quite clear in comparing either ideologies (the hierarchical mind vs. communist ideology as in Marx, for instance) or political practices and movements in specific historical periods and under specific social circumstances (reactionary politics in 19th century Germany, or mid-20th century Russian communism) or the actual beliefs and political behavior of individuals (by necessity a mixed bag involving a huge deal of culture and anthropology that was left totally unmentioned in the discussion so far).

If one stick to the endeavor of isolating fundamental principles of thoughts, then thought processes behind Pope Gregory VII (“Divine providence and administration instated distinct grades and orders so that inferiors manifest respect towards those placed high”), de Maistre and the late 19th, early 20th century strain of communist ideology which defined total devotion to the avant-garde led Revolution and to the future Proletarian State as the paramount virtue (What is to be done? comes to mind) arguably share some formal structural similarities (a fact well understood by critics like Bakunin, or at the time Trotsky, by the way).

Of course, these three ideologies also differ radically with respect to other equally valid and important metrics. For instance, they were respectively mobilized in three completely different contexts in terms of underlying social changes, making a world of differences, and properly defining de Maistre as a reactionary, Lenin as a (real world) Communist and Gregory VII as a progressive.

john c. halasz two different notions of “hierarchy”: a traditional vertical concentric conception and a lateral structural-functional conception of institutional and correspondingly discursive differentiation, as the hallmark of modernity.

Yes, that is exactly right.

117

Z 09.20.18 at 1:25 pm

Hidari @111 Yes, and this is obviously the fundamental weak point of the whole right wing argument. If you wanted to tear apart the whole intellectual edifice, you would start here.

FWIW, I don’t see the hierarchic mind as an argument, or an intellectual edifice, precisely. Nor is it for me primarily a moral or philosophical stance. It’s more an intellectual or cognitive disposition, on the one hand, and on the other a specific way to immerse oneself in the network of human relations and to reflect about this immersion. So I don’t see the hierarchic mind as something that can be really refuted or teared down (except as a purely intellectual form of entertainment) – exactly like one cannot really refute religious attitudes, and indeed for the very same reason, considering the almost corporeal link between the two that you rightly note. What one can do, much more modestly, is to advance the social structures that are conductive to other cognitive and social dispositions.

Comments on this entry are closed.