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Conserving Hierarchies of Power
Conservative political philosophy assumes the few are superior to the many and justifies gross inequalities according to the auther of The Reactionary Mind.
By Corey Robin
Editor's Note: The following is an interview conducted by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. Corey Robin's new book on "The Reactionary Mind" is causing quite a lot of discussion. Mark Lilla dismisses it at the New York Review of Books. Alex Gourevitch says Lilla has reacted wrongly to the book. But current Republican rhetoric seems intent to demonstrate what Robin is saying, that conservatism is not really interested in conserving anything other than rule by the superior few in hierarchies of power, that it is fundamentally undemocratic and that it desires to destroy the society that people in the United States have known since the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. This is a long interview but well worth the time it takes to read.
Philip Pilkington: The overarching thesis of your new book The Reactionary Mind is a provocative one. In it you contend that conservatism has always been a radical doctrine. Most of us conceive of conservatism as seeking, well, to ‘conserve’ the existing state of things. Could you begin to explain how you arrived at this conclusion?
Corey Robin: It was really by accident. I had been commissioned in 2000 to write a piece for Lingua Franca, which is now defunct, on John Gray and Edward Luttwak. Gray, as your readers probably know, was a fairly hard-core Thatcherite throughout the 1970s and 1980s but after the Cold War was moving away from the right. Not quite to the left, but somewhere in that direction. Luttwak had been one of Reagan’s military intellectuals, a frequent contributor to Commentary, a fairly standard-issue neocon – or so it seemed – and yet he too was breaking in the 1990s with the right.
In the course of researching and writing that article, I came to see that both of these guys had been inspired, throughout their intellectual and political careers, by a kind of brooding romanticism. A spirit that was not especially friendly to tradition or stasis or the status quo but was, in fact, partial to disruption, agonistic struggle, and the like. That is what had once drawn them to the right – for Gray, the libertarian/free-market right; for Luttwak, the militaristic right – and was now pushing them away from the right.
I had always known about the presence of romanticism on the right, going back to Coleridge, the early German Romantics, and so on. What surprised me was: a) seeing that same romanticism alive and well in the late 20th/early 21st century; b) seeing it not in a defense of Gothic cathedrals or landed estates but in a defense of the “free market” and war. I mean the “free market” is many things, but I had never thought of it as particularly romantic. But my research on Luttwak and Gray got me thinking: How is it that romanticism could be found in something as seemingly un-romantic as the “free market”? What connection is there between the disruptive and agonistic elements of romanticism and the obviously disruptive elements of capitalism, which everyone from Marx to Schumpeter to Hayek had written about? And what about warfare as well? While it now seems obvious to me that one of the hallmarks of war is its disruptiveness – Burke writes somewhere that war “never leaves where it found a nation” – at the time, I had thought of it as an instrument of the status quo.
But that article made me think about something else. Modern American conservatives often refer to their movement as a ‘three-legged stool’: one leg is the libertarian/free market; the second leg is the national security/militaristic state; the third leg is religion and cultural traditionalism. If the kind of romantic disruption I saw in Gray and Luttwak was propping up two of the three legs of the stool – I’ve since come to believe it props up the religion/cultural traditionalism leg as well – perhaps it’s more central to the conservative tradition as a whole than I or others had realized.
So I went back and started reading and teaching the canon of conservative thought. And once you have this partiality to disruption and agonistic struggle in mind, you begin to see it all over the place: in Burke’s moral psychology and counterrevolutionary writings; in Maistre’s attack on the French Revolution; in the slaveholder’s defense; in Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean thought; in fascism; and in the mobilization of the free market ideal against communism, socialism, and the welfare state.
I’ve come away from all of this convinced that conservatism is not really about conservation at all – except in one sense: the conservation of established relations of hierarchy and privilege. But what matters there is not the conservation per se – in fact, as I show in my book, conservatives will turn the world upside down in order to turn it right side up – but the hierarchy/privilege.
PP: Yes, that was going to be the issue I raised next. In the book you say that conservatives are only really interested in conserving hierarchies of power. It’s obvious that you find this in aristocratic thinkers like de Maistre and Nietzsche, but what about in the libertarian thinkers? I’ve often got the impression that they believe the market mobilises the masses and disperses them according to ability – in short, I’ve always thought that their philosophy is meritocratic. But surely this cannot be considered as an ideological defence of privilege. Have I misconceived this movement or are they just used as an ideological justification for the powers-that-be?
CR: It’s an excellent question, but we have to be careful here. Mine is not a theory of motivation: i.e., conservatives are interested in – or merely want – to preserve established hierarchies of power. Therefore whatever they say is window-dressing to that motivation or project. My argument is different: it says that conservatism is a theory, a moral and political argument, of hierarchy and elitism, which believes that all that is good in the world – all that is fine and beautiful and superior and excellent – is the product of not only superior people but superior people presiding over a society of unequals. Inequality, in their minds, is the condition of greatness – individual greatness and the contributions that greatness makes to all of civilization. Now the people who make these arguments are not necessarily themselves at the top of the pecking order: many of them are outsiders, hardly to the manor born. Burke himself was an outsider: Irish, son of a Catholic mother (and very likely only a recently converted Protestant father), a lawyer among the landed, bourgeois rather than aristocratic. What’s more, as he makes clear in his Letter to a Noble Lord, he knew it, and at times could express a genuine Jacobin rage against his social betters: “At every step of my progress in life (for in every step I was traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to shew my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my Country… Otherwise, no rank, no toleration even, for me.”
But here’s the interesting thing about that Jacobin rage – and how it relates to your question about libertarianism. In Burke’s fury, you see the glimmers of an argument that will come to play (and indeed, did play, from the very beginning) a huge role in conservative theories of hierarchy and privilege: it is precisely because he comes from outside the customary paths of power, that he was not to the manor born, that he had to fight and claw his way into power, that he was so able to defend, and so ably, the powerful and the privileged. He writes, “Nitor in adversum [I strive against adversity] is the motto for a man like me.” That adversarial sensibility – that willingness to force one’s way into the halls of power, to wrest from the privileged a measure of one’s own power – becomes the model of a new ruling elite that will save the old elites from themselves. As Burke says in the Reflections: “The road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course.” Not impossible – you want the opportunity to be there – just not too easy.
The reason conservatives like Burke – and you see similar arguments throughout the 19th and 20th century – believe that the established elites need to be renewed by a band of outsiders is that they believe comfort and privilege are corrupting: not in a civic republic sense (i.e., people become more private and selfish) but in the Nietzschean sense of decadence: elites become weak, sclerotic, unimaginative, and so on. If the halls of power can be made more permeable – and in the 19th century the battlefield will be praised as the vehicle by which the truly great man, lost in the shadows of the poor or the forgotten classes, can emerge (Napoleon being the obvious example) – they will be made more secure.
I think libertarianism fits within this tradition. But where the older theorists thought warfare would be the proving ground, you see in the late 19th and early 20th century a new idea that the marketplace will be the proving ground. That’s critical to Schumpeter’s theory of rising and declining family dynasties; it plays a big role in von Mises’s book on Socialism (where he praises the first man who seized property for himself; such a man was a genius of violent transgression; yes, it was theft, but so imaginative was that theft that it validates its own actions); it also plays a role in Hayek’s theories of consumption and taste; and it plays a huge role in Ayn Rand’s theories of the industrialist and the genius (again, in her novels, there’s always a strong element of the outsider being this kind of criminal transgressor who bring a new measure of energy to the defense of capitalism, which the insiders cannot provide). Anyway, the long and the short of it is that in the conservative imagination – whether it’s French counterrevolutionary or the Southern slaveholder or the American libertarian – inequality is a condition of greatness and excellence, but to really secure that greatness, it must be a dynamic inequality, in which old and established classes are constantly being injected with new elements, and in which their power and privilege should never be too secure or assured.
PP: Interesting point about the conservative ideologue being an outsider. That brings to a point that you raise in your book which I found fascinating as it really chimed with my personal experience: namely, that conservatism is the ‘politics of the loser’. In talking about this realistically I think we risk opening up criticism on two fronts: on the left, if we are frank, we break the pact of political correctness and open ourselves up to criticism in that vein; while the right will simply accuse us of getting our political knives out. But no matter because I think this should be spoken about quite clearly.
Conservatism is an ideology that seems to appeal to people with a chip on their shoulder. That sounds strange because this is usually the argument raised against the left; most profoundly in the Nietzschean vein of the priest appealing to the ressentiment of the masses. But in my experience – and I’ve spoken with others who move in such circles in private and they agree with me – conservative ideologues are often people with enormous chips on their shoulders. Many are afflicted with some disadvantage or other – or, at least, something that they seem to think a disadvantage. Even those who lack personal experience in this regard can see this all over the place: from Glenn Beck crying like a child on television, to all those bizarre evangelical sex scandals in the US. Theodor Adorno once pointed out that much of Hitler’s appeal was that he was a loser that was trying to overcome his loserness at a time when all of Germany felt like losers – which fits perfectly because Mein Kampf translates, of course, into ‘my struggle’ or ‘my battle’. And we won’t even talk about the irony of Joseph Goebbels, who suffered from club foot and was laughed at in Nazi circles for being a cripple; yet he ran propaganda campaigns against people with disabilities. It’s often people of this disposition that stand up in defence of power. And there seems to be some sort of psychology behind it that’s not often talked about – the phrase ‘identification with the aggressor’ certainly comes to mind, for example. How deeply does this psychology run in conservative doctrine? And how do you make sense of it? CR: Again, I want to stress that mine is not a psychological theory of conservatism. I’m leery of speculating about the psychic states that lead men and women to subscribe to one theory or another, particularly since so many of those states seem like universal experiences, elements of the human condition that can’t be limited to one set of the population or another. But I will say this: the sensibility you describe – experiencing or identifying oneself as a victim — is a consistent feature of conservative thought. Regardless of whether the ideologue or camp follower of conservatism sees him or herself as a victim, the idea of victimhood plays a critical part in conservatism. Going back to Burke. Marie Antoinette is the first great victim of the conservative canon. The sovereign who Joseph de Maistre recommends be restored to power once the counterrevolution prevails – someone Maistre describes as being schooled in the ways of adversity, who’s been brought low by fortune and thus learned a thing or two – he’s a victim (and Maistre recommends him to power on the basis of that victimhood). William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man” is another victim. Nietzsche’s master class, in fact, is a victim. So is Nixon’s silent majority. And so on. Initially, I thought this was all instrumental and cynical: understanding that the lingua franca of democratic thought is the democratic appeal to the masses, the conservative turns the possessor into the dispossessed. But over time I’ve come to think that the victim is a far more fundamental, and sincere, figure in the conservative canon. Because not only does he appeal to us as a figure of compassion or pity, but he’s also someone who has a very particular claim on us: he demands to be made whole. In other words, he’s a rallying figure, someone whose losses – a country house, a plantation, a factory, a white skin – ought to be recompensed.
What’s more, when you turn your privileged class into a group of victims – not just rhetorically but in reality (the French Revolution really did produces losses among the aristocracy; Emancipation really did divest the master class of privilege and property) – they come to possess an attribute that is universally shared: loss. Their loss is quite different from that of the ordinary run of humanity, but loss is loss. I’ve sometimes wondered whether that might not be the right’s singular bid for universalism: it speaks for the loser everywhere.
But as you say, it speaks for the loser not by democratizing society – making things more equal – but by making it more elite, more privilege, more unequal.
PP: To tap this vein a little deeper, I don’t think you deal with this directly in the book, but some other writers have linked conservatism to a sense of nostalgia. When I read what you wrote about the ‘politics of loss’ – essentially the other side of the coin to the ‘politics of the loser’ phenomenon – this pervasive sense of nostalgia was strongly evoked for me. What is there about this sense of loss in conservatism and how is it linked to nostalgia – if, indeed, it is linked at all?
CR: In many conservative writers, you certainly see traces of nostalgia, but I would distinguish that mood from the themes of loss that I discuss and trace in my book. Nostalgia is a mood of inchoate longing, sometimes even pain. But, it seems to me, its fundamental premise is that the object of longing is no more; it can never be recovered. All you can do is long for it, savor its memory, and situate yourself among the ruins. And again, you certainly see some of that in certain conservative writers, but that is usually preparatory to something else entirely.
Because conservatism, remember, is an activist philosophy; it promises to make loss whole. So while it certainly traffics in some of the same materials as nostalgia does – loss and the like – it assumes a much less melancholic mood and a less impotent form.
It’s certainly difficult for me to imagine a politics organized simply around the melancholy of nostalgia: what would it even look like? Because even if there were a conservative politician who was trying to encourage his constituencies to come to terms with loss – to acknowledge its reality, to offer consolation and the like – that would still look quite different from nostalgia. And the closest I can even think of in that regard is someone like Peel, who had a very difficult time convincing his followers to accept the terms of contemporary debate. I suppose you could make the case that someone like Reagan indulged in a politics of nostalgia, but his sense of the past was so caught up with a sense of the possibilities of the future – and his sense of time was so fragmented (all of us lived in some past, present, future that had no sense of continuity) – that it’s hard for me to see that as nostalgic, as I understand the term.
PP: Something that always struck me about the conservatives – and it’s something that is certainly underlined in your book – is their willingness to engage with, and sometimes even co-opt, elements of radical thought. In the American canon perhaps the most striking manifestation of this is the neoconservative movement. Already at the outset foundational figures like Leo Strauss were tarrying with existentialism and then you see this carried on even more strikingly in the next generation with Normon Podheretz, for example, famously recommending Norman O. Brown’s Freudian-Marxist work to Lionel Trilling.
To me this always looked like a sort of perverse fascination on the part of the conservative movement with the thing they claim to most abhor. The image of a preacher obsessing over the ‘evils’ of pornography while clearly deriving some sort of pleasure from the rant comes to mind. What do you make of this engagement with radicalism that shoots straight to the heart of conservatism?
CR: Just a quick side point: I think when Poddy was recommending Brown to Trilling he was probably still on the left, no? There was a major dialogue with Freud in the 1950s, particularly his more unconventional ideas (the death instinct, for example), and it’s something that I don’t know can be classified as right or left: you had figures like Herbert Marcuse, Phillip Rieff, and Norman O. Brown – and even Trilling in a shorter stand-alone book that gets rarely cited anymore – all grappling with Thanatos, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and more. It was an immensely fruitful and generative discussion that again I don’t think falls on one side or the other of the political spectrum.
Anyway, your basic point stands, and it is, as you say, a big theme in my book. I think conservatism’s relationship to radicalism assumes several different forms, and can be analyzed in several different ways. The simplest one is that from the beginning conservatism has defined itself in opposition to the left. In my book I cite a great number of theorists and politicians and scholars who make this opposition almost constitutive of the tradition itself: conservatism is the opposition to radicalism.
And yet as you note, there is often a not-so-secret affinity between conservatism and radicalism. At its most basic, the conservative often realizes – indeed, this can be a condition of his coming to awareness of himself as a conservative – that if he is going to oppose the left, he must borrow from, imitate, and even in some way become like, the left. That can mean everything from the rhetoric of the left (freedom and rights, for example, are two tropes that the right often borrows from the left) to the tactics of the left (street protest) to the underlying worldview of the left (that men and women have it in their capacity to order the political world as they see fit). This borrowing can be very self-conscious and instrumental. You have folks like Margaret Thatcher saying that the other side have got an ideology, we’ve got to have one too. But more interesting, to me at any rate, is when it’s not self-conscious or instrumental, when it happens – as it were – almost behind the back of the conservative, without him or her realizing it. Think about it: there is the conservative arguing, day in and day out, against his antagonist. At some level, that argument has to start shaping the way he thinks about his own views. Sometimes that means he will sharpen and come to a deeper awareness of his own beliefs and their presuppositions. But sometimes it will also mean that he be influenced by his antagonist, that he will – again, without even realizing it – let slip an argument, or betray an assumption, a way of thinking and speaking, that came from that opponent.
There are a couple of moments like this in Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace. These were four letters he wrote toward the very end of his life, on the French Revolution (and against moves in Britain to reach a compromise and peace with the French government after Thermidor). In his second letter, Burke defends the liberty of Britain, and while that’s not surprising or new – he had been doing that his whole career – he speaks of liberty now in extremely individualistic terms. He says of the modern state that it “has cultivated the welfare of every individual. His wants, his wishes, even his tastes have been consulted.” It almost sounds like Benthamite utilitarianism – and that, it seems, is a new way of thinking about liberty that I suspect came out of his encounter with the French revolutionaries, who he had previously criticized for thinking of the relationship between the individual and the state in such atomized, individualized terms.
There’s another moment in his last letter where he makes fun of his contemporaries in Britain for obsessing with the change of clothes of the now more conservative French government – no more rags and sans culotte, now it’s more bourgeois and officious. And Burke says it’s all a load of crap: different clothes, same person (i.e., rabid revolutionary). And he then invokes some conversations he’s had with his friend, the great actor David Garrick, on the disparity between the actual person and identity of an actor (a ruffian) and the role he plays on stage (something far more exalted). What’s so interesting to me about that move is that in Burke’s earlier work – the Reflections on the Revolution in France – he had praised the costume and pageantry of the Old Regime. Not because it was beautiful but because costume and pageantry were the essence of a civilized society: costumes, clothes, etc., protected us from being seen for who and what we were (naked animals). Without such costumes, we’d be reduced to the status of animals. What made us human, in other words, were our clothes. But here’s Burke now – drawing from the same Jacobin language of stripping the person of his costume, his social role – and using it against the French Revolution.
Anyway, these are some small examples but they point to a larger truth which I think Nietzsche captured well in Beyond Good and Evil: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
PP: Ha! One of my favourite quotes. That leads nicely to my next question. It seems to me that if you look closely many left-wing political discourses are, in fact, discourses of conservation. Ecology would be the obvious example here, the desire to retain a certain ‘natural’ state against the ’disruptive’ forces of change. A more refined example, I think, would be Christopher Lasch – whom I hold to be the 20th century’s most interesting political theorist (an overview of his ideas can be watched here). He discovered that the older, populist tradition of radicalism was often very conservationist. This movement – perhaps best summed-up in the figure of William Jennings Bryan – often found itself fighting the forces of modernisation, monopoly and big banking in favour of the small landowner and his ideas of individual liberty, religion, morality and the family. (Although the tradition has certainly been perverted I believe it contains the seeds of modern libertarianism). What do you make of this conservationism that can be found in the radical tradition? And how do you think it relates to conservatism proper?
CR: In some ways what you say here is one of the unstated – or at least not loudly stated – premises of my book. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on the question of preservation and conservation. And the reason for that is that preservation/destruction is not really the question on which left and right part ways. If conservation and preservation maintains a system of egalitarian freedom, the left will be in favor of it and the right will oppose it. If the past can serve as a standard of freedom and equality, of greater autonomy and egalitarian solidarity, the left will look to the past (E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams created a whole way of thinking based on that premise). So it shouldn’t surprise us to see some leftists embrace the past or a politics of preservation because that isn’t really the axis of argument.
PP: But surely there is some truth in the right-wing caricature of the left as a political movement constantly engaged in subverting the powers-that-be. The left’s sympathy for certain types of cultural and ‘identity’ politics is well-known and, in my opinion at least, undoubtedly true. How do you tally this with your unstated thesis?
CR: Sure, but subverting the powers that be does not rotate on the same axis as preservation/conservation versus destruction. The welfare state, for example, involves an ongoing intervention in the distribution of resources. From one vantage, it is always subverting the accumulations of power, making sure none becomes large or enduring. At the same time, the welfare state, at least in some countries, is now going on 100 years old. Leftists who support the welfare state will be conserving that state – and will also be constantly intervening to stop changes that undermine some broad system of equality. I just don’t think trying to understand that phenomenon through the lens of time – is it oriented to the past, present, or future – is the right way to think about it. And you could make a similar case for conservatives. PP: Okay, let’s move on. One of the chapters in the book deals with Ayn Rand. I’m going to quote from it directly as I don’t think there is a better way to sum it up. “Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladamir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.”
I really don’t think I’ve seen a better quote summing up the phenomenon that is Ayn Rand. This is not political jousting either – in the book you’re generally quite respectful of conservative theorists. But Ayn Rand is unusual in that… well… she really was a hack. There is no way she was on par with the other theorists discussed in the book. Her work was just cartoonish, amateurish; almost a self-parody. She had no real philosophical influences and this shone through in the innumerable cracks in what she referred to as her ‘philosophy’. So, how on earth do you account for her popularity today? Is her mediocrity part of what makes her so appealing?
CR: This is one of the questions I really struggled with in writing about Rand, and I don’t think I ever fully resolved it. Because you’re right about her mediocrity, and I’m certain that’s part of her appeal, but what makes that strange is that she is a writer who claims to speak for excellence. And that’s what’s so odd to me: I don’t know that I can think of a single less talented writer who has ever pressed the claims of superiority – that there are superior beings out there, that she is one of them, that her readers are among them too – with such unwarranted self-confidence. It’s that marriage of total arrogance and total confidence that I find so mystifying. Some people think that that is in a way her appeal: she gives not very talented people a sense that they are part of an Olympian guard. I’m not really persuaded of that. I think her appeal lies elsewhere: she has a vision of transcendence, of self-overcoming, which is central to conservatism, but it’s a vision that is ultimately flat and cartoonish.
It’s the purest form of kitsch: it preys upon an idea of high culture, of cultural greatness, but it doesn’t make the demands of that culture, except in a cheesy and romantic way. It allows people to imagine themselves living these exalted lives, without having to actually live those lives. It’s pure movie magic.
PP: Yes, I agree that the explanation that she lends greatness to mediocrity is not sufficient – all celebrity culture does that to an extent. It’s something beyond that; something that taps deep into a massive vein of narcissism at the heart of our age, a narcissism that resides particularly in a certain type of reader. Although Rand is a particularly vulgar proponent of this, I think I see something similar in many of the conservative ideas discussed in the book. They all revolve, in some way or another, around the figure of the ‘great man’. Do you think this is the case? And does this not contradict the vision of a humble, reasonable return to simpler values as put forward by, say, a figure like Pat Buchanen? In fact, in answering those questions perhaps you could say something about the paleoconservative movement. I noted that it was absent from the book.
CR: You’ve hit on what I think is a really central tenet of conservatism: the great man. And yes it sits somewhat uneasily with the populism and the simple/humble man that sometimes gets presented in conservatism (though it’s interesting; I never really associated that with Buchanan.) But as for the great man, there is a notion in conservatism that there are men – and it’s almost always men – who are simply more excellent than the general run of humanity. They’re more talented, more visionary, more skilled, more something. And while that in itself is not that remarkable a notion, what makes it significant in conservatism is how central that notion is to their vision of the good society. The good society is one that is unequal – in their idea, inequality and progress go hand in hand (the slaveholders are particularly interesting on this question, as is Nietzsche, though he of course eschewed any notion of progress; he saw inequality and excellence going hand in hand) – and where the best men rule.
Now how this gets reconciled with the populism/humility of the right is tricky, but I think it goes something like this: The excellent man is extraordinary. He doesn’t require credentials or training; his excellence is like a gift from God. Often, the most extraordinary person will arise from fairly obscure or humble background. So in de Maistre (and a fair number of other French conservatives) there is a real obsession with Joan of Arc — yes, not a man, obviously, but her peasant origins make her rise seem that much more miraculous.
I know this will sound like a stretch, but I often have thought that the ejaculations on the right over Sarah Palin were quite similar to this. Here’s someone with very limited education, very limited experience, no international knowledge to speak of, not much awareness of the burning political issues of our time, and yet there she is, a serious contender – at least she was up until recently – for the nomination of the Republican Party (not to mention the fact that she was a vice-presidential candidate in 2008).
On the face of it, it’s absolutely crazy. But I suspect that for the conservative, her very inexperience and total lack of credentials, made her seem that much more desirable and destined for greatness.
Anne Norton is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. A few years ago she wrote a brilliant book on the Straussians, and one chapter in particular really stood out for me. It was about Allan Bloom, who was a Straussian and wrote a very influential book in the 1980s called The Closing of the American Mind. Anyway, as Norton points out, Bloom was obsessed with romance novels, the Cinderella story. And in those stories, there’s often this idea of an obscure princess lurking somewhere in the weeds. All she needs is a patron to find her and pluck her out of obscurity.
That idea –that there is extraordinary greatness lurking out there, perhaps in your home, no matter how impoverished you are, and that all that’s required for you to assume your destined position is a miracle of election – I think fits in with the romantic notion of greatness and excellence that you see in someone like Rand and conservatism more generally.
As for the paleocons, I did talk about them in a bit in my chapter on Edward Luttwack, but you’re right, I never gave them that much attention, in part because they’ve been fairly insignificant politically for the last several decades. They’re interesting intellectually – very interesting in fact – but their ideas just haven’t had that much traction.
PP: Well, I always thought the Sarah Palin phenomenon was a sexual thing. She tapped into that whole MILF thing that was launched, in particular, by the Desperate Housewives television show. Husbands wanted her, housewives wanted to be her – and pornographers made films about her. It was this (rather unusual) domestic sexuality that then gave her supposed power. It was this that turned her into the ‘great woman’ – the seemingly unknowing housewife who, despite her humble appearances, actually knows ‘something’ that she’s not letting on. *Queue Sarah Palin wink*. That might be the single crudest political analysis ever undertaken, but I think there’s more than a grain of truth there. Seriously, look at the winking video linked above; that stuff was focus grouped and orchestrated!
Anyway, leaving poor Palin aside, let’s move onto that other thing that gets the conservative juices flowing to no end: war. Broadly speaking, what is it that fascinates conservatives about war so much?
CR: I think there are two ways to think about the relationship between conservatism and war. The first is to look at conservatism’s moral psychology – that is, not the psyche of the conservative, but how the conservative views human nature. And here I take my cues from Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. There, Burke lays out of a vision of human nature in which the self is always on the verge of collapse and implosion. Burke’s basic idea is that we have a set of impulses and responses – ultimately to objects and experiences of pleasure and beauty – that, while immediately gratifying, have the tendency to soften us, leaving us either indifferent or ultimately in a less vital or strong state than we were before. There’s a kind of corrosiveness to the human character: too much ease and comfort, too much pleasure and enjoyment, and we decline. Decadence, in other words, haunts the human condition. The antidote to that tendency is the experience of sublimity, which Burke associates with death and terror. The sublime is a terrible experience – frightening, shocking, even terrifying – but unlike pleasure and beauty, it’s a strong and vitalizing experience. It leaves us in a stronger state than we were before: more alert, more alive, more wakeful and watchful of all that surrounds us. It’s a shock to the system that wakes us up from our torpor and readies us for a very powerful mode of engagement with the world.
Now Burke doesn’t talk about war in this treatise, but I think you can see a lot of his ideas in many conservative writings about warfare, whether the war is international or civil. In my book, I look at the writing on war by Joseph de Maistre, Tocqueville, Teddy Roosevelt, Carl Schmitt, and many of the neoconservatives. (You could probably add Christopher Hitchens to that list, though I don’t really talk about him in the book much.) There you really see the development of this idea about warfare, how it revitalizes the self.
The other way to think about this problem involves an idea I discussed earlier: the conservative’s consistent concern about the decadence of the ruling classes, the need to find ruling classes that are not weak, too comfortable in their privileges, and the like. And again, you find conservatives welcoming warfare as a kind of testing ground for a new ruling class, a way of establishing who is the superior man, not on the basis of inheritance or tradition, but on the basis of character, wit, physical strength, and more.
These are the two steady streams I find in the conservative tradition regarding warfare. I don’t say this in the book, but there’s definitely a left tradition regarding warfare, but it bears little resemblance to this discussion. So the point is not that conservatives have a monopoly on discussions of war and violence – they don’t – but that they have a distinctive way of talking about it. PP: That’s very interesting. But surely the nature of warfare has changed. Whereas a conservative in Burke’s day might have had to saddle-up and lead the charge, today this hardly seems the case. War has become cold, calculated and precise – I guess the figure of Robert McNamara, the great technician of war, comes to mind. Do you think that modern day conservatives have come to terms with this or have they simply ignored it?
CR: Actually, believe it or not, what you’re talking about is prefigured in Burke’s own theory. Because Burke says that for terror and the sublime to be rejuvenating and reawakening in the way I’ve described, the object of terror has to be at some remove from the self. If it gets too close, it loses those rejuvenating capacities, and becomes simply violent and awful.
What I take from this insight of his is there is an element of anti-climax in almost all conservative visions of warfare. I talk about this explicitly in my chapter ‘Easy to Be Hard’, but basically the argument goes like this: while conservatives can wax rhapsodic over warfare in the abstract – e.g., when it remains a possibility rather than a reality, when they don’t have to fight it, etc. – as soon as it confronts them in its immediacy, it loses all that romance. In the last half-century, as warfare becomes more and more bureaucratized, that romance really disappears, as you point out. One of the most interesting instances of this, in fact, is the war on terror, particularly the use of torture. When conservatives talk about torture, they ascribe to it all these hallowed attributes: transgressive, boundary-pushing, proving one’s mettle, going to ‘the dark side’, in Cheney’s famous words. But as Jane Mayer shows in her book of that title – The Dark Side – torture is not the realm of romantic warriors or transgressive types; it’s actually something that’s run by the lawyers. They’re the ones who devise, in excruciating detail, all the do’s and don’t's of the torture session: a slap on the face, a threat to the head, etc. In fact, Mayer cites George Tenet, former head of the CIA: describing the capture, interrogation, and torture of Al Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda, Tenet says, “Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, in situations like this, you don’t call in the tough guys; you call in the lawyers.” Mayer compares torture sessions to a game of “Mother, May I?” the torturer asks the lawyer/bureaucrat, Can do I x, Can I do x+1, and so on. Nothing romantic or transgressive about it; it’s as rule-bound and bureaucratic as things can get. So the upshot is: the romance can’t live up to the reality. Certainly not in this age of bureaucratic warfare – the Pentagon is not exactly a non-bureaucratic institution – and probably not ever. And, what’s more, that anti-climax is built into the theory, at least as it was adumbrated by Burke.
PP: Although it seems a rather silly question I think it still worth asking: where do you see conservativism going? What strains are the most potent in the movement? Is the libertarian tradition on the rise – as we see from Ron Paul’s recent popularity – or is neoconservatism still the order of the day – as we see from the discourse surrounding Iran’s nuclear program?
CR: I don’t think the question is whether any one tradition is on the rise or fall; the mere fact that we are increasingly talking about these different factions as if they were separate entities suggests the overall fraying of the movement itself. When a movement is at its apex, it’s able to finesse these internal divisions. The contrast with the enemy – the left, in the case of the right – is so great that internal divisions will seem small. The fact that these internal factions are now starting to look at each other as the great enemy suggests what I’ve long suspected (at least since Bush declared the war on terror): that the administration of George W. Bush was the high point of the development of modern conservatism, and that everything since then will be downhill. That doesn’t mean there won’t be victories along the way – in the same the election of a fairly left-wing Congress in 1974 was a victory for the Democrats and progressivism. Yet, as we all know, the trajectory of the left from 1968 to 1980 was essentially a downward one, from the apex of the liberal regime under Lyndon Johnson to the utter repudiation of that regime with Ronald Reagan. Likewise, George W. Bush was the summit; what comes next – and it could take a long long time – is essentially one long trip downhill.
There’s a reason for this dynamic both general and specific. The general reason is that any political movement or coalition, when it achieves the utmost of power, will start exercising that power in a way that frays that coalition. In the case of LBJ, he used his massive reelection in 1964 to extend the promise of the New Deal to blacks, and in the process, destroyed the New Deal coalition, which had been uneasily dependent on the votes of racist white Southerners and racist white Northerners. In the case of George W. Bush, he used the warrants of 9/11 to pursue major wars of empire, satisfying his neocon supporters, and cutting taxes, satisfying the Grover Norquists of his party. That combination is not sustainable, as we’re now seeing with the debt crisis. And it will ultimately prove the undoing of the GOP. But again it could take a long time for that to happen.
The more specific reason is peculiar to the right: the right, as I’ve argued, is a praxis of opposition to the emancipatory claims of the left. To a very large degree, the right has defeated the left. On economic questions, on civil rights, and on feminism as well. And where it hasn’t defeated the left, it’s forced a stop to its forward motion. But that success poses a problem for the right: what is there for it to do? One of the reasons why I think you see such loony rhetoric from today’s right – where they call a neoliberal manager of the American imperium like Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim socialist and so forth – is that it is trying to re-fight the battles that brought it to victory in 1980. And while it can get some traction from that re-run, it can’t get much. So again, I think the long-term indicators are negative.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself…
This interview appeared at Naked Capitalism.
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