Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Corey Robin, _The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin_

COREY ROBIN'S TITLE might lead one to expect a historical survey of conservative thought, but in fact The Conservative Mind is a collection of articles and reviews; everything except the introduction and the conclusion were first published elsewhere. Which is fine, in this instance--the three or four I had read already (in The Nation or LRB) I enjoyed re-reading, especially the piece on Ayn Rand, "Garbage and Gravitas," which I would call the sharpest piece on that utterly unique phenomenon that I have ever read--even counting Thomas Frank's chapter in Pity the Billionaire and Whittaker Chambers's review of Atlas Shrugged.

And besides, a collection of articles and reviews can turn out to be a very satisfying, coherent book. Trilling's Liberal Imagination, say, or Jarrell's Poetry and the Age, or, more recently, Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense and Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents. The Reactionary Mind holds together in that way, even though composed of occasional pieces.

Some reviewer--Mark Lilla, I think?--criticized The Reactionary Mind when it appeared (2011) on the grounds that Robin tends not to concede that conservative ideas are ideas, exactly.  They are more reaction formations; they respond to intellectual formations constructed by the left, the responses being provoked by those formations beginning to make headway in society. As Robin puts it in the introduction, "For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on--and theoretical rendition of--the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back."

I can see Lilla's point; that's not all conservatism is. Reading Robin's book would not give you much sense of the genuine intellectual power that one can experience in, say, Joseph de Maistre or Carl Schmitt or Chambers. Robin's tone is a bit that of a diagnostician analyzing a particularly unpleasant disease.

Even so, I think he has an important point. There is something reactive in a lot of conservative thought, as he explains most lucidly in the introduction and in the first chapter, "Conservatism and Counterrevolution."

Conservatism, he explains, tends to make arguments for institutions that are being or have been challenged or even overthrown. As with the well-known principle of not missing one's water until the well has run dry, these institutions were taken for granted, assumed to be simply part of the natural order of things, and as such needed apologia no more than trees did. But once monarchy, or aristocracy, or capitalism, or white supremacy, or patriarchy are challenged and start to topple, the arguments that would prop them have to be rapidly formulated.

As Robin mentions, the founding thinkers of political conservatism, writers like Hobbes, Burke, and  Maistre, come along in the wake of formerly unquestionable institutions being questioned in ways to which they found no persuasive answers. "Here are the answers to those questions!" they cry, a day late.

Same thing with Hayek and Milton Friedman coming along after the New Deal and the advent of the welfare state. There's another good example in Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, the chapter titled "Eros and the New Christian Counterculture," containing an elaborate defense of marriage having to be between one man and one woman. As the prefix "counter" in Dreher's title implies, a lot of conservative thought is making arguments one never expected to have to make, in response to witnessing changes one never expected to see.

The Reactionary Mind thus may not be exactly what its title suggests, but it's smart, brilliantly written, and makes a very valuable point.

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