The Truth About the Conservative Mind: Why Reactionaries from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin Have Fought Real Liberty
The following is an adapted excerpt from Corey Robin’s “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.” Click here to buy a copy.
It’s been a rotten few months for the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent. From the senatorial candidacy of Elizabeth Warren to Occupy Wall Street, economic elites have faced a concerted attack on their riches and power, their arrogant and unaccountable ways. And you can hear it in their voices, or at least the voices of their spokesmen. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor declared, “I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” Mitt Romney told an audience in Florida that “I think it’s dangerous—this class warfare.” So rattled is George Will that he’s been forced to pull out a playbook from an older time. All but calling Warren a Communist, he accused the Oklahoma-born scholarship kid of believing that the government “is entitled to socialize—i.e., conscript—whatever portion” of an individual’s property “it considers its share.”
After decades of “compassionate conservatism,” “a thousand points of light,” and “Morning in America,” dark talk of class warfare on the right can seem like a strange throwback. So accustomed are we to the sunny Reagan and the populist Tea Party that we’ve forgotten a basic truth about conservatism: It is a reaction to democratic movements from below, movements like Occupy Wall Street that threaten to reorder society from the bottom up, redistributing power and resources from those who have much to those who have not so much. With the roar against the ruling classes growing ever louder, the right seems to be reverting to type. It thus behooves us to take a second look at the conservative tradition, not just its current incarnation but also across time, for that tradition provides us with an understanding of why the conservative responds to Occupy Wall Street as he does.
Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors. They have gathered under different banners—the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism—and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them. That march and démarche of democracy is one of the main stories of modern politics. And it is the second half of that story, the démarche, that drives the development of ideas we call conservative. 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.
Despite the very real differences among them, workers in a factory are like secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a plantation—even wives in a marriage—in that they live and labor in conditions of unequal power. They submit and obey, heeding the demands of their managers and masters, husbands and lords. Sometimes their lot is freely chosen—workers contract with their employers, wives with their husbands—but its entailments seldom are. What contract, after all, could ever itemize the ins and outs, the daily pains and continuing sufferance, of a job or a marriage? Throughout American history, in fact, the contract has served as a conduit to unforeseen coercion and constraint. Employment and marriage contracts have been interpreted by judges to contain all sorts of unwritten and unwanted provisions of servitude to which wives and workers tacitly consent, even when they have no knowledge of such provisions or wish to stipulate otherwise.
Until 1980, for example, it was legal in every state for a husband to rape his wife. The justification for this dates back to a 1736 treatise by the British jurist Matthew Hale. When a woman marries, he argued, she implicitly agrees to give “up herself in this kind [sexually] unto her husband.” Hers is a tacit, if unknowing, consent, “which she cannot retract” for the duration of their union. Having once said yes, she can never say no. As recently as 1957, a standard legal treatise could state, “A man does not commit rape by having sexual intercourse with his lawful wife, even if he does so by force and against her will.” If someone tried to write into the marriage contract a requirement that express consent had to be given in order for sex to proceed, judges were bound by common law to ignore or override it. Implicit consent was a structural feature of the contract that neither party could alter. Through that contract, women were doomed to be the sexual servants of their husbands.
Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, join movements, make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete, but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change in power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency that vexes their superiors.
American labor history is filled with complaints from employers and government officials that unionized workers are independent and self-organizing. Indeed, so potent is their self-organization that it threatens to render superfluous the employer and the state. During the Great Upheaval of 1877, striking railroad workers in St. Louis took to running the trains themselves. Fearful that the public might conclude the workers were capable of managing the railroad, the owners tried to stop them, starting a strike of their own in order to prove it was the owners, and only the owners, who could make the trains run on time. During the Seattle general strike of 1919, workers went to great lengths to provide basic government services, including law and order. So successful were they that the mayor concluded it was the workers’ ability to limit violence and anarchy that posed the greatest threat to the established order:
The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. … True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. … That is to say, it puts the government out of operation.
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty; agency, the prerogative of elites. Such was the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligations of deference and command. “The levelers,” he claimed, “only change and pervert the natural order of things.”
The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallowchandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.
By virtue of membership in a polity, Burke allowed, men had certain rights—to the fruits of their labor, their inheritance, education, and more. But the one right he refused to concede to all men was a “share of power, authority, and direction” they might think they ought to have “in the management of the state.”
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—from the storming of the Bastille to the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying his boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: They touch upon the most personal relations of power.
When the conservative looks upon a democratic movement from below, this is what he sees: a terrible disturbance in the private life of power. “The real object” of the French Revolution, Burke told Parliament in 1790, is “to break all those connexions, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination; to raise soldiers against their officers; servants against their masters; tradesmen against their customers; artificers against their employers; tenants against their landlords; curates against their bishops; and children against their parents.” Nothing to the Jacobins, he declared at the end of his life, was worthy “of the name of the publick virtue, unless it indicates violence on the private.”
Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field.
No simple defense of one’s own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: “To obey a real superior … is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.”
The notion that conservative ideas are a mode of reactionary practice is likely to raise some hackles. It has long been an axiom on the left that the defense of power and privilege is an enterprise devoid of ideas, that right-wing politics is an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion. Thomas Paine called counterrevolution “an obliteration of knowledge”; Lionel Trilling described American conservatism as a mélange of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Conservatives, for their part, have tended to agree. Playing the part of the dull-witted country squire, conservatives have embraced the position of the historian F.J.C. Hearnshaw that “it is commonly sufficient for practical purposes if conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit.” While the aristocratic overtones of that discourse no longer resonate, the conservative still holds on to the label of the untutored and the unlettered; it’s part of his populist charm and demotic appeal. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.
Others will be put off by this argument for a different reason: It threatens the purity and profundity of conservative ideas. For many, the word “reaction” connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power. But reaction is not reflex. It begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others—and then recalibrates that principle in light of a challenge from below. This recalibration is no easy task, for such challenges tend by their very nature to disprove the principle. After all, if a ruling class is truly fit to rule, why and how has it allowed a challenge to its power to emerge? What does the emergence of the one say about the fitness of the other?
The conservative faces an additional hurdle: how to defend a principle of rule in a world where nothing is solid, all is in flux. From the moment conservatism came onto the scene as an intellectual movement, it has had to contend with the decline of ancient and medieval ideas of an orderly universe, in which permanent hierarchies of power reflected the eternal structure of the cosmos. The overthrow of the old regime reveals not only the weakness and incompetence of its leaders but also a larger truth about the lack of design in the world. Reconstructing the old regime in the face of a declining faith in permanent hierarchies has proven to be a difficult feat. Not surprisingly, it also has produced some of the most remarkable works of modern thought.
There is another reason to be wary of the effort to dismiss the reactionary thrust of conservatism, and that is the testimony of the tradition itself. From Burke’s claim that he and his ilk had been “alarmed into reflexion” by the French Revolution to Russell Kirk’s admission that conservatism is a “system of ideas” that “has sustained men … in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation,” the conservative has consistently affirmed that his is a knowledge produced in response to the left. Sometimes that affirmation has been explicit. Lord Salisbury, three times prime minister of Britain, wrote in 1859 that “hostility to Radicalism, incessant, implacable hostility, is the essential definition of Conservatism.” In his classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, George Nash defined conservatism as “resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary, and profoundly subversive of what conservatives at the time deemed worth cherishing, defending, and perhaps dying for.” More recently, the Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield has declared, “I understand conservatism as a reaction to liberalism. It isn’t a position that one takes up from the beginning but only when one is threatened by people who want to take away or harm things that deserve to be conserved.”
Those are the explicit professions of the counterrevolutionary creed. More interesting are the implicit statements, where antipathy to radicalism and reform is embedded in the very syntax of the argument. Take Michael Oakeshott’s famous definition in his essay “On Being Conservative”:
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
One cannot, it seems, enjoy fact and mystery, near and distant, laughter and bliss. One must choose. Far from affirming a simple hierarchy of preferences, Oakeshott’s either/or signals that we are on existential ground, where the choice is between not something and its opposite but something and its negation. The conservative would enjoy familiar things in the absence of forces seeking their destruction, Oakeshott concedes, but his enjoyment “will be strongest when” it “is combined with evident risk of loss.” And while Oakeshott suggests that such losses can be engineered by a variety of forces, the engineers invariably seem to work on the left. Marx and Engels are “the authors of the most stupendous of our political rationalisms,” he writes elsewhere. “Nothing … can compare with” their abstract utopianism.
There is more to this antagonistic structure of argument than the simple antinomies of partisan politics. As Karl Mannheim argued, what distinguishes conservatism from traditionalism—the universal “vegetative” tendency to remain attached to things as they are—is that conservatism is a deliberate, conscious effort to preserve or recall “those forms of experience which can no longer be had in an authentic way.” Conservatism “becomes conscious and reflective when other ways of life and thought appear on the scene, against which it is compelled to take up arms in the ideological struggle.”
Where the traditionalist takes the objects of his desire for granted, the conservative cannot. He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being—or have been—taken away. If he hopes to enjoy them again, he must fight for them in the public realm. He must speak of them in a language that is politically serviceable and intelligible. But as soon as those objects enter the medium of political speech, they cease to be items of lived experience and become incidents of an ideology. They get wrapped in a narrative of loss—in which the revolutionary or reformist plays a necessary part—and presented in a program of recovery. What was tacit becomes articulate, what was practice becomes polemic.
In defending hierarchical orders, the conservative invariably launches a counterrevolution, often requiring an overhaul of the very regime he is defending. “If we want things to stay as they are,” in Lampedusa’s classic formulation, “things will have to change.” This program entails far more than clichés about preservation through renovation would suggest: Often it requires the most radical measures on the regime’s behalf.
Indeed, some of the stuffiest partisans of order have been more than happy, when it has suited their purposes, to indulge in a bit of mayhem and madness. Kirk, the self-styled Burkean, wished to “espouse conservatism with the vehemence of a radical. The thinking conservative, in truth, must take on some of the outward characteristics of the radical, today: he must poke about the roots of society, in the hope of restoring vigor to an old tree half strangled in the rank undergrowth of modern passions.” In God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley declared conservatives “the new radicals.”
There’s a fairly simple reason for the embrace of radicalism on the right, and it has to do with the reactionary imperative that lies at the core of conservative doctrine. The conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes that the left has been in the driver’s seat since, depending on who’s counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation. If he is to preserve what he values, the conservative must declare war against the culture as it is. Though the spirit of militant opposition pervades the entirety of conservative discourse, Dinesh D’Souza has put the case most clearly:
Typically, the conservative attempts to conserve, to hold on to the values of the existing society. But … what if the existing society is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs? It is foolish for a conservative to attempt to conserve that culture. Rather, he must seek to undermine it, to thwart it, to destroy it at the root level. This means that the conservative must … be philosophically conservative but temperamentally radical.
By now it should be clear that it is not the style or pace of change that the conservative opposes. Burkean theorists like to draw a distinction between evolutionary reform and radical change. The first is slow, incremental, and adaptive; the second is fast, comprehensive, and by design. But that distinction, so dear to Burke and his followers, is often less clear in practice than the theorist allows. In the name of slow, organic, adaptive change, self-declared conservatives opposed the New Deal (Robert Nisbet, Kirk, and Whittaker Chambers) and endorsed the New Deal (Peter Viereck, Clinton Rossiter, and Whittaker Chambers). “Even Fabian Socialists,” Nash tartly observes, “who believed in ‘the inevitability of gradualness’ might be labeled conservatives.”
More often the blurriness of the distinction has allowed the conservative to oppose reform on the grounds that it either will lead to revolution or is revolution. Any demand from or on behalf of the lower orders, no matter how tepid or tardy, is too much, too soon, too fast. Reform is revolution, improvement is insurrection. “It may be good or bad,” a gloomy Lord Carnarvon wrote of the Second Reform Act of 1867—a bill 20 years in the making that tripled the size of the British electorate—”but it is a revolution.”
Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past. Others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests. But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as issues, his predecessor was in all likelihood against them. Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of today’s few conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil-rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform,” and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.
Given the reactionary thruST of conservatism, Occupy Wall Street may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the right. Thoughtful conservatives have long understood the symbiotic relationship between the right’s intellectual—and ultimately political—vitality and insurgencies from the left. Friedrich Hayek accurately observed that the political theory of capitalism “became stationary when it was most influential” and “progressed” only when it was “on the defensive.” Frank Meyer, intellectual architect of the fusion strategy that brought together the libertarian and traditionalist wings of the Republican Party, noted that it was “ironic, though not historically unprecedented,” that bursts “of creative energy” on the right “should occur simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of liberalism in the practical political sphere.”
Conversely, conservative writers like David Frum and Andrew Sullivan have worried of late about the intellectual flabbiness of the contemporary right: A movement that once seemed the emblem of heterodoxy has succumbed to stale thinking and rote incantations. But if Occupy Wall Street turns out to be a movement rather than a moment—if it has real staying power; if it moves from public squares to private institutions; if it starts to divest the elite of their privileges and powers, not just in their offshore accounts but in their backyards and board rooms—it could provide the kind of creative provocation that once produced a Burke or a Hayek. The metaphor of occupation is threatening enough; one can only imagine what might happen were it made real. And while the mavens of the right would probably prefer four more years to four good books, they might want to rethink that. They wouldn’t be in the position they’re in—when, even out of power, they still govern the country—had their predecessors made the same choice.
Click here to buy a copy of Corey Robin’s “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.”