The author of this book read the writings of a lot of conservative intellectuals and uses that to describe the psychology of a reactionary — a type of conservative who is largely driven by preservation of hierarchy, even at the expense of tradition. He describes the process that creates reactionary politics, which I summarize with a meme.
The Reactionary Mind (1st ed. – 2011) by Corey Robin
This book seeks to understand the psychology that drives conservative movements. Despite the fact that conservatives view themselves as clinging to tradition and operating under the principle of measured, cautious change, the book argues that conservatives are as likely to support urgent, radical change and criticize the old guard as they are to defend the status quo. (Why this is, I’ll go into in more detail later.) If I had to summarize the subject matter of this book, it would be this picture:
This is a meme found in both conservative and fascist parts of the internet that reads: Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times. The cycle then repeats. Society is constantly yoyoing between a harsh world that forges the best specimens of society through struggle, and a properous world that allows the ruling class to become weak and ineffective. When a conservative or a fascist shares this meme, it is always to illustrate the contemporary rise of weak men (either the third stage or the fourth stage).
Whether you’re a conservative lamenting the existence of “safe spaces”, “helicopter parents”, “snowflakes”, “participation trophies”, “trigger warnings”, and “coddling” (often by comparing the pampered college students of today to 17-year-old soldiers in World War II storming the beaches of Normandy), or a fascist conspiracy theorist warning about “soy boys”; an older-school sexist lamenting the “feminization” and “sissification” of men in schools, or a New York Times opinion writer mourning the disappearance of hard-nosed, sharp-eyed, dignified statesmen who were a product of special, trying conditions that no longer exist (and always rose dutifully to the occasion), or a cryptofascist warning that “Western civilization” is on the brink (Western civilization is always, ever falling, and yet never seems to actually fall), the idea of a mythic past time where men were Great and the empire/civilization in its Golden Age — only to be replaced in these fallen days by a new generation softened and weakened by the comforts of a modern world that their predecessors created — is a shared part of a huge range of political beliefs from certain parts of the center-left to the extreme far right.
The author gives a left-wing analysis of this mentality. In particular, he views this worldview as being the small amount of common ground of the many different wings of the right who basically disagree on most issues (big government vs. small government, atheism vs. religious conservatism, neoliberal capitalism vs. anything not that, open borders vs. strong borders, tariffs vs. free trade, isolationism vs. globalism or interventionism). He also provides an analysis of why such a worldview is necessary in the first place. The process necessitating the emergence of this worldview is as follows:
(1) A credible challenge to the elite, power-holding class arises from the underclass. The author refers to this as a democratic challenge from below.
(2a) People who believe in the goodness of the hierarchical status quo must rise to defend it, but face a paradox: “if a ruling class is truly fit to rule, why and how has it allowed a challenge to its power to emerge?” (p. 19). The following questions must be rationalized: if the underclass is supposed to be lower and worse, why are they able to make demands of their superiors? If the status quo is good, then why are so many people angry?
(2b) Simultaneously, due to the popularity of the challenge from below, defenders of the status quo need to recruit broad swathes of people in order to muster the power that is required to maintain the status quo. This means that the lower classes must be recruited and peeled away from the other side.
(3a) As a result of (2a), a conservative defense of the status quo needs to take on board some criticism of the ruling class even as it seeks to prop it up. This results in a narrative of “betrayal” by the elites who, in their “softness”, have allowed the naturally weak members of society to challenge them (or traitor elites are themselves behind the uprising, because the untermensch could not have rallied a credible challenge on their own and would have been happy with their lot if it weren’t for elite “agitators”). This resolves the two paradoxes: the first being, “if the old system was good, why are people unhappy?” (external agitation); the second being, “if the superior people are better than the weaker people and thus deserve to be in charge, why are they in need of defending” (elites have gone soft / traitor elites are using their power to lift up the weak).
(3b) As a result of (2b), a conservative defense of the status quo needs to adopt some of the rhetoric and popular positions of the left; it needs to promise lower class people that they will benefit from hierarchy. To recruit defenders, it has to recruit them from every class and tap into issues that they care about. It has to make elitism popular.
(4a) In short, a conservative defense of the status quo relies on the strong men/weak men dichotomy illustrated by the above meme. It requires an accusation of the ruling class as occupied by unusually weak men, and an explanation of how they got that way. Important to note is that such an accusation can only be credibly made by an outsider who is not a part of the old ruling class and so is not complicit in their demonstrated weak actions.
(4b) In short, a conservative defense of the status quo is fundamentally reliant on populist policy, rhetoric, and tactics.
Conservative movements are necessarily reliant on outsiders and populists in order to function.
To summarize, the thesis this book puts forward is that conservative movements are necessarily reliant on outsiders and populists in order to function. This is not a new or unusual development that suggests conservatism has “lost its way” — it is the essential way of conservatism. The original event that forces this upon conservatives is the mere existence of a credible challenge from below. By simply questioning the status quo, an egalitarian movement puts conservatism on its back foot, having to justify its existence and justify its power when before, its power needed no justification, brooked no argument. The mere existence of a challenge creates the need for populist outsiders in order for conservatism to have a bare minimum of logical consistency.
A good point of comparison is Thomas Frank and his depiction in What’s the Matter with Kansas of a strategy of “eternal backlash”. Both books point out that, despite the fact that conservatives are often horrified by the populist aspects of conservative politics (for example, the establishment Republicans with Trumpism and the Alt Right — and before then, the establishment Republicans with the Tea Party movement, and before then, the establishment Republicans with the anti-abortion fervor, etc. etc.) and view these populist uprisings as abnormal and exceptional, they happen with regular frequency. Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas views the eternal backlash as being the result of Republican politicking since the 60s; Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind argues that this is not a phenomenon special to the U.S. in the 1960s, nor the U.S. at all. By looking at the writings from the original conservative intellectuals in Europe and the U.S., in time periods starting from the French Revolution up until the present, Robin makes the argument that all conservative movements have had to rely on a populization of their ideology and outsiders who openly deride the ruling class in order to survive.
Sublime aesthetic and “survival of the fittest” worldview
Recall how I said in step (4a) that a challenge to the status quo necessitates not only a portrayal of the current elites as “weak” but also an explanation of how they got that way? Here again, the above meme works well as a mnemonic to understand the themes of The Reactionary Mind: the explanation is that the current set of elites were softened by lack of struggle, by inheriting good times. This ties into another element that this book argues binds together people who largely disagree politically with each other: a focus on existential threat that plays out in both an aesthetic (the sublime) and a belief about the structure of the world (survival of the fittest). The author first looks at the aesthetic of the sublime explored by the classic conservative intellectual Edmund Burke. Burke describes sublimity as “delightful horror”; Robin describes it like this: “The sublime is the sensation we experience in the face of extreme pain, danger, or terror. It is something like awe but tinged with fear and dread” (p. 48). The author ties this aesthetic to the contempt with which conservative or reactionary intellectuals often show their own ruling class, which they view as having become insipid and weak in the wake of their success and life of luxury — they are very far away from the sublime and inspire no strong feelings at all. There is a contrast between the protestors who are fired up and energetic and dynamic and the old ruling class that is… shall we say… low energy?
Delving into the aesthetic a bit deeper, the sublime aesthetic is triggered when a person is confronted by life-threatening danger. The author uses Ayn Rand’s writings to illustrate this aesthetic — when faced with dire circumstances, rather than find such an experience deadening, the opposite happens: you feel more alive than you ever did before. It is exhilarating, not deadening. Threat is stimulation that makes you realize how dull your previously-threatless life really was. It’s the premise of Fight Club — get punched in the face and suddenly realize you were living a shadow of a life. In essence, what makes life worth living, under this view, is that life is precarious and precious. Life without being reminded of this fact is like living on autopilot or while sleeping — you become complacent and dull.
A “survival of the fittest” explanation emerges spontaneously to circularly justify the ruling class’s existence
The Darwinist notion of “survival of the fittest” is very much related to this view — in a social Darwinist worldview, life is fundamentally a struggle against death, being “selected out” from the world. Everything is high stakes — what is on the line is your very life. This aesthetic is also one of the few areas of common ground between different types of conservatives, although only half-way because it also quickly leads to points of disagreement. In many wings of the right, a social Darwinist view of the world is core: they want a free society, where a free society is one that allows people to compete and the best to emerge as winner. Existing hierarchy and inequality is seen as reflecting innate differences in talent between superiors and inferiors; egalitarian movements are seen as subjecting natural unequals to sameness and uniformity — handicapping the great for the sake of helping the faltering. Any investment in the poorly-performing in society is wasted and should have been spent on the great. As you can see, this worldview is implicitly at play in the meme above — greatness can only be achieved by struggle. In the absence of struggle (selection), what you get is the weak surviving and thriving, leading to a pathetic ruling class. This kind of amoral / nihilistic view of the world may seem bleak to some, but it has the benefit of being able to crystallize any existing hierarchy as natural and inevitable. As a result, whenever people become tired of existing mythologies that seek to justify the existence of the ruling class, a “survival of the fittest” explanation emerges spontaneously to circularly justify the ruling class’s existence (they are at the top because they’re naturally great; evidence that they’re naturally great comes from the fact that they’re at the top…).
The author argues (and I agree) that this aesthetic is as central to the libertarians as it is to the neocons of the right. However, it introduces a split in the party between people who view business as the sphere of competition and capitalism as the system that provides the ideal proving ground, vs. people who view international relations as the sphere of competition and warfare and international competition as the system that provides the proving ground. There are, of course, people who exist somewhere in-between the two and may dabble in and benefit from both (for example, military contractors; people who own domestic companies that short-term benefit from protectionist trade policies). However, a truly principled identification with one camp will often introduce strongly-felt disagreements with the other camp.
However, important to note is that, while these two types of politics both incorporate sublimity-as-stimulation, they do not do it to an equal degree. A life and death struggle using money, companies, and the stock market is always going to fall short of the sublime existential threat that violence and war provide. In other words, libertarians who play up the survival of the fittest aesthetic of the free market are, in my opinion, always going to be in danger of being usurped by warmongering adrenaline junkies for whom war and violence provides a much more invigorating experience than making a killing on the stock market or driving one’s rival corporations out of business.
To summarize, some wings of the right are united by viewing the world as a competition: survival of the fittest. This worldview is one component that is necessary in order to prop up the existing hierarchy currently under attack: to explain what has happened to the “natural elites” that suddenly need defending from “natural inferiors”. Its proponents are invigorated by existential threat (or, as the author argues, usually the thought or expectation of existential threat, because if you go into a struggle and you win hard enough, fighting can actually be quite dull and anticlimactic). Competing in a market gives the same thrill as fighting for survival of the fittest — people who compete in this sphere are often lionized by reactionaries with grandiose titles such as “warriors”, “captains”, “pioneers”, “heroes”, “creators”, “great men”, etc. But it is also “softer” than militarism and therefore always vulnerable to being trumped by a “harder” form of stimulation.
As you can see, the author’s theory of conservatism is that its essence is defense of a hierarchical status quo from egalitarian challenge. This creates an uneasy alliance between the elite and the populist outsiders (who criticize said elite for being soft, while also at the end of the day, offering up the most successful defense of them and keeping them in power (the process described in more detail in What’s the Matter with Kansas)). It also creates an uneasy alliance between market capitalists and high politics neocons who are united in their belief in the importance of struggle and competition (the result of which is the hierarchy being defended) but who prioritize different areas (business vs. foreign relations) that often compete for limited resources. In the author’s view, hierarchy is the ultimate aim of conservative politics — its existence and form is determined by threats to hierarchy and its ideology seeks to justify and prop up hierarchy. However, the author also argues that the aesthetic of the sublime is intimately tied to hierarchical relationships.
There are often two components to the right-wing authoritarian personality type that seem on the face contradictory: one is an obsequious deference to authority figures, and the other is an authoritarian willingness to crush dissent and deviance. You might think a person who has one of these traits tends not to have the other, as one is meek and kowtowing and the other is bold and domineering, but in general, these traits are correlated, not anti-correlated. The author squares this odd contradiction by pointing out that hierarchies are themselves made up of these contradictory components: most people in a hierarchy are below people who they must obey and above others who they can boss around. Buying into a hierarchical system necessitates accepting both roles simultaneously. In fact, the author points out that hierarchies and the subordinate social role are ONLY appealing to one group of people: people who ambitiously expect to command one day. “The aspirant and the authoritarian are not opposing types: the will to rise precedes the will to bow” (p. 225).
The author argues that the sublime aesthetic is often instantiated by a hierarchy. A sublime experience often involves a contradictory experience of being made low, having one’s self overwhelmed, annihilated, crushed, overpowered, etc. by something larger and more powerful; at the same time, it generates the sense of feeling larger than one’s self — feeling magnified, expanded, heightened. Classic sublime experiences like overawing encounters with nature or God (or death) often feature these simultaneous sensations. The hierarchy is a way of structuring society that generates sublimity — simultaneous deference and power.
I think this book is very insightful — it takes some of the ideas developed in What’s the Matter with Kansas, gives them more coherence and generality, gives a plausible causal story for why this form of politics arises, and supports this thesis with detailed examples. The only thing that is difficult about reading this book is that each chapter is very obviously a longform piece in a book review journal, stapled together into a book, with some overarching glue. Most of this synopsis actually probably summarizes material drawn from only two or three chapters. However, those chapters are packed with pretty insightful points, and the author, in his reading of a diverse set of conservative intellectuals, is able to show how these themes play out in various intellectuals’ writings.
Note: The second edition of the book was published this year and largely has the same format but with several chapters replaced by new ones. The second edition of the book includes a discussion of Trump and focuses more on the notion of value and how it serves to uphold hierarchy (another point of connection between libertarianism and conservatism), and the tensions between the libertarian and neocon wings of the right.
I like this book a lot; I do think, however, it encourages some of my worse tendencies. In particular, the author, like me, tends to analyze the world in terms of hierarchy and power, and sorts the world into defenders and dismantlers of hierarchy. At the end of the day, I think this is the right way to analyze the world, but it is a distinctively left-wing way to analyze the world. Right-wing intellectuals often complain about the way leftists make EVERYTHING about power. My reaction is usually, “yep, guilty as charged”. To a leftist, everything is ultimately about power. This is the way we frame the world. Conservatives often criticize an analysis of conservatism centered around power and hierarchy as a view of conservatism from the left — a non-empathetic take that doesn’t explore what conservatism looks like to a conservative.
That’s fair, but I think it would also be a good thing for conservatives to do some self-reflection: the author raises many points that indicate that preservation of hierarchy, not preservation of tradition, is ultimately what animates thinkers that conservatives label as classic conservative thinkers (like Burke, Maistre, Scalia, and so on). That said, it IS odd that the author puts libertarian thinkers in the “conservative/reactionary” pile but doesn’t do the same with the typical principled religious conservative (after all, many libertarians do not consider themselves conservative at all and their politics reflect that). I think at the end of the day, this reflects what the author (from a leftist perspective) views as the kind of politics worth making alliances with vs. the kind of politics that a leftist cannot compromise with. I think the reason why the author does not include the principled traditionalist in with conservatives/reactionaries is that he is more willing to make alliance with people who really ARE truly traditional (more than hierarchical) than people who are truly hierarchical (more than traditional).
In other words, the camps that the author lays out truly do indicate a leftist take on politics, or maybe you could say the portrait of the right in this book actually is a delineation of what it means to be a leftist: At the end of the day, leftists can compromise with people who want to keep the old ways generally but are willing to reform that society to be more fair, egalitarian, and kind; but we cannot compromise with people who want to keep hierarchy, and who have demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice even tradition for the sake of that goal (the same goes for libertarians for whom hierarchy is more important than guaranteeing personal freedom). The author’s definition of “conservative” deserves criticism, but it also reveals two important points to take away from this book: (1) that many people who are labeled conservative intellectuals are actually demonstrably the second type (i.e. people who value hierarchy more than tradition), and (2) that to a leftist, the politics that hierarchy-driven libertarians and hierarchy-driven “conservatives” share are more salient than the politics that a tradition-over-hierarchy and a hierarchy-over-tradition conservative share — the first two share the trait that they fundamentally clash with leftist principles and offer little room for compromise.
The second thing that conservatives should think deeply about are the examples the author gives where the right makes oblique appeals to hierarchies or violations of hierarchy. References to hierarchical relationships, whether it’s smart/dumb, parent/child, man/woman, honest/dishonest, etc. are frequently a part of right-wing rhetoric even when not responding to left-wing rhetoric. These appeals frequently lack a power analysis — instead, other notions such as authenticity, masculinity, or freedom are invoked, which touch on or seem to explain a large set of feelings plausibly a result of power relations: domination, marginalization or replacement, emasculation, weakness, pride, humiliation, etc. It’s just that an explicit power analysis is missing. Is he wrong that the right frequently invokes these hierarchies and the feelings that are created when they are enforced or upended? And is he wrong that power IS the best way to analyze the situations that the right invokes? These are questions that should be seriously considered.