The first rule of debate: Never accept your opponent’s characterization of his own position. But for decades, liberals–in their perpetual Nerf-war against conservatives–have done just the opposite. While conservatives bloviate about traditionalism (Buckley), skepticism (Burke), sobriety (Taft), and order (Mill), liberals are the first to bobblehead in agreement. “Yes,” they say over paté and pinot at Davos, “That’s you.”
Yet no matter how many laws they break or billions they loot, how many phantoms they conjure, how many social ties they sever, how many innocents they imprison, torture and execute, no matter how many foreign monsters they champion, no matter how much they scream that two-plus-two equals five, and no matter how much they double-down on crazed schemes while swearing it’ll all be different this time, the liberal–dutiful little poodle that he is–still wags his head. “Yes, yes. Calm, measured, skeptical conservatism.” “Calm, measured, skeptical.” Who does that sound more like to you: Barry Goldwater or Noam Chomsky?
So it’s no great surprise that the New York Times–that great bastion of spineless bourgeois liberalism–hates Corey Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind. So much so that the author, Sheri Berman, dubs Robin the left-wing Ann Coulter. But we can forgive Berman. If her crowd was to actually accept Robin’s arguments, they’d be faced with two options: 1. accept that they are little more than chumps basking in the same cushy privileges forged by the long conservative counterrevolution or 2. tip over the dinner table and drive a salad fork into David Brooks’s eye-socket.
Robin’s thesis is simple: ignore the Right-wing taxonomy. Conservatism–despite the seemingly incompatible respective ideologies of free-marketeers, slavers, neocons, neofascists, Buckleys, Federalists, Bloombergians, traditionalists, Tea Baggers, Randians, McCarthyists, libertarians, Birchers, Goldbugs, Jesus Freaks, J .Edgars, pro-lifers—has been, in reality, firmly united behind a single mission since the French Revolution: the creation of new regimes of privilege and domination in the face of democratic threats.
Conservatism, as Robin states, has never been about “taking us back” but about “great leaps forward”–from the ashes of the Ancien Régime into the arms of a new one of the conservative’s making. Conservatives aren’t looking for exact “restoration,” but radical new constructions—building new regimes of power and domination to replace the old and unworthy elites–unworthy, to conservatives, because they failed to beat back a democratic threat. Robin quotes Burke, “It is truth that cannot be concealed; in ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors.”
Burke despised the monarchy for being unfit to rule, Goldwater saved most of his hellfire for the Rockefeller-dominated GOP, and now, Sarah Palin bemoans the “crony capitalists” and “Ivy Leaguers” that run the show. As Robin states, the GOP is now the party of “Scalia, D’Souza, Gonzalez, and Yoo.” This need for reinvention via the injection of fresh blood has long been a cornerstone of the movement, which makes it more–not less–accepting of outsiders willing to throw-in for the cause: “Maistre was from Savoy, Burke from Ireland. Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Nevis and rumored to be part black. Disraeli was a Jew, as are many of the neoconservatives who helped transform the Republican Party from a cocktail party in Darien.” It follows that 21st century Conservatism is Dick Cheney’s lesbian spawn going on TV and calling the president a pussy because he refuses to torture enemies of the state.
“Conservatism,” writes Robin, “is not a commitment to limited government and liberty–or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force–the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere.”
“Freedom,” “Liberty,” these were the battle cries of American Radicals–Wobblies who got their skulls cracked open by the Chicago PD, feminists who said “fuck you” to a lifetime of bad sex and black-eyes, Midwestern abolitionists who went to war against slavers, reds from Brooklyn who shipped off to Spain in the 1930s, black men and women who got their eardrums punctured by firehoses while dogs ripped their legs to shreds.
But a ‘winger shouting “Freedom!”? Give me a fucking break. This is the rhetoric of Jacobins recycled and reloaded into the right-wing arsenal. Forty years ago, it would’ve sounded as absurd coming from them as their charge of “racist” sounds today whenever they hurl it at the NAACP or Planned Parenthood (remember: the 21st century Pro-Life line against abortion is that it’s “a genocide against African Americans.”). And let’s not forget that whey-faced little shit James O’Keefe brags about using “Saul Alinsky tactics.”
“Because freedom is the lingua franca of modern politics,” Robin writes, “conservatives have had ‘a sound enough instinct not to attack’ it. Instead, they have made freedom the stalking horse of inequality, and inequality the stalking horse of submission.” In other words, the freedom to fire at whim, the freedom of a fetus over the mother, and,most recently,the freedom of corporate campaign cash to flow as it pleases.
So despite the well-oiled coif, Reagan wasn’t a return to the 1950s—capital controls? 90% top marginal tax rate? Median wages that supported a single-earner household? Nearly 1 out of 3 workers unionized? That’s the socioeconomic framework of the America of 1950s. Reagan and his crew were out to build something entirely new. Even Jim Crow looks quaint next to Reagan’s multi-billion dollar crusade for racial purification (i.e. The War on Drugs).
As Garret Keizer put it in Harper’s, Reagan “will be seen as the last of the California hippies, a man who told us that if we just let the markets run wild and the Magic Bus of juggernaut capitalism go barrel-assing down the road with its freak flag flying all would be groovy and out of sight. What was his ‘Morning in America’ bit but a cover of “Aquarius”; what was his presidency but the last act of Hair?”
But in a truly sick little twist, the liberals have–in recent years–started cribbing stale right-wing rhetoric, dutifully neglecting any call for a “Morning in America” of their own. Now, it’s the liberals who are repeating all that Taft-era bullshit. They’ve long since turned up their noses at the grand projects of emancipation, forward marches into a glorious future (“didn’t Lenin, like, kill people?”), and have instead begun to squirt out the very lies that conservatives told about themselves fifty years ago–whether it’s Carter, Mondale, Clinton or Obama wagging his finger about balancing budgets or some anarcho-liberal down at Zuccotti calling for the return of “mom and pop shops.” (I got news for you: mom and pop were among the first to screech about OSHA and the EPA and never cared much for “the Coloreds” either.) The difference is that conservative elites—in practice—never believed any of this shit, whereas liberals gobble it all up and ask for seconds. Hell, half the chapters out of Pat Buchanan’s last book read like Naderite manifestos.
You’d almost forget that anti-Communism is, in itself, a militant and internationalist ideology all its own–one with a 20th century bodycount that rivals the bloodiest work of Stalin. This is wholly understood in conservative James Ellroy’s pathologically gory “Underworld USA” trilogy but flies over the heads of liberals, perhaps because some of their biggest champions–JFK, Orwell, Truman, etc.–bought into it whole-heartedly.
But there’s another component to Robin’s argument that makes the Times crowd squish up in their khakis: how exactly do conservatives get the masses on-board in the first place? Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the preferred liberal Rosetta Stone to unlocking the right-wing brain, suggests that non-elite rightwingers simply get “tricked” into supporting conservative policies. The Big Scary GOP demolishes labor unions with one hand, but draws crosshairs on Tiller the Baby-killer with the other. It’s the only way Frank can explain such “irrationality.”
Robin calls bullshit on that. Non-elite conservatives–the Red State bubbas that have cursed this land for so long–reap very real material rewards, but they’re rewards which fly in the face of the cheery “every one’s good at heart” worldview of liberalism.
Conservatism offers them something Robin brilliantly calls “democratic feudalism.” In other words, dominion over your “lessers” in the private spheres of the workplace (middle-management tyrants) and the home (lockin’ down the wife and daughter’s ladyparts): “the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women.” This is the link between the Santorums and the Pauls of the world–one which Reason magazine, the Mises Institute and other appendages of the supposedly “anti culture-war” libertarian propaganda circuit work very hard to obscure.
Robin points out that the U.S. stands alone in the Western world–as it does these days on most everything awful–in the enormous size of its middle-management and supervisory workforce. “Every man a king!” sounds great, but who plays “the serfs”? That would be the usual roster of women, immigrants, and all those who stink of poor–well, poorer than the “little conservative king” handing out the pink slips. The hedge-funder gets the capital gains tax cut and the Walmart Assistant Manager gets to hold the livelihoods of dozens (and their families) in the palm of his hand–permitted to inflict an economic violence on each and every one that, in some ways, makes a public flogging look like a demerit.
So it’s no surprise that Robin locates the purest manifestation of American “democratic feudalism” (and thus, conservatism) in the ideology of the plantation lords. “The democratic promise of slavery,” writes Robin, is “the fact that it put the possibility of personal mastery within the reach of every white man…This was not just propaganda: by 1860, there were 400,000 slaveholders in the South, making the American master class one of the most democratic in the world. The slaveholders repeatedly attempted to pass laws encouraging whites to own at least one slave and even considered granting tax breaks to facilitate such ownership. Their thinking, in the words of one Tennessee farmer, was that ‘the minute you put it out of the power of common farmers to purchase a Negro man or woman…you make him an abolitionist at once.”
But the slavers were not without an egalitarian streak, however perverse it may have been. Take the loathsome Vice President John C. Calhoun: “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” Fittingly, Calhoun is, today, a hero to the contemporary American conservative and his name adorns over a dozen schools across the country.
Small wonder then than Rep. Ron Paul–the arch-conservative with whom liberals are supposed to find some common cause—recently called neo-Confederate historian Thomas DiLorenzo to testify before Congress. DiLorenzo’s a member of the League of the South, an outfit that calls for another southern secession and the restoration of rule under “Anglo-Celts.” DiLorenzo, an economist at Loyola University, just so happens to be a champion of Austrian School of Economics, which, of course, is all about “freedom.”
Despite libertarian efforts to recruit the young and liberal-minded into the flock with promises of ending the wars, closing Guantanamo and calling off the cozy relationship with the Likudniks, The Reactionary Mind makes it clear that there’s no fundamental difference between any of these right-wing breeds, and thus common ground is neither possible nor desirable, particularly with the libertarians. “When the libertarian looks out upon society,” writes Robin, “he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.”
So why do liberals let conservatives get away with this shit? Where’s their battle cry of freedom? Let me let you in on a little secret: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death”? Liberals don’t believe a word of it. Not one fucking word. They’ve long since abandoned the emancipatory call of the Enlightenment. “The common American liberal today,” says Roger D. Hodge in his scathing review of Obama’s first two years The Mendacity of Hope, “is mostly interested in lifestyle–and the not inconsiderable virtues of tolerance, compassion, decency, and fair play. Lifestyle liberals tend to express proper environmental pieties and feel very strongly about respecting the rights of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. All of these perfectly admirable liberal qualities and attitudes…but as modes of action and behavior they do not necessarily follow from a coherent political philosophy or a theory of government.”
But, says the mealy-mouthed “progressive,” Obama, Clinton, “they’re not real liberals.” Of course they are! Liberals make no challenge against a society’s given socioeconomic framework. Instead, liberalism promises only to open up that very same framework to the greatest number of people. That’s it. Hence Obama’s “free market solutions” to education and health care. Sure, when Keynesian-welfare state was the name of the game, we got Medicare and the Great Society, but count that model among conservatism’s many scalps as they rode the 1970s neoliberal wave to total victory.
So despite all that bullshit about federalism and limited government, Conservatism is thus revolutionary, crusading, impassioned, combative, and–let’s face it–creative. Basically, it is everything that liberalism is not. Both conservatism and genuine Leftism calls for a grand societal project that terrifies the liberal.
Of course a liberal doesn’t want to face any of this: that at least a fifth of the population needs to be fought and defeated for anything close to “progress” on those supposed “Enlightenment values” to take hold. Because that means, oh nos!, a fight! Combat! Saying “fuck you” instead “we agree to disagree!”
Robin believes, as I do, that the current incarnation of the conservative movement is approaching its terminus–though I’m fairly certain that the death rattle will be loud, long, and bloody. Without a significant democratic challenge (the labor struggles of the 1930s, the revolts of the 1960s, etc.), conservatism has nowhere to go. It’s been too successful. “Loss–real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige–is the mustard seed of conservative innovation. What the right suffers from today is not loss but success.”
The Millennial, living with the rents, sans health insurance, and buried beneath tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt is–according to a recent Rasmussen poll–split on socialism vs. capitalism. I don’t think I’m being overly optimistic when I say that my generation’s gonna be a tough “get” for the GOP. I don’t know a single one that isn’t itching to go to war with Republicans and baby-boomers of all stripes (perhaps this explains the recent fad in New York City of blue Union Army caps.) Which is why the multi-billion dollar libertarian think tank empire is pushing the Paultard phenomenon so hard. “At least,” they say, “he’s against the war.”
But soon, even Dr. Paul’s mystique will wither and die, and it will be up to the conservative true believers to carry the fire to initiate their next grand project. My money’s on Andrew Sullivan, the supposed “very serious” self-described Burkean conservative (and diehard Thatcherite) who’s 1. Irish 2. Catholic 3. gay and 4. a devout–to the level of mystic—Obamican (remember: Burke was a Whig, not a Tory). He’s pals with all the young DC liberals and even has sex advice columnist Dan Savage fill in for him from time to time. His conservative tentacles ever a-twitter, he ditched Bush just a few months before the rest of the ruling class did. He has distaste for the “shrill,” and falls back on a sunny and congenial disposition. (He responded to Robin’s book by simply re-posting The New York Times review. Cut a little close to the bone, I’m guessing.) Last week, a friend of mine enthusiastically pointed out a recent article by Sullivan in support of Occupy Wall Street, countering my skepticism by saying that Sullivan had “changed his mind” and now supported the young protesters whole-heartedly. I checked. By the third paragraph, he’d managed to gather up both the Tea Baggers and the Occupiers into his good graces, admitting that he shares both group’s frustrations, namely, you guessed it: “entitlements.” Well-bowled, you wily fuck.
Maybe I’m being a little too hard on liberals. After all, a liberal is fundamentally a more “decent” person than a conservative. And there’s something to be said for decency. But good manners, sympathy for the powerless, and a congenial disposition are useless in beating back conservatism after its gone hegemonic–and who could possibly deny that it has? Maybe that’s the most frightening lesson from Robin’s book, and what makes it all so hard for liberals to take: that the fight is over, the battle is lost, and the bastards won. And if we wanna do something about it, and it’s starting to look like maybe we do, we might have to summon up some of that dangerous radical fire that’s propelled every worthwhile step we’ve taken towards a more civil and egalitarian society.
Connor Kilpatrick is a Senior Writer for Jacobin.
Would you like to know more? Dissect your neighborhood reactionary by reading Mark Ames’ “We, The Spiteful” and “Why The American Right Never Liked V. S. Naipaul.” Also, read the great Dr. John Dolan’s savage takedown “Reagan’s Cheshire Snarl.”
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