Posted by: captainfalcon | September 22, 2010

Conservatism as Radical Victimology

Brian Leiter links to a needling analysis of conservatism. Its argument is that, while the conservative styles himself a man of prudence and moderation (cf. this post), and flatters himself that his reactionary sympathies are grounded in these virtues, in point of fact “the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; second to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution it opposes. [Conservatism aims for] a new old regime…that brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of the dilapidated estate.”

Critique and Reconfiguration of the Old Regime

Robin begins with the claim that though conservatives are ostensibly defenders of the status quo, they are usually its most contemptuous critics. Maistre and Burke both accused the ancien regime of impotency and irresoluteness. Thomas Dew, an apologist for slavery, likewise indicted his fellows for cowardice (fear of slave revolts) and a lack of moral commitment (softened at the hands of the abolitionists). The first sentence in Conscience of a Conservative is “I have been much concerned that so many people today with Conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them.”

Robin’s explanation for conservatism’s critical aspect is that it is a response to the dissolution of the regime it is defending. A conservative movement only has a point when there is some urgency to its program. And there is urgency to its program only if what it wants to conserve is fracturing. Far from being defenders of the status quo – which, by the time conservatism comes around to it, is the status quo no more – conservatives are reformers who want to restore the status quo ante.

Absorption of the ideas and tactics of the revolution it opposes

Because conservatism only emerges when a revolutionary force has made considerable gains against the powers that were, it only emerges when its opposition has been (against the odds) successful. Its tacticians thus aim to co-opt the revolutionaries’ techniques. For example:

Fearful that the philosophes had taken control of popular opinion in France, reactionary theologians in the middle of the eighteenth century looked to the example of their enemies…[T]hey stopped writing abstruse disquisitions for each other and began to produced Catholic agitprop…They spent vast sums funding essay contests, like those in which Rousseau made his name, to reward writers who wrote accessible and popular defenses of religion.

Turning to modern times, Robin adverts (inter alia) to Phyllis Schlafly’s attempt to use the language of women’s liberation against feminism, and David Horowitz’s co-optation of the language of the Left for the cause of the Right on campus: hostile learning environment, intellectual diversity, underrepresentation of conservative thought, etc.

Robin’s point is that a recurring dynamic of conservatism is that it “look[s] to the Left for ways to bend new vernaculars, or new media, to their suddenly delegitimated aims.”


Robin closes, with commendable cheek, with the claim that the source of conservatism’s popular appeal is its ability to tap into feelings of victimhood. As he unimprovably puts it:

Far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the Right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth…His constituency is the contingently dispossessed…rather than the preternaturally oppressed…This brand of victimhood endows the conservative complaint with a more universal significance. It connects his disinheritance to an experience we all share – namely, loss…


The whole thing is a good polemic. True, there’s a whiff of sophistry to it (e.g. the tacit assumption that the fact the status quo is threatened entails that it’s vanished), and, for all it tweaks Oakeshott, nothing that implies the incoherence or undesirability of conservatism in Oakeshott’s sense. Nor does the fact that it is obviously motivated by pissed-offed-ness at the Tea Party help its aspirations to an historian’s detachment. But that doesn’t detract from its value as a contingent social critique: the claim that conservatives look to the left for ways to give rhetorical legitimacy to their outmoded programs helps to explain a fair amount of lackluster conservative rhetoric, and its insight that conservatism tends to turn to a defense of the status quo when it has already become the status quo ante, even if rather complacently presumed, is worth bearing in mind when reading Ross Douthat.



  1. I liked the piece, especially considering the general awfulness of the broader type. I didn’t find it quite as polemic as you suggest, though the heavy emphasis on the South was a bit unbecoming. I also think, as you suggest, his characterization of conservatism is far from fatal to philosophical conservatism generally, though it might bolster the handful of people analogizing the Tea Party to the New Left.

    I also don’t think it bears much on Ross Douthat’s post, which seems much more convinced of the tragic inevitability of change, rather than motivated to go out remake the old world, but better.

  2. […] excellent new piece out, reviewing Corey Robin’s new book (the prelude to which we have also already examined). His criticisms dovetail with ours: The whole thing is a good polemic. True, there’s a whiff of […]

  3. […] of Corey Robin’s claims, which I reviewed in this post from a long time ago, is that conservatives co-opt the language of the left to pursue their […]

  4. […] it is. Instead, one gets a single, undifferentiated mass of (in conservatism’s case, almost entirely malodorous) […]

  5. […] bigotry,” amongst other farcical sins.  I am not sure if it fits better with the Corey Robin thread or the Newt is fundamentally unconservative thread, but ouroburos(!) all the […]

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