Having gone real deep into Robin’s corpus, it has become clear to me that Mark Lilla’s New York Books review of The Reactionary Mind, which I previously praised, is disingenuous. Though you wouldn’t know it from reading Lilla’s essay, Robin is well aware that his account of conservatism stands opposed to Lilla’s, Andrew’s, and most other conservative intellectuals’. Robin has also responded to their arguments at length. His responses are thoughtful, and his conception of conservatism could well be right (heh).
But I have some questions. Right now I’m particularly puzzled by two aspects of Robin’s vision of conservatism.
(1) The relationship between conservatism, the preservation of hierarchies of power, and violence. In his exchange with Larison Robin defines conservatism as committed to the preservation of intimate hierarchies of power and subordination (master over serf; white over black; man over wife; male over female), but in this piece he suggests that conservatism’s commitment to the preservation of hierarchies and its commitment to violence [Robin’s conservatism isn’t particularly lovely] both stem from a deep-seated longing for excellence and “the sublime,” which leaves me unsure of how the attitudes and commitments associated with conservatism are supposed to nest. (Is a sense of the sublime most fundamental to conservatism? Is a commitment to hierarchies that in turn results in, and is reinforced by, a commitment to the sublime? Is the conservative intrinsically violent, or is the marriage of conservatism and violence a conceptually accidental, though understandable, association? Etc.?)
(2) The relationship between “dispositional conservatism”* and conservatism itself. Robin repeatedly denies that the dispositional conservatism of Oakeshott (and Andrew and, in some moods, William F. Buckley) is actually conservatism. (Best denial here). So what is dispositional conservatism? At times he suggests it is just an eccentric intellectual fancy, unworthy (or too worthy, depending on your point of view) of being designated a politics. But other times he treats the dispositional conservatives as the real deal. He calls Andrew a “prominent voice on the right,” and in both the Larison exchange and Reactionary Minds he lumps Oakeshott with Palin, the Nazis and the greater conservative pantheon:
I use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary interchangeably: not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative…but all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary. I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Winston Churchill, Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Nixon, Irving Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and George W. Bush interspersed throughout.
If the visions of Andrew and Oakeshott are both supposed to be conservative in Robin’s sense, as opposed to mere eccentricity, then what is dispositional conservatism? Is it just a flattering self-image? Does it reduce to actual conservatism? Or is dispositional conservatism its own point in conceptual space, real and irrelevant? In which case, how are Andrew and Oakeshott conservatives in Robin’s sense?
* Dispostional conservatism. In one of the posts already linked, Robin quotes Andrew to describe dispositional conservatism: “There is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to expain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?” In another of the linked posts, he also takes his own crack at characterizing dispositional conservatism:
Conservatives, at least by reputation, are supposed to be calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar. They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse.
Of course, reading Lilla’s piece you’d think that Robin was wholly unaware of this phenomenon (as opposed to centrally concerned with it). Pshaw.