Posted by: captainfalcon | January 3, 2012

The GOP Is Conservative?!

Here is Corey Robin’s blog. A bit glib, but quite good. So is this exchange between Robin and The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison over Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind.

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.



  1. Perhaps because I had already encountered Rubin’s and Andrew’s and Larison’s back-and-forth, I did not get that impression at all from Lilla’s piece. Indeed, Lilla even acknowledge’s Rubin’s primary retort to the dispositional conservative crowd (that it is a pretty lie told by intelligent conservatives to, knowingly or not, mask their true motivations, like “states rights” and racists):

    “In fact, he thinks that much of our confusion about this subject stems from the fact that we have been taken in by conservative intellectuals who lay out benign-sounding political principles, and historians who accept them as defining different streams of right-wing thought and activity. Robin will have none of it. To his mind, the fundamental truth about the right is that it has always wanted one and only one thing: to keep down those who are already down. This is what unites Edmund Burke and Sarah Palin.”

  2. First, I’m not sure if Robin’s reply is what you say it is. He’s hard to pin down. Sometimes he’s concessive, calling Andrew a “prominent voice on the right” while still allowing him his (eccentric) commitment to dispositional conservatism. On this mood your view (that Robin thinks dispositional conservatism is a delusion or a lie) has some credence.

    On the other hand, he provides exegetical argument (some of it more compelling than others) from prominent conservatives — Burke, Hayek, Oakeshott — for the conclusions that by their own lights they lack prudence and are committed to counterrevolution in the name of privilege. His discussion of Oakeshott in the Larison exchange:

    “While I don’t think [Oakeshott’s] vision of innovation [innovation being the supposed target of Oakeshott’s critique] can be reduced to leftist rationalism, there can be little doubt that that, in the political realm, is what he has primarily in mind. Prior to the French Revolution, there was a discourse of anti-centralization/rationalization that partook of that spirit — Bolingbroke and Montesquieu come to mind, though that discourse was definitely caught up with the defense of feudal privilege against centralizing monarchies. After the French Revolution, it’s pretty clear that that discourse became entirely preoccupied with the threat of egalitarian democracy. I see Oakeshott’s critique, which is primarily focused on the welfare state, as an extension of that.”

    The idea here is that Oakeshott was reacting against — had “primarily in mind” — the challenge posed by the welfare state to established hierarchies of power. That he may have sometimes used the language of the left (Robin presumably thinks he did), and that he probably described the hierarchies of power he defended in more flattering terms than does Robin, doesn’t mean he wasn’t consciously and openly defending or attached to them.

    Second, it is not clear to me (1) that Lilla has captured Robin’s “primary retort” to dispositional conservatism, nor is it clear to me (2) that, even if he has, that is enough to rebut the charge that Lilla’s piece is disingenuous.

    (1) I don’t think Robin says we’ve been taken in by benign conservative intellectuals. He spends a lot of time adducing evidence that conservative intellectuals are actually quite open about being reactionaries (though they wouldn’t use that very word to describe themselves). And, as I said earlier, I don’t know if Robin even thinks there are any benign conservative intellectuals.

    (2) I also don’t think, even if it is true, that Lilla’s acknowledgment that Robin thinks dispositional conservatives are confused saves Lilla’s piece from disingenuousness. See the paragraph immediately below the one you quote, where he presents Robin’s central, surprising conclusion (“Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes”), but then says “If you accept [this] claim[], then you will have no trouble accepting what Robin says in the book’s most extraordinary paragraph.” By characterizing Robin’s conclusion as a “claim” one is free to accept or reject, Lilla implies that Robin simply assumes it — presents it to the reader for their acceptance or rejection — as opposed to supporting it with considerable exegetical argument.

  3. […] understands Robin’s thesis about “dispositional conservatism” the way Chris does — “nothing more than a mask” or, in Chris’s words, “it is a pretty […]

  4. That is one flimsy semantic argument. In what world is a “claim” merely and solely an argument made without reference to evidence? I think it is reasonable to assume, from just Lilla’s piece, that Rubin offers more convincing proof for his theory than his own say-so.

  5. If you call a book’s core conclusion its “claim,” say you can only accept the book’s “most surprising paragraph” if you accept it’s claim, and then present the obvious case against the claim as if the book hasn’t dealt with it at all (let alone at length), you thereby disingenuously imply that the book doesn’t offer any support for its claim. And you haven’t just engaged in semantics; you have characterized the book’s conclusion as a claim through a set of actions and omissions, as well.

    Imagine if in response to one of your Skowronek posts I wrote something like: “Chris claims that presidents have limited political agency. If you accept this claim you will accept his most surprising statement, that “President Obama has adapted the positions and poise he has, as well as won the meager victories he has, because he is largely constrained from acting otherwise.” But, of course, Obama is president at a time when the powers and prerogatives of the office of presidency have expanded tremendously, and when presidents have come closer than ever before to solving the problem of coordinating agency action and policy. To say the leader of the most powerful branch is deeply constrained is to ignore administrative history and common sense. Even if Congress will not cooperate, he still has vast reserves of executive power to implement transformative domestic policy.”

    This would disingenuously imply that you don’t have a theory — one that points out exactly where I go wrong — to back up your assertions. By ignoring that theory I am striking at a straw man and pretending it is you.

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