Posted by: captainfalcon | January 5, 2012

Quiggin on Robin h/t Leiter

To keep with our recent trend, here’s John Quiggin on The Reactionary Mind. Money quote:

Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.

I think this is broadly correct. Although there are people with the conservative disposition described above (and also, people who are attracted by radicalism as such), there is no inherent correlation between conservatism as a disposition and support for the political views commonly associated with conservatism.

There is an accidental association reflecting the fact that, taking the last two or three centuries as a whole, the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital. Under such circumstances, people of conservative disposition will generally be found in opposition to the progressive demands being put forward by workers and their supporters.

Quiggin 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 lie told by intelligent conservatives to, knowingly or not, mask their true motivations.” I remain skeptical. First, because Robin repeatedly praises conservatism — real conservatism, as espoused by able conservatives (Oakeshott, Hayek, etc.) — as, e.g., “an idea driven praxis,” which suggests that he thinks there is a real conservative theory there, not just a reflexive desire to protect prerogative, coupled with self-serving lies. Second, because Robin is at pains to deny that his theory of conservatism requires or implies that conservatives must be deceptive — delude the downtrodden — to shore up their populist, non-elite, support. From the post just linked:

After writing that I believe conservatism is “an inherently elitist” ideology, Berman claims that that argument cannot account for the anti-elitist dimension of conservatism and that I “explain away right-wing populism as some sort of trick” to keep the masses in their place.

The problem here is that Berman seems to believe that elitism and populism are antipodal forms, where never the twain shall meet. Perhaps that’s why she overlooks my argument that elitism and populism are the mutually reinforcing, yet tension-ridden elements of a single project.

Rather than dismiss right-wing populism, I see it and describe it repeatedly throughout the book as fundamental—not just a recent phenomenon but coterminous with the entire tradition of the right.

Robin’s view that elitism and populism aren’t “antipodal forms” again undercuts conservatism’s need for smoke-and-mirrors, making it further unlikely that Robin thinks there’s much deception in play.



  1. I have yet to see anything by Rubin which would undercut the idea that he thinks “dispositional conservatism” is either an intellectual exercise that conservatism under goes to justify to themselves or others their true motivating goal: pushing back against grabby lesser people. Indeed, his reading of Burke, where the passages most people quote are interpretted as only so much window-dressing for his real desires, which emerge in later writings, seems to justify it.

    Like I said earlier, I imagine Rubin thinks of “dispositional conservatism” much like what TNC, for instance, has written about anti-governmental rhetoric and racism:

    “Racists — and those who exploit racism — are rarely about the business of openly declaring themselves as such, especially after their cause has been thumped”

    “States’ rights” might be a distinguishable idea, in this view, and its proponents may even have themselves convinced they believe it for its own purposes, but they only profess that notion because they feel they cannot openly argue for their true motivations and thus have hunted around for a more palatable argument.

  2. I can’t speak for Robin, but I don’t see dispositional conservatism as purely a mask – there are people who genuinely have this disposition, just as there are people who genuinely believe in “state’s rights” (rephrase it as subsidiarity, and I believe in it). My view, and I think Robin’s is that, as far as actual politics is concerned, however, few people let this disposition trump their preferences for particular outcomes.

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