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Not just a knee-jerk

Richard Seymour reviews The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin

November 29, 2011
2 min read

Conservatism is a strange animal. Lacking the programmatic expositions of both liberalism and socialism, its adherents represent it as a preference for the familiar, the traditional and gradual change. Critics of conservatism such as Ted Honderich have pointed out that this would make conservatism remarkably stupid, involving hatred of the new until it had become familiar, no matter the principle involved. Moreover, such a description fails to capture the breadth of conservatism, which encompasses everything from reactionary anti-capitalism to pro‑market liberalism. Robin’s elegant book, a history of conservative ideas from Hobbes onward, resolves this dilemma by treating conservatism as a counter-revolutionary doctrine.

Far from offering a knee-jerk defence of tradition, the reactionary impulse moves in two directions: ‘first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes’.

This is a hallmark of conservatism from its inception. As much as Joseph de Maistre hated the democratic, republican tumult of the French revolution, he was forced to address his counter-revolutionary appeal to ‘citizens!’ And far from defending a static order, conservatives warn that egalitarianism will lead to stagnation. This is the basis of Nietzsche’s fears about the ‘Last Man’, and of Ayn Rand’s championing of the ‘demigod creator’ against the ‘unproductive elements in society’ who would constrain him. Lastly, far from being staid traditionalists, they mostly tend to be adventurists and lovers of the turmoil of war.

Above all, conservatism is opposed to the populace assuming the rights and authority of government. Whether it is Calhoun seeking to exclude African-Americans from the polity, or Burke barring labourers from a share in the management of the state, conservatism is profoundly anti-democratic. Yet in an era when the masses are mobile, conservatives must offer popular participation in the hierarchies they defend.

For Maistre, the lower orders could share in the majesty of monarchy. For later conservatives, the task was to enable the lower orders to boss others around – women, black people and those lower down the productive chain.

Such is the case brilliantly expounded in Robin’s latest book, an invaluable guide to the reactionaries of our time.

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