Isn’t It Romantic? Burke, Maistre, and Conservatism

3 Mar


Over at The American Conservative, political theorist Sam Goldman offers a thoughtful response to The Reactionary Mind. Among its many virtues, Goldman’s post manages to get my argument right. As we’ve seen, that can be something of a challenge for some reviewers.

Goldman also agrees with me on some fundamentals. Conservatism, he says, is a reactionary ideology. It is a defense of hierarchy against emancipatory movements from below. It’s not a disposition or an attitude; it’s not a philosophy of liberty or even of limited government.  (It supports the idea of limited government, Goldman says, but that’s a consequence, not a premise, of the theory.)  It is first and foremost a coherent set of ideas about inequality that gets forged in the crucible of revolution.

Where some liberal and moderate writers react to my argument with all the rage of a blasphemed church—even though they’re not members—here we have one of our more serious right-wing journals calmly taking my claims in order and agreeing with a great many of them. Interesting.

But Goldman has two criticisms of my book. First, he doesn’t think I do justice to the conservative critique of revolution and defense of hierarchy. Goldman doesn’t claim that what I say about that critique is wrong (though that might be out of mere politeness on his part.) Instead, he says:

Robin is so eager to make the connection between past and present that he does not develop the classic [conservative] position in detail. A “consistent and profound argument” deserves careful analysis. In The Reactionary Mind, we get a few intriguing but not exactly dispositive quotes from Burke and his Francophone disciple Joseph de Maistre.

Goldman’s second criticism follows from his first. Because conservatism is, in his account, a critique of any politics that rests its claims to legitimacy on the need for consent—a politics, Goldman suggests, that includes not only revolutionary Jacobinism but also liberalism and contemporary conservatism—it has nothing to do with contemporary conservatism.

What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much….Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.

I’ll confess to feeling slightly disoriented in reading that statement, coming on the heels of a two-week controversy over the right of women to sexual autonomy, in which the Catholic Church has played a not insignificant part. Goldman seems to think the center of gravity of the American conservative movement is to be found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia—an error all too common among political theorists who don’t know much American or European history and don’t keep up with the facts on the right-wing ground. I’m not saying that’s true of Goldman—I suspect it’s not—but it’s definitely true of a great many political theorists. (Mark Lilla’s comments about the contemporary conservative movement in his review of my book, for example, were positively wince-inducing to anyone who’s read the historiography.) In any event, I’m confident I provide plentiful evidence in the book demonstrating the continuities between the classic and the contemporary position, so I won’t dwell on that part of Goldman’s article here.

Let me focus instead on Goldman’s characterization of the classic position, particularly the role of history in the arguments of Burke and the notion of sovereignty in the arguments of de Maistre. Goldman’s is an influential if standard account, for good reasons. So while much of this will seem like fairly rarified intellectual history, it’s important that we have this discussion because I fear that certain set pieces of academic political theory are preventing us from getting clear on the nature of the contemporary right.

Burke and History

Goldman’s account of Burke’s theory of history is, as I said, a fairly standard one, for good reasons, so it’s worth giving it some space here:

Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.

The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.

This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians….But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from the way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.

Now it’s certainly true that Burke puts a great store on the value of history and tradition. (Though it’s also true, as I show in my book and have argued repeatedly since its publication, that Burke can be positively scathing about the role of history and tradition—a point Goldman steers clear of in his piece. This becomes a bit problematic later in his article, when Goldman talks about the virtues that are acquired by those who are longstanding witnesses to power; for Burke, that kind of experience can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Again, something I’ve already talked about at length, so I won’t dwell on it here.) But I think Goldman, like many interpreters of Burke, misses the point of what Burke says about history and tradition.

Goldman assimilates Burke to a standard communitarian position, which holds that our history, culture, and inheritance make us who we are. It’s a root theory of identity, in which the past and society more generally are the soil and seed of our personhood and agency, the condition of our possibility without which we would be stumbling in the dark, unable to find our way.

The problem with this claim is twofold. First, it’s not a particularly conservative claim. Nor did Burke, assuming he made it, originate it. As Sankar Muthu has argued, both Diderot and Kant were firm in the conviction that men and women were not the isolated monads of a stereotypical Enlightenment but “cultural agents.”  That view—this is me now talking—had little bearing on their predilection or aversion to radical politics: Diderot was a key inspiration of the French Revolution, Kant a prominent defender. And as Alex Gourevitch noted in his critique of Lilla’s review of my book, one can find versions of that rootedness position throughout the liberal and radical tradition, from the nineteenth century onward; no necessarily conservative conclusions—at least not in the reactionary sense that Goldman agrees is essential to conservatism—follow from it. It simply doesn’t tell us very much that’s distinctive about conservatism.

More important, it misses what’s most interesting in Burke’s account of our historical being. To fully appreciate that account, one has to understand the kind of moral psychology Burke lays out much earlier in his career in his essay on The Sublime and the Beautiful. Forgive the very long quotation from my book, but it helps situate what I’m about to say about Burke’s view of history.

The Sublime and the Beautiful begins on a high note, with a discussion of curiosity, which Burke identifies as “the first and simplest emotion.” The curious race “from place to place to hunt out something new.” Their sights are fixed, their attention is rapt. Then the world turns gray. They begin to stumble across the same things, “with less and less of any agreeable effect.” Novelty diminishes: how much, really, is there new in the world? Curiosity “exhausts” itself. Enthusiasm and engagement give way to “loathing and weariness.” Burke moves on to pleasure and pain, which are supposed to transform the quest for novelty into experiences more sustaining and profound. But rather than a genuine additive to curiosity, pleasure offers more of the same: a moment’s enthusiasm, followed by dull malaise. “When it has run its career,” Burke says, pleasure “sets us down very nearly where it found us.” Any kind of pleasure “quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference.” Quieter enjoyments, less intense than pleasure, are equally soporific. They generate complacency; we “give ourselves over to indolence and inaction.” Burke turns to imitation as another potential force of outward propulsion. Through imitation, we learn manners and mores, develop opinions, and are civilized. We bring ourselves to the world, and the world is brought to us. But imitation contains its own narcotic. Imitate others too much and we cease to better ourselves. We follow the person in front of us “and so on in an eternal circle.” In a world of imitators, “there never could be any improvement.” Such “men must remain as brutes do, the same at the end that they are at this day, and that they were in the beginning of the world.”

Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation. So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge, but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for “melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder.” Even love, the most outward of raptures, carries the self back to a state of internal dissolution. Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone who takes pleasure in the world as it is.

If the self is to survive and flourish it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. Pleasure and enjoyment act like beauty, “relaxing the solids of the whole system.”  That system, however, must be made taut and tense. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted. Otherwise, the system will soften and atrophy, and ultimately die. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with non-being. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: “they make no such impression” on the self because “we were not made to acquiesce in life and health.” Pain and danger, by contrast, are “emissaries” of death, the “king of terrors.” They are sources of the sublime, “the strongest”—most powerful, most affecting—“emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”  Pain and danger, in other words, are generative experiences of the self.

Pain and danger are generative because they have the contradictory effect of minimizing and maximizing our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, our mind “is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” The “motions” of our soul “are suspended,” as harm and the fears it arouses “rush in upon the mind.” In the face of these fears, “the mind is hurried out of itself.” When we experience the sublime, we feel ourselves evacuated, overwhelmed by an external object of tremendous power and threat. Everything that gave us a sense of internal being and vitality ceases to exist. The external is all, we are nothing. God is a good example, and the ultimate expression, of the sublime: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.”

Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent we never have felt it before. Seized by terror, our “attention” is roused and our “faculties” are “driven forward, as it were, on their guard.” We are pulled out of ourselves. We are cognizant of the immediate terrain and our presence upon it. Before, we barely noticed ourselves or our surroundings. Now we spill out of ourselves, inhabiting not only our bodies and minds but the space around us. We feel “a sort of swelling”—a sense that we are greater, our perimeter extends further—that “is extremely grateful to the human mind.” But this “swelling,” Burke reminds us, “is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects.”

In the face of the sublime, the self is annihilated, occupied, crushed, overwhelmed; in the face of the sublime, the self is heightened, aggrandized, magnified. Whether the self can truly occupy such opposing, almost irreconcilable, poles of experience at the same time—it is this contradiction, the oscillation between wild extremes, that generates a strong and strenuous sense of self. As Burke writes elsewhere, intense light resembles intense darkness not only because it blinds the eye and thus approximates darkness, but also because both are extremes. And extremes, particularly opposing extremes, are sublime because sublimity “in all things abhors mediocrity.” The extremity of opposing sensations, the savage swing from being to nothingness, makes for the most intense experience of self hood.

Burke, it should be clear from this discussion, has an extraordinarily subtle and supple theory of human nature, in which the experience of selfhood is especially fragile and fraught. If we now apply this account to what he has to say in the Reflections about the relationship of the self to history, we find two critical points.

First, far from situating an integrated self in the warm and loamy soil of a nurturing history, Burke’s history is an altogether more enigmatic, impenetrable, and agitated affair. Listen to the old man:

Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete.

History is permanence and flux, birth and decay. At each and every moment, we inhabit three modes of time: past, present, and future. The self is not simply situated in time; it is distended by time. The implication of that kind of temporality is that multiplicity and fragmentation—not integration or rootedness—are the essence of our experience. Flux and fluidity—those proverbial specters of postmodernity—haunt the Burkean self, making for the kind of sublimity that Burke believes is necessary to sustain the self in the face of its ever present and irrepressible drive toward death.

History, in short, is not the root of our identity, making us who we are; it’s the contradictory poles of our experience, forever pushing and pulling us in opposite directions. History is the extremity that threatens us with fragmentation and thereby makes it possible for us to feel, however fleetingly, the potential density and perimeter of our being.

Second, Burke sees in the past a great weight. But far from intimating some kind of plodding traditionalism or conventionalism, that weight is also suggestive of the sublime:

Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. The idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are first acquirers of any distinction. But this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree, and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings, and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions; its records, evidences, and titles.

Notice that this is not a simple theory of history’s constraints. It’s not that history limits our freedom; it’s that that limit enlarges and magnifies our freedom. It gives it depth, majesty, grandeur, awe—“an awful gravity.” The weight of the past does not simply weigh down on the present; it gives weight to a present that would otherwise be weightless. Through that weight, the present—and the small selves of that present—acquires largeness, profundity, extent. (The backdrop of religious notions of awe should be obvious here; in fact, later in the Reflections Burke makes oblique allusion to the story of Noah and his sons, particularly Shem and Japheth, when he says that one “should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”)

So what function is history serving for Burke? Rather than securing for us an identity, without which we would be at sea, history is the source of sublimity, of dissonant experience and agonistic passion, without which we would be dead. Not because history is the secure ground of everyday experience but because it subverts the secure ground of everyday experience. The real threat lurking beneath the revolutionary assault on history, to Burke’s mind, is not anarchy or disorder; it’s weightlessness, the—to be sure, avant la lettre—proverbial emptiness and existential nausea of modernity that later theorists like Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Schmitt will lament. And while that sense of weightlessness is by no means exclusive to the right, the connections that Burke draws between it and the antinomian forces of egalitarian revolution is. (“This is one among the revolutions which have given splendour to obscurity,” Burke writes in the Reflections, “and distinction to undiscerned merit.” Revolution flattens the world by pressing its extremities of high and low together; inequality keeps them apart, endowing the world with texture and depth.)

It’s important that we not assimilate, as do Goldman and many others, Burke’s theory of history to an anodyne communitarian position in part because we will overlook the much more turbulent and novel theory that is being forged there, a theory that doesn’t look backward to the eighteenth century but forward, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It’s also important because we’ll fail to see the ways in which Burke—and other “classic” conservatives—stand at the headwaters of what will become the raging torrent of the radical right, in Europe and the US. In Burke’s focus on constraint and overcoming, we see not only glimmers of the figures I mention in the previous paragraph but also, as I show in my book, glimmers of the economics of Ayn Rand and the jurisprudence of Antonin Scalia.

Maistre and Sovereignty

We can see this forward-looking dimension even more clearly in another “classic” conservative figure Goldman discusses: Joseph de Maistre.  Here’s Goldman (again quoting him at length):

Yet the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians. Unlike Hobbes, to whom it was a matter of indifference who ruled so long as someone did so, Burke and his disciples were deeply concerned with the character of the wielders of power. This was not simply a matter of natural endowments, although the conservatives did observe reasonably enough that men are not born equal in strength, intelligence, or other capacities. Instead, the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.

The content of the relevant distinctions, however, is a point of difference between the conservative tradition as it developed in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Although it was fundamentally anti-egalitarian, the former took its bearing from the ideal of the gentleman, who did not necessarily bear a title of nobility and was most at home on his rural estate. For Burke, the possession and care of landed property had a central role in cultivating the virtues necessary to rule others well. As the reference to an “entailed inheritance” suggests, Burke saw the management of an estate and its tenants as the basic model of harmonious social relations. On the other hand, those who earn their living from rapid exchange can hardly resist habits of short-term thinking, deference to the whims of customers, and the less than frank speech necessary to succeed in business.

Even a successful merchant, then, could not make himself into a gentleman. He might, however, hope to be successful enough that his grandsons would be. The assumption that social mobility is possible, although never frequent or easy, inclined English-style conservatism to the idea of a powerful but permeable aristocracy. Burke’s own rise from obscure man of letters to the ideologue of the establishment testifies to the plausibility of this assumption.

But “the spirit of the gentleman,” as Burke called it, did not exist in the same way on the Continent, partly because European titles passed to all of a nobleman’s sons rather than only to the eldest. In its place, Bonald, Maistre, and German counterparts like Friedrich Gentz deferred to the nobility of the sword. The natural rulers, as they saw them, were not a class of squires periodically refreshed by talented outsiders. They were the titled commanders of armies.

Continental conservatives generally acknowledged the necessity of a class of civil servants to administer the state. But they rejected the Aristotelian principle that participation in politics is an important component of virtue, in favor of a military monasticism that alienated the elite from the society that it was supposed to lead. Among the reasons that Burke’s conservatism supported his commitment to parliamentary government, by contrast, was that he saw politics as a fit occupation for a gentleman. Indeed, one of Burke’s central criticisms of the French Revolution is that its subversion of all civil authority made military dictatorship inevitable—an outcome for which he had no sympathy whatsoever.

Despite their disagreement about who the natural rulers were, Burke and his European counterparts agreed about how this rule was to be exercised. In both cases, power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society. A father might be the authority in his own home, but he owed obedience to the local lord of the manor. The lord might rule his estate, but not in defiance of the king. And the king had to be prepared to account for himself before God for his stewardship of these relationships, which are not of his making or subject to his will.

Burke’s insistence that good government is always limited government is well known. But Maistre, who has the reputation of a crazed absolutist, insisted on the same principle. Elaborating his theory of sovereignty, Maistre explains that while sovereignty must, in certain senses, be absolute, it should never be arbitrary or exercised outside its proper sphere. Although the king’s will must not be challenged, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”

The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.

I’ve already indicated, here and elsewhere, why I think this account of the virtues of the Burkean gentleman is at best incomplete. But when it comes to Maistre, it’s, well, not particularly Maistrean. In his St. Petersburg Dialogues, to cite only one example (I discuss Maistre’s Considerations on France in my book, so I won’t repeat that here), Maistre offers a chilling account of power and its exercise that looks very little like the picture Goldman paints here.

Maistre opens the Dialogues by saying, “God, wanting to govern men by men, at least exteriorly, has handed over to sovereigns the eminent prerogative of punishing crimes, and it is in this matter especially that they are his representatives.” To the casual reader, this sounds conventional enough: the sovereign is God’s anointed representative on earth. But Maistre’s focus on punishment—“and it is in this matter especially that they are his representatives”—strikes a discordant note. With the exception of Nietzsche and Foucault, possibly Bentham, no modern political theorist has ever placed so much emphasis on the potency and power of punishment. For Maistre, punishment is not the unfortunate sign of a fallen world, a sad concession to a corrupt reality; it’s an endlessly generative postulate with enormous creative potential.

Quoting from an English translation of the Indian “laws of Manu,” Maistre goes on to write:

Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

Notice the subtle inversions and subversions. We’ve gone from the sovereign being God’s anointed on earth, especially in his capacity to punish, to punishment now being the “true manager of public affairs.” The significance of that shift will become clear momentarily, but for now it should alert us to the fact that this is hardly a standard account of sovereignty we’re seeing. Where punishment was first a capacity, albeit a critical one, of sovereignty, it is now sovereignty itself.

Also notice Maistre’s dig at conventional political authority: “punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep.” Who are these guards? What are they guarding? It’s not entirely clear, but what Maistre may be suggesting is that the customary protectors of men and women—kings and magistrates and constables—may not be up to the task. They are asleep (Maistre voices that suspicion, so common to the conservative tradition, that established elites and rulers are decadent and dissolute.) Punishment is the real protector.

But who or what is “punishment” if not the king and his agents? According to Maistre, it is a figure of a tremendously frightful and awful countenance: the executioner.

And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears. God, who is the author of sovereignty, is therefore also the author of punishment.

Two things are going in this passage. First, Maistre has completely shifted the source of order and sovereignty: it’s not the king wielding punishment, it’s the punisher himself. The executioner is not the king’s agent; it’s the reverse, with the executioner now standing in direct relation to God. The world has been turned upside down, possibly reflecting Maistre’s own absorption of the Revolution’s democratic ethos. (As I argue in my book, conservatism often works by borrowing from the very revolution it opposes.)

Second, and even more suggestive, in claiming that violence is the source of order, Maistre registers the newly dynamic and turbulent world of democratic history—a revolutionary world, as I noted in my first book Fear: The History of Political Idea, where dynasties rose and fell within a matter of years, if not months—that Burke points to in his Reflections.

As the word suggests, violence hints at movement or change: there’s the physical fact that violence requires the movement of bodies acting upon other bodies; there’s also the fact that violence is used to engineer change—war, for example—or signifies that a change, a violation, has occurred and needs to be remedied—as is the case in punishment.

Kings rest their power on God, tradition, law: these are things of stability, if not permanence. To say that the violence of the executioner governs the world is to say that something more active, more dynamic, is necessary to maintain the world as it is. The very features that Goldman maintains are essential, in the conservative argument, to the long-term stability and security of a polity are, for Maistre (and for Burke, as I’ve argued elsewhere), its liabilities.

As Maistre proceeds to describe the executioner, these inversions of sovereignty become even clearer—and, oddly, more democratic.  Or at least more plebeian.  Who is this executioner? He is “in effect, found everywhere.” He’s a family man. He’s a professional: he cares about his job, he does it well, he likes to get paid. He’s an everyman; he eats, he sleeps. “He is made like us; he is born like us.”

And yet there’s something uncanny and extraordinary about him.  He’s chosen this awful profession for reasons that no one can fathom (the fact that he’s chosen it also suggests that he is a creature of this new democratic world where men choose their professions.) He’s not only inscrutable; his very existence is sui generis: “For him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power.  He is created as a law on to himself.” Much like Schmitt’s later discussions of sovereignty in Political Theology (“Looked at normatively, the decision emanates from nothingness”), the executioner is the closest thing on earth to the Creation itself: the making of something from nothing.

And there is, finally, the grisliness of his chosen task, which Maistre does not shrink from describing:

An abject minister of justice knocks on his door to warn him that he is needed. He sets out. He arrives at a public square packed with a pressing and panting crowd. He is thrown a poisoner, a parricide, a blasphemer. He seizes him, stretches him out, ties him to a horizontal cross, and raises his arms. Then there is a horrible silence, there is no sound but the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unties him and carries him to a wheel. The broken limbs are bound to the spokes, the head hangs down, the hair stands on end, and the mouth gaping like a furnace, occasionally emits a few bloody words begging for death. He has finished; his heart is pounding, but it is with joy. He congratulates himself. He says in his heart, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he holds out his bloodstained hand, and justice throws him from afar a few gold coins, which he carries away through a double row of men drawing back in horror. He sits down to table and eats; then he goes to bed and sleeps.

There’s are lot more of this kind of stuff in the St. Petersburg Dialogues—“the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life;” “there is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another”; tables piled with corpses, museums built out of bones; the kind of stuff that makes Adorno’s (really Brecht’s) observation that high culture is “built on dogshit” look mild by comparison—as well as in the Considerations. But you get the picture.

We are, in other words, far away from Goldman’s world of squires and generals, of limited government and restraint. Whether we are in the world of the Blitzkrieg and the Konzentrationslager, as Isaiah Berlin famously suggested, is another question.

What’s not in question is that this is not a world that the contemporary right would find entirely foreign. This valorization of violence as a creative force, as I show in my book, plays a critical role in neoconservative thought. The mixing of high and low, the transfiguration of patrician into plebeian and vice versa—this also plays a critical role in contemporary conservatism.

But more interesting to me is the figure of the executioner himself: this miraculous appearance from nowhere, inscrutable yet democratic, self-willed and self-created, this lowly, uncredentialed being upon whom kings depend and sovereignty hangs, that is sovereignty itself. As I’ve suggested in some interviews, the reason Sarah Palin is/was such a suggestive figure on the right is precisely that she reflects this romance of the extraordinary ordinary. Like the executioner—and Joan of Arc, who occupies such a central place in the French radical right—she comes from nowhere, acts for inscrutable reasons, is unlicensed and untutored, and yet, to her followers, is ready to assume command of the free world. Her lack of interest and preparation in political matters only seem to confirm, in the eyes of her admirers, her fitness to rule.

All in all, this is an extremely romantic view of power: turbulent, tormented, stormy.  It has its own logic and integrity, but it also has tremendous potency as a political ideal. For it manages, in one single figure, to embody the central imperative of conservative politics: to provide a defense of hierarchical rule for a democratic age.


18 Responses to “Isn’t It Romantic? Burke, Maistre, and Conservatism”

  1. Geojos March 3, 2012 at 6:42 am #

    I can’t disagree with anyone who ends with a video of the great Art Tatum.

  2. Uday March 4, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    Another quite intriguing discussion professor Robin. For a student of contemporary politics, and of the emergence of contemporary conservatism, what books would you recommend play a central role in the historiography of the modern conservatism? Since reading “The Reactionary Mind”, I’ve been quite interested in trying to determine more clearly and more comprehensively (given the nature of the book as a series of profiles and thematic analyses) how it is these somewhat antiquated defences of hierachy and order took shape and came to life, as it were, in contemporary politics. If you have any pointers on how one could go about approaching this historiography, that would be extremely helpful. This could be phrased better as, after “The Reactionary Mind”, what do you think one should read to build on one’s understanding of the history and theory of conservatism?

    • Corey Robin March 5, 2012 at 12:14 am #

      If you check out the footnotes to the introduction you’ll see some useful pointers. My touchstones are Karl Mannheim’s classic essay on conservative thought; some of Robert Nisbet’s various works (not just on conservatism but on sociology as well; George Steiner’s little known collection of lectures “In Bluebeard’s Castle”; Arno Mayer’s “Persistence of the Old Regime”; Karen Orren’s “Belated Feudalism”. But check out the footnotes for other leads.

  3. jonnybutter March 4, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Hi Prof. Robin,

    I’m in school at the moment, and so have had to put off reading your book in its entirety – I don’t like to skim a book as interesting as yours, but skimming and reading reviews and blog posts has to do for now. I look forward to reading the rest of it very soon.

    Your citation of post-modernism in this post rang a bell. Was wondering if you have studied post-modern politics per se. Shadia Drury has a wonderful, fairly short book about this subject called “Kojeve: the Roots of Post Modern Politics” (not sure if html is allowed here, so I won’t insert a link) which traces just what you notice in the early Burke quotation, from Nietzsche to Leo Strauss. If you haven’t read it, I think it’s worth a look. It manages to be both rigorous and accessible to the general reader (like all her books, fortunately).

    • Corey Robin March 5, 2012 at 12:16 am #

      I know her early work on Strauss, from the 1980s, but haven’t read the Kojeve book. Sounds interesting. Somewhere deep in the bowels of my book is the notion, never really developed, that conservatism, going back to Burke and Maistre, is the original form of postmodernism.

      • jonnybutter March 5, 2012 at 8:38 am #

        The Kojeve book is, IMHO, the very best of her bunch in this vein. She deals with ‘left’ PoMo to some extent (e.g. Foucault) but sees the Right variety as more influential in terms of politics. She also notes that, withal, both kinds are: more similar than different, deeply anti-liberal, and very darkly romantic. That Burke quote is just so striking!


  4. LonD March 4, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Enzo Traverso has an interesting take on classical role of the executioner at the beginning of his book Origins of Nazi Violence where he memorably describes how the “aura” of “Monsieur de Paris” was taken away by the guillotine, which has its own infelicitous history, especially for the revolutionary left.

  5. Alain Wittman March 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    A great analysis. But has anyone suggested your version of Burke sounds a lot like the historicity of Dasein in Being and Time? I am not saying you are wrong but i have never seen the emphasis on finitude and a disseminated self brought out in a discussion of Burke. Thanks.

    • Corey Robin March 5, 2012 at 12:17 am #

      That’s an interesting point, and no, no one has ever made it. I haven’t read Heidegger since my senior year in college when I tried to make my way, unsuccessfully, through Being and Time. Perhaps it’s time to step back into it.

      • Hampus Byström April 6, 2012 at 3:57 am #

        Don’t. Trust me.

  6. Erstwhile Anthropologist March 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Corey, thank you for this very illuminating explanation.

    Your discussion of punishment and violence as a remedy for a violation/change which has occurred, and your concluding summation that the central imperative for conservative politics is to provide a justification for hierarchy in a democratic world, raises a few questions for me: First, what is, for you, the difference between the conservative mind and an authoritarian personality, authoritarianism more broadly–especially as the latter is often displayed by individuals and institutions who/which claim to be liberal, progressive, of the Left. (And this is why I have privately shared some troubling recent experiences from my own life with you. Especially as I think they speak to your comments about the logic of punishment/violation/change, and the desire to use punishment to enforce what is seen as a natural hierarchy–both academic and racial.) 

    The aforementioned personal experience(s) leads me to my second question: to what extent does race (re)present ‘a defense of freedom for hierarchical rule for a democratic age’ (i.e. racial ideologies and the racial categories they have produced, predicated as they are on ideas of superior and inferiority; and the ways in which these ideologies are held–across the political spectrum–due to unconscious/implicit bias and the ‘aversive racism’ of which Yale’s John Dovidio writes)? I ask this question because I am thinking about how race/racism justifies an investment in racialized hierarchies that can be found across the political spectrum (as demonstrated by social psychology research on bias and prejudice), and so I am wondering which elements of the investment in hierarchy and its justification are specific to the reactionary mind and conservatism, and which are more broadly shared: especially in relation to why the US–a *post-slave society* is so much further to the right of Western Europe, in particular.

    Apropos of my second question about race, and its connection to the reactionary mind, I am wondering where you place colonialism and (‘New World’/plantation/afro-diasporic racial) slavery in relation to the formation of Burke’s ideas on conservatism, hierarchy, and the need for punishment. I am wondering to what extent colonialism and slavery serve as the backdrop for ideas of hierarchy, not just the French Revolution (and here I am also certainly thinking about Susan Buck-Morss’ provocative essay on Hegel and Haiti).

    Finally, an observation as an ‘erstwhile anthropologist’: reading passages above on (conservative theories of) ‘human nature’ had me thinking about David Graeber’s Debt and his critique of conservative neoliberal economics: the way in which conservative exegesis/theories of ‘human nature’ are rather speculative and *anti-anthropological*–they are (usually) limited to societies and socio-cultural practices coming out of Europe, yet are universalized as global and transhistorical phenomenon. So I couldn’t read Burke et al’s musings on human nature without reflecting on the problem of making universal claims about human nature that are not actually supported by the anthropological record. (And for an anthropological spin on ‘human nature’:

    • Corey Robin March 5, 2012 at 12:25 am #

      Some quick thoughts. I try to make the point throughout the book that I’m not describing a personality structure so much as a coherent set of ideas and ideologies. Authoritarianism, as you rightly note, is a mindset that criss-crosses the ideological divide. If you want to understand authoritarian politics as the product of authoritarian minds — and a great many brilliant social theorists have done just that — then by definition it’s going to bypass, if not altogether transcend, the conventional categories of politics. I resist that move for a number of reasons, so I think I’m on fair ground in saying I’m describing a distinctively conservative set of ideas. As for race, a similar response: I think it is conservatives who first appreciate how race can serve as a counter to the democratic imperatives of the age. (When Maistre writes, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.” he is articulating an early account of multiculturalism, but showing how its notion of different ethnicities and nations can be used against the French Revolution.) That said, there’s an argument to be made — and Domenico Losurdo makes it brililantly in his recently translated book on Liberalism — that it is liberalism that provides the most argument for slavery. But I don’t it makes that argument the way the conservative does; that is, as Losurdo shows, it does so by way of exclusion clauses. Conservatism has no exclusion clauses.

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist March 5, 2012 at 1:21 am #

        Thank you for the clarification. Very much appreciated. Can you please elaborate on conservatism having no exclusions? Don’t think I’m clear on this. Thank you.

  7. David Auerbach March 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    An excellent and extremely patient response. I’m glad to see a mention of Muthu’s excellent book. Note that Diderot did not necessarily assign any positive value to culture. While being steadfastly anti-Rousseauist in recognizing the necessary and inevitable conditioning role of culture, he remained ambivalent on culture’s role in reinforcing good and bad tendencies, which pushed him into a loosely ecumenical and pluralistic stance, somewhat akin to Herder’s.

    “Supplement to the Voyage to Bougainville, or dialogues between A and B on the inconvenients of binding moral ideas to some physical actions which bear none” is probably Diderot’s most articulated presentation of his views, where he engages in comparative anthropology and finds the culture of colonized natives to be happily free of some of the harmful repressive mores of European culture, but hardly finds them to be a utopia.

  8. Ralph Haygood September 16, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    “The curious race ‘from place to place to hunt out something new.’ Their sights are fixed, their attention is rapt. Then the world turns gray. They begin to stumble across the same things, ‘with less and less of any agreeable effect.’ Novelty diminishes: how much, really, is there new in the world? Curiosity ‘exhausts’ itself. Enthusiasm and engagement give way to ‘loathing and weariness.’”:

    On the face of it, this suggests that despite his repute as a Great Thinker, Burke was actually a stupendous dullard. If his curiosity indeed exhausted itself, it must have been pitifully feeble to begin with. His contemporaries included, to name but three off the top of my head, Leonhard Euler, Joseph Lagrange, and Wolfgang Mozart, men who managed to discover a good deal that was new in the world. That Burke cannot have been entirely unaware of such people and their discoveries raises the suspicion that he didn’t so much doubt the existence of novelty as dislike and maybe fear it.

    As someone who could happily devote a lifetime or more to any one of several things I’ve studied or pursued – physics, mathematics, genetics, ecology, music, glass, etc. – I find the notion that curiosity begets ennui bizarre and repulsive. The truth has been well expressed by Annie Dillard:

    “[T]hings themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them. How long does it take to draw a baseball mitt? As much time as you care to give it. Not an infinite amount of time, but more time than you first imagined. For many days, so long as you want to keep drawing that mitt, and studying that mitt, there will always be a new and finer layer of distinctions to draw out and lay in. Your attention discovers – seems thereby to produce – an array of interesting features in any object, like a lamp.” (An American Childhood, 1987)

    My own “loathing and weariness” are largely of the chronically inattentive spiritual descendants of Edmund Burke.


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