Why Go After Women and Workers? The Reactionary Mind Explains It All For You.

30 Jun

On a day when the conservative majority on the Supreme Court takes direct aim at women and workers, I thought I’d quote these last lines from The Reactionary Mind:

Conservatism has dominated American politics for the past forty years….Consistent with this book’s argument about the private life of power, the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women. While the right’s success in these campaigns is by no means assured, the fact that the Republicans have taken aim at the last redoubt of the labor movement and the entirety of Planned Parenthood gives some indication of how far they’ve come. The end (in both senses of the word) of the right’s long march against the twentieth century may be in sight.

Also from The Reactionary Mind, on the private life of power:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been Adams’s: cede the field of the public, if you must, stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field. The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power—even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state….

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose.

Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

12 Responses to “Why Go After Women and Workers? The Reactionary Mind Explains It All For You.”

  1. Roquentin June 30, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

    You are correct. The payout from this decision for conservative ideology was quite large. Not only did it offer an opportunity to assert that employers can do whatever they please to the people that work for them, it also offered an opportunity to curtail the rights of women and rollback the sexual revolution. It seems as though they didn’t get the memo that it’s not 1950 anymore.

    It was in The Reactionary Mind as well, although I don’t have a specific page, that when they talk of freedom it’s always the freedom of the owner and of capital to be unrestrained in their dominance.

  2. Chris N June 30, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    I wonder how you arrive at a definition of ‘rights’ for women being represented in this case, and how they were violated with the specific facts and interpretations of law at hand?

    • nillionaire July 2, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

      Fixation on “rights” is a red herring employed (with great skill) by those who would use abstract language to obfuscate reality. Power is always the salient factor.

  3. jonnybutter July 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    a bit OT, but…

    These may be….one or more of [conservatism's] historically specific and ever changing modes of expression.

    One of the most useful insights (for me) in TRM is the observation that conservatism is protean. Conservatives are forever trying to sell you on the idea that their point of view is the natural one, the wise one, the inevitable one (even the godly one). But this claim is at least belied by the fact that conservatism is protean – it’s known by many names! If its underlying view were so natural for people to prefer, it wouldn’t need the constant bristling counter revolution – the gigantic con job – to agitate all the time, like a giant killer washing machine.

    It is *counter* revolution, and It’s almost beyond belief that there are whopping disagreements within academic-ish Liberalia about that fact at *this moment* in US history. What country do these people live in?

    Billmon thought of a variation of the same joke I did on twitter a few weeks ago. It was appropriate in his case whatever it was. My version was a general description of American politics as running the gamut, in terms of sheer choice: we got conservative AND reactionary.

    We’re drowning in jokes like that. echh.

  4. j July 4, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    I dont think that the Supreme Court is waging a war on women in the name of preserving patriarchy, its waging a war against the working-class. The whole Hobby Lobby kerfuffle is about the preservation of employer autonomy and capitalist power against the percieved encroachments of the state. They are against sexual harassment laws for the same reason.

    You seem to give conservatives more ideological legitimacy then they deserve. They (like all supreme court justices, liberal or conservative) are just waging class war against an unorganized working-class.

  5. Mikella July 4, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    It does seem ironic that while the objective involves steering the government away from ‘paternalistic impulses’, it’s done in order to protect paternalism within smaller, private spheres. If that’s the crux of it then they’re really just hiding a general ideology behind economic justifications. The problem is that for most private goods, these justifications hold up pretty well. The public and private spheres cannot be considered in isolation. A politician aggregates private groups into more workable, generalized clusters in order to amass as much support as possible. So while there’s an underlying pattern of protecting authoritarianism within smaller domestic/work environments, it’s not at the forefront of his mind. It just wouldn’t be practical.

  6. Bill Michtom July 6, 2014 at 5:25 pm #

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

  7. RS July 9, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    I do have to sympathize with J. Ginsburg’s dissent in HobbyLobby. She characterized the direction the Court is taking as unworkable, and I have to agree, at least in regards to religious questions, especially inasmuch as the American socio-economic landscape is dominated in large part by multi-state corporations.
    As such, overall I think the case merely represents a lulling tactic (consciously or otherwise) on behalf of the establishment. The imposition of the Civic Religion must eventually resume unabated, because one cannot just “opt out” of public duties just because one doesn’t believe in them.
    I must however call the plaint to the effect that this decision signals a diminution of the rights of workers a red herring at best, and either insincere (or somewhat inane) at worst. Again, the HobbyLobby decision represents a move, vaguely put, toward pluralism. It is a fairly common phenomenon throughout the cosmopolitan world for workers to segregate themselves in and amongst businesses sharing their religious and cultural values. [However I question how this could possibly work in American socio-economics.] How can workers engage with a business sharing those religious values if those companies are not allowed to exist?
    In the 1990s, I witnessed first hand the ire of blue collar factory workers faced with the announcement that their company (somewhat unilaterally, with little union input) would extend marital-type benefits to same-sex couples. I suspect that many of those decrying HobbyLobby today would have rather sympathized with the company (an oil company in fact) back then.

    • Anonymous July 10, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

      It sounds like the blue-collar workers’ own “right” to be hostile to gay people was being threatened.

      That ties neatly into Corey Robin’s book, where he argues that conservatism arranges new hierarchies to give the lower orders more power.

      The problem is, how do we address that issue? Working-class people are supposed to be “on the bottom end of the totem pole”. How does one argue, and have it heard, that they, themselves, can be oppressive to those they see as THEIR inferiors?

      • RS July 11, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

        Well I do not really know. I am inclined to support it.
        Characterising the workers as being “oppressive” in this circumstance, begs the question of how those being oppressed have any claim to equality?

  8. @ RS

    You write: “I must however call the plaint to the effect that this decision signals a diminution of the rights of workers a red herring at best, and either insincere (or somewhat inane) at worst. Again, the HobbyLobby decision represents a move, vaguely put, toward pluralism. It is a fairly common phenomenon throughout the cosmopolitan world for workers to segregate themselves in and amongst businesses sharing their religious and cultural values. [However I question how this could possibly work in American socio-economics.] How can workers engage with a business sharing those religious values if those companies are not allowed to exist?”

    Seriously? You may not be aware of this, but most people work for employers because they have to feed themselves and their families. They don’t do a google search of the “morals” of potential employers. Employers are not “pluralized” (atomized and re-aggregated) by specific (can you name them?) “religious and cultural values”, and there is no reference to which one can turn to find them. And that is not a worker’s problem, nor should it be. It may also be of some helpful understanding to you that workers often take action to ALTER the “religious and cultural values” of their employers (so that the employees – or other persons – are treated in accordance with the laws of a democratic polity). Sometimes this alteration of the “religious and cultural values” of an employer can happen at the hands of persons NOT employed by them. We call such persons “citizens” and/or “activists” (by the way, this term also applies to employees). Strategies of choice include lawsuits and boycotts.

    Your much more subtle point is the defense of the legitimacy of profit making institutions as continuing and self-aware entities needing the freedom to discriminate here, support some “rights” of persons there, and to not have such freedoms questioned by a fickle workforce that grouses (back in the 1990s) about same-sex couples getting marriage benefits here, and while howling (in the 2000-ies) about women being denied employer covered contraception there. You bring murk to the discussion by this subterfuge in order to suggest that the boss is always right and the employee just needs to find the right boss – whose morals will line up with her own – to rent her labor to. Your claim that “It is a fairly common phenomenon throughout the cosmopolitan world for workers to segregate themselves in and amongst businesses sharing their religious and cultural values” finds utterly zero support in any social science literature and is thus little more than a specious claim to suggest a libertarian view of business ethics, as if a business were a church (or a political party) and employees were a flock (or constituents, or like-minded people gathering under a banner or an ethos). Does that reflect the history of your own employment, or of people you know who have jobs?

    @ Anonymous:

    You write: “That ties neatly into Corey Robin’s book, where he argues that conservatism arranges new hierarchies to give the lower orders more power.” This is NOT the thesis that Prof Robin explores in his book. Conservatism is not at all concerned with giving the lower orders power. Conservatism is interested in meeting challenges issued by democratic movements’ efforts to redistribute power democratically. Its role is to reply to these movements by rewriting and deploying democratic rhetoric to sustain regimes of inequality, typically between the genders, between employers and employees, between racial/religious/ethnic groups. The goal is organize society around the unequal distribution of privilege and power, by locating such distribution in the “private” (non-State) realm, in order that it never breaks out into the public realm; and if it does to diminish its effects in the public realm to in order to preserve “the private life of power.” This way, the boss rules the employee, the man rules his wife and kids, Whites rule over Blacks (and over other non-Whites), straights rule over homosexuals. The public sphere may be put to this purpose (like the Hobby Lobby decision, or the voter suppression laws sweeping the States of this nation).

    The “totem pole”, therefore, is not an apt metaphor for the social relations that Robin understands as that which conservatism will pursue. Workers are ruled by the boss; homosexuals are ruled by (often religion-based) heterosexist homophobes. The church-going blue collar macho dude, who may have had his benefits and hours cut by the boss, is still able to go out and vote for a right-wing zealot (in agreement with his pastor who counsels it from the pulpit) who promises to force homosexuals into a “therapy” to cure the gay – while keeping up his dues to maintain his membership in the “Promise Keepers”. And that, Anonymous, is how people who are oppressed (by the boss) can go out and then adopt an oppressive stance toward others that they see as their inferiors (homosexual men and women).

    Conservatism will always work to the benefit of the boss. Its protean power lay in its adaptive ability to re-define “boss” when it needs to in order to stop democratic movements in their tracks, and possibly to reverse them.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Flaw(s) of Libertarianism | Rock Salted - August 15, 2014

    […] has been astutely summed up by Corey Robin, who has written that what most libertarians want is not feedoms and liberties, but rather the maintenance of a particular social hierarchy–with particular men (always men) […]

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