Tag Archives: Sheri Berman

To Play the Part of a Lord: A Reply to Andrew Sullivan about Conservatism

17 Oct

Andrew Sullivan—whose views on conservatism I take very seriously (one of the main arguments of my book is inspired by and aimed at his writing)—has linked to Sheri Berman’s response to my critique and identified one paragraph in particular as the “money quote.” If these are Sullivan’s apprehensions, they merit a response. If this paragraph is the crux of concern, it can be dispatched fairly easily.

The paragraph in question makes two claims; I’ve divided my response accordingly.


Claim 1: “If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of the lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must—by definition—be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery.”

This claim rests upon two mistaken assumptions:

  1. The lower orders are a cohesive unit, without divisions and inequalities among them.
  2. There are no groups outside the polity in whose governance the lower orders might participate and from whose governance they might benefit.

If you believe these claims, it makes some sense to think that a movement in favor of subjugating the lower orders could only gain their support through deception and illusion. After all, what could the ruling classes possibly have to offer those orders other than their subjugation, which no rational person could want?

Frederick DouglassI say only “some sense” because it’s perfectly plausible that men and women on the bottom of society might embrace or accept the rule of their superiors in part because they believe their superiors are better and/or because they derive some benefit—material and immaterial—from being governed by them. As Frederick Douglass noted of his early years under slavery, many slaves “seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.” Much to his horror, slaves would argue among themselves as to who had the finer master. “It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed.”

Douglass’s second observation is doubly important, for it reveals what a believer in this simple model of a homogeneous lower order can’t quite see: no matter how abject a class may be it can always find ways to invent hierarchies within itself, ever more infinitesimal gradations of rank that members of that class will struggle to ascend. And if it can’t accomplish this task on its own, the ruling classes will be only too happy to assist. Either way, that little ladder of ascendant privilege is what the ruling classes have to offer the lower orders in exchange for their submission. Again, Douglass:

Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm. It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for.

Douglass, of course, is talking about chattel slavery, a system of immense coercion and violence, and not conservatism or even the defense of slavery, in which a not insignificant portion of American conservatism played a part. Even so, his insight stands as a rebuke to the simple view that the only way to conscript the lower orders in projects of subordination and subjugation is through trickery. Not so: the more successful forms of subjugation involve a multiplication of ranks and privileges, particularly among the lower orders, from which those orders receive benefits material and immaterial, real and symbolic.

This insight applies to black slaves, as Douglass shows, but also and more tellingly to their white overlords: what is the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country if not the granting of petty power and privilege to poor whites over blacks, privileges and powers that non-elite whites had perfectly intelligible reasons to hold onto—and that helped maintain the most elite forms of privilege?

In the altogether different setting of the modern American workplace—I trust no one will take me to be arguing that slavery and the contemporary workplace are the same—we see a similar multiplication of supervisory ranks and privileges, which is almost unparalleled among advanced industrial economies. One of the functions of this proliferation is that in addition to offering men and women on the bottom rungs a more proximate opportunity for advancement to rule, it reinforces the unequal distribution of power in the workplace and beyond.

There is a reason Marx welcomed the stark divide in modern societies between capital and labor: he thought it would finally put an end to that “complicated arrangement of society into various orders,” that “manifold gradation of social rank” that had previously kept the oppressed divided.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into the two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

At last, the subjugated classes would cease to bicker among themselves and take aim not at their immediate or apparent tormentors but at their true lords and governors. Where else would they have to look?

As it turns out, a great many places. For even on those rare occasions when unity is achieved among the lower orders, their attentions can always be redirected at—or wander to—other groups more despised and disdained than themselves: other races (the famous wages of whiteness); other nations, in the case of imperialism; or the unwanted representatives of those nations at home, in the case of undocumented immigrants.

This endless proliferation of rank hearkens back to late feudalism, only this time the proliferation occurs at the bottom rather than at the top. It offers real, not imaginary, benefits to the lower orders: like their betters, they get to govern an individual (the supervisor and his worker, the husband and his wife) or an entire group or nation (in the form of racism, fascism, imperialism). It is for that reason that I call this “democratic feudalism”: it gives the masses a genuine opportunity to play the part of a lord.

Again, there’s no secrecy or trickery about this; these kinds of arguments are openly made and happily embraced. They are the words and promises of—and to—men and women who sincerely believe the world to be divided into greater and lesser beings and whose only hope is that they themselves are not among the latter.

John AdamsTo that extent, they call to mind John Adams’ observation in his Discourses on Davila that even the lowliest man can be persuaded to accept the rule of his superiors so long as he is assured of an audience of lessers.

Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay, the common beggars in the streets…court a set of admirers and plume themselves upon that superiority which they have or fancy they have over some others. There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the human species. But there is no risk in asserting that there is no one who believes and will acknowledge himself to be the man….When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respected in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart, to the history of human life and manners, and to the rise and fall of empires.

This, my economist friends tell me, is what folks in the biz call the “last-place aversion,” which can help us understand popular opposition to a great many programs and policies that might benefit the lower orders—or that might at least bring to heel the higher orders. Whether the economists’ is an accurate description of human psychology or not—my book is a theoretical inquiry into conservatism’s moral arguments and political vision, not an empirical statement about the motivations that might lead people to believe in it—it mirrors one of the critical assumptions of the conservative tradition about how one might go about making privilege popular.


Claim 2: “Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma….One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas. But if one instead accepts that such rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment are real, then the question becomes: why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has it found its home so often on the right rather than the left? This is a question that The Reactionary Mind leads directly to; it is not one that Robin—or the Left more generally—can or should avoid.”

T.S. EliotThough I didn’t set out to answer this question about the success of the right or failure of left, my book does address it. The Reactionary Mind reflects my conviction that the left ought to take more seriously the ideas of the right—not the potted wisdom of undergraduate curricula or cheap punditry but the most searching texts and tomes of the conservative canon. For in those texts one will find the rage, the disfranchisement, the sense of exclusion and victimhood that has been all too real on the right—in both its elite and popular forms—and that, as my book argues, has been one of the keys to its success. (In the founding statement of National Review, Bill Buckley complained that he and his brethren were “out of place.” But that, he went onto note, made them “just about the hottest thing in town.”) One of the epigraphs in The Reactionary Mind comes from T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Literature of Politics,” and it expresses well the animating spirit of my approach:

A political party may find that it has had a history, before it is fully aware of or agreed upon its own permanent tenets; it may have arrived at its actual formation through a succession of metamorphoses and adaptations, during which some issues have been superannuated and new issues have arisen. What its fundamental tenets are, will probably be found only by careful examination of its behaviour throughout its history and by examination of what its more thoughtful and philosophical minds have said on its behalf; and only accurate historical knowledge and judicious analysis will be able to discriminate between the permanent and the transitory; between those doctrines and principles which it must ever, and in all circumstances, maintain, or manifest itself a fraud, and those called forth by special circumstances, which are only intelligible and justifiable in the light of these circumstances.

My book doesn’t draw any explicit conclusions for the left—in part because that wasn’t its point—but readers interested in what those conclusions might be can read what I’ve written  here and here.

I’m eager to have a conversation about what this all means for the left, but before we do, we have to get clear about the right. I hope readers will engage with the book’s arguments—its actual arguments— and, ideally, read some of the conservative canon for themselves. Once they do, we can have a great discussion—one that I especially look forward to with Sullivan himself.

A Last Word on My Exchange with Sheri Berman

15 Oct

Sheri Berman has written a response to my response to her New York Times review of my book. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation, and I see no need to reiterate a set of arguments I’ve now made twice. I stand by what I wrote in my critique: Berman did not represent the arguments of my book in her review. Readers can read the exchange and judge for themselves.

The New York Times Review of The Reactionary Mind: My Response

7 Oct

A review of The Reactionary Mind appears in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It’s by Sheri Berman, a respected political scientist at Barnard and author of an important book on the origins and triumph of social democracy. It’s a negative review—which is unfortunate and unpleasant. But beyond matters of fortune and feelings, there is substance, and that calls for at least a provisional response.

In her opening paragraph, Berman writes:

A book documenting the wreckage and continually tracing the links between right-wing ideas, policies and outcomes would be a significant contribution to public debate. Unfortunately, Corey Robin’s “Reactionary Mind” is not that book.

My goal in writing The Reactionary Mind was to understand the right—not to criticize it or to show why it’s wrong, but to get inside its head, to examine its leading ideas and bring its sense and sensibility into focus. I did not aim to “document the wreckage” of the right or to trace the linkages between its “ideas, policies, and outcomes.” Nor did I intend, as Berman later writes, to “reveal the ideology’s flaws” or to provide an account “of the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.” Least of all was I trying to explain why my “own side is on balance more deserving.”

Getting Burke Right

My book is a revisionist account of the conservative tradition. Because Edmund Burke is the father of that tradition, he figures prominently. I offer a heterodox reading of his work, which cuts against a conventional wisdom about him and the right that I’ve discussed and critiqued before. Berman is under no obligation to accept my view. But instead of showing why it’s wrong, she writes as if she hasn’t read it.

According to Berman, Burke’s conservatism consists simply of a desire to preserve existing institutions, whatever they might be. She writes:

[Burke] was concerned with preserving institutions that had been tested “in terms of history, God, nature and man,” as [Samuel] Huntington once wrote. This led him to defend Whig institutions in England and democratic institutions in America, since he believed they were each anchored in their particular societies and traditions.

But if Burke sought merely to preserve existing institutions, why did he scream to high heaven that “our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut”? Why did he say of those tried and tested Whig institutions that “our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects”? Why did he declare that the “ancient divisions” between Whig and Tory, which had created and once sustained those institutions, were “nearly extinct” and wonder “if any memory of such antient divisions still exists among us”?

Why did he work so tirelessly for a total war with France when he openly admitted that war “never leaves where it found a nation”? Why did he go to such lengths to explain to an émigré that any restoration of the French monarchy, which he favored, “would be in some measure a new thing” and would “labour under something of the weakness as well as other inconveniences of a Change”?

I understand why Berman holds the view she does; it’s what we’ve all been taught. But she has just read a book in which the author shows why that view is wrong and offers an alternative account: that Burke, like conservatives more generally, responds to democratic movements against regimes of privilege by reinventing those regimes, often by borrowing from the very movements he opposes. If Berman thinks the conventional version is right, she’s under some obligation to show why mine is wrong.

Evil Idiots

Berman asserts that I “portray America’s leaders as essentially a bunch of evil idiots.” In fact, I argue the opposite, as here, on p. 17 of the book:

It has long been an axiom on the left that the defense of power and privilege is an enterprise devoid of ideas….Liberal writers have always portrayed right-wing politics as an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion….Conservatives, for their part, have tended to agree.  It was Palmerston, after all, when he was still a Tory, who first attached the epithet “stupid” to the Conservative Party….Nothing, as we shall see, could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.

I further argue that the Bush administration and its neoconservative enablers are the inheritors of the Romantic tradition. If I thought America’s leaders were a bunch of idiots, I would not have compared Donald Rumsfeld’s memos to Thomas Carlyle’s “Mechanical Age,” Richard Perle’s sensibility to Chateaubriand’s, and David Brooks to the leading figures of the Counter-Enlightenment. Nor would I have parsed Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address through the writings of Cardinal Richelieu, Learned Hand, and Francis Bacon. The title of my book is The Reactionary Mind, not The Mindless Reactionary.

Violence, War, and National Security

Berman misconstrues my argument about national security and its relationship to conservatism.  She writes:

Robin argues that the entire concept of national security lacks any meaning or validity and is merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples. Although the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq gives unfortunate credence to such views, Robin takes his arguments too far.

I don’t think, and certainly don’t argue, that national security is a meaningless concept; my claim is that it’s all too meaningful. Its central premise—the national interest—is the subject of intense contestation, in the US and elsewhere, precisely because nations are congeries of conflicting interests and values. Rather than rise above those conflicts, definitions of the national interest, and its cognate “national security,” are embedded in and reflect those conflicts.

National security is an “ambiguous symbol,” wrote international relations scholar Arnold Wolfers, which “may not have any precise meaning at all.” “May not have any precise meaning” is not the same as “lacks any meaning.” Believers often can’t pin a precise meaning on God yet God is a meaningful concept for them. Most meaningful concepts are imprecise: try coming up with an exact definition of love, friendship, or justice. Likewise, “contested” is not the same as meaningless or empty—a conflation, as H.L.A. Hart noted in his critique of Patrick Devlin, conservatives are all too liable to make.

Berman also claims that I think national security is “merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples.” But my argument in the book is something else altogether. In a nutshell: Because of its ambiguity, national security allows political actors to pursue a great variety of projects in its name: the reinforcement of gender norms, programmatic attacks on the rule of law, the accumulation of economic privileges, romantic notions of battle, and more. And because modern war, in Lukács’ words, insinuates itself into “the inner life of the nation,” various social institutions—the workplace, churches, schools, and more—get mobilized in the name of security. That allows the men and women who run these institutions to describe and defend the pursuit of their interests as contributions to the war effort.  Justifying violence and aggression is the least of it.

I devote some 30 pages to this argument, yet Berman does not address it.

Berman also fails to address the detailed evidence I produce in support of the claim that conservatives are “enlivened by” violence and that the notion of catastrophe is such that “the rules of evidence [regarding the imminent destruction of a nation] will be ignored.”

The first claim—about conservatism and violence—opens a 28-page chapter on the intimate relationship between the two. Using Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful as my urtext, I offer as proof that conservatives are enlivened by violence the testimony of the following voices from the right: Harold Macmillan, Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, Douglas MacArthur, George Santayana, Helmut von Treitschke, Michael Oakeshott, Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, Robert Nisbet, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, John Adams, Joseph de Maistre, Georges Sorel, Carl Schmitt, Teddy Roosevelt, John C. Calhoun, Ernst Jünger, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benito Mussolini, and a great many figures in the Bush administration.

The second claim occurs in the midst of a dense five-page discussion—via Bacon, Richelieu, Hand, Michael Walzer, Bush, and Perle—of the following phenomenon: The more terrible a threat is to a nation’s well being (e.g., thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union), the less proof that nation’s government will require of the existence of that threat in order to take action against it. Flouting the rules of evidence in situations like the run-up to the Iraq War is not accidental or peculiar; some four centuries of theoretical and legal precedent can be invoked to justify it.

Again, Berman need not agree with these claims, but she is under some obligation to suggest why they’re wrong. Instead, she simply dismisses them as “vituperation” and “invective” that make “the reader eye’s roll.”

Populism versus Elitism

The one argument of my book to which Berman does devote some time and energy concerns the relationship between populism and the right. Given her work on fascism, I had hoped to learn something from Berman’s critique. Instead, she flies past my argument in pursuit of yet another straw man.

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. It assumes one of three forms, none of which involves false consciousness or conspiratorial trickery:

Democratic feudalism: Giving real, not imaginary, power to members of the lower orders to wield over people beneath them. This can happen in factories (supervisors), families (husbands/fathers), and fields (overseers, slave catchers, etc.) It can also happen in certain forms of nationalism and imperialism, in which the lower orders of one society get to wield real and symbolic power over all the orders of another.

Upside-down populism: Get the lower orders to identify with the higher orders, not through deception but through an emphasis on the one experience they share: loss. When the higher orders are toppled by a revolution, they become victims and thereby join the ranks of a common humanity: their losses are real, and as Burke realized, this can make them formidable claimants on the masses’ attention and sympathy.

Outsider politics: Because the conservative defense of privilege occurs in the wake of a democratic challenge, it must develop a new ruling class and “a new old regime,” in which the truly excellent—not the lazy inheritors of privilege but the very best men—rule. These men often hail from outside the traditional precincts of power, proving their mettle in one of three places: at the barricades of the counterrevolution, on the battlefield, and in the marketplace.

Yes, Palin—like Bush, Reagan, Nixon, and Agnew before her—makes much of her opposition to “liberal elites” in the Ivy League and the culture industries. That sort of rhetoric has been the hallmark of the American (and European) right throughout the twentieth century. But as virtually every historian of the American right has shown, right-wing anti-elitism has seldom been leveled, in policy or practice, at the real sources and centers of power and privilege in America. Quite the opposite: it often has cheered an upward transfer of resources. Indeed, can Berman cite one proposal of the McCain-Palin ticket that would have undermined the power of elites? Is she aware that many members of the Tea Party would like to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct and popular election of senators? That they harbor, as empirical political scientists who’ve studied the Tea Party demonstrate, an unusually high degree of animus against racial minorities and immigrants?


For all of Berman’s insistence that my book is politically driven—The Reactionary Mind replicates the “breathless Manichean attitude” of Ann Coulter; it’s “a diatribe that preaches to the converted”—her main complaint seems to be that it is not politic enough. It’s not diplomatic or tactful; it doesn’t talk to “the people” the way a politician should.

The left’s central challenge, accordingly, is how to address the public’s real needs and get credit for doing so.

It’s an odd responsibility to assign to a work of scholarship: that it “connect with the people,” “reach out to ordinary citizens,” and “get credit for doing so.” Instead of marketing a palatable worldview, I was aiming to offer a fresh sense of an intellectual tradition. I also hoped that, if my argument were truly fresh, it might stir up an argument or two. While Berman’s review is, frankly, not the sort of argument I’d hoped for, I look forward to the dust-ups to come.


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