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

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.


  1. Call me Mr. Cynical.... October 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm | #

    I hope readers will engage with the book’s arguments—its actual arguments— and… we can have a great discussion—one that I especially look forward to with Sullivan himself.

    Prediction #1

    Hell will freeze over before any conservative, including Mr. Sullivan, addresses any of your book’s actual arguments.

    Prediction #2

    Incoming straw-man-and-ad-hominem stink bombs in ten… nine… eight…

    • Pat Pattillo September 14, 2013 at 9:01 am | #

      In regard to “last place aversion”, Eric Hoffer noted long ago that the clamor not to be at the bottom can assume even more viciousness that the fight over being top dog. This can hardly be over-emphasized.

  2. Ed Robin October 26, 2011 at 7:32 am | #

    Looking forward to these arguments

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