The New York Times Takes Up The Reactionary Mind…Again

So The Reactionary Mind has made it into the New York Times for a third time. Writing in The Stone, the online section of the Times dealing with issues in contemporary philosophy, Gary Gutting, a philosopher at Notre Dame, weighs in on the debate the book has spawned:

Corey Robin’s new book presents conservatives as fundamentally committed to stopping “subordinate classes” from taking power from the ruling elite.  Conservatism, Robin says, holds that “the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.”  Mark Lilla, however, has argued that Robin misrepresents the tradition of conservative thought.

Robin cites Edmund Burke: “The real object” of the French Revolution is “to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination.”   Conservatism derived from the fear that the liberal project of democracy would destroy all the traditional privileges of men over women, employers over workers, rich over poor, educated over uneducated, whites over other races, etc.

We are all today liberals in the sense that we accept universal political inclusion.  But we also tolerate and even support various forms of inequality, which amount to different degrees of political power.  Differences in wealth, education, job, gender, race and age all in fact correspond to differences in power.   Hardly anyone thinks all of these differences are bad, but conservatives on the whole think we have gone far enough or even too far in eliminating them, while liberals think that we are still far short of a proper distribution of power.

Many claim that the liberal-conservative division is over the role of government, with liberals supporting government intervention and conservatives opposing it.   But the real issue is not so much whether government should intervene as on which side it should intervene.  For the most part conservatives are, for example, quite in favor of government’s regulating the behavior of labor unions and limiting the ability of consumers to sue businesses, whereas liberals are generally opposed to these sorts of government interference.

I can’t quite tell if Gitting thinks he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me, but aside from some particulars, most of what he says in this passage is the basic argument of my book. And while I don’t agree with his conclusions at the end of the piece, I’m pleased by his framing of the issue.  What it signifies is that we may at last be having the debate I was hoping to have about the meaning of conservatism and what the disagreement between the right and left is really all about.


  1. Brahmsky February 1, 2012 at 9:22 pm | #


  2. wisedup February 1, 2012 at 9:36 pm | #

    I’ll give Gitting a rating of hostile
    “We firmly endorse the principle of democratic inclusion [[the token and not even that for the voter ID crowd]] but also soundly reject the radical call for an equal distribution of power [[the meat]].”
    I note also that he ignores the point that any unequal distribution of power can only be maintained through violence.
    The politicians decry the “forced redistribution of money”
    Gitting decries the “forced redistribution of power”
    Liberals decry the “forced withdrawal of potential”

    • Corey Robin February 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm | #

      That’s all true. But here’s the deal (and why this is promising to me): he’s at least confronting the core issues that separate right from left. How much power must be redistributed for equality (and, I would argue, freedom) to be realized? He cuts through a lot of the BS that many claim divide right from left. You may not like his answers — I don’t either — but it’s important that he accepts the questions. That’s something most of my critics have either completely overlooked or refused to accept.

      • wisedup February 1, 2012 at 9:53 pm | #

        True enough. I look forward to seeing if his subsequent arguments can maintain the same level of discourse.
        I was, however, disappointed with his use of the ‘lower the voting age to 12’ canard.

      • PF February 2, 2012 at 12:01 pm | #

        It’d be nice if we could correctly take note of Gary Gutting’s last name. He’s a great scholar and worthy discussant. His intellectual histories of French philosophy and of Foucault’s philosophical itinerary are superb.

    • Mike B) February 3, 2012 at 10:24 pm | #

      Gitting is a liberal. Liberals don’t want equality of political power; they just want a kinder gentler form of capitalism than the conservatives do.

  3. Rick February 1, 2012 at 10:09 pm | #

    Keep it up, Corey!

    You are hitting a (the) nerve. This paragraph from the book is the absolute truth, and very few of the true believers, both of the elite and the mass, can face this truth:

    “From revolutions, conservatives also develop a taste and talent for the masses, mobilizing the street for spectacular displays of power while making certain power is never truly shared or redistributed. That is the task of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting the power of elites or, more precisely, to harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites. Far from being a recent innovation of the Christian Right or the Tea Party movement, reactionary populism runs like a red thread throughout conservative discourse from the beginning.” p. 55.

    I’ll leave the political theory and intellectual history to the adepts, but this explains, to poach from another, exactly what’s the matter with Kansas. And maybe also why we should pity the poor billionaire.

    • doloyeung February 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm | #

      Absolute truth? It just looks like some heads I win tails you lose reasoning to me.

      conservatism is about protecting the power of the elite.

      but doesn’t the widespread public support for conservative ideas undermine that idea?

      to the contrary, an elite must pretty powerful to manipulate that many people into supporting them after all.

      so 95% of a population could be conservatives and it would still be reasonable to claim that the purpose of conservatism is to empower the elite?


      and 95% of a population could oppose leftism and leftism would still represent the interests of the public over this elite?

      of course

      It doesn’t explain what’s the matter with kansas. This type of argument cant and doesn’t explain why people vote conservative and thus ‘vote against their interests’, it merely defines people who vote conservative as voting against their interests.

      • s. wallerstein February 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm | #

        Not all people who vote for the right vote against their interests, but many do.

        Someone with no healthcare insurance or with inadequate healthcare insurance who votes against candidates who promise to enact universal public healthcare insurance votes against his or her interests.

        Someone who earns the minimum wages and votes against candidates who promise to raise the wage wage to decent levels
        votes against his or her interests.

        And so on……

        People have some fairly objective interests: decent healthcare, free public education, adequate retirement benefits, a good paycheck, etc. and anyone who says that those items (and others) are not objective is just mystifying.

      • Mike B) February 3, 2012 at 10:34 pm | #

        Workers vote against their class interests because they’re made ignorant of what their class interests are a la Newspeak e.g. Capitalism means freedom. Actually, capitalism means wage-slavery.

  4. Vance Maverick February 1, 2012 at 10:24 pm | #

    I like how they all use the same patrician shot of you looking like an intellectual of privilege, serious and rumpled, but posed with implicit proud possession before a desirable bit of real estate. Not that I believe the shot hits you where it counts (indeed an analogous shot could be taken of me — the difference being the coast, and the construction materials) — but there’s no question of its being thus aimed.

    • Corey Robin February 1, 2012 at 10:28 pm | #

      Wow, no one has ever said I look patrician or taken a patrician shot! I’m flattered. (Though my wife did say I reminded her of Mr. Rochester here…) But the funny thing is: it’s not my house! We live nextdoor.

      • Vance Maverick February 1, 2012 at 10:33 pm | #

        It’s the greatcoat. (I had one of those in college, on the East Coast, in the ’80s — or rather, a self-conscious Salvation Army purchase that could pass for one.)

        More seriously, your point that “I can’t quite tell if Gitting thinks he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me” summarizes the essential confusion. Why should this be so hard?

      • Mike February 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm | #

        What is Polity?

  5. s. wallerstein February 2, 2012 at 8:17 am | #

    Gitting seems to be playing on the ambiguous meaning of the word “liberal”.

    1. The general, non-U.S., use meaning all those who belleve in maximizing freedom.

    2. The specific U.S. use as specifying moderate social-democrats, believers in the welfare state.

    As far as I know, nowhere else is the world except the U.S. is “liberal” used in sense two.

    Thus, in sense one, Chomsky, while considered to be a radical not a liberal (sense two) in the U.S., is a liberal or maybe a libertarian, but certainly in the liberal (sense one) tradition.

    I don’t live in the U.S. and I’m to the left of what is called a “liberal” in sense two, but I’m a liberal in sense one.

    In suggesting that radicalism (which means something else everywhere in the world except in the U.S.) has been transcended, Gitting seems to endorse politics as usual in the U.S., which makes him very functional to New York Times editorial policies and to the elite that they represent.

    • Privatize the Profits! Socialize the Costs! February 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm | #

      2. The specific U.S. use as specifying moderate social-democrats, believers in the welfare state.

      I live in Canada, where this is also a rough definition of ‘liberal’… we even have a Liberal Party which more or less fits this definition.

      • s. wallerstein February 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm | #



        I didn’t know that about Canada.

      • Todd February 2, 2012 at 10:45 pm | #

        Well, sort of: we have the New Democratic Party (NDP) also. They’re (slightly) more to the left than the Liberals, and they usually get targeted as believers in the welfare state rather than the Liberals.

        I don’t think I’ve ever really heard the term “liberal” used in Canada the same way it’s used in the US.

    • nillionaire February 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm | #

      This is baby’s first political trivia and I’ve spouted it myself, but I think it’s misleading. Ultimately, “liberal” means the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic–support for capitalism and free markets. The difference is that in America, the more anti-capitalist left is small, fragmented, and wields no power within political institutions, while in Europe socialist and even (nominally) communist political parties can and do win elections.

  6. Privatize the Profits! Socialize the Costs! February 3, 2012 at 3:44 am | #

    Todd is right about the NDP being to the left of the liberals; it is more solidly identified with the union movement.

    From the outside perspective, it seems that the word “liberal’ in the US has been pretty much turned toxic due to many years of rightwing shit-slinging…

    It seems that the label “conservative” is proudly embraced by the right, while it has become somewhat rare to hear on the left avow themselves to be proudly “liberal”.

    As long as we are talking about such things, I always find it a bit jarring when prominent US Republicans deliberately refer to the Democratic party as the “Democrat” party… I know they think they are doing something real clever, but all it says to me is that they don’t know an adjective from a noun!

    Nevertheless, I find it odd that so far the Dems have just taken this insult without retaliating by calling the R’s “Republics”.

    Or what might be more effective would be a clever insult based upon the three letters “GOP”— “Greedy One Percenters” springs to mind immediately, but probably somebody else has already thought of a better one.

  7. Mike B) February 3, 2012 at 10:41 pm | #

    Conservative intellectuals from the Pope to Strauss have an agenda i.e. to erase the entire Enlightenment project from about Spinoza forward.

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