A Very Brief Intellectual Autobiography

Reading Samuel Freeman’s review of Roger Scruton in the latest NYRB, I had a mini-realization about my own work on conservatism, which features Scruton quite a bit.

In the mid-1970s, conservatism, which had previously been declared dead as an intellectual and political force, began to have a major impact on liberalism. Politically, you could see that influence in the slow, then sudden, retreat from traditional New Deal objectives, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton. What that meant was a massive turnaround on economic issues (deregulation, indifference to unions, galloping inequality) and a softer turnaround on social issues. While mainstream Democrats today are identified as staunch liberals on so-called social or moral issues like abortion and gay rights, the truth of the matter is that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they really beat a retreat on that front (not only on abortion but also, after an initial embrace by Clinton of gays and lesbians, on gay rights as well).

Among academics, particularly liberal political theorists, the impact of conservatism was equally strong. Where a generation of Rawlsian political theorists had cut their teeth on the economic questions of redistribution and the welfare state, suddenly the questions on the table had to do with how a liberal democracy can deal with intractable differences of religion and morality, whether and how men and women could argue over fundamental questions of “the good” rather than hide or subsume their disagreements under more seemingly neutral rules of “the right.”

You could see this shift most visibly in the Rawlsian turn toward political liberalism. In the earlier work, “difference” meant the Difference Principle, which was a Rawlsian rule about whether to accept economic inequalities in the polity and how they might be arranged. Now “difference” came to be associated with religious differences, deep disagreements over questions like sexual morality that liberals had previously thought belonged to the realm of private belief and practice.

It wasn’t just Rawlsians and liberals who felt the impact of this turn; so did more radical and left theorists, for whom questions of difference and deeper modes of pluralization began to loom large.

One of the reasons I wrote my book on conservatism, I now realize in retrospect, was not to contest these Rawlsian or more radical arguments about difference and pluralization. It was instead to try and take a step back, to show how the landscape in which these liberal arguments were occurring had been shaped, deeply shaped, by conservatism, often in ways liberals did not understand. Where academic liberals and leftists had accepted the simple distinction between economic and social conservatives—as did I, for a very long time—and had believed that the social conservatives were driven by moral questions, I wanted to show that conservatism was, yes, a deeply moral and ideological praxis, only that it rotated around a different set of principles from the ones liberals seemed to think the right held dear. The real axis of rotation, I claimed, was domination and hierarchy, particularly in the private realms of power, and it was that axis that united social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national security conservatives. (I had already begun to broach some of these questions of domination in my first book on fear, which tried to use the liberal interest in fear and emotion more generally as a way of inching the left toward a more robust engagement with questions of social domination in the family and the workplace, but since that was written in shadow of 9/11, it got little traction or play.)

To be clear: domination and hierarchy are not, to my mind, non-moral issues, neither for the left nor the right. They’re deeply moral. Only they are also part of a social and material practice. We cannot and should not separate the moral from the economic in conservatism any more than we would in socialism.

While I believe my account can help us understand conservatism across the ages, it would be nice to think that it is also suited to explain the right today, not only in the Age of Trump but also in the Age of Bernie. Increasingly, we’ve seen, these questions of social domination are coming to the fore. As the left begins to move into a position where it can not only get a clear view of its enemies but also to take aim at them—both the hard right revanchism of the GOP and the soft neoliberalism of the Democrats—my hope is that a generation of academic political theorists, who learned their trade against the backdrop of a mistaken view of conservatism, might now begin to see the conflicts of the day in a different light.

Indeed, judging from what I see among younger political theorists, I believe that turn has already begun.


  1. mark April 2, 2016 at 9:18 am | #

    “Perhaps I should explain. I mean ‘politics’ instead of an exclusive diet of economics, and I mean Tory politics, all the things we Tories stand for, and have stood for long before Socialists came on the scene. Yes, we have to get economics back into proportion, as one aspect of politics, important but never really the main thing. This may be unfashionable, indeed anti-fashionable, because it is the current intellectual fashions which have wrought so much havoc in this country. During the elections, discussion focussed almost exclusively on economics; and we lost the election. Were these two facts unconnected? I don’t think so. The voter has faced three parties all of who claimed that they alone had the secret of fighting inflation, of achieving economic growth, of keeping down prices and providing benefits. This was the kind of auction in which Labour was bound to outbid us, because they are quite unhibited [sic], in promising the earth.”


  2. Ra April 2, 2016 at 9:36 am | #

    “In the mid-1970s, conservatism, which had previously been declared dead as an intellectual and political force, began to have a major impact on liberalism.”

    No mention of McGovern’s disastrous loss in 1972? “Very brief,” indeed. And very convenient.

    • Dahesu April 2, 2016 at 10:17 am | #

      Ra, what’s your point? That the left must still tremble before the specter of ’72 almost half a century later?

      • Ra April 2, 2016 at 11:10 am | #

        That the left must stop trading in mere theory and stop blaming abstract bogeyman for everything, whether it’s neoliberalism in 2016 (coreyrobin.com/2016/03/30/the-arc-of-neoliberalism-is-long-but-it-bends-toward-the-rich/#comment-105451) or conservatism in the 1970s.

    • Benjamin David Steele April 2, 2016 at 3:46 pm | #

      What so many have failed to learn is that elections aren’t won by who votes but by who doesn’t. This is why voter suppression, purges, disfranchisement, and demoralization is so important.

      The average American is to the left of the Democratic establishment, as endless polling shows. The trick is to keep the public distracted and divided. The public is made ignorant, a combination of uninformed and misinformed. Along with this, there is the propaganda model of the mainstream media which is directly aligned with corporate interests and the two-party system.

      I wish more people would wise up, inform themselves, and develop intellectual defense. Sticking our heads in the sand isn’t much of a solution. As Corey Robin has shown, few Americans even understand what conservatism is about. The level of understanding found even among so many well educated people is pathetically simplistic and misguided.

      • Ra April 3, 2016 at 3:06 am | #

        The aristocratic complaint that people are ill-informed (“I wish more people would wise up, inform themselves, and develop intellectual defense”) cannot be made in the same breath as its democratic opposite (“The average American is to the left of the Democratic establishment, as endless polling shows”). You guys, white progressives, are funny like that. Except, of course, when you’re not: when your reading skills, both verbal (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-womack/dear-bernie-red-flags-frequent_b_9289954.html) and people (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/12/you-re-damn-right-electability-matters-to-black-voters.html), seem so abysmal sometimes — though increasingly, all the time. Is Hillary your kryptonite or something?

        • Benjamin David Steele April 3, 2016 at 11:58 am | #

          @Ra – I find it amusing when someone responds to me with a comment that demonstrates they don’t know what I’m talking about. So, at least you’re amusing. You have that going for you.

          “The aristocratic complaint that people are ill-informed (“I wish more people would wise up, inform themselves, and develop intellectual defense”) cannot be made in the same breath as its democratic opposite (“The average American is to the left of the Democratic establishment, as endless polling shows”).”

          Are you really that clueless? Aristocratic? What is that even supposed to mean? I’m working class, pretty much the opposite of an aristocrat. I don’t have a college degree and most of the knowledge I’ve had came from the old fashioned method of reading. If like me you had read more and opinionated less, you’d know what polls (and scientific surveys) show. I can’t be blamed for your projecting your ignorance onto me.

          “You guys, white progressives, are funny like that.”

          You don’t know who I am. I could be a Marxist, an anarcho-syndicalist, a libertarian, or whatever. I never said anything about progressivism. I did mention the liberalism of most Americans, but even then I wasn’t talking about my own views.

          Besides, there is a long history of progressivism that includes conservatives. Mormoms, for example, have always had a strong progressive tradition and were major supporters of the New Deal. Even the KKK was progressive in some areas, such as promoting public education. Libertarians are fairly progressive as well, moreso than the KKK in other areas besides public education.

          In fact, progressivism as a label receives more positive support in polling than either liberalism or conservatism, and that support is across the political spectrum.

          “Except, of course, when you’re not: when your reading skills, both verbal (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-womack/dear-bernie-red-flags-frequent_b_9289954.html)”

          The article is a hack job. It’s not journalism. The comments section was more informative than the article.

          One commenter wrote, “In this article, most of the red flags are red herrings. Quotes Brookings fellow selling banking theft. An inspector Generals report on the Federal reserve is not what Bernie has been asking for.
          Etc, etc, etc.” Someone inconveniently looked at the cited sources, “Did anyone else read the sources linked? My favorite is the college tuition one, where in the article it clearly states we could pay for public tuition with the current amount we spend on tuition assitance, tax breaks and grants. Almost all of the points listed here are contradicted in one of the sources the author posted, all you have to do is read them.”

          Another pointed out that even, “If all of this is true, then why-oh-why has HRC adopted NEARLY ALL of Sanders positions? Because it’s about winning at any cost. So, while this bit of propaganda attempts to sow the seeds of doubt, HRC usurps the same positions and recites them at rallies to cheering crowds. Pathetic.” And someone else came to the obvious this conclusion, “So I assume the author won’t be voting for anyone, because if the issues he cites about Sanders cause him alarm, then all the other candidates (on both sides) must give him nightmares.”

          You then offer another link:

          “and people (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/12/you-re-damn-right-electability-matters-to-black-voters.html), seem so abysmal sometimes — though increasingly, all the time.”

          In that case, you should support Sanders. He is the only candidate with majority popular support and low negative ratings. Most Americans like and trust him more than Clinton. In recent head to head matchups, Sanders does better than Clinton against any other candidate. If we are going to argue electability, then let’s at least be honest.

          “Is Hillary your kryptonite or something?”

          I honestly don’t care about her as a person. I don’t even care about Sanders as a person. I’m neither #BlueOrBust nor #BernieOrBust. I’m an independent and I vote strategically, in how I think I can effect US politics in the long term, not just reacting to some single moment of fear-mongering.

          From the beginning, the main purpose I saw in a Sanders campaign is that he would force open debate on issues normally ignored. It has succeeded in that. His campaign has even forced Clinton to talk about these issues, sometimes with her repeating Sanders words near verbatim.

          My concern about Clinton is her known voting record and the known consequences of policies and actions she has supported. She is Republican lite, what the GOP used to be before the Southern Strategy went into full gear. And Sanders is what used to be considered a moderate liberal and mainstream progressive.

          My complaint has never been a single vote but a long history of failure that continually pushes everything further rightward into corporatism. It’s obvious that the Clinton New Democrats have been a failure. Doing the same thing will give you the same results. Why not try something new to get new results?

          • Ra April 4, 2016 at 12:22 am | #

            Has she appropriated some of his rhetoric? Of course. Has she “adopted NEARLY ALL of Sanders positions?” Of course not. Her policies are still hers. That’s why you don’t support her, no? Logic is handy like that. That is all. Thank you.

        • Jö Miller April 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm | #

          “I wish more people would wise up, inform themselves, and develop intellectual defense”
          How is this an “aristocratic” complaint? Do you mean ‘elitist’?

          • Ra April 3, 2016 at 3:42 pm | #

            The “zombie lie” that Hillary has “adopted NEARLY ALL of Sanders positions? Because it’s about winning at any cost” is doubtless one of my absolute favorites among all those things that must sound too good to be untrue to longtime Hillary critics and newly minted Bernie Bros alike (http://qz.com/597352/hillarys-clintons-biggest-problem-she-wont-tell-progressives-what-they-want-to-hear/), followed closely — and thus, serendipitously — by your next claim that “He is the only candidate with majority popular support and low negative ratings. Most Americans like and trust him more than Clinton. In recent head to head matchups, Sanders does better than Clinton against any other candidate” which at least has the benefit of being true but irrelevant. After all, Republicans haven’t spent a dime attacking him yet while they — and many on the left — have been going at her long before she even announced she was running and yet remarkably she’s still the front-runner. That is the kind of resilience that minority voters like me, despite all her flaws — probably even because of them — actually identify with. That’s why we rally to her banner (https://youtu.be/rjjHtBQxpyU?t=14m10s), not because she’s perfect. Like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, we know our Daenerys. “I’m terrible?” she asks. “I’ve heard stories,” he says. Well, who hasn’t (https://youtu.be/-namImCszCk?t=35s)? But like Daario Naharis, we “protect [our] queen” all the same, because the bad stories make the good ones even better (https://youtu.be/SlNPDCUWyxw). Maybe SNL was onto something with this joke last year: “This season focuses on a woman from a once-powerful family who will stop at nothing to claim her rightful place on the throne. Based on the true story of Hillary Clinton.” After all, how can she “feel the Bern” when she’s “the Unburnt”? That the answer is obvious is why she’s winning.

            P.S. http://lmgtfy.com/?q=define+elitist

          • Benjamin David Steele April 3, 2016 at 5:32 pm | #
          • Benjamin David Steele April 3, 2016 at 4:56 pm | #

            @Jö Miller – “How is this an “aristocratic” complaint? Do you mean ‘elitist’?”

            If anything, the motivation behind it is populist. It’s pointing out that average Americans can’t rely on elite to educate and inform them.

            During the Populist Era, that is exactly what the working class did. Farmers, factory workers, and miners organized to print their own newspapers and formed their own borrowing libraries. They took responsibility for their own lives and communities. They even started their own political parties and organizations.

            Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is going to save you. We’ve given our power away. It’s time to take back that power. That is what democracy is about.

  3. troy grant April 2, 2016 at 12:35 pm | #
  4. kylejanderson April 2, 2016 at 12:48 pm | #

    who are some of these “young political theorists” whose work you recommend checking out?

  5. brodix April 2, 2016 at 12:59 pm | #

    When you are talking vast numbers of people, it’s not so much politics, as it is physics.

    When you consider the two terms, “conservative” and “liberal,” under all the historical debris, their definitions imply some basic physical characteristics.

    The root of liberal is to loosen, expand, extend, reach, etc. While conservative implies consolidation, reservation, gravitation, etc and in social terms, structure, order and form.

    As very basic concepts, these factors manifest very different forms. It should be no mystery why liberalism when applied to economic expansion, is an entirely different creature than liberalism as applied to social opportunity.

    Or that as the cultural and civic status quo represents the conservative core of any society, why naturally conservative individuals from different societies will view the world from vastly different points of view.

    Why people at the bottom of the social and economic order can be both radically liberal and intensely conservative and those at the top, having to depend on the stability of the status quo, are both necessarily conservative, yet often aspire to liberal impulses.

    So if you really want to upend the apple cart, don’t just join in with those you find basic common denominators and find yourself spinning around the merry-go-round, examine how these essentially thermodynamic forces do create and manifest social dynamics. It governs the environment we evolved in and it is foundational to the reality we have built.

    You cannot transcend what controls you, if you do not first understand it.

  6. Thomas Rossetti April 2, 2016 at 3:16 pm | #

    Perhaps I will be misunderstood but I think your analysis of liberalism is so muddled that I suggest some further study of basic works such as Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and David Spitz’ Patterns of Anti-democratic Thought. You say nothing that adds to their discussion of hiearchy as a tenet of conservative value.
    I think there is a lot less novelty to liberalism since the 80’s than you find. Rawls on distributive models of justice, yes, but really old wine in new bottles. Changes of mood are to be expected, but beyond that the modern doctrine of liberalism, as explicated by Mill, Russell. Laski, MacIver, Spitz, Berlin, et al, its very glory is its affirmation of an unchanging human truth of the core value of individual freedom made manifest in the modern state. I resist the marginalization of what I see as the logic of liberalism that is the profound basis of modern civilization.

    • real April 3, 2016 at 8:38 am | #

      Nice words. But in real empirical reality social democracy performs better than liberalism.

  7. Roqeuntin April 2, 2016 at 4:30 pm | #

    For several years now, I’ve held the belief that dividing all political ideology and opinion in the US into “liberal” and “conservative” is primarily a byproduct of the Cold War and the inability to use terms associated with Marxism in public discourse. I’ve never really been much of a fan of Rawls. I’ve never quite decided if he was trying to make the best of a shitty situation or was mostly just writing things that wouldn’t be too damaging to his academic career, articulating a kind of mild liberalism that wouldn’t have him running afoul of the powers that controlled the universities and could banish him to total obscurity.

    This is all besides the fact that I don’t agree with him on a theoretical level at all. Raymond Geuss’ “Philosophy and Real Politics” does an outstanding job pointing out what is wrong with his approach. I also want to make this kind of point Adorno did, when he was talking about how it was foolish to get nostalgic for 19th century Europe because it already contained within itself the dynamic which would produce the fascist catastrophe of the early 20th century all over again. When people in the US get too nostalgic for the New Deal, or a kind of Rawlsian liberalism, I want to make a similar case. The same dynamic would still exist within the political circumstances of the mid-20th century US which would produce the same rightward turn all over again. The same dynamics, the same contradictions were always there, latent and buried, ready to blossom like a cancer.

    The lesson should be firmly and resoundingly: Liberalism is not enough. You can’t find your way out of the problems of capitalism by talking about freedom. It doesn’t work. Liberalism was always going to become neoliberalism, and the New Deal was always either going to be a temporary stepping stone on the way to socialism or it was going to be undone by capitalist interests the minute they figured out how they could get away with it.

    • Thomas Rossetti April 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm | #

      And so sadly “liberalism is not enough”. So indeed what is enough? A tragic view of human existence to be sure. At its essence liberalism is a PEACEFUL method of settling differences. As Bertrand Russell said “war does not determine who is right-only who is left.

      • Roqeuntin April 2, 2016 at 6:55 pm | #

        I though I made it explicitly clear what was enough: Anti-capitalist politics and socialism. There is no equivocation or ambiguity here.

    • Stephen Zielinski April 2, 2016 at 11:44 pm | #

      Sometime after America abandoned South Viet Nam, part of the new left abandoned the working class and the critique of political economy. These leftists focused instead on culture, identities, social movements and rights. Economism was out — save for the right and aggressive fractions of capital. Social conservatives made their cause with the new class warriors, who could use the stagflation of the 1970s, the OPEC crises and fiscal crises of successive federal governments to undermine the liberalism of the philosophers, the social democratic reformism within the New Deal polity and the Democratic party as a source of left-leaning reform. Thus the inverted totalitarianism we now confront, about which our liberals can say little that is of interest because they care more for liberty than autonomy, the Republic than the demos.

      A few clever persons believed capitalism had been made timid. They are the analogs to those who believed they understood Hitler and Stalin better than these dictators understood themselves. But they were clueless….

  8. Will G-R April 3, 2016 at 10:17 pm | #

    We cannot and should not separate the moral from the economic in conservatism any more than we would in socialism.

    This point touches on one of my perennial bugbears, the proliferation among pseudo-intellectual politics aficionados of two-dimensional political charts that strictly separate moral from economic issues (the two most common being the ancap-affiliated “Nolan Chart” and the seemingly left-aligned “Political Compass”). Of course the most common explicit purpose is to justify the distancing of “libertarian” left and right ideologies from their “authoritarian” brethren, which is an understandable enough reaction to seeing oneself placed alongside Hitler or Stalin on a one-dimensional spectrum, but the underlying ideological tendency is precisely what you’re talking about: a very neoliberal refusal to acknowledge that economic issues are moral issues, and that no economic order premised on gross inequalities of wealth and power can ever be meaningfully “libertarian”.

    In modern US politics, the issue where this inseparability of “cultural” or “national” concerns from economic class struggle comes through clearest is the fear of Third-World immigrants, which is yet another hint that the Trump campaign could be a watershed moment in the resolution of neoliberalism’s immanent contradictions.

  9. Kallan Greybe April 3, 2016 at 10:37 pm | #

    In the economic sphere, one of the most important, but lowest profile arguments is the one which says the left isn’t arguing questions about redistribution, our goal is distribution i.e. that capitalism and socialism are both political choices we as a society have to make. This means what we’re trying to argue is that there’s no getting outside of politics. Anyone trying to tell you that they’re just dealing with economic “reality” are just in the business of trying to dress up ideology.

    Which is why the rise of Corbyn here in the UK and Sanders in US seems to me like an important turning point because we’re finally at the actual battleground, deep in the wilds of theory. This is also why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that underneath conservativism is a deeply moral theory, because morality is political just like everything else.

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