Covid Reading

I’m in the midst of recovering from covid—my family and I were hit with it two weeks ago—and doing a fair amount of reading.

Just prior to getting sick, I had completed a long piece on oligarchy and the Constitution, which is actually the fourth in a series of pieces I’ve completed over the last few months that I expect to appear in print this summer. (The other three are on Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and the idea of late capitalism.)

The combination of being sick, and finishing those pieces, left me with time and energy for little more than resting in bed and reading. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Here is what I’ve been reading or re-reading:

  • Janek Wasserman, Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938
  • Stefan Eich, The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes
  • Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism
  • Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution
  • Janek Wasserman, The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas
  • Angus Bergin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression
  • Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West
  • Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics
  • Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics
  • Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism
  • Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger, Hayek: A Life 1899-1950

I’m reviewing the last book, the Hayek biography, which is not out yet, and thought I’d use the occasion to catch up on some books I’d never really read (the Wasserman duo, for example, and the Burgin and Stedman Jones) and to re-read some books I have read but haven’t written about or worked through to the degree that I would like.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on Hayek so I’m looking forward to writing about the biography, which, 100 pages in, is extremely informative and judicious though not the most arresting literary experience I’ve had. Caldwell and Klausinger admit that the biography is meant to be a kind of response to the recent neoliberalism literature, so I’m hoping to get a dialogue going between these various authors.

I’ve also been reading a fair amount of literature. I loved this new translation of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, though it’s translated here as Fathers and Children. The generational conflict and unease spoke to me a lot more than it did the first time around (or at least spoke to me from the perspective of the elders, who seemed alternatively hilarious and sad.)

I got about 2/3 the way through Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The opening chapter blew me away: That description of mother and maid, Mrs. Flanders and Rebecca, tending to a baby in a little cottage by the sea, “conspirators plotting the eternal conspiracy of hush and clean bottles,” brought me back to those first months of being a parent (my child is now 14). But nothing in the chapters afterward (except for Woolf’s account of the Reading Room in the British Museum in chapter nine) came close to recreating that thrill of the first chapter. I’m going to try and keep reading, since I’m not so far from the end, but there are a lot of oil slicks and briar patches where I just have no idea where I am and no idea where I’m going.

I also re-read The Great Gatsby, which I haven’t read since, maybe, high school? In the very first days of being sick, when I couldn’t even read, I listened to a lot of Melvyn Bragg’s radio show on BBC 4 In Our Time. There was an episode on The Great Gatsby, which piqued my interest. So I took the novel off the shelf. I tried to like it, and take it on its own terms (and the commentators on Bragg’s show make a good case for it), but the whole thing felt as slight as I had remembered it, very American. Try as I might, I couldn’t take it seriously. Gatsby’s dream still seems as silly and small as it did to me when I was younger and more embarrassed by these vision quests than I am now. The only character who seems real, and not simply the object of social observation, is, oddly enough, Tom Buchanan. Even though he is an object of social observation, there’s an equilibrium between his inner and outer life that works, at the level of character. The rest of them don’t really hold up.

That said, I did start reading Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, which Edmund Wilson thought had the potential of being Fitzgerald’s most perfectly realized novel (he died before he could finish it). You can see why Wilson thought this. With his settlement upon the dream factory as an industry and the setting of his story, Fitzgerald achieves the social vantage that he sought in Gatsby but with the eye and ear for its inner consequence that someone like Wharton or Stendhal manages consistently to produce on the page. Very un-American.


  1. Tom Z. June 7, 2022 at 1:26 pm | #

    Interesting, nichtwar, how one is a different reader at a different age in life. Aspects of Turgenev strike you as more credible this time around. I, currently in my third act, wonder what I was thinking, if anything, when, as a sprat, I idealized the works of Fitzgerald and Hesse. Today they strike me as just so much typing.

  2. glenntwo June 7, 2022 at 1:46 pm | #

    I tend to agree with you about Gatsby–it’s a very slight book. I think I get why high schoolers like it, but I’m not sure why anyone else does. And I think you’re right about Tom Buchanan. The book got interesting to me for a while–enough for me to teach the novel in a class again–when I started to think of him as a (maybe the) central character, and when I thought of the book as being focused on Buchanan’s explicit white supremacy, and all the other characters as in a way circling around that (as in what may be my favorite line in the book: “‘We’re all white here,’ murmured Jordan” in response to Tom’s “impassioned gibberish”). Walter Benn Michaels has an informative essay on Gatsby called “The Souls of White Folk,” which connects Tom to all the white supremacist reading he says he does (e.g. Lothrop Stoddard’s book *The Rising Tide of Color*). In other words–and I think I’m agreeing with you here–if Tom is the most compelling character in the book, it’s because he’s so clearly a representations of the ideologies of the time; the other characters are murky in part because they don’t represent anything in particular.

  3. Jonnybutter June 7, 2022 at 2:53 pm | #

    But how can you read without riding the subway? 😉. Seems like everyone I know/know of around NYC has had covid recently! That must have been some surge you all had. I am very far from NYC but we have a surge too, and I am just getting over it as well; that first day was WOW. I couldn’t read or stand up or do anything. My heart breaks all the more for those who didn’t make it. Take care Corey and everyone

    • Corey Robin June 7, 2022 at 9:40 pm | #

      Thanks! And hope you’re past the virus, too.

  4. Benjamin David Steele June 7, 2022 at 3:20 pm | #

    Corey – The book that stands out to me is Melinda Cooper’s Family Values. You’ve talked about the denial of the agency of the subordinate class. That is what all of the culture war, moral panic, and social control has been about. This goes back centuries. But it became more openly politicized right before the American Civil War. And it really turned potent later in that century heading into the next.

    The vaginal sponge and vulcanized rubber was invented in the first few decades of the 19th century. There was also growing interest on public seminars about sexuality and human biology. Abortifacients and abortion practitioners were also becoming more openly available, such that 1 in 5 pregnancies were aborted right before the Civil War started. Certainly, there was much ideological and social conflict that fed into that military conflict, all of it wrapped in economic and political conflict.

    The later creation of post-war family values, specifically in the Reagan 1980s, was a social construction that obliterated the memory of the past. Immediately prior that era the majority of Americans, for example, were pro-choice. The division was not between left and right but between Protestants and Catholics, not to mention between second wave feminists and first wave. Conservative and traditional defenses of abortion have been around for a long time. There is even an abortifacient recipe in the Old Testament.

    On a related note, I’ve been wanting to ask you about something. Your take on the reactionary mind seems identical to social domination orientation, specifically the sub-traits on the SDO7 scale; more so than it has to do with the authoritarian personality proper. Defense of entrenched hierarchies is SDO-E (anti-egalitarianism). Whereas denying agency of subordinate class is SDO-D (dominance) — that is old school bigotry, oppression, and social control. Have you looked into it?

    Then again, SDO-E alone could explain both, in how reactionaries can co-opt liberal or leftist identities, labels, rhetoric, etc; without any need for overtly blunt domination, only requiring the oppressiveness of inegalitarian inequality and rigid hierarchy itself. SDO-D is often what people think of as authoritarianism (e.g., KKK), specifically in authoritarian leaders (e.g., Adolf Hitler). But individuals can be high in one, low in other; not always tracking together. Many anti-leftist DNC elite seem to be high SDO-E, low SDO-D (capitalist realism + token diversity).

    One other point. It’s true that Double Highs (high authoritarianism, high SDO) are the worst. And they are common among the leadership of right-wing groups, specifically Machiavellian demagogues and charismatic populists. But one should make the distinction that authoritarians are not necessarily the same as social dominators, even as the latter have a talent for manipulating authoritarian followers. Thinking of SDO as separate from authoritarian personality, while distinguishing dominance from anti-egalitarianism, might help to understand the reactionary mind as a broader phenomenon.

    Have you looked into this area of social science and political science research? From what I can tell, the studies and analysis of SDO-E anti-egalitarianism could go a long way in explaining, framing, and discerning the heart of the reactionary. I’d love to see what is your take is on all of this. The benefit would be to understand not only the extreme reactionary examples such as Hayek but to sense why all of modernity feels overwhelmed by the reactionary, why even otherwise liberal-minded people can often so easily get pulled into the reactionary mind.

    • Benjamin David Steele June 7, 2022 at 3:26 pm | #
    • Corey Robin June 7, 2022 at 9:40 pm | #

      I know of that literature but I haven’t read it with any care. I’ve been a lot more interested of late in the history of economic thought and politics than in the right, so don’t read as much about the latter these days.

      • Benjamin David Steele June 8, 2022 at 9:06 pm | #

        That was part of my point, to not limit analysis of the reactionary to the typical obsession with the right. It’s easy to set the right up as a scapegoat to be beat down, and that is even more true when demagogues like Donald Trump have intentionally embraced becoming caricatures in the flesh. Sure, right-wing reactionaries are problematic to the utmost, particularly as double highs (authoritarian-SDOs) and dark personalities (Machiavellians, psychopaths, narcissists, sadists). But maybe you’d agree that this overlooks the bigger picture and misses the deeper problems, all of which are much more pervasive and systemic. Certainly, I enjoy your historical take on such issues, the reason I’ve read your published and online writings for years. I’m simply suggesting that the analysis of the distant and recent history might become even more clear and comprehensible when one throws light upon it from the social sciences. It possibly could offer insights and perspectives that otherwise would not be as easily seen, discerned, and probed.

        Specifically, the social science research indicates that everyone or nearly everyone is potentially vulnerable to dysfunctional mentalities and behaviors when under conditions of extreme and/or long-term stress: social conflict, poverty, high inequality, pathogen exposure, parasite load, toxins, etc. Even something as basic as having a few beers, according to studies, will make liberals more conservative-minded in repeating stereotypical rhetoric and such. This partly has to do with increased cognitive load and hence decreased neurocognitive capacity, executive function, openness to experience, negative capability, etc. The development and maintenance of liberal-mindedness requires very low levels of stress; along with greater health, education, resources, and much else. This is why liberalism, in many societies, has been a delicate hothouse flower requiring near perfect conditions. It’s only in places like Scandinavian social democracies where conditions have been sufficient for a minimal level of liberal flourishing, however imperfect even there.

        All of that is why I brought up the anti-egalitarianism of the apparently high SDO-E DNC elite with their tokenism and endlessly punching left, but without the right-wing reactionary mind of blatantly overt authoritarianism, bigotry, and dominance (SDO-D sub-trait). High inequality obviously and inevitably undermines egalitarianism (e.g., democracy) and causes all kinds of other problems (see Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson, and Keith Payne); in increasing not only authoritarianism (and probably SDO) but also aggression, mental illness, fantasy-proneness, conspiracy-mindedness, and anti-intellectualism. Even the wealthy and powerful are more stressed and sickly in high inequality societies, compared to otherwise similar societies (such as the contrast between the U.S. and Canada). With vast disparities, those of high socioeconomic status also have more prevalence of such things as stress-related diseases, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides.

        That applies to all rich people, not just those on the right. Everyone becomes more stressed out and, as other research shows, continuous background stress can be traumatizing even when low-level; not to mention hard for the individual to perceive when it’s become pervasive and normalized. To put it in historical context, consider one of your main examples, that of Edmund Burke. It’s easy to forget that in many ways he was a liberal-minded progressive reformer for his time, especially in his earlier life. If not for the sociopolitical conflict that arose, there is a good chance he would never have had become as strongly reactionary. Despite his being a reactionary, some liberals and progressives have taken inspiration from him and attempted to rehabilitate his legacy. The Burkean moral imagination is not limited to right-wing ideology and identity. And then we have to keep in mind, of course, the mixed history of progressivism going back to the Progressive era: Theodore Roosevelt’s break up of monopolies, Father Charles Coughlin initial support of FDR, Ku Klux Klan having pushed for child labor laws, Evangelicals’ advocacy of universal mandatory public education, etc.

        The entire right vs left framing gets murky as one goes back across the generations and centuries, even more so across societies. Even limiting oneself to Anglo-American culture, the average conservative today is far more liberal than the average liberal was a century ago. So, obviously, speaking about reactionaries, authoritarians, SDOs, and dark personalities is absolutely not exclusive to the right. As someone on the left, I often note that polls and surveys, including those done by Fox News, regularly show that most Americans are to the left of both main parties and the entirety of the mainstream media. That confuses matters in what gets called the ‘right’, not to mention what gets dismissed and disenfranchised as the ‘left’. Anyway, how can the majority be on the left? Shouldn’t the majority be the definition of the center? If ‘moderate’ was defined as the center that is neither reactionary nor radical in being aligned with public opinion, then Bernie Sanders would be correctly labeled as one of the most moderate politicians. But moderation is considered radical in a reactionary society.

      • Benjamin David Steele June 8, 2022 at 9:22 pm | #

        By the way, have you written or read about the rise of the right-wing shadow network: Paul Weyrich’s Machiavellian genius, Joseph Coors corporate funding, media operations, and various organizations like the Moral Majority political action group. It’s a great example of the reactionary mind as enacted on the large scale.

        At the opening of the Moral Majority organization, Weyrich admitted that the religious right would never win any elections if all Americans voted. That meant he knew the religious right was not and probably never had been a majority, moral or otherwise. Their original focus was not even culture war issues like family values. They only turned to abortion as an issue because their initial concern, racial segregation in Bible schools, was too unpopular to garner large support. Weyrich openly talked about this.

        It was a less than obvious maneuver since anti-choice was also unpopular. Until the Reagan era, most Americans were pro-choice; including most Republicans and evangelicals. The early-to-mid 20th century divide over abortion was not left vs right but rather Protestants vs Catholics and second wave feminists vs first wave feminists. Eisenhower made liberal arguments for pro-choice, such as abortion bans not lessening the abortion rate but just making them more dangerous. And Eisenhower’s wife helped found Planned Parenthood in Texas. As I recall, even religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell were pro-choice back then.

        Then one might put this also in context with Blue Dogs like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton taking over of the DNC. Carter, it might be noted, is the president who introduced evangelicalism into the White House. And his presidency (anti-union, economic austerity, etc) represented the decisive turn toward the reactionary that later Democrats took to another level (tough-on-crime, welfare cuts, corporate deregulation, etc). That goes to your lack of present interest in confining yourself to looking at the ‘right’.

  5. John MacLean June 11, 2022 at 12:42 pm | #

    Will look for some of the books you mention here. Thomas Piketty recommends “The Emergence of Globalism” by Or Rosenboim. I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  6. Jared June 13, 2022 at 1:58 am | #

    Take good care Corey! As a long time admirer of your work I’m looking forward to reading what you have been working on.

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