Welcome Corey Robin (CoreyRobin.com) and Host Rick Perlstein (RollingStone)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

Cory Robin and I go way back. We were in a political discussion together where the hot topic was the WTO protests in Seattle—the “Occupy” movement of 1998. Since then, I’ve always been a deep admirer of his essays; if he’s saved his emails from the intervening fifteen years, I’m sure he’d find a bunch from me praising his various pieces from the London Review of Books when they came out. I was thrilled to learn he was collecting his pieces into a book. I was even more thrilled when I read it and saw how he was able to link them together into a coherent argument which—well, read my blurb on the book:

“Corey Robin’s extraordinary collection, constantly fresh, continuously sharp, and always clear and eloquent, provides the only satisfactory philosophically coherent account of elite conservatism I have ever read. Then there’s this bonus: his remarkably penetrating side inquiry into the notion of ‘national security’ as a taproot of America’s contemporary abuse of democracy. It’s all great, a model in the exercise of humane letters.”

Humane letters: Corey is a humane writer. I think of a piece that’s not in this book, Lavatory and Liberty: The Secret History of the Bathroom Break, which jumps off a description of how many American workers are denied a right to the most basic of bodily functions while on the job to a deeper examination of the startling fact that for most of its history “the American workplace remained a feudal institution. Not metaphorically, but legally. Workers were governed by statutes originating in the common law of medieval England, with precedents extending as far back as the year 500…judges exclusively administered these statutes treating workers as the literal property of their employers. Not until 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act, giving workers the right to organize unions, did the judiciary relinquish political control over the workplace to Congress.” [cont’d.]

And now that those rights to organize have been so badly attenuated, the workplace has headed back to feudalism again. In fact, Corey himself has taken part in the struggle for labor rights himself, as an organizer for the graduate student union at Yale in the 1990s. Not sure if he’s in the mood to talk about that, but he definitely has some stories to tell about the consequences of that—stories that do not reflect well on one of the leading lights of political science.

He’s humane, and he’s always breathtakingly thorough. When he took it upon himself to study the intellectual history of conservatism, he read its foundational texts so deeply that he was able to find in them a continuity that no one had noticed as sharply before; but which, once you see it revealed, is hard to deny. The argument is this:

“Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions. They have gathered under different banners—the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism—and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them…. Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.”

I say it’s hard to deny. Though smart people have been denying it. Corey’s book was subject to furious reviews in the New York Times and New York Review of Books. The latter piece, by political theorist Mark Lilla, was particularly enraged by the work The Reaction Mind does to undo the notion that today’s variety of conservatism is more vociferous than, say, the one represented by William F. Buckley. Lilla’s arguments, however, were thin—and I think Corey easily dispatched them in his response. The question remains: what is the source of this resistance to Robin’s arguments from these more establishment voices? What nerve has he touched in them? I don’t have a good answer for that. I’d be interested to know if Corey does.

I’m not satisfied with everything in the book. I’m not convinced that the movements and tendencies against which reactionaries react are all best described as “revolutionary.” And in my blurb, I single out the book as great great concerning “elite” conservatism; but I’m ambivalent about the way Corey extends his argument to the old, frustrating Tom Frank question: why it is people who are not members of genuine elites identify with conservatism. Though Corey has fascinating things to say on that subject too. I’ve really enjoyed arguing with them in my mind. I hope you will, too.

Ladies and gentleman, Corey Robin.

Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein