Tuesday, 24 December 2013
Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind is brilliant. It is, perhaps, not quite as brilliant as its reputation suggests; its episodic structure means it revisits its central thesis in multiple different circumstances rather than building on that thesis' foundations. As a result the basic principles outlined here are sketched broadly, rather than mined in depth.
On the other hand, perhaps there is a strength in the simplicity here. Robin's essential premise is certainly pleasingly bite-sized: conservatism (here mainly but not entirely meaning American conservatism) is neither a philosophy of moderation nor of nostalgia, but a philosophy that finds moderation and nostalgia useful as vectors for its true interest, which is social hierarchy. 
In the pursuit of the social hierarchy, shout-out to the halcyon days are of use only in so much as rigid social orders were all the rage before the French Revolution, the historical event Robin describes as the crucible in which the conservative philosophy as we understand it today was forged. Changes to the social order that took place decades or even centuries ago receive no respect from conservatives unless they fit in with the desired structure to the world, and the always unconvincing calls for incremental changes and considered debate are always conveniently set aside in stampedes to tear down institutions that happen to be standing in the way. One need only look to recent Supreme Court decisions granting the rich unlimited ability to influence politicians with their money, or to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, to discern this. The goal is a society where those people Know Their Place, and all else is simply window-dressing.
Robin develops a secondary hypothesis here as well - one which interacts with the first - regarding the discomfort many conservatives face with a contented society. One can barely dip into the banal morass of the American op-ed pages without bumping into a David Brooks figure informing us that moral complacency is threatening to destroy society. As Charles Pierce likes to put it, these writers are obsessed with the idea that there might be people fking on couches of which the writer does not approve. Often this is no more serious than paternalistic busy-bodying, but on occasion it becomes more sinister - the same instinct to lecture the underclass about their sexuality mutating into the insistence that the financial crash had its roots in the refusal of the un-moneyed to live within the means fate had chosen for them. One must not simply be, one must strive. For the rich, this apparently always seems to mean striving to gain more money. For everyone else... well, this is where we run into real problems. Almost invariably, the solution handed down is that those without money should have to work harder to get the money they are being intentionally deprived of.
The problems of both these strands when considered separately are already obvious. In combination, things become that much worse. The constant desire conservatives have to see society tested is catalysed by the insistence that it is the lower rungs of society that need that testing the most urgently, and suddenly the working class finds its sons and daughters being shipped overseas to kill and be killed in the name of foreign excursions intended in ill-defined ways to somehow improve the soul of the nation. The constant cry of the conservative that they wish for smaller government is suddenly laid bare for what it is: the realisation that a properly enforced legal framework has become a hindrance to their desired socially enforced moral framework. Since the fall of the Jim Crow laws it has become impossible to enshrine in statute the kind of pecking order the conservative wishes to see returned to civilisation (to the extent to which it ever actually left, of course), but with the money and entrenched power on their side already, it suffices simply to chip away at legal obstacles to a de facto social stratification they believe - almost certainly correctly - will create itself once all those silly laws concerned with equality are neutered. 
This, in the end, is the goal. Whether it be a return to the courts of pre-Revolutionary France or some entirely new rough beast of capitalist debauchery and neoconservative violence, those people must be made to see that they are not us people. True happiness is born in the minds of the people not when they believe their time to rule might some day come, but when they realise better men (always, always men) exist above them, and rightly so. "Do not rise above your station", they intone sombrely as they hoover up another percentile of GDP. "We will take care of you".
That this is both abhorrent in philosophy and an utter failure every time it has been practised is apparently irrelevant, perhaps because those pushing this vicious prescription may always simply enquire "an utter failure for who?". The central attraction for the social hierarchy is that there will always be someone below you, and if there isn't, well, you're clearly too far down to be worth worrying about in any case, right?
So does each man punch down. So do our minds and our hearts ossify. So does every injustice this world forces upon us somehow become the way things are supposed to be.
I'll pass, thanks.
 I suppose one could argue there is a genuine component of nostalgia involved, actually, if only because it always just so happens to be the rich white guys who are implicitly at the top of whatever terrifying new pyramid of civilisation these people would foist upon us. One might wish for them to choose black lesbians as the leaders of the new era, simply for a change of pace. Of course, this would mean disassembling the social structure they swear does not exist in order to build the structure they swear they don't want, so hopes are less than high.
 One criticism I have of Robin's thoughts on this topic is that he draws a clear line between efforts opposed to racial equality and efforts opposed to economic equality. I'm not sure the two are meaningfully distinct on a practical level. That is to say, I think the closest thing the Republican Party has to a point when they object to being called racist is that they genuinely seem to just utterly fucking hate poor people, and don't particularly care how many of them are or aren't white.