The Conservative Mind: a liberal tries to crack the code

Drieu and Arts and Letters Daily have pointed me to this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I suppose someone on the reactionary Right should respond to it.  The author, Corey Robin, has written in the Chronicle previously about conservatism.  In his last article, which I discussed at length here, he claimed that conservatives are obsessed with violence as the unique channel for experiencing the sublime.  Now he has returned with the claim that conservatives are motivated by a desire to preserve social hierarchies, which is much more plausible and even true as far as it goes.

First, the positive points.  As I said last time, I welcome the attempt by a Leftist intellectual to try to understand his opponent’s ideas and motivations better.  I also welcome his attempt to treat conservatism in its larger historical and international context.  This attempt to understand us does indeed come much closer than his last attempt.  While the claim that conservatives love violence is groundless, it is perfectly true that hierarchical relationships, with the (for us) associated ideas of legitimate authority and organic community, are at the core of core of what motivates conservatives.  It is, as he well says, what ties together our governmental, religious, and familial concerns.  I also heartily endorse his realization that conservatism means more than just slow, cautious change.  The society we want is much different from the one the liberal wants, regardless of how fast it is acheived.

As a Left-liberal, Robin regards all such hierarchical relationships as moral monstrosities, as the violent subjugation of the weak by the strong.  For now, I will not begrudge him his private prejudice.  If I were feeling mischievous, I would say that it’s rather intolerant of him to effectively condemn every society in history other than the post-1960’s West, but being a conservative, I don’t think one should tolerate what one finds morally repugnant.  However, if he’s going to really understand conservatives, Robin must try to understand how we see hierarchical relationships.  And here is where Robin fails spectacularly.  Search the article for “legitimacy”, “divine right”, “represent”, “symbol”, “unwritten constitution”, or “natural law”, and you will find nothing.  A search on “authority” and “God” yields one unimportant reference each.  Robin has nothing to say about the reasons conservatives give for cherishing authoritative relationships.  Instead, he fabricates one of his own:  he says that we regard those with power as better than those without.

No simple defense of one’s own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth.

Now, in Robin’s telling, this “vision of the connection between excellence and rule” is basically the heart of conservatism.  One would hope he would provide a corresponding weight of citations to prove it.  He provides one quote, an abridged sentence from Stephen’s “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.  Here is the full quote together with its context:

The attitude of mind engendered by continual glorification of the present time, and of successful resistance to an authority assumed to be usurped and foolish, is almost of necessity fatal to the recognition of the fact that to obey a real superior, to submit to a real necessity and make the best of it in good part, is one of the most important of all virtues–a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.  Everyone would admit this when stated in general terms, but the gift of recognizing the necessity for acting on the principle when the case actually arises is one of the rarest in the world.  To be able to recognize your superior, to know whom you ought to honor and obey, to see at what point resistance ceases to be honorable, and submission in good faith and without mental reservation becomes the part of courage and wisdom, is supremely difficult…Practically, the effect of the popularity of the commonplaces about liberty has been to raise in the minds of ordinary people a strong presumption against obeying anybody, and by a natural rebound to induce minds of another class to obey the first person who claims their obedience with sufficient emphasis and self-confidence.  It has shattered to pieces most of the old forms in which discipline was a recognized and admitted good, and certainly it has not produced many new ones.

Reading the whole thing, we see that 1) Stephen is here attacking liberty, not equality; 2) “a true superior” in the above most naturally means “one having really legitimate authority” rather than intrinsic excellence–it’s opposite is not rule by the “lower”, but rule through personal charisma by one without a valid claim.  So, again, Robin has obscured the true core of conservatism, which is not purported aristocratic excellence, but purported legitimacy.

In fact, one could bring forth quite a few claims by the great reactionaries that explicitly reject the connection between “excellence and rule”.  Why, Bonald asks, should one man have to obey another?  In themselves, he insists, all men are equal; authority comes rather from God, Whose will is expressed in certain authoritative relationships in the family and the kingdom.  Maistre agreed, and the French reactionaries called themselves not meritocrats but “Legitimists”.  For Moser, rule by excellence was the meritocacy of the liberals, which he thought would result in much strife and misery.  For Hegel, the king basically serves as an ego on which the will of the State can be affixed.  Conservatism, says Roger Scruton, the greatest conservative philosopher of the twentieth century, is not about freedom, but about authority.

Incidentally, one notes that, although Robin’s reading is admirably wide–given that it concerns a body of thought he finds repugnant–it is entirely focused on England and America.  (One might make a partial exception for his mention of Hayek, who denied that he was a conservative, but Hayek is someone who only had an influence in America.)  I think that greater attention to the continental conservative tradition would have made this particular issue clearer to him.  I hasten to add that it would be very unfair to single out Robin for his Anglocentrism, since the same charge would have at least as much force when directed at Russell Kirk or George Nash.

So, if it is not because of a person’s intrinsic superiority that we must obey him, what should our motive be?  To a conservative–who, as Scruton put it, directs his attention to the “surface” of social life on which we consciously  live–the important thing is what a person thinks he is doing when he obeys.  Obedience as a sheer surrender to violence he loathes just like the liberal.  However, he also finds obedience to the “will of the people” he also finds unworthy.  It takes the obedience out of obedience, taking prideful self-assertion away from the individual only to place it in the collective.  Nearly always, the conservative will put the basis of legitimacy at something beyond the individual or collective will–Divine Right, the Order of Heaven, etc.  In obeying the king or the father, we acknowledge our place in the moral order of the cosmos.  One might think this mystical, symbolic, or nonsensical, and no doubt it does need a lot of unpacking, but it does get to the heart of conservatism:  the will of man can only be legitimately bound by something above man.

Robin may think that this is self-serving nonsense, but he can’t understand conservatism if he won’t take it seriously.  It could well be that kings don’t really care about these things, but just want an excuse to get out of having to get real jobs; that just means that they’re not really monarchists, not that monarchism doesn’t exist as a coherent belief system.  It could be that no man takes seriously his duty to protect, provide, and rule, that he takes the idea of marriage as an image of the union of Christ and His Church as a convenient fiction to allow him to rape a woman with impunity, but that would just mean that these men aren’t actually patriarchists, not that the ideology of patriarchy isn’t what it presents itself as.  (I would note that patriarchal authority is at least supposed to be tied to duties, while Robin’s “reproductive freedom” is an unrestricted licence for selfishness, allowing women to murder their children in utero for any reason or none.)  Probably men and women adhere to conservatism (yes, there are conservative women–quite a few of them) for a variety of motives, some noble and some self-serving, and often both types of motives are found in the same soul.  Robin should acknowledge that many conservatives have no power to hold or regain from the ancien regime, but they defend it out of loyalty or because of the sense of meaning and order it provided.  Few of us entertain any illusions about our own “excellence”.  But even if every conservative was and is a hypocrite, our dark, inner motives are irrelevant to the nature of conservatism itself.

The above may sound like a rather harsh assessment, but I have only spent so much time correcting Robin’s thesis because it did hit close to the mark; someone is finally looking in the right places.  I repeat that I welcome Leftist academia’s renewed interest in the conservative ideology, and I appreciate Robin’s contributions to fostering this interest.

8 Responses

  1. It is a strange phenomenon when a Leftist tries to ‘understand’ reaction (i.e. consistent conservatism) – because reaction is the spontaneous and common sense *default* human perspective.

    Therefore, trying to explain reaction is paradoxical.

    To make reaction something that requires explanation, you have already discarded normal human reason and emotional responses.

    So the Leftist ends up trying to explain reaction using the thought categories and processes of Leftism – which is why these explanations don’t just miss the mark; but bear zero relationship to reaction.

    For example, trying to explain reaction (which is religious) on the basis of a utilitarian hedonic calculus will inevitably miss the point – since it assumes a primary motivation which is false. It is another version of the common activity trying to explain Christianity while leaving-out God.

  2. The most succinct definition of liberalism was given by Sir Herbert Maine in “Ancient Law,” when he wrote that the movement of progressive societies has been from status to contract.

  3. Well, irreligion and pure utiliitarianism are certainly very rare in the natural history of humanity. But hunter-gatherers are rather fiercely egalitarian, so the hierarchical nature of traditional conservatism would seem to go quite against the grain.

  4. the claim that conservatives love violence is groundless

    It is at least plausible with regards to figures like Ruskin and the later Maistre. It is not true of conservatives in general.

    So, again, Robin has obscured the true core of conservatism, which is not purported aristocratic excellence, but purported legitimacy.

    While conservative intellectuals may have had a different justification for hierarchy, in practice, many, perhaps even most, aristocrats and kings would have viewed themselves as being inherently superior to the lower classes, full stop.

    Aristotle toys with the idea that because women and slaves are in a subordinate position they deserve to be there. The evidence that they deserve to be in a subordinate position is that they are in a subordinate position. He is wise enough though to express reservations about that position.

    But the traditionalist conservative view of hierarchy certainly is not reducible to the above. The legitimist justification for it is a strong current in conservatism too. So, while Robin’s depiction of conservative views has some truth to it, it is also a self-serving, one sided caricature that ignores large swathes of what most conservative intellectuals have actually thought.

  5. (I had just posted the following at the bottom of the de Boland post from four days back, but after reading this post, it strikes me that it goes better here, so please forgive my reposting.)

    I am reminded of the memorable words in the recent film “War Horse”, spoken by the British cavalry commander to his troops just before their charge on an enemy position: “Be Brave! Fear God! Honour the King!” These words, so naturally stirring, closely echo those of Lord Kitchener, the Field Marshall of the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War. What is jarring to consider is how flat they would be in effect if, instead of invoking the name of the King, one would instead invoke a president, premier or prime minister. Who is such a man to command my obedience unto death? One may lay down one’s life for a King – and many have, with honor. But for a president? There is a reason that, in the American experience, men have never gone to war for the President, but rather for “democracy” or “the union” or “against tyranny”. What is precisely lacking is the authority of kingship, an authority which must necessarily stand above the mere outcome of a democratic vote.

    Shakespeare gives a very direct taste of this in “King Lear”, Act I, Scene IV. Kent, Lear’s faithful liegeman, earlier rashly banished by Lear, returns in disguise to be of service to his King:

    KING LEAR: What wouldst thou?
    KENT: Service.
    KING LEAR: Who wouldst thou serve?
    KENT: You.
    KING LEAR: Dost thou know me, fellow?
    KENT: No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.
    KING LEAR: What’s that?
    KENT: Authority.

  6. “Search the article for “legitimacy”, “divine right”, ”represent”, “symbol”, “unwritten constitution”, or ”natural law”, and you will find nothing. A search on “authority” and “God” yields one unimportant reference each. Robin has nothing to say about the reasons conservatives give for cherishing authoritative relationships. Instead, he fabricates one of his own: he says that we regard those with power as better than those without.”

    I’ve said before on my own blog how telling it is that most leftists’ attempts to understand rightists, even when sincerely made, usually fall flat, because they cannot transcend their own prejudices. He assumes that authority is false and therefore that everyone knows its false, and thus that everyone who says otherwise is dishonestly trying to conceal his own intentions. Why else would anyone believe in the transcendental goodness of authority, after all?

    The widespread inability of even the most sophisticated leftists (with like, one or two exceptions that I can think of) to understand and account for nonleftism is, I think, evidence of its falseness. By contrast, we on the far-right, at least, have a pretty sound grasp of what we’re up against, of its metaphysical implications and its transcendental importance.

  7. Probably men and women adhere to conservatism (yes, there are conservative women–quite a few of them) for a variety of motives, some noble and some self-serving, and often both types of motives are found in the same soul.

    I think the problem is when liberals mistake what Mark Richardson would call right-liberals, and what sir Bonald would call pseudo-conservatives, with more genuine conservatives.

  8. […] and much else.  This is just a sampling of what’s been said about it: hates it; likes it; doesn’t like it but thinks about it; writes about it a lot (as in five times a lot, but with a lot of interesting historical […]

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