Good theoretical writing makes it feel like two brains are on fire in mutual excitement and discovery — the writer themselves, and the involved reader, each anticipating, together, the next turn and “a-ha!”. In The Reactionary Mind,you can almost feel Corey Robin pushing up against the limits of description as he fleshes out a deceptively simple, well-researched and sourced, and deeply novel and prescient thesis — that conservatism in theory is not an ideology but an (often desperate) disposition toward the maintenance of hierarchical power. Throughout recent history, the counterrevolutionary has needed a revolutionary with which to counterpose himself, the object of his revanche, against whom — to paraphrase Burke — he might encounter some unholy and sublime meaning. Our liberal and tried and solemn tendency today is to think of figures like Trump as breakers of sacred norms, as historically unprecedented figures, whereas Robin stunningly and in clarifying, often beautifully composed inquiry, reveals them to be not just weak but classically of the mode — as “it’s not that the counterrevolutionary is disposed to paradox; he’s simply forced to straddle historical contradictions for power’s sake.” To misapprehend the conservative and the counterrevolutionary is to lose out on both the significance and also the predictability of our present moment, and in so doing fatally misjudge the enemy and the way forward.
— From John's Picks
Late in life, William F. Buckley made a confession to Corey Robin. Capitalism is boring, said the founding father of the American right. Devoting your life to it, as conservatives do, is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex. With this unlikely conversation began Robin's decade-long foray into the conservative mind. What is conservatism, and what's truly at stake for its proponents? If capitalism bores them, what excites them?
In The Reactionary Mind
, Robin traces conservatism back to its roots in the reaction against the French Revolution. He argues that the right was inspired, and is still united, by its hostility to emancipating the lower orders. Some conservatives endorse the free market; others oppose it. Some criticize the state; others celebrate it. Underlying these differences is the impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality -- while simultaneously making populist appeals to the masses. Despite their opposition to these movements, conservatives favor a dynamic conception of politics and society -- one that involves self-transformation, violence, and war. They are also highly adaptive to new challenges and circumstances. This partiality to violence and capacity for reinvention have been critical to their success.
Written by a highly-regarded, keen observer of the contemporary political scene, The Reactionary Mind
ranges widely, from Edmund Burke to Antonin Scalia and Donald Trump, and from John C. Calhoun to Ayn Rand. It advances the notion that all right-wing ideologies, from the eighteenth century through today, are improvisations on a theme: the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back. When its first edition appeared in 2011, The Reactionary Mind set off a fierce debate. It has since been acclaimed as the book that predicted Trump (New Yorker
) and one of the more influential political works of the last decade (Washington Monthly
). Now updated to include Trump's election and his first one hundred days in office, The Reactionary Mind
is more relevant than ever.