Monday, January 02, 2012

Modes of Reaction and Revolution

I am all about distinctions. It matters that we study differences between political actors and correctly identify points of congruence as assiduously as we try to separate the political world into the members of the Beloved Community and those who are beyond the Pale. That's why I was very pleased to read a deceptively simple article in the latest New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla, Republicans for Revolution. It is a review of a Corey Robin's book "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism form Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin," and it gets to the heart of many of the observations and criticisms I've posted on this blog about misapplication of political labels, though with fewer polemics and greater elegance.

While the review of the book itself is utterly damning (Money quote - "That’s why Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind is a useful book to have—not as an example to follow, but one to avoid."), Lilla uses it as an opportunity to engage in some much needed public thinking about the meaning of "conservative" and "liberal" and their mutual relationship to the concept of "reactionary". In doing so, he demonstrates how and why reactionary politics is empowering for the Right and self-defeating for the Left. He does not explicitly describe the political outcome, leaving it as a thought exercise for the reader. Instead, he explicates the differences between political types in a way that transcends the conventional presumption that Conservative = Right =Reactionary and Liberal = Left = Progressive, the fundamental categorical error both of Robins' book and almost all  political pontificating on the Left.

Lilla disposes of Robin in the first few paragraphs of the article and then leaps into what really interests him and me (all emphasis mine):
An opportunity has been missed. Robin is not wrong to think there are two tribes in modern politics, and the terms “right” and “left” are as good as any other to describe them. But within each tribe there are clans that do more than express more radical or moderate versions of the same outlook. Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites. To understand why the distinction between them still matters, we need to remind ourselves what the terms “conservative” and “reactionary” originally meant.
Lilla then goes into a three paragraph examination of Edmund Burke, conservatism and liberalism that is breathtaking in its accuracy and economy. He segues into his true interest, analyzing reactionaries by saying, "The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society. The quarrel between revolutionaries and reactionaries, on the other hand, has little to do with nature. It is a quarrel over history."

Before getting into his brilliant categorization of reactionaries, I want to tease out something he left unsaid when comparing the conservatives and liberals (and these terms, of course, refer to the theoretical categories, not the current US bastardization of their meaning), which is the ground on which they can do political business, the reality that underlies the fantasy of bipartisanship. Conservatives in the Burkean mode defend the accretion of habits, customs and mores that create the society individuals accidentally inhabit. As Lilla writes,
"Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism."
In tension with this is the liberal presumption that the individual is prior to the society in which he or she inhabits - society is the accident, not the individual:
Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action. This assumption, more than any other, shapes the liberal temperament. It is what makes liberals suspicious of appeals to custom or tradition, given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice. Liberals, like conservatives, recognize the need for constraints, but believe they must come from principles that transcend particular societies and customs. Principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom.
The common ground is mentioned in the conservative description - institutions. In the institution, the past/inheritance is given form and public stability. Likewise, the institution becomes the collective power of individuals to insist upon and defend their rights against the arbitrary exercise of power by elites. Institutions are necessary for both political perspectives because they are what shape and defend us against human nature - the rapaciousness of elite and mass alike are subject to the disciplinary power of the institution. The battle the conservatives lost - which is the topic of Reflections on the Revolution in France - is how institutions will be legitimized. Age, as represented by custom, is no longer the chief defining characteristic of legitimacy. Instead, property occupies that place, and it is specifically fungible property that is the foundation for the institutions that define modern society. Provision of rights is inextricable from defense of fungible property (property in the abstract, that can be governed by universal, impersonal rules), as rights are cast in the mode of things that cannot be taken away.

If an institution is founded on the basis of defense of (property) rights and then the institution is modified by exercise of its own rules, it can be acknowledged as legitimate by both conservative and liberal political factions. Human nature is defended and constrained in the same moment. There is actually little reference to past or future as the logic of the institution is inward looking, seeking to more faithfully explicate the universal (and thus unchanging) principles that the institution exists to house

It helps that there is almost no true conservatism in the US, as Lilla points out, "Americans’ assumptions about human nature are basically liberal today. We take it for granted that we are born free, that we constitute society, it doesn’t constitute us, and that together we legitimately govern ourselves." Our collective view of human nature is liberal. This is how you can end up with a "conservative" Eisenhower endorsing Social Security because it has now become part of the warp and weft of the (modern, abstract, liberal, rights-based) US society into which particular human beings are accidentally born. Perhaps ironically, the liberalism that venerates and celebrates the centrality of freedom to the human condition is committed to the preservation of formal structures that cannot be changed very easily, lest the space for the enactment of freedom be endangered. The duty of a liberal institution is to conserve.

In distinction to a mode of politics that is mostly inward looking and static (progress is not change but fulfillment of universal principles, after all), there is the view that politics is about change and time - going forward to go back or simply going forward. Reactionaries battle against the creation of stable institutions that do not fulfill their preferred eschatological vision.

Lilla distinguishes between two types of reactionaries - restorative and redemptive. The former "dreams of a return to some real or imaginary state of perfection that existed before a revolution. This can be any sort of revolution—political, religious, economic, or even aesthetic," while the latter "take for granted that the revolution is a fait accompli and that there is no going back. ... They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over." While the first type wishes to reclaim and and reimpose the past, the redemptive reactionary has nothing conservative in their nature.

They want to blow shit up and watch the world burn. It is political apocalypticism.

Lilla's concern is with the rise of this political mode on the Right, something he thinks intellectuals and political analysts like Robin won't see because they want big sound-bite-ready political targets, because political actors who care nothing about conserving institutions of any kind ("Fascists hated so many aspects of modern society—representative democracy, capitalism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, bourgeois refinement—that we forget they were anything but nostalgic for Church and Crown. They had contempt for weak German aristocrats with their dueling scars and precious manners, and reserved their nostalgia for a new Rome to be brought into being through storms of steel. There was nothing conservative about them.") have nothing to lose by continually upping the apocalyptic ante. We think we're dealing with restorative reactionaries, who are dangerous enough:
On questions of history, however, Americans are all over the map. As we were reminded in the run-up to the last Iraq war, every now and then the prophetic strain in our political rhetoric inspires eschatological fantasies of democratic avant-gardism, with Lady Liberty replacing the French Marianne on top of history’s barricades. Then reality intrudes and Americans revert to the converse fantasy of American exceptionalism, which must be protected from history through isolation and self-purification. We have also had our share of restorative reactionaries, from Southern nostalgics for the ol’ plantation, to agrarian despisers of the great American cities, to racialist despisers of the immigrants they attracted, to no-government oddballs who think they can go it alone, to trust-fund hippies who went back to the land, to lock-and-load eco-terrorists who want to take us off the grid (after they recharge their Macs). What we have not seen much of, except on the fringes of American politics, are redemptive reactionaries who think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge out of the chaos. At least until now. ...
Sometime in the Eighties, though, neoconservative thinking took on a darker hue. The big question was no longer how to adapt liberal aspirations to the limits of politics, but how to undo the cultural revolution of the Sixties that, in their eyes, had destabilized the family, popularized drug use, made pornography widely available, and encouraged public incivility. In other words, how to undo history.
My concern is how the Left has been captured by much the same impulse towards politics as history, wanting to see themselves as revolutionaries who have a world-historic mission to transform society and free it of [insert hated-thing-of-the-month-here]. The thing they hate most, almost a meta-hatred from which all others derive, is institutionalized power. They are, as hinted at throughout Lilla's article, much closer to the Right's reactionaries than they'd like to admit, sharing a resentment against structures that defend political power settlements, but unlike the Right, doing little to mobilize  economic and political resentment in the general population to accrue power for apocalyptic political action. Occupy Wall Street protests eschewing actual objectives and one-off hacktivist raids on government and corporate servers are unlikely to translate into votes and it's questionable whether the participants care.

The redemptive reaction on the Left was, I think, Obama's election. We returned to the Kennedy White House, the time when we were all happy with the direction of the nation. The award of the Nobel prize to Obama was done in a political-historical mode, not a reflection of what was but of the fantasy of what the world ought to be in light of the grand historical moment we were witnessing. Reality, sadly, has a distinctly liberal, that is to say, factual bias, and keeps stubbornly persisting in the now instead of breathlessly charging forward into the always already perfect future.

Neither the revolutionaries nor the reactionaries on the Left have a snowball's chance in hell of contesting with their counterparts on the Right in the popular imagination. 

In any event, Lilla has provided me with new and interesting ways to look at the current political milieu. The question will be whether the Right's redemptive reactionaries apocalypticism will burn itself out before it burns the place down.



Bob Harrison said...

Ok, I'm going to have to think about all this a while-- probably a long while. It is a fascinating trek through political science, though I feel like I might need some CEU's after digesting the various definitions and distinctions.

Good job!

Palomino said...

Occupy Wall Street protests eschewing actual objectives . . . are unlikely to translate into votes and it's questionable whether the participants care.

Thank you. At this point, the Occupy "movement" is mostly a media-fueled exercise in Marxist Romanticism.

Consider Occupy Oakland. The famous poster announcing the action to shut down West Coast ports features a telling headline: OCCUPY STRIKES BACK. Back against what?

Here is Barucha Peller, a "radical" (Counterpunch, etc.) journalist who does not live or work in Oakland but presumes to address the Oakland City Council on behalf of Oakland's "99 percent," (most of whom are actually feeling quite alienated from Occupy Oakland):

You [Oakland authorities] coordinated national attacks on the Occupy movement . . . So you know what we did? We coordinated an attack on you and we shut down ports up and down the West Coast and coordinated an attack on the 1 percent, who you’re supporting. So if you keep on doing this, think about the consequences, OK?

In other words, Occupy Oakland is all about Occupy Oakland.

redscott said...

Interesting post, although I actually prefer Robin on the nature of conservatives and liberals. Lilla's take on this issue I find very much at a gaseous 30,000 feet level that grounds the distinction in fundamentally different metaphysical views of human nature. Robin seems much more interested in teasing out how differing reactions to the question of power and hierarchy have played out, in historical and social context, over time. That approach seems more grounded and interesting to me than Lilla's, whose work is also interesting but seems to me very abstracted from real events and specific human actors and their motivations.

someofparts said...

I have a copy of History and Class Consciousness by George Luk√°cs. Guess I need to read it again to see the hatred of liberals and conservatives. The part that I did get that intrigued me was the way he anticipated Naomi Klein by decades. As Klein documents in No Logo, Lukacs predicted that the commodity form, the template of the marketplace, would overflow it's proper limited place in society to become the ethos and practice that dominates the entire culture.