Sheri Berman has penned a response in Dissent to Corey Robin’s response to her review of his The Reactionary Mind in The New York Times‘ Sunday Book Review. Robin’s a big boy and I’ve no doubt that, as he’s already shown, he’s quite capable of defending his work on his lonesome. But there’s still one element of her initial review that bothered me, all the more so as I see her double-down upon it in her response.
Primarily, Berman seems to labor under the impression that Robin conceives of “the masses” as a rather uniform and historically permanent group of people. At least that’s my best guess as to why it is that she finds Robin’s belief that conservatism is largely about holding or rolling back the extension of privileges and rights to the “lower order” to be so confounding. On this score, she writes in Dissent:
My disagreement with the substance of The Reactionary Mind goes beyond divergent opinions over the nature of national security. In his book, Robin defines conservatism as a doctrine or movement concerned with “the assertion of agency by the subject class.” He claims 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 believe this definition is not only wrong, but exculpatory to boot. […]
The “feudal,” “elitist” and hierarchical conservatism that Robin stresses did exist, but it was the conservatism of the ancien regime—and it is a tradition conservative thinkers and activists have been slowly abandoning ever since. As I noted in my review, by the late nineteenth century, the most powerful and dynamic right-wing movements in much of Europe and in the United States were populist. They were mass movements with cross-class appeal that were neither led by elites nor working on behalf of them. Indeed, they were often explicitly opposed to the old order, which they saw—correctly—as excluding society’s lower orders. When such movements came to power, moreover, they could be very effective in transforming or even destroying any parts of the old order that remained.
The culmination of this trend occurred in the interwar years, with the rise of fascism and national socialism, but it has continued throughout the postwar period. The most powerful movements claiming the conservative mantle during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have not been feudal, elitist, or hell-bent on keeping the masses down; just the opposite. The contemporary American Tea Party or the numerous European right-wing populist parties, in short, are not exceptions to recent historical trends but the rule.
I don’t know how to put this more delicately: Berman says not a word in the above that any close reader of The Reactionary Mind would find revelatory or somehow different from what Robin himself asserts. A central tenet of Robin’s argument is that conservatism is fluid, that its definition of who is “lower” and “upper” is always relative, shifting in-step with the times and in-keeping with the broader societal norms. While Berman seems to believe that “the masses” and the “lower orders” are today roughly the same as they were in the 18th century, Robin does not. Consequently, when Berman notes that the right-wing of today is not concerned with, say, extending suffrage to non-land-holding men, she’s not at all striking Robin’s construct in the solar plexus, as she seems to believe.
What’s more, Robin’s understanding of those intellectually and emotionally engaged by conservatism is not only amenable to but fundamentally cognizant of the fact that these people are not being manipulated or acting against their own self-interest. Since she takes us to the Nazis, I’ll go there: Berman implies that the Nazis were spirited into power by the very people Robin would imagine them to threaten. But anyone with a knowledge of the history of Third Reich could tell you that the Nazis—like all fascist movements—were primarily supported by their country’s middle class. The coalition government that brought Hitler to the Reich Chancellery was composed of conservative, nationalist politicians traditionally supported by the bourgeoisie.
Turning towards the less provocative American example: when a working class white ethnic in Boston in the 1960s becomes aware, consciously or otherwise, that the Civil Rights Movement will deeply threaten his financial security by introducing a greater number of employees into the labor pool, and thus reducing his bargaining power, he is both acting in his own self-interest and standing against the extension of privileges to those to whom they were previously denied. Berman may not consider the middle classes to be “elite”—but “elite” is not a watch-word of The Reactionary Mind; and I’d hope we could all agree to calling Germany’s “undesirables,” and the United States’ African American population, members of their respective societies’ lower orders.
This same dissonance discolors her understanding of the Tea Party, too. Judging by the above, it sounds as if she believes that the Tea Party is composed of “the masses,” which in turn implies that these folks would not stand to gain from the policies they support. Of course, this is patently not the truth; and Robin would, and does, say as much. Where Berman goes wrong, again, is in imagining that the Tea Party of today and the masses of the Ancien Regime are interchangeable.
They’re not. The Tea Party is, on the whole, composed of the white, male, wealthy, and educated. These are people quite capable of resisting the empowerment of society’s weaker orders without somehow falling under the spell of the elites. Berman spends considerable time in both her essays refuting this conspiratorial view. I must say that but for the fact that, in the book, Robin never argues anything remotely of the sort, her work on this score is devastating.
Although she never uses the phrase, Berman’s criticism here and in the Times appear to largely stem from her anger with Robin for not answering Thomas Frank’s famous question: What’s the matter with Kansas? In her closing paragraph, this is laid out most plainly:
In short, Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma. If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must—by definition—be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery. One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas. But if one instead accepts that such rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment are real, then the question becomes: why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has it found its home so often on the right rather than the left? This is a question that The Reactionary Mind leads directly to; it is not one that Robin—or the Left more generally—can or should avoid.
Here, Berman implies that, somehow, the Left has failed a great voting bloc that should embrace it with open arms. Robin’s book’s failure to answer the question is thus its greatest sin. Indeed, in response to Frank’s question, Robin says: Nothing. Indeed, for someone demanding “answers” to the contemporary political quandaries of the American Left, this must be infuriating. But if Berman wants an answer as to why it is that wealthy, educated, white men have aligned themselves with a movement devoted to the interests of wealthy, educated, white men, I’m not sure she really needs to look—or the Left really needs to think—quite as hard as she believes.