Forum Post: The Truth About the Conservative Mind: Why Reactionaries from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin Have Fought Real Liberty Conservatism is a reaction to democratic movements, like OWS, that challenge the authority of elites.
Posted 10 years ago on Jan. 31, 2012, 7:13 a.m. EST by rpc972
from Portland, OR
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The Chronicle of Higher Education / By Corey Robin comments_image 132 COMMENTS The Truth About the Conservative Mind: Why Reactionaries from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin Have Fought Real Liberty Conservatism is a reaction to democratic movements, like OWS, that challenge the authority of elites. January 29, 2012 |
[The better we understand these freaks, the more successful we will be in dealing with them.]
The following is an adapted excerpt from Corey Robin's "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin." Click here to buy a copy.
It's been a rotten few months for the nation's wealthiest 1 percent. From the senatorial candidacy of Elizabeth Warren to Occupy Wall Street, economic elites have faced a concerted attack on their riches and power, their arrogant and unaccountable ways. And you can hear it in their voices, or at least the voices of their spokesmen. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor declared, "I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country." Mitt Romney told an audience in Florida that "I think it's dangerous—this class warfare." So rattled is George Will that he's been forced to pull out a playbook from an older time. All but calling Warren a Communist, he accused the Oklahoma-born scholarship kid of believing that the government "is entitled to socialize—i.e., conscript—whatever portion" of an individual's property "it considers its share."
After decades of "compassionate conservatism," "a thousand points of light," and "Morning in America," dark talk of class warfare on the right can seem like a strange throwback. So accustomed are we to the sunny Reagan and the populist Tea Party that we've forgotten a basic truth about conservatism: It is a reaction to democratic movements from below, movements like Occupy Wall Street that threaten to reorder society from the bottom up, redistributing power and resources from those who have much to those who have not so much. With the roar against the ruling classes growing ever louder, the right seems to be reverting to type. It thus behooves us to take a second look at the conservative tradition, not just its current incarnation but also across time, for that tradition provides us with an understanding of why the conservative responds to Occupy Wall Street as he does.
Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors. They have gathered under different banners—the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism—and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them. That march and démarche of democracy is one of the main stories of modern politics. And it is the second half of that story, the démarche, that drives the development of ideas we call conservative. For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.
Despite the very real differences among them, workers in a factory are like secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a plantation—even wives in a marriage—in that they live and labor in conditions of unequal power. They submit and obey, heeding the demands of their managers and masters, husbands and lords. Sometimes their lot is freely chosen—workers contract with their employers, wives with their husbands—but its entailments seldom are. What contract, after all, could ever itemize the ins and outs, the daily pains and continuing sufferance, of a job or a marriage? Throughout American history, in fact, the contract has served as a conduit to unforeseen coercion and constraint. Employment and marriage contracts have been interpreted by judges to contain all sorts of unwritten and unwanted provisions of servitude to which wives and workers tacitly consent, even when they have no knowledge of such provisions or wish to stipulate otherwise.
Until 1980, for example, it was legal in every state for a husband to rape his wife. The justification for this dates back to a 1736 treatise by the British jurist Matthew Hale. When a woman marries, he argued, she implicitly agrees to give "up herself in this kind [sexually] unto her husband." Hers is a tacit, if unknowing, consent, "which she cannot retract" for the duration of their union. Having once said yes, she can never say no. As recently as 1957, a standard legal treatise could state, "A man does not commit rape by having sexual intercourse with his lawful wife, even if he does so by force and against her will." If someone tried to write into the marriage contract a requirement that express consent had to be given in order for sex to proceed, judges were bound by common law to ignore or override it. Implicit consent was a structural feature of the contract that neither party could alter. Through that contract, women were doomed to be the sexual servants of their husbands.
Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, join movements, make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete, but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change in power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency that vexes their superiors.
American labor history is filled with complaints from employers and government officials that unionized workers are independent and self-organizing. Indeed, so potent is their self-organization that it threatens to render superfluous the employer and the state. During the Great Upheaval of 1877, striking railroad workers in St. Louis took to running the trains themselves. Fearful that the public might conclude the workers were capable of managing the railroad, the owners tried to stop them, starting a strike of their own in order to prove it was the owners, and only the owners, who could make the trains run on time. During the Seattle general strike of 1919, workers went to great lengths to provide basic government services, including law and order. So successful were they that the mayor concluded it was the workers' ability to limit violence and anarchy that posed the greatest threat to the established order:
The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. ... True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. ... That is to say, it puts the government out of operation.
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty; agency, the prerogative of elites. Such was the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligations of deference and command. "The levelers," he claimed, "only change and pervert the natural order of things."
The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallowchandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.
By virtue of membership in a polity, Burke allowed, men had certain rights—to the fruits of their labor, their inheritance, education, and more. But the one right he refused to concede to all men was a "share of power, authority, and direction" they might think they ought to have "in the management of the state."
One of the reasons the subordinate's exercise of agency agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—from the storming of the Bastille to the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. "Here is the secret of the opposition to woman's equality in the state," Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. "Men are not ready to recognize it in the home." Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying his boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: They touch upon the most personal relations of power.