Monday, January 02, 2012

Dangers of the Reactionary Mind

Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind [NewYork Review, Jan 12, 2012] provides an insightful discussion of the meanings of the terms “conservative” and “liberal,” as they have changed over time; it also reveals an alarming agenda among at least some folks on the political right.  

Lilla situates the current “conservative” and “liberal” distinctions in their respective historical contexts.  He reminds us that “Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, …”  In the early debates [eighteenth century] the contrast in views was about “human nature.”  The conservative view was represented by Edmund Burke [he could have also referred to Herder and Hamann].  “Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is … metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.”  On this we can appreciate Burke:  in fact, even now there is a tendency to ignore the powerful significance of the intersubjective world we call society as necessary to our survival, irreducible to the individuals within it.  But what Burke and those who followed him made of this view was somewhat different from my own view:  “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.”  The implication, then, is that social conventions should be protected, as if change was dangerous; the conventions of ordinary life should be protected from disruptions of outside influences or innovative ways of behaving.

The term “liberal” as a political perspective had a different origin.  “[T]he term ‘liberal’ was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish constitutionalists took it over in the early nineteenth century … 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.”  Society and social conventions are thus malleable according to the decisions of individual actors.  Malleable, yes, but sometimes less malleable than some would like:  Consider how much effort had to go into removing the Jim Crow laws.  Changing social orders is not easy.

This kind of difference in viewpoint, conservative versus liberal, was about the question of how to think about culture and individual agency.  This question has vexed anthropologists for generations.  

But this is not the contrast in viewpoints that Corey Robin presents, for he argues that the key issue is over whether the “elite” should govern or whether the “subalterns” should be allowed to govern the country.  
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. 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.
This is view of the conservatives now vying for control of the Republic Party?  These folks are “against the agency of the subordinate classes?”  Do they really hold that the “lower orders” should be restrained from governing themselves?  Who believes that the first duty of the subaltern classes is submission?  And that governing should be done by the “elite” classes? 

In fact, from here, it looks pretty much as if those views already prevail in our country, for both parties seem unable to avoid catering to the “elite classes”.  If Robin is correct, how the party of Lincoln has changed!

The debate between “liberals” and “conservatives” in earlier times was over how to understand the relation of individuals to the collective, a much more intellectually challenging question.  But now – if Robin correctly represents the Republican right – the difference is over whether this country should have a real democracy; whether the country should be governed by the “elite” on behalf of the whole or whether the ordinary citizenry can have a real place in the governing process.  As Lilla says, in partisan debate meanings and usages of key categories can be radically changed.   

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