Review: 'The Reactionary Mind' by Corey Robin

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The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah PalinThe Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As an historian of ideas, Robin concentrates on the patterns of thinking within conservatism, but never seems to say that conservative actions and policies stem entirely from ideology. Indeed, he frequently points out the ruptures between theory and practice... yet he can usually find hidden resonances within the conservative idea/s that are consistent in ironic, unexpected ways, ways that often make seemingly paradoxical dissonances between theory and practice seem much more explicable.

Disjointed, of necessity (since this is a compilation of previously published essays on a variety of subjects), there are still clear and original linking ideas which are spelled out mostly in the new introduction. Conservatism is fundamentally a reaction to the loss of privilege, or the challenge to privilege from the oppressed. Conservatism is much less enamoured of stasis, familiarity etc than it thinks it is. Conservatism is much more depressive and melancholy than many people think. It is dependant upon left-wing ideas to provide it with negative stimulus. It is animated by a preoccupation with violence. It is more revolutionary than it pretends, being often as critical of ancient regimes as of radical challenges. Etc.

Robin delineates these ideas with a selection of profiles and intellectual traceries, hunting down the lineages of certain preoccupations through history. The most entertaining chapter is probably his thorough and brief (it need not be extensive to be thorough) takedown of that malignant mediocrity Ayn Rand. The most piercing is probably his analysis of the malaise that afflicted and spurred on conservatives after the supposedly-desired triumph over communism. The analysis of conservatism as an ever-changing yet essentially consistent range of ideas that prize the retention of privilege is tested and found highly persuasive as he charts conservative disillusion with capitalism triumphant after the end of the Cold War.

It's hard to imagine anybody interested in modern politics coming away from this book without a lot more to think about.

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Josh Marsfelder 8 years ago

Your review reminded me of this post from awhile back:

It's still my favourite takedown of Randianism I've read.

The book sounds interesting: Are you familiar with recent cognitive science studies that are claiming conservatives' minds work on a fundamentally different level then those of liberals and leftists? I find it a troubling study (and of course I can't cite it off the top of my head)because it seems to be moving dangerously towards biological reductionism, so a social/philosophical history of conservatism sounds like it'd be more up my alley.

Along those lines, Avital Ronell, a personal hero of mine, published a book last year called "Loser Sons: Politics and Authority" which does an impressive job linking authoritarian extremism, politics, and Christianity with patriarchy and the myth of the disapproving father figure. I have a feeling there's probably a connection there to what this book looks at.

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