Conservatives and reactionaries

Corey Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind has attracted plenty of attention both favorable and otherwise. I don’t want to offer a full-scale review, but to respond to the central thesis. As I read Robin, his central claim is that the current situation in which people who call themselves “conservative” are in fact radical reactionaries is not an aberration, but the norm, and that this has been the case ever since the first self-conscioulsy conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.

I’d put this more broadly – conservatism (and, it’s opposites, progressivism radicalism) are, in essence ideas about process, but the most people active in politics are more concerned about pursuing particular goals than about the way they get there.

To illustrate the point consider the standard claim about conservatism put forward by Michael Oakeshott in 1956  (also cited by Robin)

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Now consider how someone who actually held these views in the Britain of 1956 ought to have regarded trade unions. Of all British institutions, they were surely amongst the most familiar and factual, embodying the preference for actual present benefits over utopian projects. Yet that was not, as far as I can tell Oakeshott’s position at all (though his refusal of an honour from the Thatcher government may suggest some reconsideration later in life).

Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.

I think this is broadly correct. Although there are people with the conservative disposition described above (and also, people who are attracted by radicalism as such), there is no inherent correlation between conservatism as a disposition and support for the political views commonly associated with conservatism. 

There is an accidental association reflecting the fact that, taking the last two or three centuries as a whole, the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital. Under such circumstances, people of conservative disposition will generally be found in opposition to the progressive demands being put forward by workers and their supporters.

The crucial test comes in periods such as the Bourbon restoration, or the neoliberal resurgence of the last thirty years or so, when the direction of change is reversed. Genuine conservatives in these circumstances seek to preserve those advances that have been embedded in the way society works (such as the New Deal in the US).  Conservative politics on the other hand, is dominated by reactionaries seeking to restore (an idealised version) of the status quo ante, and gains the support of those with a radical disposition (Newt Gingrich is an ideal example).  It’s certainly possible to find examples of the first kind (the “Wets” who resisted Thatcher for example) but they are clearly in the minority.

Long ago, I planned a book based on Raymond Williams Keywords, and blogged entries on topics including conservative, progressive and reform, which made some of these points. Corey Robin has done a much better job, and his book is well worth reading.



45 thoughts on “Conservatives and reactionaries

  1. Fran Barlow :

    I don’t think the Overton pressure and policy development are as mutually exclusive as you imply.

    The reason I’m hesitant is because even just accepting that you might wish to compromise is itself a compromise! And one that a few Greens (and, for that matter, hardcore libertarians) I know seem quite unable to countenance; my take on things is that they would prefer to preserve their ideological purity – whatever that might mean – with some hope that down the line radical changes will somehow manifest than take opportunities that are worthwhile and good but less than optimal in some way (as indeed the real world tends to be). I think it can be summed up as ‘revolutionaries’ versus ‘reformers’ – and I should be clear that the desired endpoint of both processes could be the same, it’s just whether the process of getting there is perceived as being necessarily and extensively iterative and imperfect.

  2. @Fran Barlow
    I think The Greens have been a good thing for Australian politics, showing more moral fibre than the media or their political opponents credit them with. I’d like them to continue to thrive. But I’d also like to see a lot more genuine efforts from the whole of the political spectrum to come to grips with science based reality – not only about climate but resource management, sustainability and towards effort to preserve our environmental heritage.

    I’m not convinced that many of the prominent members of Labor, Liberals or Nationals have that moral fibre but I live in hope that some do and will regain their nerve. That it took a hung election for Gillard to make some moves on climate has to be to the credit of The Greens because I’m not convinced she and Labor would have pushed on the issue otherwise. Not that we are getting anything like the minimum needed.

    Commerce and Industry has it’s criteria for deciding whether to back action on climate and has tools such as lobbying, PR, tankthink and threats to people’s jobs to push their choices, but I suspect even within those circles there is some disquiet at the choice to undermine public trust in science. Still, it’s a choice that seems to be working for them and the politicians who push their agenda – the Right. So, rather than back away and rethink that choice to promote denial of science based reality, they are going to continue with those bad choices but do what seems to be working and do it even harder.

    Where the turning point is, that causes the captains of commerce and industry to reconsider that choice in light of the long term risks from promoting BS – perhaps in terms of their own families and kids and grandkids if not in terms of harm to global prosperity and security – I don’t know. Ultimately it has to be from the choices those people make that gets real action on climate onto the agenda. The Greens alone aren’t going to be able to do it.

  3. With respect most of the posters here have misunderstood conservatism.

    First some of my credentials, former member and minor official of the National Party ( I resigned because the parthy supported Workchoices-more on that below); Evangelical Anglican active in my local parish and formerly (before the birth of my disabled daughter made attention to home issues even more important) in the wider church, as a synodsman and delegate to other church bodies; country person by choice; solicitor.

    Second those who have referred to Edmund Burke have misunderstood him. Firstly Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was to the radical nature of the revolution; to its tearing down of the whole society and its replacement with something entirely new. Burke first noted that the English constitution contained means for change writing (paragraph 32 of the Reflections on the French Revolution found here
    “A state without the means of some change is without the means of itsconservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part ofthe constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. The twoprinciples of conservation and correction operated strongly at the two criticalperiods of the Restoration and Revolution, when England found itself without aking. At both those periods the nation had lost the bond of union in theirancient edifice; they did not, however, dissolve the whole fabric”

    He refers to many other examples, from Magna Carta to the then relatively recent Act of Succession
    Second Burke did not oppose, indeed he advocated, some changes in French society-( paragraph 58) He addresses the French directly in saying
    “YOU MIGHT, IF YOU PLEASED,have profited of our example and have given to your recovered freedom acorrespondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost tomemory. Your constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession,suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls andin all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repairedthose walls; you might have built on those old foundations. Your constitutionwas suspended before it was perfected, but you had the elements of aconstitution very nearly as good as could be wished”
    The constitution to which he refers as suspended was that of France before Louis VIV who suspended it- the former Estates General; Burke suggests that if that constitution had been revi ved
    “ You would haveshamed despotism from the earth by showing that freedom was not onlyreconcilable, but, as when well disciplined it is, auxiliary to law. You wouldhave had an unoppressive but a productive revenue. You would have had aflourishing commerce to feed it. You would have had a free constitution, apotent monarchy, a disciplined army, a reformed and venerated clergy, amitigated but spirited nobility to lead your virtue, not to overlay it; youwould have had a liberal order of commons to emulate and to recruit thatnobility; you would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious, and obedientpeople, taught to seek and to recognize the happiness that is to be found byvirtue in all conditions; …”

    Third and most importantly Burke believed in Society. Here let me first quote from a review of Robin’s book (to be found here eview: the conservative view
    “Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—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.

    … 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.”

    And then let me say from that follows the need to preserve our world (Christians would call that stewardship and its a good word), to make sure children are nurtured and educated properly, the sick and poor are looked after (no man is an island is a great conservative rallying point) and so on some issues we look similar to the left.But w come at it from a different view: we are responsible to society (and Christians -again like Burke) would say that is because we are responsible to God.

    Second from Mrs Thatcher who is not a conservative in the Burke sense at all- indeed she and other libertarians derive their views from the Liberal tradition of Tom Paine :
    “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first”

    Enough of Burke. I turn (briefly) to Sir Robert Menzies who in his broadcast talks (of which the most famous is “The Forgetten People” said
    In other words, the choice is not between an unrestricted capitalism and a universal socialism. We shall do much better if we keep the good elements of the capitalist system, while at the same time imposing upon capital the most stringent obligations to discharge its social and industrial duty.
    The old conservative doctrine that the function of the State was merely to keep the ring for the combatants has gone forever. The grim picture, dear to the heart of the Yarra Bank orator, of a capitalist system in which there is unrestrained and cruel competition, in which employees are sweated and workers treated like cattle, no doubt had some truth in it – and still has too much to satisfy humane minds. But we have learned a great deal about how to use private enterprise for our own social and national ends. Price control and Government regulation have been limiting factors. Arbitration courts and industrial laws have abolished sweating, except in one or two places where the award-evader has yet to be chased out of his burrow. National insurance, our unsuccessful attempt at which, just before the war, was most disappointing to many and caused my own resignation from a cabinet, must come again. As early as may be, and if possible during the war when employment is high, unemployment insurance should be introduced. After the war, the obligation of industry to maintain employment on a steadier basis must be increased to the limits of practicability; we must become better economists in our attack upon the problem of boom and depression; we must aim at a proper provision of food, clothing and shelter for our citizens. In these and many other ways the duty of each of us to his fellows and to the State must be defined and enforced.
    As Burke wrote in the quote above Conservatives do not oppose change, rather they look to remedial changes, one further example will suffice: The slave trade was abolished by the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger under the influence of the anti slavery league whose most famous members were William Wilberforce (a Tory MP) and the Revd Mr Clarkeson (who was the secretary and an Anglican clergyman)
    Now let me turn to the libertarians, such as are in America and -to a lessor extent here they want to destroy the present institutions.they want a total change in society, they want to remake the world in their own system.
    In short the libertarians are not conservatives. It should come as no surprise to people that the libertarian’s hero von Mises was the economic advisor to Dollfuss the Austrofascist who imposed von Mises ideas on Austria by force (the army shelled -yes not just rifles but artillery) the working class quarters of Vienna.
    I apologise for the length of this and in particular of the quotes.

  4. Bother, I did something silly, my apologies. I meant to explain why I left the National Party over Workchoices. First because it was not needed -and as Lord Acton said “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change” far simpler means (not so destructive of the social fabric) would have achieved Howard’s end (though Workchoices did indeed achieve Howard’s End). Second, because it was destructive of the social fabric, already we have too many people working low paid, we are turning into an economy like America’s- which I have seen and detest (and urge people to read Deer Hunting with Jesus for an explaination of how American rural people vote Republican when it is so against their self interest and an explanation of how the States got into the current mess; already we have too many people working at times when traditionally we did not work- Sunday trading has so ruined family life- instead of families doing things (even going to church) on Sunday, individuals might shop or go to the pub or club or work at one of those places. Thirdly (and here I’m pragmatic -just as Burke was in his opposition to the taxation of the 13 colonies) because I was then sure it would (and I believe it did) lead to the defeat of the government at the 2007 election.

  5. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the interesting posts.

    Why WorkChoices rather than other radical-reactionary projects of the Howard years? (Demonisation of asylum seekers; sending Australian troops to an irrelevant – in several senses – and illegal foreign war.)

  6. Also I’m curious as to whether ‘big government’ is on your ideological radar at all. I have no trouble imagining circumstances in which a move from ‘big government’ (however defined) to ‘small government’ (however defined) is radical, though concurrently ‘small government’ is an article of faith amongst self-proclaimed conservatives (though whether that actually gets operationalised when they’re elected is, of course, quite another matter).

    The libertarians I know are the worst of all on this cognitively dissonant count – being in favour of pretty much the abolition of government (because tax is coercive, the utterly stupid corollary being that people deserve exactly what they earn, social infrastructure be damned – but I digress) while simultaneously holding that coercion is deplorable in all its other manifestations as well (environmental damage, etc.) – which implies a radically far-reaching level of regulation (and the concomitant strong arm of the law)!

  7. Dan,

    If we cut a swathe back through history to a time at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain – a time when “libertarian capitalism” was off and running before the government even heard the starter’s pistol. We can glean some idea of the state of play for the general population of a system unfettered by state intervention and regulation.
    Conditions were abominable in the mills, factories and mines; in the overcrowded hovels and in the putrid state of the urban conglomerations that sprang up in industrialism’s wake (where infrastructure was all but non-existent) All this offers a stark picture of unregulated capitalism.
    It was only when hard won “Factory Acts” were instituted by the government that these diabolical conditions began to be remedied – and the Acts were fought against tooth and nail by the factory owners and the entrepreneurs…..

    We’re along way from those times, and hopefully have developed a more ethical practices in worker relations – yet human nature doesn’t really seem to alter. The trick is finding the right balance of government intervention verses freedom. The libertarian utopia of newly industrial Britain was anything but for the general population.

  8. Wooster,

    Yes, as a political economy masters student I am familiar with that history (albeit I would nuance it a bit by saying that more perceptive capitalists saw the race to the bottom for what it was – Engels being by far the most obvious example.)

    However, I reject your dichotomy of government intervention versus freedom. Oftentimes, government is freedom’s guarantor (something that never really sunk in in the US).

  9. Dan,
    to which war do you refer? The intervention in Iraq was -at the time considered to be in accord with UN resolution (see

    I am not sure how “Demonising of asylum seekers” resulted in actual policy- in so far as the Nauru/Pacific solution is demonising, there is a substantial argument to be made that it is in fact a humanitarian solution in that it stopped boat people and then all the casualties that those boats have caused.

    The conservative is a pragmatist,disliking abstractions (Burke again, see Russel Kirk- himself a renowned American conservative thinker- Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription and to the extent big or small government is an abstraction then its something that I don’t like to talk about. Deal with some of the issues that result from a big or small government and we can discuss them, deal with the abstraction and you just waffle.

    Having said that let me set out some ideas of my own:
    1 Government should provide national works -infrastructure (to use the horrid expression everyone seems to like today). No traditional conservative denied this: Alexander Hamilton wrote of the importance of National Works, Thomas Jefferson authorised the construction of the National Road (see Eisenhower started the US Interstate Highway system.

    The National PArty was oft accused of pork barrelling with the provision of national works, but that misunderstands the position. The railways (At least in this state) while state operated were expected to (And for more than 100 years) did pay their way they also opened land for settlement.

    Electrictiy was run by county councils and extended the power supply to farms.

    In each case private enterprise had failed to provide the needed works. So in relation to our railways: the railway companies in NSW never operated railways, being bankrupted during construction (see ch 1 The Great Northern Railway 1857 -1982 R G Preston Everleigh Press); in Victoria they operated a few suburban railways and then failed those that tried to build a country system collapsed during construction or went bankrupt within months (see chapter 3 Railways of Victoria 1854-2004; Robert Lee Melbourne University Press) in Western Australia the Midland Railway operated for quite a while but ultimately failed. The only exception was the Silverton Tramway which was a short haul mining line connecting Broken Hill with the South Australian border (and with the South Australian State Railways)

    2 Government should be as local as possible to allow as much direct participation as possible. So that there seems to me to be no reason why the NSW RTA could not be abolished, local roads built by councils, motor registries incorporated within councils (so that for example in my own town Maitland, the motor registry which is about 6 km from the city centre could become a ‘satellite’ council office offering most council services and the council office could also become a motor registry). That is one example, I don’t see any real reason why the same could not happen with centrelink and other government services.

  10. @Ken Fabian
    I did that, let me quote from a letter to Malcolm Turnbull
    Thank you for your principled support of emissions trading, the best solution to the problems of climate change. I have been a long time coalition supporter (until the introduction of Workchoices- a dreadful policy with no redeeming features) a member (and former branch president ) of the National Party. But I cannot vote for a party which opposes all constructive solutions to climate change. Continue your advocacy for proper answers to this problem that will affect our children’s world even more than it will affect our own. If you need to cross the floor you will be in the good company of people like Winston Churchill who voted against his party on an issue of similar importance – appeasement and the Munich Crisis. Again I thank you for your stand.
    PS how does one get those nice quotation marks and blocking on this blog?

  11. @Peter Kirsop

    You use the blockquote tag. The tag is the word “blockquote” enclosed in the less than and greater than ascii characters. When the quote is terminated, insert the forward slash “/” between the less than character and the string: blockquote.

  12. Peter@35 – thanks for your response. I guess I was just trying to gauge if there was anything before WorkChoices that you found the Coalition’s take on to be deeply wrongheaded and depressing. I figured Iraq and the Tampa were (some of) the most egregious examples I could think of, but… okay, no worries. But may I add that it’s good to see your words on climate change.

    Wooster@36 – thanks for that, I look forward to reading.

  13. @Wooster

    The trick is finding the right balance of government intervention verses (sic) freedom.

    Actually, the trick is to decide what freedom entails, what arranegments will support it and whether everyone should have an equal share of it. Your last sentence was better than the penultimate, but failed to develop the thought.

    State intervention does not necessarily exclude freedom, and indeed, it may well support it, by preventing someone else imposing upon yours and those of others.

  14. oh and again I did something silly, my apologies, I will have to learn more about bloggging. The Tampa was a stupid and most annoying thing-the pack of lies about children overboard was disgusting but what did it tell us: politicans lie? they seize isssues for wedge politics?

    We already know that. Keating’s campaign on GST was like that (And it was false his own Minister for Finance said so- read Walsh’s Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister where he shows that Fightback was a more progressive (in the technical sense) package than was Keating’s answer.

  15. @Peter Kirsop
    I for one think it’s a good move, however it’s those in the Coalition who are opposed to action on climate that most need to know that their position is seen as irresponsible and unacceptable to many Coalition voters.

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