For anyone trying to make sense of the spectacle of the Republican primaries in the United States, a new book on conservatism is eminently welcome.
The questions baffling even the pundits flow one after another: what, if anything, links such disparate candidates as the free-market tycoon Mitt Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts; Newt Gingrich, a discredited ideologue from the Reagan era; and Rick Santorum, the new darling of fundamentalist Christians? Can the Republican Party endure such centrifugal forces without splintering apart? Why do blue-collar workers back politicos who eschew affordable health care and modest taxes for the ultra-rich? What accounts for the Tea Party's popularity and where does it fit into the confounding equation of the US right?
Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind doesn't tackle any of these questions head-on, unfortunately. Neither Romney nor Fox News are mentioned even once, while Sarah Palin and the Tea Party make only cameo appearances. A chapter scrutinising these actors is critically missing. Yet Robin, a New York-based political scientist and regular contributor to publications like The Nation and the London Review of Books, has written an original book with an armful of theses that shed revealing light on the whys and wherefores of right-wing politics in the United States and beyond.
Postwar American conservatism has been supremely successful, argues Robin, having run roughshod over the proudest emancipatory social movements of the 20th century, including the women's and civil rights campaigns. One of its secrets, he claims, is that it so cleverly disguises itself, creating chimeras that appear to defy logic and analysis.
Indeed, most observers get conservatism all wrong. Robin trashes the portrayal of conservatism as the refuge of a prudent elite steadfastly resisting change in favour of a status quo that guarantees its privilege. Likewise, the common tenants attributed to conservatives, such as belief in the free market, meritocracy, ordered liberty, limited government and religious devotion, are eyewash. In given historical circumstances, conservatives may indeed embrace these values for tactical reasons - and in others oppose them. But, regardless, they are byproducts, not its raison d'être.
According to Robin, it's all about privilege but there's nothing measured, elitist, or old-school about the means of securing it. Conservatism is fanatical, populist, aggressive, and inherently violent. It's elemental force is "opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere". Conservatism from the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke to the Tea Party, he argues, all boils down to "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". Making sure they don't is anything but an afternoon tea party.
Conservatism is a supple and dexterous ideology that adapts impressively to the situation at hand, argues Robin. It doesn't have a consistent manifesto like the various ideologies of the left. Since Burke's searing polemics against the French Revolution, the classes or orders that conservatives have sought to overturn or suppress have shifted with time, contingent upon the challenges of the day, be they from French republicans, German workers, African Americans, or women liberationists anywhere in the world. The constant is that they threaten to upend - or have already upended - a system that had one group in the driver's seat and another at its feet.