The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

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Overview

Late in life, William F. Buckley made a confession to Corey Robin. Capitalism is "boring," said the founding father of the American right. "Devoting your life to it," as conservatives do, "is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." With this unlikely conversation began Robin's decade-long foray into the conservative mind. What is conservatism, and what's truly at stake for its proponents? If capitalism bores them, what excites them?

Tracing conservatism ...

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The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

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Overview

Late in life, William F. Buckley made a confession to Corey Robin. Capitalism is "boring," said the founding father of the American right. "Devoting your life to it," as conservatives do, "is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." With this unlikely conversation began Robin's decade-long foray into the conservative mind. What is conservatism, and what's truly at stake for its proponents? If capitalism bores them, what excites them?

Tracing conservatism back to its roots in the reaction against the French Revolution, Robin argues that the right is fundamentally inspired by a hostility to emancipating the lower orders. Some conservatives endorse the free market, others oppose it. Some criticize the state, others celebrate it. Underlying these differences is the impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.

Despite their opposition to these movements, conservatives favor a dynamic conception of politics and society—one that involves self-transformation, violence, and war. They are also highly adaptive to new challenges and circumstances. This partiality to violence and capacity for reinvention has been critical to their success.

Written by a keen, highly regarded observer of the contemporary political scene, The Reactionary Mind ranges widely, from Edmund Burke to Antonin Scalia, from John C. Calhoun to Ayn Rand. It advances the notion that all rightwing ideologies, from the eighteenth century through today, are historical improvisations on a theme: the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Corey Robin's extraordinary collection, constantly fresh, continuously sharp, and always clear and eloquent, provides the only satisfactory philosophically coherent account of elite conservatism I have ever read. Then there's this bonus: his remarkably penetrating side inquiry into the notion of 'national security' as a taproot of America's contemporary abuse of democracy. It's all great, a model in the exercise of humane letters."—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland

"This book is a fascinating exploration of a central idea: that conservatism is, at its heart, a reaction against democratic challenges, in public and private life, to hierarchies of power and status. Corey Robin leads us through a series of case studies over the last few centuries—from Hobbes to Ayn Rand, from Burke to Sarah Palin—showing the power of this idea by illuminating conservatives both sublime and ridiculous."—Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University

"Beautifully written, these essays deepen our understanding of why conservatism remains a powerful force in American politics."—Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History, University of California-Los Angeles, and past president of the American Historical Association

"The Reactionary Mind is a wonderfully good read. It combines up-to-the-minute relevance with an eye to the intellectual history of conservatism in all its protean forms, going back as far as Hobbes, and taking in not only restrained and sentimental defenders of tradition such as Burke, but his more violent, proto-fascist contemporary Joseph de Maistre. Some readers will enjoy Corey Robin's dismantling of different recent thinkers—Barry Goldwater, Antonin Scalia, Irving Kristol; others will enjoy his demolition of Ayn Rand's intellectual pretensions. Some will be uncomfortable when they discover that those who too lightly endorse state violence, and even officially sanctioned torture, include some of their friends. That is one of the things that makes this such a good book."—Alan Ryan, Professor of Political Theory, Oxford University

"Robin is an engaging writer, and just the kind of broad-ranging public intellectual all too often missing in academic political science. ...Robin's arguments deserve widespread attention."—The New Republic

"This is a very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism."—The Guardian/Observer

"...an insightful book ... In a world where the old distinctions between left and right seem to be getting stale, Robin's book concentrates our minds on the deeper divisions."—The Daily

"It is a thoughtful, even-tempered sort of book. The old maid tendency that dominates liberal polemic in the U.S.—the shrieking, clutching at skirts, and jumping up on kitchen chairs that one gets from a Joe Nocera, a Maureen Dowd, or a Keith Olbermann—is quite absent. "—The American Conservative

"...the common opinion on the Left is that conservatives are fire-breathing idiots, who make up in heat what they lack in light. Robin's book is a welcome correction of this simplistic view and puts the debate where it ought to be: on the force and content of conservative ideas." —Alex Gourevitch, Dissent

Library Journal
This volume is a collection of Robin's (political science, Brooklyn Coll.; Fear: The History of a Political Idea) essays, reviews, and other short works published between 2001 and 2011 in outlets such as the Nation and the London Review of Books. While his previous book was an original, extended argument about the place of fear in political theory and contemporary American culture, here Robin attempts to deliver his argument in his introduction and conclusion, which bookend pieces ranging in subject from Ayn Rand to Antonin Scalia to the Cold War in Guatemala to Abu Ghraib. The overall argument seems to be that conservatives are all basically alike; that they share an aggrieved sense of loss; that they above all else favor hierarchy in both public and private domains; that they share an affinity for violence; and that the Right often comes to resemble the Left. VERDICT The book's brief, miscellaneous sections mean that readers may well find the arguments difficult to follow and may prefer to wait to read it in full, perhaps in Robin's next monograph. They may well also conclude that the subtitle's mention of Sarah Palin, about whom Robin says little, is a contribution from the publisher's marketing department.—Bob Nardini, Nashville
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199793747
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/29/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,008,271
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and the London Review of Books.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Part 1: Profiles in Reaction
Conservatism and Counterrevolution
The First Counterrevolutionary
Garbage and Gravitas
Inside Out
The Ex-Cons
Affirmative Action Baby

Part 2: The Virtues of Violence
A Color-Coded Genocide
Remembrance of Empires Past
Protocols of Machismo
Potomac Fever
Easy to Be Hard

Conclusion

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