Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books has raised quite a teapot controversy. Lilla, a professor of humanities at New York University, supposedly was reviewing Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, itself a controversial work on account of ideas like this one from the introduction:
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.
Lilla didn’t want to write about the hundreds of pages of evidence from writings, speeches and actions of conservatives supporting Robin’s thesis. He launched directly into his own theory about the intellectual underpinnings of conservatism. And that’s the controversy, as other scholars have taken Lilla to task for failing to engage with Robin’s thesis. See this, citing other examples, and this, a beautiful example of intellectual snark.
LIlla repeats the standard hypothesis, that conservatives follow Edmund Burke:
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. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism. This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution; it was not simply a defense of privilege.
Savor that last plaintive phrase, the admission that Burke was out to defend the privilege of the French aristos. Lilla identifies the struggle between liberals and conservatives as a philosophical conflict between metaphysical views of the nature of humans. He provides an alternative pair of categories, revolutionaries and reactionaries, who, he says, aren’t interested in philosophy, but instead are engaged in a conflict over history. Revolutionaries cannot stomach their position in society any longer. They want immediate change. Reactionaries respond to revolutionaries, defending the overthrown society. The sudden change introduced by the French Revolution or the US Civil War gives rise to reactions from those who don’t like the change.
Lilla says there are two kinds of reactionaries: “restorative reactionaries”, who want to return to a golden age; and “redemptive reactionaries”, those who believe that the change introduced by the revolutionaries is irreversible, so the only response is to destroy society and hope that the new society will be more to their liking. That last category is now the mainstream of the Republican Party, and Lilla makes it clear that he doesn’t think they are conservatives:
All this is new—and it has little to do with the principles of conservatism, or with the aristocratic prejudice that “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others,” which Corey Robin sees at the root of everything on the right. No, there is something darker and dystopic at work here. People who know what kind of new world they want to create through revolution are trouble enough; those who only know what they want to destroy are a curse.
Here is Lilla’s problem: where are the non-reactionary conservatives? Is there no one who practices his brand of conservatism? In the past, there were conservatives acceptable to Lilla, people such as Lamar Alexander. Alexander worked hard on education and made substantial changes arguably for the better. He put very competent people into leadership roles, including John Neff, another conservative (and a very fine man) Lilla would like, who as Commissioner of Insurance, had the good sense to hire me as Securities Commissioner. Neff made it his goal to reduce the premiums for credit life insurance, which were outrageously high compared to term insurance. Credit life insurance was the source of tremendous profits to Tennessee car dealers, who owned off-shore reinsurance companies, and who used their profits to obtain strong support in both parties. After several years of bruising political battles, Neff won. Alexander supported that effort.
Today Alexander stands with Mitch McConnell in his efforts to make it impossible for the Democrats to govern. He supports every filibuster, including those on Presidential appointments, which is an admission that his only goal is to end majority rule in the Senate. That is precisely the action you would expect of one of Lilla’s redemptive reactionaries, or as I like to call them, the wreckers.
What could motivate such a change in attitude towards government in a man of his age who has a long track record of responsible governance and public service? I don’t think it’s a change. Deep down, he must accept the proposition that that some are born to govern, people like him and his friends. Deep down, he must believe that those mechanics and school teachers who voted in Obama and the Democrats aren’t capable of making decisions about the future of society. Deep down, Alexander is the person Robin is writing about, a man who believes that “Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.”