In The Reactionary Mind Brooklyn College Professor Corey Robin contends that conservative political ideology is best understood as a reaction to threats to existing hierarchies of wealth and power. Thus, conservatives defended slavery up until and even following emancipation. In the aftermath of the Civil War and to the present day, conservatives have justified sweatshops and starvation wages both on our own shores and overseas. Their primary argument in all such cases, says Robin, is the moral fitness of economic elites to govern the lives of those less fortunate or, alternatively, the unfitness of the lower orders to exercise agency over their lives.
Ideologues have attempted to prove the worthiness of the exalted at various times in various ways. In ancien regimes, God determined one’s title or lineage. How could mere man disagree with the almighty? The French and American Revolutions and to an even greater degree the Industrial Revolution catapulted some bankers, merchants, and industrialists above titled aristocrats. In consequence, social Darwinists emerged to justify the extraordinary wealth of the Rockefellers, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and many others as deriving from their inherent superiority.
Robin argues that governing elites persuade the less fortunate to support conservative rule by redistributing down something of real value. Usually it’s power, or at a minimum status, over an even more disaffected group of people. Even the poorest whites in the ante-bellum South, according to fire eater John Calhoun “belong[ed] to the upper class” while all blacks were in the lower.
In our own time, conservatives tell: 1) factory foremen and shift supervisors that they should hold sway over subordinates; 2) blue-collar husbands that they by rights hold dominion over their wives; 3) parents that their children are theirs to discipline without interference from the state; and 4) poor, working and middle-class natives that America belongs to them not “illegals”. This says Robin is the essence of conservatism, clearly defined hierarchies within companies, families, and the nation at large.
All but those at the very lowest rungs in each group have somebody beneath them to kick albeit at the cost of having to kiss the arses of those above. Yet even those at the bottom have legitimate hope to climb at least a few rungs. Some Walmart greeters become assistant managers. Husbands die and their wives become matriarchs. Children become parents and immigrants become billionaires. So, argues Robin, conservatism offers real rewards to people at all levels in society even if the rewards are very heavily tilted to those at the top.
With Robin’s analysis, I largely agree, although I do not believe the relatively paltry rewards reaped by less affluent conservatives suffice to explain their political ideology. Prominent historians Mark Lilla and Shari Berman ignore altogether Robin’s claim that poor and working-class conservative voters do reap benefits from conservative regimes. Instead, they claim that Robin identifies poor and working-class voters as victims of “false consciousness”. False consciousness theory posits that poor people mistakenly conflate their interests with those of the ruling class due to propaganda or psychological processes.
Lilla and Berman explicitly reject false consciousness as does Robin implicitly in his aggressive pushback against the two. In his rejoinders, Robin insists that the hoi polloi obtain real benefits in conservative regimes. If Robin accepted false consciousness as explaining at least in part the acquiescence of many poor and working people to vast wealth disparities, then he would not be so resistant to Lilla and Berman’s criticism.
In a series of posts, I will argue that the hierarchies championed by conservatives do empower to a degree non-elites at the expense of those beneath them as Robin contends but that this limited empowerment is insufficient to explain the breath and depth of working-class support for conservatives. Indeed false consciousness, reviled though it may be by Robin and his critics, is alive and kicking.