Robin : The Political Right

“What distinguishes the Right and the Left is your fundamental question about privilege and hierarchy…All the rest is commentary.” a) In response to an insurgent challenge, conservatives b) defend personal forms of rule, rule as domination, where you have higher beings governing lower beings.

See Karl Mannheim, “On Conservatism.” Conservatism is not the defense of hierarchies per se. It’s when a hierarchal regime gets challenged, conservative action intellectuals encounter a crisis of legitimation, and go back to reformulate a new defense of the ruling system of power.

Here’s Henwood’s interview of Robin , on the Right. Robin (See the link to his blog to the right.) demonstrates that the political Right is characterized by:

  • Its inherently reactionary nature
  • Its penchant for extremism and radicalism
  • Its affinity with violence
  • Its elitism (anti-democracy)
  • Its populism (masking the Right’s profoundly anti-democratic commitment, mobilizing shock troops in the street)
Right Populism: Social Movement Strategy

Anti-democracy and Right populism are fused in variants of this claim: Fealty to elite interests are the only real way that hoi poloi individuals can realize their interests. Trickle down TINA.

Robin : “The most successful form of right wing populism–and I trace this to the slaveholders in the United States, I think they pioneered this–You offer a significant mass constituency the opportunity to play the part of the little king. It happens in the family. It happens in the workplace.” In Adams’ Discourses on Davila he says (and Rousseau makes a similar claim) that “the way hierarchy works is, people are always willing to submit to someone above them, but on one very important condition: That they are able dominate someone below them. You can put up with all manner of inequalities just so long as you’re not the one on the bottom rung” (Robin 2011). Experimental economists call this the Last Place Aversion.

The slaveholders recognized that if they could give almost every white man access to at least one slave, then they would have a political base. Slavers knew you had to make slaveholding a vaguely mass project, or else you’re going to truncate your political base.

You can go to the Liberty Fund,  which publishes all works of the right, from the 16th century Burke onward, to study the works of conservative John Caldwell Calhoun (“The Marx of the Master Class”). Calhoun wrote the American conservative strategic vision: The local is the sphere where you cultivate the Little Kings.

The slaveholder logic has become our society’s anti-choice abortion politics (Every nonelite man and woman gets to be the little king of all women’s bodies and lives.), as well as employers’ absolute discretion over employees in workplace. In return, the patriarchal and small business bondservants support the despotic class and their high-inequality regime.

Loss Passion

In addition to the activation of Last Place Aversion, the Right appeals to non-elites because the Right is attendant to issues of loss–loss of forms of power. Robin concedes that loss is partly a tactical instrument for the Right. Forms of power come with their own cultures, morays and folkways. The loss of these specific cultures, morays and folkways are felt as pain to non-elites as well as elites.

Burke and Hobbes argued that hand-in-hand with the death of an inegalitarian order came the tragic death of beloved identity–beautiful culture, morays and folkways. It is worth looking back at the historical record and asking: Can the Left not also be attendant to loss in emancipatory reform and revolution? 


The Enlightenment created a theory of victimology. Rousseau (“The Homer of the Loser”) is recognized as the first victimology philosopher. (TBD)

People react angrily when you try to analyze the Right. (This begs analysis.)
Gourevitch responds:

“The point here is not that ideological superstructure is crassly bolted onto the base of self-interest but that it is just not serious to try to locate the substance, much less vitality, of conservatism, or any other ideology, in metaphysical disagreement alone. If anything, metaphysical views often get forged in the heat of real battles. It is only when certain philosophical premises are challenged in a serious, even dangerous way, that they must self-consciously defend themselves” (Alex Gourevitch).

Robin predicts the demise of the contemporary Right. There’s a reason there’s no ideas in the Right, they’re on autopilot, because the Right is a reaction, and there’s no effective, intellectual, insurgent Left. Today for example, the antidemocratic Supreme Court is operating overtime as a conservative last-resort enforcer, spewing out constitutional interpretations permitting capitalist class corporate political domination and limitless police powers, as well as forbidding welfare state institutions.

The Right can also get a certain amount of mileage from the afterglow of the Left. The global anti-union and austerity campaigns (often decried by liberals as irrational) can be seen as such reactionary ideological putsches in decline. I think they can be fruitfully viewed as basic capitalist primitive accumulation. Isn’t primitive accumulation–sacking, raping, pillaging–the baseline conservative state?

I think that what the Austrians (the White Emigres) did was to recognize the left-dependency problem of reactionary politics. The Austrians sold and engineered a Right culture in the Anglo world, which was fertile for such a culture, that is explicitly alive to the importance of maintaining Right ideological momentum (Desai 1994: 42).

How they do it is very opportunistic. They continuously manufacture a “left”–They use anyone outside materially-fundamental networks, from liberals to conservatives, as their “left” wing to passionately react against. This reactionary opportunism maintains momentum, builds hegemony, and pushes the Right ever rightward. But ultimately I do think that this strategy is political disequilibrium business; it can devolve into incoherency and crisis. It could produce a lefty coalition bloc, as seems to be the case now with OWS, that could reinvigorate the Left.

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2 thoughts on “Robin : The Political Right

  1. I find aspects of Robin's analysis very appealing, but I question it as a sociology of right and left. The claim that macro-global elites perpetuate their domination by granting micro-local fiefdoms to their otherwise disenfranchised vassals: this is a very important insight into the relative or marginal rationality of conservative praxis for otherwise exploited and dehumanized class fractions, a much better explanation than any variation of false consciousness. Formally speaking it's an elegant explanation because it works through self-similarity. It's consistent with my own analysis of the civilizing process.But I wonder how aptly these labels 'Right' and 'Left' are being used. Does nothing like this ever happen on the Left? I would think that the welfare state provides us with examples of a similar process, with middle-class educated professionals getting to play the 'little king' in their roles as government-employed social policy analysts, progressive journalists, etc. Revolutionary armies must also have similar dynamics, in obvious ways. Conversely, is conservative politics is never anti-authoritarian?If we proceed symmetrically, analyzing 'big king … little king' forms of structuration in both Left and Right movements, I have a feeling that Robin's characterization might not hold up so well. We might find simply two different configurations of egalitarian and inegalitarian relations, the distinction between them characterizable, at best, by the direction of transformation, rather than by static essences. The stark Manicheanism of Robin's terms, and my own desire to buy into them, feels to me symptomatic of partisanship, of the need to represent the Left as a coherent political subject. And to me that need itself is itself a symptom of a deeper political problem, crucial to the persistence of hierarchy, that Left thinkers have yet to properly address.

  2. So, Chris. I am going to respond here with (I hope not premature), full confidence in our relationship as colleagues and friends. I respect your view always, and believe it has valid things to offer. Here goes:I agree that Robin's project is precisely part of the growing effort to construct the Left as a coherent political subject (cf Jodi Dean, Zizek, et al). While the charge of "Manicheanism" has been heavily bandied about with regard to "The Conservative Mind," I reject the (I think opportunistically applied) view that we cannot possibly distill from a validly-delineated historical and geographic context what is distinctive about a political project, in this case conservatism. Broadly I think intellectual history is a valid project, including when examining politics. I think the Manichean charge here is merely a rhetorical debate strategy, and it falls fairly flat.In the realm of contesting, (somewhat untestable) premises, I think Robin and colleagues would disagree with the assertion that the Western Left has not put a serious, half century of effort into deconstructing hierarchy via deconstructing the coherent political subject. My understanding is that they think that project itself is grounded in incorrect premises, is therefore theoretically something they cannot agree to, and is an empirically-proven failure. (I am laughing out loud now.) But you know this. (I will read your book to parse out the subtleties of your argument right after I write the Waring chapter, I will.

 :)In the case of the welfare state as a putative example of Left strategy "Little King" deployment, a range of scholarly perspectives argue that the welfare state–especially in its Anglo Liberal and Catholic Conservative formations –is in large part the historical result of conservative elite efforts to contain concurrent global Left disruptive pressures. 

Especially having experienced the jaw-dropping difference between (efficient, facilitative) bureaucracy in Sweden (with a welfare state backed by initially red-green and later intra-working class coalitions) and bureaucracy in more liberal (more conservative) Canada, I personally find it very hard to lay the blame for the bureaucratic mini-tyranny in some (and not so much other) societies at the feet of the Left. My experience as well as research inclines me to see considerable validity in explaining the variable existence of the "little king" within bureaucracies as a result of the degree of *conservative* animus, for example within the historical welfare state.

 (So Weber's analysis of bureaucracy is heavily conditioned by his historical, geographically-specific experiences with a particular kind of bureaucracy, built by conservative absolutism.)I think that Robin is correct to argue that since the Enlightenment, the Little King strategy is generally part of the tactical repertoire of the Right–if we take as valid the observation that the Western Right can be distinguished, since it arose in opposition to the Enlightenment, by its ideological commitment to a pronounced hierarchy of human being. I don’t think this fight has ever been settled, or even been reduced in its social centrality, since the early 17th century (Though who’s winning, and how that impresses upon our interpretations, varies).

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