Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is the keynote speaker at this year’s S-USIH Conference at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C. His talk will be Friday, October 16, at 2:00 p.m. Corey and I talked on the phone on the morning of September 9. What follows is an edited summary of our conversation.
Andrew Hartman (AH): When you think about intellectual history who or what comes to mind?
Corey Robin (CR): One of the early books in intellectual history that I read was Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition. I was a junior in high school, working at a mall. I remember arriving early for work each day—which is something that almost never happens to me—and sitting outside the mall reading that book. I was taken by how caustic and partisan, yet ironic and subtle, it is, all at the same time, particularly about American liberalism and capitalism. Even though I disagree with many of its arguments, that voice—cutting, but not crude; looking upon America from above and beyond its borders, looking on it from the outside, in a kind of bemused and exasperated and horrified way—has always been with me.
I also think a lot about Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision, which showed me that in order to theorize our political ideas we have to do the history of political ideas. This is a sensibility you see, in very different ways, in both Hegel and Nietzsche—that notion that in doing history we’re doing ourselves or, to put it differently, to know ourselves we need to do history—and having internalized it at an early point in my education, it’s never really left me.
Another book that comes to mind is Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, which introduced me to the notion of cultural texts as sublimations of political conflicts. Especially in his chapter on Freud, where Schorske shows how psychoanalysis registers, in a new vocabulary of the self, the larger battles of Viennese and Habsburg politics. In the same way that Nietzsche retells the founding story of social contract theory as an internal drama of the mind’s development, so does Schorske read the Oedipus Complex as a psychic transposition of the political story of Oedipus Rex. From Schorske, I developed an interest in how cultural forms and texts—particularly, economics—are condensations or sublimations of political life or forgotten political vocabularies.
AH: What are your thoughts on the discipline of political theory and its areas of crossover? Do you worry about such things?
CR: I get impatient with a lot of disciplinary and methodological self-consciousness because it often takes the form of disciplinary policing or really dull navel-gazing. Young scholars often lean on disciplinary methods as if they were bannisters. That’s understandable but it has its limits and dangers. Students want to situate themselves in a scholarly discourse—they want to know where they fit in—and focusing on methods or disciplinary boundaries (I’m a contextualist! I’m a political philosopher, not a political theorist!) seems like a way to cut to that chase. But a dissertation is a long commitment—often more than ten years (if you include the path to publication as a book), which is longer than many of our relationships. The project, and your approach to it, needs to be capacious enough to sustain you, to get you out of bed in the morning. For a long time. So when graduate students ask me about my method, I say, “Read a lot, and read carefully.” This is the only stricture I follow. You should model your work on the books you love, the books you admire.
AH: One of your goals seems to be to find power where many people, perhaps especially American liberals, think none exists. In your first book, Fear: The History of a Political Idea, you argue that fear was crucial to the workings of power in American politics. In your second book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, you contend that power, or the fear of losing it—not tradition—underwrites conservative thought. Is this a fair characterization of your work?
CR: Yes, and I get this emphasis on power from Dewey and Arendt, who, it should be said, understood it in a different way from how I often use it. Power, for them, is a collective property. Power is crucial to human existence. Power needs to be shared—but, and this is me speaking, usually it isn’t (Arendt thought power could only be shared; if it wasn’t, it ceased to be power).
But there is a second, and less obvious, respect in which power pervades my work. I came of intellectual age when communitarianism—the longing for a lost sociality, the bemoaning of liberalism, individualism, or capitalism as the source of our modern discontent, which is understood as anomie or anxiety—was all the rage. It soon dawned on me that this kind of tristesse is an all too typical response of intellectuals to political defeat. You see it among French romantics in the early 19th century, you see it among liberal intellectuals during the McCarthy years, and you see it among liberal intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s, reeling from the defeats of the 1960s. What all of these responses have in common—beyond the language of their discontent—is that they avoid or evade or sidestep the question of defeat, how that defeat has structured their perception of a lost or ruined solidarity. No one would ever talk about the absence of community or public life in the 1930s or 1940s. It’s only in the 1950s, after left-led unions and other leftists have been crushed, that you see intellectuals talking that way, only they don’t mention that crushing. They turn instead to these cosmic and fatalistic stories of the Fall: after modernity, after capitalism, after liberalism, we are lost, we are alone.
What this suggests to me is that focusing on power—on the contest over privilege, on the advance of, and assault on, equality and freedom, on the forward march of a social movement and the demarche of its enemies—can restore a sense of contingency, of possibility, to our assessment of our estate. I think a focus on power and politics is a way into and around the cultural discontent of a moment or an age, a way that affords more possibilities for self-reflection, and is less predetermined. It says that the despair we feel right now is not predetermined, is not written into our culture, into mass society, into liberal anomie, but is instead a function of something more contingent: defeat or loss. And that defeats and loss, however enervating they may be, can also be sources and sites of knowledge, and can be reversed and undone.
It also makes us, I think, more historicist, more mindful of the immediate political sources of our present moment, of our ideas and sensibilities, particularly those ideas and sensibilities that we think—wrongly—are written into some deep cultural code.
AH: You also seem interested in locating the origins of ideas in counterintuitive places. This seems the case in your 2013 Nation article “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek.” Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo: “One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous, a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience.” In response you write: “It is one of the ironies of intellectual history that the terms of the collision can best be seen in the rise of a discourse [marginal utility analysis and Austrian economics] that Nietzsche, in all likelihood, would have despised.” Can you explain what you are doing here, and what motivates you to do it?
CR: In both my reading and my writing I am motivated by a desire for surprise. The legal theorist H.L.A. Hart once said there’s no point reading a book that contains what you already know. I agree, so I’m always on the lookout in my reading and writing for that element of irony or surprise. In the case of “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children,” it is surprising and ironic and ultimately revealing and important that we encounter the fullest expression of Nietzschean thought in an arena that Nietzsche despised most: the capitalist economy.
AH: Your work actively engages with historiography. In the introduction to The Reactionary Mind you write that the “felt presence” of the recent explosion of the historiography of conservatism “is what distinguishes [your] interpretation of conservative thought from others…” Would you say a lot of political theory doesn’t engage with historiography to the same degree?
CR: Absolutely, but the bigger problem here is that most political theorists don’t engage in conservative thought, unless they are conservatives themselves. And those conservative theorists who do write about conservatism tend to rely upon and relay an abstract version of conservatism, which is ironic since the calling card for conservatism has always been that unlike liberalism or the left, it is not the party of abstraction. So political theorists who write about conservatism are often not attentive to the actual conflicts in which conservative ideas are formed.
In this sense I’ve learned tons from historians of American conservatism, particularly in the way that they un-self-consciously move back and forth between the elite and the masses, between the state and popular culture, between issues of race and class and gender. That kind of un-self-consciousness that you see among historians—the ease with which they move back and forth between categories— is very unlike what you see among political theorists, who try to separate these categories and police their borders. Beyond their specific findings, what these historians taught me—again by the un-self-conscious example of their mode of inquiry—is that one of the keys to conservative success is precisely its ease with contradiction, its fluidity and mobility, its ability to move among seemingly opposite modes.
Another historian whom I learned a lot from is Quentin Skinner. One of Skinner’s great contributions to the study of political thought is to remind us of the polemical context of all political theory, that a theoretical text—whether Leviathan, The Prince, or The Social Contract—is a speech act, a thought-deed within a contested game, within a struggle for power and authority. Political theories for Skinner are weapons, weapons that are fashioned to fight specific enemies. To understand the theory, you have to understand that enemy, and the weapons she fashions to fight him. I tried to apply this insight to conservative thought, arguing that conservative texts are weapons formed in battle against revolutionary and insurgent threats to hierarchical power. To me, that polemical understanding of conservative theory merely seemed like the logical extension or application of what Skinner had taught us. Which is why I was so surprised by a lot of the negative reaction to my book.
AH: Speaking of such negative reaction, The Reactionary Mind had some very negative reviews in high profile venues (New York Review of Books; The New York Times Book Review). Such reviews would disturb any writer no matter how unsurprising. Now that you’ve had time to digest this negative reception what do you think about it? Am I wrong to say that it helped your book?
CR: The negative reviews definitely brought a lot of attention to my book. But I think in the end they harmed it because the more interesting arguments in the book got eclipsed or overtaken by misinterpretations of a sentence or two in the introduction to the book. (In some cases, I’m not sure if my critics ever read past the introduction.)
A lot of my critics screamed that I had reduced this lovely wisdom of the ancients to a crude and raw struggle for power. They thought I wanted to diminish these ideas, that I was leading this wonderful tradition of discourse to a dead end of rule and ruin. I thought I was doing the opposite: I wanted to open up a dialogue about how elite power rules and defends itself in an age of popular democracy. How do you defend elite power in an age of mass democracy? I don’t think that’s an easy or simple question to answer, and conservatives have been among its deepest diviners. If you see the defense of power and privilege in an age of mass democracy as the starting point of the analysis, rather than the end point, you can then read the chapters of the book as different answers to that question, as opening up a great variety of hitherto unexplored vistas and venues.
I was really bothered by the charge that the book is a polemical assault on conservatism or the Republican Party. I’ve done politics, and I’ve done polemics, and if that were my goal, then I think you’d have to say that I chose a rather peculiar means for achieving it. The book has long and involved discussions of obscure passages in Burke’s aesthetics, close textual analysis of forgotten French thinkers, and more attention than is usually paid to some of the more turgid texts (of which there are many!) of Ayn Rand and the more lurid passages (of which there are many!) of Antonin Scalia. Surely there are easier, and more efficient paths, to an effective polemic against the right!
AH: But it seems to me that a younger generation of scholars is reading your book in the way that you intended people to read it.
CR: I hope that’s the case. I hope it will generate new research agendas.
AH: What are you working on now?
CR: I am working on two book projects. The first is a short book on Clarence Thomas, which reflects what I said earlier about my interest in surprise. It turns out, many people don’t know this, but Thomas has a past as a black nationalist, and what has surprised me is the extent to which that past continues to inform and structure his present on the Court. For me, the story of Clarence Thomas raises the troubling possibility that the passage from the most radical moments of black nationalism to the most revanchist moments of contemporary conservatism may not be nearly as difficult or as fraught as we might have thought.
My longer-term project is a political theory of capitalism, where I want to argue that capitalism is how we moderns do politics. In other words, if you want to see the classical questions of politics—action, glory, heroism, power, authority, and rule—expressed in a modern context, you shouldn’t look to the theaters of war or the state but to the economy. This project speaks to this idea I mentioned earlier of transposition and sublimation: I’m interested in how our economic ideas of marginal utility, rent, profit, risk, and so on, how they refract or reproduce a more ancient or classical language of politics.
This second project grew in part out of the pushback I received from libertarians about my book on conservatism. They agreed with my take on conservatism but insisted that it didn’t apply to them or their heroes. Out of my dialogue—that’s putting it politely—with them, I’ve come to this project, which sees in capitalism not the bloodless language of the bourgeoisie or the liberal individualist—and here I take issue with Marx, though I see what he had to say about the Whigs as in some sense a manifesto for my own work—but instead the ancient and aristocratic language of the classical hero. That’s what I see figures like Hayek, Schumpeter, and others doing.
AH: What should we expect from your keynote?
CR: It is a meditation on the conference question about public intellectuals. I spent a good part of the summer reading a variety of texts by and about public intellectuals, past and present. My talk will in part be a dialogue with Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (which is the topic of the Friday night plenary session). That book was a formative call to arms for my generation: it compelled all of us, whatever we thought of its arguments, to want to do things differently, not merely to write for each other but for a broader public. As of now my plan is to focus on two emblematic contemporary intellectuals—Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cass Sunstein—and to suggest that the problem may no longer be the absence of intellectuals or even public intellectuals but rather our winnowing sense of the public.