Recommending a terrific conversation between Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind and Philip Pilkington at the always-great Naked Capitalism. What ties together the conservatism of Burke, Palin, Thatcher and Goebbels? What endures in the various and shifting political theories that endorse inequality and suffering? What is shared by the monarchist, the apologist for slavery, the libertarian?
For one thing, it’s loss. In short, the elite have so much more to lose than you or I, that the tragedy of their loss repeatedly serves as the cautionary narrative broadcast to the very people whose freedom they most restrict. Victimhood is the chip the elite place on the shoulders of their loudest supporters.
Robin: [T]he sensibility you describe – experiencing or identifying oneself as a victim — is a consistent feature of conservative thought. Regardless of whether the ideologue or camp follower of conservatism sees him or herself as a victim, the idea of victimhood plays a critical part in conservatism. Going back to Burke. Marie Antoinette is the first great victim of the conservative canon. The sovereign who Joseph de Maistre recommends be restored to power once the counterrevolution prevails – someone Maistre describes as being schooled in the ways of adversity, who’s been brought low by fortune and thus learned a thing or two – he’s a victim (and Maistre recommends him to power on the basis of that victimhood). William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man” is another victim. Nietzsche’s master class, in fact, is a victim. So is Nixon’s silent majority. And so on.
Initially, I thought this was all instrumental and cynical: understanding that the lingua franca of democratic thought is the democratic appeal to the masses, the conservative turns the possessor into the dispossessed. But over time I’ve come to think that the victim is a far more fundamental, and sincere, figure in the conservative canon. Because not only does he appeal to us as a figure of compassion or pity, but he’s also someone who has a very particular claim on us: he demands to be made whole. In other words, he’s a rallying figure, someone whose losses – a country house, a plantation, a factory, a white skin – ought to be recompensed.
What’s more, when you turn your privileged class into a group of victims – not just rhetorically but in reality (the French Revolution really did produces losses among the aristocracy; Emancipation really did divest the master class of privilege and property) – they come to possess an attribute that is universally shared: loss. Their loss is quite different from that of the ordinary run of humanity, but loss is loss. I’ve sometimes wondered whether that might not be the right’s singular bid for universalism: it speaks for the loser everywhere.
But as you say, it speaks for the loser not by democratizing society – making things more equal – but by making it more elite, more privilege, more unequal.