Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

Free Photo: Harbors in Barcelona, Spain

In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

The novelty of Robin’s implicit model is its insistence on one-dimensionality, and the way it defines that single dimension. Unlike those who would define a left-right continuum along a number of axes — for example, along an economic axis as well as along a social or cultural axis — or who would define political space along dimensions that do not stretch from “left” to “right” at all, Robin’s history invites us to locate political figures and ideas along a single dimension, and one that is defined by the struggle between emancipation and reaction. The label “conservative” is not like the label “Republican” or “Democrat,” Robin suggests. While the latter labels attach to no coherent ideology or attitude over time, our use of the former label happens to have picked out something with a definable core — even if those who applied the label, and those to whom it was applied, have not always recognized the nature of the core, which has often been obscured, sometimes deliberately.

What I’d like to consider in this post is whether Mary Douglas’s two-dimensional model of political attitudes, which has been found to have some empirical support across cultures, might improve on the explanatory power of Robin’s model, with only a small sacrifice in simplicity.

One way in which models of political space can be useful is in allowing us to do the following: using limited information, identify a political entity as belonging to some location in political space, and then based on this identification, predict other things about the entity that would not have been obvious based on the limited information we started with. Can Douglas’s model allow us to do this better than Robin’s model? Might a combination of the two allow us to do this better than either alone? (And how would such a model of political space relate to the mainstream spatial models used by political scientists, such as DW-NOMINATE?)

First, a few words about what I mean by “Douglas’s model.” Douglas presented her group-grid model in various forms, and subsequent scholarship has taken it in even more varied directions. For my interests, the two-dimensional model inspired by Douglas simply means that political preferences can be usefully organized along two axes: one stretching from individualism to communitarianism, the other stretching from egalitarianism to a commitment to hierarchy. (I adapt the labels from Dan Kahan‘s theory of “cultural cognition,” which he presents as a conception of the “cultural theory of risk” descended from Mary Douglas’s work.)

Douglas’s two-dimensional model, it seems to me, improves on Robin’s one-dimensional one in various ways. Maybe the clearest example is the categorization of libertarians. While it may or may not be true that as a demographic category in American politics, libertarians do not exist, it seems hard to deny (from a charitable perspective) that a libertarian intellectual tradition exists, and that this tradition is distinct from, say, the intellectual tradition of fascism. Yet in Robin’s account, libertarians and fascists are both parts of the group-hierarchy-enforcing Right: “When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees” (16).

Without attempting to engage with the evidence Robin presents in support of grouping libertarians and fascists under the general heading of the reactionary anti-emancipation Right, let me just propose that something like the following Douglas-like model might be more predictively useful. The model would sort ideological preferences into four categories along two dimensions:

Individualist-hierarchical: for example, libertarianism (Hayek, Rand… Randy Barnett)

Individualist-egalitarian: for example, liberalism (Mill, Constant, Berlin, Shklar… Steven Pinker)

Communitarian-hierarchical: for example, fascism and its close relatives (de Maistre, Kipling, Schmitt… Irving Kristol — see Robin pp. 162-63)

Communitarian-egalitarian: for example, multiculturalism (Rousseau, Randolph Bourne… the ideology of NPR commentaries and the Utne Reader)

It seems to me that whatever the complicity of some libertarian thinkers with the reactionary communitarian-hierarchical Right (for example, Milton Friedman meeting with Pinochet, p. 74), it is worthwhile to be able to distinguish libertarian thought from fascist thought. The libertarian simply does not think of politics in terms of groups. Like a self-centered, fantasy-filled adolescent male from the wealthy American suburbs, or like an emotionally stunted, self-made Silicon Valley billionaire [Editor’s note: former category may include latter], the libertarian is oblivious to, or simply does not care about, histories of group oppression — because he does not belong to an oppressed group, and why should anyone receive special treatment? He is focused above all on individual winning and losing, individual greatness and failure.

Here and there in my reading over the years I’ve become aware of a cult of individual genius in pre-WWI Vienna. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life was partly defined by this idea, as the title of Ray Monk’s wonderful biography, The Duty of Genius, suggests. Sylvia Nasar notes that Joseph Schumpeter’s approach to economics also seems to arise out of this milieu. Who or what is ultimately responsible for the generation of wealth in Schumpeter’s view? Not the ordinary business owner, or the working class, and certainly not the political order that sets the rules — no, it is the lone entrepreneur who destroys and creates from his heroic destruction. It seems fitting that American libertarianism descends in significant part from the work of an Austro-Hungarian cousin of Wittgenstein’s, Friedrich August von Hayek, and that Schumpeter’s ideal of creative destruction plays a significant role in Silicon Valley, with its libertarian currents.

(Although he was not Austro-Hungarian, could Max Weber’s emphasis on the need for gifted, Bismarckian leaders in politics, discussed in a recent post, have some relation to this emphasis on the importance of individual genius?)

Robin’s one-dimensional model, with its downplaying of the possibility of a politics focused on individuals and individualism, would have us view the Silicon Valley software engineer who seeks a gender-blind, race-blind hiring process as a covert supporter of white, male supremacy. There may be some truth in this, in the sense that the arrangements that the engineer views as blind or neutral are likely skewed to favor white males when viewed in a broader perspective. But it is also true that if you attempted to predict the political views and behaviors of a self-avowed libertarian purely based on the assumption that he, like a fascist, will support the hierarchical dominance of his self-perceived identity-based-community, you would often go wrong.

(I use the pronoun “he” whenever discussing libertarians, because, for whatever reason, in my experience libertarianism seems to be overwhelmingly attractive to men rather than women, Ayn Rand excepted. I say “identity-based-community” to acknowledge that there is at least one “community” — not based on any of the usual identity categories — to which libertarians often imagine themselves to belong: the community of makers, of geniuses, of John Galt, Howard Roark, and Peter Thiel…)

One of the puzzles that Douglas’s two-dimensional model raises for me is where to locate “the Left.” Setting aside the confusing category of anarchism, if we follow Robin in defining the Left in terms of the emancipation of oppressed groups, it might be seen as communitarian-egalitarian or as communitarian-hierarchical. With regard to any particular subordinated group, the Left might seek to emancipate the group from oppression either by achieving equality with its oppressors, or by achieving superiority over its oppressors. It is not obvious to me that the figures and ideas usually identified with “the Left” have a settled, general answer to this question. Didn’t Marx and Engels seek a dictatorship of the proletariat — that is, not just the equality but the dominance of the working classes, at least as a transition phase? Didn’t Frantz Fanon call upon the colonized to assume the dominant position of the colonists, and not just to achieve equality with them? As Fanon said of decolonization, aren’t there often voices on the Left whose dream is that “the last shall be first and the first last,” not that there shall be no first or last?

And of course there are the many examples of actual historical attempts by ostensibly leftist figures and movements to elevate oppressed classes through the destruction of groups with more power, from Stalin’s mass-starvation of “Kulaks,” to Mao’s campaign against landowners, to the Khmer Rouge’s execution of urban professionals. It is tempting, in light of Douglas’s model, to compare these atrocities to those of fascism. Perhaps the most extreme, violently committed forms of the Right and the Left agree in thinking of politics in terms of community and hierarchy, but disagree in how the hierarchy should be arranged: the Right believes those traditionally at the top should remain at the top, while the Left seeks to see the hierarchy reversed.

On the other hand, the voices I usually hear from the contemporary American Left, whether in the pages of Jacobin or in radical-Left humanities scholarship, argue for the most part in terms of group equality, not the establishment of a new scheme of group domination with the oppressed replacing the oppressors. What distinguishes these leftist voices from the liberal or “neoliberal” objects of their frequent scorn is the Left’s tendency to emphasize subordinated groups, and community action, rather than focusing on individuals — not necessarily the rejection of equality as an ideal.

All of this suggests to me that just as we can usefully distinguish two orientations on the Right — individualist-hierarchical as in libertarianism and communitarian-hierarchical as in fascism, colonialism, and white supremacist movements — it might make sense to distinguish two orientations on the Left as well: communitarian-egalitarian and communitarian-hierarchical, with the latter differing from the fascist Right in its desire to see oppressed communities given power over their oppressors.

Could this be a useful synthesis of Robin’s and Douglas’s political maps? Robin’s work draws attention to the distinction between those who seek to maintain the existing (or expected) power hierarchy and those who seek to overthrow the hierarchy, lifting those at the bottom up to the top. There are thus two flavors to Douglas’s “hierarchist” politics. By incorporating this distinction into Douglas’s model, it seems to me we might be able, finally, to organize many of the disparate political labels we use in discussing politics into a single, fairly simple but illuminating structure — one that draws attention to underlying similarities and differences between political positions that might not be apparent at first glance.

[Update 10/3/2017: Here is a visual summary:

Douglas-Robin map pic

It occurs to me now that “map” might be a term better reserved for truly spatial models, where there are distances between points, and these distances mean something. On the other hand, it’s not inconceivable that the chart above could be translated into such a map.

Also, it may be worth emphasizing what is not in a political typology like this one, such as specific economic policies. In everyday discussions of U.S. politics, it is sometimes assumed that an individual’s position on various economic issues is the central, defining feature of an individual’s political orientation. This chart rejects the idea that any specific economic policies are definitive of or fundamental to a political orientation.

All things considered, and even if we abstract from parochial biases, it may be easier to locate certain economic policies in certain boxes — such as low taxation and limited government services in the individualist-hierarchical box. But the association is ultimately a matter of interpretation, and what seems a natural association can shift as culture shifts. Consider that Hayek initially supported a universal basic income. In fact, is there not something intuitive about an individualist-hierarchist supporting policies — not so much safety-net as launching-pad policies — that would allow as many individuals as possible to compete to the greatest extent possible?

Similarly, it is common to think of support for generous welfare policies as the commitment that distinguishes Left from Right. Yet, obviously, the right-wing National Socialist German Workers’ Party in the 1930s, not to mention right-wing populist movements in places like Poland, Hungary, and France today, supported generous welfare policies — for the ones on the inside of their conception of “us.”

If the typology above is right — that is, if it makes sense of political behavior and thought in a more predictively useful way than the usual journalistic identification of political orientation with economic policy preferences — a somewhat hopeful implication might be that there is more “play in the joints,” more room for reimagined coalitions and reinterpreted policy preferences, than is usually assumed.]

[Update 1/3/2018: In a brief exchange with me on Twitter, the traditionalist Catholic legal scholar Adrian Vermeule suggested that the map of politics in this post “makes it impossible to understand much of human history.” I assume Vermeule means to draw attention to the fact that much of human history existed within the kind of hierarchist-communitarian political formation he appears to prefer, in contrast to the egalitarian-individualist liberalism I prefer, which is a much more recent development.

The map of politics in this post “makes it impossible to understand” the prevalence of hierarchist-communitarian arrangements in human history, Vermeule may be implying, by offering only widely condemned modern political regimes such as Stalinism, Nazism, and Maoism, as typical examples of hierarchist-communitarianism political arrangements.

In response, let me clarify that the political map in this post can be used to organize pre-modern political arrangements as well as the modern ones I noted — not surprisingly, since it derives from the work of an anthropologist. Most hunter-gatherer societies appear to have operated on an egalitarian-communitarian basis, for example, which may be one reason that the hippie movement, and its Left anthropological allies, has always been so attracted to hunter-gatherer cultures. (Hippies and their allies and descendants are the primary modern cultural embodiment of the multicultural ethos of egalitarian-communitarianism.) Likewise, most chiefdoms and state-based societies prior to modernity can be classified as hierarchical-communitarian. It is only with the rise of democracy, liberalism, and market-based society in the Enlightenment and after that some states became more egalitarian-individualist — although, as with so many aspects of modernity, ancient Athens may have partially anticipated this development.

It is unclear to me whether individualist-hierarchical political formations can be identified with any actual political regimes in human history. Perhaps the libertarian dream is in some sense anti-political by nature, and doomed to remain always a fantasy for its adherents. Or perhaps as a historical phenomenon, libertarianism is associated with economic policies that are naturally self-defeating, as Polanyi suggests.]

I also find it interesting that the exercise resulted in an asymmetry between Left and Right. The Left, whether focused on hierarchy or equality, appears to be committed to the community rather than the individual; while the Right, whether focused on the community or the individual, appears to be committed to hierarchy rather than equality. At the outset, I might have assumed that the Left and the Right would be opposed along a single axis.

One of the potentially useful features of thinking of ideologies in terms of political space is the possibility of describing what might move individuals from one ideological location to another. Along these lines, I was struck by a recent article about the relative success of the AfD in the recent German elections: “Professor Fritsche’s research shows that when people feel a loss of control, they seek a stronger connection to group identity, and experience a desire to make their group more powerful.”

Could it also be the case that a violent attack on someone perceived to be a member of one’s group (whether one defines the group in terms of nation, race, political party, religion, or otherwise), by someone perceived to be outside of one’s group, tends to increase the salience of community in one’s thinking about politics? We could imagine this dynamic contributing to a vicious cycle of militarism and war: once attacked, the members of a national community, for example, might find themselves increasingly thinking of politics in terms of the opposition between their nation and outsiders, leading to an increased willingness to attack outsiders, inviting counterattack, with each cycle of retaliation further increasing the communitarian orientation of the nation’s politics and its willingness to use violence against those perceived as belonging to “them” rather than “us.”

As a concluding aside, I was not at all surprised to read recently that the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm gave a prominent place in his life story to a recollection of the “mass ecstasy” of having participated in “endless hours of marching” in a final communist demonstration before Hitler became chancellor. The transcendent thrill of la grande marche seems to play a central role in the affective universe of the Left — just as the dream of the well-ordered military parade seems to return continually to the imagination of the communitarian-hierarchical Right, as in our president’s recent declaration that he would like to see a massive military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on July 4. My own inability to understand the visceral appeal of either the protest march or the military parade, combined with my disinterest in team sports, dislike of crowds, general wariness of group activities, and particular wariness of any political order that requires its citizens to spend a great deal of time responding to political conflicts — along with my inability to take libertarianism seriously — may mean that I have been affectively condemned to liberalism.

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7 thoughts on “Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

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  6. It sounds from your opening like you read the 2011 edition of Robin’s book, not the 2017 edition. If so, you should have a look at the latter. It’s not just a new title & an essay on Trump; he revised some of the essays, and (the key point) added a few, including one on the Austrian school of economics (and their links to the cult of genius, if one can take Nietzsche as a metonymy for that) which is directly on point to your argument here.

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