Provincialism’s Easy Allure Or, Writing Outward From The American Academy

In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin writes,

As sophisticated as the recent literature about conservatism is, however it suffers from three weaknesses. The first is a lack of comparative perspective. Scholars of the American right rarely examine the movement in relation to its European counterpart. Indeed, among many writers it seems to be an article of faith that, like all things American, conservatism is exceptional.

Robin then goes on to point out continuities between American and European conservatism before going to to provide a rich intellectual history of conservatism, one that aims to show it to be a dynamic force of reaction and counter-revolution through the ages, one implacably opposed, not to change per se, but to a change in the hierarchies of political ordering and power.

My intention here is not to dispute or examine this analysis; for that we have a faculty study group at Brooklyn College. Rather I was struck, as I read Robin’s listing of weaknesses in recent scholarship on conservatism, by the presence of a similar lack of comparative perspective in Robin’s work, by its only-partial expansion of the analytical lens to focus on American and European conservatism alone. From the taxonomy constructed above, it would appear that conservatism as a political entity, an intellectual movement or body of work, or as force of reaction and counter-revolution is confined to Europe and the United States. To be sure, its impress might be felt elsewhere–after all, the counter-revolutionary governments of the United States and Europe have acted to resist revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America–but as a political and intellectual force it originates in those spheres alone. (The index of authors in Robin’s work does not list African, Latin American or Asian conservative political theorists, or polemicists.)

Now, conservatism as reaction does not appear to be confined to these spheres; the long, bitter, disputed histories of these continents is ample evidence for that claim; reaction here, must have found its grounding too, in patterns of thought and theory articulated by, among others, intellectuals, writers, journalists, and party hacks. (Here I am not identifying “conservatism” with a named political movement or party, but rather, in accordance with Robin’s thesis, as the forces of reaction that have resisted movements of resistance aimed at upending established hierarchies of order, using a variety of polemical, political and rhetorical strategies, including, most recently a genuine populism that seeks to include previously oppressed classes in the spoils of power.) Perhaps examining conservative thought more broadly–geographically speaking, at least–might have enabled an engagement with questions like: Are Mario Vargas Llosa and Olavo de Carvalho conservatives in Robin’s sense? Are the South African theoreticians of apartheid to be understood as conservative? Where do the theoreticians of the Indian caste system fit into a taxonomy of conservative thought? And so on.

In pointing this out, I am doing no more than indicating the blindingly obvious, and a scholar as accomplished as Robin would be the first to note this himself. (It might be that I missed in my reading, a stipulation that “conservatism” was to be understood as identifying a particularly Anglo-American-European ideology.)

Then why the lack of the “comparative perspective” in Robin’s work? Besides the straightforward one that one writes about what one knows best, I think the blind spot also exists for the same reason that in my recent book on legal theory I concentrated on American common law first, with European civil law a distant second, and do not investigate in any adequate sense, Latin American, African or Asian scholarship in the relevant domains: to write from the vantage point of the American academy is to all too easily take it to be the center of the academic and intellectual universe. This is not because one assumes a mantle of superiority but rather that that is the seat that we are pointed to, the position we assume, and it seems, are almost required to take ex-officio. In this tacit assumption of centrality, even the most allegedly cosmopolitan amongst us are reminded of the enduring and persistent allure of provincialism.

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