Sunday, September 9, 2012

Robin's Law

Robin's law is named for Broolyn College political science professor Corey Robin. Not because he proposed it (I'm proposing it here, and haven't seen it formulated elsewhere, though I suspect it's not original), but because he is a fine example.

The law is thus:

Ideologues frequently view their political opponents as little more than inversions of themselves.
Robin's entertaining anti-conservative polemic The Reactionary Mind, which has made many liberals stand up and cheer (and contains many good points within its pages), is a textbook example.  The thesis of Dr. Robin's work is that the main motivation of conservatism, as manifested throughout the ages, is maintaining an aristocracy (of some sort or another) against the interests of the broader populace.

Many other liberals (including myself, in my less reflective moments) make the same category error.  Liberals are often motivated by issues such as economic equality and social justice, and thus frequently conclude that conservatives are motivated by inequality and injustice--that these things are the raison d'etre of conservatism.   While there are doubtless many powerful rich folk in the conservative movement who's goal is to undermine the working class--and will marshal any number of other arguments to support this cause--that alone cannot explain the bulk of conservative politics.  (Some liberals act as though the broader conservative movement has been brainwashed in some fashion by the plutocracy--an allegation which is insulting nonsense).

Conservatives, of course, commit the same error in their views of liberals, in spades.  Conservative discourse is full of portrayals of liberals as lazy, nihilistic, hedonists.  On bad days, liberals are often described as agents of either foreign states or of the Devil.  Many conservative pundits argue with a straight face that the Democratic Party--an institution which 31% of Americans identity with--is an organization of traitors.  It is assumed by many on the right that the purpose and fundamental goals of Democratic policy is such things as "undermining family values" or weakening US security.  Which is, of course, news to any card-carrying Democrat.

Libertarians, though, may be the champions of this.  Libertarians have seemingly fabricated an entire ideology--"statism"--which they ascribe to their opponents, left and right.  In this reckoning, the goal of the statist is--as the name suggests--is to expand the scope of the state.  Rather than the state being an instrument towards some other policy end (such as restricting access to narcotics or mitigating the effects of poverty), the cart is placed before the horse, and these policy initiatives are merely fig-leafs to justify the true end goal--growth of the Leviathan.

In all three cases, these ridiculous (but popular) caricatures have the same root cause:  Rather than attempting to honestly understand the motivations of one's opponents, ideologues will assume that the opponents are simply their opposites--opposed to what they consider to be good, and supportive of what they consider to be evil.  Liberals, interested in economic justice, accuse conservatives of championing plutocracy.  Conservatives, interested in a strong moral order and a strong national defense, treat liberals as though they wish to destroy morality and surrender to foreign enemies, real or imagined.  And libertarians, desiring to shrink the state out of first principles, assume their adversaries are motivated by a desire to enlarge it.


  1. While not exactly an example of this--Ayn Rand, seemingly, took the Marxist critique of capitalism and ran with it, in forming Objectivism: As Jonathan Chait noted in his essay Wealthcare:

    In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite. In Atlas Shrugged, her hero, John Galt, leads a capitalist strike, in which the brilliant business leaders who drive all progress decide that they will no longer tolerate the parasitic workers exploiting their talent, and so they withdraw from society to create their own capitalistic paradise free of the ungrateful, incompetent masses.

  2. "(Some liberals act as though the broader conservative movement has been brainwashed in some fashion by the plutocracy--an allegation which is insulting nonsense)."

    No, no -- that one's true. Try reading the history of marketing or reading some of the more horrifying and lurid results in psychological research, and you'll find that although it's insulting, it's also true.

    Now, it's true that the "right-wing movement" (won't call it "conservative", because it doesn't fit the dictionary definition) have other motivations -- they're not *motivated* by trying to create an aristocracy. However, that is what they do *in effect*. Why would they do something which is grossly contrary to their stated intentions? Because they're not thinking straight.

    Brainwashing helps encourage them to not think straight. Therefore we get campaign ads claiming that cutting taxes on the rich will create jobs and increase government revenue (a plain, blatant lie) and right-wingers are successfully *brainwashed* into believing it.

    1. It is, by the way, far, far easier to brainwash people than most people think, especially if you stick to brainwashing them about things which are somewhat removed from their personal experience. Probably all of us have some old brainwashing floating around in our heads.

    2. I'm generally reluctant to use terms like "brainwashing" outside the context of actual coercion. It's appropriate in the context of government torture squads or possibly certain religious cults; but successful deployment of propaganda doesn't rise to "brainwashing".

      But certainly, the plutocracy has spend a lot of treasure trying to convince the poor to vote for their agenda, and in many cases this has been successful. But to accuse someone of being brainwashed is to deny them independent agency, which is why I dislike the term. Many on the right accuse urban liberals of being similarly brainwashed--an accusation which is also nonsense.

  3. Slave states/Free states-This war with ourselves continues today as liberal conservative politics.


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