How To Be a Reactionary

I happened to finish a book called The Rhetoric of Reaction around the same time I read a Twitter thread regarding the “reactionary worldview”. The book and the thread don’t cover the same ground, but they might be helpful if you aspire to be a reactionary (it’s the latest thing: there could be a Supreme Court seat in your future).

First, the thread from David Roberts of the Volts newsletter and podcast:

… The fundamental feature of the reactionary worldview is that life/culture is a zero-sum contest of tribe vs. tribe. Your tribe is either being dominated and humiliated or dominating and humiliating other tribes. There are no other options. Your average liberal has genuine difficulty wrapping their mind around: to a reactionary, talk about non-hierarchical relationships — equality, mutual respect — is literally fantastical, like talk about unicorns. They can only hear it as a scam, i.e., as someone trying to get one over on them. That’s the only way they can interpret liberals: as just another tribe, using “equality” talk as a sneaky means of domination. They experience calls for tolerance and mutual respect as attacks. Thus, you get this bizarre dynamic of reactionaries thinking of liberals as tyrannical, as a force imposing, uh, tolerance. “They want everyone to think the same!” Where “the same” is, “allow everyone to think and behave how they want as long as they don’t hurt others.”

Or as I once opined, maybe to myself: When Republicans hear a Democrat say we’re all in this together, they think it’s a threat.

Next, the book. It was written by the economist Albert O. Hirschman. Published in 1991, The Rhetoric of Reaction deals with three typical arguments made by reactionaries (or the milder reactionaries known as “conservatives”). He labeled them the Perversity, Futility and Jeopardy arguments:

According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.

The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent”.

The jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

Hirschman discusses various instances of these arguments, beginning with the 18th century. Near the end of the book, he has a chapter on progressive counterarguments:

By demonstrating that each of the reactionary arguments has one or more progressive counterparts, I generated contrasting pairs of reactionary and progressive statements about social action.

PERVERSITY — Reactionary: The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences [in particular, the opposite of what was intended].

— Progressive: Not to take the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences [the opposite of what was intended].

JEOPARDY — Reactionary: The new reform will jeopardize the older one.

— Progressive: The new and the old reforms will mutually reinforce each other.

FUTILITY —  Reactionary: The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics (“laws”) of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.

— Progressive: The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already “on the march”; opposing them would be utterly futile.

Hirschman then draws a conclusion regarding the possibility of a stable democracy:

What I have ended up doing, in effect, has been to map the rhetorics of intransigence as they have long been practiced by both reactionaries and progressives….

Yet my purpose is not to cast “a plague on both your houses.” Rather, it is to move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process our debates will become more “democracy friendly”….

Recent reflections on democracy have yielded two valuable insights, a historical one on the origins of pluralistic democracies and a theoretical one on the long-run conditions for stability and legitimacy of such regimes. Modern pluralistic regimes have typically come into being, it is increasingly recognized, not because of some preexisting wide consensus on “basic values,” but rather because various groups that had been at each other’s throats for a prolonged period had to recognize their mutual inability to achieve dominance. Tolerance and acceptance of pluralism resulted eventually from a standoff between bitterly hostile opposing groups.

This historical point of departure of democracy does not bode particularly well for the stability of these regimes. The point is immediately obvious, but it becomes even more so when it is brought into contact with the theoretical claim that a democratic regime achieves legitimacy to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among its principal groups, bodies, and representatives. Deliberation is here conceived as an opinion-forming process: the participants should not have fully or definitively formed opinions at the outset; they are expected to engage in meaningful discussion, which means that they should be ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of arguments of other participants and also as a result of new information which becomes available in the course of the debate.

If this is what it takes for the democratic process to become self-sustaining and to acquire long-run stability and legitimacy, then the gulf that separates such a state from democratic-pluralistic regimes as they emerge historically from strife and civil war is uncomfortably and perilously wide. A people that only yesterday was engaged in fratricidal struggles is not likely to settle down overnight to those constructive give-and-take deliberations.

Far more likely, there will initially be agreement to disagree, but without any attempt at melding the opposing points of view—that is indeed the nature of religious tolerance. Or, if there is discussion, it will be a typical “dialogue of the deaf”—a dialogue that will in fact long function as a prolongation of, and a substitute for, civil war. Even in the most “advanced” democracies, many debates are, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a “continuation of civil war with other means.” Such debates, with each party on the lookout for arguments that kill, are only too familiar from democratic politics as usual.

There remains then a long and difficult road to be traveled from the traditional internecine, intransigent discourse to a more “democracy-friendly” kind of dialogue. For those wishing to undertake this expedition there should be value in knowing about a few danger signals, such as arguments that are in effect contraptions specifically designed to make dialogue and deliberation impossible. I have here attempted to supply a systematic and historically informed account of these arguments on one side of the traditional divide between “progressives” and “conservatives”—and have then added, much more briefly, a similar account for the other side. As compared to my original aim of exposing the simplicities of reactionary rhetoric alone, I end up with a more even-handed contribution—one that could ultimately serve a more ambitious purpose.


Hence, to be a reactionary, consider dividing the world into tribes all out to take advantage of each other (your tribe being the best) and using the same arguments over and over again: doing something won’t work, it will backfire and it will undo what’s already been done.