Anarcho-conservatism – Is that even a thing?
Alex Illingworth examines the value of ‘Tory anarchism’
I’ve recently become more interested in philosophical anarchism. Don’t get me wrong, not in the sense that I consider myself to be an anarchist or I wish to be one (at least, not in the way you’re probably thinking), but since my latest book (which of course, you should all watch out for!) is partly focussed on critiquing William Godwin, the father of leftist-anarchist theory, I have come round to reading about anarchists and their ideas a bit more often. When I came across the term ‘anarcho-conservatism’ recently, I came to realise that this philosophy has more in common with traditionalist conservatism than I first suspected…
Anarchism and Conservatism
Anarchism is an ideology which has almost entirely been associated with the left throughout its history. The reason for this is partly because the anarchist movement arose out of the French Revolution, which openly encouraged and permitted radical philosophies and political ideologies to be disseminated. The French radical Sylvian Maréchal opposed the Jacobin party’s centralisation of power which he saw as antithetical to the cause of revolutionary struggle, perhaps causing the first ever split between libertarian socialism and authoritarian socialism. The early socialist and left-liberal theories of the French Revolution allowed later thinkers to seize upon anarchism, and with the publication of Marx and Engel’s communist ideas later in the 19th century there were some who saw the liberation of the working class not in terms of state control, but radical individualism and collective democracy.
Since conservatism in the modern sense arose in opposition to the radical ideas of the 18th and 19th century through Burke and de Maistre, how can it be said that conservatism has anything to do with anarchism? Libertarianism tends to flirt with anarchism on a regular basis – this is only to be expected of an ideology which places individual liberty as the foremost goal of all life. Groups of anarcho-capitalists have grown in number recently, even overlapping with some supposedly ‘alt-right’ circles and the somewhat dubious arguments of the Canadian personality Stefan Molyneux are a prime example of this sort of sentiment. But conservatism is not the same as libertarianism, and when I found a small group of internet bloggers using the term ‘anarcho-conservative’, safe to say I thought it was something of a contradiction in terms.
Conservatism and ‘Freedom’
Despite this, conservatism has tended to lean more towards the mantra of ‘freedom’ in recent years, especially since the Thatcher/Reagan era. Conservatives do not necessarily despise the state, in fact, a true conservative considers the rule of law to be a cornerstone of society, while an anarchist would look to a time when all laws have been abolished or at least limited, and most decisions are taken privately by freely associated groups of people; nevertheless, during the time when Thatcher began to liberalise the national economy, personal freedom was sure to follow, and when judged against the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, conservatives could gladly admit that they believed in freedom without abandoning their true principles too much. As Sir Roger Scruton writes in his book The Meaning of Conservatism, however, it has become harder for conservatives to advocate for ‘freedom’ today, since with the fall of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe, the mainstream left claims that it wants the same thing in the long run, with the left and right only seeming to disagree on the right path to get there.
But this anarcho-conservative movement isn’t quite as oxymoronic as it might be judged to be at first sight. The UK has a fairly substantial history of intellectual ‘Tory anarchism’ dating back to the first theories of Benjamin Disraeli, even George Orwell considered himself to be a ‘Tory anarchist’ at one point in his life. The Young England movement of the 1830s and ‘40s argued that the more feudal models of traditional aristocracy and land ownership within the framework of communities which are self-policing (i.e. each community is autonomous rather than imposed by the state) was the best path to liberty, rather than mainstream liberal models. In short, Tory anarchists might have defended traditional and hereditary institutions like monarchy and aristocracy, but they had anarchist sympathies in the sense that they did not believe in a centralised, unitary government, and sometimes saw a reactionary counterrevolution as the only path to political success.
Today, anarcho-conservatism has become closely associated with libertarian conservatism and anarcho-capitalism. In short, it refers to conservatives who remain socially conservative and economically liberal, but do not believe that those ideologies should be forced on anyone, rather agreed upon by free associations of individuals. In an age where conservatism is struggling to maintain its territory against the onslaught of the Corbynite left, some conservative thinkers (not to mention us here at the Burkean) have suggested a reversion to emphasis on liberty and justice rather than on the more authoritarian leanings of conservatism. In that sense, anarcho-conservatism and libertarian conservatism are close friends of one another.
Problems and Conclusions
There is one major problem with this model, however – namely, that we cannot expect public opinion to change through inaction and loose association, and what’s more, traditional conservatism is fundamentally at odds with total statelessness. In a conservative world where borders and culture are maintained in the context of the nation state, anarchism has next to no place in society. What’s more, anarcho-conservatism is little more than a subgroup of anarcho-capitalism, a model which defines all human interactions in terms of free market agreements. Conservatives recognise that there is more to life than the market transaction, as the French philosopher Alain de Benoist wrote: it is desirable to have a society with a market, but not a market society. However, conservatives do tend to defend traditional societal structures, communitarian and localist models and rational debate. If we believe, by looking back at history, that societies which used these traditional models in the past actually had more real freedom than we do today in some respects, then perhaps there’s something to be said for incorporating the ideas of Tory anarchists into the conservative or anarcho-conservative sentiment.
As someone who had brief interests in libertarian socialism in my teens, perhaps that love of limiting the state in favour of free individual discussion has never left me, giving me an underlying sympathy with libertarians and anarchists, even if I did migrate towards the firmer dogmas of conservatism. If there are any lessons and conclusions we can draw from the anarcho-conservative movement, or even wider right-libertarianism, then it is that achieving political freedom through traditionalist social models may be worth pursuing in future. I do not think anarcho-conservatism can ever catch on, given the innate contradictions of its ideological fundaments, but if we listen to the arguments of libertarian conservatives and Tory anarchists without dismissing them capriciously, we might find more political truth than first meets the eye.
For further reading into the conservative wing of anarchism or libertarianism, check out the work of the German philosopher Hans Hermann-Hoppe. His vision of a future in which individual communities could agree to enforce socially conservative policies in the context of freely agreed moral codes attracted a lot of controversy in the early 2000s. And controversy is always good.