This essay appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


Lawlessness abounded as the first six months of 2020 drew to a close. Americans could be forgiven for thinking they were living under anarchy, as leftist mobs tried to deface or tear down public memorials and statues of everyone from Christopher Columbus to Abraham Lincoln. Violent crime surged in New York City, while Seattle saw the creation of a radical commune of sorts, in the form of the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (or CHAZ). Mayors were slow to react, when they reacted at all. It was as if cities across the country had decided to submit to a mugging. Months of COVID-19 lockdowns had left Americans demoralized or stir-crazy.

Yet this was a curious sort of anarchy, not only tolerated but in many respects sponsored by elite authorities—by mayors who sided with the mobs and by educators who taught the nation’s youth to despise its history, and who in many cases took to social media to encourage and rationalize acts of wanton vandalism. Corporate America joined in as well, evidently perceiving no threat from looters whose thefts would not be noticed in quarterly reports, and whose destruction of local businesses would serve only to cut down on the competition. In a sense, this was the opposite of anarchy: it was revolution from above.

Anarchy does have a well-deserved reputation for violence. But there are points on which conservatism and philosophical anarchism converge, and those points often have to do precisely with criticizing the kind of liberal establishment whose power was only enhanced by the outburst of iconoclastic rage America witnessed in June.

Not all convergences between conservatism and anarchism are of a critical nature, however. Indeed, the first place where these streams meet is in the realm of the idyllic and the ideal, with an overlapping vision of local community and the lengths to which it might be taken.

Community vs. State

Anarchy awaits the conservative who follows his ideals too far. This might sound surprising, considering that the classical anarchist is an enemy of all institutions—the state, of course, but also property (which he calls theft), marriage, religion. The conservative characteristically aspires to save such things. Yet there is a path that leads from conservatism to anarchism narrowly defined. It begins with federalism, cherished by nearly all American conservatives. It follows the thread of federalism further, however, to the point of Anti-Federalism—a preference for something like the loose Articles of Confederation over the more centralizing U.S. Constitution. From there it’s a short leap from radical localism to secessionism. Small is beautiful, isn’t it? Then a micro-state is lovelier than even the humblest federation.

And there is something even smaller than a micro-state—namely, no state. For the left-wing anarchist, this idea implies no other traditional institutions, either, for they are all coeval with the state and more or less coterminous with it. But for the conservative who has found his way to anarchy, nothing of the sort follows. The institutions of society are more than mere shadows of the state. Aristotle was no anarchist, but he knew the family came before the state, in developmental terms if not teleological ones. Nor did God’s charity for mankind begin with the advent of politics. Property, too, can be derived from sources antecedent to the state, and not just through the philosophy of John Locke.

What about defense? An ad hoc militia, perhaps. And law? Convention and the precepts of religion can supply what’s most needed. All this might be wildly unrealistic, but it’s not unattractive, and it flows logically enough from principles that most conservatives endorse. Whether or not it’s possible, this charming vision of stateless community lays claim to a certain place in many a conservative’s heart.

But so far as it does, that claim is usually unstated. Few conservatives are philosophical anarchists, and for good reason. History, religion, patriotism, and the contemplation of human nature all supply reasons for rejecting anarchy even as a theoretical idyll. History is not a context from which one can escape back to any pristine and simpler condition; what we have we must accept, for all its defects, and improve only incrementally and cautiously. (Edmund Burke’s early, satirical Vindication of Natural Society illustrates this point, as to one degree or another does much of his later work.) Religious authority and tradition are almost never on the side of rejecting the earthly city and state altogether. Patriotism, meanwhile, is at best only partly compatible with a communitarian anarchism whose scope of loyalty is smaller than the existing country. And a study of human nature soon shows how ill-suited statelessness is for satisfying our capacities or ambitions once a civic alternative is known.

As disqualifying as these objections are, they nonetheless may not quite dispel the dream. And for persons who are temperamentally but not philosophically conservative, they may not be disqualifying at all. Thus there have been right-leaning libertarians who are out-and-out anarchists, usually of the anarcho-capitalist variety, meaning that they put their confidence in market processes for providing order and law, as well as everything else human beings may want or need. The late economist Murray Rothbard is an outstanding example. For the non-libertarian right, however, the question to be answered, for purposes of self-understanding, is what element in conservatism checks the impulse that runs naturally from federalism to extreme localism to anarchism. The answer may prove helpful in other quandaries and controversies—it pays to know your mind.

Confessions of a Tory Anarchist

I had different reasons for latching onto the label “Tory anarchist” close to twenty years ago, however. I registered the domain name because I thought, wrongly, that it might be good enough for a blog, and a few years later, at a loss for any suitable variation on my own name that wasn’t already taken, I chose @ToryAnarchist for my Twitter handle. I sometimes get questions about it, so some further remarks might be in order.

Something like the sketch above was not altogether absent from my thinking, but what I primarily had in mind was twofold. First, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, paleoconservatives (such as Thomas Fleming, the editor of Chronicles and author of The Morality of Everyday Life) and paleo-libertarians (like Rothbard) converged on a critical assessment of the modern state. It was, in its very nature, an attempt to displace every traditional source of authority and social organization. Decades earlier, Robert Nisbet had come to much the same conclusion: conservatives, in his view, were precisely the people who defended the traditional social order against the all-encompassing state. Leviathan was not just something that libertarians needed to be concerned about.

And electing more Republicans, especially of the George W. Bush variety, would not win the culture war. The damage done by lulling conservatives into accepting the welfare-warfare state outweighed whatever good could be achieved by attempting to turn such a state toward the support of traditional values. At the time, this was a key distinction between the “paleo” tendency on the right and neoconservatism, which did hold out hope for a conservative welfare state—and which enthusiastically advocated exporting democracy by means of the warfare state.

Defensive involvement in politics was warranted, but investing any great amount of moral capital in it was not. Paleoconservatives were not anarchists, yet the paleo critique of the state ran just as deep. They recognized other forces of decay in our culture; the state was simply no cure for them, and in the long run it typically stood ready to gain from the social sphere’s losses. Although I did not know it at the time, the anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel had long ago come to a similar outlook on the dangers of meliorism. He advised the working class to reject with scorn any reformist legislation from the ownership class, his point being that the state and the benefits it was prepared to confer were entirely on the capitalists’ side in the end. Its concessions were only tactical. For the quasi-anarchist conservative of the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the same could be said about government’s relationship to progressives and their ideology. Whatever traditionalists might think they could gain through politics, they could only obtain through submission to a hostile institution. As a practical matter, there might be times when that could not or should not be avoided. But even on such occasions there was never any reason to deceive yourself about the nature of the bargain.

This is putting the case bluntly, and not every paleo-traditionalist of that era shared this view—Allan Carlson, for one, argued that early iterations of the welfare state could be genuinely pro-family. As seen through the anti-statist view of history, however, the evolution of the familist welfare state into an anti-familist one was all but inevitable. Such an outlook was no grounds for pessimism, however. Quite the opposite: with the lowest possible estimation of politics and politicians, one could never be shocked or discouraged. If today Republican-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch decides that “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act covers sexual orientation and transgenderism, or if Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts reverses his own reasoning in an earlier case to preserve the availability of abortion in a later 5–4 decision, so much is appalling but not unexpected. A quasi-anarchist view of politics also illuminates the virtues of Donald Trump at a time when the elites of the left and neocon right are crazily imagining him as a dictator or some unprecedented blot on the nobility of American statecraft. In these circumstances, a touch of anarchism helps keep things in perspective.

All of that risks sounding cynical, but the spirit of Tory anarchism is joyful because it assigns to politics its proper place and distance: its proper dimensions in the measure of life. That was my second reason for taking up the label. I associated it, as others did too, with the exuberant satire of Auberon Waugh. Some then and now have connected the label also with his father, Evelyn Waugh. The roll of writers who have at one time or another been called Tory anarchists makes good company, beginning with Max Beerbohm, who may have coined the term. Talents and temperaments as diverse as those of George Orwell and Americans like H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock have also been found to fit the bill. Florence King provides a recent example. To speak of a shared sensibility among them might be going too far, but they had much in common—particularly an intolerance for cant, ideology, and euphemism.

Not that Orwell was altogether admiring of others to whom the badge might be affixed. He wrote of Jonathan Swift in “Politics vs. Literature,”He is a Tory anarchist, despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible.” But Orwell was more of a meliorist than the rest. Swift’s misanthropy was too much for him.

As for myself, anti-statist traditionalism, on the one hand, and the defiant example set by the cultural minds above, on the other, together argued for the usefulness of a label like “Tory anarchist” in the Bush-Clinton-Bush years. That the label was doubly unassimilable to the tyrannical center of American politics was all the more compelling. The apparently contradictory nature of the term was a virtue as well, a ready way to light up the pretensions of political rationalists. And that is how a conservative editor came to adopt such an eccentric moniker on Twitter.

Liberal Theocracy

The problem of the relationship between community and the state is one to which conservatives will keep returning. In his 1975 book, The Twilight of Authority, Nisbet commended Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the nineteenth-century anarchist thinkers who followed him as intellectual allies to the community-minded conservative—against not only the all-devouring state but also against the radicals who supported such a state. “For the smaller patriotisms of family, guild, parish, and cooperative association Marx and his disciples had only contempt; such groups were consigned by Marxists . . . into the dustbin of history.” By contrast, “in the works of the anarchists, from Proudhon’s day to ours, and nowhere stated more profoundly and encompassingly than in Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and Fields, Factories, and Workshops, it is precisely on the foundation of such groups, each with maximum autonomy of function and authority, that the edifice of the free society is to be built.”

Nisbet continued:

I do not for a moment question the major differences of emphasis which are to be found between nineteenth-century conservatives in the Burke tradition and anarchists molded by Proudhon. But I do not hesitate to say that there is a great deal more in common, so far as fundamental perspective is concerned, between a Burke and a Proudhon than there is between the former and some of those who today style themselves conservatives and between the latter and the vast majority of radicals. . . . In what I here term the recovery of the pluralist and the social, there is as much to be learned at the present time from the classical anarchists as from the classical conservatives.

Russell Kirk included these passages in the selection from The Twilight of Authority that he featured in The Portable Conservative Reader in 1982. Kirk was no more dabbling in anarchism than Nisbet was. What each was doing was looking for sources of insight into the peculiar admixture of centralization, commercialism, and antinomian liberty that had taken hold in this country (and almost everywhere else). Anarchism at its best revealed an appreciation for what had been lost as well, and it advertised the need for tremendous creativity in attempting a recovery. As an antidote for conservative complacency, anarchist thought could serve well. Reforming the American order will require radical thought, if not revolutionary action. Preserving the mentality that prevails today will only lead to further drift in the direction of soft despotism. Conservatives need more than “classical liberalism.”

This is especially true in light of how helpless the more liberal sort of conservative has proved to be in the face of liberalism’s own transformation into a secular religion of theocratic aspirations. Progressive liberalism now entails a revision of language to accommodate the latest orthodoxies concerning race and sex, while films and television programs that feature words or images out of line with the new dogmas are either withdrawn from circulation or, as in the case of Gone With the Wind, made available only with warning labels and morally didactic contextual supplements—rather like the way the most priggish authorities of old sometimes insisted that literature, drama, and the fine arts be presented to young persons only with appropriate disclaimers. Needless to say, those who transgress the newly promulgated sensitivity codes on social media are speedily deplatformed and unpersoned, and they are lucky if they are not fired by their nervous, obedient employers as well.

This new moral dictatorship is so far mostly enforced through private authority—by corporations, Twitter mobs, and vigilante activists who trawl though eighteen-year-olds’ social media history for evidence of blasphemies that might be grounds for getting their college admissions revoked. A classical liberal might lament all this, but believing as he does that private institutions are free to be as repressive as they like, as long as no coercion by the state is involved, the only remedies he is prepared to entertain are along the lines of consumer complaints. He is going to politely ask that private institutions stop demanding conformity to theocratic progressivism, and he may even stop buying some products if Facebook or Amazon or Google does not behave more nicely. He will stop donating to Harvard University if his alma mater does not respect academic freedom—and Harvard’s $40 billion endowment will surely suffer for the loss of those thousands.

The conservative today, like the classical anarchist of the nineteenth century, has to take a closer look at the system under which he lives. The conservative, unlike the anarchist, might well decide that state power (particularly at the state level) is an appropriate device to use to counteract the new persecutors. But even the conservative who does not follow Sorel’s strategies—which, it must be said, never worked out for the anarcho-syndicalists in the first place—would do well to think through, as Sorel did, the intimate connections between social power, economics, ideology, and the state. Under present conditions, conservatives may find anarchism valuable not only for its relationship to political decentralism but for its broader critique of institutional power as well. Conservatives have long had an affinity for the gentler side of anarchism; now they must discover what they can learn from its toughest analyses as well.

Are Constitutions for Devils?

Federalist No. 51 contains what might seem like all that needs to be said about anarchism: “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” but they are not, and so “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” within a political framework. Immanuel Kant went a little further in 1795 when he wrote of “a good organization of the state . . . whereby the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other. . . . The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” As Kant explained, nature itself, as showcased by the anarchic relations between states (which have no common sovereign), demonstrates that human beings will avoid their own inconvenience and destruction so far as possible. Intelligence is only needed to refine nature’s example through the artifice of a republic. Even devils must desire security for their lives and property, and want the opportunity to pursue their own idea of happiness, whatever that might be.

Self-interest and a modicum of intelligence, especially on the part of the lawgiver, are all that is required for sound government. Anarchists, by contrast, appear naive in their belief in an angelic human nature. On even the smallest scale, human interests and passions will come into conflict over time. A well-framed republic is built to accommodate such a fractious nature; an anarchist community is not, and while it might succeed in suppressing nature for a while, once human, or devilish, selfishness sufficiently reasserts itself, the stateless community will fail.

As true as that might be, the reverse is also true: a wise anarchist, like a conservative, will not put much faith in the ability of a man’s, or a devil’s, intelligence to outweigh his immediate selfishness even within a republican framework. What is more, to the extent that a balanced republic makes freedom possible, it also makes possible the accumulation of social power that can be put to privately despotic use. This was something that both Rousseau and Burke understood, though they took opposite views of the best remedy. Rousseau intensely felt what he took to be the tyrannical weight of custom. Burke believed that customs had become more humane over time through examples of beauty. Rousseau, far from being a primitivist, wished to consolidate power in a small state, the better to force the oppressed individual to be free from the chains of custom. Burke strove to defend the better sort of custom against those who would strip away its authority and charm.

Their differences notwithstanding, Rousseau and Burke both perceived social power as truly powerful, whether as a force for good or ill. They were right, and for that reason a formal, legal constitutional balance is not the same thing as a complete balance of power within the state and society. Anarchists represent an imbalance of one kind, dissolving the state and the institutions connected with it, shrinking the state and society alike, thereby leaving only community’s reduced scale as a check on human nature—a check that is all too easily overcome by ambition of any kind. Conversely, a modern republic is prone to imbalance in the opposite direction, magnifying human nature and adding to ambition and the means to accomplish any aim. Either way, within an elaborate system or in the absence of any at all, the human problem remains unsolved. This will not surprise or dismay a conservative, however much he might admire the pure idea of stateless community or a dynamically self-balancing state. But conservatives are used to hearing that if only we return to more careful observance of old forms and rules, the new dangers we face will disappear. Anarchism, flawed as it is, reminds us that the old forms and rules had their limits and inadequacies, too.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age.

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.” Subscribe to Modern Age »