June 15, 2020

America’s ongoing disorder has thrown up a moment of levity — as well as genuine political experimentation — in the birth of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, a quasi-anarchist statelet carved out of six blocks of a gentrified district of Seattle.

Rarely has the process of state formation been observable to such a wide audience in real time. But will the CHAZ vindicate Rousseau’s utopian and cooperative vision of human nature, or that of Hobbes, who traces the origin of the state in the acquiescence of the mass to authority, for its own protection from anarchy and extortion?

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The reality, as always, contains elements of both. But perhaps the most fascinating element in Seattle’s ongoing experiment is the adoption of many of the trappings of the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, formerly known as Rojava. This is another quasi-anarchist statelet which has been carved out from the chaos and bloodshed of the nearly decade-long civil war, becoming the country’s most competent and harmonious system of governance.

Governing between a third and half the country at its height, managing Syria’s most ethnically and religiously diverse region, and controlling its most productive wheat and oilfields, the AANES project has achieved a cult status among many young Western leftists. They view the region as a viable and appealing alternative to both liberal capitalism and state communism and have flocked to take part in the project.

They are reforesting the region’s arid plains and fighting as part of the local YPG militia to preserve the statelet’s autonomy. Indeed, many of these young activists who abhor the very notion of borders in their own countries have died to defend the borders of the Autonomous Administration from both ISIS and Turkish attacks.

Back in Seattle, one groupuscule, “Demand Utopia Seattle”, has renamed itself as the Democratic Confederalists of the Puget Sound in homage to the AANES experiment, and further afield the “Black Socialists of America” movement explicitly cites the Rojava administration’s model of policing by community militias as a model for the US to emulate.

Indeed, much of the Left-wing American discourse around police abolition derives directly from an idealised misapprehension of the nature of policing in northeastern Syria. While it is true that the region’s HPC militia functions as an armed neighbourhood watch— some 40,000 HPC militiamen and women are currently deployed guarding the growing wheat harvest from ISIS sabotage— they are not central to maintaining social order.

Over the seven years that I have been visiting northeastern Syria as a journalist, policing has become increasingly professionalised. There are separate and well-armed militias for the purposes of general crime prevention, traffic police, highly-trained and well-equipped special forces teams for counterterrorism operations and military police to find and detain draft-dodgers and return them to their units. It is not a slight on the region’s genuine achievements to observe that, for all its ideological basis in anarchist thought, it is a highly bureaucratic security state, and far from the policing abolitionist demands of American protestors.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the AANES experiment is that it is a testing ground for anarchist thought, where ideology is adapted to the demands of real-world governance. Where the theory fails, it is abandoned. Those aspects of the traditional Westphalian state found to be useful or necessary are adopted, forming a hybrid system of governance, part-anarchist, part-statist, part autonomous statelet, part traditional state.

As for the theory itself, much of AANES’s system of governance derives from the work of the little-known American political theorist Murray Bookchin, whose post-anarchist thought, filtered through the idiosyncratic readings of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, have become the region’s governing philosophy.

On the Left then, as much as on the illiberal Islamist Right, the Syrian war has filtered back to the politics of the West. Rojava’s success, and the romantic drama of a multi-ethnic and gender-equal libertarian socialist statelet fighting and beating ISIS in the middle of the most brutal civil conflict for a generation has led to a revival of Bookchin’s ideas in western discourse.

Bookchin’s political philosophy, centred on “a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighbourhoods of large cities”, are attractive as an alternative to the crisis of liberalism. Versions have been adopted, in one form or another, by European administrations from Barcelona’s city council to, on a more parochial level, Frome’s experiment in governance by popular assembly.

It is with good reason that one of Rojava’s most prominent advocates in the UK is Blue Labour’s Lord Glasman, a frequent visitor to northeastern Syria, who has discerned in the region’s fledgling political order a potential model for post-liberals here at home.

To cite a provincial region of war-torn Syria as a model example of good governance generally, I can confidently attest, provokes mirth and disbelief from British post-liberals. Yet the ability of its systems of local councils and radical direct democracy to maintain social harmony and functioning political order in the most ethnically- and religiously-mixed region of a country torn apart by civil war suggests it may have lessons to offer our own country, currently struggling with far less brutal but growing political divisions.

Glasman’s idea of the self-governing church and village hall-centred ’parish commune’, derived from the Rojava experiment, is an attempt to reshape anarchist-inflected thought for a socially conservative but politically radical British context. Indeed it has shared philosophical roots in Britain’s Red Tory and Blue Labour traditions of radical working class politics and robust and ecologically-minded localism, all rooted in a pre-capitalist social order.

This is not a case of convergent evolution but rather of common philosophical descent. The intellectual basis of anarchism, which must be understood as a serious political tradition distinct from the black-clad, window-smashing stormtroopers of liberalism derisively dismissed by Bookchin as “lifestyle anarchists”, originates in the same romantic appreciation of the pre-liberal order as the medievalising tendency in British conservative socialism. It is not by accident that the major anarchist theorists Peter Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta descend from decayed aristocratic families whose pre-modern utopia was shattered by base and vulgar bourgeois capitalism.

For Kropotkin, the medieval guild presented a vision of the anarchist future, where each “had its own self-jurisdiction, its own military force, its own general assemblies, its own traditions of struggles, glory, and independence, its own relations with other guilds of the same trade in other cities: it had, in a word, a full organic life which could only result from the integrality of the vital functions.”

For Malatesta, similarly, anarchism in practice would sound more like Burke’s famous “little platoons” than the oppressive structures of state communism he regarded as a certain route to totalitarianism, centred around the “organisation of social life by means of free association and federations of producers and consumers”.

The medievalising tendency in radical politics has its basis in the premodern system of widespread local autonomy through guilds, wards, moots and parish self-governance, a system eroded when the Early Modern state began its long process of centralisation. As noted by historians like Peter H. Wilson in his sprawling chronicle of the Holy Roman Empire, medieval politics can be understood as a series of brakes on the power of the central state, where kings found it difficult to assert their power and local autonomy was stubbornly defended by the people.

Evolved versions of medieval direct democracy are seen in the political systems of Switzerland and Iceland, yet while only a few relics of this lost system of self-governance still exist in Britain, the romantic appeal of this lost social order has influenced thinkers of Left and Right for centuries.

Perhaps its time has come again. A current trend in academic political theory observes that globalisation, by weakening the power of the nation state in favour of transnational and sub-national entities from global corporations to NGOs and international terrorist groups, has plunged us into a “neo-medieval” world of overlapping authority, where ties of loyalty and power reside beyond and beneath the borders of the modern state.

According to this framework, “the political and social order following the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 – resulting ultimately in the nation-state system as we have come to know it in the modern world – is an anomaly, and… the world is reverting back to conditions of fluid borders (now including those found in cyberspace), complex and overlapping sovereignty, a return of religion to the political sphere, and the blurring of peace and war which pre-dated it in the medieval period.” The centralised, statist world of modernity is perhaps already past, then, whether we wish it or not, and what seemed a long-forgotten past has become our future. 

Given this neo-medieval drift within postmodernity, is a High Tory anarchism of autonomous town and village councils, a radical localism of “every field and hedgerow,” a viable political system? No less a reactionary than Tolkien believed so. In a 1943 letter to his son Christopher, the romantic visionary of Deep England remarked that: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!”

Similarly George Orwell, another idiosyncratic political visionary of a type only England can produce, stated his politics were those of the “Tory anarchist,” a political category defined by the political theorist Peter Wilkin as “a form of cultural dissident, out of step with and in opposition to many features of the modern world” displaying “respect for privacy and the liberty of individuals, a fear of the state and its expanding power over social life; a nostalgic and melancholy temper that laments the passing of an ‘Old England’; criticism of social conformism; and a pervasive sense of pessimism about the fate of the modern world.”

Many British conservatives will recognise themselves in this description. The sad truth is that the Westminster system, despised by the majority of voters, has done little to defend the common good and much to accelerate the economic and social harms that have fractured British society. It is an unfortunate political reality for British conservatives that the space for Burkean little platoons has been filled not by organic local guilds and associations but by a state-funded quangocracy of NGOs and deliberative bodies, almost exclusively staffed by liberals, which stifle any opportunity for meaningful political change and accelerate the total political victory of liberalism even where conservatives win elections. The total capture of the civil sphere by liberal ideologues of Left and Right has left British conservatism with a hollowed-out intellectual tradition and a beaten-down sense of failure and loss. How can you be a conservative when there’s nothing left to conserve?

Perhaps the only solution is a radical conservatism, following the meditative dictum of the Prince of Salinas in Lampedusa’s Italian novel The Leopard that, “for things to stay as they are, everything must change.” There are two possible paths for conservatism, now that the centre ground has been destroyed by fundamentalist liberalism: the first is the conversion of conservatives to vengeful reactionaries, seeking to dramatically overturn unwanted change rather than slow it; the second is to reset the arena of political conflict entirely, abandoning a battlefield so heavily stacked against conservative victory, and creating a new one where democratic victories can be fairly implemented by the very people who themselves demand them.

The anti-modernist roots England’s unique and idiosyncratic utopian High Tory tradition shares, counterintuitively, with anarchism hint that British conservatism could, like northeast Syria, adapt the few aspects of radical left thought that actually work to its own cultural and political context.

With one stroke, the dead hand of the managerial para-state would be severed, freeing conservative politics from the stultifying grasp of quangos, lobby hacks and politicised civil servants. The pitfalls of populist anger directed at a distant and dysfunctional Westminster could be avoided by removing Westminster from the equation almost entirely, continuing the unfinished business of devolution and its unresolved English Question, and reintegrating the long-neglected regions into a functioning political whole.

Though he would no doubt recoil from the term anarchism, the Conservative MP Matt Warman suggested just such a scheme for radical localism in a little-noticed 2017 policy paper urging the “relentless devolution of powers and responsibilities down the democratic food chain to the lowest possible level,” emphasising “that’s not about shifting power from Whitehall to county councils and unitary authorities; it’s about asking what can parishes take from districts, and making clear to devolved administrations that devolution doesn’t end when power moves from Whitehall or Brussels to Holyrood.”

A radical reordering of British politics along these lines might work as follows: only the great issues of state like defence, foreign policy and finance would be overseen by Whitehall, with responsibility for health care, taxation, education, policing devolved to genuinely popular assemblies at county, town, district and parish level. This might do much to assuage the growing and dangerous disconnect British voters feel between their needs and the state’s response. In northeastern Syria, a far more divided society than the UK, a fragile political harmony has been achieved by the proliferation of local assemblies with genuine capabilities for self-governance, winning popular support by incorporating hitherto marginal communities in the business of politics.

Similarly, Covid-19 has shown that smaller political units, from the German länder to American states and tiny Baltic and central European countries, have consistently performed better dealing with the crisis than flailing central governments in the UK and US. “Small is beautiful,” as the economist E.F. Schumaker noted in his call for a return to the local scale, and as the fragility of the global system shown by Covid-19 as well as the sudden resurgence of local food and mutual aid networks as a result both demonstrate, perhaps a more robust and sustainable future politics can be found in the radical localism of our past.