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The case for Tory anarchism The emergence of the CHAZ in Seattle provides lessons about self-governance at local level

What could go wrong? (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

What could go wrong? (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)


June 15, 2020   8 mins

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?

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 lĂ€nder 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.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

A very interesting article that aligns very much with my own thinking, not that I have thought about it as much as the writer. But it has long been obvious that the state – certainly the British state – fails on every level, time and time again. (At least in China failed and corrupt officials are removed, imprisoned or killed. Here we give them promotions and knighthoods etc). And I have long said that something like the Swiss Canton model of local democracy is the one to follow.

The trans-national organisations are every bit as repulsive as the state, a magnet for the ambitious and useless whose main objective in life is to tell others what to do while stealing their money.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I couldn’t agree more.Being a part time
resident of the wonderful land of William Tell, the Swiss Cantonal model is superb. This is as near democracy as you will ever get, and frankly way beyond the moronic demos,who make up the British population.
Good point about China, that I have always ignored. Their process of let us say, ‘retribution’ has much to said for. Oh the joy of public executions in perhaps Wembley or Lords, of those vile creatures you speak of so eloquently.
In Britain today, failure is a virtue, that leads to the ultimate cess pit, or as some would say the “pit of eternal stench”, the House of Lords.
Sadly there is no chance whatsoever that either Boris or ‘Dom’ could or
even would want to change this revolting charade, so deeply is it embedded in the British Political and Administrative psyche.

Robert Flack
Robert Flack
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Public executions? Really? Are you mad?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Flack

Have you suffered a ‘sense of humour failure’ due to C-19? Poor chap!

AJ Spetzari
AJ Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Killing him softly with your words…

David J
David J
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Interesting, apart from your elitist notion of the British demos. As Oxford University is proving this very week, the highly educated among us are not necessarily very bright.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

I agree entirely. It can only be a matter of time before that original Temple of Wokedom, Cambridge follows.

Robert Flack
Robert Flack
3 years ago

Essentially this is about decentralising power. The UK has been on this path since the Anglo-Saxon Witan. We now have Parish Councils, Borough Councils, Mayors of large cities and devolution. These have been brought about by quiet evolution not gobby revolution. We should continue on this path and not keep seeking a civil war. Finally I would like to point out that the EU is all about centralisation and Empire. Glad we left.

fanny craddock
fanny craddock
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Flack

The same councils etc that impose 20mph limits on A roads, recently closed the parks, toilets, beaches and anything else they had in their control ?

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
3 years ago

A thought-provoking article; thank you. I need to go and do more reading and thinking in this direction, and it’s a good stepping-off point.

Having lived and worked in Germany for many years, it shocked me on my return to realise quite how little voice we have in the UK on a local level. I was used to being able to grill the equivalent of local mayors and councillors on specific problems; here it seems that barriers are put up all the way, and obfuscation and powerlessness are the order of the day.

A version of the Swiss cantonal system seems like an interesting direction.

Bill Brookman
Bill Brookman
3 years ago

Another fun piece by Aris Roussinos! How do you keep it up? Ceaseless erudite PhD ramblings which I love. Each section is like a Persian miniature in its succinct beauty.

Wasted, of course, on Chaz. The place doesn’t count as a valid experiment because the city council gave the little darlings toilets. Well, anybody can run Utopia if Daddy keeps turning up to fix all the boring bits. But they managed to build a toy-town Trump-like wall round it with nicked council owned giant Lego bricks ““ Perhaps they don’t do irony.

Unbelievably, my son’s ex-fiancée is one of them. She’s lovely, and she’s got a brain so she must know the word irony (and infantilism), and she’s got a Fine Art degree and a post-grad Fine Art degree from London AND another one from a Florentine art school.

Anyway, blue-collar workers will clear it all up when they leave all their mess behind.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill Brookman

you were right

Greg C.
Greg C.
3 years ago

“In northeastern Syria, a far more divided society than the UK”

Are you sure ?

Michael Sweeney
Michael Sweeney
3 years ago

As an American, we have destroyed small business. The Bush to Obama transition made Banks BIGGER. This filters into everything when the facts are, “Small is beautiful”, at least in my life. Hard to understand the Syrian references, but good article.

Tom Knott
Tom Knott
3 years ago

It’s refreshing to see anarchism discussed without pretending it’s a synonym for chaos.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

In UK Just having More Politicians, of whatever colour ,doesn’t mean ”We are More represented” In Uk Welsh assembly,Scottish parliament are an expensive waste at £1.5billion annually from uk taxpayers,; 15 paid City mayors,9 Regional Mayors,GLA are all a wase of Whatever political hue, Unless Some Charismatic Jeffersonian leader (Small Government is best governmet) emerges. looking at Johnson,starmer,Davey,Sturgeon,Drakeford We are governed by Clowns..No wonder i haven’t voted for one of the four main parties since 1990…

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I indeed found this article interesting, but perhaps not very practical.
It may work in a part of a war torn country, where nearly everybody would wish to coalesce to stop outside invasion, but would it work in England in the present. After all England has been a unified country for over a thousand years, not easy to break that up.
The fact that idea of regions, was firmly squashed in a referendum in the North East demonstrates that.

The idea that Guilds are wonderful, is somewhat novel. They may have started with the best of intentions to keep up standards, but they deteriorated over time to become a closed shop and stopped anything new happening. It became a means to enhance the income of the producers against the consumers.

I believe the Swiss are keen on Referendums, and I would like more of them. They would stop the politicians ganging up against the general population, although after the Brexit vote I am not sure they would be very popular in Westminster!

dichebach
dichebach
3 years ago

I highly recommend anyone who wishes to comprehend why centralization seems inevitable give a read to E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s “The Nuer.” In it, he lays out what I’ve always considered his most important contribution to social science and one of the most under-appreciated models for understanding human social evolution: the concept of segmentary-opposition. This concept, wed with notions like “social cheater detection” and in-group / out-group maintenance psychological mechanisms from evolutionary psychology is where the real future of edification for social and political sciences lies in my humble opinion; but such brands of theory have been out of fashion since the 1960s.
With segmentary opposition in mind, it makes sense that Rojava is functioning brilliantly in its present context: being surrounded by chaos and horror. But what happens when peace settles in? Will the solidarity (both voluntary and enforced or even coerced) remain so solid?

Vern Hughes
Vern Hughes
3 years ago

A provocative distillation of ideas that are important for the emerging new politics. The ‘anarchist’ theme is a timely corrective to the revival of statism under the guise of pro-Brexit re-affirmations of the nation state. But one can be a patriot without being a statist. Anarchism can only be a corrective to statist excess. The middle ground, between statism and anarchism, can best be found in a civil society-based politics, which may have its liberal or communitarian or social democratic or mutualist leanings, but which is firmly not statist in the full Fabian, New Labour or Big ‘C’ Conservative traditions, but not anarchic either. Voluntary association and mutualism are at its core. A civil society-based politics of this kind can genuinely claim to be ‘centrist’, rescuing centrism from the distaste which some pre-modern conservatives and post-liberal social democrats seem to share. See civilsocietypolitics.org

Tony Reardon
Tony Reardon
3 years ago

If smallish localities are going to provide services, these presumably have to be paid for by money raised from within those communities and this can be problematic. The idealists/anarchists seem to think that the wherewithal will just appear but this does not always happen and can lead to virtual ghettos.

Having lived in the U.K. , Australia and the U.S.A., I have found it very interesting to see the impact that the different local government & local property tax systems had on the various societies. England and Australia feel very similar and property taxes pay for certain local services such as refuse collection but major areas of expenditure such as education, police and health care are funded by other taxes and higher levels of government. The local controls, and thus the local differences between areas, are limited but not so in the U.S.A.

Where I lived was a wealthy township called Lake Forest just north of Chicago. Property taxes were very high which acted as a natural barrier to less well off people. The local services were excellent and the place was a pleasure to live in, if you could afford it (except perhaps for the middle of winter!). This was not a gated community, nor was it in any way explicitly exclusionary to anybody, but it did make for somewhere that felt like it could have been set up that way. For example, there are beaches on Lake Michigan and anyone can use the beaches. However, the beaches are down a steep, longish drive and the only parking at the bottom was for local residents so the practical result was that the beaches are reserved for the wealthy.

The example of Detroit shows the problems that a reliance on property taxes give rise to with a vicious spiral occurring when problems happen. Business and the middle class started moving away so taxes fell further and services collapsed leaving an extremely disadvantaged poor local population.

paul.salveson
paul.salveson
3 years ago

A really good piece. There is much in the English political tradition that is relevant, including some of the ethical socialism pre-1914. Lancashire writer Allen Clarke wrote Effects of the Factory System advocating decentralised small units of production. Directly influenced by Tolstoy who translated the book into Russian. Edward Carpenter is better known, and also has much to offer…

benbow01
benbow01
3 years ago

Anything the Left touches will fail. Communes don’t survive because they don’t work, because… Human nature. Humans are social by nature, not Socialist which is contrary to Man’s nature so has to be imposed.

Anarchy only works when it truly is… nobody shouting the odds and redistributing the sweeties plundered from one to give to another… each member of the community works in their own interest but has to serve the interests of others, not by intention or desire, but in order to become prosperous themselves.

Oh! That’s free market capitalism in a competitive environment, voluntary exchange, in order to get wealthier you have to make the other person wealthier.

It was what started the Industrial Revolution and the greatest surge in prosperity for all in the entire history of Man. But, Government could just not mind its own business and progressively has taken over many aspects provided by the competitive private sector and over which it exercise a State monopoly which everyone has to pay for even if they choose not to use. And inevitably the State attracts an ensemble of clients, on social welfare and corporate welfare.

chris forrest
chris forrest
3 years ago

Unherd has been a breath of fresh air in my day since being told about it, this article should be compulsive reading for all politicians. why has this Syrian AANES system been kept so quiet? Good news is not news?

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

One day I hope more speak up for the aristocrats (the old money families). They aren’t all bad, and I don’t know why they’ve disappeared. Maybe the new-money liberals squeezed them out. Sad.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

What a writer/thinker this Mr Roussinos is. Makes my mind nearly explode with ideas every time.

benbow01
benbow01
3 years ago

‘… Hobbes, who traces the origin of the state in the acquiescence of the mass to authority, for its own protection from anarchy and extortion?’

Thanks that reference gave me a good laugh… two minutes.

The State being ruled by a self-selecting, self-serving exclusive mob – legalised Mafia – which plunders and extorts the idiot mass, fled willingly into its open maw.

Anarchy means no head/government, not replacing one mob with another, and requires free exchange between members of a society for mutual benefit, peace and stability.

Bill Gaffney
Bill Gaffney
3 years ago

Another embarrassing diatribe by this agent provocateur. Embarrassing that UnHerd publishes this tripe by this AP.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  Bill Gaffney

Agreed. I’ve said before, I blame the lazy tutors who should be encouraging him to reconsider his career direction. Poor boy seems to believe a large volume of words will impress readers of Unheard.