Conservatism Is Not Enough: Reclaiming the Legacy of the Anti-State Left

Like many conservatives, libertarians, and other right-wingers who profess opposition to statism, I oppose the Federal Reserve, the United Nations, gun control, income taxes, the public school system, welfare, affirmative action, antidiscrimination laws, the Environmental Protection Agency, “hate crimes” (really thought crimes) legislation, public housing, campus speech codes, zoning ordinances, social security, and many other forms of statism and authoritarianism typically championed by “the left”. However, I also regard myself as part of the tradition of the left. An explanation is in order as to what the political terms “left” and “right” actually mean, properly used. The terms originate from the seating arrangement used by the French Parliament around the time of the Revolution of 1789. Those parliamentarians who sat on the right side of the chamber were the “conservatives” of the era, that is, those who sided with the “establishment”, which, at that time, consisted of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the established Catholic theocracy. Those who sat on the left were the radicals of their day, who opposed the interests of the king, the aristocrats, and the clerics. In the eighteenth century, to be a radical or to be a “leftist” meant that one generally sympathized with the basic ideas of the Enlightenment: individual liberty, republican government, separation of church and state, anti-militarism, laissez-faire economics, and opposition to hereditary titled privilege. Of course, these ideas should be nothing new to most Americans as they were included in the ideology of what is now called “classical liberalism” that guided the so-called “founding fathers” and were written into historic American documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Classical liberals such as Adam Smith, Wilhelm von Humbolt, the Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rosseau, Francois Voltaire, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others were not simply opposed to a powerful state. They were opposed to concentrations of centralized power in all forms—political, military, economic, ecclesiastical, or otherwise. In their day, this meant opposing the political elitism of the king, the economic elites represented by the aristocrats and feudal land barons, and the cultural and academic elite at that time manifested by the established, state-privileged church (Anglican in England, Catholic in France and Spain, Orthodox in Russia). Their solution was to abolish the monarchy in favor of a republic, eliminate titles of nobility, establish laissez-faire capitalism as the mode of production, and disestablish the church in favor of religious liberty.

When laissez-faire capitalism later degenerated into centralized corporate elitism and monopolism (something Jefferson and Smith had predicted) and corporate interests had become intertwined with the state, the classical socialist movement arose in opposition to this new form of tyranny and exploitation. Socialists were generally divided into two primary camps: those who favored the implementation of socialism through centralized state power and those who favored diffusion of central power and political and economic decentralization. Socialists were naturally regarded as leftists because of their opposition to the established state-capitalist order. It is at this point that much of the modern confusion concerning the terms “left” and “right” and “liberal” and “conservative” begins.

State-centralist socialists, most famously represented by Marx, are the ancestors of nearly all of today’s left-statists including communists, “democratic” Socialists, left liberals, welfare statists, and other similar contemporary positions. Anti-state socialists, represented by Proudhon, Bakunin, and their heirs, have been relegated to obscurity for a number of reasons, not the least of which has been the efforts of state socialists to expunge them from the historical record. However, as Noam Chomsky has brilliantly surmised, anti-state socialists (also called “anarchists” or “libertarian” socialists) are the true heirs to the Enlightenment classical-liberal tradition of opposing all forms of centralized, hierarchical, authoritarian, and exploitive power.

The classical liberalism–influenced anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard noted that the primary failure of state socialists was their insistence upon trying to achieve socialism by “conservative” means such as statism, elitism, and militarism. The libertarian socialist Mikhail Bakunin predicted as much when he said that if state socialism were ever to achieve genuine state power, it would create a form of tyranny unrivaled in history. With these words, Bakunin pretty much predicted and described the course of political economy during the entire twentieth century and into the twenty-first. State socialism produced the most murderous tyranny in history by means of “Communist”, or Marxist-Leninist, states that slaughtered hundreds of millions throughout the past century. State socialism also contributed to the rise of fascism (Mussolini was a former leader of the Italian Socialist Party) and Nazism (the very term is a German language abbreviation for “National Socialism”). Even in the comparatively mild “social democratic” and “welfare capitalist” states of Western Europe and America, the influence of state-socialist ideology has produced a massive state-corporate bureaucracy (what Noam Chomsky calls “state capitalism” and what Russell Means calls “corporate socialism”), the entrenchment of an elitist intellectual-academic class that has emerged as a new priesthood that formulates and proclaims official doctrines that champion state-corporate interests, a massive welfare bureaucracy that reduces large sectors of the minority populations to a status of state wardship and confinement to the urban reservation of public housing, the incompetent indoctrination system of public education (an institution that thoughtful liberals like Bertrand Russell and Ivan Illich adamantly opposed), and countless other contemporary ills.

Because liberalism, socialism, and leftism have become nearly universally identified with statism, it should not be surprising that many contemporary opponents of the state regard themselves as “conservative”. However, the historical meaning of conservatism is not individual liberty and greater freedom from government but an emphasis on maintaining a static hierarchical, stratified order, tradition-based collectivism, subservience of the individual to elite privilege, theocracy, and nationalistic statism. This was the conservatism of Edmund Burke, the Tories, John C. Calhoun and other apologists for slavery, Otto von Bismarck, and the Buckleyite CIA conservatives of the Cold War era. This is the conservatism that drips out of the pages of the writings of contemporary reactionaries like Russell Kirk, Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, William Bennett, and others of their ilk. This is the conservatism that motivated Calhoun to describe the decentralized slavocracy of the antebellum South as a libertarian regime. This is the “Christian libertarianism” of the neo-theocrats R. J. Rushdooney and Gary North, who correctly identify true conservatism with the Old Order of the pre-Enlightenment medieval era. This is the conservatism of the white nationalist Samuel Francis, who longs for the good old days of the sixteenth century, when workers, poor people, women, and ethnic minorities dutifully served their masters while the naturally superior classes of aristocrats and intellectuals wrote sonnets, sculpted statues, and engaged in scientific experiments.

What sincere and honest opponents of the state need to do is not to align themselves with all things reactionary in the name of a vague, inconsistent “anti-state” conservatism but to resurrect and revive the genuinely libertarian traditions of classical liberalism and its grandchild, libertarian socialism. Of course, such an effort poses some difficulties. Intellectually competent and morally courageous opposition to the state is a rather rare phenomenon these days. Most so-called “civil libertarians” of the ACLU variety are state socialists who don’t want government interfering in their sex lives. Most “free-market” libertarians of the Cato Institute/Reason Magazine type are Republican-friendly economic conservatives who don’t want income taxes impeding their upward mobility but who don’t want to go to jail for sniffing coke either. Most contemporary left-anarchists are, in the words of Jason Schwalm, “pathetic leftist trash, dopeheads, shitheads, teenagers angry at their parents, and assorted miscreants who are easily diverted into liberal pet projects”, who, I might add, couldn’t give a coherent definition of anarchism to save their lives.

An entirely new ideological paradigm needs to be developed. One that rejects the traditionalism and economic elitism of the right and the statism of the left. One that draws on the best and most enduring elements of classical liberalism, libertarian socialism, and classical anarchism but adapts these to contemporary circumstances within a uniquely American cultural framework that appeals to the best within our libertarian and revolutionary traditions. Political and economic decentralization should be our revolutionary battle cry. Our natural allies in this struggle would come from a variety of sources. One source would of course be masses of urban poor people and minorities warehoused and enslaved on the modern plantations of the welfare system, prison-industrial complex, violence-ridden public housing, and fraudulent schools, brutalized and tyrannized by the fascist War on Drugs, and dispossessed by gentrification, “urban planning”, and the new aristocratic order built up around so-called “zoning” policy and “slum clearance”. Immigrant and Native American Indian populations victimized in similar ways are possible allies as well. Another source are the youth, who are increasingly under attack by fascistic legislation, curfews, prison-like schools, a brutal so-called “juvenile justice” system, music censorship, and other attacks on their rights and privileges. What Michele Foucault termed the “liberation movements” of the 1960s, involving increased freedom for minorities, women, and homosexuals, need to be brought back to their libertarian roots and away from their current middle-class liberal, state-socialist orientation and expanded to include youth, the mentally ill, the homeless, runaways, drug users and minority drug cultures, prisoners, prostitutes, and other scapegoated classes.

Finally, there are the masses of traditional, working-class, farming, white Christian people the statist left views with suspicion or contempt that populate the small towns, rural areas, the vast farm belt across the American heartland, and the mountainous regions. These people are among those who are most under attack from the state-corporate system, whether they be workers downsized by corporate exploitation of slave labor in poor countries, farmers run off their traditional lands by agribusiness cartels, small landowners, and self-employed persons hounded mercilessly by government regulators and tax collectors, religious minorities harassed and even murdered by government thugs, county rights advocates who defy authoritarian central power, common-law opponents of the state’s corrupt legal system, armed militias prepared to fight the forces of statism and globalization to the death, homeschoolers, proponents of agrarianism and appropriate technologies, tax resisters, churches who defend church/state separation by defying decrees of government, and, of course, defenders of the right to bear arms who know that armed subjects are ultimately the best deterrent to tyrannical rulers when nearly all of the left, even many so-called “anarchists” (ignoring their own history and traditions), fail to do so. These are the people that we need to move away from the teachings of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, G. Gordon Liddy, William Pierce, and other intellectual neanderthals and towards the genuinely anti-state, pro-liberty, pro-working class teachings of Mikhail Bakunin and Noam Chomsky.

The original principles of classical anarchism—elimination of the authoritarian state, control of economies of scale by cooperative partnerships of producers, individualism, genuine liberation of outcast groups, resistance to war and imperialism, decentralization, voluntary association, intellectual and cultural freedom, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation—remain as relevant as ever in today’s world. The conservative sociologist Thomas Sowell notes that most social conflict originates from a “conflict of visions”, that is, differing views on human nature and the basis of an ideal or appropriate form of social organization. The conflict of visions currently before us becomes clear. On one hand, there is the vision of the ruling class duopoly of state-socialist corporatism and conservative-traditionalist plutocracy continually advancing towards a domestic police state operating as a province of a fascist global corporate oligarchical order against the feeble protests of an intellectually bankrupt, disenfranchised, Naderite left. On the other hand, there is the vision of a vibrant, militant, focused, intellectually innovative, genuinely revolutionary liberation movement working for independent, self-determined, self-managed, self-sufficient free communities bursting out from under the iron heel of ruling-class tyranny and degeneration. The choice is ours. It’s time to throw the albatrosses of statism, elitism, and plutocracy into the garbage bins of history to rot along side the Caesars, inquisitors, and czars from the past.

1 reply »

  1. I’ve surely come to realize (at 70) conservatism ISN’T enough…
    But knowledge of how to do anything with that realization hasn’t yet followed.
    Throwing statism, elitism, and plutocracy into the garbage probably can be done on an individual basis but this isn’t going to get the country very far. How many of us are there? One thousand? One hundred thousand, One million?
    How to we find each other, coalesce, and, well, then what? Without being murdered by “the state”? As have been many others.

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