How to “Doom” Anarchism: A Response to Dakota Hensley

Can there be such a thing as a “conservative anarchist?” Yes, as is true of any broad political label – socialist, democrat, libertarian, the list grows longer every day as the far right tries to appropriate the language of other tendencies. Ultimately, one can identify with whatever values they want, this is the foundation of many views I hold. After reading through “The Conservative Anarchist,” it appears that Dakota Hensley and I both share this general principle, and I’m sure there’s many other areas in which we might broadly agree. Where we appear to differ is in our conception of how individual values should be regarded.

Let’s consider a hypothetical society in which the state is gone, borders have been abolished, and communities are created by freedom of association. If I, a nonbinary person, am threatened by a growing contingent of transphobes in my immediate vicinity, and I’m not willing or able to leave, I should be able to use my resources and connections to create a support network to defend myself against any perceived threat. It also works in my best interest to use whatever means I have available to make my social environment safe for me; if this involves applying pressure to people who don’t respect peoples’ pronouns or claim that “gender is determined by biology,” that’s entirely consistent with anarchism. Hensley has a much different view on this than I do: “Anarchism is about building a society in which no one forces their beliefs on others. As long as you respect the views and lives of others, your personal views don’t matter.”

…no, it’s not. Depending on the specific definition of “forcing one’s beliefs onto others,” there’s plenty of ways one could fit “forcing their beliefs on others” into a consistent, principled anarchism. If someone accuses me of forcing my belief that trans women are women onto them, I don’t see that as anti-anarchist unless I suggest using hate crime legislation to put transphobes in prison. In any ideal safe space, incentives exist to keep bad actors out and encourage positive behaviors. “Force” is arguably used when we kick someone out of a space for using slurs or when we make fun of Trump supporters, yet I wouldn’t expect many anarchists to be against such actions.

There is a more charitable reading of this, however. In the context of the rest of the article, “respecting the views and lives of others” involves the validation of peoples’ gender identities, preferred pronouns, and not using certain trigger words or slurs, in which case I agree with the second half of Hensley’s statement. My concern is that certain folks may attempt to frame such requests as an imposition on one’s freedom of expression, a common tactic used by reactionary libertarians and self-described “small government” conservatives.

The language of limited government and individual sovereignty can definitely be pushed further to radicalize people from right-libertarianism to anarchism, but it’s worth acknowledging the massive inconsistencies in the general conservative notion of “limited government.” The usual implication of this rhetoric isn’t abolitionist in nature, but rather a resistance to “socialism” (expansion of medicaid, increasing the minimum wage, empowering unions, etc.) informed by decades of red scare propaganda and the growth of Koch-funded think-tanks. As a result, most conservatives are much more supportive of “big government” than their rhetoric suggests.

Despite this general tendency, Hensley makes a noble attempt to take conservatives at their word regarding anti-statism and individualism, noting the organizing potential within Appalachian communities.

While these views are uncommon among anarchists, they’re not uncommon among the people of Appalachia where anarchist distributism would do well in an area that prides itself on its individualism yet has a strong sense of community. Combine it with an ardent social conservatism and anarchism would explode here. Many forget that Appalachians don’t vote. Turnout is quite low here. Even if you, like me, aren’t a social conservative, you can alter your message and focus on the aspects of anarchism that could appeal to social conservatives.

In defining conservatism through this example, I think Hensley makes a very solid case for the genuine parallels between conservative communitarian values and anarchist theory. In general I’ve heard many good things from organizers I know regarding collaborating with conservatives and libertarians to make otherwise small projects very successful, in some cases converting individuals from right to left. I myself am a living example of that conversion, as my anarchism is an outgrowth of the anti-authoritarianism that drew me to vulgar libertarianism. If Hensley had expanded on this section and explored the ways that communities in Appalachia uphold individual autonomy and mutual aid, skeptics would be met with a compelling argument for how conservatism could be applied to very radical ends.

Unfortunately, Hensley doesn’t do this, instead attempting to garner sympathy for “social conservatives” as a broadly defined group: 

Many forget that most social conservatives would be okay with a ‘leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone’ approach to these issues. My readers may think that I’m too sympathetic to the average social conservative. I should remind you that only 7% of Americans use Twitter. The conservatives on Twitter (much like the liberals) are a small, small fraction. The average conservative [holds] conservative views on social matters but do support things that strengthen the individual and community and would be open to anarchism if it was presented to them in a friendly package.

In addition to the downright bizarre point about twitter conservatives somehow being a common point of reference, it’s strange that Hensley is so strongly attracted to the conservative idea of “strengthening the individual.” Anyone familiar with the broader individualist tradition beyond Ayn Rand and the work of classical liberals should immediately recognize the ways in which western “individualism” is in many ways counterproductive to empowering individuals. While conservatives may indeed claim to support “freedom from government tyranny,” they will also often claim loyalty to the nation, much in the same way that they will defend the Second Amendment right before defending cops and soldiers.

The response to the nationwide protests and the popularity of police abolitionism is a perfect example of how many people on the right are terrible allies for anarchists. Conservatives, libertarians, and anarcho-capitalists have often been the first to oppose peaceful protests, villify anti-fascist activists, and support state violence against groups they perceive as “threats to private property” or advocates of “big government.” Hensley appears to exclude these people from their definition of “conservatives,” but I cite this example to demonstrate that a “leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone approach” can always be co-opted by fascists and isn’t always complimentary to anarchism. National anarchists, Hoppeans, and the libertarian to alt-right pipeline – largely promoted by Murray Rothbard’s insistence on alliances with holocaust deniers and paleoconservatives – are only a few other examples of reactionary appropriations of “anti-state” rhetoric.

The trick for those of us doing outreach is to exploit these contradictions and dissuade people from the authoritarian elements of the rhetoric without validating their beliefs as consistently “individualist.” Hensley appears to concede to conservatives that they already have a valid understanding of individualism and that we as anarchists need to reward them for it.

Similar lines of reasoning are used to argue for outreach to the left, a tactic I’m aware that Hensley opposes: “Those tankies say they’re anti-capitalist,” a vulgar anarcho-communist might say, “hence we share the same goal and need to present anarchism to them in a friendly package.” Hensley and I would likely agree that there are obvious flaws in this argument: because the anarchist conception of “capitalism” differs significantly from that of marxists, it’s probably not a great idea to put stock in such an unstable alliance, because even if we use similar language and political aesthetics, we aren’t talking about the same thing, and even if we do put anarchism in a “friendly package,” the campaign will have effectively reduced anarchism to an emulation of leftism more than anything else.

I don’t think either of these positions – reaching out to the left or the right – are worth rejecting entirely. My intent is to illustrate how this argument looks in the context of what the author has said elsewhere; Hensley, in advocating outreach to conservatives while vocally opposing outreach to the left, ends up supporting a rightward shift in our general outreach strategy. This is the worst case scenario, of course, but it’s worth considering since the far right has honed their ability to use this rhetorical strategy, and I don’t want Hensley’s article to be a potential entry point – even if only by accident.

To put my primary criticism bluntly, Hensley leaves too much to the reader’s imagination. Some people read this article as alt-right entryism, and others see this as a good reminder that not all conservatives are nazis (although with lines like “If we ignore conservatives, we’ll doom anarchism,” it’s not hard to see why queer folks, people of color, leftists, and other marginalized groups wouldn’t receive Hensley’s message with open arms). The biggest issue for me is that Hensley speaks in incredibly broad strokes that could validate the views of national anarchists while alienating readers threatened by social conservatism, making the piece difficult to approach from any perspective.

The very first sentence I quoted, “Anarchism is about building a society in which no one forces their beliefs on others” is a perfect example of what I mean: to some, “no one forcing their beliefs on others” implies liberation from systems that impose stratified social roles on women and men respectively, to others it might be a buzzword for opposing the “gay agenda” forcing queer pride in their face when they just wanna watch the football game. It’s not clear what Hensley wants to achieve beyond extrapolating their intentions by comparing their twitter feed with their published work, and it’s incredibly frustrating.

It’s no revelation that our organizing efforts might have to involve a maoist or two, a few centrists, and, every now and again, some conservatives. By working with these people, however, we don’t need to defend the legitimacy of “maoist anarchism,” “centrist anarchism,” or “conservative anarchism.” Not all of our allies have to be anarchists, and that’s okay insofar as we’re able to work with them effectively without threatening the people we’re trying to help. Yes, “conservative anarchists” can exist, but we’re not “doomed” if some of us choose to keep a safe distance between ourselves and conservatives. If you choose to use your privileges to “recruit” from the right, that’s your prerogative. For some of us, however, conservatives can be dangerous. Reaching out to potential allies is a noble effort, but if we spend more time cozying up with right-wingers than we do defending people from oppression, we will certainly, as Hensley says, “doom anarchism.”

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory