Wilkin, Peter. The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism. Faringdon, Oxfordshire: Libri Publishing, 2010.
What relevance does a niche subculture from 20th century Britain have for Americans today? Sociologists have pointed to the phenomenon of “the empty self,” the reduction of happiness to my own personal feelings. A corollary is a mindless conformism to consumerist society. The Tory anarchists, by contrast, show how one can resist such mindless conformism.
Summary statement: The Tory Anarchist is the “Young Fogey.” As Wilkin notes, “To be a Tory anarchist is to share a conservative moral and cultural critique of the modern world, rather than a right-wing political ideology” (Wilkin 12). This allows Wilkin to label a socialist like George Orwell as a “Tory.” If I may translate into American lingo, a right-wing conservative simply wants to “own the libs” or get the next interventionist Republican into office. A Tory, by contrast, wants to preserve a nation’s cultural practices.
The more I think about it, a Tory anarchist is basically a hipster who has style and class and is usually quite favorable to religion. With hipsters they protest bourgeois culture, but they probably wouldn’t join the Democratic Socialists, nor would they approve of the soycialist attack on religion. As Evelyn Waugh notes, “The disillusioned Marxist becomes a fascist; the disillusioned anarchist, a Christian” (Brideshead Benighted: 206).
A Tory disbelieves in revolutions because what will come next will usually be worse. A Tory anarchist strongly disapproves of all politicians. Tory anarchism is not a political ideology or program. It is a set of social practices. It will come as no surprise that a Tory is a traditionalist. He takes it a step further: he believes in classes in society. Their opposition to things like the welfare state is merely to oppose the encroaching power of the state. Otherwise, they are quite comfortable with “safety nets” on the market.
A Tory anarchist take on the market is a bit more complex. They see market forces as reducing man to a philistine culture. Nonetheless, most Tories, Orwell excluded, make peace with capitalism as it is the least of all evils.
Tories have championed both high and low culture. There is a unifying theme, though. Both Waugh and Orwell agree that culture cannot be reduced to mere preference. Beauty is objective, even if pretty is not.
The Tory, like the real conservative, prioritizes the local over universal theorising (29). This means that neo-con nation-building was never conservative. The anarchist label is a bit more troubling, as anarchism not only protests the existence of the state, but that of class distinctions as well. Tory anarchism, if such there be, remains a rebellion within limits, rather than without, and often possesses a reactionary cultural perspective” (33).
The Tools of the Tory Satirist
Tory satire embodies silliness, empiricism, irony, and the surreal (49). Silliness simply exaggerates the manners of a certain class. The best example is Monty Python. Empiricism is a bit more challenging, as empiricists were basically skeptical of authority and religion. For the Tories, however, empiricism was a style of writing that aimed to be clear and precise (59). So far, that is good. I do think there is a contradiction in the project at this point: Tory anarchists, at least on this reading, want to be both surreal and empirical/clear. I maintain you can’t be both, since that is more or less the point of surrealism. Dream-like writing and thinking is by necessity ephemeral. It avoids clarity.
Wilkin’s examination of the Empire and Tory is particularly good. The British Empire was neither all bad or all good. Rather, it embodied contradictions that revealed the best of British culture, although usually at the expense of other cultures. There is an even more pointed contradiction. Tory anarchists embodied the real Britain, the local Britain at home. Empire, however, is always an amalgamation of various cultures.
Although most Tory anarchists would gladly see the demise of the Empire, they realized that its replacement, the Nanny State, is just as malignant to human liberty and flourishing. Instead of a traditional class at the top, society would now be ruled by elite “experts.”
The expert class came as a result of global capitalism. It’s not that capitalism per se is the enemy for Wilkin; rather, “the state tried to take the risk out of capitalism by shifting the burden of research and investment costs onto the general population–in effect, the socialization of risk” (146).
Orwell was the most interesting. On the surface he appeared a man of contradictions. He was a socialist who warned against Soviet intrusion in the West. Moreover, he seemed to support the British monarchy. Most startingly, at the end of his life he gave a list of communist sympathizers to MI6. I think, rather, that Orwell was more or less consistent in all of this.
For Orwell, the monarchy played a unifying role in national life (As I Please: 1943-1945, 102). On socialism, for whatever else its faults, Orwell wanted a uniquely British socialism that resisted the threat of Sovietism. He saw that both Thatcherism and Sovietism reduced man to a faceless blob.
Some sections are savagely funny. While many Tory anarchists revered the military and the crown, they could poke fun at their own stereotypes. See for example:
Commanding Officer: Sorry to drag you away from the fun, old boy. War’s not going very well, you know. War is a psychological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?
Perkins: Yes, sir.
CO: Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don’t come back.
Goodbye, Perkins., I wish I was going too.
Perkins: Goodbye, sir – or is it – au revoir?,’
CO: No, Perkins.
List of Tory anarchists:
The Chap magazine.
The printing is somewhat odd. The first chapter begins in verso, or on the left-hand side of the page. Also, the book repeats itself. Many times we are told that Tory anarchism is “a form of English nonconformism.”
Notwithstanding, the book is a fascinating exploration into 20th century British culture.