Judging from what comes from the mouths of the Donald Trump government and its servile media, the united states of america is seemingly on the brink of a nation wide “anarchist insurrection”. From “anarchist led” protests against racist police violence, to “professional anarchist agitators”, to major urban “anarchist jurisdictions” – with “antifa” thrown into the mix -, and only heavily militarised and right-wing militia intervention, so the tall tale goes, will bring the country back from chaos.
“Red scares” are not new to american politics and however preposterous the language is coming from this government, it should not be forgotten or ignored that such politics of fear and paranoia quickly translate (as they did in the past) into broadening surveillance, control, persecution, exile, incarceration, and death, and not only of the “reds”; they have always served to target people judged to be “dissident populations”.
Fear seems to more obviously underlie the american political order than other comparable regimes; perhaps due to its history as a settler-slave colony and as a racist-imperialist power …
… but no modern State is immune from the politics of fear; indeed, it lies at the foundation of any such hierarchical domination. A State’s legitimacy is grounded in immunising its subjects against what lives outside, the different, the foreign, the enemy, each a threat to the security and well-being of the nation.
The “liberal” opposition in the country has been equally quick to take up the cause, with eager efforts to distinguish “bad, violent” protesters from the “good, peaceful” ones (a variation on more violent forms of counter-insurgency, but which then exposes the “violent” protesters to the same State violence). And the “liberal” media are not far behind, with the New York Times proffering to unmask the “truth” about anarchists (see the CrimethInc. Collective‘s response) and the Washington Post revealing the final truth abut the matter: the Donald Trump is the real anarchist.
Well, with so many anarchists about, one might be forgiven any confusion that this may cause, especially as the word is being thrown about essentially as an insult.
For a little clarity – and never forgetting the danger that all of this verbal nonsense threatens – we share a piece published with Anarchist Agency (30/09/2020) and an interview with James C. Scott (Slate 29/09/2020).
Why Anarchism is Dangerous
Anarchists frighten privileged elites and their authoritarian followers not simply because the primary goals of the movement have been to abolish the sources of elite power – the state, patriarchy, and capitalism – but because anarchism offers a viable alternative form of social and political organization grounded in workplace collectives, neighborhood assemblies, bottom-up federations, child-centered free schools, and a variety of cultural organizations operating on the basis of cooperation, solidarity, mutual aid, and direct, participatory democracy. Opposed to all forms of hierarchy, domination, and exploitation, anarchists work to create a culture grounded in equal access to resources making the genuine exercise of freedom possible. Over the past century and a half, and particularly in the last two decades, the self-managing principles of anarchism have proliferated around the world and have also become part of the standard operating procedures of protest. Since elites would be rendered redundant in an anarchist egalitarian society, no wonder rulers tremble at the thought of anarchist jurisdictions.
The grim realities of the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and ongoing police violence have laid bare the inadequacies of the current leadership and the existing governing system while also providing opportunities, like all crises, to create significant change. Whether or not we achieve a historical pivot to a fundamentally different society will depend in part upon maintaining militant and creative political pressure in the streets while simultaneously building forms of counter-power, counter-institutions, and organizations pre-figuring the anarchist vision of a free society.
This is a time of significant cultural upheaval in regards to issues revolving around race met by severe political reaction and the attempted retrenchment of white, patriarchal power. In contrast to the first Black Lives Matter movement several years ago in response to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, white people’s understanding of how historic forms of oppression continue to shape our lives is growing. Black Lives Matter may be the largest social protest movement in US history. In the first two months after police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, approximately 15 to 26 million people (up to 8 percent of the population) participated in a Black Lives Matter protest.
The President employs shop-worn stereotypes to delegitimize the movement in the streets by claiming anarchists and Antifa (antifascists) are sinister elements behind these protests, but the vast majority of participants are in fact poor and working-class people of color and their white allies. This is largely a spontaneous uprising. Anarchists are indeed on the streets in solidarity, demanding justice, just as they have been since anarchists first called for the abolition of capitalism and the state in the process of creating a mass working class movement in the 1860s, but the tactics used in the current uprising are a combination of historically proven methods honed over decades of struggle and new adaptations to the increasingly militarized, brutal police. Today’s anarchists are neither leading nor instigating the current protests. The anarchist role in the actions, however, goes far beyond being in the streets with protestors. Since anarchism’s reemergence in the 1990s, when anarchist organizing principles were used to shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, anarchism has permeated contemporary oppositional movements. The anarchist emphasis on direct action and street militance help define today’s movements, as do the use of affinity groups and black bloc tactics. Militant horizontalism is today’s protest standard.
The significance of the sustained protests against police violence is that the key ingredient for successful change is the militant disruption of everyday life, like we have seen in Portland, Louisville, Rochester and many other communities across the country. We know from studies of 323 violent and nonviolent movements around the world, protests that mobilize at least 3.5 percent of the population can produce regime change. While today’s protests are not about regime change, but about social and political change, there is reason for hope that today’s protests will create an historical inflection that will be far more significant than merely changing the occupant of the Oval Office. As our society and its political establishment continue to be mired in chaos, anarchism offers a viable way out, a way to organize ourselves in a free and cooperative fashion outside the electoral process. Partly for this reason, elites vilify anarchists.
Grotesque caricatures of anarchism have always been used by politicians to frighten citizens and justify the murder, beating, deportation, and jailing of anarchists, many of them recent immigrants, whose only crime was belief in the possibility of a better world. How ironic, then, that it is anarchists who are perceived as violent, when in fact the vast majority of violence has been perpetrated by those working for capitalists and the state. Nevertheless, anarchists have made major contributions to our history by creating space for new possibilities in the process of “demanding the impossible.” Anarchism today is much changed from its 19th century origins, but the core principles remain the same and can be seen in action on the streets and in work going on in the neighborhoods of cities and towns large and small.
Over a hundred years ago, in his book, “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolutionism,” anarchist Peter Kropotkin argued against Herbert Spencer’s interpretation of Charles Darwin, pointing out that evolution is not driven by competition within species, but rather between species and those species that cooperate most are best suited for survival. Social cooperation allows humans to care for each other and work together to overcome adversity. This is exactly how people have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. As Jia Tolentino observed in “The New Yorker”: “Informal child-care collectives, transgender support groups, and other ad-hoc organizations operate without the top-down leadership or philanthropic funding that most charities depend on. There is no comprehensive directory of such groups, most of which do not seek or receive much attention. But, suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere.”
People are responding with care, cooperation and mutual aid amidst the calamity of the coronavirus pandemic, the frenzy of police brutality and the recent devastating forest fires on the US West Coast. In Portland, Oregon, people have been in the streets protesting in support of Black lives and against the police for over one hundred consecutive days, only taking a short break during the forest fires. Countless collectives, organizations, affinity groups, and blocs have formed. As Roger Peet, of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, observes, “There has been a vast blossoming of small nuclei providing an eclectic variety of services to the protesting population: snacks, eye-wash, helmets, carefully built shields, wound care, pamphlets, water, communication, and more. These mutual aid networks and small structures provide an ameliorative infrastructure to the nightly context of protest, but they also provide a coherent thing for a participant to do, outside of the nominally vague goal of simply protesting.” Pop-up clinics have been organized to provide for protestors’ aftercare, to help with the physical and emotional effects of blunt force trauma and exposure to the chemical warfare used by police. And with West Coast air quality recently the worst in the world due to massive forest fires, the militants switched for a time to provide disaster relief. From street medics on the front lines of protests and disaster relief to organizers in Brooklyn bringing people groceries during the pandemic, direct action and initiative by everyday people is making a material difference in people’s everyday lives.
There is also widespread recognition in the US of the failure of the state as a viable means of social organization. Starting decades ago, with disillusionment over the US war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and revelations about the role of the FBI in suppressing social movements, the inadequacy of the state is currently illustrated by the inept federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, a torn social safety net that protects very few, an environment in collapse, and systemic racism enforced by militarized police. It is increasingly clear that the government cannot solve these multiple crises. Anarchists present fundamental and urgent alternatives to hierarchical power and to a society based upon exploitation and domination.
Disruption in the streets changes the political conversation. Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement changed the political conversation to focus on economic inequality, today’s protests have changed the conversation to focus on systemic racism. As the conversation changes, values change, priorities are altered, new alliances emerge, and possibilities previously inconceivable become attainable. We also know there will be an inevitable backlash. The most important factor limiting the backlash will be the strength of the communities of resistance that emerge as a result of people seeing themselves in the movement. People need to stay in the streets, agitating, keeping the pressure on to maintain focus on addressing these issues. Another protection for social movements is having the support of the population on the side of the protestors. We have made significant gains in the political fight for public opinion, which is why the attacks on Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and anarchism have dramatically increased. The right-wing is mobilizing to protect white, patriarchal, capitalist privilege and power. An important benefit of protest participation is a sense of belonging to a powerful vehicle for social change, and the knowledge that you are not alone in your outrage. The resulting sense of identity strengthens the will to resist in the moment and also prepares one for future battles.
No matter who is elected in November, this agitation and movement building must continue. Despite the current administration’s demonization, today’s anarchists work toward creating a free society not merely through militant street demonstrations, but by engaging in workplace organizing, mutual aid projects, and the creation of democratic organizations and counter-institutions. We’ll need a proliferation of wildcat strikes, like those enacted by NBA players in support of Black lives, and the generalization of oppositional politics throughout society. Anarchists are creating a culture that models defiance of white supremacy, values Black lives, and defends those of us under attack because we are vulnerable, whether we are queer, trans, women, working class, or houseless. All of us.
One driving force of history is the direct action of social movements from below. Major changes in Western democracies happen when legislation tries to catch up to and respond to pressure from social movements, such as the riots and civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Today’s world is far from anarchist ideals and will require fundamental social changes in all areas of life, from how we organize ourselves economically to how we decide social and political priorities. Existing political elites and the ruling classes have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, even if that means the continued murder of Black people by police, foreign military intervention, and a dangerously escalating climate crisis. They will not voluntarily give up power and share the wealth, as has been demonstrated throughout history. A social movement in the streets, workplaces, neighborhoods, and cities is essential. A militant movement brings everyday people into dialogue with elite decision makers. It makes us hard to ignore. As people achieve concrete victories, the movement continues and builds until a decisive moment when profound social, economic, and political change becomes possible. In this process, anarchists are motivated to empower people to share power collectively instead of allowing elites to hoard power for themselves.
Social movements also need a vision for the future. Anarchism points us in the direction of creating a free and equal world. Anarchism offers a society in which no one is left out, in which no basic need remains unmet and, most importantly, an egalitarian culture where no one stands above or below or in the way of the genuine exercise of freedom.
We share a desperate need for a fundamentally different society. One that does not wreak havoc on the environment in pursuit of profits, one where police no longer murder people of color to preserve white supremacy, one free of the exploitation of people’s labor, and free of misogynist violence, a society where the people affected by political decisions are the ones making those decisions. A directly democratic society principally opposed to domination and exploitation is some of what anarchism offers and why it is so dangerous to the wielders of established power.
Paul Messersmith-Glavin is a longtime anarchist organizer and a member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory journal collective (follow him on Twitter @PaulMessersmit4)
What’s So Bad About Anarchy, Anyway?
With Trump attacking “anarchist jurisdictions,” a scholar of anarchism discusses the use and misuse of the A-word.
Anarchism is having a moment—or at least the word is. President Donald Trump spent much of the summer blaming violence at protests around the country on “radical-left anarchists.” His election rival, Joe Biden, has made clear that while he supports peaceful protests, he strongly opposes “anarchists” as well. Some of Trump’s critics have suggested that with his disregard for the norms and institutions of American politics, he’s the real anarchist. The A-word got its most dubious usage in September when Trump released a directive to federal agencies instructing them to find ways to withhold funding for designated “anarchist jurisdictions” like the cities of Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and New York. The memo blamed Democratic city governments for allowing “anarchy, violence, and destruction in America’s cities.”
The designation was immediately met with scorn and ridicule—the three cities are among the safest in the nation, for one thing. But perhaps because of recent state failures, there is something of an anarchist spirit in the air.
In response to the pandemic, “mutual aid” groups—a term originated by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin—took off in cities throughout the world to deliver services to those in need. Activists in Seattle maintained a police-free “autonomous zone” for several weeks. Leaderless protest movements are on the rise, while once-radical ideas for limiting the state’s power, like defunding police forces and abolishing prisons, are gaining mainstream acceptance.
To discuss what anarchism really means, I spoke with James C. Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale. Scott has applied an “anarchist squint” to politics and the study of peasant and nomadic societies in books like the classic Seeing Like a State and his recent critical history of agriculture, Against the Grain. In his 2014 book Two Cheers for Anarchism, he makes the case for an anarchist approach to both political activism and everyday life. We discussed the recent protests, how anarchism got such a bad name, and whether anarchism could ever get a Bernie Sanders–style rebranding. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Joshua Keating: When you look at the leaderless anti-racist protest movements we’ve seen in recent months, or the autonomous zones that have appeared in a couple of cities, do you see those as examples of anarchist practice?
James Scott: Yes. I think when Trump talks about antifa [the commonly used shorthand for anti-fascist activists], he imagines, I suppose, a kind of organization that is plotting and then directing from some command structure, telling its minions to go out and do this or that.
It seems to me that when you look at almost all of modern—and I mean modern going back to the French Revolution—progressive movements, social uprisings, almost all of them begin as grassroots phenomena without any leadership, or a leadership that grows organically from the streets.
By and large, it’s not organizations that start movements. It’s movements that, by their activity and growth, then precipitate out, if you like. Organizations then carry a legislative or an actual program forward, but the organizations are the product of an eruption of anger.
That was true for the civil rights movement with [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. It was true for all the wildcat strikes during the New Deal as well. It wasn’t unions that created those strikes—they erupted against union instructions by and large.
Why do you think there’s this persistent use of anarchist as an epithet?
I suppose it’s two things. One of them, of course, is that it’s not as if there wasn’t, historically, a section of anarchism did believe in violence. The “anarchists of the deed” had this idea that if you bombed train stations and prime ministers and parliaments and command structures of the military and so on, you could destroy the state. So it’s not as if it there isn’t a grain of truth about the history of anarchism deploying violence in a strategic way. But today it has just become a synonym for violence and chaos and the absence of order. It’s a product, if you like, of a kind of a capitalist mindset, especially when it comes to the destruction of property.
How did your interest in anarchism first develop?
In two stages, I suppose. I used to teach courses on theories of peasant revolution. And there was a time when I worshipped at the altar of Ho Chi Minh and Mao and Sékou Touré and so on. And it dawned on me, of course, by looking more closely at them, and actually then reading a tremendous amount about the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, that most revolutions ended up installing a state that was more oppressive than the state that they had destroyed. So, that was bracing.
Then, when I was teaching courses on social change, I found myself saying things, which, in the back of my head, I thought, Hmm, that sounds like what an anarchist would say. And it happened enough times that I decided, well, I better make sure. I better teach a couple of courses on anarchism and read all the classics. And so that’s how I came to make a deeper dive, if you like, into the arguments against the state for anarchism.
But, as you know, the reason my book is called Two Cheers is because there are aspects of anarchism that I don’t agree with.
So you wouldn’t describe yourself as an anarchist?
No, you could say I’m a sympathizer. The problem is that while in most people’s mouths it’s just a synonym for chaos and violence, in fact, etymologically, it just means a kind of order without hierarchy. It seems to me that describes many of the most progressive and important structures of social protests historically.
In your book, you write a lot about figures like Martin Luther King and Jane Jacobs as examples of anarchist practice, even though people wouldn’t normally identify them—and they wouldn’t identify themselves—as anarchists. Are there more traditional anarchist movements we can learn from?
Of course, during the Spanish Civil War, the Republican side was identifiably, in large parts, an anarchist movement emphasizing local autonomy and so on. The only postwar example that I think is extremely important is the Solidarity movement in Poland [in the 1980s]. It never had a centralized leadership. It depended on both rural and urban and labor and the middle class coming together voluntarily. And because of the widespread hatred for martial law under [President Wojciech] Jaruzelski, it was a tremendous success. That was a successful, peaceful, and anarchist revolution in the full meaning of the term.
Can you explain what you mean by the “anarchist squint”?
The point of the anarchist squint is to show how much social action actually depends on this heterogeneous coming together of people whose anger has many of the same targets. This action depends on popular improvisation by a large number of people who don’t have the same objectives in mind, nor a formal means of agreeing on exactly what to do.
I think, for example, of things like desertions from Napoleon’s army, or by poor white soldiers from the Confederate forces during the Civil War—people defected as whole units. The same is true for squatting. Squatters don’t announce their objectives. They just squat and then maybe move out when they’re threatened and then move back again.
The Black Lives Matter movement now has spokesmen we can listen to on the cable news. But Black Lives Matter was precipitated out of Black anger on the streets over time. And the formal organization is a product of an improvised explosion of anger.
Over the years you’ve been teaching these topics, have you noticed an increasing interest in anarchism?
I haven’t taught formal anarchism for some time, but when I taught the course, I was astounded by the number of people who turned up. I used to say during those three years during which I taught courses on anarchism, if you dropped a bomb on my class, you would have destroyed the Yale undergraduate left.
And now I think it’s actually partly because people are particularly concerned about the technology for state control through the use of personal information. I think we know a fair amount about how far this is going in China, with facial recognition technology and so on, in the Uighur areas. So people are paying attention, if you like, to Leviathan.
And now it seems to me that the kind of control that the state has at its command is far more granular and microtargeted.
Is there a way to rehabilitate anarchism for the general public?
I guess one reason why you called me is the way in which anarchism has just become an insult to hurl, and it’s actually quite effective. It’s not as if I imagine I’m going to take the rest of the American public to a little seminar for three hours and convince them that anarchism isn’t such a bad thing, even if there’s more of an appetite now.
It’s a little like the process by which Eastern European command economies gave socialism a bad name, and then it became an insult. In fact, much of what the public would like to have happen in public life, in terms of legislation and security and so on, has historically gone under the name of socialism. And yet when you call it socialism, it implies that thought control and a command economy and everybody telling you what to do. Whereas capitalism still has a relatively good name, to the point where Elizabeth Warren calls herself a capitalist.
Well, that raises the question. There’s been a rehabilitation of socialism’s brand in American politics lately, thanks to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. Could there ever be a “Democratic Anarchists of America”?
[Laughs] There could be, but as you appreciate, democratic socialism is not a contradiction in terms. A formal organization called the Democratic Anarchists of America is at the edge of being self-contradictory: The “president of the Anarchist Association” and the “board of trustees of the Anarchist Association of America”—it somehow doesn’t sound right. It’s better as a practice than as a label.
Video from Indecline …
It’s a couple years later.
Perhaps it’s time to reflect on how we got here. We settled. In the midst of the kind of problems that define an era, we have stuck to a diet of sugar and hyperbole. We have indulged ourselves to the point of parody, unto the detriment of our neighbors. Biggest. Brightest. Loudest. Foulest. Anything to keep the cameras turned towards us. There is nothing too outrageous for primetime. After all, this is the Great American Circus, spewing money like confetti as if it meant something. So, eat those sweet treats until it makes you sick. But that sickness has a name now. It has a title: PRESIDENT. And one day we must wake up and face the hangover. Maybe it’s time to vomit up this hate, if we are ever to escape it.
Complacency has a mirror image. Resistance is a positive action in the face of Fascist Groupthink. And it does not diminish in correlation to its success. To be human is to resist death. To love is often to resist pettiness. To be a citizen is to resist politics, borders, tyrants, prejudices – to reach out and form the bonds of community ourselves with skin against skin, kinetically. The success of one personality –including the miserable cult that forms around it – is not an indictment of the whole. Remember, “even clowns get away with murder.” The question is what do we do after. Do we sell our souls to tragedy? Or shall we continue to fight back together: To build a brighter future in the space where we hold the line…
On behalf of INDECLINE, this is a reminder that we aren’t tired yet.
In fact, we’re just getting started.
Love and solidarity,
INDECLINE / 2018