A primer for the road ahead.
Radicals often think they are out in a wasteland, disconnected from society, when in fact they are its cutting edge – though not necessarily moving toward the goals they espouse. Resistance is the motor of history: it drives social, political and technological developments, forcing the prevailing order to innovate constantly in order to outflank or absorb opposition. Thus we can contribute to tremendous transformations without ever achieving our object.
This is not to credit radicals with the agency to determine world events, so much as to assert that we often find ourselves unconsciously on their cusp. Measured against the infinities of history, all agency is infinitesimal – but the very notion of political theory presumes that it is still possible to utilize this agency meaningfully.
When we strategize for individual campaigns, we must take care not to make demands that can be defused by partial reforms, lest our oppressors neutralize us by simply granting them. Some examples of easily co-opted radical programs are so obvious that it is practically vulgar to point them out: bicycle fetishism, “sustainable” technology, “buying local” and all other forms of ethical consumerism that mitigate the suffering caused by global capitalism without challenging its roots.
But this phenomenon can also occur on a structural level. We should look at the ways our calls for social change took place without shaking the foundations of capitalism and hierarchy – so that next time our efforts can take us all the way.
Today it must become a line of flight out of a collapsing world.
Not Working – Did It Work?
The defining provocation of our early years was to take up, literally, the Situationists’ dictum, NEVER WORK. A few of us decided to test out on our own skin whether this was actually possible. This bit of bravado showed us all the genius of untutored youth, and all the perils. Though countless others had trodden this road before, for us it was as if we were the first primates to be shot into space. In any case, we were doing something, taking the dream of revolution seriously as a project one might initiate in one’s own life immediately, with – as we used to say – an aristocratic disdain for consequences.
It’s tempting to brush this off as mere performance art. Yet we have to understand it as an early attempt to answer the question that still faces would-be revolutionaries in the US and Western Europe: What could we interrupt with our (dis)obedience? Contemporary insurrectionists are attempting to address this same question, though the answers many of them offer are equally limited. By themselves, neither voluntary unemployment nor gratuitous vandalism seem to be capable of jerking society into a revolutionary situation. Despite everything, we stand by our initial hunch that it will take a new way of living to bring about such a situation. The essential fabric of our society – the curtain that stands between us and another world – is above all the good behavior of exploited and excluded alike.
Within a decade, history rendered our experiment obsolete, perversely granting our demand for an unemployable class. US unemployment rates, alleged to be at 4% in the year 2000, climbed to 10% by the end of 2009 – only counting people known to be actively looking for work. The excess of consumer society once offered dropouts a certain margin of error; the economic crisis eroded this, giving a decidedly involuntary flavor to joblessness.
It turns out capitalism has no more use for us than we have for it. This doesn’t just go for anarchist dropouts, but for millions of workers in the US. Despite the economic crisis, major corporations are currently reporting enormous earnings – but instead of using this income to hire more employees, they’re investing in foreign markets, purchasing new technology to reduce their need for employees, and paying out dividends to stockholders. What’s good for General Motors is not good for the country after all; the most profitable companies in the US right now are shifting both production and consumption to developing markets overseas.
In this context, dropout culture looks a bit like a voluntary austerity program; it’s convenient for the wealthy if we reject consumer materialism since there’s not enough to go around anyway. In the late 20th century, when people still identified with their jobs, refusing to pursue employment as self-realization expressed a rejection of capitalist values. Now scarce employment and identification with one’s hobbies rather than one’s career path have been normalized, but as an economic position rather than a political one.
Capitalism is now incorporating our assertion that people should act according to their consciences, instead of for a wage. The state also increasingly relies on the same do-it-yourself ethic that once animated the punk underground to offset the deleterious effects of capitalism. It is cheaper to let environmentalists volunteer to clean up the BP oil spill than to pay employees to do it, for example. The same goes for Food Not Bombs if it is treated as a charity program rather than a way of establishing subversive flows of resources and camaraderie.
Today, the challenge is not to persuade people to refuse to sell their labor, but to demonstrate how a redundant class can survive and resist. Unemployment we have in abundance – we need to interrupt the processes that produce poverty.
New Technologies, Outmoded Strategies
In the second half of the 20th century, radicals based themselves in subcultural enclaves from which to launch assaults on mainstream society. The call for confrontational unemployment presumed a context of existing countercultural spaces in which people could invest themselves in something else.
The cultural landscape is different today. Thanks to new communications technologies, subcultures develop and spread much faster, and are replaced just as quickly. Punk rock, for example, is no longer a secret society into which high school students are initiated by classmates’ mix tapes. It is still generated by the participants, but now as a consumer market mediated via impersonal venues such as message boards and downloading. It’s no surprise if people are less personally invested in it – as easily as they discovered it, they can move on to something else. In a world composed of information, subculture no longer appears to be outside society, indicating a possible line of escape, but rather one of many zones within it, a mere matter of taste.
Anonymity is no longer the domain of criminals and anarchists but an everyday feature of communication thanks to the internet. Unexpectedly, it also fixes political identities and positions in place according to a new logic. The landscape of political discourse is mapped in advance by URLs; it’s difficult to produce a mythology of collective power and transformation when every statement is already located in a known constellation. A poster on a wall could have been put up by anyone; it seems to indicate a general sentiment, even if it only represents one person’s ideas. A statement on a website, on the other hand, appears in a world permanently segregated into ideological ghettos.
The internet has simultaneously fulfilled and rendered obsolete the potential we saw in subculture and anonymity.
One could say the same of our advocacy of plagiarism; a decade ago we thought we were taking an extreme position against authorship and intellectual property when in fact we were barely ahead of the curve. The weeks we spent combing libraries for images to reuse foreshadowed a world in which practically everyone does the same thing with Google Image Search and Tumblr for their blogs. Conventional notions of authorship are being superseded by new forms of production, such as crowd-sourcing, which point to a possible future in which free volunteer labor will be a major part of the economy – but as a part of capitalism rather than an opposition to it.
Here we arrive at one of the most pernicious ways our wishes have been granted in form rather than content. Free distribution, once thought to demonstrate a radical alternative to capitalist models, is now taken for granted in a society in which the means of material production are still held hostage by capitalists. Electronic formats lend themselves to free distribution of information. This forces those who produce material formats such as newspapers to give them away, too, or go out of business. Meanwhile, food, housing, and other necessities – not to mention the hardware required to access electronic formats – are as expensive as ever. This situation offers a limited amount of access to the dispossessed while benefiting those who already control vast resources; it is perfect for an era of high unemployment in which it will be necessary to placate the jobless and make use of them. It implies a future in which a wealthy elite will use free labor from a vast body of precarious and unemployed workers to maintain its power and their dependence.
And the most pernicious thing is that all this free labor will be absolutely voluntary, and will appear to benefit the general public rather than the elite.
Perhaps the central contradiction of our age is that the new technologies and social forms horizontalize production and distribution of information, yet make us more dependent on corporate products.
Decentralizing Hierarchy: Participation as Subjugation
At the close of the 1990s, anarchists championed participation, decentralization, and individual agency. Building on our experiences in the do-it-yourself underground, we helped popularize the viral model, in which a format developed in one context could be reproduced worldwide. Exemplified by programs like Food Not Bombs and tactics such as the black bloc, a particular anti-authoritarian culture spread from New York to New Zealand.
At the time, we were responding both to the limitations of the previous century’s political and technological models and to emerging opportunities to transcend them. This put us near the forefront of innovations that reshaped capitalist society. For example, TXTmob, the SMS text messaging program developed by the Institute for Applied Autonomy for protests at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, served as a model for Twitter. Similarly, one can interpret the networks of the international do-it-yourself underground, formalized in guidebooks like Book Your Own Fucking Life, as forerunners of Myspace and Facebook. But alas, today the viral model is best known as viral marketing.
Even fascists are trying to get in on decentralization and autonomy. In Europe, Autonomous Nationalists have appropriated radical aesthetics and formats, utilizing anticapitalist rhetoric and black bloc tactics. This is not simply a matter of our enemies attempting to disguise themselves as us, though it certainly muddies the waters: it also indicates an ideological split in fascist circles as the younger generation attempts to update its organizational models for the 21st century. Fascists in the US and elsewhere are engaged in the same project under the paradoxical banner of National Anarchism; if they succeed in persuading the general public that anarchism is a form of fascism, our prospects will be bleak indeed.
What does it mean if fascists, the foremost proponents of hierarchy, can employ the decentralized structures we pioneered? The 20th century taught us the consequences of using hierarchical means to pursue supposedly non-hierarchical ends. The 21st century may show us how supposedly non-hierarchical means can produce hierarchical ends.
Extrapolating from these developments, we might hypothesize that we are moving toward a situation in which the foundation of hierarchical societies will not be permanent centralization of power, but the standardization of certain disempowering forms of socializing, decision-making and values. These appear to spread spontaneously, though in fact they only appear desirable because of what is absent in the social context imposed on us.
But, decentralized hierarchies? This sounds like a Zen koan. Hierarchy is the concentration of power in the hands of a few. How can it be decentralized?
To make sense of this, let’s go back to Foucault’s conception of the panopticon. Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon as a model to make prisons and workplaces more efficient; it is a circular building in which all the rooms open inward on a courtyard, so as to be viewed from a central observation tower. The inmates cannot see what goes on in the tower, but they know they may be under observation from it at any given moment, so they eventually internalize this surveillance and control. In a word, power sees without looking, while the observed look without seeing.
With the panopticon, power is based in the periphery rather than the centre, in that control is chiefly maintained by the inmates themselves. Accordingly, workers compete to be capitalists rather than establishing common cause; fascists enforce oppressive relationships autonomously, without state oversight. Domination is not imposed from above but is a function of participation itself.
Simply to participate in society, we must accept the mediation of structures determined by forces outside our control. For example, our friendships increasingly pass through Facebook, cellular phones, and other technologies that map our activities and relationships for corporations as well as government intelligence; these formats also shape the content of the friendships themselves. The same goes for our economic activities: in place of simple poverty we have loans and credit ratings – we are not a class without property, but a class driven by debt. And once again, all this appears voluntary, and even as progress.
What does it look like to resist in this context?
Everything seemed so much easier in 1917 when proletarians worldwide dreamed of storming the Winter Palace. Two generations later, the equivalent seemed to be taking over the headquarters of network television.
Now, it’s increasingly obvious that global capitalism has no centre, no heart through which to drive a stake.
However, on closer inspection, this very development is actually a boon to anarchists, in that it closes the way to top-down forms of struggle. There are no shortcuts now, and no justifications for taking them – there will be no more “provisional” dictatorships. The authoritarian revolutions of the 20th century are behind us for good; if revolt is to break out, anarchist practices will have to spread.
Some have argued that in the absence of a center, when the aforementioned virus is far more dangerous than the frontal assault, the task is not so much to pick the correct target as to popularize a new way of fighting. If this has not yet occurred, maybe it is simply because anarchists have yet to develop an approach that strikes others as practical. When we demonstrate concrete solutions to the problems posed by the capitalist disaster, perhaps others will want to catch on.
But this is tricky. Such solutions have to resonate beyond any particular subculture in an era in which every innovation instantly generates and is contained within subculture. They must somehow refuse and interrupt the forms of participation essential to the maintenance of order, both the ones predicated on integration and the ones predicated on marginality. They have to provide for people’s immediate needs while giving rise to insurgent desires leading elsewhere. And if we advance solutions that turn out not to address the root causes of our problems – as we did a decade ago – we will only inoculate the ruling order against this generation’s resistance.
When it comes to contagious solutions, then the Greek riots of 2008 during which all the banks were burned were less significant than the day-to-day practices in Greece – seizing and redistributing food, occupying buildings and gathering publicly outside the logic of commerce. But perhaps the riots are equally significant: not just as a material attack on the enemy but as a festival affirming a radically different way of being.
Double or Nothing
In the 1990s, capitalism appeared eminently stable, if not unassailable. Anarchists fantasized about riots, catastrophes, and industrial collapse precisely because these seemed impossible – and because, in their absence, it appeared that they could only be a good thing.
All that changed starting in September 2001. A decade later, crises and catastrophes are all too familiar. The notion that the world is coming to an end is practically banal; who hasn’t read a report about global warming and then gone back to their day? The capitalist empire is obviously overextended and few still believe it is going to last forever. For now, however, it seems to be able to utilize these catastrophes to consolidate control, passing on the costs of disaster to the oppressed.
If the Left continues to recede into extinction, anarchism will be the only game left in town for radicals. This will open a space in which we can make our case to all who have lost faith in political parties. But are we prepared to fight it out with global capitalism on our own, without allies? Escalating conflict is a gamble: as soon as we attract the attention of the state, we have to play double or nothing, attempting to mobilize enough popular support to outflank the inevitable counterattack. Every riot has to be followed by an even broader outreach campaign, not a retreat into the shadows – a tall order in the face of backlash and repression.
Perhaps it would be better if history were moving slowly enough that we had time to build up a massive popular movement. Unfortunately, we may not have a choice in the matter. Ready or not, the instability we wished for is here; we will either change the world or perish with it.
It is high time to dispense with strategies founded on the stasis of the status quo. At the same time, crisis keeps one locked in a perpetual present, reacting to constant stimuli rather than acting strategically.
At our current capacity, we can do little to mitigate the effects of capitalist catastrophes. Rather, our job is to set off chain reactions of revolt; we should evaluate everything we undertake in this light.
In this context, it is more important than ever not to see ourselves as the protagonists of insurrection. The currently existing social body of anarchists in the US is numerous enough to catalyze social upheavals, but not nearly numerous enough to carry them out. As a comrade from Void Network never tires of emphasizing, “We don’t make the insurrection. We do some organizing; everyone makes the insurrection.”
Ten thousand anarchists willing to go to the same lengths as Enric Duran, the patron saint of debt defaulters, could constitute a real force, seizing resources with which to establish alternative infrastructures and setting a public example of disobedience that could spread far and wide. It’s terrifying to imagine going to such lengths – but in a collapsing world, terror waits ahead whether we choose it or not.
Everyone who has participated in a black bloc knows it’s safest in the front. Double or nothing.
Enough about strategy. There was one demand in Days of War, Nights of Love that could not be realized in any form under capitalism: the idea that unmediated life could become intense and joyous. We expressed this in our conception of resistance as a romantic adventure capable of fulfilling all the desires produced but never consummated by consumer society. Despite all the tribulation and heartbreak of the past decade, this challenge still lingers like hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
We still stand by this.
We don’t resist simply out of duty or habit or thirst for vengeance, but because we want to live fully, to make the most of our limitless potential. We are anarchist revolutionaries only because it seems there is no way to find out what that means without at least a little fighting.
As many hardships as it may entail, our struggle is a pursuit of joy – to be more precise, it is a way of generating new forms of joy. If we lose sight of this, no one else will join us, nor should they. Enjoying ourselves is not simply something we must do to be strategic, to win recruits; it is an infallible indication of whether or not we have anything to offer.
As austerity becomes the watchword of our rulers, the pleasures available on the market will be increasingly ersatz. The turn to virtual reality is practically an admission that real life is not – cannot be – fulfilling. We should prove otherwise, discovering forbidden pleasures that point the way to another world.
Ironically, ten years ago this one sensible demand was the most controversial aspect of our program. Nothing makes people more defensive than the suggestion that they can and should enjoy themselves: this triggers all their shame at their failures to do so, a great deal of lingering Puritanism, and all their resentment towards those they feel must be monopolizing pleasure.
In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber speculates that
if one wishes to inspire ethnic hatred, the easiest way to do so is to concentrate on the bizarre, perverse ways in which the other group is assumed to pursue pleasure. If one wishes to emphasize commonality, the easiest way is to point out that they also feel pain.
This formula is tragically familiar to anyone who has witnessed radicals caricaturing each other. Declaring that you have experienced heavenly pleasure – especially in something that actually violates the regime of control, such as shoplifting or fighting police – is an invitation for others to heap scorn upon you. And perhaps this formula also explains why anarchists can come together when the state murders Brad Will or Alexis Grigoropoulos but cannot set aside our differences to fight equally fiercely for the living.
Death mobilizes us, catalyzes us. The reminder of our own mortality liberates us, enabling us to act without fear –for nothing is more terrifying than the possibility that we could live out our dreams, that something is truly at stake in our lives. If only we knew that the world were ending, we would finally be able to risk everything – not just because we would have nothing to lose, but because we would no longer have anything to win.
But if we want to be anarchists, we are going to have to embrace the possibility that our dreams can come true, and fight accordingly. We are going to have to choose – at long last – life over death, pleasure over pain. We are going to have to begin.