March 10, 2021

Anarchism isn't what you think it is.

Blame Johnny Rotten (who by the way, was never really an anarchist – he only needed a rhyme for “antichrist” in that song), but lots of folks still think anarchy is just young people wantonly smashing public property. Like it’s some kind of macho Project Mayhem, from Fight Club, with no plan and no limits.

But at its heart, Anarchism is almost the exact opposite: it grew out of the radical pacifism of the Quakers. And its roots trace back to before ancient Greece.

During Occupy Wall Street, the late David Graeber was in heavy demand at Zuccotti Park as anarchism’s resident demystifier. Tour guide for the anarcho-curious. The short man in the long scarf was no hippie malcontent; he was an anthropologist who taught at the London School of Economics.

Look around, he’d say. See what’s going on here? The free food and shelter and medical aid; the wifi and lending library and daily teach-ins and thoroughly decent coffee — this sustainable and vibrant way to live? This all sprung up “horizontally.” Every decision made only after every voice was heard. No leaders. Government by consensus. Everyone gets a go. A self-reinforcing ecology of respect. It’s not perfect but it’s holding together pretty well. (David didn’t mention the bag containing close to a million dollars in cash stashed under one of the desks. People kept giving us money. No one saw any reason to take it to a bank.)

“You’d be surprised how much you yourself are basically an anarchist right now,” he’d tell people.

Take this quiz:

“If there’s a line to get on a crowded bus, do you wait your turn and refrain from elbowing your way past others even in the absence of police? If you answered ‘yes,’ then you have been acting like an anarchist!

“People don’t need to be threatened with force or fines or jail time to get them to do the right thing,” he’d continue. “We can organize ourselves and police ourselves. In fact, that’s the only way it can happen with respect and dignity maintained.”

Dignity definitely does not hold in a system that corners people like rats with massive consumer debt that strips them of power and saddles them with shame.

Anarchy is about honoring your “desire lines”

In most parks of any size you’ll find two kinds of paths — the formal kind, paved with brick or concrete, and the informal kind, made by people walking over the grass. These paths aren’t straight. They go where they go. They’re created by no one’s executive decision. Instead, they arise one choice at a time.

Urban planners call these DIY routes “desire lines.” Or sometimes “pirate paths.”

Anarchy isn’t about taking a sledgehammer to the sidewalks the state builds for you. It’s about ignoring bureaucratic grids and choosing your own way, along your own desire lines.

Anarchism may be humanity’s next evolutionary step

Anarchism isn’t some primitive stage people pass through, some hippie way-station on the way to the more civilized arrivals gate of neoclassical economics. It’s neoclassical economics that’s the dinosaur. It’s rational self-interest that you grow out of – along with bongs, giant woofers and Ayn Rand.

Anarchism is “mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense.” So said Peter Kropotkin, zoologist and philosopher. He spent five years in Siberia making field notes, like Darwin in the Galapagos. He noticed there was another story going on, parallel to the dog-eat-dog business that capitalism adopted as its master narrative.

“Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” Organisms tend to live longer when they co-operate. It’s just as much in us to care as to kill. Once you really grok that, it’s hard to dismiss co-operation as a strategy worth trying. The only thing that stops us is our own cynicism.

If you really want to understand anarchism, look at a little kid

“Every society needs a barefoot Socrates to keep it honest,” says Gareth Matthews. That tiny philosopher was you and me, once. All children are anarchists — asking rude questions and speaking truth to power and using the wrong fork. And sometimes frying ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass, because life’s an ongoing experiment with no interference from the ethics board. But then, bit by bit, that kick-the-tires spirit gets knocked out of us. We grow into adults, losing much of our spontaneous and authentic selves along the way.

And then we spend the rest of our lives trying to get it back.

Anarchism keeps popping up everywhere

When George Orwell landed in Barcelona in December of 1936, he found the city in the grip of something totally new. The Catalonian revolutionaries had gained control and a transformation was happening. Factories and farms were being run by workers’ collectives. The red-and-black flags of the anarchists hung from the bigger buildings.

Orwell didn’t know what the city had felt like before but he described what it felt like now.

“Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ or ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos días’….

“Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

Not everything about this was commendable, and the experiment was over by the spring of ‘39 when Franco won the war. But enough of a glimpse of an alternative was revealed here, of another way to be, that the feeling was held and carried and tended, like a little ember, to be revived on the streets of Paris in May of 1968.

There, starting on the Left Bank and rolling outward in waves, life became art. People broke from their routines and did risky, wild things. The Situationists channeled the spirit of anarchy into a kind of lifestyle. There should be switches on street lamps, they said, so lighting would be under public control. And maybe we level some churches to create places for children to play. They promoted a “life of permanent novelty” — a world of pleasure to win and “nothing to lose but boredom.”

The extremes of the human psyche, the highs and the lows: that is anarchy. But it means you get the whole package, from euphoria to fury. We get pissed off: that’s part of the deal of being human. Sometimes you simply have to make “necessary trouble,” as John Lewis put it. Sometimes it’s the only way to get unjust laws overturned.

And sometimes things become an unholy mess.

In Portland, police didn’t exactly know who they were dealing with in the black bloc as the race riots turned parts of downtown into a war zone. Who was under those balaclavas? Could have been an antifa. Could have been one of the wrongway antifas who smashed the windows of mostly blackowned businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and toppled the statue of Lincoln. It probably wasn’t one of the intellectual lefties, Proudhon in their backpacks, who’d gathered in Peninsula Park (“Come for the anarchism, stay for the soup”).

Anarchy is a big tent, and no one’s checking ID at the door. That is the story of every revolution.

Now’s the time.

Each time anarchists have a go at seizing a historical moment, they work a few more bugs out. And get better at recognizing when the time is ripe.

It’s never been riper than now. The conditions are in place: Obscene discrepancies between rich and poor. Multiple social movements converging. The afterimage of a proto-fascist in the White House.

Where fascism grows, anarchism follows it like a shadow.

Anarchism isn’t something you are. It’s something you do — a way to connect and live in the tumultuous times ahead.

When the news broke in September that David had died, suddenly died at age 59, people went online. A spontaneous tribute took shape. A two-hour celebration of David’s life at – where else? – Zuccotti Park.

People wore costumes and beat drums and Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping led a singalong. Some of these folks had been with David in Washington, D.C. a few months earlier when police arrested and locked down hundreds of activists on the street – and David responded by having pizza delivered. Emma Goldman and Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem would have been there if they could. It was a demonstration, for sure.

A demonstration of what freedom actually looks like.

— Harry Flood

I consider Anarchism the most beautiful and practical philosophy that has yet been thought of in its application to individual expression and the relation it establishes between the individual and society. Moreover, I am certain that Anarchism is too vital and too close to human nature to ever die. It is my conviction that dictatorship, whether to the right or to the left, can never work — that it never has worked, and that time will prove this again, as it has been proved before. Considered from this point, a recrudescence of Anarchist ideas in the near future is very probably. When this occurs and takes effect, I believe that humanity will at last leave the maze in which it is now lost and will start on the path to sane living and regeneration through freedom.

— Emma Goldman