Anarchism in Today's United States
Society gets the dissidents it deserves. This can be seen in an acute form with what gets called anarchism in today’s United States. When I write about anarchism or anti-authoritarianism here I am not referring to what might simplistically be called “real” anarchism in the increasingly distance past or elsewhere in the world today. I’m examining what I’ve repeatedly encountered, up close and personal, over a thirty-one year period in the U.S., beginning with the first anarchist group I joined on the East Coast in the spring of 1981 and continuing in the San Francisco Bay Area for three decades after that. Regarding “real” anarchism, in Spain in 1936 anarcho-syndicalism spearheaded the most advanced liberatory social movement of all time. From a high point of overwhelming strength this revolutionary movement of millions of people ceded power to a tiny number of its initially powerless enemies who were openly committed to defeating the revolution, and the revolutionaries gave up in a series of steps without offering credible resistance at any point. An analysis of the strengths and failing of anarchism in the Spanish Civil War in the 20th century is important for the struggle to transform society in the 21st century but this is not what I’m doing here. In point of fact, there are many insights that are still useful in the works of Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker and Emma Goldman. And the real world actions of individuals like Ricardo Flores Magón, Makhno and Durruti are a powerful inspiration to real world anti-capitalist actors -- but the real world actions of Flores Magón, Makhno and Durruti have absolutely nothing in common with what gets called anarchism in today’s United States.
In theory, at its best, anarchism aspires to the revolutionary overthrow of this nightmare social order, and to replace class society and capitalism with a society worthy of the human beings who live in it; a free, stateless, post-market, egalitarian way of life. In the more than thirty years that I was around the U.S. anarchist scene I did not encounter efforts that could be taken seriously by functional adults contributing to this goal. Most scenesters don’t even think in these terms. It is clear that contemporary U.S. anarchism is not a form of anti-capitalist/anti-statist politics. The various forms of anarchism found in the U.S. are aspects of a subcultural identity phenomenon closely akin to other subcultures spawned by U.S. consumer society in the post-1960’s period.
A subculture is an attempt to escape from a threatening and unappealing reality on a shared fantasy basis. A subculture’s reference points are exclusively internal ones. A subculture does not engage with the world outside of itself; it hides from it. Subcultures tend to appeal to the very young who sometimes indulge in role-playing as part of a personality development process and who try on various forms of identity to see what might fit best. To all appearances an overwhelming majority of people at any given time in the U.S. anarchist subculture are extremely young people whose adult personalities haven’t come into sharp focus yet, who spend a few years passively objecting to the ills of the world and seeking entertainment in this exclusively entertainment-oriented scene, and who eventually drift back to their parent’s social class having done nothing to cause anyone to notice their absence.
This calls attention to the more dedicated long-term anarchist scenesters. Venerable subculture scenesters spend decades spouting ferocious opinions without venturing out of their small and cosy echo chambers to assert their sentiments in the complex and scary larger world around us. These scenesters project their incapacity onto the world at large by in effect claiming that since they aren’t actually capable of asserting their convictions in any credible social context, no one else is either, and so real world subversive action is presumably not possible. In the world of fully adult women and men, people who spend decades spouting implacable sentiments that they lack the nerve to act on are rightly dismissed as fools and frauds. In the anarchist subculture this is uniformly what long-term scenesters are about and no one calls them out on this. There is no real world reality check operating here. Their fellow passive opinion-holders never notice the lack of credibility that their scene as a whole demonstrates with this.
A credible opposition to the existing state of things is an unmistakable and extremely visible public phenomenon. Like the real IWW of one hundred years ago, it gets taken seriously by friend and foe alike. It takes place in the larger society around us, not in the safe spaces of an insular social set. It is not a fantasy role playing game. It is not fan boy activity. It is not just an excuse for scenesters to cavort with each other and sell each other T-shirts and zines. A real world opposition to this society means energetic direct action, in real world social conflicts, based on transparently clear perspectives that are not already being asserted in an adequate form by others, and that are extremely distinct from the perspectives of activists on the left-fringe of capitalist politics: volunteer social workers, compulsive protesters, the voter registration and identity politics crowds and various brands of fringe leftists, including anyone using the word “decolonize.” It is not just the same stuff that is already out there rendered more palatable or exciting with streety verbiage or posturing. The real world revolutionary extremism that we need today is both uncompromising and of immediate relevance to society as it exists now. These two points are often antagonistic to one another. Resolving this contradiction is an ongoing struggle and it is no simple feat, but the times we live in are rich in existential threat and promise and these times demand a distinct and new kind of response.
By all meaningful indicators the United States is a society in accelerating irreversible decline. The once large, stable and aspirational middle class, and the attendant social myth of the middle class that helped dissolve working class consciousness and guarantee rock solid social stability, are in tatters. The U.S. has become the most socially stratified society in the industrialized world. We endure mass impoverishment and attendant social ills on a scale not seen in other advanced democracies. There are no political or economic mechanisms that can reverse this. The U.S. maintains a permanent and extremely expensive military occupation of much of the world in a context of fighting long-running wars that it cannot win or walk away from. This takes place as Uncle Sam’s long-term position as the world’s leading and most unrestrained imperialist malefactor is rapidly being eclipsed by China. The United States is ruled by an awe-inspiringly incompetent, venal and short-sighted elite. In abolishing historical consciousness among the people they exploit and rule, the rich and their political and media servants have also largely abolished it among themselves. This will soon pay considerable negative dividends. It is becoming apparent that a relentless decades long upward redistribution of wealth has not been an intelligent long-term survival strategy for the owners and rulers of the United States, and some of the sharpest among them know this. In a lengthy Jan. 2017 piece in the haute bourgeois New Yorker, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit, valued at six hundred million dollars, is quoted as being "concerned about basic American political stability and the risk of large-scale unrest."
"...awkward conversations have been unfolding in some financial circles. Robert H. Dugger worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry before he became a partner at the global hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation, in 1993. After seventeen years, he retired to focus on philanthropy and his investments.
“Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution…”
(‘Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,' Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2017)
With all this, the long term monolithic incapacity of the anarchist subculture in every conceivable real world context has never been more glaring.
The U.S. anarchist subculture must be understood as the specifically and extremely United States of America cultural and psychological phenomena that it is. The various currents of what gets called anarchism in the U.S. are loyal expressions of consumer society values that celebrate personal rebellion and the primacy of the a-historical individual in all things, filtered through the drop-out culture ethos of the late 1960’s and salted with fringe leftist shibboleths. Efforts that attempt to depart from this animated by people who still want to call themselves anarchists never last long and never manage to go anywhere; they cannot escape the all-entertainment, all-of-the-time ethos of what it is to be an anarchist in the United States. In other parts of the world anarchist currents have some organic continuity with older tendencies surviving from the era of the classical workers movement. The survival of old-school anarchism in other parts of the world unintentionally highlights anarchism’s historically superannuated qualities, but for good and bad this anarchism grew out of combative working people’s actual lived experiences, and this down to earth quality may anchor anarchism elsewhere in the ongoing fight against capitalist exploitation, as opposed to the Harry Potter fan vibe that prevails with the U.S. scene.
A widely held assumption among news media people is that an anarchist is a ferocious and determined revolutionist who is eager to ‘get stuck in’ as they say in the U.K. and cause major trouble for the authorities. After more than thirty years of consistent experiences with many hundreds of people who have cycled through the anarchist scene calling themselves anarchists my impression is the polar opposite. Anarchists are not bold enemies of capital and the state. Anarchists are uniformly complacent, sluggish, terminally disengaged subculture scenesters. Anarchists are easily intimidated complainers and victim-types with a penchant for gaseous philosophizing. For anarchists, public action takes the form of being sheepish followers at easily ignored left-liberal protest ghetto events, where the most ferocious anarchists may try to accrue subcultural capital by breaking a few windows. To the degree that they can be bothered to do anything more than attend protest ghetto events, their energies are focused on playdates with fellow scenesters and staging events that perpetuate the existence of their subculture as a trivial fringe phenomenon. Among anarchists there is no credible engagement with the larger world outside of the anarchist subculture; Food Not Bombs is one admirable exception. In general among anarchists there is no ethos of struggle. There is no capacity for perseverance and sacrifice in the anarchist scene; these consumers sneer at anything that demands more from them than a repetitive and monotonous drive to keep themselves entertained, get their egos massaged and satisfy other immediate emotional and personal needs. That some of their chosen forms of entertainment have a surface veneer of rebelliousness or passive objection to the social order expresses the anarchist scene’s internalization of a consumer culture ethos where individual personal rebellion and non-conformity are widely accepted expressions of consumer identity. The scene is simultaneously rich in trite melodramas and is deeply conflict averse. Adolescent peer pressure and malicious gossip are key forms of connective tissue here. In its internal dynamics and in its relation to the world outside of itself the United States anarchist subculture does not resemble any real world liberatory extremist tendency since the birth of the modern revolutionary movement at the end of the French Revolution; the U.S. anarchist subculture resembles subcultures that form among ardent fans of Star Trek and the Grateful Dead, collectors of Star Wars toys and fan boys playing Dungeons and Dragons. Anarchism in the U.S. is not a real world social conflict phenomenon and many scenesters arrogantly proclaim that anarchism is not supposed to be this. The long-term nationwide social conditions that gave rise to this torpid scene are changing rapidly, but the torpid anarchist scene is not changing with it.
The adolescent tenor of the anarchist subculture is a loyal mirror of the adolescent tenor of mainstream United States culture. The anarchist subculture, its pretensions and compulsive incapacities must be understood as a loyal and logical product of the United States consumer society that has given rise to and which wholly owns the U.S. anarchist subculture. United States anarchism is a youth consumer culture thing. It remains a youth consumer culture thing even when the people involved are no longer youths. The anarchist scene does not attract people animated by profound convictions, who have staying power, inventiveness, wit and style. Their occasional street actions and sporadic acts of vandalism are not hallmarks of vital insurrectionary impulses; empty ritual activity plus broken glass equals empty ritual activity with broken glass, and sporadic acts of vandalism not connected to an expanding social struggle or to the possibilities for this have the unmistakable air of adolescents venting at surrogates for parental authority. The fully adult individuals in this scene tend to be hapless cranks or outright liberal voters who aren’t honest with themselves about their liberalism and who find an accommodating space to fantasize that they are something other than liberal voters. With no fears of losing a real world credibility that scenesters don’t aspire to, and no transparently clear, freely agreed upon formal structures for mediating internal disputes, the anarchist scene is rich in toxic melodramas that would put the most cult-like Stalinist sect to shame. It is deservedly famous for tolerating burdensome mental cases who use this scene as a free-fire zone for their pathologies and who can’t be kept in check by the hippie-dippy anything goes ethos of a juvenile and asinine subculture.
This scene does not have the makings of something that can help create a new mass revolutionary movement in a fast-declining United States. People in the U.S. anarchist subculture uniformly do not believe that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society is possible. This is one excuse among many for doing nothing -- and many of them explicitly do not believe that a mass revolutionary movement to topple capitalism is desirable. They accept this social order on its own deluded a-historical terms. Strange as seems, the anarchist scene is uniformly devoid of the profound optimism about human beings and the possibilities for profound radical social change that drive more grounded, energetic and serious individuals to become dedicated members of the Maoist RCP or the Trotskyist ISO. A widespread perspective among anarchist scenesters is to passively hope that the reigning global order will simply collapse; passive is as passive does. For anarchist subculture duds, there is nothing left to do, and they are not the ones to do it. The anarchist scene attracts people who can be counted on to not be counted on.
Comments? e-mail: Vincent St. John