A Movement at the Crossroads: The Future of American Anarchism
From It's Going Down
An analysis and critique of the present anarchist movement with some broad proposals heading into the future, while looking towards continued economic breakdown and political polarization.
The anarchist movement in the United States stands at a crossroads. Behind us lies a long history of successes and failures, the catalog of experiments that have brought us to where we are today. Popular movements have subsided for the moment, and most of us are regrouping and preparing for whatever lies ahead. In recent years a debate has simmered about the kind of movement we want to build. On the one hand we have a vision of the movement that is broadly the same as that we inherited from the 1990s: subcultural, insular, and engaged in worthy but largely-reactive projects that fail to build durable power. On the other, we have a vision of a movement yet to come: oriented toward the broad base of the oppressed, focused on organizing popular resistance, looking ahead to the looming possibility of revolutionary change. One of these visions presents a viable future for the movement; the other does not.
The movement that we have inherited achieved many successes. The ecological, anti-capitalist, and anti-war struggles of the 1990s and 2000s were carried on by precisely the kind of movement this piece is critiquing. Our comrades, organized largely in loosely-linked affinity groups, kept hope alive in the era of capitalism’s seemingly-complete triumph. Black bloc actions during mass demonstrations ensured that we received media coverage and that new people heard about our ideas. Mutual aid projects provided key services, like support for political prisoners, and helped to show the softer side of our movement. By the time of the 2008 financial crisis, anarchist ideas had spread enough to inspire the ethos of the Occupy movement and its forms of organization. The anti-police uprisings from the Oscar Grant and Mike Brown protests onward likewise borrowed from our arsenal of tactics and organizational ideas.
These latter movements – Occupy and Black Lives Matter – demonstrated both the power of our ideas and the anarchist movement’s limits. We were able to jam up business as usual and force issues – like the injustices of capitalism and police terror – into national attention. We helped to demonstrate the power of decentralized combative action. When 2016 brought the renewed threat of street-level fascist organizing, we fought back. The anarchist movement did much of the heavy lifting in anti-fascist work and we won a crushing victory in our first round against our new opponents. But while each movement radicalized new participants and left a scattering of smaller affinity groups across most cities, neither dramatically increased our organized strength or capacity to achieve our goals. (This critique will come as no surprise to the readers here, they have been repeated time and time again by other, wiser comrades.)
Why? The movement has remained trapped in the circumstances from which it emerged. We still operate much too much like a sub-culture, focusing on the visual and symbolic trappings of “anarchism” (clothing, abstract stances, etc.). In too many spaces insularity and cliquishness are confused for security culture. More broadly, the movement has focused too much on the opposite poles of direct action and aid programs and too little on the concrete work of organizing: that is, deliberately reaching out to and bringing new people into the movement.
Now, more than ever, it is critical that we address these shortcomings. We are entering an era of intense polarization, the rise of a genuine ultra-nationalist and fascist threat, and ecological catastrophe. Multiple indicators suggest that another recession is in the offering roughly in the next year or so. Many more people will be radicalized by the next recession and the coinciding electoral spectacle, and they will be looking for answers. If we do not reach these people, others will. In the best case, they will be reached by others preaching the dead-end roads of electoral reform or distant and ill-defined revolution. In the worst case, they will turn to the fascists. We have to recognize the present historical moment for what it is and behave accordingly.
What must be done? We must make our movement an organizing movement. I am not arguing for the triumph of one tendency or another. If we want to build toward insurrection, we must have as many comrades as possible who share our vision and skills. If we want to create a powerful federation, we must have a popular base to draw new members from. If we want to build revolutionary syndicates, we must have organized strong unions and spread revolutionary consciousness in the broader working class. Whatever tendency we hail from, the days of isolation and sub-culturalism must end.
How do we build an organizing movement? By focusing our energies primarily on organizing with the broad base of the people for the struggles of our era. What is organizing? Organizing is building a structure to increase the power of that structure’s members and enable them to collectively fight for their goals. Where we are exploited by the bosses, we must build revolutionary unions. Where we are robbed by the landlords, we must build radical tenant unions. Where we are brutalized the prison system and ICE, we must create networks of prisoners, migrants, and neighbors to resist the violence of the state. In each case, we must deliberately and consistently reach out to the unorganized, building relationships of trust with new participants, and create the capacity to resist where it was lacking. We must then link these organizations into wider networks capable of expanding our ability to support one another when it counts.
There are already some encouraging signs in this direction. Comrades across the country have organized in support of the prison strike, organized tenant unions, done outreach with inspiring mutual aid programs, and carried on the anti-fascist struggle. Networks like the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and Symbiosis Revolution seem to be moving toward coordinating projects at the national level. But these efforts need to be significantly expanded if we are to meet the challenge that faces us.
Our movement is uniquely positioned to succeed, if we chose to do so. We believe in the power of the oppressed; we do not waste our time canvassing for the next SYRIZA. Our comrades are extraordinarily dedicated and prepared to make real sacrifices when necessary. The key is for our movement to channel this dedication in a direction that will allow us to grow, spread our vision, and build power. But if we do not change the way that we presently operate, we will be left behind by less-promising forces.
Wherever you are, I encourage you to start the hard work of organizing against those who are oppressing your community. Go out and speak with your neighbors, your coworkers, or those on the receiving end of the state’s violence. Link up with other groups in your area, get in touch with national organizations, or start your own group if necessary. There is much to be done and little time to waste.