At Sundance, an Anarchist Creates Waves
Cody Wilson turned a toothpick over in his mouth and swirled the olive-adorned drink in front of him.
"I don't ask anyone to be sympathetic to my position," he said. "I don't think I'm a very sympathetic character."
The 28-year-old may or may not be on to something when he makes that statement about his personality. He is decidedly on-point when he makes it about his ideas.
Wilson is part of a loose group of techno-anarchists, or crypto-anarchists. Together with such figures as Bitcoin founder Amir Taaki and, somewhat more distantly, the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, he seeks to overthrow established systems by using new forms of digital savvy and aggression. These are, needless to say, far from consensus beliefs..
Wilson's ideology, ascent and travails are followed in Adam Bhala Lough's "The New Radical." The youth-culture filmmaker’s latest documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week, takes viewers on a sweep through an underground world, offering as much a portrait of a new and subversive way of thinking as of the thinkers themselves. Told slickly if not always explanatorily, "New Radical" follows such initiatives as Defense Distributed, a digital file that allows anyone with a 3-D printer to create their own gun away from government oversight, and Dark Wallet, a kind of Internet market in the shadows where digital currency can move undetected.
At the center of it all is Wilson, who founded and created the file for Defense Distributed and is a key cog in Dark Wallet.
As it has played at Sundance several times over the course of the week, "Radical" has landed with all the gentleness of a Molotov cocktail. Despite their ambition, issue-minded movies at this gathering tend to fall into a comfortable set of mainstream center-left positions; someone who occupies both the extreme right and left ends of the spectrum (depending on the issue) will almost inherently be a feather-ruffler.
Power is the threat of violence. — Cody Wilson
In “New Radical,” the archetype alluded to by the title looks to create fundamental political change by pushing for one or more of the following: an eradication of intellectual-property laws, radical free speech, fierce encryption to protect that speech, anonymous money (basically, digital currency not controlled or monitored by any government) and a general disdain for traditional legislative structures.
Wilson has added another element: weapons. The hyper-articulate Arkansas native came into the public eye in 2013 when Defense Distributed released the blueprint for its first gun, called The Liberator. The program essentially allows anyone with access to a 3-D printer to make an end run around gun regulations by printing a plastic weapon at home.
"The project started with guns. It was like, 'If you combine WikiLeaks and guns — guns and the Internet — doesn’t that change the political?’ Power is the threat of violence," he said. The mere possibility that anyone can take up arms will, in Wilson’s view, keep everyone in check — in turn both neutralizing government and taking over its order-maintaining function.
Though the State Department shut him down shortly after he went online, Wilson continues to fight the battle in the courts, and says he is optimistic that he can win in the next few years. “What [judges] have been doing is piece by piece committing themselves to positions I hold. What I’m doing them is beating them slowly, death by a thousand paper cuts.”
Wilson speaks with a kind of intellectual turbocharge, casually using phrases such as "furious mimetic force" and assuming a level of political-philosophy literacy that would tax an advanced grad student. Radiating a no-nonsense confidence, Wilson can be off-putting to some; at the festival, that reaction has sometimes been palpable.
Silicon Valley needs to get its teeth kicked in whenever it can; I’m down for that first and foremost. — Cody Wilson
His ideas, he said, took root in intensive readings of leftist political theory before sprouting into a new kind of hybrid. Indeed, Wilson confounds most traditional positions; figuring out where he stands on issues can be an exercise in checking off boxes from wildly different columns.
Here’s a quick list:
Intellectual-property rights, no; political leaders, really no; progressive politics, really, really no ("Liberalism is the thing we whistle while we assert our domination over people," he says in the film); the tech world, pretty emphatically no ("Silicon Valley needs to get its teeth kicked in whenever it can; I'm down for that first and foremost," he said in the interview).
Easy access to guns, yes; unfettered encryption, yes; radical free speech, yes; a monetary system untethered to any government, really yes; a government that itself withers away, Marx-style, really, really yes.
Wilson does take pains to separate himself from the alt-right. As he began to explain the distinctions, Bhala Lough jumped in to say that the movie was largely completed before that movement gained mainstream currency, then sought to change the subject, implicitly suggesting that such publicity would be radioactive.
The truth is that some of Wilson’s positions, particularly those involving guns, could be conflated with that movement’s. Then again, President Trump's proclamation during the campaign that he was the “law-and-order candidate,” with its intimations of a strong, government-led police and military presence, are hardly the sorts of ideas most anarchists get on board with.
At Sundance screenings, questions directed at Wilson have at times been skeptical, even hostile, and laid bare the divisions at the festival, which takes place in a red libertarian state but is attended heavily by registered Democrats. Wilson, of course, occupies terrain all over the map.
"I love the fact that people will write him off as a gun nut and then [when they hear more] say, ... ‘I'm just conflicted about this guy now,’" Bhala Lough said.
The filmmaker takes few overt positions on his subject in the film. Even in person he is hard to read on the matter, though he certainly has grown close with Wilson. Bhala Lough said that he thinks his movie has some things in common with another piece about a man who fought a crusade with uncomfortable side effects.
“I thought a lot about ‘The People vs. Larry Flynt’ when I was making this movie,” the director said. “Was that a pro-porn film? He was a difficult person to love, but man, did he do some important things.” (Gun-control advocates might note some distinctions, both historical and legal, between the 1st and 2nd Amendments.)
Some of Wilson’s ideas have a seductiveness across the political spectrum. The notion that technology combined with radical speech could enable a toppling of the plutocracy taps into the same currents that elected Trump. Those opposed to the new president, meanwhile, would find in those ideas meaningful tools of resistance.
What the anarchist may not have satisfactorily explained, however, is what happens if his vision pans out as he says it would: What comes after a government crumbles? Could hundreds of millions of people exist, let alone be better off, without government so long as they owned guns and had their own Internet-enabled Swiss bank account? Would that not lead to vigilantism, or demagoguery, or other forms of exploitation?
"I'm not useful as a human. I'm useful as a cherub of the disaster to come," Wilson says in the film, perhaps acknowledging where society will go if it follows his template, though more likely warning what will happen if it doesn’t.
He said in the interview that he was reckoning with what he can or wants to change.
“I'm trying to limit my expectation,” he said. “Maximum potentiality motivates me even as I wake up every day and see the limits of my own power.”
At the same time, he talked grandly about winning the 3-D gun case and then springboarding to other radical libertarian changes — “In order to do other stuff, we need to have the moral authority [on guns] first.” He also alluded mysteriously to soon “deploying a number of technologies I’ve sat on for years.”
So is Wilson the future or just a really good talker? A truth-talking prophet or just one more whippersnapping expression of digital overconfidence?
Is his prediction of a techno-enabled anarchy the stuff of pure prescience — a man who sees the emergent populism of the past American and European year not as a familiar pendulum-swing but the rumblings of something much deeper and longer lasting?
Or are such predictions the delusions of someone less powerful than he imagines, a man who uses theory-speak to make up for what he lacks in actual influence?
“The New Radical” doesn't answer these questions. But at Sundance, perhaps for the first time in mainstream pop culture, they're being asked.