What is the Color of Anarchy?
My personal path to anarchy has been long, winding, and confusing, to say the least—and a strange part of me is grateful for the route I have taken.
I’m admittedly ashamed of my (neo) liberal phase, during which I wholeheartedly embraced every fixture of multicultural representative politics: the façade of diversity, cosmetic modifications to the “free” market and “free” trade, “dialoguing across the aisles,” “getting out the vote,” the works. I’m far less ashamed of my postcolonial phase, although I will concede that I hung on to the above-mentioned liberal fetishes for quite some time—and vestiges of them at the very least later on.
Thankfully, I was surrounded by grounded, brilliant, and endlessly compassionate mentors / comrades / friends who tolerated me and drove me to question my pseudo-leftist faith in prevailing institutions of power. Their anti-racism, anti-fascism, intersectional feminism, radical queerness, Indigenuity, disabled, neurodiverse, and/or disability-focused outlooks, and deep anti-colonialism began to chip away at my self-important Amerocentric, cisheteropatriachal, able-bodied, good middle class immigrant delusions. While my cherished co-agitators didn’t try to convert me to anarchism, the fundamentally anarchistic underpinnings of many of their interventions made a lasting impression on me.
Fast forward through three years filled with direct actions, community presentations, and graduate school frustrations, and I’m having breakfast and talking revolution (as you do) with another cherished fighter-in-arms. As we discuss how we aspire to engage with the communities we care about, I mention—for the first time, to anyone—that I think of myself as a decolonial anarcho-communitarian.
I’m writing this piece because I want to unpack that moment and its significance, both for me and the living beings with whom I strive to operate in solidarity. My self-reflection since that sunny morning has revolved around a question I’ve been asking myself and my peeps for a few months:
What is the color of anarchy?
“Black, maybe with a red accent” is perhaps the most instinctive, common, and commonsensical answer to that question—and this answer isn’t unjustified. Black, above all else, tends to embody anarchy’s negation of all hierarchies. It lends its name to countless black blocs around the world. It may hearken back to piracy’s swashbuckling influence upon early Eurowestern anarchist thinking and writing. It could and, in many quarters, does symbolically unify diverse anarcho-revolutionaries. A lot of anarchists also identify as communists, which is where the red might come in.
And yet, despite all these valid and valuable justifications, I don’t know if my flag is or can be (just) black and red.
Let me begin by addressing the colors I have already mentioned, so I can try to do them justice at the same time as I question them.
Anarchy cannot be black if the Black radical tradition, in all its various manifestations, is absent from its conceptualizations and operationalizations. Maroon communities were arguably some of the first and most multifarious anarchistic (that is, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-statist) communities consolidated after the colonization of Turtle Island and Abya Yala. Domingo Passos could, did, and does apparently go toe-to-toe with Bakunin. The Black Panthers’ autonomous learning/teaching, feeding/eating, and self-defense/community-building efforts exemplified mutual aid in many respects. Many committed Panthers later became committed, self-described anarchists in order to circumvent what they perceived as the BPP’s (perhaps partially realized) potential for hierarchical macho leadership and personality cults. Today, black folx are some of the first ninjas to shut down white supremacists, rapists, homophones, transphobes, and the other scum of the Earth.
Red, meanwhile, takes on a whole new significance for the Indigenous peoples of the so-called Americas. Notwithstanding their appalling racialization by white Euroamerica, many Native “Americans” entered battle wearing red (and, yes, black) war paint, prepared to fight their displacement, extermination, and assimilation by any means necessary. The Red Power Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, like its Black Power counterpart, channeled black-and-red power at several points; for one thing, it lent legitimacy to (re)occupations of Indigenous land in ways that the Occupy movement of movements by and large couldn’t and doesn’t. Indigenous redness further laughs at the United States’ sickening, shameless, futile border imperialism: the Zapotec and Mixtec womyn who blessed, conscientized, and provoked me with their wisdom while I was in southwestern Mexico use the rich red color derived from the cochineal beetle to dye the stunning tapetes (tapestries) that they exchange for economic autonomy.
However, the Black radical tradition and anarcho-Indigeneity are not just black or red—or, for that matter, black-and-red. Like virtually all anarchistic perspectives, communities, and movements, they stem and draw their strength from (if you’ll pardon the pun) a virtual rainbow of intersecting lived experiences and worldviews. The Combahee River Collective’s landmark “Black Feminist Statement” works from the standpoints of its legendary Black lesbian womyn as it calls for total and absolute liberation through “the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” I will not attempt to impose colors on these luminaries or the lived identities, communities, and movements to which they belong; that said, I still feel the need to recognize that they may not have restricted themselves to a black, Black, or black-and-red palette for good reason. In a similar vein--and despite its appropriation by the so-called post-neoliberal Bolivian nation-state--the Wiphala, a square emblem that displays all the colors of the visible spectrum, continues to be deployed by equally if not even more multifarious Indigenous grassroots mobilizers across the Andes.
I wonder if one of the most beautiful and important aspects of red-and-blackness—in word and deed, in our communities and on the streets—could be its grounding in or transformation into other colors entirely. Or maybe its ability to disappear so that these other colors can perform the same functions and more, in accordance with their respective lived experiences, viewpoints, and visions.
Back to “rainbow flags.” In recent years, progressives, liberals, moderates, conservatives, and members of the far(ther) right have all proudly flown rainbow flags at their militarized, cis- and homonormative, white (supremacist), nationalistic, corporatist Pride parades. These distinct-but-not-really-different luminaries of the hegemonic political machine have also sought to show off their “tolerance”(1) during their “political [non-]revolutions,” their dinners to collect a little sumthin’ sumthin’ extra for Zionist pinkwashing, and their campaigns and rallies to unite the other, rather unaccommodating, and less-than-revolutionary wretched of the Earth. In selling their false sensitivity and savvy to a mostly oppressed captive population while preparing to betray the vast majority of its members, they spit in Miss Major and Sylvia Rivera’s faces. Against Equality spits back, and then some. The collective’s wide-ranging queer thinkers, writers, and artists boldly go where the Human Rights Campaign has never gone before by challenging one of the state’s plainer but nonetheless sacred cows, marriage.
Is Against Equality, then, reclaiming the QUILTBAG+ rainbow flag? Or is the collective burning that flag and replacing it with its black-and-red superior? Is it flying both flags side by side or combining them into a single flag? Could it throw up some purple and/or pink flags for good measure?
On the other hand, do Against Equality and its movers and shakers have or need to have any flag, color, or color combination at all?
The assignment of colors to perspectives, communities, and movements arguably echoes the iron cages of gender and sexuality. Certainly in the latter cases--and maybe in the former as well--we need to ask ourselves if and why we behave as though we need, are entitled to, and/or can get a singular, straightforward answer. Do our mobilizations depend upon fitting ourselves and each other into one or some other limited number of categories and paradigms? If so, why, and should we maintain this dependency to any extent? And do our mobilizations, then, reflect, reaffirm, and strengthen the complexity, richness, and dynamism of the living beings involved in them?
At the end of the day, a rainbow flag—especially when uncritically accepted and deployed—seems to run the risk of turning a radical movement of movements into Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition instead of Fred Hampton’s. Lumbering, professionalized, compromised and complicit movements-turned-industrial NGOs/NPOs are just one of the many nasty surprises waiting for lapsed anarchists and other radicals at the end of the (neo)liberal multicultural rainbow. We can and must work through and with our and each other’s identities and lived experiences—not around them, to be clear—without resorting to collusive, self-destructive, self-deceiving, and ultimately futile “identity politics." (2)
Given that many perspectives, communities, and movements seem to operate in liminal spaces, some sort of neutral color (apart from or in addition to black, red, and black-and-red) seems to be in order. Unfortunately, the supposedly neutral alternatives to rainbow flags, flags of other colors, and colors in general don’t bode too well, either. Black, red, and black-and-red are limited and limiting, but they have nothing on white and its widespread signification of the cult of nonviolence, surrender and submission, the illusions of “non-partisanship,” and, well, whiteness. A clear flag, then? But would it then signify the fundamentally ableist and variously problematic notions of blindness—color-blindness, gender-blindness, and so on—that allow for dominant systems of power to prevail behind John Rawls’ ironically named “veil of ignorance?”
Okay, so, back to colors, then? Well, what about green? Many consider it the color of the Earth and, by extension, environmentalism; we know (at least I hope so!) that we can’t fight as and with the Wretched of the Earth if we devalue the ecosystems that make humyn existence possible. Nonetheless, the Earth isn’t just green, to state the obvious; neither are “environmental” movements, for that matter, especially when they resist the ecocide precipitated by ecological racism, cisheteropatriarchy, classism, and ableism. Green is also Black, brown, beige, and every color in-between and beyond, from Standing Rock to the Niger Delta to the Narmada Valley.
Furthermore, “non-white / decolonial greenness” is sacred to many. Numerous anarchist, anarchistic, or otherwise radical ecological interventions made by Indigenous peoples and peasants do not take up “environmentalism” or even deep ecology, diverging from conventionally defined green politics in the process. And they don’t necessarily take up black, red, or black-and-red flags, either, even though their interventions could very well fly under any of these flags. The limitations of hegemonic greenness stand to do quite a bit of damage to Indigenous and peasant persyns and peoples. “Environmentalism,” especially as it has been articulated at the centers and semi-peripheries of the world system, tends to presume a sharp division between human beings and their surroundings that simply does not resonate with many Indigenous and peasant worldviews.
“The environment” does not exist apart from “the economy,” “the polity,” “culture,” and/or “religion”—as well as the mind, body, heart, and soul—as far as innumerable Indigenous peoples across the world are concerned. (3) Living spirit or energy, also conceived simply as “livingness”—Sa’ah Naaghaii Bik’eh Hozho for the Diné, sumak kawsay for Andean Indigenous peoples, shakthi and prakriti for many South Asian adivasis and peasants—runs through and binds all of these existential spheres. Securing and creating conditions for the regeneration of this livingness—with the Earth and non-human living beings, not for them, and certainly not against them—is thus the goal of many radical Indigenous and peasant interventions. In my opinion, these holistic interventions provide a much surer footing for autonomous, just, equitable, and resilient ecological communities than “environmentalism” ever could. Non-Indigenous anarchists and radicals cannot and should not, of course, appropriate the worldviews that inform these interventions, but they nonetheless have much to teach us—much that we must know—as we do our parts to decolonize all colonized Indigenous land. We should be as unwilling to buy into the cult of Eurowestern scientific “greenness” as we are to put our faith in green parties and their candidates.
The oversights and failures of Eurowestern greenness and environmentalism and the sacred power at the heart of Indigenuity bring what I would consider contemporary, (by no means exclusively) Eurowestern anarchism’s biggest areas of improvement into sharp relief:
First of all, we must recognize productivism, industrialization, commodification, economic growth, and the urban-rural divide in and of themselves as oppressions begging for abolition. Diverse contemporary anarchists typically recognize the misery induced by capitalist consumerism and overproduction but, in mapping and realizing anti-capitalist alternatives, they overlook the past and present violence involved in stripping “raw materials” from the Earth and converting them into monetized products. Worker-owned-and-operated maquiladoras—and worldwide factories in general—might eliminate the rampant gendered, racialized, and class-based exploitation and abuse that define these modern-day Victorian workhouses; however, they run the risk of continuing and even worsening the metabolic rift between the never-ending demands of productivism and the life cycles of the Earth. If you want my two cents, factories can only exist in a world in which many worlds fit if they operate as locally grounded, ecologically resilient and autonomous cottage industries, for all intents and purposes.
We need to grow interconnected living communities, not insulated economies or the “industrial sector” and definitely not the GDP, GNP, or any other P. Similarly, cities—which are indispensable to civilizational modernities around the globe—can only persist if they cease to be metropoles, colonial or imperial, industrial or post-industrial. As long as “global cities” like Mumbai, Nairobi, New York City, and Mexico City are distinguished from their respective rural regions and the rest of the world by the accumulation of “resources” from near and far, neither can survive. Steel grey, brick red, and tinted blue could be important to a global anarcho-society’s subsistence, but their predominant applications as of now have got to go.
Secondly, institutionalized religion may well be the opiate of the masses now as much as it was in Marx and Kropotkin’s day, but secularism is an equally, though differently, dangerous drug, even when it is adopted by well-meaning anarchists. Hindu nationalists have been able to build a stronghold in India’s chambers of power since the late 1980s precisely because they could and still can ride the tide of popular discontent with Nehruvian / Congress Party secularism. Authoritarian fundamentalist factions, organizations, movements, and regimes across the world—from Amerikka to the Middle East and North Africa to Western and Eastern Europe—have provided the likes of Prime Murderer Modi with ample company over the years for comparable reasons. If anarchists are not careful, we could reproduce the very failures of the nation-state system we claim to oppose by failing to oppose its secular dogmatism. We must do everything in our power to (solidariously) decolonize a number of major (and minor) religious and spiritual traditions and communities across the world; however, religious/spiritual decolonization is not, cannot, and should not be synonymous with rash, headlong disassemblage and disposal, nor accountability with pseudo-anarchist (re)missionization.
“No gods, no masters!” chant anarchists everywhere; perhaps we need to revise that well-heeled battle cry to, “Many and/or no gods, but no masters!” That revision needs to be revised for catchiness and practicality for sure but—in a world with billions of devotees of all stripes as well as agnostics, atheists, and everyone in between and beyond—an “and/or” clause may not be a terrible idea. By inspiring the horizontalization of and voluntary participation in religious and spiritual praxis, radical but not fundamentalist or exclusionary responses to Orientalism and other cultural imperialisms, and inter-faith dialogue that moves well beyond liberal CoeXisTence, this reformulation could prove invaluable. Global anarcho-communities and societies do not need to be secular to embrace, respect, celebrate, harmonize, and draw strength from conceptualizations of autonomy, dignity, equity, justice, and sustainability rooted in diverse beliefs and lifeways (sorry, not sorry, Ayaan Hirsi Ali). In fact, they may want to avoid secularism like the plagues of yore.
When I began thinking about addressing the question that serves as this essay’s title in writing, I was concerned that I would end up producing cheap, obnoxious, tedious Sesame Street anarcho-fan-fiction—an asinine commentary on colors of little use to any of the comrades I have yet to meet. If that is what I ended up doing, I apologize for wasting your time, and I hope that Elmo gives you what I didn’t.
I decided to write this article in no small part because I believe that discursive materiality and material discursivity lie at the heart of anarchist, anarchistic, and otherwise radical thinking and action. The symbols that we choose and use have a profound influence upon the ideas that we realize, and vice-versa. This reciprocal relationship runs through the plurality of perspectives that I strive to engage, and it seems to inform the plurality of actions that these perspectives inspire. The burning limo from the #DisruptJ20 protests is more than just an image or a symbol. This pigmobile was material in and of itself, it produced wide-ranging material impacts inseparable from its symbolic resonances, and it is part of a long history of symbolic-material anarchist counter-inaugural action.
I chose to analyze the color—or, as I might as well say at this juncture, colors--of anarchy because colors are among the most noticeable, influential, and, in my view, telling symbols that we deploy as budding co-creators of another world. Our deepest convictions shape the colors we brandish as we make some noise, take back our streets, lock horns with our adversaries, and commune with each other and the oppressed peoples we love. These colors, in turn showcase and shape how we think of ourselves and our roles in the struggles we carry out. I will never forget the first and subsequent times I saw the anarchy symbol on a black and red background—the mixture of curiosity and inexplicable exhilaration that spiked me the first time and the hope, courage, and warmth that flooded me when I understood a little more a little later. I still feel the reverberations of those moments when I read, hear, or meet one of us—one of you, if I may be so bold.
All that said, I think that a black-and-red world would be rather drab. Such a world would also betray anarchism’s core commitments to learning from the failures of other leftist and radical frameworks and movements, to complementing the negation of all hierarchies with the cultivation of lasting horizontality, and, more than anything, to hosting the otherness of many “Others” as they define it themselves.
Anarchy is—anarchy must be—brown, beige, pink, purple, rainbow-colored, red, invisible, striped, translucent, polka-dotted, yellow ochre, grey, all shades of green (though not Green), black, Black, and black-and-red (though never white) all at the same time. As a bipolar depressive whose mental condition has molded my personal-intellectual-political positionality in important ways, I guess the anarchy I practice is blue as well—maybe yours is, too. (4)
The beauty of anarchy is that it is not contingent upon doctrinal knowledge of anarchism as an explicit critical/radical philosophy. You can be anarchistic—and innumerable individuals, communities, and societies have been and continue to be—without calling yourself an anarchist, just as you can be an intersectional feminist or a queer revolutionary without calling yourself either. Anarchy’s potential for transformative beauty hinges, in a sense, upon its compatibility with all other possible color combinations—and the embodied viewpoints and daring futures that underpin these combinations.
Black, red, and black-and-red have served and continue to serve anarchists (myself included) well. But the time has come for us to move them away from anarchy’s global centerstages to make way for other colors that are just as vital, if not more so.
All power to the Earth and to the Wretched of the Earth. May our revolutions be colorful as hell. (5)
(1) Possibly one of liberalism’s most popular yet weakest trademarks, “tolerance” is a fragile placeholder for true solidarity and communality, as well as cover for the powers that be across the mainstream political spectrum.
(2) My time in Amerikkka has made me hate this grossly misconceived, misapplied, and misunderstood term / concept. Radicals, especially anarchists, have every reason to be wary of the multicultural tokenism, individualism, and lack of collaboration, coordination, solidarity, and/or communality across diverse radicalisms to which this term should apply. Nonetheless, we cannot and, moreover, should not try to discard our lived experiences and identities for the “greater good”—not if we care about reflexivity, accountability, and radical hospitality in the movements we articulate and the communities we cultivate. I can’t become a disembodied abolitionist spirit—no one can, and no one should be forced to do so.
(3) I am not “romanticizing” Indigenous peoples and peasants here. “Romanticization” is another term I have come to despise for its mainstream political usage and yet a legitimate danger for non-Indigenous (and some Indigenous) agitators who are disconnected from the living communities about whom they wax lyrical. Nonetheless, a host of Indigenous intellectuals, philosophers, community leaders, and community organizers have testified to the holistic, interwoven, and spirit-suffused nature of Indigenous worldviews, communities, and movements. The womyn of Standing Rock, for instance, are fighting a deeply spiritual battle that is misunderstood as nothing more than an “environmental,” “political,” or “economic” movement.
Please check out the works of Gregory Cajete (https://nas.unm.edu/faculty.html), Taiaiake Alfred (https://taiaiake.net/), Robin Wall Kimmerrer (https://milkweed.org/book/braiding-sweetgrass), V. F. Cordova (https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/how-it-is), Makere Stewart-Harawira (https://www.ualberta.ca/education/about-us/professor-profiles/makere-ste...), Smitu Kothari (http://sacw.net/article776.html), Pramod Parajuli (http://www.jsedimensions.org/wordpress/content/author/pparajuli/), Madhu Ramnath (https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4129415.Madhu_Ramnath), and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin (https://www.smith.edu/academics/faculty/frederique-apffel-marglin), among many others, for more information.
(4) You could call me a bischolar depressive.
(5) Thank you for bearing with me. Feel free to leave colorful comments about any part of this piece, especially my awful puns and obnoxious self-awareness.