Some Counterproductive and Ineffective Tendencies in Anarchism by Dana Williams


The anarchist movement is diverse and often contradictory. We argue a lot amongst ourselves almost as much as we argue with the rest of society. Although this could be seen as “more of the same”, it is my hope that this will allow anarchists to reflect on some of our less than desirable tendencies, which, incidentally, I as a White male anarchist have in many cases been guilty myself. Thus, I intend this to be more constructive than destructive.

A juvenile “fuck everything” attitude only displays an arrogance of society. There are so many wonderful and good people and things that such callousness ignores. Being “anti” everything and “pro” nothing prohibits the formation of a plan of action. Childish rebellion (for the sake of rebellion only) is a limited vision-- not only for one's self, but also for one's community and world. Anarchism is an idea that emphasizes both personal and collective liberation, but for social creatures, like humans, self-absorption is self-destructive. Think of the thousands of young White boys who sang along to Rage Against the Machine's “Killing in the Name”, missing the point of the song completely, but reveling in the chorus: “Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me”.

One's “right” to rebel is important, but self-interested act done by a middle class anarchist is absolutely no constructive threat to the power structure. It does not mobilize people to support mass movements for freedom, nor will it aid those at the bottom rungs of society to self-organize. Thus, locking down a street just to show that we can -- while an important flexing of our muscle -- could end up as mere self-indulgence. If we want to really change things, we need to shift our thinking from shutting down city streets to liberating people's capacity to think and their desire to rebel.

Anarchists have acknowledged that, since Proudhon first said it, property is theft. It has no rights or soul, and destroying or vandalizing it is not violence, per se. However, trashing should be seen as only a tactic, not a prerequisite for radical action. It need not happen at every anti-corporate globalization event. Unfortunately, the masses of people in this country do not yet realize the statement being made -- it might be better for us to put our time and effort into discussing these issues with people. Once they better understand the attitudes anarchists have about property they’ll hopefully better understand the tactics anarchists sometimes use.

Recent articles in the anarchist press (“Manarchy” and “Open letter to the anti-authoritarian anti-capitalist movement” being prime examples) have discussed counterproductive and macho approaches to demonstrations and tactics, in particular the methods of the black bloc. Militant street actions can be useful for anarchist projects, but if they are not backed up by community organizing, successful propaganda, and follow-thru, what good are they? Outside of serving a rebellious need to confront police, act with impunity, and act out (usually male) aggression in crowds, what purposes should the black bloc be serving? If we allow the loudest and most provocative persons in the bloc to lead it or when they can be manipulated by the media as “crazed anarchists” or marginalized by the rest of the left, then maybe we should re-evaluate how we use an otherwise good tactic.

Openly advocating violence is different that advocating self-defense or supporting the right of powerless persons to use violence in self-defense. In our privileged existence in the west (and as a predominantly White “movement”), why are we wasting our precious time talking about using violence? Should we not be working to counteract and end the violence of capitalism, patriarchy, White privilege, militarism, and the State? History has shown repeatedly that aggressive advocation of violence rarely (if ever) amounts in success, and that to call for it before masses of people are unified behind measured and democratic use of it, violence will fail miserably. The two primary examples of violence offered by anarchists illustrate this point perfectly: the Spanish Civil War and the Zapatistas. Both were largely anarchist lead or influenced revolutions/rebellions. But, they would not have had their relative success had the vast majority of the population not supported the idea of armed struggle.

Actively criticizing taxes directly aids the Right in cutting important programs that help the poor, thus harming the very people for whom survival is a daily occupation. It can help justify a dangerous “everyone for themselves” mentality and can give fodder to draconian politicians and ideas. Encouraging non-hierarchical grassroots programs that can supplement state-run programs is vital, but why spend time criticizing existing programs regardless of where they come from? Ironically, working towards a more progressive-tilted tax system acts as low-intensity class warfare upon the rich.

Some say that voting reinforces the system. In many ways it can and does. However, why abstain from such an easy act that can chip away at the consolidation of power? Especially in the case of local elections or ballot initiatives (non-people, issue voting), making one's voice heard can scare those in power, and can help to mobilize resistance. (Some say that power will adapt to this and pretend to compromise, thus deflating and halting revolutionary action from the people. This is true, and should not be ignored, just as voting (as a whole) should not be dismissed, but used strategically as a tactic, like any other tool.)

The word “reform” seems to spark utter contempt amongst radicals, and for good reason. But there are still many “reforms” that can aid in widening the avenues of dissent and resistance that can bring many people out of discomfort to a place where they will have the time and means to resist more fully, and that can clear the way for movement building. Michael Albert states that these “non-reformist reforms” are things that can be the jumping points for more and more reforms and radical change, not ends in themselves. Anarchists should not be dismissing small steps of progress simply because they do not instantly bring “the revolution”. People of color, for instance, have long acknowledged, that change takes time and will not come overnight.

Refusing to participate in “liberal” events or collaborate with “liberal” organizations will cordon off radicals and anarchists from large segments of potentially sympathetic people. If a rational and inspiring case can be made for more radical perspectives, “liberals” can be encouraged to move away from their lukewarm and safe perspectives. Ignoring, condemning, and insulting them will distance them from our positions and they will in turn criticize and not support our actions. We need to dialogue with them in order to win them over, just as we need to dialogue with the working class in order to win them over to anarchist sympathy.

Anarchism is not a binary condition, but a spectrum with freedom on one end and oppression on the other. It should be used as a yardstick to measure and evaluate the liberatory, empowering, and democratic content of our personal and collective actions, not as a holy crusade for a perfect ideal that we alone understand.

The revolution will not and cannot come from dumpster-diving. When we spend all day long dumpstering “neat stuff” for ourselves, we are actively wasting precious time that could be used to help organize others into thinking about reusing resources. Instead of spending hours every night dumpstering, why not spend a few hours everyday with a community garden? Or with a community bike repair/salvage shop? Or pump our efforts into Food Not Bombs, who advocate food recycling? Many poor people cannot spend time rummaging around for stuff in dumpsters, nor is it reasonable to assume they should. It's a rather middle class phenomenon (with few exceptions)-- poor people spend their time working long hours at odious jobs or resort to basic theft to provide for themselves and their families. Due to its reliance on capitalist excess, it is not, and cannot be, a revolutionary tactic.

Being only committed to “the scene” (which for the predominantly White anarchist movement, usually means the punk rock scene), limits the people anarchists will reach. What is the good of a band singing songs about revolution in indistinguishable screams to a small (or even large) crowd of jaded punk rockers? Of course, organizing the punk rock scene is not without merit. But, staying only to those circles, speaking that language, dressing that lifestyle, and appreciating that culture limits anarchopunk's ability to talk with the rest of the population. If we are not willing to sometimes forgo the punk rock uniform, frequent and live in “non-hip” places, and learn a language outside of punk, we will eternally fail to reach others outside of the punk rock milieu.

Onward to freedom!