A Modest Proposal

It’s time to move beyond anarchism’s cultural / social ghetto

In the wake of the emergence of the anti-globalization movement, and following increasing understanding of the environmental damage caused by capitalist economics, a thriving new anti-capitalism movement is coming of age across the globe. Unlike earlier Marxist critiques of capitalism, the new anti-capitalist movement favors direct, participatory democracy applied to both political and economic matters. Blossoming more than 10 years after the end of the cold war, the new anti-capitalists can no longer be dismissed as Stalinist relics. Anti-capitalist theory and struggle is popping up in the developing world and the first world simultaneously. Both in the United States and elsewhere, the formerly tiny anarchist community is positioned at the center of anti-capitalist activities.

In this context, looking at what passes for the anarchist “scene” as we’ve known it in the US is pretty discouraging. Even despite some recent improvements, it is overwhelmingly youth oriented, mostly white, and seems to celebrate and intentionally seek marginalization. For all the handwringing about the lack of racial diversity in anarchist circles, the lack of class, age and cultural diversity goes almost unnoticed, but is equally problematic.

Sadly, a lot of the lack of diversity is self-inflicted. Anarchist politics are tied much too closely with counter-cultural tendencies. Walk into an anarchist convergence space and the feeling of exclusivity is palpable.

There has been a lot of discussion of doing “outreach” to the community, but little action that I’ve actually seen aside from wheatpasting and late-night sticker or graffiti campaigns. If you tallied up the number of hours spent by anarchists on various projects, you’d have to conclude that we’re more interested in having puppets in the movement than actual live, human beings.

The current political context is a crucial opportunity to move beyond the punk/anarchist ghetto. Millions of people, even in the privileged, asleep U$A, are looking for radical alternatives to capitalism. Average folks realize that the handwriting is on the wall — if people keep squandering the earth, life itself may be at risk. Despite having 200 channels, high speed internet and houses full of products, life ruled by the market and consumption is empty, lonely and sad.

A lot of people who are totally outside the current anarchist social/cultural circles, and who are therefore summarily excluded from consideration as potential anarchists, nonetheless have a deep mistrust of government, corporations, and the current industrial/capitalist system. They express their dissatisfaction as cynicism and disengagement, which can be confused with apathy or acceptance. They are a silent tiger, ready to resist and disrupt the system under the right circumstances.

Its time anarchists in the current scene started taking themselves a bit more seriously. It’s time to take down barriers that are unconsciously erected to the expansion of anti-capitalist, anarchist critiques.

I don’t claim to know how to accomplish these goals, but I do have a modest suggestion: a national week of outreach. Unlike the traditional “day of action” in which folks from everywhere gather at one central location for (often symbolic) street protests, a national week of outreach would be a decentralized effort to move beyond the punk/youth ghetto. Last fall I read that anarchists at a college town in Florida were organizing a “radical Rush” drive to coincide with the beginning of classes at the local university. For a week, they set up tables in public places to talk to folks, handed out flyers, and advertised a couple of evening events (films and panel discussions, etc.) The effort involved a coalition of various groups, each of which provided volunteers for the tables during one or two days during the week. The goal was to be minimally visible to people outside the established “scene” who might be interested. Rather than assume that “the public” are hopeless or worse yet, the enemy, these folks took a chance.

This is the kind of thing I imagine, carried out in as many communities by as many anarchists as possible. If people put as much effort, time and money into such a campaign as they did in traveling to and participating in a typical national gathering, imagine the scope of such an effort. Thousands of people go to each national gathering — what if even a thousand people participated in a national outreach week?

Most anarchist activity I see is focused inward on “preaching to the converted”, i.e. organizing skillshares, bookfairs, and conferences. Someone outside the established “circle” has to work hard to find out about these events, and if they show up to one, they would likely feel out of place if they didn’t fit the counter-cultural “norm.” (At a protest convergence space, a “normal” looking person might even be suspected of being a police agent!)

In contrast, when I worked in “single issue” campaigns like the anti-nuclear movement, we were always focused outward to “the public.” Why does the anarchist scene so rarely believe we can successfully communicate with folks outside our own circles?

I should point out that what I’m proposing should not be confused with evangelism — i.e. a vanguardist belief that we have the “correct” ideas and that we should “convert the masses” to anarchism. The topic of how to do anarchist outreach that avoids evangelism could easily be the subject of a whole article. The key would be asking anarchist questions, spending time to engage in discussion and debate, and being clear that anti-authoritarian thought permits each of us to conceive our own answers and our own vision for the future.

I arbitrarily propose September 4-7 for a national week of Outreach since its after Labor Day and folks should be back from their summer travels. But please, pick your own date. Good luck.