Letter: response to Y2K

Dear Slingshot:

I was troubled by Daniel Dylan Young’s short essay, “The Year 2000 Problem, the Social Revolution & You,” Slingshot, Fall 1998. I felt it was dangerously simplistic and poorly thought through.

While I am not at all convinced the notorious “Y2K bug” will turn out to be anywhere near as devastating to the technology which virtually runs our society today as Daniel and others predict, I acknowledge with him the likelihood of significant political and economic disruption beginning around the end of 1999. And I also agree with the most basic tenet of his argument, that radical organizers should take advantage of the impending “crisis” and look upon it as an opportunity. But I do not share his utopian vision of the potential for the bug and its aftermath to spark “social revolution”; and by this Daniel actually seems to mean insurrection, the point at which the last vestiges of the state/capitalist system are torn down and replaced by liberatory alternatives.

My concern is that we have yet to develop those liberatory alternatives. Daniel asks “what better time for an anarchist revolution…?” and comments, “it’s always a good day for a revolution.” My response is that I can think of far better historical periods, in the future, for insurrectionary change. Daniel has fallen into that classical anarchist pitfall that pins our hopes and visions on a disastrously inadequate notion of spontaneous revolt. If we have learned nothing else from revolutionary history, it should be that we are not prepared for revolutionary changes unless we have already established alternative forms of social institutions and infrastructure, and unless we have developed the skills necessary to practice participatory, direct democracy and operate cooperative workplaces — indeed, a decentralized, democratically planned economy. In short, we simply are not ready for an insurrection. We have nothing with which to replace capitalism. Not to mention the spheres of kinship and cultural life which go entirely unmentioned in Daniel’s piece but are nevertheless an integral — as opposed to secondary — factor in social revolution!

There are two possible results of premature insurrection. The first is chaos. When old, oppressive social structures collapse “overnight,” the tendency is not toward immediate reorganization of society along anarchist principles. Instead, power vacuums are typically filled with violence, with economic speculation, with starvation, and so forth. And whatever can be said of the so-called “anarchist movement,” preparation to lead the reconstruction of society is not on our current list of attributes. The skills and institutions required to rebuild a new, nonauthoritarian society amidst the rubble of the old take decades, perhaps generations to develop. Some cultures, such as the Maya Zapatistas in Southern Mexico, live simpler yet more severe existences with far better developed notions and practices of democracy. In the North, we can boast nothing of the sort, so we can expect only to fail in an emergency, as peoples of many undemocratic societies have in times of social collapse.

Which brings us to the second possible consequence of revolting Unprepared “masses” of people (and I am not arrogant enough to exclude myself or anyone likely reading this from that group) tend to resort to dependence upon strong, charismatic leaders who present rhetorical plans for a new society and demonstrate a capability to implement such plans. This is the role of a vanguard, an elite group or personality cult which requires of the people not skills but committed support. The vanguard seizes power when the opportunity arises and then takes up the task of managing the revolution and educating the masses from on high.

My point is that we had better hope, ironically enough, that some aspects of the Establishment stay in tact past Daniel’s “numerologically significant” “Year 00.” I for one am frightened of the potential for competition rather than mutual aid. Should welfare and social security and WIC checks stop arriving, even for a few months, it is obvious who will be at a dangerous disadvantage. The military and FEMA already maintain stockpiles of emergency supplies and food, which they will dole out as per their wishes. In the absence of a cooperative infrastructure to carry us through any hard(er) times which might be brought on by partial technological collapse, there is legitimate reason even for anarchists to fear. Just because we don’t believe humans need hierarchical forms of government doesn’t so much as imply that we are not largely dependent upon them, in the here and now, for protection from still nastier predators in the private, market-driven economy.

I remain optimistic. If the Y2K bug does lead to widescale catastrophe, radical organizers should definitely be prepared to get involved in mutual aid efforts in their communities. But to do what Daniel is suggesting, which amounts to a ridiculous and unethical attempt to pray on people’s fears (“The emotions we can most readily capitalize on are the ambiguous anticipation lying in the back of the minds of the masses” [!]). Fear-mongering is never constructive. If we need to “capitalize” on anything, it should be people’s hopes, aspirations and strengths. These tend to come out during times of calamity, and surprisingly enough it doesn’t take any prodding from anarchist types to prompt one neighbor to help another. What we can offer, to the extent we have practiced it ourselves (and this is limited, let’s agree!), is the development of collective structures and processes for bringing about mutual aid more equitably and efficiently.

The main problem with Daniel’s view of the Y2K moment is that it is every bit as apocalyptic as the perspective of those peddling survivalist dogma and tales of Armageddon. It still looks at a historical moment as the creator of history, instead of acknowledging our role in it as people who bring about change slowly, cautiously, patiently and completely.

Brian A. Dominick Syracuse, NY