Thursday, September 02, 2004

Je Suis Le Anarchist!

We Are All Anarchists Now
by Siva Vaidhyanathan

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is offering a nice deal to anti–Republican protesters who pledge not to break things during the Republican National Convention this week. Polite protesters will receive discounts at such Manhattan hotspots as the Pokemon Center and Applebees Restaurants if they display cute buttons declaring them "peaceful political activists".

Such perks might not be as exclusive as the mayor hopes. During his announcement earlier this month, Bloomberg admitted that "unfortunately, we can't stop an anarchist from getting a button."

The mayor seems caught in the same unfortunate binary as many commentators on recent political uprisings. They assume that anarchists are violent by definition. They carry a cartoon image of anarchism, reinforced by more than a century of propaganda and misrepresentation of this complex political philosophy. And they fail to recognise that anarchism is now a part of millions of people’s attitudes and orientations, even if we rarely call it what it is.


Well, it's time Americans got to know the anarchists in their midst. They might be surprised at their influence and diversity. I'm not an anarchist. I'm just a good mainstream American liberal. But I have been studying anarchism for some time. So please allow me to describe it.

Anarchism is radical democracy. It eschews authority and dominance. It demands a commitment to fight coercion in all its forms. Yet anarchists (with some exceptions) generally oppose violence, vandalism, and political disengagement. Anarchist organisations (not an oxymoron) govern through conversation and consensus.

The American experience with anarchism has been tainted by images of violence and coloured by anti–Semitism and nativism: the 1877 Haymarket Square riots in Chicago; the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo at the hands of a deranged American of Polish descent; and the Red Scare and Palmer Raids that followed the first world war.

The European experience is richer and more nuanced. It involves the failed revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution before the Bolsheviks triumphed, and the influential sindicatos movement in Spain before the rise of fascism. Anarchism, as a result of such failures at the hands of enemies both left and right, has been considered a mere footnote to modern political history.

But anarchism in recent years showed itself as a powerful force in the 1994 Zapatista uprisings in Mexico and the massive protests that shut down the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. In both cases, it was state officials who overreacted with brutality and violence, yet the anarchists who got blamed. Still, many movements took inspiration from the Zapatistas and let Seattle raise their expectations.

Although it's been with us in some form since the cynics of Greek antiquity, anarchy matters now more than ever. As anarchism has faded as a well–defined political movement, its tactics have grown in relevance. Anarchism is now practical. It is a bag of tools.


Read the Whole Thing at Democracy Now.


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