James Joll, the foremost non-anarchist historian of anarchism, warned of underestimating “the extent to which men are moved by abstract ideas.” While anarchists point to the ills of capitalist government as their rationale, they are not the only opponents to capitalist power, just the most simplistic. I’ve made some notes below — not a complete list — on what might be contributing to the growth of anarchism and quasi-anarchist chic.
1. AMERICA’S INDIVIDUALIST TRADITION:
Individualist rhetoric is an inescapable component of life in the United States. While anarchism’s concept of individualism is far more absolute and divorced from a concept of citizenry, it nevertheless presents fertile ground for conversion to anarchism. Further, the absolute individualism of Ayn Rand, despite decades of dismissals by intellectuals, has proved to possess ongoing appeal and influence in the minds of many Americans already alienated from politics. It is congruous, even if disconcerting, that following decades of disastrous deregulation Americans would entertain an equally fervent anti-government, individualist fashion from the left.
2. DECLINING UNION MEMBERSHIP:
Outlawed union activity has been cited as one possible factor in the rise of anarchism in pre-Civil War Spain. Union membership in the US fell from 30 percent in 1970 to under 12 percent in 2010, with anarchism becoming a growing element protest culture during that time, culminating in Occupy Wall Street. Right-to-work laws are a rising trend eroding union strength. Without strong unions to protect their interests, the large mass of unrepresented working people will look for solace in the more individualist, anti-political doctrines of anarchism. The real differences that unions can make in workers’ living conditions and political clout are the best antidote to anarchism’s “beautiful gestures.”
3. CLIMATE CHANGE AS APOCALYPSE:
Anarchists have many grievances against capital, but one in particular fuels their absolutist, apocalyptic mindset. It’s no accident that anarchism’s current resurgence has roots in the environmental movement. Capitalism’s inability to curtail production and restrain polluters who degrade the environment is alarming to youth. The NPR liberal’s emphasis on social forms of sustainability such as recycling, shopping habits, and organic gardening seem inadequate. But the anarchist wishes to push this idea further. Anarchism’s solution is similarly social, heralding an all-encompassing social utopia oddly similar in rejecting structural economic factors. Anarchists are about action, not strategy or policy, and ongoing climate crisis provides justification for arbitrary terrorist attacks on capitalist symbols, even among anarchists purporting to be non-violent. The threat of ecological catastrophe makes even those who reject anarchism inclined to sympathize with desperate anarchist acts that serve reaction.
A rock concert and an Occupy assembly.
4. PART OF MY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FANTASY:
“This process of mass liberation has already began. How many factory workers already listen to Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, The Clash or Rage Against The Machine?” wrote the authors of The Black Bloc Papers. American youth ingest large amounts of cheap romanticism from the popular music industry, and many consume it’s anti-intellectual sentiments with an intellectual turn. The rock ‘n’ roll myth of “the sell-out” is taken quite seriously in youth culture. The hedonistic primitivism of rock is nurtured earnestly in anarchist doctrine, as is anti-intellectual intellectualism. Youth identify with famous anarchists like Emma Goldman as they do rock stars, rather than seeking political leadership. Where the Yippies were vaudevillian in their antics, today’s youth favor the punk styles similar to those peddled by Sex Pistols’ manager and former Situationist Malcolm Mclaren.
5. AMERICANS ROUTINELY DENY THE NATURE OF POLITICS:
“It’s just politics,” Americans often say dismissively, as if the political component of life were optional. American politicians say it too to win popularity. The anarchist rejection of political appeals to government will resonate with many people acclimated to the casual disdain for politics, even if the anarchist’s rejection of politics as an intolerable compromise with state government is far more extreme. Societies with a strong communal peasant tradition have often been strong sources of strength for anarchists (witness Greece), and one is tempted to joke that Americans are a strange kind of individualist peasant just as divorced from the political sphere. Anarchism has less success in advanced industrial societies, but American political ignorance is indeed exceptional among first-world countries.