Twenty Years of Attack the System: Was 2020 a Vindication?

By Keith Preston

It was 20 years ago this month, in January of 2001, that AttacktheSystem.Com first appeared.

Previously, I had been involved in radical activities since the late 1980s. For about five years, I was a conventional left-wing anarchist, engaging in strike support (Eastern Airlines, Greyhound Bus, Pittston Coal); antiwar activism (Central America, Indonesia, Cambodia, Persian Gulf War);  joining the IWW and IWA/WSA;  participating in riots in New York, Toronto, Berkeley, and at the Pentagon; creating student anarchist groups, a May Day festival, and homeless benefits; attending left-wing demonstrations (abortion, environment, war, homeless, anti-Klan);  teaching a class on anarchism at an alternative school; attending an anarchist convention San Francisco and the founding gathering of Love and Rage; being distributor/writer for anarchist ‘zines, conducting anti-racism workshops, meeting a range of Left luminaries (Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Philip Agee, Michael Parenti), attending early Green meetings in the US, spending many hours in the HX833 section of the library reading books on anarchist history, and too many other activities to remember. I mention all this merely to point out that I was the real deal.

Eventually, I became less orthodox leftist in my orientation and more like something resembling an individualist-anarchist, wanting to focus on a more expansive view of anarchist thought (the Max Nettlau/Peter Marshall narrative), and exploring a range of other ideas and movements along the way.  I became interested in libertarianism, and then the militia/patriot movement following the incidents Waco and Ruby Ridge, going to militia gatherings and preparedness expos, and encountering militiamen, sovereign citizens, and neo-secessionists for the first time. I then became interested in forming a radical alliance project and formed American Revolutionary Vanguard in 1999. Our first meeting was an oddball and seemingly contradictory mixture of left-anarchists, skinheads, black power, libertarians, leftists, and gun nuts (like a scene out of the film “Anarchist Cookbook”).

I started a public access TV show that aired intermittently over a three year period. On the internet, discovered a much wider range of political subcultures, including European Third Positionists, and other tendencies with which I had not previously been familiar. I wanted to create a website combining all of these influences, with the idea of forming an anarchist umbrella organization that would be the “revolutionary vanguard” of a larger radical alliance, and which would more or less combine left-anarchism with its emphasis on direct action/general strikes/dual power, libertarian anti-statism/voluntarism, militia/secessionist gun nuttery, leftist anti-globalization, and Third Position anti-globalism.

In December of 2000, at a pro-marijuana rally, I mentioned this pending project to 19-year-old college student who suggested the name AttacktheSystem.Com, and the now long-defunct original design of Attack the System was done by a high school kid, a friend’s younger brother. ATS went live in January of 2001, and was predictably controversial from the beginning, with many right-wingers (and some left-wing anarchists) viewing us as Communists, and many left-wingers viewing us as fascists (both of which continue to the present).

The core idea behind ATS was to focus less on the laundry list of liberal causes embraced by the left-anarchists or (alternatively, the economic and/or social conservatism of the libertarians and populist-right) and more on anti-globalism/imperialism, corporatism, and the state specifically, while offering beyond left/right/center paradigm in favor of cultural pluralism, voluntary association,  political and economic decentralization.

What Has Happened Since 2001

With the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Islamists lured the USA into a never-ending series war, resulting in the decline of American influence and prestige, and the current slow but steady retreat of unipolarity and globalization. Ongoing polarization in the USA, at an all-time high now, was only beginning in 2001 (Bush v. Gore election), and a range of populist movements (Occupy and Tea Party, Sanders and Trump) have since come and gone. Twenty-first-century left-wing protest movements were only beginning in 2001 with anti-globalization. The rise of militia movements in the 1990s has evolved into similar contemporary tendencies from both the left and right,  including Three Percenters, Oathkeepers, BLM, Antifa, Proudboys, and Redneck Revolt.  Both domestic terrorism and public shootings have become more common. The 1999 Columbine High School massacre was just the preview.

The lumpenproletarian insurrection in 2020 seems to have vindicated my long-held speculation, based on the 1992 West Coast insurrection, that the lumpenproletariat would be the vanguard class in future insurgencies,. 2020 was 1992 on steroids. In the 1980s and 1990s, the police state of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the Bush family was being fully consolidated and reached exponential levels following the 9/11 attacks. However, the subsequent two decades have also witnessed the gradual fall of the drug war (formerly the core building block of the police state), a shift in public opinion on the police state (evidenced by popular support for “criminal justice reform”), a declining enthusiasm and loss of legitimacy of US imperialism. As a cultural drift much further to the left has taken place, the right has become more radical and militant in its opposition even as the right has become smaller in size.

Widening class divisions have accelerated dramatically. Neoliberalism began in the 1980s, and was consolidated in the 1990s, and accelerated once again by the Great Recession of 2008, and yet again by the impact of COVID-19 in 2020.  Meanwhile embryonic pan-secessionist actions have taken place (sanctuary cites, 2nd amendment sanctuaries, CHAZ/CHOP, etc.), with many of these rooted in the ten core demographics I identified about a decade ago as the likely future actors of anti-system actions, with many of these reflecting the kind of libertarian populist hybrid and implicit philosophical anarchism I have written about in the past, and functioning within the framework of fourth generation warfare theory, which I generally regard as the modern version of the historic anarchist concept of “propaganda by the deed.”

In the past two decades, ATS has built connections with every kind of fringe group imaginable, left, right, religious, counter-cultural, conspiratorial, or undefinable, as well as gaining mention in the international media (Europe, Russia, Middle East, Latin America), and in numerous academic books and articles.

Errors of ATS

Of course, most “errors of ATS” are really my own errors. There have three big ones:

1-grossly overestimating the actual interest of North American “radicals” in actual revolutionary activity, as opposed to participating in mere culture-war politics, with many “radicals” being more akin to fans of sports teams than revolutionaries,

2-grossly underestimating the entrenched nature of the “culture war” psychology which has only become more extreme over time, and which has been fueled by the media, corporations, and ruling class parties in order to prevent united popular resistance from emerging, a divide and conquer strategy,

3-failing to recognize how attempting to fold into other, larger movements have the effect of diluting the wider message and having been involved in the Left, Right, Third Position, and Alt-Right, it was the same effect each time,

The lessons I take from these errors are the following:

-The need for an independent pan-anarchism/anarcho-pluralism, that is, on one hand, an umbrella for all forms of anarchism, libertarianism, decentralism, anti-statism, anti-authoritarianism, prototypical philosophies and historical prototypes, cousin ideologies, blueprints or utopian colonies, voluntary or organic forms of social organization, or anarchistic tendencies within various philosophical, religious, ethical, cultural, or ethnic traditions, but which maintain a distinct identity from other philosophies, ideologies, or movements that do not have anarchism/libertarianism as their core foundations. Meanwhile, the evaluation of hybrid or external movements needs to take place on a situational basis in order to determine their fitness as allies or coalition partners. For this purpose, I developed what I call the “0 to 100 scale” with “total anarchy” being 100 and totalitarian ideologies (Nazism, fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc.) being a 0, and most political philosophies, institutions, or individuals being in the 30-70 range.

-About 15 years ago, I postulated the need for an “Anarchy First!” ideological and tactical framework and the importance of this position has been reaffirmed by subsequent experience. Historically, anarchist alliances with other movements have not turned out well, with the traditional alliance of anarchists with Marxism being Exhibit A. This problem was demonstrated once again in the Obama era by the growth of libertarianism (influenced by the Ron Paul presidential campaign), only for libertarianism to fracture into a microcosm of the culture war, with many supposed “anarchists” or libertarians eventually venturing off into authoritarian or statist ideologies (e.g. SJWism, Trumpism, Alt-Right/Lite, Antifa, Marxism).

-While my positions are mostly the same as the left-anarchists, more or less, with considerable variation in focus and emphasis, I understand the need to recognize every form of anarchism, with all ideological considerations being subordinated to the wider voluntaryist, decentralist, pluralist, anti-statist, federalist, mutualist, free associationist framework.

-While most anarchists and libertarians are aware of the dangers of right-wing authoritarianism and outright fascism (often the point of hysteria) a major weakness in anarchist thought is is lack of a thorough critique of authoritarian leftism beyond the mere rejection of the vanguard party/dictatorship of the proletariat Marxist-Leninist model. More anarchists need to familiarize themselves with the Nietzsche/Stirner critique of leftism as neo-religion, the Bakuninist critique of Marxism, the Burke/Dostoevsky critique of apocalyptic revolution, and the critiques of modernism, scientism, and therapeutism found in a range of thinkers as diverse as CS Lewis, Jacques Ellul, JRR Tolkien, TS Elliot, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Szasz, Michel Foucault, Max Weber, and (selectively) the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

-The importance of the concept of withdrawing consent on the model outlined by Etienne de la Boetie in “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” model, a lesson that was illustrated by the overthrow of the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact (an empire which dissolved into 23 independent nations), as the ideal model of revolution, as opposed to the terroristic Jacobin model.

-In the past, there have been political paradigm shifts from the polytheist/god-emperor models of antiquity to the monotheist/divine right of kings models of the medieval era, to the rationalist/social contract theory of the Enlightenment. The next step is to reject the plutocratic managerial state associated with modern “democracy” toward voluntary association/anarchism.

-It is necessary to question pieties that few people, including anarchists, do not or barely question such as the sanctity of “democracy” (which was dismissed as mob role, ochlocracy, or “tyranny of the majority” by historic great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, early liberals like JS Mill, and early anarchists like Proudhon and Kropotkin ). Far too many left-anarchists are too accepting of the Prussian-model public administration state and regulatory government, which is a reactionary position adopted by progressive elites during the Industrial Revolution but which many “radicals” have regrettably absorbed. Far too many libertarians uncritically accept republican theory, which ever since the Roman Republic has been a mask for the class dictatorship of the merchant, banker, and plutocratic classes. It is also necessary to reject the reactionary/progressive false dichotomy and challenge the idea that modernity is synonymous with progress (it’s more of a mixed bag).

During the 2020 pandemic, the global power elite has shown their hand like they did in 2008, indicating the need for a global revolution against globalization and the global power elite on the 1989 model (i.e. global pan-secessionism). The insurrections of 2020 indicate that the lumpenproletariat will continue to be the vanguard class as neo-feudalism becomes more entrenched and the size of the lumenproletariat continues to increase.

Categories: Activism

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