Rethinking Anarchism

December 27, 2008, 6:33 am
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , , ,

I just took a look at the call for a “Celebrate Peoples’ History, Build Popular Power BLOC” at the January 20th Inauguration. Seems like a pretty good idea to me. The Anarchist movement in the US is still mostly thrashing around in its little ghetto,  uncomprehending of the realities facing working people and the possibilities this creates (take Crimethinc’s recent assertion that the rebellion in Greece had little to do with economic conditions, for example).

Predictably, the call has caused quite a stir amongst the brick and bottles caucus, with long comment threads on, and Many Anarchists have a serious deficiency in understanding how to build movements for change. I like the Popular Power Bloc because it will create opportunities for dialogue with the same people who will be open to our ideas in 6 months when the crisis in capitalism is that much deeper.

That said, there’s a place for confrontation and Black Bloc tactics. Streetfighting can be a valuable radicalizing experience for youth. Taken far enough, it can stop certain state initiatives. In addition, the situations rioters face in the streets might actually be somewhat prefigurative of what a revolutionary transformation will look like.

The question is how streetfighting can be one tactic within a broader strategy of social change. In countries with a more developed radical left, youth sections of the various radical parties and unions sponsor demonstrations that often turn into riots. Check out for example. These organizations are extremely popular and help build a radical youth culture.

The danger is that the clashes with their attendant macho image get fetishized and mistaken for radicalism in its own right. In the US, the result is a kind of infantile approach to politics which treats the streets as the be-all of radical politics.

The question is how to move beyond streetfighting into more serious, effective, long-term approaches to change. One idea is to build up the mass organizations that could make this possible, and then start youth wings (like ANTIFA of ARA) that allow kids to taste confrontation so they can get down to the real revolutionary struggle in their neighborhoods, schools, homes, and workplaces.

It’s one thing when Crimethinc puts out a call for a Black Bloc at Obama’s inauguration, alienating millions of potential supporters. It’s another when the youth wing of an anarchist federation or union makes demands and then stages disruptive demonstrations to win them.


Tree vs. Rhizome, Revisited
December 3, 2008, 7:15 am
Filed under: Analysis, News | Tags: , , , ,

The question of what’s next for Obama’s support network just won’t go away. Here’s an article about it that came out today on NPR: “The Fate of Obama’s Net Roots Network.”

The story is that Barack Obama was elected on the back of the biggest wave of “participation” ever seen in a US electoral campaign. This was accomplished largely through mobilizing a constituency through the Internet and allowing local volunteer organizers a relatively high degree of autonomy. Supposedly, the campaign is a network organization, a “rhizome,” rather than a top-down “tree.”

If this is true, if the Obama campaign was in fact a “movement,” the answer to the “what next” question will not come from the President-Elect or his campaign strategy team, but from the network itself.

I doubt this will happen. It seems to me that the Obama campaign was not a qualitatively different way of doing politics- but a quantitatively different way of campaigning. The goal was the same: elect someone. The tactics were the same: phone calls, doorknocking, maybe some house parties, but the scale was different.

These quantitative changes are not without value. It shows that massive numbers of people are looking for solutions, trying new things. If Obama does not deliver the goods, at least some of the now-organized population will move on in search of qualitatively different approaches… and different targets, tactics, and strategies.

I hope that revolutionary anarchists are part of the dialogue when people realize that the change we need isn’t going to come from anyone other than ourselves.

Don’t Just Vote… Go to Starbucks, too
November 30, 2008, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , ,

Unless you’re some kind of leftist hermit (no offense, just sayin’), you probably heard that Starbucks gave away a free cup of coffee to anyone who said they voted on November 4th. I emphasize the word “heard.” Starbucks aired a 60-second commercial during Saturday Night Live the weekend before the election advertising the offer. Word spread like wildfire. Here’s the commercial, too be followed by some analysis…

It’s an incredibly effective piece of propaganda. The promotion itself was a stroke of genius for the company. On November 4th, everyone was talking about Starbucks at the polls, and everyone headed in for their free cup of coffee after voting. With this kind of an impact, you might be surprised to learn that Starbucks did not advertise on television or in the newspaper until Winter 2007. They were able to establish themselves as a national brand without recourse to the traditional avenues to consumers brains. Maybe this explains why they were so successful.

But there’s more to this than a stereotypical narrative of entrepreneurial success. The rise of Starbucks is a story about capitalism and culture. Starbucks is the most insidious of the multinationals because it’s own success depends on its ability to permeate the social fabric. The corporation must become part of the city, the “heart of the neighborhood,” as Howard Schultz likes to say. There you have it- corporate America at the heart of every neighborhood.

This is a disturbing notion. Whether or not you think Starbucks is a “good” company, the acceptance of one corporation at the “heart” of America culture has deep implications for the acceptance of corporate power in general. If we uncritically accept one multinational corporation in our midst, this implicitly destroys the potential for any deeper critique. Instead of losing faith in the corporate system in general, people will think that the other “bad” corporations just need to be “more like Starbucks.” What is at stake is the very ability to envision a life beyond capitalism.

So how does a corporation secure a spot close to a nation’s heart? Marketers across the US are wringing their hands over the new “cynicism” of the American consumer. Like heroin junkies, advertising executives are searching for a new vein to deliver their drugs to the consumer brain. Preferably, they want consumers to think that they are not being advertised to at all. The impulse to buy should appear in the consumer brain as if by immaculate conception; no one should know where it came from.

Instead of speaking directly to consumers, Starbucks infects the social medium with its message, and lets us do the work. Their advantage is that they have some 150,000 workers who they can command to tell customers about their products at over 15,000 locations worldwide. For most promotions, Starbucks puts its employees on the front line facing customers, and lets us do the work. They walk a delicate balancing act between heavy-handed coercion of Baristas to treat customers well, and allowing for the improvisation which is what makes human interaction unique.

Starbucks depends on tapping into the very core of what it means to be human, a part of society, in order to sell their product. In the case of the “Don’t Just Vote” advertisement, they captured the zeitgeist, creating a script that was copied and repeated by people across the country for a day, endlessly. Through a careful tactical intervention, they turned millions of people into ambassadors for their products.

Their success with this promotion illustrates both a weakness and a strength. Corporations are forced to insert themselves into the social medium, always trying to stay one step ahead of those of us who would delegitimize them and break their power. So how do we do this? We have to out-organize them. We need to build a movement. Movements are made up of the anonymous acts of millions of people. We need to give the public ways to participate in our cause– the Revolution. We need to enlist millions of people as  participants, not just as voters or consumers but as organizers of actions outside the officially-sanctioned forms of civic participation cynically encouraged by the corporations.

The corporations are afraid. Viral marketing will fail. They have brought about a crisis that free cups of coffee on election day cannot solve. It is up to us to put out another message: solidarity and direct action is the solution.

A Hissing Sound?
November 5, 2008, 7:07 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Barack Obama has won the presidency. I was on the streets with Somalis, white liberals, and anarchists as McCain delivered his concession speech. The mood was jubilant. The cops showed up and everyone quieted down.

The big question is- what now? Obama was elected with a progressive mandate. We will now see if his presidency lives up to the hopes he inflated to put himself in the White House. If he goes back on his promises to the electorate, will the people oppose him?

The first hundred days of Obama’s presidency will tell us a great deal about the next four years. Will progressive change encounter roadblocks from entrenched corporate interests that we are too disorganized and weak to surmount? Will the momentum of an at least aesthetically progressive victory carry over into other spheres of society? Is this the beginning of something bigger, or a false start?

I will be listening closely for a giant hissing sound, the sound of deflating hopes.

Whether the hopes that carried Obama to the White House are buoyed or crushed, Anarchists must engage with those around us who are clearly looking for answers, and willing to fight. This is neither the beginning, nor the end. Let Obama’s victory be but a symptom of a broader resurgence in popular confidence to confront illegitimate authority and work together for a better world.