One of the things that keeps hooking my attention back to anarchism is its way of popping up wherever people are trying to mitigate a crisis and the usual authority structures, control mechanisms, and chains of command have been washed away.
I realize some (most?) regular Sloggers think anarchism is too strange to think about with any degree of seriousness, but I keep stumbling across examples and studies—including those at the famously conservative University of Chicago in the 1950s grappling with how people might behave during a nuclear catastrophe—showing that the improvised, vernacular ways of dealing with problems are oftentimes more efficient and more humane than anyone expects.
People practicing with anarchist or anarch-ish experiments sometimes look awkward, of course—if you've ever been part of a consensus-based decision-making process you know that it's time-consuming, aggravating, and much messier (in the short term) than a dictatorial pronouncement. But anthropologists and historians like James C. Scott, John Zerzan, and David Graeber argue that's because we don't get much practice. We all have the self-organizing muscles, but they're atrophied and need exercise—someday we might need them for heavy lifting.
Which brings us to Bosnia, another site of protest and unrest this month. Reporters in Sarajevo say that, unlike Ukraine, the focus is more about class issues and living standards than national identity and sovereignty. One result has been the rise of plenums, an attempt at direct democracy to figure out better ways of self-governance in a state that's falling apart.
From the NYT last week:
Frustrated with corruption, political inaction, unpaid wages and youth unemployment around 60 percent, workers started a protest in the northern town of Tuzla on Feb. 4. Within days, the unrest had spread nationwide. By the time I arrived in Sarajevo a week later, scores of government buildings had been set on fire.
Around the country, protesters are not just occupying streets and public squares but organizing plenums to create alternative governments. In Sarajevo, one such assembly was taking place at the youth center, which before the wars of the 1990s was one of the most popular Western-style clubs in Yugoslavia. During the war it was hit by artillery shells and caught fire.
Now I watched as more than 1,000 people — mothers without a job, former soldiers, professors, students, desperate unpaid workers — gathered here to discuss the future of the country.
As a Bosnian anarchist said in an interview with Crimethinc earlier this month, "The majority of people here feel that if the state disintegrated, there would be another war. They have no experience, or even historical memory, of organizing without leaders, political parties, trade unions, or religious institutions. Only a few people know anything about anarchist political theories and practices."
Yet, as a response to the crisis, they're beginning to dabble with it. Roar Magazine reports that the plenums are very self-consciously modeled on the Croatian student movement, which based its decision-making processes on the Occupy general assemblies that we all had a good time making fun of.
But, like the anarchists say, we're clumsy at that kind of decision-making because we don't get much chance to practice until we have to. As Zerzan put it in a conversation for this article on anarchism in Seattle:
"Anarchist people say, 'Abolish the cops.' But in this kind of society, you can't just do that," he says. "How are you going to go help vulnerable people if they're being attacked?"
So what's the solution?
"You need to create a healthy community before you can get there," he says. "You talk about smashing the state and getting rid of capitalism, but if you want to keep this level of complexity, you can't have that..." Zerzan's vision—like Graeber's—is a generations-long project of building up functional, self-regulating communities that will make the state as we know it irrelevant. (The old Greek word "anarkhos" doesn't mean "no rules"—it means "no rulers.") But he worries that economic and ecological collapse will come much sooner than we think, and that the time to start behaving in an anarchic way—taking care of ourselves instead of deferring to government and big business—is now. He wants, in his words, for people to have a "soft landing" when the global shit hits the global fan.
Footnote: After we ran some posts about the protests in Ukraine, someone forwarded me links about Free Territory in Ukraine, a large-scale anarchist experiment in the early 1900s that, after a few years, was crushed by the Bolsheviks.