The first self-described anarchist I ever met was a Greek medical technician sticking electrodes to my scalp. I was around 14 at the time, and I'd had a seizure in my parents' driveway a few days earlier. The doctors wanted to test me for epilepsy, which involved using electrodes to read my brain's electrical activity while a strobe light flashed in my face.
Somehow, the technician and I started talking about Henry David Thoreau, and he said he admired Thoreau's anarchist ethics. I said I didn't know what that meant. As I recall, he explained it roughly like this: There is an inherent tension between autonomy and authority, and authority structures do not hold legitimate moral power over individuals who haven't helped to create that structure and consented to live by its rules.
I had trouble wrapping my head around that one.
He asked if I had any vote in choosing my school principal. I hadn't. Well, he explained cheerfully while sticking electrodes to my head, if you're living by Thoreau's anarchist principles, you have no ethical duty to obey him.
Then he said he was mostly kidding and if I didn't want to get into trouble, I'd better obey the principal. But he had planted the seed of an idea—of thinking slightly differently in the future about the relationship between my autonomy and someone else's claim to authority. Then he stuck on the final electrode and switched on the strobe light.
Over the years, I've met other anarchists, both in the United States and in other countries: anarchy-in-the-UK punk rockers, radical hippies yearning for the collapse of civilization, romantic young men at house parties who drunkenly sang anarchist songs from the Spanish Civil War. Their anarchism didn't seem pernicious or scary, just another eccentric choice in life's rich pageant—like being a vegan or a performance artist or a teetotaler.
And then last week I was standing on Sixth Avenue in downtown Seattle surrounded by maybe 100 people wearing black clothes and bandannas over their faces. Some were carrying American flags, some were carrying black flags, and some were carrying a large black banner with the words "TOTAL FREEDOM" in white. A few protest medics wore gas masks and carried first-aid kits. These protesters were moving quickly through the streets. Suddenly, there were loud, dull thuds and then the sound of tinkling glass. Some of the demonstrators had smashed the windows of a Wells Fargo bank (later in the day, speakers denounced Wells Fargo for taking its bailout money to invest in the private-prison system). As the crowd moved on, small groups broke off to quickly and efficiently smash more windows with rocks and wooden staffs, then duck back into the crowd. Others tossed paint against windows and what looked like highway flares onto the sidewalk. The noise was jarring, the smoke was stinging, and there were no police officers in sight—though one man wearing a superhero costume tried to protect a building by pepper-spraying the vandals. One of the protesters joked that he should be arrested and charged with impersonating a police officer.
In all, the protesters smashed out the windows of several banks, a local courthouse, a few chain stores (Nike, American Apparel), and the back windows of a few cars, including one belonging to a Canadian tourist. There were no attacks on people, other than one man who was (understandably) irritated that his car window got smashed and wrestled a protester to the ground.
Just as the police showed up, the crowd seemed to evaporate. Demonstrators dropped their poles and cans of spray paint and stripped off their black clothes—sometimes just dropping their clothes on the sidewalk. One moment, I'm standing in the middle of an energized black-bloc smashup; the next moment, I'm standing on a street with a lot of normal-looking people. In the following hours, newspapers and TV stations released worried-sounding stories about the "violent" demonstration (a TV reporter from KOMO declared that he was a "target" because some of the paint flying through the air dribbled onto his jacket). But even while I was standing directly in the middle of the smashup, I never once worried that someone was going to attack a person, not even the protesters angrily yelling at me for taking photos. The protesters were after windows, not people.
Many anarchists talk about targeted property damage as a protest tactic. They cite the Boston Tea Party (its protesters dressed in costumes and masks to hide their identities, like the May Day protesters), Anarchists Against the Wall (who cut down border fences), and even Jesus Christ, who (according to John 2:15) smashed up bankers' kiosks and beat them with a whip that He braided Himself. (Believe it or not, there are Christian anarchists—they seem to focus on environmentalism and social justice. Check them out online.)
Political vandalism, anarchists say, has three basic uses: (1) To hurt businesses in their pocketbooks, which they say is the only kind of protest businesses respond to. (2) To show that law and order (as we know it) isn't inevitable and that pushing back against it is possible. (3) To draw attention to the issues. If we simply marched on May Day, they say, the newspapers would ignore us. If we create a ruckus, people will pay attention—first to the ruckus and then, hopefully, to why the ruckus happened. Local anarchist Sean Carlson, for example, drew the attention of the Seattle Times in 1986 for smashing a window at a University of Washington regents meeting, which prompted an article about how the UW was investing in apartheid-era South Africa.
Unfortunately for the demonstrators, it doesn't always work that way.
After I wrote a blog post about the smashup and why some people think political vandalism can be useful, a public-radio news show called me for an interview. Online commenters compared the May Day demonstrators to Klansmen and Nazis, while accusing me of writing "rank, putrid garbage," a "philosophical justification of terrorism," and arguments that are "in essence" an apologia of racist rampages like Kristallnacht.
I had no idea that simply asking the basic questions—who are these people? What do they want? Why are they doing what they're doing?—would be so threatening.
It's a few weeks before May Day and I'm sitting in the living room of the Emma Goldman Finishing School, a four-story house on Beacon Hill that is also a 15-year-old experiment in anarchist-style living. It has 12 rooms for members, one guest room, a 500-square-foot garden, and some fruit trees dotting the property. Inside and outside, EGFS looks tidy, cozy, and totally unremarkable.
Addy, a young woman who used to work in social services but is now in nursing school, sits on a couch across the room. The house, she explains, was built in 1907, fell into disrepair, was eventually condemned by the city, and was collectively bought by a group of people in 1996. "It was in bad shape," she says. "Where you're sitting right now used to be all blackberry vines."
Addy is an anarchist, but she's no window-smasher. "For me," she says, "identifying as an anarchist means that reformist strategies are not working and I want to find more revolutionary strategies." Her revolutionary strategy is helping to manage the household finances in a way that, in her words, "resists capitalism."
It works like this: The household guarantees basic needs with collective food, shelter, transportation (cars, bikes, bus passes), and health insurance. "You meet everybody's basic needs," Addy says. "That's a radical idea to most people."
In return, residents "pay" a certain number of "hours" each month, spent in a combination of working around the house, doing social- justice work outside the house, and paying down with money. Here's the key part: EGFS values everyone's hours equally. Let's say I make $10 an hour at my job, you make $50 an hour at your job, and we both want to pay down 10 hours of our rent one month: I pay $100 and you pay $500. Addy and the household figure out their budget—what the household needs, what resources people have to give—with consensus-based meetings and an open-source computer program called "the Gizmo" that was written by one of the residents.
"Labor out there," she says, gesturing out the front window, "is assigned an arbitrary value—but we bring it in here and we make it equal... knowing we're participating in capitalism, but knowing we're resisting capitalism in a concrete way."
Figuring out how to run a sustainable anarchist household (that values time spent washing the dishes and time spent making money as a computer programmer equally) isn't as headline-grabbing as a downtown smashup. But Seattle has dozens of functional anarchist organizations—or anarchish organizations. Some of them operate in an anarchist way (consensus decision making, a focus on mutual aid instead of competition) but don't call themselves anarchistic. And even the ones that do are constantly debating how to strive for anarchist ideals within the current economic and political system. (Give me two anarchists, and I will give you a debate on what "real" anarchism means.)
But the conversation is happening and has been happening for years in businesses such as Left Bank Books, which has been collectively owned and operated by its workers since the early 1970s. Or the Books for Prisoners program, a volunteer organization with many anarchist members who make decisions by consensus. Or Tides of Flame, the anarchist gazette that doesn't sell advertising. Or the various incarnations of the U-District needle exchange—its institutional history is complicated, but it's currently called the People's Harm Reduction Alliance—founded by a man named Bob Quinn who was exasperated with government public-health programs dragging their feet in the midst of the AIDS crisis and decided to take matters into his own hands. Or SeaSol, a "solidarity network" founded in 2010 that helps employees and tenants who feel they're owed money; it deploys its people to investigate the claim and negotiate with (and, if necessary, protest) bosses and landlords. Michael Reagan, who joined SeaSol in 2010, says the group has been successful in around 90 percent of its campaigns, from recovering small rental deposits to a $22,000 unjust-firing claim.
The prominent anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber wrote in his 2004 essay "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology" that anarchism isn't really about smashing things up. That's just the spectacular tip of a pretty mundane iceberg. (Graeber got his start studying communities in Madagascar where the government basically pulled up stakes, leaving people to sort out their own day-to-day lives in a form of functional anarchy.)
Anarchy, he writes, is about gradually figuring out new ways of organizing everyday life "which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point... there are endless examples of viable anarchism: pretty much any form of organization would count as one, so long as it was not imposed by some higher authority, from a klezmer band to the international postal service."
Small examples of functional anarchy are everywhere—it's just a matter of learning how to see them and, if you are so moved, lend them a hand.
So what's with all this "smash the state" rhetoric? Do anarchists want to wave a magic wand and make the government of, say, Canada evaporate overnight? Some do, but many realize that that's a completely untenable position.
John Zerzan is a prominent anarchist theorist in Eugene, Oregon, who was born in the 1940s and dubbed by the press as the intellectual godfather of the WTO riots in 1999. During a phone conversation a few weeks before the May Day smashup, we talk about the Occupy movement and how some occupiers in Seattle and elsewhere called for "police-free zones" as an experiment in anarchist self-policing. He thinks the idea is quixotic at best and dangerous at worst.
"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. The only way you can have it is to get rid of mass society, of modern mass society." Though he thinks the smashups are necessary to grab people's attention and make them consider anarchism's basic ideas, 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.
Zerzan came to anarchism in the late 1960s while he was working for the San Francisco Department of Social Services. He and the other workers were represented by an old, well-established union. One of their fellow employees—"a sweet guy, a quiet old bird," Zerzan says—was fired at 10 minutes to 5 p.m. on his retirement day so the city wouldn't have to pay his retirement benefits. The union membership went into an uproar, but the union said it couldn't do anything about it. So Zerzan and some others left in disgust and founded their own union, with no paid management and no real hierarchy, called the Social Services Employees Union.
They didn't call themselves anarchists, Zerzan says, but they had basically founded an anarchist organization whose primary loyalty was to its membership and not the employers, the city, or the old-boy union leadership. "Organized labor hated us more than city hall!" he says. "Because we were different—an alternative to their corrupt, bureaucratic thing." Only later did he realize he was basically an anarchist.
And what does he say to people who dismiss anarchism as thickheaded, a dilettante's game?
"People are saying you can't do anything about the way things are, but it's a cop-out," he says. "It's closing out the discussion. It's just saying, 'It can't get better.' But maybe we can tackle it and we can get better... Bowling leagues, reading groups—all that stuff is great. People come together and enjoy each other and have that bond, and they'll help each other if there's a crisis."
Many of the anarchists I spoke with while researching this article—far more than I had room to quote here—talk about their politics with a curious mixture of optimism and fatalism. Most of them see the world as catastrophically fucked up and blame big business, which is protected by imperialistic governments, for that fucked-uppedness. They realize their vision of the world is pitted against the tremendously intimidating inertia of a status quo that has oceans of money and oceans of weapons to protect it, not to mention the contempt of the very people who the anarchists want to "liberate."
But a deep vein of hope runs through all the conversations as well. They wouldn't be taking these risks, doing what they do, if they didn't think they might be able to turn the tide. In Graeber's words: "Since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify, and reproduce, the mess we have today? And anyway, even if we're wrong, we might as well get a lot closer."
When the smoke has dispersed and the glass is swept up, the riots and smashups—the spectacular moments when newspapers and television stations pay attention to anarchists—are the exception, not the rule, of anarchy. The hard day-to-day work of building anarchist organizations is about figuring out budgets and scheduling meetings and getting into the thick muck of group decision making.
From the outside, anarchy might look threatening and scary and exciting. From the inside, anarchy can seem quite boring. But it is a profoundly hopeful type of boring.