It is unfortunate that it is often publicity-seeking morons who grab the headlines whenever people with a serious political agenda congregate to express their grievances against the “system.” While immigration marchers during last week’s May Day event in downtown Seattle were behaving civilized, picking-up garbage off the streets and sidewalks and handing out water to police officers, self-styled “anarchists” were busy behaving badly. Of course, I can understand why some people might be upset enough at Nike to break a few windows; Nike manufactures its footwear in places that resemble gulags, pay millionaire athletes millions more to be “spokespersons” for their brand, and in turn gull the gullible (especially inner city kids who live for their shoes) into paying exorbitant prices for a logo that represents nothing more than a fad. Nike thus represents what is wrong with capitalism; but instead of boycotting their products, you break a few windows. The “point” is made, in a fashion. Of course, what that point is, is in the eye of the beholder—and the “anarchists” are rather considerably out-numbered.
Of course, anarchists have had a PR problem since the beginning of time. What is anarchism? Let’s talk about what it isn’t first. Today, we find that in Europe far-right, anti-immigrant extremists are gaining more currency in public debate and the ballot box, because people need someone to blame. While the “left” blames the support systems that allow for the inequities in society that benefit the few, the right tends to pick on the most vulnerable elements, such as immigrants, who apparently don’t have the same human rights as “native” people do. The mainstream “left” and anarchists differ on their conception of the role of government—in fact anarchists, at least on the surface, seem to have similar use for government as the extreme right. The far-right in Europe, however, also feeds on nationalist sentiment; the idea of a “pan-European” state in which the stronger partners are trying to thwart the national identity of weaker partners—crushing the populations of those countries into impoverishment—has some effect on people in countries whose weak economies are further weakened by being tied to the Euro, because price competition within the EU is discouraged. The current austerity programs that reduce taxes on the wealthy (in the mistaken belief that they will use their added largesse for “job creation”), cuts social welfare programs, government contracts and jobs tend to have the opposite effect intended; recessions last longer and recoveries less robust. A redistribution of wealth through progressive taxes tends to keep society in balance that benefits both the rich and the poor; it is when that balance is tilted too far in favor of the rich, that is when chaos ensues. We haven’t reached that point in this country where enough people actually know as well as feel the imbalance—and neither are we at the point where Newt Gingrich can justly make such patently absurd statements as Barack Obama being the most “extreme-left” president in the country’s history; that’s only his disgust that a black man would presume to be president of “his” white country. Voters in this country should take note of how the “austerity” program sought by Republicans in this country—which are mostly self-induced by the reduction of taxes, especially for the rich—do not have the nation’s interest in mind, but merely an effort to manipulate thought for short-term political gain.
So while the right supports policies that push the country toward chaos, anarchists (in general) would simply step in and make it “happen.” In other ways, anarchists seem to have some things in common with the right. Anarchists believe in freedom of action, free from government interference. This may sound like libertarianism, but anarchism and libertarianism are different in one crucial way: The anarchist believes that power and material wealth destroys civilized society rather than creates it, while the libertarian would give free reign to an individual’s worst greedy excesses. The anarchist’s opposition to government power assumes that the individual will abide by a humanistic moral and ethical code, but this is clearly a fantasy. No one should believe that other anti-government types—like Tea Partiers, right-wing militias or white supremacists—are motivated by anything other than a selfish or evil design that unlike the anarchists believe in exclusion of diverse elements of the population as part of its ideology. The problem with “anarchists” is that they have difficulty in reconciling their belief in individual freedom with the idea of “solidarity” with “working people,” for this requires some sort of governing mechanism to enforce its principles; without a governing organization, chaos results. Anti-government extremists on the right, of course, have no such conceptions to moralize over.
But without doubt the biggest problem with anarchists is that they have a bad reputation. Not for nothing has the word “anarchy” come to suggest a form of madness. The term conjures-up riots, bombings and pointless destruction and mayhem. On the other hand, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles exhibited just this kind of “anarchic” spirit—perhaps more so: The rioters destroyed their own neighborhood, rather than someone else’s. It makes perfect sense—not. Some groups with anarchic tendencies—such as the Weather Underground during the 1970s—were aware that violence inflicted on persons, homes and businesses tended to diminish empathy for their “cause,” so the Underground purposefully avoided human “collateral” damage in their destructive enterprises, focusing on government institutions after hours. Such was not the case during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the anarchist activity was in full swing. Most anarchists were immigrants from Europe, who escaped what they viewed as oppressive conditions in their home countries; both themselves and their ideology were naturally viewed as “alien” and dangerous.
Before we judge anarchists too harshly, it should be remembered that their activities were hardly more despicable than the Ku Klux Klan’s periodic murders, lynchings, bombings of churches and burnings of homes that occurred under the protection of the law and “civilized” society. In fact Klan activity was more contemptible, since anarchist violence was usually in response to the refusal of the business community to address the grievances of workers, police repression and extralegal provocation (such as by the Pinkertons).
Nevertheless, the activities of the anarchists—especially the adherents of charismatic rabble-rouser Luigi Galleani—were quite shocking to quaint society. There was the Haymarket “riot” in Chicago in 1886—when after police killed up to a half-dozen striking workers during a previous demonstration, another attempt to “break-up” an assembly was greeted with a homemade bomb, which killed a police officer and set-off a melee that killed and wounded dozens on both sides. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, but it wasn’t until after World War I and the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, that anarchists activities took a more disturbing turn. Their actions for a time proved a detriment to sympathy with labor’s plight, since any effort to improve working conditions was perceived by the ruling elite and the middle class as a step toward Bolshevism. 1919 saw the Seattle general strike, which crippled the city for a couple of days and upset a lot of people whose garbage was not being disposed of; the Washington legislature eventually passed numerous laws to prevent labor “insurrection.”
Even more alarming to the public was the package-bombing campaign that spring; although most of the packages were intercepted and casualties were much fewer than the perpetrators had hoped, the very audacity of the plot led to a widespread crackdown of anyone who was even suspected being an anarchist or of having pro-labor leanings. The May Day marches that year were in many cities the scene of rioting by both pro and con forces; various strikes crippled many industries for a time, and race riots in which blacks actually defended themselves were blamed on anarchist agitation. But some also believed that giving anarchists the attention they craved exacerbated the problem; after the U.S. attorney general—on the advice of a young J. Edgar Hoover—announced a nationwide alert against an expected armed insurrection on May Day the following year—and nothing happened—the media became less convinced that anarchist Bolsheviks were hiding with bombs in every corner, in fact accusing public officials and law enforcement of helping to foster an atmosphere where violence could occur. The Sacco-Vanzetti case was seen in this country and around the world as an example of anarchists unjustly accused of every violent crime; despite the Wall Street bombing in 1920—apparently in retaliation for Galleani’s deportation—that killed 30 mostly low-level employees, many editorialists proclaimed that since it was attention that the perpetrators wanted, the less they received the more likely they would recede into the darkness whence they came. And they did.
Since the brief flare-up during the early 1970s, there has not been an organized effort to force political and social change through inflicting mayhem. It is not that this hasn’t “worked” in the past; it can be concluded that the activities of the Irish Republican Army eventually convinced the British to recognize a free Irish state. The British had little choice, since as elsewhere they were trying to control increasingly restless subjugated peoples whose “radicals” had popular native support. But in the U.S., such activities did not incite change—that only happened when a majority of people thought it was necessary, whether in the aftermath of such cataclysmic events as the Civil War or during the Great Depression.
And no one should take comfort in a turn to the radical right as some people are in Europe, in response to perceived loss of “sovereignty” to control one’s national “destiny.” The conservative European governments that are pushing austerity programs that weaken institutional structures like education and public services only further the potential for hopelessness and chaos. Add the scapegoating of immigrants and chauvinistic nationalism, you have the mixture that allowed the Nazis to take control in Germany in the 1930s. Instead of tossing a few bombs, the Nazis murdered millions.