by Brian Oliver Sheppard
Probably at no other time in history has the word "anarchist," or the attending noun "anarchism,"
been seen so much in the US media. Not during the New Left movement of the 60s, not during the
Red Scare, and not even during the "propaganda by the deed" hysteria at the dawn of the 20th
century ( in which a rabid capitalist press called the Republican assassin of President McKinley an
"anarchist") has the term been thrown around so liberally. In fact, if you do a search on the word
"anarchist" on the Internet, you will get almost as many hits as you would were you to do a search
on "Democrat" or "Republican."
The anarchist movement is now at a crucial point. The path that anarchism takes from this time on
will determine its future history and continuing revolutionary viability. If the progress of anarchism
can be seen as a slowly churning ocean of ideas and history, ebbing and flowing, our modern
phase of anarchist history might be seen as a cresting tidal wave - a huge upsurge of energy and
action, surpassed only by the past anarchist revolutions in Spain, the Ukraine, Mexico, and
elsewhere. Of course, the broadening movement against corporate globalization, coupled with the
Internet's ability to disseminate information internationally, is contributing to this.
But it remains to be seen whether anything lasting will come of it all. Unlike the more substantial
periods of anarchist activity in the past, which occurred in countries on the periphery of powerful
Western states, or amongst disenfranchised immigrants brought to America in poverty, the
contemporary anarchist revival has been filtered through the distorting lens of consumerist
commodification, and can claim mostly Anglo-European participants in privileged nations. The
image-oriented pop culture of the US has also nurtured a trend that is the focus of this essay: the
prevalence nowadays of people claiming to be "anarchist."
You will find, across the racial and economic spectrum, people that say they have adopted
"anarchism" as a guiding ideology. MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, for example, while undoubtedly
one of the most penetrating antiauthoritarian minds of the past century (or ever), is very comfortable
financially, and even has a secretary - a secretary who can delight in knowing that her boss is an
anarchist. An anarchist boss might seem a counterintuitive thing, but many others working in more
liberal enclaves in the country, in book stores, bike shops, and coffee houses, might also be
employed by self-styled anarchists. Such employees are in the unusual position of being hired, and
fired, by "anarchists." Likewise, some
Hollywood actors and actresses also claim that they are anarchist. In an interview given a few years
back, Al Pacino claimed that he was "somewhat of an anarchist." Nirvana's Kurt Cobain said he
was a "Bakuninist." The media has even described some flamboyant CEOs, like Virgin Atlantic's
annoyingly self-absorbed Richard Branson, as "having a bit of an anarchist streak" in them. Many
are the musicians, wealthy and poor, known and unknown, that adopt the label of anarchist,
whether or not they really fit the mold of classical anarchist in the sense that someone like Peter
Kropotkin would have meant it. Extrapolating from this, it is not hard to envision a large workplace
where everyone - the secretaries, the men and women in the cubicles, the copier service people,
the supervisors, managers, the janitors, and the CEO - were all "anarchists."
Indeed, we could all be anarchists, and all have a knowledge of anarchist ideas - and nothing could
This brings to mind an important question: what is anarchist activity? And what does it really mean
to *be* an anarchist? Not think about anarchism, not claim it as a mantra, not discuss it in literary
salons on the weekends - what does it mean, I want to ask, to make anarchism a living force,
brought out of books and out of the minds of people who, more and more, begin to think of it
regularly or who are made aware of it due to its growing presence across all kinds of media?
Is an anarchist someone who holds down a normal job and happens to read a lot of anarchist
theory in his spare time? Is an anarchist someone who merely sympathetically agrees with
anarchist ideals but can never be bothered to organize or put them into practice? Is an anarchist an
antisocial recluse who writes volumes of essays but does not otherwise deal with people very
regularly? Is an anarchist a Nietzschean artist who wants to buck the system and forge their own
path, like a black sheep struggling against a mass of mediocrity (as they might fashion
themselves)? Is an anarchist someone who pontificates behind a computer screen, or who wears
black and thinks himself above the vulgar herd, or who has anger management problems and
constantly alienates everyone around him, to no real positive (from an anarchist point of view) effect
in the end?
Can everyone lay claim to the title of "anarchist" and have it ring true, or is anarchism more than
something that can simply be adopted after having read a few tracts here and there, after having
debated a right winger once or twice, or after having memorized a few paragraphs from Alexander
Berkman, or John Zerzan, or anyone else?
I ask this because, while I meet more people than ever who claim they are anarchist, I am
astounded at how little things have changed, and how little they seem to be changing.
It is possible that creditors who call me late at night might be anarchists - ordinary people driven to
unpleasant work in order to make ends meet, reading Chomsky in between phone calls. Or the
landlord at the place I'm living at now could very well be an anarchist; I might go to his home and
find that he subscribes to Z Magazine and Covert Action Quarterly. But there he is, still a landlord;
and there I am, still bound to paying him rent to avoid homelessness. "What can I do?" he could
ask. "I have to pay property tax and maintain upkeep on the place, so I have to charge rent." And
so I would have to say, in return, to people I knew, "What can I do but keep a job? I have to pay
rent and have a place to live." Round and round we go, all stuck in a "what can we do?" rut.
We could all be anarchists to the core and have amazing book collections by anarchists, but we
would all be stuck in the same class and economic positions as always. Because what, after all,
*can* we do?
It is because of the growing numbers of self-styled anarchists that I think we need new criteria for
just what constitutes "anarchism." That is, we should be clear that by "anarchism" we mean the
regular practice of anarchist activity. I, for one, do not consider reading volumes of anarchist
literature an anarchist activity (necessarily). Nor do I necessarily think writing and doing web pages
is "anarchist" (though both could be, under certain conditions). Rather, I believe anarchist *activity*
to be the conscious human activity of working to eliminate hierarchy and patterns of unjust authority
In the workplace, this means challenging the authority of the bosses through industrial unionism,
and in challenging the sets of social preconditions that necessitate the sort of work we must do in
this kind of society. In the home, it means challenging patriarchy. It also means forming tenants'
unions to wrest control of housing from landlords. In other social affairs it means challenging racism
and ethnocentrism. It means forming organizations and making active coalitions to do serious work
to root out authoritarian restrictions in everyday life.
If we cannot commit to doing this - if "anarchism" becomes a hobby we engage in as an intellectual
pursuit, to commence when we get off work or when we go to the next protest - then the modern
anti-capitalist, antiauthoritarian movement will not change anything. We will simply create a farm
league for the next generation of "enlightened" entrepreneurs who will use their past experience as
"anarchist activists" to open up "friendlier" businesses and to go into office as "friendlier" social
democratic politicians. Anarchy is not a step on a career ladder that a college age person goes
through before moving onto "serious" work in an NGO or non-profit social change agency
somewhere. Anarchy is the necessary precondition for all human freedom (if not survival), and
needs people who are serious about committing to its goals.
The danger of using the term "anarchist" too liberally, as a rather deliciously rebellious way to
describe oneself, is that it will strip the growing movement of its potency and lead to co-optation
and comfort. If modern anarchists simply see themselves as radicals who are "getting their feet
wet" by way of anarchism, in preparation for a later, more serious career with a social NGO, or with
an "environmentally friendly" eco-business, then my claim is that such people are not worthy of
being called "anarchists."
Revolutionists are just that: revolutionists. They are not people who happen to have a lot of
knowledge about what is wrong with this society, but who never want to use it to engage in the hard
work of fundamental social change.