Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Confessions of an Anarchist: Part I - All About Me

It was a couple months ago that two of my friends asked me to write about anarchism. I’ve called myself an anarchist for close to 35 years. My understanding of what that means has evolved over the years, but my identification with anarchism has only grown stronger. My friends wanted to understand the differences (and presumably the similarities) between what I believe and the so-called “black bloc anarchists” who are the subject of so much debate, derision and defensiveness since the Occupy/Decolonize movement hit the headlines.
a few of the thousands of graphics that come up in response to
a search for "anarchist graphics"

It’s taken me a long time to answer the call. Part of what distracted me was that little trip to Bahrain, and when I came back there were some family issues to worry about, as well as the sense of rootlessness and political fumbling that tends to ensue from flying 48 hours in nine days and coming back with a whole new project.

The other problem was that I couldn’t figure out what to say. What does anarchism mean to me and why am I so committed to it? It’s hard to articulate. After so many years, being an anarchist seems like breathing or cooking or being a Jew. I am because I am. But of course that’s not right. It’s not something I’ve been since I could talk – the only thing my liberal Democratic parents had in common with anarchists was their dislike of Communists (no offense to any of my Communist friends).

I started off thinking I was going to write a survey of anarchist thought, or perhaps I’d just find the best ones already written and quote from them and link to them. I searched for “anarchism” and came up with 5,720,000 million hits. “Anarchism in America” gets you 2.6 million results and “Spanish Anarchists and Soviets” nets 2.3 million. Obviously, one who sets out to write a survey of anarchist thought is going to be staring at her computer for a lot longer than I have.

So let’s start with me.

The first anarchists I knew about were probably Sacco and Vanzetti. The Haymarket martyrs came next, followed by Emma Goldman. The Kronstadt sailors and shipworkers – anarchists and left socialists slaughtered by Lenin’s Army after a rebellion in 1921 – came to my consciousness much later. So anarchism must have seemed more a path to tragedy than to liberation. After all, I grew up in the age of Communism spreading like wildfire, through Africa and Asia and heading inexorably for Latin America and burrowing its way into our own cities.

I had an instinctive hatred for capitalism, probably an outgrowth of my deep loathing for shopping. But at the same time I could not block out the cries for freedom coming from what we then called “Behind the Iron Curtain.” For if my earliest political memories were the police riots of Chicago ’68 and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., then the Prague Spring must have been in there somewhere too.

When I went to Oberlin in 1976, there were two Communist organizations on campus – the Sparticist Youth League and the Young Socialist Alliance. Each had about four members. I couldn’t imagine being the fifth in either. For one thing, no one took them seriously, and for another, they were always looking to someone else for what to think. As my friend David recently said about me, I was just born ornery. The Sparticists believed nuclear weapons were only dangerous in the hands of capitalists, and the YSA defended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (in pretty racist terms, as I recall).

Anarchism, as dimly as I understood it then, seemed a way to hold both social equality and individual freedom as fundamentally important. The type of anarchism I gravitated to was a radical communitarianism, in which everyone participates to the maximum extent they are able, equally sharing the labor necessary to sustain the community and the fruits of our labor, everyone’s needs are met and our wishes respected, though not always able to be granted. It was embodied, in the San Francisco I moved to in the early 1980s, by a network of collective houses, most rented, some owned, some well-stocked and spotless, others chronically roach-infested and empty of food, all welcoming to travelers from other communities coming to town for actions or cultural events, and all populated by people deeply involved in social revolution.

That network of houses nurtured and staffed a host of other collective projects, some of which predated it and others conceived within it:
  • The People’s Food System, which at one time encompassed the Noe Valley and Inner Sunset Community Food Stores, Other Avenues and Rainbow Grocery, as well as some direct delivery initiatives
  • Abalone Alliance, which organized the massive Diablo Canyon protests in 1982-85, and Vandenberg Action Coalition, which shut down two MX missile tests in 1983;
  • The Anarchist Coffeehouse, a rotating locale fundraiser that drew hundreds every month for ten years, featuring an open mic that sometimes drew performers like Michelle Shocked, Keith Hennessy, MDC and Tribe 8.
  • Martin de Porres Soup Kitchen, a Catholic Worker “free restaurant” which still serves breakfast and lunch during the week and Sunday brunch in a converted warehouse at 15th and Potrero, and Food Not Bombs, for which I made vats of potato salad every Wednesday night during its first year.
  • Reclaiming Collective, which teaches magic and activism, organizes rituals and pagan clusters at activist convergences.
  • The San Francisco Needle Exchange, for years the largest underground source of clean needles and HIV prevention information in the country.
Our Bibles in that time were The Dispossesed by Ursula LeGuin, a novel in which the anarchists have grown so powerful that they were given the moon, where they scratch out an existence in mostly peace and harmony (I was superhappy to see someone reading it recently at Bradley Manning Plaza when OccupySF was still living there), and the work of Murray Bookchin (which I never read).  We read Processed World, a magazine by and for subversive office workers, and watched Born in Flames, a movie about revolutionary feminism in a post-socialist U.S.A.  We made zines with word processors and press type.

We organized in opposition to the invasion of Grenada (remember that?) and U.S. aid to El Salvador, the 1984 Democratic Convention, South African apartheid and U.S. AIDS policy, the Nevada Test Site, harassment of sex workers and owner-move-in evictions (two of the three houses I lived in fell victim to gentrification evictions). Some of us were willing to work with Communists – notably the then-anti-gay RCP and Prairie Fire, some of whose members called themselves anarcho-Stalinists. Others were not. We had discussion groups, potlucks and at least one weekend retreat at Point Reyes.

We were mostly hard-core nonviolence adherents, but not surprisingly the media didn’t always see that, confusing punk fashion statements with aggressive behavior. Or maybe it’s just that anti-authoritarian youth groups tend to be seen as threatening by the establishment, regardless of their actual politics. One affinity group in 1985 or so named itself “Hundreds of Punks from San Francisco” after warnings published in the newspaper of some northern California town in advance of a planned action there.

I identify with anarchafeminism, which sees anarchist practices such as consensus decision-making as the most empowering to women, and anarchapacifism, which holds that we need to value all life, even the lives o people who don’t value the lives of others. For me, pacifism is less about the harm I might do to someone like, hypothetically, George W. Bush, than about the harm engaging in revenge violence would do to me. I don’t believe a movement that achieves liberation through militarism will be able to resist using militarism to consolidate its power, even against the people it claims to serve. One we can decide that it’s okay to get our way through violence, I think it is too easy to use that as a short-cut around the frustrating process of democracy. This doesn’t mean that all violence is wrong – personal self-defense, for example – but I believe Violence + Power = Oppression.

To be continued

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