Last year, squads of young men and women in black clothes, masks and bandanas crept out to the streets of Portland, Oregon, with bags of asphalt in hand. This wasn’t about Neo-Nazis, law enforcement, immigration rights or other prickly issues millennials have demonstrated a passion for. They took to the streets for one purpose only: to patch potholes, which had grown out of control as the city struggled with a backlog.
Peter, a self-identifying anarchist in his mid-30s, was a part of the grassroots crew, which dubbed itself Portland Anarchist Road Care. In his eyes, the city had let down too many people who frequently popped tires and crashed bikes on their way to work. Being critical of government was old hat to Peter, who had felt a distrust of authority from a young age and fed himself a steady stream of punk rock and Noam Chomsky in his 20s. For him, fixing potholes wasn’t just a kind volunteer act — it was a political statement.
“Like everyone else, we were just sitting around waiting for the city to deal with it, and then we realized, these are our streets,” he says. “And if we want to offer an alternative to state solutions to problems, why not show people that we can do things together, as a society, that the state fails to do for us?”
Over several months, the crew patched several dozen potholes — a small number in comparison to the hundreds the city ultimately fixed, but an achievement nonetheless for a band of unauthorized, self-organized workers. In the process, it became a curious new symbol for anarchism, a centuries-old political ideal that has long been misunderstood.
The ideology resurfaced into the mainstream when white nationalist Richard Spencer, dressed in a grey suit with his signature “Nazi haircut,” stood in front of a camera for an interview in January 2017. He had just wrapped up a rant about the aggressive tactics of leftist activists and started explaining the meaning of a Pepe the Frog pin on his lapel when, out of nowhere, a lanky black-clad man flew into him, throwing a right hook that hit Spencer square on the head and sent him fleeing.
That one punch captured the attention of the nation, triggering a flash flood of humorous memes, political analysis and outright condemnation. The puncher had dressed in the all-black uniform seen in a number of Antifa (anti-fascist) groups, which led media coverage to speculate that he was a member. More Antifa appearances around the country on Inauguration Day, in Berkeley in protest of Milo Yiannopoulos and at the deadly Charlottesville rally only helped bring exposure to the groups, which were at least partly composed of anarchists and influenced by anarchist tactics.
Search Google for the meaning of “anarchy” and the first result you see is a definition: “a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority,” with synonyms like “lawlessness,” “turmoil” and “mayhem.” Culturally, there’s long been a link between anarchy and chaos, signified by things like the Spencer punch, the rise of anarcho-punk bands in the 1970s and 1980s and the textbook The Anarchist Cookbook, which rose to infamy in the 1970s as a guide to cooking up homemade bombs and other weapons.
But those references distract from the fact that anarchism is, at its heart, a philosophy that simply works to minimize government’s inherent power over its citizens — and condemns the damage that power does to people, whether that’s domestically with abusive law enforcement or abroad with invasions and wars. Their activities may overlap with leftist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, but anarchists reject government on principle rather than commit to working within its construct.
Anarchism has already been a valuable force for social and economic change in the U.S., among other things inspiring the massive labor movements to standardize an eight-hour workday, first in 1886 and again in 1890. As evidenced by Portland Anarchist Roadcare, today’s young anarchists are continuing that tradition of political action, through a wide range of groups and activities far beyond the physical violence and chaos that the mainstream media often ties to the ideology. “Anarchism is about the ability for everyday people to solve their own problems and create a world worth living in, outside of top-down hierarchies and politics,” says James, an editor of anarchist news site It’s Going Down (and who declined to reveal his full name, as with some other anarchists quoted in this piece). “The terrain that millennials are increasingly seeing is a nihilistic one. Despite what Trump says or even the cheerleaders of Obama said, things aren’t getting better for working-class people.”
This is the true fringe of the “Radical Left”: ambitious in theory, practical in action and driven by a desire to prove that people don’t need a nation-state to support fulfilling lives. Usually, that means tackling non-violent tasks to help vulnerable Americans without the assistance or permission of the government, as with the work of groups that bring aid to neighborhoods damaged by natural disasters, create humane conditions for prisoners and increase wages for poor workers.
And once in a while, it means punching fascists, too.
What Do Anarchists Do?
On Sept. 9, 2016, 24,000 incarcerated men and women in prisons across America collectively refused to do their assigned labor, ranging from building vehicle parts to sewing clothes to working as janitors or cooks. The work strike served to protest extremely low wages and unethical living conditions behind bars, and was led by the Free Alabama Movement and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the latter being an arm of Industrial Workers of the World, one of the most influential anarchist-driven organizations in American history. IWOC staffers collaborated with incarcerated members behind prison walls, communicating with people using a series of contraband cell phones hidden in more than 20 prisons. Even some guards in Alabama got in on the strike.
While it’s hard to measure the actual impact of the work strike, advocates say it showed prison officials that political activism can bloom in unlikely (and oppressive) spaces, led by motivated individuals who face inhumane treatment on a daily basis. Now, anarchist activists like IWOC member Clayton Dewey are gearing up for another prison strike on August 21.
Dewey first began identifying as an anarchist when he was 16, inspired by punk bands like Anti-Flag, Fugazi and At the Drive-In. Later, he fought for political prisoners’ rights and helped organize protests against the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. In joining IWOC, Dewey was inspired by the sight of a national organization operating without hierarchy in command. “The real effective activity comes from local groups working off their own initiative. This upcoming strike is a good example. We’ll set out a larger framework of demands that you can use, but if your facility has something specific you want to fight for, we say take it and go with it,” Dewey notes. “It allows us to be flexible, and it’s more about trust and relationships. There’s no formal chain of command to get permission.”
Anarchists don’t buy into bowing to authority outside of their organizations, and will often not obey laws if they prevent direct aid to a community that needs it. That may include acts like rent strikes against landlords as a reaction to poor conditions or gentrification, or dropping into towns damaged by natural disasters to dispense fast and unauthorized help, as with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR).
The group first formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as a reaction to the mass evacuations and building teardowns that many residents feared would lead to permanent evictions, despite government promises to the contrary. Today, MADR is composed of decentralized crews around the country with a small core committee that gives guidance to its many independent working groups.
MADR doesn’t label its politics, but its ranks feature a large number of anarchists, says co-founder Jimmy Dunson, 33. The crux of the group’s work is its belief that conventional government and nonprofit aid responses can serve as a form of “disaster capitalism,” in which institutions angle to best promote their agenda in the aftermath of a tragedy, rather than aid the survivors in the best way possible, Dunson says. The group recently funded and delivered a $60,000 solar energy microgrid to a Puerto Rican aid center, and toured around the nation to various chapters during the spring to encourage action and provide training. MADR emphasizes collaborating with locals in disaster areas whenever possible, to create recovery strategies beyond the charity of major institutions.
“The nonprofit-industrial complex and the state, with its military or police, often come into disaster areas and try to reestablish the status quo of the dominant social hierarchy in that area. We see colonizing forces setting up curfews and checkpoints, for instance,” Dunson adds. “Others may treat the community as passive aid recipients who don’t need to be involved in the recovery, even though they have valuable knowledge and goals. We’re creating alternatives to all of those problems.”
Other anarchists choose to set up residential communes, as with Detroit’s Trumbullplex, a community founded in 1993 when activists set up a nonprofit and purchased two Victorian homes and the small one-story art space that sat between them. Residents care for common spaces together, collaborate to host performances with visiting artists, and collectively run the zine “library,” which holds more than 2,000 pieces of literature to share within the commune and with the surrounding community. The individual “rent” of $300 a month is used to maintain operations, with no profit going to any member. Recently, the Trumbullplex anarchists won a major victory when they outbid a real estate developer for two lots next door to their complex, which they will use for more community events.
Where Did Anarchism Come From?
These kinds of practical, grassroots tactics promote ambitious ideas about an individual’s freedom, outlined in a number of historical texts that have crafted the philosophy around modern anarchism. The earliest recorded anarchistic ideals may have come from Chinese philosophers like Zhuang Zhou, who mulled over questions of liberty and state rule in 4 B.C. Others point to Jesus as being one of history’s earliest anarchists, given his own fight against state punishment. The moniker of “anarchism,” however, wouldn’t rise until French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon identified himself as anarchist in his groundbreaking 1840 book, What Is Property?
In the text, Proudhon decried the institutions that allowed the powerful to accrue private property at the expense of the working class, setting the foundation for modern anarchist critique of capitalism and wealth inequality:
“The liberty and security of the rich do not suffer from the liberty and security of the poor; far from that, they mutually strengthen and sustain each other. The rich man’s right of property, on the contrary, has to be continually defended against the poor man’s desire for property.”
In 20th century America, anarchism and its followers helped birth influential community organizations and unions, most notably the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international group that first formed in Chicago in 1905. While it didn’t identify as solely anarchist, the IWW championed many of its ideas. It stood as an alternative to larger labor groups like the American Federation of Labor, which the IWW criticized for excluding workers and giving too much power to employers.
The IWW exists today with much smaller decentralized chapters, but it hit the news this year when the Portland IWW chapter helped organize the first federally recognized fast-food union in the nation, the Burgerville Workers Union.
Are Anarchists Violent?
It is true that sometimes, anarchist action means committing to physical violence as a tool. Whether it be the 1886 bombing of Haymarket Square in Chicago, the violence of Earth Liberation Front members or fistfights at modern-day “black bloc” (where activists dress in black to disguise themselves, as with Antifa groups) counter-protests, the anarchist credo of direct action has long been intertwined with violent tactics — though public perception greatly exaggerates the link.
Portland’s Rose City Antifa (RCA), which was recently involved in a skirmish against a right-wing Patriot Prayer event, see violence as an option only in self-defense. The justification is a simple one for the group: The fact white nationalists feel emboldened enough to march in public stands as an existential risk to the communities and ideals they want to protect, says Joseph, a twentysomething representative of RCA. After all, despite the pearl-clutching reaction to Antifa fights, proponents argue the bigger problem appears to be that fascists now exist in all facets of American life — from the internet to public streets to the highest levels of government.
The political climate of the last decade has rapidly accelerated interest in joining Rose City Antifa, Joseph says. The group is led by the stated principle of fighting for a “free, classless society,” but its current actions focus on disrupting the ability for white nationalists and Neo-Nazis to organize. “Antifa opposition has diminished Patriot Prayer and the ability of like-minded groups to organize. They had hundreds of people last year, now it was 20 or 30 people this time,” Joseph says. “Community self-defense is a practical way to provide social consequences for Neo-Nazism. But beyond direct action, a lot of Antifa groups are focusing on the kinds of journalistic investigation we do to gather information and expose Neo-Nazis around the country.”
Antifa has been on the actual front lines of defending other peaceful protestors, as in Charlottesville. National media depicted the fights as being instigated by both alt-right and Antifa groups, but a number of witnesses said in the aftermath that Antifa had protected people from harassment and violence from alt-right crews. “I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and Antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence. I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe,” Rev. Seth Wispelwey told Slate.
Why Do People Convert to Anarchism?
While anarchism has a number of major tenets, none may be bigger than the idea that an individual holding disproportionate power over another is bound to create institutional violence, whether economic or physical. Converts can come from the most unlikely of backgrounds, as with Carne Ross, who learned how toxic a chain of command could become when he served as a diplomat for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1997 to 2004.
Most notably, he was Britain’s expert on the hypothetical weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, representing the nation at the U.N. Security Council. He and other British civil servants had concluded that Iraq wasn’t a threat over his four and a half years of study, yet he watched on TV as Tony Blair joined forces with George W. Bush to justify a war to the public. It was a slap to the face of Ross, who heard their statements as outright lies. The moment made him reconsider actions he had defended previously — e.g., economic sanctions on Iraq. Why, he wondered, had he so readily backed the punishment of the Iraqi people?
He resigned from the Foreign Office in 2004 and soon found himself taking on the ideas of anarchism as an alternative to what he now saw as corrupt governments. Anarchism, he says, is both elegant and misunderstood: “A simple idea you can implement in almost any circumstance, but one that has a bad reputation.” The task is to find small ways to take back power from organized government, which Ross believes cannot give equality and freedom to the masses. “Any government, certainly as they’re currently constituted, exerts coercive authority over its population. Even so-called democratic governments give themselves the right to imprison people, kill people, wage war, things that are immoral for us as individuals,” Ross says. “But there’s no reason why in the current context of nation-states you can’t engage in anarchist action in your community. And, in fact, I think that’s the most plausible route of long-term revolution.”
Despite the negative attention, the ideas of anarchism have clearly struck a chord with young and working-class people around the country, says James, the It’s Going Down editor. He points to recent political polls that show widespread dissatisfaction with not just Donald Trump’s administration, but the inequality of the economy, the threats of climate change and beyond. “We see ourselves as wanting a conversation with the half of the population that’s sitting there, largely thinking that things just suck,” James says. “There are two corporate parties that represent huge tech capital on one side and right-wing industries on the other, with no real representation of the people stuck in the middle.”
Similarly, in Ross’ mind, the failure of the current system to uphold the needs of average Americans is becoming more and more obvious. He laughed out loud while recalling one time when he gave a presentation of his ideas to a group of venture capitalists. The first slide of the PowerPoint bluntly stated “Capitalism Isn’t Working.” He was shocked to see that nobody in the room even mustered a protest. It was another sign to Ross that even people profiting off the status quo couldn’t help but acknowledge something was wrong with it.
Does anarchism provide a blueprint for a whole alternative system of governance? Ross doesn’t think so. After all, being an anarchist doesn’t necessarily mean dropping all reliance on government services, or not paying taxes, or not voting, Ross notes — that would be unrealistic given the power structure of nation-states, he says. What anarchism can do is provide a value system for anyone who wants to effect change in their community today, and in this sense, Ross admits anarchism feels to him more like a spiritual way of viewing the world than a strict political theory.
“What all anarchists have in common is a rejection of one person having power over another,” he says. “And that’s a profound and important idea for us to wrangle with.”