New Formulation, February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1
- The Battle in Seattle: The Story behind and beyond the WTO Demonstrations. By Janet Thomas. Golden, Colo: Fulcrum Publishing, 2000
- Tearing down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy. By Jeff Ferrell. New York: Palgrave, 2001
In the not-too-distant past, anarchy (or anarchism, for those of us with more effete sensibilities) suffered from something of a negative image problem, often being construed as a mere synonym for chaos, violence, and terrorism. While this definitional taint hasn’t entirely fallen away, it is apparent that images of anarchy are undergoing a mild yet perceptible transformation that has even begun to appear in more mainstream treatments of political theory and social action. As such, a new set of problems for the anarchist movement have arisen, often taking the form of a version of “anarchist chic” that has reinvigorated black T-shirt sales and moved the circle A symbol from the recesses of history onto suburban backs across North America.(1) In a sense, anarchism may be on the road toward becoming a victim of its own success, and those concerned with the direction and ultimate fate of the movement face a burgeoning set of challenges that appear to have more to do with co-optation and commodification than perceptions of violence and bomb throwing.
In distinct but not incongruous ways, both Janet Thomas’s The Battle in Seattle and Jeff Ferrell’s Tearing down the Streets confront these issues of the changing perceptions of anarchy. In exploring these themes, I recently used both books for a course on social movements, where they received a warm reception and positive reviews from the students in the class. Nevertheless, while each text has certain advantages of perspective and analysis, it is equally apparent that both suffer some serious limitations as well. In each case, however, on balance the positives surely outstrip the negatives. With that in mind, I offer the following critical rendering.
If we are to believe our own press clippings, a dynamic movement was born in late November of 1999 on the streets of Seattle. Converging on the hallowed halls of global capitalism, a diverse and unprecedented array of progressive leftists and radical anarchists blocked WTO delegates, clogged street corners, smashed a few corporate windows, and generally created mischief and mayhem of a sort that had not been seen in North America for decades. While the mainstream media might be forgiven their ignorance of historical trends and international movements, it is harder to be so kind to chroniclers on the Left who ought to know better. What happened in Seattle, while certainly impressive, was neither unprecedented nor unpredictable. To construct it as such is to ignore prior events in Europe, Chiapas, and the myriad anarchist nodes that have been in local operation across the United States—not to mention the historical lessons of the Paris Commune and Spanish Civil War.
To an extent, Thomas’s celebratory tome essentially validates the implicit hypothesis that radical politics and anarchism in particular were invented (or at least, had their public debut) on the streets of Seattle in 1999. In typically hyperbolic language, Thomas asserts that the “WTO week in Seattle was a global tailspin at the end of the century, a fly in the face of the new millennium, an elephant in the ointment. It was an unruly uprising of the masses, a divine intervention, a traffic nightmare, a human rights activist’s dream.”(2)
Now, on its face there is nothing inherently wrong with idealizing a moment that indeed possessed magical potential and revolutionary grace. The problem, though, arises most acutely when the role of anarchists in the movement is explored in greater detail. In what is an incredibly thin yet not altogether unsympathetic rendering, Thomas manages to condense the whole of anarchist praxis to a two-page inset box—an oversimplification that she acknowledges with the proviso that “there were so many forms of anarchy at large during WTO week that clustering all the meanings of the word into the phrase ‘Eugene anarchists’ is like saying there is only one shade of green.”(3) Nonetheless, despite its limited scope, the definition Thomas posits for anarchism is largely positive and sympathetic: “The anarchism that happens when regular people act to do for one another what governments, and corporations, refuse to do—feed, clothe, shelter, and provide health care, fair labor practices and human rights—is deep, compassionate, and sustaining. One could say that these days anarchism is at the heart of civil society.”(4)
Whereas Thomas’s primary concern is to unpack the nascent anti-globalization movement, and only to assess the relative merits of anarchism as a secondary phenomenon, Ferrell’s work is explicitly anarchistic both methodologically and substantively; indeed, Tearing down the Streets is graced with the subtitle, Adventures in Urban Anarchy. Thus, one might expect a richer depiction of anarchist theory and practice as well as a deeper historical contextualization of the movement’s roots and potential. On both fronts, Ferrell consistently delivers the goods, framing the inquiry at its most basic yet revolutionary levels: “In confronting authority in all of its manifestations, anarchists have for centuries fought not just the attempts by outside authorities to control shared public space, but also the insidious encoding of authoritarian arrangements in public life itself. In embracing instead autonomy, spontaneity, and playful uncertainty, anarchists have long sought to unleash these unregulated dynamics in the spaces of everyday life, and to build emergent communities out of their confluence.”(5)
Well versed in both historical and contemporary trends in anarchism, Ferrell weaves together an impressive litany of grassroots anarchy-in-action, ranging from homeless advocates to pirate radio broadcasters to urban graffiti artists.(6) Ferrell’s central theme is that radicals in general and anarchists in particular have long been concerned with struggling to maintain and reinvigorate “public spaces” (or “the commons”), a trend that has experienced a resurgence as regimes of local gentrification and global corporatism have stepped up their processes of spatial privatization and cultural colonization. By focusing his analysis at the level of intensely local direct action, Ferrell specifically excludes the macroscopic appearance of events such as the WTO demonstrations, admitting that his work doesn’t “even talk much about that little anarchist action that went down in the streets of Seattle in 1999.”(7)
While Tearing down the Streets intentionally avoids much discussion of the global components of recent anarchist action, it cannot avoid implicit connections to the larger frame. In a recent New Left Review article, for example, Naomi Klein observes that the core of the new(est) social movements is “a radical reclaiming of the commons. As our communal spaces—town squares, streets, schools, farms, plants—are displaced by the ballooning marketplace, a spirit of resistance is taking hold around the world. People are reclaiming bits of nature and of culture, and saying ‘this is going to be public space.’”(8) Such formulations indicate that local and global levels of analysis may not be as dichotomous as they are sometimes taken to be.
Indeed, where Ferrell fails to sufficiently account for macro-revolutionary tendencies in the movement, The Battle in Seattle downplays the intensely localized nature of resistance that both frames and supports the wider anti-globalization effort. As Klein laments, “Too often, these connections between global and local are not made. . . . On the one hand, there are the international anti-globalization activists who may be enjoying a triumphant mood, but seem to be fighting far-away issues, unconnected to people’s day-to-day struggles. They are often seen as elitists: white middle-class kids with dreadlocks. On the other hand, there are community activists fighting daily struggles for survival, or for the preservation of the most elementary public services, who are often feeling burnt-out and demoralized.”(9) Taken together, Tearing down the Streets and The Battle in Seattle fill in each others’ gaps and smooth over their respective shortcomings, suggesting a potential vision for the future that is echoed in Klein’s plaintive call for new directions: “What is now the anti-globalization movement must turn into thousands of local movements, fighting the way neoliberal politics are playing out on the ground: homelessness, wage stagnation, rent escalation, police violence, prison explosion, criminalization of migrant workers, and on and on.”(10)
In Ferrell’s lexicon, the macro-movement is always already grounded in intensely localized struggles, exemplified by his invocation of homeless advocates, graffiti artists, skate punks, anarchist biker gangs, pirate radio stations, BASE jumpers, Critical Mass bicyclists, and “buskers” (it should be noted that Ferrell himself dabbles in many if not all of these anarchistic pursuits—a quality that lends integrity and credence to his work even as it undermines his stature in traditional academic circles). For her part, Thomas implicitly acknowledges this cobbling together of various localized efforts to form a larger movement through her identification of “at least 700 groups [that] were represented at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle,” although the specific actions undertaken by such groups are left for the reader to discern.(11)
Perhaps the central issue for the new (anarchist) social movements is the question of the tactical use of violence. In The Battle in Seattle, for instance, Thomas quotes numerous sources and informants who specifically blast the anarchists for their window-smashing forays and perceived hogging of the media limelight, observing that “what the media reflected back to us was a culture of hatred and stupidity in which none of us could recognize ourselves. . . . This sense of betrayal might be the most powerful thing that happened on the streets of Seattle. . . . The answers all came down to a televised continuous cartoon loop of property damage. A broken window became more profound, more telling, more compelling, more valuable than all of us put together.”(12) Taking pains to make the point crystal clear, Thomas notes that “the anarchists exposed others to hazards that they themselves were very careful to avoid,” and that “not one of the so-called anarchists responsible for the property damage in the city was arrested.”(13)
Nevertheless, Thomas acknowledges the double-edged nature of spectacular episodes of property destruction, wondering: “Would the WTO protests have received as much worldwide attention if anarchists hadn’t done their thing in Seattle and if the media hadn’t focused on it?”(14) Despite her criticism of the anarchists, moreover, Thomas does intimate a sentiment expressed elsewhere that “the only truly violent parties were the police,” and specifically refers (without discussion or analysis) to “the difference between violence against property and violence against people.”(15) Expanding on the point in the New Left Review, David Graeber concludes that “after two years of increasingly militant direct action, it is still impossible to produce a single example of anyone to whom a US activist has caused physical injury. . . . [Anarchists have been] attempting to invent a ‘new language’ of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival and what can only be called non-violent warfare—non-violent in the sense adopted by, say, Black Bloc anarchists, in that it eschews any direct physical harm to human beings.”(16)
Where Thomas’s take on the anarchists is largely critical, and her analysis of tactical violence far too facile, Ferrell evidences a much more sympathetic and cogent perspective on these matters. Affirming Bakunin’s dictum that “the destructive urge is a creative urge, too,” Ferrell maintains that “the destruction launched by these groups aims directly at restoring humanity, human relations, and human communities, not at destroying them. It suggests that one way to disentangle the dehumanizing conflation of property and people, to confront the confusion of consumption with community, to dismantle the hierarchy of commodification by which law and property stand above people and places, is to assiduously destroy the former while affirming the latter.”(17) Still, despite such sympathies, Ferrell does not sufficiently define the moral parameters of tactical violence in a manner that is likely to persuade skeptics such as Thomas.
There is a subtle irony lurking here that merits a moment of brief exploration. As part of his critique of the mutually reinforcing processes of corporate colonization and crusty-punk criminalization, Ferrell debunks the “broken windows theory” favored by law enforcement agencies as a justification for cracking down on low-level, “quality of life” offenses such as panhandling, sidewalk sitting, and trespassing. The theory essentially holds that such offenses inexorably lead to more serious crimes, and that the appearance of homeless people or other marginalized and/or radicalized groups in spaces of consumption represent the first wave of “broken windows” on the slippery slope to full-on anarchy and chaos. In a fashion that I had not considered previously, it might be argued that the window-smashing anarchists in current vogue have taken this theory literally and to its logical extreme, hoping that a few broken windows are indeed the first step on the road to anarchy.
This serves to raise a final point that was alluded to in the introduction to this review. There appears to be something of a terminological conundrum regarding the usage of and distinction between the concepts of “anarchy” and “anarchism.” In one sense, it might be contended that anarchy functions as a kind of verb-noun, often representing images of action and praxis in a positive sense, while conjuring critiques of “lifestyle” and anti-intellectualism when viewed negatively. Anarchism, on the other hand, generally is taken to signify the theoretical, more scholarly wing of the movement—frequently seen positively as a crucial source of foundational philosophy, but negatively conceived of as perhaps too ideological in its meta-narrative implications. While it can be important and desirable to avoid such binary constructions, it is equally useful to consider the subtleties of language that often mask larger rifts and conflicts within a movement.
In fact, being an ardent admirer of Ferrell’s body of work myself, it becomes eminently clear why he chose Adventures in Urban Anarchy for his subtitle: it is an expression of solidarity with the anarchism-in-action sense of anarchy, representing an attempt to conceive the simultaneous realization of freedom in the here and now (that is, means) and provide a glimpse of what an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian future could be like (that is, ends). Indeed, Ferrell takes pains to develop a synchronous vision of means and ends, and one need only glance at the book jacket and table of contents to get a sense of his willingness to embrace certain “do-it-yourself” attributes of spontaneous “cultural self-invention,” replete with phraseology such as “Wild in the Streets” and “We Want the Airwaves” in presenting a compelling argument “for a disorderly urban culture in place of the Disneyfied city.” These qualities also indicate an admirable openness in terms of displaying his affinity for and personal connection to the anarchist phenomena he studies as well as describes in Tearing down the Streets—a trait that more scholars of Ferrell’s magnitude ought to strive to emulate.
In the end, both The Battle in Seattle and Tearing down the Streets are enjoyable and informative works that should find their way onto radical reading lists everywhere. In particular, when taken together, a picture begins to emerge of a global movement grounded in local struggles for which “anarchism is the heart . . . its soul; the source of most of what’s new and hopeful about it.”(18) Despite critics’ frequent allegations of a movement lacking ideological coherence and moral centering, Ferrell and Thomas each point out in their own way that precisely the opposite is true: that the movement “is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.”(19)
If there is one glaring omission in both texts, it is perhaps the failure to significantly elaborate this vision of what a decentralized network of autonomous communities might look like in actual practice. Then again, anarchists have generally avoided specific blueprints, on the theory that such are likely to become new regimes of authoritarian control, instead favoring emerging designs in which the means of struggle are already ends of liberation and dignity in themselves. As Ferrell concludes, “Anarchism offers no clear avenue . . . only the conviction that the spirit of revolt remains always a pleasure, that the revolution is in some ways won as soon as you begin to fight it.”(20) For those concerned about learning from the past, revolutionizing the present, and imagining the future, this ought to serve as a timely and much-needed reminder that the primary path to freedom lies simply in the act of living freely.
1. As one critic observes, the recent resurgence of “protest culture” is typified by “feel-good anarchists” who generally have “little patience for theory” and are “too frenzied to worry much about serious alternatives,” representing “a revolt of the affluent” by way of a “connection to youth culture” that has kept anarchism “hip and current” (Franklin Foer, [http://www.thenewrepublic.com/050100/foer050100.html “Protest Too Much,”] New Republic, 1 May 2000, http://www.thenewrepublic.com/050100/foer050100.html). While I do not share much of the writer’s opinion in this regard, his reading of the emerging sense of “anarchist chic” is not without merit.
2. Janet Thomas, The Battle in Seattle: The Story behind and beyond the WTO Demonstrations (Golden, Colo: Fulcrum Publishing, 2000), 10.
3. Ibid., 44.
4. Ibid., 45.
5. Jeff Ferrell, Tearing down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 20.
6. Readers should be apprised of the fact that I am quoted in Tearing down the Streets as one of those homeless advocates and “anarchist troublemakers” that form the foundation of the text as well as the point of departure for Ferrell’s thesis.
7. Ferrell, Tearing down the Streets, 34.
8. Naomi Klein, [http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24305.shtml “Reclaiming the Commons,”] New Left Review 9, May–June 2001, http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24305.shtml
11. Thomas, Battle in Seattle, 66–67.
12. Ibid., 209.
13. Ibid., 46, 14.
14. Ibid., 46.
15. David Graeber, [http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24704.shtml “The New Anarchists,”] New Left Review 13, January–February 2002, http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24704.shtml and Thomas, Battle in Seattle, 214–15.
16. Graeber, “The New Anarchists.”
17. Ferrell, Tearing down the Streets, 234.
18. Graeber, “The New Anarchists.”
20. Ferrell, Tearing down the Streets, 243.