In an age of rising sea levels and rising fascism, people across the United States and beyond are looking around and wondering, how the hell did we get here?
The question is not merely academic. Much as many might long to hide their heads under the covers with Netflix and a cup of cocoa until Trump goes away, we can’t sidestep the urgency of this moment. It’s never been more crucial for us to devise collective strategies to transform the world. To do that, we need some sense of the path that brought us here—and the forks that might have led elsewhere.
The End of History?
For as long as hierarchies have existed, people have resisted them. The irrepressible urge to defy authority stretches back long before written records existed to document it. Yet most of the cultures that successfully avoided states and class societies left few traces for us today—just the scattered fragments of archaeology and the distant echoes of oral traditions. Thus history, too, often denotes little more than a chronicle of the cancer-like growth of hierarchical relations—the memory of states, in Henry Kissinger’s memorably evil phrase.
Over the past 200 years, capitalist democracy gradually displaced older modes of social organization in much of the world. By making social and economic relations more liquid, it widened the range of people who feel they have a stake in upholding a hierarchical and unequal order—a stabler solution than merely imposing it by force. Meanwhile, traditional forms of autocracy continued, in left and right varieties, providing useful counterpoints to the democracies as scapegoats and bogeymen to stimulate to the war economy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, some prophets of this vision felt confident enough to proclaim the end of history. They believed that capitalist and state relations had achieved a hegemony so absolute that all that remained was to tweak the details and enjoy the ever-escalating standard of living in a stable world, sailing serenely forward with the United States at the helm.
Today, we live in the ashes of that triumphalist vision. Assumptions that seemed unshakeable twenty-five years ago—that the United States led the world, that the economy would keep growing and growing, that racial tensions and ethnic hatreds were subsiding, that the American consumer lifestyle was the best, indeed the only viable way to live—have collapsed entirely. We live in a world buffeted by catastrophic climate change, massive displacement and millions of desperate refugees, economic crises and escalating poverty, and resurgent nationalisms fueling racial and ethnic hatred. History, it seems, did not get the memo.
Dominant political wisdom still holds that our political and economic institutions are inevitable, but has lost its confidence in our rosy future. We find ourselves trapped in an increasingly insecure and chaotic world ever less of our making, but without any vision of how it could be transformed.
Understanding history as “the memory of states” enforces amnesia about all the other ways we have lived, curtailing our imaginations about all the other ways we could live. Understanding post-Cold War capitalist democracy as “the end of history” served the same purpose, limiting our horizons to the terms set by politicians and landlords. To free our imaginations to create different futures, we have to reexamine and redefine the past.
That goes for our radical history, too. The traditions of the revolutionary past weigh like a Marxist nightmare on the brains of the living. If, as the Eastern European joke goes, socialism was the painful transition between capitalism and capitalism, we’re not going to get far simply regurgitating the outdated formulas of the 19th and 20th century Left. State socialism is dead, regardless of what the earnest Bernie supporters and dinosaur leftist sects might hope; not even social democracies can preserve the last century’s compromises in the face of global economic meltdown.
We have to discard the historical paradigms we’ve inherited from these bankrupt legacies. Whatever its use to past generations, a concept of historical materialism rooted in modes of production marching through linear stages towards the glorious communist future offers just another progress narrative breaking against the rocks of reality. Even our vaunted traditions of “people’s history” need challenging and updating in light of the waves of reactionary populism that characterize our time. From our vantage point in the 21st century, we’ve got ample reason to let go of the old radical models for making sense of history, but no new ones to replace them. Let’s clean the slate, sweeping away the baggage of discredited authoritarianisms, and reconsider how anarchism might inform our perspective on the past.
Hence, comrades, we bring you: THE CRIMETHINC. HISTORY DESK.
Thinking about history today is like sifting through the ashes of centuries of defeats, seeking still-smoldering embers we might blow back into flame. We new Prometheans, bearing the torch handed down to us by our anarchist ancestors, pledge to relentlessly pursue those elusive sparks from the past to light today’s Molotov cocktails.
As part of the new CrimethInc. web platform, each month we’ll release several new explorations of history through an anarchist lens. Since our attention is fixed on Trump’s upcoming inauguration and the protests and strikes that will accompany it, we’ll kick things off with a detailed analysis of anarchist counter-inaugural activity over the past 50 years. Some of our posts will present historical research about the anarchist past, or critical reassessments of social movements and popular struggles. Others will analyze contemporary trends in how histories are narrated in mass media and popular venues. Some weeks we’ll present reviews of historical works by other scholars, post obscure texts or images from the archives, or translate texts that we haven’t seen in English before. We’ll try to mix it up, keep it interesting, and focus on stories with immediate strategic relevance—even as we also offer obscure tidbits for radical history buffs just because they intrigue us.
Interested? If you’re a dumpster diver of the dustbins of history, a collector of anarchaicisms, an iconoclast or myth-busters, an antiauthoritarian antiquarian or anarchaeologist, or an enthusiast for the radical past, we need you! Send word and let us know you’re out there. If you have articles to contribute, obscure sources you’ve unearthed, requests for historical analyses that would support your organizing, or any other insights into the past that can help subvert authority today, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The past doesn’t pass until the future is unwritten.
With love and in struggle,
The CrimethInc. History Desk
by Clio Panclasta, your humble editrix