It’s worth taking a moment to review what anti-fascists have accomplished since Trump was elected. Despite harassment and attacks from fascists and law enforcement, what was initially a few hundred people without financial resources or sponsors has grown into the foundation for a massive social movement. On April 15, fascists rampaged through Berkeley, recording video footage of themselves beating people to use for recruiting purposes. On Sunday, August 27, the same fascists attempted to hold another rally in Berkeley. In response to the murder of Heather Heyer during a fascist rally in Charlottesville two weeks prior, thousands of people converged to make the fascist demonstration impossible.
Imagine if the “Unite the Right” rally had taken place without resistance, and a thousand white supremacists had been able to march around Charlottesville unopposed. In that scenario, emboldened fascists could have presented themselves as a legitimate part of political spectrum, while preparing the way for more murders like the ones in Charleston and Portland. In that case, the government with Trump at the helm would be able to present itself as the only possible solution to fascist violence, and the general public would be forced to seek assistance from the very authorities that are already implementing most of the white supremacist agenda. We should be grateful that long before Charlottesville, forward-thinking anti-fascists were doing the thankless work of monitoring fascists and mobilizing against them.
But now that the struggle against fascism has arrived on a massive scale, it’s time to come to grips with the limitations the movement faces today. Every victory generates new challenges. Let’s explore the obstacles that the anti-fascist movement will have to overcome to succeed in creating a world free of authoritarianism.
The image at the top of the Washington Post article shows a right-wing demonstrator apparently being shoved by an anti-fascist with a shield. Yet several videos show the same far-right demonstrator pepper-spraying anti-fascist demonstrators without provocation and then pepper-spraying people at random immediately before the photo was taken. If you look close, the attacker is wearing a shirt that celebrates Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet for murdering dissidents by dropping them out of helicopters. If you look closer, you can see that the anti-fascist in the picture has a stick, but is choosing not to use it, instead simply using a shield to block the fascist with the pepper-spray from carrying out further attacks. In fact, the Washington Post chose to use a photo in which the assailant’s right hand is not visible, so readers would not see the pepper spray he holds in it.
When the Washington Post portray such fascists as “peaceful,” suggesting that they are victims even as they attack people and glorify mass murder, this gives them legitimacy, securing space for them to recruit and to promote and organize further attacks. Why would liberal media outlets do this?
Journalists often determine the substance of their story in advance, and it appears that media outlets across the spectrum had determined in advance to report the anti-fascist demonstration in Berkeley as an expression of violent excess even before it happened. In the event, the demonstration was largely peaceful; even the worst clashes were considerably less violent than the fighting on April 15. Despite this, corporate media outlets that had ignored April 15 altogether devoted considerable space to a few isolated incidents in which anti-fascists scuffled with fascists or other Trump supporters.
The intention was clearly to impose a limit on the amount of popular legitimacy anti-fascists would be permitted to accrue after the events in Charlottesville. Two weeks of positive coverage of anti-fascists, during which various members of the clergy came forward to praise their efforts, were deemed to be too much. Heather Heyer’s murder had taken corporate media by surprise, interrupting their conventional narratives and proving that the threat anti-fascists had supposedly been blowing out of proportion was all to real. It took corporate editors two weeks to regain control of the discourse. As soon as they did, they reimposed their old stereotypes as if Heather had never been killed.
This should put an end to any illusions we might have had that corporate media could side with anti-fascists. Outlets like the Washington Post aspire to position themselves against both Trump and his adversaries in the streets—to occupy what some call “the extreme center.” They are gambling that the current polarization of society is temporary, that they can be the beneficiaries of disillusionment with both sides.
Anti-fascists have to strategize about how to organize and legitimize our efforts to the general public without the benefit of positive media coverage. This is no easy task. At the minimum, it will demand our own grassroots media, at the same time that this media is under systematic assault from right-wing trolls.
This challenge is symptomatic of the larger phenomenon of polarization, which is worth examining separately.
The Swinging Pendulum of Polarization
US society has been splintering and polarizing for years now, since the recession of 2008 if not before. The movement against police and white supremacy that burst onto the national stage in Ferguson in 2014 as Black Lives Matter generated a far-right backlash, which inspired a resurgence of anti-fascist organizing. In response, fascists gave angry liberals and anti-fascists a central place in their strategy, seeking to provoke them into reactive behavior that could be used to further mobilize the right-wing base. Milo Yiannopoulos used this strategy until it blew up in his face last February, when a black bloc of hundreds shut down his event in Berkeley.
Various fascist and fascist-friendly organizers also used this approach, baiting leftists and anti-fascists with a series of “free speech” rallies in Berkeley, Portland, and elsewhere around the country that won the nascent fascist movement notoriety and momentum. This movement appeared fully formed for the first time in Charlottesville—but the shockwaves of that debut drew many more people into the movement against fascism, changing the balance of power once again. The “free speech” rallies scheduled afterwards in Boston and the Bay Area were total washouts for the fascists.
In each of these cases, when the pendulum of polarization swung to one side, the opposing side was able to use the specter of that victory to draw more sympathizers into action. With the media narrative coming out about Berkeley, the pendulum has again swung away from anti-fascists to benefit the right-wing reaction.
So long as this pattern persists, every anti-fascist victory will produce an even greater threat from the far-right and the government. To break out of the pattern, anti-fascists have to figure out how to strike blows without equipping fascists to cash in on the resulting fear among right-wingers, or else to find a way to draw in large swathes of the population more rapidly than their competition on the right. We can offer a few hypotheses about how to accomplish this.
The Myth of Symmetry
The allegation that fascists and anti-fascists are equally bad has been advanced most famously by Donald Trump himself in his response to the events in Charlottesville. He suggested that the problem was an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” refusing to say a word about the fascists who murdered Heather Heyer. This should tell us something about those who describe fascists and anti-fascists as symmetrical.
To equate those who fight for freedom and equality with those who want an autocratic state to enforce hierarchies is to reserve all legitimacy for the state alone—which is itself an autocratic position. It means celebrating the legalism of passive spectators over the heroes who fought the rise of dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Spain, Chile, Greece, and a hundred other nations. It means congratulating those who keep their hands clean while their neighbors are rounded up and imprisoned, deported, or killed.
We have to become adept at spelling out the ethical differences between fascism and anti-fascism, and all the justifications for forms of direct action that can actually be effective in this struggle. We need allies from many different walks of life who can help us make this case to the public at large.
The irony of a war journalist perennially accusing others of being driven by a lust for adrenaline should not be lost on anyone. It is worse still that Hedges, as a journalist, arrogates himself the right to pass judgment on the events in Charlottesville from a distance rather than deferring to people like Cornel West who were actually there putting their bodies on the line. But the true irony here is that Hedges purports to be warning against precisely the problem that he himself is creating. “By brawling in the streets,” Hedges alleges, “antifa allows the corporate state… to use the false argument of moral equivalency to criminalize the work of all anti-capitalists.” Actually, it is Hedges who is equipping the state to do this, by attributing “the same lust for violence” to anti-fascists that he believes motivates fascists. He could just as easily use his soapbox to debunk this moral equivalency, but he lacks the moral courage—he simply cannot resist performing the same kind of “self-advertisement for moral purity” that he accuses others of.
Hedges needs to understand that it is not anti-fascists gaining ground that brings about fascist attacks and government crackdowns. If anti-fascists were not gaining power in the streets, fascists would still be taking advantage of the despair and resentment of poor whites, and the government would still be developing more means of repression—there would simply be no social movement to protect us from them. It is fundamentally paranoid, disempowering, and ahistorical to understand these developments as the result of anti-fascist activity. On the contrary, it is imperative that we build the capacity to act effectively in the streets before the fascists outstrip us and the government is able to centralize enough power to establish tyranny once and for all.
All that said, we also need to avoid offering our enemies on the Left and Right alike the opportunity to present us as a mirror image of our fascist adversaries. Let’s explore some ways we can go about this.
Identity and Containment
On one hand, it has been extremely useful for people in the US to learn from anti-fascist movements in other parts of the world. At the same time, the wholesale uncritical introduction of European models has created problems, chief of which is the containment of the struggle against fascism within a discrete identity, “antifa.” It has been a tremendous boon to the far right that they can describe anti-fascists without having to spell out the entire word “fascist”—it helps them to avoid the question of why anyone would oppose resisting fascism.
In German, abbreviations are common: national socialist becomes Nazi, anti-fascist becomes antifa. But in English, especially to those not familiar with the history of German anti-fascist struggles, the word antifa can appear alien and off-putting. At its worst, the German antifa movement has tended towards subcultural insularity; this is the last thing we need in the US, locked in a massive struggle with fascists and the government itself—a struggle we can only hope to win if ever-wider segments of the population are drawn into our side of the barricades.
Identity is fundamentally about distinguishing oneself from others. Anti-fascism, however, is for everybody. We should be careful not to insulate it within a particular demographic with a specific dress code and lingo. This is paramount because the far right are scrambling to depict antifa as a monolithic, hostile, alien organization. Our task is not just to build a network of groups, but to create an anti-fascist momentum that will spread contagiously throughout society at large, along with the critiques and tactics necessary for this fight. Specific antifa groups and the cultural cache of “antifa” itself can be useful in that project, as can black bloc tactics, provided we evaluate them as tools for achieving particular objectives rather than expressions of identity or belonging.
The Tendency to Militarize
As the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists intensifies, we are seeing more and more guns in the streets. Some people who were in Charlottesville reported that it was good that there were guns on both sides: it discouraged fascists from escalating physical conflicts past a certain point. Others report that most of the anti-fascists openly bearing arms were located some distance from the clashes. Some people who were in Ferguson at the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement say that without the treat of gunfire from the locals, the police would never have permitted the demonstrations happen. Others who experienced the trauma of having their loved ones shot before them counsel that the consequences of bringing guns into street conflict are weightier than most people can imagine.
Participants in the Syrian revolution report that for the first several months, the revolt created an open space of debate and possibility in which many people of different walks of life participated. Later, after the conflict escalated, power among the rebels accrued in the hands of religious fundamentalists, as they were the only ones who were able to consistently acquire military supplies—and from that point on, the horizon of liberation and transformation was closed. Sometimes, such escalation is inescapable, even if it closes the door to future possibilities; in any case, it is better to prepare for it now than to be suddenly caught flatfooted. But if our goal is to carry out a revolution rather than to fight in a civil war, we should not hurry the process of escalation—we should drag it out as long as we can. Most of the social changes we want to see cannot be brought about by guns.
Likewise, we should not imagine that coercive force can solve everything, nor permit fascists and state repression to put us so on edge that we see enemies everywhere we look and begin to attack people when it is not strategic. In the words of an elder anti-fascist veteran from Germany, fascist violence aims to exterminate, while anti-fascist violence aims to educate. We should not hurry to put fascist martyrs in the ground next to Heather Heyer. We must never risk coming across as bullies. It must always be clear that we are here to protect the public at large, not to assert our own authority or masculinity. When we are compelled to use coercive force, we must make sure that the ways we do so don’t centralize power or legitimacy within our own movement.
The Language of Terrorism
In the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder, signs appeared at vigils and rallies reading “White Supremacy is Terrorism.” While it is understandable that people wish to condemn her murder in the strongest possible terms, it is dangerous to use the language of terrorism to do so.
The framework of terrorism is constructed by the state to define who has the right to employ violence and who doesn’t. When we denounce white supremacists as terrorists, we mimic the verbiage of Senator Cory Gardner, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House.
Terrorist is used to designate those who are beyond the state’s control and cannot be brought into political alignment with the state. This explains why Heather’s murderer has not been charged with terrorism, while many anarchists who did not so much as scratch someone have received terrorism charges over the past decade and a half.
Using the rhetoric of the state reinforces frameworks and narratives that the authorities will ultimately use against us. This is dangerous to our movements and constitutes a betrayal of comrades engaged in struggles we’re often aligned with. Palestinians are labeled terrorists to delegitimize their struggle against the Israeli state. Like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, the YPG and YPJ in Rojava have been labeled terrorists. The language and ideology of the “war on terror” were carefully introduced into US political discourse in order to prepare the ground for the catastrophic invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The word terrorism comes to us from the Jacobin government’s brutal and merciless rule in France in the 1790’s—the term was invented to describe their “reign of terror” during which thousands were executed. Even though the word was coined for the Jacobins and that they wore it proudly as a badge, some historians today argue that the Jacobins weren’t terrorists because they were a state entity with legitimate power. This should give us a sense of the extent to which the discourse of terrorism serves to give the state carte blanche while delegitimizing all who stand against it.
There Is No Good Authoritarianism
Sunday’s far-right rally in Berkeley was promoted under the slogan “No to Marxism in America.” As with the far-right “March against Sharia,” there is no danger of the United States coming under a Marxist government any time soon. Like all totalitarians, fascists desperately need enemies even more oppressive than themselves to point to in order to convince people to join their ranks. There is an ominous symmetry between groups like ISIS and Western fascists, some of whom openly fantasize about a “White Sharia.” This explains their obsession with authoritarian Marxism.
In fact, the fiercest opposition to contemporary fascist organizing has not come from authoritarian Marxists, but from anarchists who oppose state power itself. This is inconvenient for many fascists in the US, who still need to present themselves as enemies of “big government” in order to appeal to US Libertarians and traditional conservatives.
If fascists are eager to paint all their domestic opponents with the broad brush of Marxism, we should not hasten to assist them. Yes, authoritarian Marxists have historically played a role in the fight against fascism, but they have hardly played it honorably. They began by betraying and undermining other social movements as early as 1871. If Stalin hadn’t sabotaged anti-fascist participants in the Spanish Civil War and other movements around Europe and then concluded a pact with Hitler, the Second World War would have unfolded much differently, and it might not have taken decades afterwards for grassroots liberation movements to recover.
If both fascism and authoritarian Marxism are experiencing a resurgence today, this is partly because the Millennial generation grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall and too young to have grandfathers who fought in the Second World War. For many in the United States, totalitarianism is abstract, something to joke about on the internet. Some young people on the Left see the hammer and sickle the way many young right-wingers see the swastika: as a provocative meme rather than a blood-drenched symbol of oppression. Yet Stalin, too, carried out ethnic cleansing, as have many other authoritarian Marxist regimes.
One cannot consistently oppose fascism without opposing all forms of authoritarian government. This is not to say that rank-and-file members of authoritarian communist organizations can never be comrades in this struggle. Many of them are sincere people with the best of intentions—and clearly we need all the comrades we can get when we are facing down Nazis with guns. The point is that anti-fascists should oppose the leadership of authoritarian Marxist parties for many of the same reasons that we oppose fascists and other authoritarians. If you care about a member of an organization like the Bolshevik Party, you can express that care by making sure that his organization never comes to power—for if history is any guide, he will be the next up against the wall after you.
We must make it clear to the general public that we do not intend to impose a new dictatorship, but only to open and preserve spaces of freedom. There is no statist solution for tyranny.
Unfortunately, Heather Heyer is not the first person to be taken from us by fascist violence, and she will not be the last. In addition to being wary of the discourse of terrorism and the tendency to militarize our struggles, we should wary of the discourse of martyrdom and tendency to celebrate death in battle. We need to find ways to remember people above all for who they were, for what their lives gave to the world, not for how they died or what their deaths meant to the struggle. We should not begin to regard ourselves or each other as playing pieces to be exchanged for strategic gains.
We live in a society in which aging and death are concealed from most of us. If this struggle continues to intensify, more and more of us will be forced to learn what it is like to spend hard weeks in the hospital, to meet at funerals as well as outside jails and courtrooms. We should approach this as another opportunity to come to know ourselves and each other better, to recognize what is beautiful and worthwhile in life—the things for which we are fighting in the first place. We should not subordinate ourselves to the struggle, but recognize it as one of the ways that life pours forth abundantly within us.
Cutting to the Roots
The vast majority of the anti-fascist struggle does not take place in street confrontations. It takes place in how we raise our children; it takes place in the hard conversations at workplaces and family dinners; it takes place in the ways we relate to our neighbors, the ways we understand togetherness and belonging. To triumph, we have to make it possible for people of all genders and ethnicities and religions to work together to survive the ordeals of capitalism; we have to create movements that can offer everybody more than the fascists ever could.
Ultimately, a thoroughgoing anti-fascist movement should not focus on targeting fascist groups that so marginal as to stick out from the rest of the political spectrum, but the infrastructure through which any authoritarian program will be enacted. That is to say, it should focus on the state itself. If we simply fight defensive battles, the fascists will eventually gain the initiative. We should take the experiences of fighting together that we can experience in anti-fascist struggle as use those as points of departure to work together to solve all of the problems that we have. This is the way to take the offensive and move on to confronting the fundamental sources of oppression.
Some believe that life will go back to normal soon enough, and fascism and anti-fascism will once more be things of the past. But we fear that we have yet to see how far these conflicts will go, and that we have to invest ourselves in confronting them head on. The only way out is through. Double or nothing.
How do state and autonomous right-wing attacks reinforce each other? Why is the right escalating its campaign to repress dissent? And how can we counter this repression?
Prosecution and Legislation
While it’s nothing new for the state to repress protest, the past two years of legal and legislative attacks represent a substantial escalation against resistance movements. Since the uprising in Ferguson forced national attention onto racist police violence, the idea of Black communities, poor people, and radicals becoming ungovernable has inspired some and terrified others. Protestors inspired by Ferguson have blocked highways, occupied police departments, sabotaged pipelines, shut down airports, and disrupted Trump rallies.
But defenders of the economic and racial status quo have taken advantage of this to stoke white working-class resentment and suburban fears of disorder. Trump’s image as “the law and order candidate” capitalized on the racialized concerns stirred up by this wave of protest.
From day one, the new administration made good on its promises to crack down on protest. On January 20, over two hundred counter-inaugural demonstrators were trapped in a kettle and mass arrested. Rather than receiving citations or misdemeanors, they now face the prospect of decades in prison simply for being caught on the street during a march. Meanwhile, hundreds of cases from Standing Rock clog the North Dakota courts, where water protectors face fines and prison terms for their efforts to prevent private companies from profiting on the poisoning of Sioux people’s water supplies.
In addition to maximizing repression through the current legal system, politicians are expanding the law to further criminalize demonstrations. Nearly twenty state legislatures introduced anti-protest bills this year that range from troubling to downright bizarre. Arizona politicians attempted to allow the state to seize the assets of people arrested for protesting, while North Carolina legislators tried to invent something called “economic terrorism” and to force protestors to pay the cost of police efforts to repress them. North Dakota’s legislature passed a litany of new bills fed to them by the pipeline industry, from allowing police to use weaponized drones against demonstrations to increasing the legal penalties for a wide range of activity. This legislation went directly into effect against hundreds of water protectors.
Finally, this year, legislators in Florida, North Dakota, and Tennessee have attempted to pass bills allowing drivers to run over protestors without legal consequences. This is especially chilling in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
Every one of these laws emerged as a direct response to protests that were effectively disrupting the status quo. The sponsors of North Carolina’s failed anti-protest bill specifically cited the ferocity of resistance in Charlotte after the police murdered Keith Lamont Jenkins as their inspiration for the new law. The spread of highway blockades during anti-police rebellions prompted a wide range of legislation targeting the obstruction of roads, including the aforementioned “hit and kill” bills. In response to widespread indigenous and ecological resistance to pipeline construction, several new state laws would advance penalties specifically tied to disruption of energy infrastructure. These efforts by politicians to protect the interests of their corporate cronies and police attest to the threat that our movements pose.
But the state isn’t confident that legal methods alone will be enough to stem the tide of popular resistance. Enter the autonomous fascists, stage right.
Where police and legal restrictions haven’t sufficed to suppress demonstrations, the armed right-wing has stepped in. Beginning in states such as Arizona that have open carry laws and widespread gun culture, right-wing demonstrators had already been appearing at their own rallies visibly armed; yet until recently, they had rarely appeared at the protests of their political opponents. In 2014, members of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia, appeared in the streets of Ferguson toting assault rifles. While most politicians and law enforcement officials outwardly condemned this challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence, in some places the state began openly partnering with the grassroots extreme right. In June, the Multnomah County, Oregon Republican Party voted to allow Three Percenters to provide anti-protestor “security” for them at events.
Meanwhile, the alt-right and other fascists have slowly but surely escalated from online threats to violent attacks. The massacre that Dylan Roof perpetrated at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 failed to spark the race war he intended, but the following year, the election of a president who openly courted white nationalists provided the catalyst for increasing extreme right violence. Numerous media outlets reported an immediate rise in racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim activity after Trump’s election, from graffiti to verbal harassment to physical assaults. Bigots have ramped up attacks on mosques from Minnesota to Tennessee, while a man spouting Islamophobia stabbed two people to death on a train in Portland, Oregon this spring.
While many of these attacks served as general intimidation against marginalized groups, protests against oppression have become a particular target for fascists. In 2015, heavily armed right-wingers fired into a Black Lives Matter occupation in Minneapolis, injuring five protestors; a bystander noted that they “were using police tactics.” During the Trump campaign, Trump supporters frequently carried out violent attacks on protestors; white nationalist Matthew Heimbach faced criminal charges this spring for physically attacking a young Black woman at a campaign speech. At a Seattle protest against Milo Yiannopolis in January, a right-wing Milo fan shot an anti-racist protestor in the stomach after threatening online to “start cracking skulls” of “snowflakes.” Yet antifascists and anarchists remained the villains in the discourse spread by politicians, police, and media pundits, even as right-wing attacks continued to escalate. This underscores that their goal is neither peace nor law and order, but maintaining their power against all who threaten it.
The murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville is the latest event in this crescendo of hate and violence. We must understand her death in the context of the right-wing war on protest. It has been building inexorably towards this outcome for years.
If right-wing citizens hadn’t taken the initiative to begin threatening and injuring protestors, politicians in North Dakota wouldn’t have introduced legislation to protect them. The growing Three Percenter and militia movements aim to use force to secure the stability of Trump’s rule in the face of widespread resistance. The stories we’ve heard from the streets of Charlottesville—like so many other cities—show that the police are happy to let fascists do their bloody work for them on the streets.
And if the fascists go too far and provoke a popular backlash, as the murder of Heather Heyer has, politicians will attempt to use that to their advantage, too. By framing fascism and anti-fascism as symmetrical forces of chaos and disruption, as Trump explicitly did in his initial response, they present the state as the only force capable of restoring order—through more police, surveillance, and control. Whether they tacitly support or openly condemn vigilante violence, right-wing politicians aim to come out ahead either way.
What It All Means
Make no mistake: the people who want us to accept white supremacy, environmental destruction, and police murder are working together to keep us out of the streets. They’re using every tactic they can—from mass arrests to new laws to outright murder—because they’re afraid of our power.
They are going to such lengths because all over the world, people are coming together to threaten their privileges and profits. Countless thousands of us have clogged the arteries of capital, affirmed the value of Black lives against the brutality of the police, confronted pipelines and power plants, shielded our neighbors from deportation, stood watch against bigots at mosques, defended reproductive freedom, and organized across the borders they attempt to impose on our land and in our hearts. They know that unless they can terrorize us back into submission, their days in power will be numbered.
In short, the right declared war on protest because we have the power to take them down. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but it is possible, and they know it. They’re trying to raise the costs of resistance so high that we’ll listen to Governor McAuliffe and hide out at home while they continue impoverishing us, scapegoating immigrants and Muslims, brutalizing people of color, subjugating women, poisoning the earth, militarizing the borders, and escalating police surveillance and control.
The options are clear: take the streets to fight together, or hide at home while they come for us one by one. The choice is yours.
I am one of the thousands of people who confronted Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. I am a blue-collar person, with a job, family, and responsibilities. I would have preferred to do other things with my weekend. However, I had to ask myself: If these people are allowed to run roughshod over this town, what will they do next?
“We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists… They saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.”
No, I did not behave peacefully when I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city. I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did. I was maced, punched, kicked, and beaten with sticks, but I gave as good as I got, and usually better. Donald Trump says that “there was violence on both sides.” Of course there was. I might add that there were not murderers on both sides—but that’s not really my point.
I would like to ask a different question. What would have happened if there had not been violence on both sides? What would have happened if there had only been violence on one side?
On the night of Friday, August 11, 2017, I saw something that I never thought I would see, and that I hope I never see again: 500 Nazis and white supremacists marching across the campus of the University of Virginia while police did nothing, surrounding 30 counter-demonstrators who were holding hands around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and beating them with torches while calling them “nigger” and “boy.” By the end of the night, it was clear to me that the “Unite the Right” march had been organized for the express purpose of killing people on Saturday.
They are the reason Richard Spencer did not speak today. They are the reason the “Unite the Right” march didn’t happen. They strategically used violent tactics to incite the Nazis to violence, such that the governor declared a state of emergency before noon. Before the “Unite the Right” rally was scheduled to begin.
One could argue this meant Nazis dissipated into the streets faster making it less safe, but let’s be real: Nazis have been making these streets less safe for a long time. They would have been out and about soon enough with or without the antifa.
I was with a group of clergy committed to non-violence today. We did our part. We bore witness to the pain and hatred in this city. We provided pastoral care/support as needed, especially during traumatic violent acts. This was our determined role going into today. Yes, some clergy risked injury and arrest to stop the Nazis. They formed a blockade at the entrance, but they were overpowered by the Nazis. The police did not view us as threatening enough to shut things down, because again, we were no there to threaten.
The antifa strategically incited enough violence before noon to make the police declare it illegal to gather in Emancipation Park. Through this strategic violence they effectively made a previously legally permitted Nazi rally, illegal.
We may not agree with each others tactics. We may have had different goals, but if you’re looking to praise people specifically for shutting down the “Unite the Right” rally, praise/thank the antifa. Not the clergy and not the police.”
I do not want it be soon forgotten that American anarchists and anti-fascists shut down the largest Nazi and white supremacist gathering on US soil in decades. We accomplished this despite being outnumbered, underequipped, and literally fighting up a hill—at great personal risk and at a terrible cost.
What if things had gone differently? What if we had done as the mayor recommended and stayed away from Emancipation Park, so as not to “feed into a cycle of violence”? What if the rally had proceeded as planned? What if Nazis and white supremacists had been able to build momentum into the night? Based on what I saw Friday and Saturday, there is no doubt in my mind what would have happened next: they would have terrorized the city of Charlottesville. They would have left their leadership a degree of plausible deniablity, broken into smaller groups, and killed and injured any number of people in decentralized locations throughout the city. It was to be their Kristallnacht, their burning cross, their triumphant return.
Instead, they had to leave town in disarray in fear of us, the people of Charlottesville, and the police—in that order. They sent twenty people to the hospital and murdered Heather Heyer.
It could have been much, much worse.
These are dark and dangerous times. Nazis and white supremacists have shown that they are ready to kill and able to mobilize in great numbers, and they have the blessing of the President of the United States. They are well on their way to solidifying their position as the paramilitary arm of the Trump administration. These groups hope to be to Trump what ISIS is to Erdogan and what the Taliban is to the government of Pakistan: terrorist auxiliaries that provide strategic depth against enemies of the state.
On the other hand, Nazis and white supremacists discredited themselves completely in the eyes of millions of American people this weekend, as did their President by emboldening and defending them. The names and faces of many of those who participated in the “Unite the Right” rally are being broadcast on twitter feeds such as “yes, you’re racist,” and more extensive doxxing is undoubtedly soon to come. It seems a stressful and rather lonely moment for our opposition.
On the government side, Steve Bannon may or may not lose his job, as usual. As always, Trump is either on the ropes or on the verge of pulling off an authoritarian coup. It may be time for Americans of good conscience to resume the offensive, before this match made in hell has time to regain its footing and to consolidate further.
Donald Trump was elected head of state through the democratic process, of course, as was Adolf Hitler. He has the support of millions of people; so did Adolf Hitler. His government is in bed with people who dream about carrying out a second Holocaust and reinstating slavery, among other things. We have every right to topple this government if we can. It would be unfortunate to look back on this moment with regret, realizing that we missed our chance.
In my opinion, the high-water mark thus far of resistance to the Trump regime was the wave of airport occupations at the end of January, which set in motion a course of events that ultimately led to Steve Bannon being iced out of the foreign policy sphere by the few remaining adults in Trump’s circle. Unfortunately, they left Bannon the domestic sphere as his playpen, and the Deep State doesn’t care very much. No one is coming to save us.
What would it take to rise to this occasion? We would have to mobilize large crowds nationwide to shut down government infrastructure, prioritizing everything nearest and dearest to Bannon and his faction. Something like that might work. I don’t think it’s too late.
Of course, after Charlottesville, all such crowds will be considered soft targets by fascist murderers. We will have to demonstrate that we are able to exert deadly force to deter such attacks, as Redneck Revolt did admirably in Charlottesville.
If Americans of good conscience push hard enough, we may be able to force Trump to abandon Bannon and Bannonism. We might be able to topple Trump entirely. But under no circumstances will anyone with any self-respect ever submit to governance by Nazis. This government and its fascist allies should think carefully before they choose their next move.
In the spirit of Robert Grodt, who fought fascism in Raqqa, and in the spirit of Heather Heyer, who fought fascism in her own hometown—
It’s that time of year again, when students head back to school. With the government lurching towards tyranny and fascists killing people on the streets, it has never been more pressing to organize on campuses to promote self-determination and collective defense against oppression. This is especially pressing because from Berkeley to Charlottesville, the far-right has set their sites on campuses as a place to recruit future stormtroopers and suppress critiques of authoritarian power. If you are a student yourself, now is the time to lay your plans—whether that means founding a formal student group, coordinating an informal network, or at least preparing to distribute literature. To do our part, we will be publishing a series of articles exploring different examples of student organizing. In this account, a veteran student organizer relates the story of how an anarchist student organization got off the ground and everything you need to know to do it yourself, from filling out paperwork to organizing a Radical Rush.
In the Beginning
The idea for an anarchist student group ranked pretty low in my ambitions when I was accepted to the University of North Carolina. It wasn’t because I shared the long-term career goals of my classmates, nor their short-term goals of getting fucked up every weekend. The thing is, I had already been an anarchist for over a decade. In terms of my social life and political priorities, I was an anarchist first and a student second. Plus, the radical student groups I had encountered turned me off—they were short-lived carousels focused on intra-university reforms. I wasn’t invested in democratizing the university; I wanted to loot it and redistribute its resources for revolutionary purposes.
“On the other hand,” I told myself, “if I’m going to spend most of my time on campus anyway, I may as well make the most of it.” Besides, we had a good name: The UNControllables.
The UNControllables didn’t start as your typical student group. Three of us had spent a decade doing the DIY traveler thing. We only became students as a kind of late twenties punk retirement, the age at which better grants are available. The fourth person behind our idea was a spiritual omnivore graduate student that we met through Occupy who was doing his dissertation on Christian video games—in other words, a total freak. We didn’t operate with the same goals as other student groups. We weren’t about building campus campaigns or recruiting as many students as possible. We had our eyes on the money. Literally: Student Congress funds.
Before the group was even officially registered, the punks dipped out. It felt like a bad joke—a collective of two? As the last punk left, I felt especially betrayed. Hadn’t we spent the majority of our teens and twenties scamming and stealing? Compared to that, what was filling out a few forms to get our hands on potentially thousands of dollars? Perhaps it wasn’t a sufficiently antagonistic form of wealth redistribution for the punks, or perhaps they had joined the list, thousands long, of punks who really do treat college as a kind of retirement. In any case, then there were two.
Every group has to start somewhere. A traditional introduction to campus organizing would focus on collective practices: outreach, consensus decision-making, vision and strategy. Anarchism has a rich, diverse history regarding the question of organization, but for this account to be honest I have to admit that in the beginning we relied on a different kind of anarchism—the kind that values the initiative, the will, the irreducible self of that taboo subject that haunts anarchist history: the individual!
Basic guides to campus organizing presume you have a crew who are all down to collaborate and participate equally with you. If you do, that’s great! Unfortunately, sometimes there’s just one crazy firebrand and maybe their sidekick friend who has an idealistic opinion about Bitcoin and is into the Carlos miniseries on Netflix. Or maybe there are a number of student radicals who identify as anarchists, but choose to dedicate their time and effort to specific campaigns, like sweatshop divestment or gender-non-discriminatory housing, and don’t have the time for another group. DO NOT LET THIS DETER YOU!
The anarchist valorization of the individual was important when there were only two of us. We didn’t allow lack of membership to hold us back from taking action. If participation only serves to legitimize activity that we want to carry out regardless, then the imagined mass of participants is simply another authority we need to bypass in order to act.
This is not to say that the UNControllables always relied on individual efforts. But for a six-month period at the beginning, it sure depended on the work of two of us! If we had decided to give up because there weren’t enough members, we never would have had a third member, and eventually a fourth. And then, eventually, dozens!
The measure of success for any anarchist group shouldn’t be how big it is, but rather how well it equips all of its participants to maximize their individual potential. It’s worth remembering this, even after more people join—lest the group suddenly be reduced to a collective of two again. No need to get all Britta Perry about that shit.
Actually registering our student group was a piece of cake, even with only two members! In our registration we had to write something about why our group was unique and relevant. We researched how many books about anarchism, by anarchists, or from anarchist publishers were in the library as a way to argue that the university had already demonstrated a vested interest in the subject. We also cited professors who had published works touching on anarchism, especially anything published by the university. Lastly, we touched on current events and the resurgence of “anarchist” as a household word. After we got approved, we had to submit our organization’s bylaws and constitution. Literally, all we did was copy the RNC Welcoming Committee’s “points of unity” and some instructions for consensus decision-making from the internet and pasted them into a word document. It was that easy. When any online form included a field for “organization president” or any other office, we simply wrote, “We are a non-hierarchical organization.” This came in handy later when we faced more institutional scrutiny, since one way administrators try to pressure radical groups is by pressuring its officers or the people otherwise most officially associated with the group.
Finding a faculty sponsor was easy for us, as one of the school’s professors was on the board of our local infoshop. However, this is one part of the process that has a lot of potential for problems. Ideally, you want a faculty sponsor to be three things: supportive, hands-off, and tenured. On rare occasions, you might want your faculty sponsor involved in the group itself, but in general they stand to lose more from being associated with a rowdy group of troublemakers than they have to gain. Involving a professor can lead to power imbalances within the group, in which the professional limits on your sponsor guide what the group decides to do or not. This is also why you want your sponsor to be tenured, so it’s less easy for the university to threaten them in order to pressure your group.
In the end, all we really accomplished in our first year was officially registering the group and holding an interest meeting, an anarchist FAQ event, and a Steal Something from Work Day film festival.
Although we didn’t get a ton done in our first year, we did learn one thing: a little bit of détournement goes a long way on campus. People loved our name. So, for our next big idea we decided to employ more clever wordplay: Radical Rush Week. For those lucky enough to not know what a “rush week” is, it’s a week at the beginning of the semester during which fraternities and sororities recruit new members through ritual hazing, drunken oblivion, and competitive feats of conformity. It’s gross. On the other hand, we liked the idea of an intensive week of activity for new radicals at UNC to get acquainted with the rebel scenes on and off campus, so we dubbed our first big event Radical Rush Week.
Radical Rush Week was the UNControllables’ real debut onto the campus scene. We tried to organize with other student groups, reaching out and offering each a day of the week to fill with a workshop or activity of their choice. This didn’t really work. A lot of the groups were too disorganized to put anything together, but didn’t let us know that until it was time to publish the Radical Rush calendars. The one group that did take on a day—a “student power” communist front-group—didn’t reciprocate with ANY of their members attending our other events. Later on, we heard from a comrade who worked with them that their leadership was “terrified” of our organizing. Radical Rush Week was a success overall, but only in spite of the other student groups we reached out to.
On the other hand, including off-campus anarchist activities like our local Really Really Free Market, a workshop at our local infoshop, a books-to-prisoners packing day, and an off-campus punk show was an unqualified success. Throughout the UNControllables’ existence, drawing from the connections and experience of off-campus anarchists has been crucial. More experienced anarchists helped by suggesting speakers to invite and passed on lessons about organizing. Our off-campus connections also meant we had something unique to offer students, in contrast to groups who claim a radical view of the world but never step out of the university bubble.
When we organized Radical Rush Week the following year, we decided to fill it with events we wanted to see ourselves, rather than trying to make it representative of the campus activist scene as a whole. We were able to host the Stimulator from subMedia, an anarchist-feminist sex worker, anarchist panther Ashanti Alston, and a journalist who documented police surveillance of local anarchists—all on the university’s dime.
Going all anarchist worked out much better for us. By organizing events that we ourselves wanted to see, rather than ones we thought would “bring out the most people,” those of us in the group still felt like we got something out of the events that didn’t have a huge attendance. Since the events were explicitly anarchist, seeing the same faces at multiple events throughout the week meant we were able to build relationships with people on that basis and invite them into the group. The people who were attracted to our group after our second Radical Rush were more enthusiastic about working with us specifically. The previous year, most of the new members split their energy between multiple student groups, leaving just a handful of us to do most of the work—not exactly a collective dynamic.
The membership in our second year demonstrated another advantage to having an anarchist presence on campus—we attracted folks from a different social body than other local anarchist groups. In North America, there aren’t a lot of spaces that produce new anarchists. Mostly, folks get into it through subcultural activity or street protests. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The author of this piece would even go so far as to say that if we recognize that anarchist ideas and practices circulate within particular subcultures, we should put effort into keeping those spaces vibrant and rebellious. On the other hand, the fact that our group was made up of people who don’t fit the stereotype of young anarchists made it really special. All kinds of students flocked to our group: an adult student with a country drawl who fled the US to spend his teens and early 20s in China training in martial arts; the president of the school’s Muslim Student Association who learned about anarchism through a class on neoliberalism; a runaway from a fundamentalist Christian household who was squatting the university (he spent Thanksgiving break sleeping in the philosophy department); various students whose parents migrated to the US fleeing harsh conditions; and a local high school student who took advanced classes at UNC. We were our very own special kind of crew that didn’t fit into the popular culture on campus, but also didn’t fit the anarchist subcultural norm. On the other hand, most of our crew was white, which we eventually had to reckon with.
The DisOrientation Guide
After a few semesters, we learned two important lessons for campus organizing. One, the students’ workload grows as the semester proceeds; this makes it increasingly difficult to get things done. Two, the beginning of the fall semester is the sweet spot for attracting students to your group’s activities.
Consequently, we decided to pack the start of the fall semester with activity and outreach, even participating in boring official incoming student events—since we were, after all, an officially registered student organization. A word of advice: as wretched as official student outreach events are, it’s where a lot of disaffected students who don’t fit into the frat culture will end up. We met a lot of our members and collaborators at these functions. Table these events, get a good spot, be aggressive with your propaganda, sign people up to an email list. The main thing we handed out to students was a zine we compiled every summer called The Disorientation Guide. Seriously, a little wordplay goes a long way on campus.
The Disorientation Guide included the schedule of Radical Rush Week events, a map of town highlighting local DIY spaces and subversive projects, “ads” for local groups that folks could plug into, and—this UNControllable’s favorite part—a full summary of the last year of resistance in our local area. It was a perfect group project, since it involved clear tasks (writing, compiling information about local groups, layout, gathering art and images to use) that could be divided up and completed wherever each contributor spent summer break.
We include here a PDF of one of our Disorientation Guides as a template for other anarchist student groups:
Not all universities offer funding for student groups, but if yours does, GET IT. No offense to the young people reading this, but UNC had literal teenagers in charge of distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for student activities—it was easy to woo and impress them. Besides student government, there were a lot of other sources of grants and funding: individual departments, a body specifically for funding the activities of graduate students (including student groups they were involved in), the student union’s activity and entertainment board, and smaller funds for specific themes or topics that some of our events happened to fit. Each of these was hidden away on the internet in some nether URL and involved a slew of paperwork or electronic fields to complete, but they usually paid off.
The first semester that we asked for money, we had no idea what we were doing. Surprisingly, even though it was our first time, we did a lot better at correctly navigating the student congress bureaucracy than some groups that had existed for years. We came up with all the barely justifiable expenditures we could imagine within their funding-request fields: office space, office supplies, stipends for speakers, lodging for speakers, gas money, van rentals, printing funds, postage… you name it. We figured we’d make do with whatever money they were willing to give us.
In the end, we requested the second biggest budget of any group that year. Oops. Sorry not sorry.
Aiming high paid off. We got $4000 in funding that semester. Most of that money went toward paying for the visa applications and airfare for anarchists from Brazil to speak about the 2013 uprising there. Afterward, they were able to tour the east coast presenting on anarchism and popular struggles in Brazil. Funding wasn’t the only university resource we were able to support them with, either. Some faculty in the Latin American Studies department wrote up an official letter of invitation, which made it much easier for our comrades to secure visas.
But of course, haters gonna hate. Especially when those haters are College Republicans and they receive less funding than your anarchist group. That semester, Student Congress rejected a proposal by the College Republicans to bring a pro-fracking speaker to campus… bringing their approved budget down to a thousand dollars less than the UNControllables! This led to a ridiculous small-scale controversy in which they “protested” the next Student Congress hearing—pretty tamely by anarchist standards, we might add. They kind of just stood together in the far corner of the room, silently. Fox News eventually picked up the story, which allowed the College Republicans to crowdsource the funding for their speaker anyway. But we weren’t going to pass up an opportunity to humiliate whiny rich kids.
The following week, we sent out press releases announcing that, in a surprise turn of events, the UNControllables would be holding a fundraiser for the College Republicans in front of the Old Well, a drinking fountain inside a rotunda that is the symbol of the university. On the big day, we built a PVC “fracking rig” next to the Old Well and announced our scheme: “If the College Republicans want more money from UNC, why don’t we follow their advice and drill baby drill… starting right here at the heart of UNC! Frack the Old Well!” We held signs that said “Who needs clean drinking water anyway?” and handed out tinted, murky “fracked water” so passersby could experience the benefits of fracking first hand.
This stunt may sound dumb. It was definitely silly. But it was fun—and that little bit of fun went a long way for our group dynamics.
Here is our “Frack the Old Well” statement in full:
“Before we reveal our fundraising plan for the Republicans, we want to explain why an anarchist group would do something like this. In case you haven’t followed the ‘funding gate’ controversy, let me break it down for you. The College Republicans could not convince Student Congress that their events were worth more than our anarchist events. Specifically, student congress cut $5,000 for an event of theirs defending fracking, a method of natural gas extraction linked with cancer, polluted water, and climate change. Having had $10,000 cut from our own proposed budget, we felt their pain. It can be humiliating to grovel at the feet of government for a handout, while certain political bodies question whether you deserve access to such resources. The Republicans must truly understand now what it’s like for millions who are forced to turn to welfare to survive. Luckily for them, the College Republicans were quickly able to attract wealthy donors by complaining publicly about ‘funding gate,’ which got them twice what they were originally asking for from Student Congress. We applaud this solution, and encourage the Republicans to share the names and addresses of their rich donors so poor people everywhere can redistribute private wealth until nobody even needs government handouts. Obviously, the Republicans have access to corporate money to bring their pro-fracking speakers to campus anyway, but they would prefer to use money generated from the rest of us, especially if it takes away from radical causes. However, anarchists at UNC have brainstormed a lucrative fundraising scheme for the Republicans that achieves all these goals—frack the Old Well!
“If fracking is such a good idea, why not start right here at UNC with the center of UNC, the Old Well? Supporters of fracking like the College Republicans ignore the consequences of devastated land and polluted watersheds, since they’re not the ones with water coming out of their taps that you can literally set on fire. They emphasize the economic benefits for landowners and small businesses, who can gain a few temporary jobs in exchange for forcing the rest of us to kiss clean drinking water goodbye.
“By bringing hydro-fracking to UNC, we can allow the entire student body to enjoy the benefits of natural gas extraction: poisoned water, fire hazards, accidental spills, free floating carcinogens, and plenty of profit for the rich at the expense of you and me: something Republicans love. The College Republicans complain that Student Congress reveals a liberal bias, but when it comes to sacrificing our health and environment for short-term profit, Democrats and Republicans have put their differences aside to find common ground. The Obama administration has praised fracking, while Democrat governors from Jerry Brown to Earl Ray Tomblin are jockeying to see who can sell out their people and their land for the quickest buck.
“But we’re not just focused on the College Republicans here. If this fundraiser is successful, we’re going to bring a proposal to the Board of Governors that students in the entire UNC system can solve the budget crisis by fracking their own universities. The state legislature is far too busy to help students who will have to drop out if tuition keeps rising. Instead, they’re hard at work closing women’s health services and giving tax breaks to corporations. So let’s do our part by fracking the Old Well right here in Chapel Hill. Hope you’re stocked up on bottled water.
“Honestly though, the true rivalry brought out by ‘funding-gate’ is not between liberals and conservatives. The true rivalry is between the haves and the have-nots. The rich at this school, like the rich throughout the rest of society, are used to getting their way and used to getting our money. But things are changing at UNC the way things are changing in Turkey, in Brazil, in Spain and Greece and northern Africa. That’s why we applied for Student Congress money, to bring participants in these movements to come speak and help us understand how our struggles are connected throughout the world. People everywhere are standing up against exploitation and oppression, and if the College Republicans want to use our money to further advance the interests of the rich, at the expense of our land and our health, they better be prepared for a fight.”
Not only did it feel good to have fun together, but the “Frack the Old Well” event showed that a sense of humor was really healthy for our group overall. We carried out a number of other fun stunts. We organized a “march against bullshit,” we distributed call-and-response sheets to disorient the fundamentalist Christian preacher who would lambast sinners in the middle of campus, we sent loads of silly letters to the school newspaper. Yet the most over-the-top response we ever got was when we decided to troll the student union’s screening of The Purge: Anarchy.
One of the ways the university vainly tries to keep students from getting shit-faced obliterated every weekend is by offering free screenings of recently debuted movies. When we heard that The Purge: Anarchy was coming up, we felt like it was our personal duty to defend the good name of anarchy, or at least the good reasons for it to have a bad reputation. We wrote a letter to the editor announcing our intentions to troll hard and set up a table in the lobby with real anarchist riot porn. The following day, the assistant dean of students started calling the letter’s authors, and continued to do so each day up until the movie. We were getting nervous that the university was going to take this a little too seriously.
Then, another problem arose—we pirated a copy of the movie and it turned out that The Purge: Anarchy is actually pretty fucking good! It’s basically a class war movie where the protagonists side with an underground army of poor black revolutionaries set on overthrowing the oppressive, racist ruling class. Fuck yeah!
So, rather than trolling the movie as hard as we originally planned to, we took a cue from the A for Anarchy project and used the movie to promote our ideas. But we still trolled a little bit. We printed pamphlets with one anarcho-geek’s review of the movie on the inside, and an “audience participation” guide on the back.
When we showed up early to stake out a good spot for handing out flyers, we were surprised to witness a squad of armed police officers with bulletproof vests and a bomb-sniffing dog exiting the theater. The officer with the dog then confirmed with the ticket takers that everything was “clear.” The cops remained in the theater for the rest of the movie. It was so fucking weird. However, it did make for a lot of fun whenever our crew of anarchists and sympathizers, rolling deep by the way, cheered and applauded the “purging” of a government tool in the movie. The letters-to-the-editor section for the following week was filled with back-and-forth letters about whether the police presence was justified or “an unnecessary show of force… threatening violence and courting tragedy.”
And Then It Got Real
We were able to be so silly with The Purge: Anarchyand “Frack the Old Well” responses because they didn’t really matter to any other group. On the other hand, with the rising Black Lives Matter wave of actions in the fall of 2014, we found that we had to put more consideration into how we would interact with the other groups and people who were also invested in responding. At the beginning of the semester, a couple newer UNControllables reached out to some of the black student organizations on campus to put together a “Support Ferguson Resistance Rally.” The various organizations involved had different expectations about how it would go
When the rally turned into an unpermitted march that blocked the main intersection in town, one of the co-organizers from a black poetry group grabbed the crowd’s attention and shouted, “This is not in the spirit of Ferguson! It is a time for healing! We should be mourning!” After a tense moment, folks began to yell back:
“This is how Ferguson is mourning!” one protestor responded.
“In Ferguson they mourned by burning down the QT!” another said.
“This IS how I mourn!”
For the rest of the march, participants respectfully debated with each other about what kinds of responses were needed in the wake of police murders and popular rebellion. Looking back, this probably should have been how the rally began, rather than defaulting to anarchist habit and hurrying to march. Later that fall, at the rallies in response to the non-indictments of the cops who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, these discussions took place collectively before people stepped off from the rallying points. In one case, the discussion was limited to people of color. Not rushing to march and first holding an assembly over what to do meant these later marches had considerable more buy-in from participants for the confrontational tactics used at them, including highway blockades and scuffles with the police—way beyond simply blocking an intersection for a few minutes in a small college town.
While the face-to-face discussions towards the end of the Support Ferguson Resistance Rally were respectful and engaging, a Facebook thread of dismissive bickering appeared afterwards and got totally out of control. Both sides of the Facebook argument were left less willing to trust each other moving forward, including between UNControllables members. On the one hand, some UNControllables thought the march was hasty and the defense of it on Facebook disrespectful. On the other hand, one of the people who helped organize the march felt hung out to dry after putting in their best intentions and effort. Worse yet, the two sides of the Facebook argument seemed to run along racial lines, with one side blaming white anarchists for their discomforts with the march, and white anarchists on the other side posting defensive tirades. The division between the two sides ran deep and led to some members not speaking to each other for weeks.
In addition to the internal conflicts, this was the first semester that our group finally came up against the state and university authorities. We found out that the university copyshop where we made all our flyers was handing over copies of our materials to the police. The dean of students was harassing us and asking to speak to us individually. The Durham Police Department released a report after the Black Lives Matter marches blaming out-of-town anarchists for directing all of the illegal activity at the march, mentioning the UNControllables, by name, as part of this supposed cabal.
This signaled an uptick in surveillance. Not to say it was high quality surveillance: when it came to describing what exactly anarchists did at these marches, the Durham PD wrote that, “the anarchist element will commit acts of anarchy.” Ooookay? More frighteningly, a couple of people close to our group were arrested and ended the semester facing charges, although not for UNControllables-related activity.
Concluding / Beginning
We hope that this short history can inspire similar anarchist student groups, so it may seem counterintuitive to end this story on the dour note of repression from above, conflict between us, and bleak prospects ahead. But I want to end on this low point precisely because it wasn’t the end of our group. Through two years of collective organizing and mutual aid, the relationships within the UNControllables had grown to a point that we wanted to learn from our mistakes and improve our efforts together. Rather than abandoning the group when faced with conflict and repression, everyone chose to talk through the disagreements and support each other through the hard times.
In response to the fallout from the Support Ferguson Resistance Rally, we had an hours-long discussion to repair the relationships within our group and discuss how to interact with other groups in future organizing. Let me put that another way: instead of cold-shouldering each other and dismissively bickering over the internet, 21st century teenagers got together, in person, to talk out their disagreements! Also, some of us took away the lesson that if your chief goal with an anarchist student group is to appropriate resources, it’s best not to brand confrontational engagements of questionable legality with your group’s name.
Three years after this low point, the UNControllables is still around. In fact, when Trump won the election, the very same tactic that sparked conflict in the Support Ferguson Resistance Rally—occupying the main intersection in town—was the go-to tactic everyone used to demonstrate resistance against the Trump regime. This time, it lasted for hours. Pushing the envelope is not always popular or easy, but it can open the popular imagination to more ambitious possibilities, in preparation for times when everyone recognizes the importance of challenging the status quo.
Despite the rough patches, not to mention various embarrassing mistakes made in the course of being a young group with young members, the UNControllables was one of the easiest anarchist projects I’ve participated in, and it had direct results. We were able to redistribute resources in support of anarchist struggles all over the world. We attracted new anarchists from social bodies that had little-to-no recent anarchist presence. We opened up other rebel students’ imaginations about what resistance can look like.
We hope that this account will encourage anarchists who find themselves attending universities to do the same.
Appendix: Six Questions with Today’s UNControllables
To follow up on this history, we caught up with current members of the UNControllables and asked them a few questions.
Has the fact that the UNControllables has a five-year history done anything to help or hurt current organizing?
Our history as a student organization in many ways emboldens us to keep acting and keep fighting. We’ve been lucky enough to have past members pass down organizing knowledge while simultaneously acknowledging the ways the UNControllables has changed with different members and adjusting to different contemporary needs.
Speaking as a group that existed for a few years before the Trump era, and continues to exist now, what kind of advice would you give to others who want to start campus anarchist groups?
Know your history. Know the history of the university. Know the history of your town or city. Investigate deeper into what led to the problems we have now and how that relates to your specific context. There’s a lot going on right now, but grounding yourself in your place, diversifying your tactics, and collaborating with other groups can help a lot.
How do you balance your crazy, revolutionary aspirations with the banal, day-to-day rigmarole of accomplishing a university education?
Everyone has a different way of balancing university education and activism, but in general, we try to implement a division of labor where different members “bottomline” different tasks that they have time for, in order to work towards our goals and objectives. Volunteering for the role of bottomliner means holding the primary responsibility for making an event happen, hopefully with the assistance of whoever else is available and interested.
What can non-university, off-campus anarchists do to help spur the growth of anarchist student groups at their local universities?
The distribution of information about anarchism and liberation movements is one of the best way to help spur the growth of radical student organization, by giving students an introduction to radical politics. Beyond this, off-campus anarchists can help by collaborating with student groups on presentations, workshops, and skill-sharing sessions.
What role do you see student groups playing in the anarchist movement as a whole?
Radical student groups can act as an introduction to radical politics for students who haven’t been exposed to theses ideas before, as well as providing education and information to those who want to learn more. At the same time, they act as a catalyst for campus activism and provide an organizational structure for planning other kinds of action.
Being so funding-centered in terms of your organizing, did the money ever cause problems in the group?
Given the nature of our organization, the funding we receive from student government is always precarious. Even with the funding we get, it’s not uncommon for us to have to find ways to scrounge up more to cover all of our events and activities.
Courageous demonstrators pulled down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina yesterday. In the face of state indifference and racist backlash, they took matters into their own hands; within minutes, they had demolished a century-old symbol of oppression. Now that the statue is down, what will it take to uproot the foundation it stood on? What can this defiant gesture tell us about how to take on all the other problems we face?
In Durham, protestors showed what anyone can accomplish with a ladder, rope, a few friends, and courage. Uprooting the base—the root causes of white supremacy and our powerlessness over our own lives—will take longer, but it demands the same fundamental principle.
Why had the statue stayed up for so long in Durham, a liberal city with a nearly half black population? A local government spokeswoman cited a state law prohibiting them from altering memorials, saying, “I would assume that the only thing possible are steps to reverse the law.”
If you believe in the legitimacy of the state—if you believe the only way to make change is through representatives and laws—then yes, that’s “the only thing possible.” In that model, our country will remain as entrenched in white supremacy as our rulers decide it should be. What could illustrate our powerlessness better than being forced to see a symbol of our degradation every day, unable to imagine a way to change it ourselves?
But as anarchists, we believe that all of us deserve to determine our own destinies. We believe that there is nothing inherently legitimate about the actions of those who hold state power, nor anything inherently illegitimate about defying the government. We don’t accept that the only way to dismantle the physical legacy of white supremacy is to wait for the state legislature to do it. If we possess any sort of freedom today in this society, it is the result of all the times people defied and overthrew governments, not because of the times they were obedient. If not for disobedience, we would still be living under the rule of kings. This is why we believe that the best way to make lasting change is by taking direct action to bring about the world we wish to live in.
This is true for any change we wish to make, from toppling a statue to toppling a president.
In response to their courageous action, the North Carolina governor tweeted,, “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.” That seems unlikely, considering that after nearly a century of begging politicians, the statue remained in place—representing the very same racism and deadly violence we saw in Charlottesville. In Durham, even with a black mayor and a majority-black city council, the statue stood just as solidly as it had during the Jim Crow era of all-white government.
There are two ways to change an unjust law. You can ask lawmakers to amend it, or you can break it together in a way that makes it unenforceable. Which approach is more empowering? The former concentrates power in the hands of a few; the latter disperses it to everyone. The former frames leaders as the only agents of change; the latter enables all of us to determine the shape of our lives and our communities.
We can apply this logic of direct action to all the problems we face.
Rather than begging Trump—or Obama, who oversaw more deportations than any previous US president—to adjust immigration policies, we can defend our neighbors against raids, establish sanctuaries, and tear down borders.
Rather than pleading for a leader to appoint a liberal judge to make decisions about our bodies for us, we can take control of the knowledge and infrastructure we need for reproductive health care and bodily autonomy.
What all of these approaches have in common is a commitment to struggling for freedom using methods that spread power rather than concentrating it. As former Black Panther and anarchist Ashanti Alston put it, we need “all power to the people and all power through the people.”
We shouldn’t wait for presidents, governors, or bureaucrats to give us permission to change the world. We shouldn’t defer to authority figures. From the civil rights movement to the Stonewall Rebellion, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Gezi Park in Istanbul, freedom has always begun from the point at which courageous people broke the law and took their lives back from their rulers. The chief obstacle to these movements has not been the violence of the state, but the passivity and compliance of other citizens.
As people rise up to tear down statues around the country, let’s strategize about how to tear up the foundations of the system that prevents us from making the most of our lives. Direct action, without laws or representatives, isn’t just more effective to win immediate victories like removing racist monuments. It can be the foundation for a free world beyond white supremacy, capitalism, and the state.
On August 12, a fascist murdered one person and injured dozens more by driving a vehicle into a crowd of anti-racist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fascists had been calling for violence in advance; they made it very clear that this would happen. We are calling for solidarity actions to take place around the country in response—to support the bereaved, to encourage those who courageously stood up to fascist murderers, to reach out to our communities about this situation, and to show that we will not stand for this. Here, you can find a list of solidarity demonstrations and a PDF of a flier you can print and distribute to inform others about this situation.
On August 12, an alt-right fascist murdered a person and injured dozens more by driving a vehicle into a crowd of anti-racist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. We are calling for solidarity actions to take place around the country to respond to this.
If we allow the alt-right and neo-Nazis to organize in our communities, the consequences will be fatal. Charlottesville is just the beginning. If the alt-right can get away with murder there, none of us will be safe. We have to stand up to white supremacists, we have to shut down and chase out these bigots every time they try to organize, or else they will kill more people.
You are a target. These bigots target people of color, women, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, immigrants, radicals, liberals, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them—not just with words, but with violence. Emboldened by Trump’s election, alt-right and fascist bigots have already shot and wounded protestors against racism in Minneapolis and Seattle, stabbed bystanders to death in Portland for intervening against Islamophobia, and sowed hatred and discord across the country. We are betraying our friends and neighbors if we don’t take a stand.
The police will not protect us. They murder over a thousand people every year in this country, and infiltrate and attack our demonstrations when we stand up against alt-right terror. We have to organize to defend ourselves.
After the Seattle shooting, we wrote that the alt-right “is actively working to create momentum for a fascist movement that will not stop short of murder.”
Today’s murder of an anti-fascist protestor is the first to take place during a demonstration. It is assuredly not the last.
When the state sends the message that both police and other totalitarians can freely attack and injure those who stand up against racism and injustice, no one should be surprised when that continues to happen.
When the state makes moves to legalize murder of protestors by vehicle, no one should be surprised when the alt-right takes up their invitation.
Meanwhile, the state moves to use this tragedy to consolidate its position. Trump condemned hatred and bigotry “on many sides”—deliberately obscuring who perpetrates the violence and who suffers it, and what distinguishes the values of anti-fascists from the hatred of fascists. Melania Trump reminds us that “no good comes from violence”—again, equalizing anti-fascist militancy with fascist murder—while her husband brings the world closer to the brink of nuclear holocaust than it has been for generations.
And as our friends lie bleeding in the streets and cold in the morgue, as unapologetic neo-Nazi violence escalates to a level not seen in decades, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer tells us to “go home.” He cannot bring himself to say, “A neo-Nazi murdered someone fighting against white supremacy while I stood and did nothing.” So he diplomatically mentions that “a life was lost”—like a misplaced set of keys, rather than a horrific and deliberate act of racist violence.
The discourse of “law and order” functions the same way, whether from the mouths of liberals like Mayor Signer or authority-worshipping Blue Lives Matter zealots. It is intended to play on our fears of violence and chaos to convince us that the only alternative is to accept the economic, political, and racial status quo, defended by ever-escalating control and surveillance.
But we have to realize that their laws and their order are precisely what produced this situation—a situation in which pipeline company profits are worth more than the lives of water protectors, in which cops murder black men with impunity, in which torch-wielding Nazis can murder those who organize to halt their racist agenda.
We must identify the forces underlying their laws and their order—white supremacy, patriarchy, policing, capitalism, and the state. We have to work together to keep ourselves safe and reimagine the world without them.
No, we will not go home. We will not forget. And if we can ever forgive, it will only be when we have ensured that no policeman or fascist will ever again be able to cause the slightest bit of harm to any living thing.
On Friday, August 11, a wide range of far-right groups from around the US gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for a march the night before their “Unite the Right” rally. Hundreds of them carrying lit torches paraded across the town with very little visible police presence. The streets were largely empty, thanks to a request from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. When the march arrived at a Confederate statue ringed by a few dozen counterprotesters, the men with torches surrounded it and attacked them.
Until now, some of the participants have been coy about their politics. Now that they have all joined in explicitly fascist chants like “blood and soil” while many of them raised their arms in the Nazi salute, it is clear that all of them—the so-called Alt Right, the Proud Boys, and all the militiamen and Oathkeepers and basement-dwelling trolls who keep them company—are openly endorsing fascism. They aim to create a situation in which they can terrorize and murder with impunity in order to create an even more white supremacist, even more totalitarian state.
With this march in Charlottesville, the far right has crossed a threshold. Until now, they appeared to be a motley array of online groups, most of which lacked the courage to identify unironically with fascism. Today, they have arrived as a social movement that can pull together hundreds of people to carry out organized acts of violence while the police look on. They hope to weaponize the ignorance and insecurity of the precarious white working class to trick poor white people into serving once again as cannon fodder for their own oppressors.
But it’s not too late—not yet, anyway. The fascists are coming to prominence before they have the numbers or legitimacy in the public eye that they need to defend their new position. If we act swiftly and decisively—giving them neither legitimacy nor quarter—there is still time to stop them before they move the clock from 2017 to 1933.
Remember last November, when Donald Trump was elected and it seemed like the entire US was about to veer into a far-right dictatorship? While liberals were immobilized by shock, anarchists immediately went on the offensive in order to destabilize the Trump regime before everyone got accustomed to a new level of tyranny. We recognized that the far right had come to power too early, before they could build a broad consensus in favor of their agenda, and that this put them in a vulnerable position. By acting decisively against the inauguration and the Muslim ban, we helped to show that there could be no business or politics as usual under Trump, and this created fractures within the halls of power.
If not for these immediate, massive expressions of defiance, judges might not have dared to block the Muslim ban, or White House employees to leak information. Imagine the US right now if Trump were ruling with the full apparatus of the state united behind him! Instead, today, the US government seems more dysfunctional than ever. That may explain why Trump is threatening war to shore up his position, while fascists are no longer counting on his government to carry out their agenda under cover of normalcy.
Now we have to use the same strategy to forestall the threat of a new widespread fascist movement in the US. We have to respond immediately, cutting its oxygen supply and blocking its growth. But how do we do that?
By the same token, we must not look to the police or any other aspect of the state for deliverance. The complicity of the police in supporting one fascist undertaking after another is well-established by now. Besides, anything the state does against the far right, we can be sure it will do to us twice as hard. It would be a mistake to give anyone the impression that state intervention could solve this problem without creating even bigger problems. If history is any guide, whatever power the state is accorded will eventually end up in the hands of fascists.
We also can’t defer to authorities like Governor McAuliffe when they tell us to respond to the situation by hiding indoors. In effect, this means ceding the streets to the fascists, in which to do whatever they want to whomever is still out there. Recommending this strategy makes Governor McAuliffe complicit in the rise of fascism. Sticking our heads in the sand will not make this situation go away.
Likewise, it won’t help to gather in churches, as some did in Charlottesville last night, congratulating ourselves on how nonviolent we are while fascists patrol the streets. Last night, when the church locked its doors, many were trapped outside, dramatically outnumbered. This kind of behavior is also complicity.
It’s essential to build fighting formations capable of facing down far-right violence. Fascists love to portray themselves as victims in order to claim the right to do violence to others; their entire narrative is built around the contradiction that they are simultaneously master race and underdog, victorious and persecuted. They treat any resistance to their program as an affront to their dignity and a violation of their safe space. Nonetheless, we have to be able to stop them in their streets, because they are in the business of purveying revenge fantasies. Any footage they can record of successful attacks, however cowardly, will help them recruit from their base of bullies and sadists. Because of this, it is preferable not to enter into conflict with them except when fully prepared—but at all costs, we must not let them attain control of the streets.
Most of this is not a matter of physical confrontation. We need people to put upposters; we need people to hand out handbills, and form local organizations, and coordinate neighborhood response teams. We need to organize legal support for those arrested fighting fascists and institutions like the US border that are already accomplishing their stated goals. We need people to infiltrate their groups; we need to set up fake online accounts with which to monitor them or spread disinformation and strife. We need to identify the fault lines along which their alliances can be split, and open gulfs between them and the rest of the right wing. One can do a great deal to fight fascism without ever entering a gym.
Above all, we have to popularize another set of values, so that the cheap victim narratives and fantasies of authority that fascists offer can gain no traction among the general public. We have to show how fulfilling it is to treat each other as equals, rather than serving simultaneously as a peon and a petty tyrant in a chain of command. We have to distinguish true self-determination from supposed self-determination for “nations” or “peoples,” which always boils down to being bossed around by someone of your own ethnicity or religion. We have to foster a sense of self-worth that is not based in membership in invented categories, but in our personal relationships and values and accomplishments.
In the growing popularity of fascism, we can see the failure of guilt-based liberal anti-racism and anti-sexism. Mere privilege politics have failed us; we have to show what everyone stands to gain from the abolition of whiteness and patriarchy, and to present this as a positive program rather than as nothing more than the elimination of unfair advantages. However unfair an advantage is, someone is bound to want to keep it—we have to convey that there’s nothing whiteness or male domination can offer that is worth having in the first place, compared to the genuine intimacy and care that are possible when we approach each other as equals, without borders or abstract criteria of belonging.
This is the opposite of pandering to the supposed ignorance or self-interest of “the white working class,” as if that were a single entity. On the contrary, it means appealing to what is wisest and most honorable in all people.
Anarchism is one of the most thoroughgoing forms of opposition to fascism, in that it entails opposition to hierarchy itself. Virtually every framework that countenances hierarchy, be it democracy or “national liberation,” enables old power imbalances like white supremacy and patriarchy to remain in place, hidden within the legitimacy of the prevailing structures. Under democracy, white supremacy has not disappeared; it has just disguised itself. If we want to be done with fascism once and for all, we have to cut to the root of things.
In that regard, we can see the struggle ahead of us as an opportunity to challenge everything about our society and ourselves, not just the violence of a radical fringe group. As society polarizes and things escalate, we should not simply be drawn into a violent grudge match with our opposite numbers on the far right, but look for escape hatches through which all humanity might escape from this long nightmare.
In the 1970s, radical geographers expanded the discipline to study the interplay between spaces and social relations, focusing on the spatial dimensions of inequality and oppression. Since then, the radical geography has come to encompass a wide range of tools—yet Marxism remains the most common framework. In this conversation between two scholars in the field, Alexander Reid Ross interviews Simon Springer, author of The Anarchist Roots of Geography: Toward Spatial Emancipation, who argues that a true radical geography must oppose the state.
Alexander Reid Ross: Your book, The Anarchist Roots of Geography: Toward Spatial Emancipation, transgresses traditional concepts of geographic space and time by introducing the effects of communications technology, as well as grassroots networks based on issues rather than location. However, you do not go so far as to rule out place-specific identity as hegemonic and formidable in one way or another. In this precarious balance (or rather struggle) between relational geography in time and place, can you elaborate on the dynamics of rural and urban today? What would you envision for the future?
Simon Springer: There is no real separation between urban and rural. To put it bluntly, this is a false dichotomy that is read onto the world rather than being a reflection of anything intrinsic to the organization of human beings on the planet. We are told we are living in the age of urbanism, and this is true to an extent. More and more people are living in cities. But to suggest that this means that there is some sort of firm division of the so-called urban from the so-called rural is problematic because the wealth and so-called prosperity of urban locales is almost entirely reliant upon the rural frame. While we are witnessing more intense forms of financialization and knowledge-based economies, the accumulation of capital still primarily functions as a form of extractivism. The hardware that enables the circuits of financial capital to flow is still very much material and there seems to be an insatiable appetite for more gadgets to keep this network buzzing in cities, which represent the heart of this system. What this means is that the control and plundering of resources matters very significantly to the viability of the urban sphere. In terms of relations of solidarity, there is much to be said here, too. Urban peoples can’t afford to ignore the kinds of violence that are being meted out against rural peoples, primarily in the form of forced eviction and land grabbing, because this malevolence always comes home to roost. In Cambodia, where I have done most of my empirical work, this “payback” is often in the form of migration to the city. People rendered landless through the onslaught of capitalism’s soldiers of fortune have nowhere else to go, so they flee, making their way to cities in an attempt to find employment. Owing to a variety of bureaucratic roadblocks that prevent them from working in the formal sector, most often people end up begging on the streets. Fearmongering and the criminalization of homeless people perpetuates this cycle of violence, where for nearly a decade now Cambodia has been arbitrarily detaining street-engaged peoples in what municipal authorities euphemistically refer to as “re-education” or “opportunity” centers. The rhetoric doesn’t match the reality, and having seen firsthand the conditions that people are exposed to, what we are really dealing with are contemporary concentration camps. So the preferred solution for dispossession is effectively internment.
If the level of violence at a structural level wasn’t already enough to make your head spin, at the level of the body the cruelty is that much more acute. People are regularly beaten by guards, fed starvation diets, kept under lock and key in small rooms for twenty-three hours a day, forced to labor, made to sleep and live in their own excrement, and the women are not only raped, but gang raped by their captors. The impact on urban people, besides needing to expand their circle of empathy to care for the rural people caught up in this apocalyptic nightmare, is that it has resulted in a much stricter authoritarian order in the city, where people problematically come to accept heightened levels of surveillance and policing. In such a context it is hard to imagine how solidarities can be built, as the situation provides significant barriers to greater community engagement. This scenario is not unique to Cambodia of course, as the surveillance state has crept into the lives of people all around the world. What I would envision for the future is an end to this dynamic of separation and a more holistic integration of people within the biophysical landscapes of the places that they live their lives. In this respect we have a great deal to learn from the indigenous peoples of the world. Sadly, rather than learning alongside these groups, the history of capitalism is characterized by their genocidal extermination.
ARR: What fascinates me here is the parallax nature of identitarianism and indigeneity in this case. The UN classifies indigenous peoples as maintaining a continuity between today and the time before the current prevailing societies gained power in their territories. However, such a definition is twisted, by European ultranationalists for instance, to produce a kind of post-modern identity returning to pre-Roman times as a palingenetic rebirth of internal consciousness of land and territory. This movement attempts to gain a kind of credibility that would be useful in a struggle against liberal multiculturalism, as well as NATO and the EU, because for ultranationalists, those structures remain embedded in the historical consequence of the defeat of fascism in 1945. The demand remains paradoxical, as the movement against a multicultural empire simply turns toward a kind of global apartheid (“France for the French, Algeria for the Algerians!”) that even some leftists have embraced in their desperation. Yet, in terms of genuine indigenous struggles that do not insist upon a kind of “spiritual empire” of Europe alongside ultranationalist regimes elsewhere in the world catalogued according to dominant ethnicity, a deeper affinity exists with the left and particularly anarchism. You catalogue anarchist theorists who have drawn on indigenous ideas while presenting a kind of parallel solidarity, rather than an attempt to integrate indigeneity and anarchism. It would appear that this is a deft attempt to keep a broadly-speaking European political tradition at something of a distance from global movements that would speak autonomously in their own name, while avoiding the retrenchment of anarchism as specifically embedded in European interests. How are the efforts of, for instance, the Elsipogtog and Standing Rock Sioux significant in geographical terms? How do you see anarchism in relation to their efforts, and what are the theoretical insights and lessons you might take away from their resistance?
SS: I don’t want to position anarchism as a colonizer of any particular groups or their ideas. Anarchism is a lens that makes sense to me, but I don’t assume the arrogance of suggesting that it works for everyone. I can see the expression of what I would call “anarchism” in the patterns of association and mutual aid among many groups, whether indigenous or otherwise. Yet for me to impose this particular viewpoint onto ways of knowing and being in the world that have vastly different historical trajectories than my own understandings of the world would be really problematic.
In the spirit of anarchism, I think it is important for any group of people to define their own politics, and not simply be told what it is by an outside agent. While I may see expressions of anarchism in what many indigenous peoples do, or even in the actions of the Cambodian people I do research with, there may also be significant breaks with anarchist modes and it isn’t really my place to tell anyone what is anarchist or isn’t.
It would be a contradiction where I would be replicating a certain form of authority and encouraging a hierarchy of knowledge. I get my fair share of hate mail. I suppose it comes with the territory of exposing my ideas to the world, but in some of this correspondence I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong about anarchism, and then proceed to tell me what “real” anarchism is all about. To me this mode of argumentation doesn’t sit well with how I understand anarchism. We have enough policing in our world already that we don’t need to be policing each other about the ostensible “correct” and “true” form of anarchism. To me the ethos of anarchism should be one of experimentation and affinity, and that’s precisely what indigenous groups are actively engaging, and have been for centuries. But they are doing so on their own terms, using their own language to define it, which is the crucial piece. So my view on this seemingly congruent movement is that there are important synergies between anarchists and indigenous activists, but they can’t be assumed or imposed. Any sense of alliance has to develop out of mutual respect and understanding, and often the best position for an anarchist is to simply be an ally and listen carefully. The theoretical lessons to be learned from indigenous peoples are very practical. In North America there has been 500 years of oppression, met with 500 years of solidarity and resistance to settler colonialism. Indigenous peoples have not given up, and they refuse to bend and bow to the impositions of the modern state. The threats that they are presented with are manifold. Capitalism has in the past and continues into the present to actively steal their land, abuse the young, and rape and murder the women. This is not hyperbole, but a tangible reality of the lived experiences of indigenous peoples in the province I call home. Mainstream society responds with ambivalence because the racism runs so deep in Canadian society, and yet indigenous peoples persevere in spite of the indifference and scorn they are presented with. I come at this from the perspective of having grown up in British Columbia, where white people look at racism as something that only happens south of the border. Meanwhile there are deeply rooted prejudices that show no sign of letting up right here at home. So something seemingly as simple as pushing for an indigenous hire in my department at the University of Victoria is met with suspicion, doubt, and even contempt. Those of us working on the principle of wanting to redress the historical marginalization of indigenous voices on campus and within our curriculum have been accused of being racist for even proposing such an idea. There is no understanding that what is actually racist is the suggestion that working towards corrective equity is racist. It is an inverted argument that is intensively afraid of diversity, and expresses that anxiety through a kneejerk reaction that fails to understand that racism is much more than simple categorization. It is a form of systemic violence that is cultivated through the maintenance of privilege and disadvantage. There is no willingness to admit that the playing field is not and has never been even, and that there are significant societal barriers that indigenous people have to contend with that white people never have to consider. At base, it represents the classic scenario of blaming someone for their own poverty, while ignoring the fact that you’ve fixed the game to ensure their impoverishment.
ARR: On a global scale, European ultranationalism often pretends to identify with the struggles of decolonization and national liberation, insisting on the liberation of Europe from the structures of capital, and its replacement with a national variety of socialism that clearly excludes outliers based on ethnicity or “culture.” It is here that we find Alexander Dugin’s greatest inclinations toward “geopolitics,” which he gleaned from such National Bolsheviks as Jean-François Thiriart and Nouvelle Droit ideologues like Robert Steuckers. Dugin views geopolitics in terms of broad metaregions like Eurasia, producing a spiritual empire from Lisbon to the Pacific, and from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean, in which regional sovereignty is actuated by national communities defined by cultural traditions, even while being linked in a greater chain of what he views as a kind of new Internationale. Unfortunately, even if often unknowingly, much of the largely-Marxist left wing of the broad-based anti-imperialist movement posits a kind of Duginist position wherein Russia becomes, if not an ally, then a kind of lesser evil or useful “enemy of an enemy” in the struggle against multiculturalism and liberal capitalism. A lot of these politics are reflected in notions that Bashar Al-Assad is holding down some semblance of stability in the midst of encroaching chaos, so his regime ought to find support among leftists who loathe Washington’s interventions in Iraq. They also tend to identify North Korea as a similar ally in anti-imperialist struggle, due to the DPRK’s skillful propaganda machine’s ability to deploy left-wing critiques of capital and US imperialism while downplaying its own nationalist self-image as the “cleanest race.” In geographic terms, how do you see this geopolitical positioning of allies and enemies? An unsophisticated game of Risk? A kind of armchair geopolitics? A threat to the left or to the right?
SS: The geopolitical map of allies and enemies is one of futility and hubris. It doesn’t surprise me that many Marxists would paint the world with such monochromatic strokes. There is so much about Marxist politics that rubs me the wrong way, and some of this comes out in my book.
The bottom line is that we are talking about states and sovereign control. On the basis of this alone there is nothing worthwhile to support from an anarchist perspective.
The discourse of “lesser enemy” is a ruse, and we should be suspicious of this black and white rendering of the world. It plays itself out in electoral politics, where hawks like Hillary Clinton are supported in a facile attempt to stave off other monsters like Donald Trump. It represents an apathetic acceptance of false choice, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see its manifestation in other arenas like geopolitics. Is this a threat to the Left? Yes, without question! I think Marxists in general are a threat to the Left, because they are so self-assured in having the right answers about the world. This might get me in trouble, but I’m far past the point of caring about assuaging the egos of Marxists. For anarchists I think there is a much more humble and unassuming understanding of what anarchism can offer. This is not to say anarchists are naïve or incapable of solutions, but rather that we are much more willing to see things work themselves out in the process of unfolding through our collective efforts, subject to ongoing revision and revitalization, rather than following a set course towards some imagined end goal. David Harvey has lamented that I am somehow trampling on the possibility of Left unity, asking me to listen to his plea, but what he is really mourning is that the Marxist position has been toppled on the streets and its citadel in the academy is now actively being stormed.
The rise of anarchism in academia in recent years is merely a reflection of the politics of the world, a world that is in desperate need of new ideas beyond the narrow possibilities of the state.
This is after all an institution that repeatedly proves itself to operate not out of concern for the collective of humanity, but in the interests of an elite. Marxists continue to beguile themselves with the idea that one set of elites (i.e., their vanguards) will do better than the current set of elites, and then after their astute wisdom leads us to the so-called Promised Land in the aftermath of revolution, they will suddenly give up the reigns and full communism will blossom. We’ve heard this story before, and we’ve put it into practice. It is a cypher for our disempowerment, and a dangerous crutch that continues to shackle the Left to statist politics, a politics with no hope of ever being emancipatory because its very premise is hierarchy and control.
ARR: To clarify my own politics in light of this larger discussion between you and Harvey, I can find sympathy for both positions. I am greatly indebted to Marxist mentors in the past, such as Vijay Prashad and Kazembe Balagun. I am also drawn, as an anarchist, to the autonomist analysis of both social movements and capital, hinging on Rosa Luxemburg’s text, Accumulation of Capital. However, I want to push back against the position, advanced by people I deeply admire like Andrew Cornell, that anarchism lacks the tools to attain its desires. I see anarchism as a strong but humble practice, rather than a kind of pure analysis in the sense that scientific socialism and other milieu are presented. Unfortunately, I have found Marxist-anarchist syntheses to be painfully lacking and often self-destructive in their aporia—in particular, a general belligerence and reductive self-criticism that produces winners and losers on the Left. The winner is the last man standing through the hail of accusations and reflexive insults, while the loser is the one who bows out and accepts a kind of quiet normalcy in defiance of collective methods of punishment and discipline. Nobody is happy at the end, but the party has not been built and the newspapers aren’t selling—which I suppose is a good thing in the end. You seem to adopt an antiauthoritarian analysis that is inclusive and community-oriented; something I would perhaps identify as a bit of an oxymoron: a populist-insurrectionism. Would you say that this is accurate?
SS: I guess. If that label works for you, then I’m fine with it. As I said before with respect to indigenous peoples, I’m not too hung up on what you actually call things. I prefer the word “anarchism” because I think it encapsulates the kind of politics I want to advocate for, namely mutual aid, self-management, voluntary association, horizontality, direct aid, cooperation, and decentralization. That is, I want a politics for us, by us. I use the term “democracy” only in its radical, direct, or etymological sense of demos and kratia, or people power, not in the misappropriated and diluted version that really should be called “electoralism” instead. With respect to insurrection, I like this term because I think it speaks to a continuity of resistance, where unlike revolution, the temporal frame is one of perpetuity.
Life is struggle. We know this from an early age. What we come to learn as we get older is that the moment we give up that struggle is the precise moment we die under the heel of our oppressor. This is why Marxism is fundamentally a necropolitics, because it assumes an end state, a utopia in the aftermath of revolution instead of recognizing that politics continue unabated.
And so people died under Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot en masse because they were rendered vulnerable by the Marxist fallacy that promised the delivery of a better life instead of recognizing that our only possibility of changing the world is to continue to actively engage with it. Transformation requires an eternal vigilance and is possible only insofar as we are willing to do the hard work ourselves instead of entrusting the responsibility for our lives to others. So I suppose this is where the populist part that you mention would come into play. The point is that for me the term “anarchism” is just a placeholder for a set of ideas that are subject to experimentation and interpretation based on how different groups are willing to employ them. We need language to communicate ideas, but it also constrains our political imaginations in particular and problematic ways. Elsewhere I have been asked if those who label their thought “feminist intersectional analysis” should be made to call it “anarchism” because of the synergies I envision. My answer was absolutely not, even if there is something intrinsically anarchistic about what they do. You can call this “anarchism,” “critical anti-hegemonic iconoclasm,” “paradigm destabilizing recalcitrant analysis,” “nonconformist insurgent praxis,” “don’t tell me what to do theory,” or, as you’ve suggested, “populist democratic insurrectionism.” It doesn’t really matter to me, as the overarching point is that we are talking about a mindset of breaking archetypes, tearing up blueprints, and scribbling over leitmotifs. I like to simplify this and just call it “anarchism,” while recognizing an inevitable mutability to the idea.
ARR: Considering anarchism, I think you are setting up a geographic position that enables strategic discussions to take place outside of “geopolitics” (i.e., rather than plotting which nation-states are best pitted against one another for the final outcome, whatever it may be, you are presenting a kind of political geography of radical movements). At the same time, I think you make it clear that there is not much that distinguishes your political thought from the groundwork created by, for instance, Emma Goldman. It is quite clear, from that, how your differences with David Harvey emerge. In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, Harvey is the scholar you critique perhaps the most, next to Marx. In particular, you struggle against his assertion of hierarchy and his belief in a revolution of tomorrow instead of an insurrection of today. How does this critique inflect your ideas of “flat ontology,” horizontalism, and mutual aid over space and time, especially in relation to rural/urban dynamics?
SS: Harvey is so close to the letter and spirit of Marx, where other Marxist geographers have recognized his project as simply the continuation of the past into the present. As a geographer myself, Harvey represents somewhat of an easy target. Not because his ideas are worthless, but simply because he is the most famous living geographer. I’m happy to acknowledge that he’s done a great deal of good for our discipline. When for example I see geographers uncritically flirting with military funding I have to think that it is because they have stayed the course of the quantitative revolution in geography, and never heeded the warnings that Harvey drew our collective attention towards four decades ago. Harvey opened geography up to new possibilities, possibilities that were hinted at in other ways by earlier anarchist geographers like Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, but had long since been forgotten. So there is no doubt that Harvey is worthy of our collective thanks. Without his work it is highly likely that I would not be a geographer. The only reason I am an academic geographer today is because I recognized the possibilities for critique within the discipline, and the attention that feminist geographers in particular paid to social justice was something that captured my imagination and made me want to engage.
All this being said, I don’t think we should lionize Harvey. As an anarchist I don’t think anyone should be put up on a pedestal and then be sheltered from critique. I once had a reviewer tell me that they felt like I “would be better off with a picket sign standing out front of CUNY yelling at David Harvey. What I mean by this is there is an 800-pound straw person as effigy that is depicted as David Harvey, when in fact many Marxist geographers find intellectual/theoretical value in some of the concepts that are lambasted.”
Aside from being a comical defence of Harvey, we can unpack this a bit. Why would I want to yell at Harvey or present him with a picket sign? As an anarchist I’m committed to direct action, not to appeals to authority figures. I don’t want to yell at Harvey, but I would like the opportunity to debate with him. Despite several opportunities and invitations being sent for that very purpose, so far Harvey has refused to participate. I actually went to New York in February 2016 at the invitation of the Marxist Education Project, who wanted to host a dialogue between Harvey and myself. He declined, but I participated anyway and had a great conversation with Michael Lardner and some of the other Marxists who gathered about forced evictions in Cambodia. I thought I might be entering the lion’s den, but I was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality I was shown and the conviviality that ensued. Two nights later I gave a talk at CUNY, hoping again that Harvey might show up. He did, but unfortunately he didn’t have time for me afterwards. I had hoped to shake his hand, but the only words we exchanged were the question he asked about my talk and the response I gave. He seemed unimpressed, which is fine, I didn’t expect him to be. My colleague later invited him here to Victoria as part of our community colloquium “The City Talks,” where we ran a speaker series on the theme of “Anarchism in the City” in early 2017. The idea was to bring Harvey in to debate the merits and limits of anarchism and Marxism in the contemporary city. Unfortunately, he once again declined. He was then invited to participate in an author-meets-critic session for my book at the American Association of Geographer’s meeting in Boston in April 2017, and once again he turned down the invitation. But if not now, then when? This debate is, at least in my view, critically important.
I’d be happy to share a meal with Harvey and make him feel welcome here in Victoria. To me that’s where unity matters. How we actually treat each other on an interpersonal basis. Regardless of what Harvey has to say about Left unity more generally, the fact that there are competing ideas on the Left is in my view indicative of a healthy politics. I fear the post-political moment where dissent is silenced and a universal consensus is evoked. It scares me that Marxists don’t understand this, but such is the problem with Marxism. So returning to the reviewer’s statement I had mentioned, what is particularly funny about this comment is that Harvey actually responded to me with a long lambasting of his own in an essay called “Listen, anarchist!” He did so despite the fact that I would hope many anarchist geographers find intellectual/theoretical value in the concepts I am using. The question then becomes, so what? It is perfectly acceptable for Harvey to critique me, and vice versa. I refuse to play the game of yielding to the elder statesmen.
Aside from the apparent hierarchy, what you can sense in this reviewer’s comment is the appeal to paternalism and orthodoxy, which is what Harvey’s work has come to represent. It has taken on such an assured and assumed role in critical geographical scholarship that it is akin to mother’s milk. It is the ex cathedra word of our anointed leader. I don’t blame Harvey or accuse him of having cultivated this himself, as instead it is a case of the cult of personality that rests at the heart of Marxism. The name of the ideology should tell you as much, having been named for a single man rather than a group of ideas that were fleshed out by countless individuals. In any event, my critique of Harvey’s explicit advocation of authority in Rebel Cities is seen as transgressive, which of course it should be. I am antithetical to the spirit of authority that haunts the Marxist project. The frightening question is why should Marxists find transgression to be such a dangerous idea? Why are they so self-assured that they consider their ideas as being beyond reproach? It is a curious conceit, given the fact that Marxism cannot withstand the anarchist critique. It would seem that this is why Harvey would rather speak of Left unity than actually sit down and debate me in person. He gets to carry forward with his distortions and subsume the anarchist position under the banner of an ostensibly unified Left that looks exactly how he wants it to look. It reveals an imperializing impulse to Marxism that is in fact nothing new.
The attempt to subsume anarchism into a Marxist trajectory is something that Marxists have been doing since the First International. So if anarchists are skeptical of calls for Left unity, there is good reason for it.
Why do Marxists prima facie consider their concepts and theories as being more important than anarchist ones? Sadly, this is the geography we have inherited on the back of Harvey’s legacy, and its authoritarianism should be clear. For the discipline to flourish and continue to bloom, it needs to concern itself with undisciplining. There shouldn’t be fences and walls erected around what is considered possible in geography, what concerns are explored, and who is critiqued. With respect to flat ontology, my insistence is quite simply on horizontalism as a politics of possibility. When we start engaging in modes of being in the world beyond hierarchical organization, what might we accomplish? Harvey falls back on superficial examples like a nuclear power plant and flying an airplane with too many pilots in the cockpit, but he is purposefully conflating the authority of specialization with the authority of command and control. As Mikhail Bakunin argued, in the matter of boots, he refers to the authority of the bootmaker, but this is not a licensing or justification of the state as Harvey wants to argue. Consulting with or even deferring to specialization in certain instances is not the same thing as uncritically allowing an authority to impose itself upon you. It is a voluntary association, where we freely listen to them in respect of their knowledge, always reserving the right to reprimand and rebuke. Such authority is not infallible, and absolute faith in a single individual or institution represents both the end of autonomy and the death of politics. Even in the case of a nuclear reactor, there is no reason to assume that a horizontally organized worker collective couldn’t acquire the skills required to operate such a facility. This seems far less frightening than allowing people like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-un the inalienable right to have their finger on the trigger of global annihilation. The dynamics of such a flat ontology should be no different in the rural sphere than they are in the urban. Again, this is a false dichotomy, at least in part enabled by hierarchical thinking that privileges the experience of one group over the ways of being of another. The resistance to horizontalism is precisely why I think Marxism is such a stunted and in fact threatening political prospect. It suggests it will emancipate us, all while actively working to ensure that particular systems of oppression remain intact. To be blunt, Marxism is a charlatan politics selling snake oil.
ARR: Perhaps Harvey’s most famous term is the “spatio-temporal fix,” which I found useful to describe the switch from domestic real estate to foreign land grabs in 2008—a phenomenon that I also located within Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation” drawing on Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of “the accumulation of capital” and Walter Rodney’s “underdevelopment” thesis. Personally, I see this network of Marxian critique “from below” as useful to encounter differing traditions of left-wing thought emerging from the Third World movement and the post-colonial Global South that emerged in times and places in which Marxism was viewed as the ideology of universal liberation. While I don’t share this ultimate concept of Marxism as the end-all, be-all of the universe, I do believe it becomes necessary to engage in the formative level of analysis that Marxism provides in order to alloy left-libertarian and anarchist ideas with those that have been fostered within the Global South for decades independently of the anarchist movement from 1938 to 1989, which in reality cannot be seen as particularly influential on a global level (with some major exceptions). The “global land grab” is the focus of some of your work regarding Cambodia, if I’m not mistaken. (From what I know, the term was coined by activists linked to La Via Campesina taking place in the Global South as investors fled the US real estate market in 2008.) First, would you agree with this approach to Marxism in relation to modern paradigms of political geography, and second, has that paradigm reached a kind of a tipping point with the anti-imperialist support of regimes such as Assad’s Syria?
SS: Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation isn’t actually Marx’s. Again, in the identity politics of Marxism, a single individual is given undue credit for an idea that was being cultivated by a broad array of thinkers at the time. Yes, Marx wrote on this subject quite eloquently, but he was not alone. Marx was actually basing his ideas on Adam Smith’s notion of previous accumulation, and Pierre Joseph-Proudhon’s work on property was a huge inspiration on the young Karl Marx. Recognition for the processes of dispossession were evolving around the turn of the 20th century, where for example in The Slavery of our Times, Leo Tolstoy wrote “History shows that property in land did not arise from any wish to make the cultivator’s tenure more secure, but resulted from the seizure of communal lands by conquerors and its distribution to those who served the conqueror.” So no, I wouldn’t entirely agree with the summary you’ve provided because it risks assigning priority once again to Marx. Part of what I am trying to show in my own work is that socialist ideas were born first and foremost of the people, where their theorization was not the preserve of a single person, but reflective of an ongoing conversation among a community of scholars. Someone always puts a smart and concise label on describing particular processes, but that doesn’t mean the idea came to them like a bolt from the blue. Think today of all the attention around Rob Nixon’s idea of “slow violence.” Like “primitive accumulation,” this is a great label to describe a very complex phenomenon, but Nixon didn’t singularly come up with this idea of violence being diffused across time. A number of other scholars have been writing about the same sort of process for many years, both prior to and coinciding with Nixon’s analysis. Kudos to Nixon for putting such a great and readily digestible label on it, but we should acknowledge that his doing so was only made possible by the conversations that were evolving among a community of scholars working on violence. He offered an excellent synthesis, but I want to reject the “great man” theory in all its guises. It isn’t just Marx that is presented in this way, so I don’t want to be accused of unduly picking on him. The same cult of personality surrounds poststructuralist figures like Michel Foucault, when in reality there is of course a genealogy to his work as well, some of which actually seems to draw quite explicitly from anarchism, but without proper acknowledgement. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think the idea of primitive accumulation, or Harvey’s revamped “accumulation by dispossession” aren’t useful, but that we should be aware of the other intellectual trajectories that both continue to inform and even contradict this idea. Writing about the Latin American experience and the intellectual traditions that have evolved in this context, Eduardo Gudynas for example has called the “great man” thinking or what he terms “Harvey fashion” into question, suggesting that it represents a form of intellectual colonialism. In that regard, Harvey is in good company, because this is precisely how I read the history of Marxism. Many of the ideas advanced by Marx are appropriations of Proudhon and other socialist thinkers of the time. Marx was a prolific and fantastic writer, but much like Foucault, he wasn’t very good at giving credit where credit was due. To call attention to the elephant in the room isn’t the construction of an “800-pound straw person,” it is simply to tell it like it is, something that evidently makes Marxists very uncomfortable because so much of their identity is wrapped up in the very idea of Marx. I presented my paper “Fuck Neoliberalism” at the Association of American Geographers conference in San Francisco, where I sketch an anarchist politics of refusal, but never actually mention anarchism anywhere in the talk. You can find the video online where you’ll see one audience member react very negatively at the end of the talk during the question period, suggesting that ideas like mutual aid and the free association of the commons all spring from Marx. He was incensed that I was turning my back on Marx, because in his view, this was the only inheritance that contemporary radical geography should concern itself with. Therein we see the orthodoxy, which I think is extremely dangerous. Etymologically, the notion of orthodoxy signifies the “right opinion” and consequently any given orthodoxy represents a truth claim that imposes itself on the world. What about all the pieces that don’t fit with a Marxist reading? Why are the spaces of experimentation with methodology, epistemology, and ontology being closed off? Harvey’s latest book is titled The Ways of the World, which I think is pretty apt in how assuming this succinct statement is. It seems transhistorical and omniscient to me, as though apparently he’s got it all figured out. The situation in Syria and particularly in Rojava is interesting insofar as I think it reveals the tensions between anarchism and Marxism. Harvey has said he wants to go to Rojava to see what’s going on, but at the same time he’s clearly already made up his mind. He views the PKK as the result of Marxist and Leninist thinking. But the situation isn’t that simple, as there is tension where some would prefer to take an anarchist path in spite of the push towards hierarchical organization. Couldn’t this alternative path be supported? For Marxists, they refuse to acknowledge that such a politics could emerge from places like Rojava. Zaher Baher has called this thinking “borderline religious,” stating that Marxists “believe that if anything is not written in the old books it will not happen,” and so the distortion of historical struggles to fit a Marxist narrative continues in Rojava.
ARR: So, it seems like you are saying that the paradigm of radical geography has not completely shifted with whatever left-wing support of Assad’s regime exists, but at the same time there is an ongoing struggle between anarchism and authoritarian Marxism (using the term authoritarian as a modifier, not as a necessary qualifier) over the conceptualization and actuation of political geography. With this struggle in mind, I want to return to a question of national liberation again, and the nostalgia for 1970s-type revolutionary groups, as well as major geographic transformations occurring over time. Like Sam Dolgoff and other anarchists, you target national liberation states as being reformations of capital and colonialism. Do you see them all as equally bad, some of them as better than others, or would you reduce the transformation to a reformation of the “world system” that remains fundamentally unchanged, despite improvements in infrastructure, quality of life, and human rights status in some countries in the South?
SS: I think the idea of improvements in infrastructure, quality of life and human rights in the global south is highly contestable. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been changes that people have struggled to secure, but rather, I think we need to ask who have such developments actually targeted and whose lives have been improved? I’m most familiar with the situation in Cambodia, where infrastructure projects have deepened the penetration of capitalism into the country, human rights remain fragile in the face of an authoritarian regime that shows no signs of loosening its grip, and quality of life is utterly abominable for many and perhaps even most. Meanwhile, a very small group of elites lives in the lap of luxury. An urban middle class has emerged, but it isn’t a significant percentage of the population and we should ask if such stratification is a good thing for any given society. I think most anarchists would answer that question the same way: a resounding “no.” Have other countries done better? I suppose if you were to set up some sort of measure that could take the pulse of national opinion then you might come to that conclusion. But it really doesn’t matter in terms of the fundamental structure that is imposed. All states, including those who have freed themselves from the yoke of European colonialism, remain fundamentally colonial in their constitution. So in Cambodia, the capital city of Phnom Penh has merely replaced Paris as the occupying force. Identities are assimilated into a single vision of “Khmerness” that is produced, scripted, and oriented towards the will of the government in power. Today we are told that Cambodia is something like 90% ethnic Khmer, but what does that even mean? This is just a social construct that has, to at least some extent, been used to replace the earlier label of “race” by linking it to some idea of cultural content as well. But it doesn’t hold up to critical scrutiny. For example, my daughter was adopted from Cambodia, but she has spent most of her life in Canada, and before that New Zealand and Singapore. Is she ethnically “Khmer” or is she quite simply “human?” Going to the doctor’s office in New Zealand means you have to fill in a survey on ethnicity, and on one visit I entered in her details as “human.” This was unacceptable to the doctor because I was told that certain people are susceptible to different ailments. Suddenly this didn’t sound so much like a question of culture. What he was really asking was a question about her “race,” problematically rooted in a biological understanding. So nationalist narratives use ethnicity in such a way that is inherited from colonialism’s racialization of the world’s peoples, but then places culture alongside it. The nationalist narrative then reaches far into the depths of the past to accumulate its ostensible legitimacy, despite being a very recent phenomenon that, as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities, only arose in the aftermath of colonialism. In Cambodia this historical reach means citing the Angkorian Empire as the locus of Khmer identity, but that imagined line that separates Cambodia from Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam is a reflection of the colonial encounter, not an Angkorian inheritance. National borders and nations themselves can accordingly be thought of as perpetuations of a colonial logic, as this was the origin of their birth. Imagine a village that sits right along the Cambodia-Thailand national boundary, and perhaps even two neighbours that become separated by this line. Despite the villagers on either side of this line having shared familial lineages for many generations, the now separated neighbours are informed via nationalism that they are not the same ethnicity. Moreover, they are told that they are more distant from one another than they are from other people who live thousands of miles away from them but are said, by the state, to be their national brethren. It’s really quite an absurd proposition, but this is the way the institution of the state encourages us to think about the world. The state has appropriated local identities under a national banner, where the population is then compelled to think, act, and even speak in a national way. This is one of the primary functions of schooling: To convince people that they are indeed part of a nation and to teach them to speak the same language, which becomes standardized through things as seemingly mundane as correct spelling. The state then is actually far more insidious than explicit forms of colonialism because it operates at the level of ideology, where people’s sense of themselves and their very subjectivity is transformed. This scenario is as true of Cambodia as it is of Canada, Colombia, Cameroon, and Cuba. The state is cut from the exact same cloth as colonialism, where the only real differences are the scale upon which they operate and the tactics that are employed to ensure the capitulation of those they oppress.
ARR: One of the troubling things about the post-colonial map (if we can use that term) is that it retains many of those colonially imposed borders. Perforce, we might see ISIS as a kind of reaction and challenge to the totality of such geopolitical relations, insofar as they declare a spiritually mandated zone already in existence in Southwest Asia, as defined by their traditional, imperial constructs rather than the modern nation-state. Of course, the opposite side of the same challenge to geopolitical totalization is the Zapatistas, which you discuss in The Anarchist Roots of Geography. In light of these maneuvers to overturn the map of nation-states, we are left with the 19th century model of revolution as contemporary but perhaps wanting. Marx famously believed that the most industrial state would lead the revolution, while Lenin importantly insisted that the “weakest link” would be the fastest to snap. In either situation, the Trotskyist notion takes hold that countries that have undergone a revolution ought then to spread the revolution elsewhere, since true communism will not exist anywhere until it exists internationally. Yet when we see the political geographies of conflicting territorialities amid global relations, the notion of revolutionary transformation in time and space regarding borders and the content of what is retained within those borders becomes quite transversal. Does your flat ontology include a broader political strategy in terms of advantage and opportunity with regards to the overcoming of capitalism, or is it too spontaneous for such predictions?
SS: I think you’ve now answered part of my critique of the Marxist reading of Rojava. There is a deep Eurocentrisim in Marxist thinking that goes largely unacknowledged. I don’t think Marxists have ever resolved this or confronted it in a sustained manner. It structures the world in a way not too dissimilar to colonialism, where there is a distinct “core” and “periphery,” and it assumes the same problematic position of a benevolent caretaker. The white man’s burden is threaded through Marxism, and capitalism for its part is strangely seen through a lens that is actually somewhat celebratory. Marx tempers this by saying it is a stage to pass through on the way to communism, but that character of espousing capitalism remains. Bill Warren picked up on this tenor of Marx’s work in his book Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, arguing that “imperialism was the means through which the techniques, culture, and institutions that had evolved in Western Europe over several centuries—the culture of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution—sowed their revolutionary seeds in the rest of the world.” Imperialism as an outgrowth of capitalism is construed as a “necessary evil” on the path towards some greater good. On this point some Marxists crucified Warren, but he was really just revisiting Marxism proper. Marx condemned the violence of primitive accumulation while also retaining a view of such violent expropriation as important for the furthering of human possibilities. It’s really quite appalling when you think about it. This politics of suffering is predicated on placing non-industrialized people on the altar, while their European “saviors” have meanwhile convinced themselves that they are saving the world by spreading their filth. Clearly to clean up a mess, first you have to make one. So, is there a global strategy to anarchism? Absolutely not. I don’t want to paint a picture of what a global revolution might look like because to do so would be to illustrate a plenary image that is little more than a reflection of my own positionality. I can’t speak for the masses in a way that Marx or Harvey assume they can. Point blank, there is no universal subject position of the worker. People want different things in different places and it is up for them to decide collectively in each location what it is they want and what it is they are willing to fight for. I see much potential in Proudhon and Kropotkin’s ideas of federalism as a means of linking autonomous communities together. Murray Bookchin of course elaborated this idea and Colin Ward articulated it very well when he spoke of the global postal service, oriented not around a hegemon or point of authority, but around voluntary networks of association. Why couldn’t our political associations function in the same way? In terms of overcoming capitalism in particular, I don’t want to pretend that I have the correct answer. I do however have complete faith in human possibility. We made capitalism, and so we can unmake it. What is required is the concerted and ongoing willingness to struggle among those who want to see themselves removed from under it, and a desire to offer our solidarity in whatever terms we are asked to contribute. This has to grow organically, and most importantly it has to be guided by the communities themselves, not the hubris of “great men” with “great ideas.”
ARR: Can these communities, themselves, really stand a chance against coordinated fascism, though? In geographic terms, returning to Duginism, we are confronted with a fascist movement far more integrated and extensive than we have seen since 1945. A spread of fascists and parafascists exists where the radical right has become particularly strong. For this reason, I do not draw absolute distinctions between the three, but see them rather as semi-permeable and interpenetrating. From the rise of Dugin in Moscow, there are the connections between third positionism and the AfD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; there is the Front National’s historic support for Nazi skinheads in the past and current incorporation of fascists like Christian Bouchet; there is, of course, National Action and the Northern League in Italy, both of which integrate the CasaPound fascist squatter network; let’s not forget the rise of UKIP and its tacit, though downplayed and often denied, connections with the English Defense League (and the latter’s similar denial of Nazi involvement). Similar, relationships exist from Poland to Ukraine, of course, where the EU-supported government that overthrew the Yanukovich regime has links to the Nazis of Azov, who have recently been accused of leading an ethnic pogrom. It appears that fascists today once again serve as the useful idiots of authoritarian conservative regimes, which develop fascist trappings in order to maintain street-level credibility while also remaining equipped to handle everyday business dealings of the bourgeoisie. One can see similar relationships in Venezuela’s opposition, and in somewhat different contexts in Turkey and India, for instance. What has produced this troubling rise throughout the world, and how is it to be confronted on the geographic level?
SS: I think it is an outgrowth of neoliberalism. People are disconnected, bewildered, and isolated in the current moment of ever intensifying individualism. We’ve lost touch with our families, our communities, and the earth itself. And so there is a longing to belong to something. Amid all the feelings of hopelessness and desperation, people lash out. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. It’s easy to be consumed with fear and anger when your life is severed from meaningful interaction with others and a strong sense of inclusion has never been part of your lived experience. For younger people they are that much more fragile because they don’t remember a time of freely exploring the outdoors, or wandering in their neighborhoods with friends without adult supervision. Everything is compartmentalized and planned in our contemporary lives. Kids don’t walk out the front door to play with whoever might happen to be around that afternoon, they have play dates set up for them, and so the chance to encounter alterity with childlike curiosity is severely limited. This has resulted in considerable societal anxiety. The fear of the “Other” is intensifying for this exact reason, but it’s also being cultivated through the discourses that are being circulated in society about migrants, indigenous peoples, Muslims, and so on. The bottom line is that the rise of extremist groups on the Right represents a reflection of this fear and an innate desire to belong to something. Fascist groups asserting themselves is obviously contextually specific and the level of susceptibility to this outgrowth of isolation and individualization is going to differ across space, but what’s frightening is that these expressions of hate are so common. They are the canary in the coalmine that something is seriously wrong with our current path and should tell us that we need to start considering ways to bring about greater inclusion and a stronger sense of community. We are of course competing with all sorts of gadgets and screens, where social media placates our feelings of being alone, but these are only ever poor substitutes for genuine togetherness and the touch and warmth of another human being. So in this age of the spectacular, where the mundane and the monumental are increasingly indecipherable, we need to encourage our children and ourselves to disconnect from the machine and reconnect with the planet and each other. This may sound somewhat spiritual, but only because in a certain way it is meant to be. It is not religious, which enters new forms of hierarchy and anxieties about “Others,” but as an atheist, I take spirituality to mean a broad consideration of bonding without bondage. For me, spirituality is also a willingness to express humility for our place in the fabric of space and time. My view of anarchism is consequently integral, whereby I think everything is connected to everything else, not in a universalizing sense, but as a processual unfolding in the way that Doreen Massey encourages us to think about space. To eradicate fascism then, we need to simultaneously work towards ridding ourselves of all the other logics of domination that frame our lives. From sexism to homophobia, racism to misopedia, and carnism to the state, all of these ideas fragment our ability to connect with others and thereby undermine the potential of mutual aid, which is nothing more and nothing less than our collective birthright.
ARR: Okay, well I wish we had time to enter into more depth with regards to the strange varieties of fascism emerging as rebellions against the very authoritarian conservatism that has attempted to harness their energy and power. I’m thinking in particular of fascism associated with the alt-right, incorporating misogynistic and homophobic forms of queer culture, as well as vegetarianism and what I call “fascism of the boutiques.” It is here, amid the struggling lower-middle classes that we find the problems of gentrification generating racial animus while feeding the structural realities of racial segregation and alienation. One sees on a far more exaggerated level these processes at play in the Bay Area, where hipsters ironically mock the cultures they displace while they produce an often openly misogynistic and racist “counterculture” against hegemonic interest in equality and freedom. That Silicon Valley millionaires are also buying up regional farms in the midst of drought, while some even support the “neo-reactionary” credo of the Dark Enlightenment and its call for a mix of genetic engineering, eugenics, and the corporatization of the state, gives a hint of some of the emergent political positions we will be contending with over the next twenty years, and how it pertains the spacio-temporal changes. We have also neglected the ranchers and Patriots, who perhaps we can discuss at a later date. Regardless, thank you very much for laying out the foundations of flat ontology, and the “anarchist roots of geography.” This work will stand as a pivot-point for theorizing strategy and tactics of the anarchist movement.
SS: You’re absolutely correct that the rise of fascism presents one of the most terrifying threats of the contemporary political moment. Trump’s rise to power in the US is certainly an indication of the horror that is to come, where misogynists, racists, and homophobes have become emboldened in a way that we’ve not seen in such an overt way in decades. Thinking even more widely, we also have to contend with the fascism of climate change, and the anthroparchy that underpins the intersection of capitalism and the state as the planet is choked into submission by these institutions. I have three children and I would by lying if I said I didn’t worry that they may not have the opportunity to live out their natural lives owing to some catastrophic planetary disaster. But perhaps because I am a parent, I simply refuse to allow nihilism to take hold of my political outlook. I have to cling to hope, as precarious and naïve as that may sound in a context where an impending darkness seems to be swallowing everything we’ve ever known. The fire has not yet been extinguished. For me, anarchism is the light of liberation, the ember of emancipation, and it continues to glow. I’m convinced that if we are willing to cultivate the cinders of compassion and care, they will eventually burst into a brilliant and beautiful flame that can’t be extinguished. In time the conflagration of our passions, our desires, and our hopes for a better world will spread like wildfire, burning all existing hierarchies to the ground. We are the inferno, and the time has come for a politics of arson.
Thanks to the generous assistance of hundreds of supporters, we’ve produced 50,000 copies of the sticker, offset printed at 3” by 5”. They’re available in bulk at $0.05 to $0.20 each (from 5 for $1 up to 500 for $25). We’re also sending them out free with each copy of No Wall They Can Build.Order a stack of these and let people know where your community stands!
In response to popular demand, we’ve also prepared a poster version of the same design. Print these out, photocopy them, and wheatpaste them all over the walls of your town in English and Spanish!
The border is not a wall—it’s a system of control.
It doesn’t protect people; it pits them against each other.
It doesn’t foster togetherness; it breeds resentment.
It doesn’t keep out predators; it gives them badges and guns.
The border does not divide one world from another. There is only one world, and the border is tearing it apart.