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The rebirth of anarchism in North America, 1957-2007

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Abstract

Anarchism has undergone a broad renewal in the US and Canada in recent decades, flowering most spectacularly in the alter-globalization movement in the years after the protests against the WTO ministerial in Seattle in November 1999. At the time, themovement seemed to outsiders to have spring out of nowhere. In fact, it was the product of a long development of transformation wheremovements of the ‘60s confronted internal dilemmas highlighted in the rise of feminism, and experiments with new organizationalmodels drawn from many different global contexts. A brief glance at debates concerning consensus decision-making and decentralizedorganization during the ‘50s and ‘60s civil rights movement and ‘70s anti-nuclear movement highlights how this came about.
HAOL, Núm. 21 (Invierno, 2010), 123-131 ISSN 1696-2060
© Historia Actual Online 2010
123
THE REBIRTH OF ANARCHISM IN NORTH AMERICA,
1957-2007
David Graeber
University of London, United Kingdom. E-mail: d.graeber@gold.ac.uk
Recibido: 1 Julio 2009 / Revisado: 29 Julio 2009 / Aceptado: 5 Septiembre 2009 / Publicación Online: 15 Febrero 2010
Abstract: Anarchism has undergone a broad
renewal in the US and Canada in recent
decades, flowering most spectacularly in the
alter-globalization movement in the years after
the protests against the WTO ministerial in
Seattle in November 1999. At the time, the
movement seemed to outsiders to have spring
out of nowhere. In fact, it was the product of a
long development of transformation where
movements of the ‘60s confronted internal
dilemmas highlighted in the rise of feminism,
and experiments with new organizational
models drawn from many different global
contexts. A brief glance at debates concerning
consensus decision-making and decentralized
organization during the ‘50s and ‘60s civil
rights movement and ‘70s anti-nuclear
movement highlights how this came about.
Keywords:
Anarchism, North America,
antinuclear movement, civil Rights movement,
feminism.
______________________
hat I’d like to do in these brief pages
is to outline some of the broad
historical context for the rise of
anarchism, in the United States, to the position
it now holds as the effective center of the
revolutionary Left. By “anarchism” here I am
speaking less about anarchism as a political
identity, about explicitly “anarchist”
organizations, individuals who refer to
themselves as “anarchists” of one variety or
another—though these have, certainly,
increased dramatically in number in recent
decades—so much as anarchism as a form of
practice, an ethical system that rejects the
seizure of state power, and, to the extent
possible, any appeal to or entanglement in
institutions of state power, and that relies
instead on classical anarchist principles of self-
organization, voluntary association, direct
action, and mutual aid. The centrality of
anarchism in this sense only really became
fully apparent to those on the radical Left in
North America in the early days of the global
justice movement from 1999-2001, but by
now—as increasingly in other parts of the
world as well—it has become impossible to
deny.
Impossible, at least, for activists or anyone
actively engaged with social movements or
radical campaigns... For activists, “anarchist
process” has become synonymous with the
basic principles of how one facilitates a
meeting or organizes street actions. For most
of those outside—intellectuals, for example, or
even readers of the Left press—all this is much
less apparent. There are various reasons for
this. One is the way the mainstream media, and
to some degree, the Left press itself, tend to
speak of “anarchists” only when discussing
militant street tactics, particularly, property
destruction. When anarchists in Black Bloc
broke windows in Seattle during the WTO
protests in November, 1999, they were referred
to as “anarchists”; when other (far more
numerous) anarchists organized pirate radio
collectives, facilitated meetings, made puppets,
or locked down in non-violent street
blockades, the fact that they were anarchists
went entirely unremarked. This has been a
consistent pattern. Nonetheless, the fault
cannot be laid completely at the feet of the
media. Another persistent problem has been
the anarchist press itself, which remains
dominated by Primitivists, Platformists,
sectarians, and hyper-individualists—
proponents of strains of anarchism that are
almost completely unrepresentative of the
movement as a whole. Someone casually
W
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perusing a shelf of anarchist magazines at an
infoshop, would be left with the impression
that the overwhelmingly majority of American
anarchists were either proponents of positions
and forms of organization that had barely
changed since the ‘20s and ‘30s (as for
example with the Northeast Confederation of
Anarchist Communists, or NEFAC) or,
alternately, opposed to all forms of
organization and looking forward to a collapse
of civilization and return to a world of tiny
bands of hunters and foragers. The impression
would be completely inaccurate. According to
Chuck Munson, who as manager of
www.infoshop.com, has conducted the most
comprehensive surveys of the North American
anarchist community, roughly 90% of
American anarchists do not identify with any
particular sect or tendency at all. They are
what I have elsewhere referred to as “small-a”
anarchists, non-sectarian or even anti-sectarian,
tending to operate outside of anarchist-only
groups, and whose ideological practice largely
consists of teaching by example. If such people
are little represented in official anarchist
literature, it is largely for this reason.
Another reason, I think, that the rise of
anarchism might seem invisible to some is
that—in part because of its growing small-a
orientation—it has become so entangled with
other political traditions outside observers are
never quite sure what they’re looking at.
“Anarchist process” can also be referred to as
“feminist process”, it’s entirely unclear where
one begins and the other ends or if indeed there
is a difference. Even more confusing for those
used to earlier anarchism’s hostility to
anything associated with God, churches, and
religion, the history of anarchist practice in
North America has become entangled with
alternative spiritual traditions, from
Quakerism, to Paganism.
What I am going to do in the following pages,
then, is to provide a brief history of the rise of
what I’ve been calling small-a anarchism in
America, beginning with the civil rights
movement in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It is,
of necessity, a brief and partial narrative. No
doubt it could be told very differently. Since I
am not primarily interested in anarchism as
identity, I am also not interested in tracing the
history of specific anarchist organizations.
Rather, I am interested in the origins of
anarchist process, and particularly, the
convergence between concerns to develop new
forms of direct democracy and dedication to
principles of direct action. Many of those who
thus contributed to the rise of anarchism in
America did not, in fact, consider themselves
anarchists. But they were, one might say,
anarchists in practice, and as in so many areas,
theory has followed practice here rather than
the other way around.
1. AN HISTORICAL SKETCH
The ‘60s New Left kicked off with a call for
“participatory democracy” in the famous Port
Huron Statement of 1962, the founding
document of Students for a Democratic
Society. Its principle author, Tom Hayden, was
inspired ultimately by John Dewey and C.
Wright Mills
1 and the document was notable
for calling for a broad democratization of all
aspects of American society, to create a
situation where people are making for
themselves the “decisions that affect their
lives”. One might see this as a very anarchistic
vision, but SDS, as its inception, certainly did
not. Actually, their original political program
was to radicalize the Democratic Party (they
only abandoned it when placed in an
impossible position by the Democrats’ pursuit
of the Vietnam War). Even more crucially,
those who framed the statement seemed to
have only the sketchiest ideas of what
“participatory democracy” might mean in
practice. This is most evident in the
contradictory character of SDS’s own
structure.
As Francesca Polletta has pointed out,
2 SDS
was on paper a quite formal, top-down
organization, with a central steering committee
and meetings run according to Roberts Rules
of Order. In practice, it was made up of largely
autonomous cells that operated by a kind of
crude, de facto consensus process. The
emphasis on consensus, in turn, appears to
have been inspired by the example of SNCC,
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, the student wing of the civil rights
movement. SNCC had originally been created
on the initiative of Anita Baker and a number
of other activists who had previous been
involved in the South Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC), and were hoping to create
an alternative to SCLC’s top-down structure
and charismatic leadership (embodied, of
course, in the figure of Dr. Martin Luther
King.) Famous for organizing lunch table sit-
ins, freedom rides, and other direct actions,
SNCC was organized on a thoroughly
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decentralized basis. Ideas for new projects
were expected to emerge from individual
chapters, all of which operated by a kind of
rough-and-ready consensus process.
This emphasis on consensus is a bit surprising,
since at the time there was very little model for
it. In both SNCC and SDS, it appears to have
emerged from a feeling that, since no one
should be expected to do anything against their
will, decisions really had to be unanimous.
However, there doesn’t seem to have been
anything like what’s now called “consensus
process” in the formal sense of the term. The
problem was there was no obvious model for
one. The only communities in North America
with a living tradition of consensus decision-
making (the Quakers, and various Native
American groups) were either unknown,
unavailable, or uninterested in proselytizing.
Quakers at the time tended to see consensus
was essentially a religious practice; they were,
according to Polletta,
3 actually fairly resistant
to the idea of teaching it to anyone else.
The New Left was as we all know essentially
based on campuses. Paul Mattick Jr.
4 has
argued that the wave of ‘60s activism seems to
have emerged from a kind of social bottleneck.
The Welfare State ideal of the time had been to
defuse class tensions by offering a specter of
perpetual social mobility (in much the same
way the frontier had once done); after the war,
there was a very conscious effort on the part of
the government to pump resources into the
higher education system, which began to
expand exponentially, along with the number
of working class children attending university.
The problem of course is that such growth
curves invariably hit their limits, and as any
Third World government that has attempted
this strategy has learned, when they do, the
results are typically explosive. By the ‘60s this
was starting to happen. Millions of students
were left facing without any realistic prospect
of finding jobs that bore any relation to their
real expectations or capacities—a normal
prospect in industrial societies, actually, but
suddenly hugely exacerbated. At first, of
course, the crunch came largely in the form of
type of employment (in the ‘60s, the sky still
seemed the limit in terms of economic
prosperity): people were being trained as
creative thinkers, and left with the prospect of
becoming soulless functionaries. Matters were
further complicated by the fact that the
students who first became involved in SDS
did, as Mattick emphasizes, like their
equivalents in the Global South, ultimately see
themselves as a kind of breakaway fragment of
the administrative elite. This was, he suggests,
crucial to understanding the limits of the New
Left. Activists invariably saw themselves as
“organizers”, social workers
5: What united all
factions of the left was the conception of their
relationship to actual or fantasized
communities as organizers—after the example
of trade unionists and social workers—rather
than as “fellow students” or workers with a
particular understanding of a situation shared
with others, and ideas of what to do about it.
Despite the disagreement over the primary
target for organizing—unemployed, blue-collar
workers, white-collar workers, dropout
youth—in each case the “community” was
seen as a potential “constituency” (or, in PL’s
language, “base”). The radicals saw
themselves as professional revolutionaries, a
force so to speak outside of society, organising
those inside on their own behalf. Thus the
activist played the part reserved in liberal
theory for the state, a point not to be neglected
in the attempt to understand the drift of the
New Left from an orientation to liberal
governmental reform to leninist-stalinist
concepts of socialism.
6
The contradictions of this situation became
increasingly apparent as the decade wore on.
The crisis was sparked first in groups like
SNCC, when demands for civil rights began to
give way to calls for Black Power. The radicals
in SNCC, who were eventually to inspire the
Black Panthers, called on white activists to
stop trying to organize black communities but
to return to their own: specifically, to organize
white communities against racism. SDS
activists always greeted such calls with
profound ambivalence.
7 The main reason, I
think, was because most of them were never
quite clear on what ‘their own communities’
were supposed to be. One could say something
along these lines had been attempted in the
early ‘60s with ERAP (the Economic Research
Areas Project), intended as the white
equivalent to grass roots civil rights
organizing, that brought SDS activists into
poor white communities and tried to mobilize
them around matters of common concern. The
problem was this most activists had found this
project rather uninspiring. Some ERAP
projects scored victories in gaining local
reforms, but organizers rarely felt a part of the
communities in which they worked, soon
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began to feel isolated from the company of
other activists, and few saw the results as
worth the sacrifice. The project fell apart in
1965. The call to return to their own
communities, then, could only lead to
ambivalence. Many in fact saw their natal
“communities”—whether alienated
professional-class suburbs, or racist working
class ones, as precisely what the kind of
environment they were trying to flee. Instead,
as Mattick so keenly observed, many began to
realize that if there was a way to overcome the
alienation of dead-end jobs, to find work that
actually lived up to their imaginative
capacities, it was in activism itself. Other
activists, in effect, were their communities.
The crisis initiated by Black Power ultimately
led to a kind of split. Again, at the cost of gross
simplification: once their allies in the civil
rights movement had abandoned them, white
activists were effectively left with two options.
They could either try to build countercultural
institutions of their own, or they could focus
on allying with communities or revolutionary
groups in struggle overseas: i.e., the Viet Cong
or other Third World revolutionaries, who
would take pretty much whatever allies they
could get. As SDS splintered into squabbling
Maoist factions, groups like the Diggers and
Yippies (founded in ‘68) took the first option.
Many were explicitly anarchist, and certainly,
the late ‘60s turn towards the creation of
autonomous collectives and institution-
building was squarely within the anarchist
tradition, while the emphasis on free love,
psychedelic drugs, and the creation of
alternative forms of pleasure was squarely in
the bohemian tradition with which Euro-
American anarchism has always been at least
tangentially aligned. The Yippie slogan,
“revolution for the hell of it” could be seen as
emerging directly from the realization that
activism itself could become the prime means
of overcoming alienation. The other option
was to see oneself as primarily allying with
revolutionary communities overseas: hence the
obsession with glorifying revolutionary heroes
in Cuba, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere (men
who, as Situationist and Autonomist critics
pointed out, were essentially icons of the sort
of new radical administration elites with which
the SDS had always tacitly identified), and the
feeling the need to strike back against the
empire from within the Belly of the Beast.
Each strategy involved a return to direct action,
but, simultaneously, a jettisoning of the whole
project of creating egalitarian decision-making
structures. Hippies and yippies might be
considered a bit ambivalent in this regard, as
small communes and many alternative
institutions created in the process generally did
usually operate on democratic principles. Still,
the Yippies, with their wild acid-inspired
pranks and media stunts, tended to turn into a
platform for charismatic impresarios like
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, in a style that
proved notoriously alienating to many
members of the white working class. The
Weathermen, in turn, attempted a series of
bombings directed at military and corporate
targets, meant to inspire spontaneous
emulation and drive society towards a
revolutionary confrontation—though with the
significant limitation that they did not want to
kill anyone. They ended up mainly blowing up
empty buildings. Interestingly, both had a
profound effect on later media policy, since
mainstream journalists began to feel complicit
in what began to happen, eventually coming to
the conclusion that revolutionaries were
feeling obliged to continually ramp up the
wildness or destructiveness of their acts in
order to continue making headlines. I have
heard persistent rumors from ‘60s veterans, for
example, that the Weather Underground’s
bombing campaign was far more extensive and
devastating than has ever been recorded, but
that there was a conscious decision by the
national media to stop reporting on it. I have
no idea if this is true. Still, one thing that is
clear is that since this period, the American
mainstream media has become—more than
that of any other industrial democracy I’m
aware of—extraordinarily reluctant to report
on activist stunts of any sort, or even, for that
matter, demonstrations.
This point will become important later on. For
now, though, the key point is that none of these
groups combined their interest in direct action
with an emphasis on decentralized decision-
making; to the contrary, whether because the
focus turned on the one hand to charismatic
figures who were at least potential media stars,
or to the kind of cell-like, military structure
able to carry out guerilla-style attacks—the
impulse was in the other direction. Moreover,
both strategies flared up for a few years and
very rapidly faded away (though the alternative
institutions created around this time often
lasted considerably longer).
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It has become conventional habit in liberal
scholarship to contrast the serious activism of
the early ‘60s New Left with the supposed
childish extremism of the late ‘60s and early
‘70s. I don’t want to leave the reader with the
impression I agree with this. The standard
liberal complaint is that the ‘60s
counterculture—in effect, the first mass-based,
industrial bohemianism—destroyed itself in
ultra-radicalism, and in doing so, provided an
opening for right-wing activists to adopt many
of the same grass-roots organizing techniques
developed by SDS to reach out to the very
white working-class constituencies SDS had
such a difficult time reaching, to mobilize them
against that very counterculture. There is
certainly an irony here. But it seems to me it is
better to see both periods as working through
fundamental dilemmas that are still with us
today. I myself suspect the real culprit in the
rise and eventual hegemony of the New Right
is not the excesses of Maoists and Yippies but,
rather, the fact that the governing elites in the
US stopped seeing the higher education as a
means of creating the image of endless class
mobility. As most of Mattick’s frustrated
administrative classes were reabsorbed into a
new, more flexible capitalism, the white
working class was increasingly locked out of
any access to the means of cultural production
at all. The result was a perhaps predictable
resentment against the supposed
countercultural excesses of the “liberal elite”.
8
Be this as it may, the second period was far
more complex and creative than critics are
usually willing to let on. Many of the ideas that
came out of it were really quite prescient.
Consider, for example, Huey Newton’s notion
of “intercommunality”, that became the official
Black Panther position in 1971, and held that
the nation-state was in the process of breaking
down as the main stage of political struggle
and that any effective revolutionary politics
would have to begin by an alliance between
local self-organized communities irrespective
of national boundaries. The real problem was
how they were to be self-organized. The Black
Panthers, as typified by figures like Newton
himself, eventually came to embody an era in
which macho, chauvinist leadership styles
themselves came to seem synonymous with
militancy.
It’s probably significant that in SNCC, the first
move towards rejecting decentralized decision-
making was initiated by the emerging Black
Power faction. Polletta’s careful analysis of the
organizational history of the movement
9
shows quite clearly that consensus and
decentralization were not challenged because
they were actually inefficient. Rather, they
were used as a wedge issue. By challenging the
supposed obsession with democratic process,
White activists in SNCC and their allies could
be identified with endless talk and fussing
about; the more militant, Black Power faction
could present itself as the model an ideal of the
ruthless efficiency appropriate to a truly
militant organization. It’s probably also
significant that Stokley Carmichael, soon to
become the main spokesman for the Black
Power tendency, was fond of saying things like
“the only position for women in SNCC is
prone”.
The fact that, even by the mid ‘60s, such things
could be said in an organization that was
originally founded by a woman as a revolt
against charismatic male authority is itself
astounding. But it might give a sense of the
sexual politics always lying not far below the
surface of the old New Left. Militant
nationalist movements are of course notorious
for providing platforms for the vigorous
reassertion of certain types of masculine
authority. But sentiments similar to
Carmichael’s can be found coming from the
mouths white activists of that time as well. The
feminist movement, in fact, began largely from
within the New Left, as a reaction to precisely
this sort of macho leadership style—or simply
among those tired of discovering that, even
during university occupations, they were still
expected to prepare sandwiches and provide
free sexual services while male activists posed
for the cameras. The revival of interest in
creating the practical forms of direct
democracy, in turn—in fact, the real origin of
the current movement—thus trace back less to
these male ‘60s radicals than to the Women’s
Movement that arose largely in reaction to
them.
10
Contemporary American anarchist forms of
organization and processes of decision-
making, however, emerged more than anything
else from a crisis in early feminism. When the
feminist movement began, it was
organizationally very simple. Its basic units
were small consciousness-raising circles; the
approach was informal, intimate, and anti-
ideological. Most of the first groups emerged
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directly from New Left circles. Insofar they
placed themselves in relation to a previous
radical tradition, it was, generally, anarchism.
While the informal organization proved
extremely well suited for consciousness-
raising, as groups turned to planning actions,
and particularly as they grew larger, problems
tended to develop. Almost invariably, such
groups came to be dominated by an “inner
circle” of women who were, or had become,
close friends.
The nature of the inner circle would vary, but
somehow, one would always emerge. As a
result, in some groups lesbians would end up
feeling excluded, in others the same thing
would happen to straight women, other groups
would grow rapidly in size and then see most
of the newcomers quickly drop out again as
there was no way to integrate them. Endless
debates ensued. One result was an essay called
“The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, written by
Jo Freeman in 1970 and first published in
‘72—a text still avidly read by organizers of all
sorts in the present day. Freeman’s argument is
fairly simple.
No matter how sincere one’s dedication to
egalitarian principles, the fact is that in any
activist group, different members will have
different skills, abilities, experience, personal
qualities, and levels of dedication. As a result,
some sort of elite or leadership structure will,
inevitably, develop. In a lot of ways, having an
unacknowledged leadership structure, she
argued, can be a lot more damaging than
having a formal one: at least with a formal
structure it’s possible to establish precisely
what’s expected of those who are doing the
most important, coordinative tasks and hold
them accountable.
One reason for the essay’s ongoing popularity
is that it can be used to support such a wide
variety of positions. Liberals and Socialists
regularly cite “The Tyranny of
Structurelessness” as a justification for why
any sort of anarchist organization is bound to
fail, as a charter for a return to older, top-down
styles of organization, replete with executive
offices, steering committees, and the like.
Egalitarians object that even to the extent this
is true, it is far worse to have a leadership that
feels fully entitled to its power than one that
has to take accusations of hypocrisy seriously.
Anarchists, therefore, have usually read
Freeman’s argument as a call to formalize
group process to ensure greater equality, and in
fact, most of her concrete suggestions—
clarifying what tasks are assigned to what
individuals; finding a way for the group to
review those individuals’ performances;
distributing responsibilities as widely as
possible (for instance, by rotation); ensuring all
have equal access to information and
resources—were clearly meant to precisely
that end.
Within the feminist movement itself, most of
these arguments eventually became moot,
because within mainstream feminism at least,
the anarchist moment was relatively brief.
Especially after Roe v. Wade made it seem
strategically wise to rely on government
power, mainstream feminism was to take off in
a liberal direction and rely increasingly on
organizational forms that were anything but
egalitarian. But for those still working in
egalitarian collectives, or trying to create them,
feminism had effectively framed the terms of
debate. If you want to keep decision-making to
the smallest groups possible, how do those
groups coordinate? Within those groups, how
to prevent a clique of friends from taking over?
How to prevent certain categories of
participants (straight women, gay women,
older women, students... in mixed groups it
soon became, simply, women) from being
marginalized?
The origins of the current direct action
movement go back precisely to attempts to
resolve those dilemmas. The pieces really
started coming together in the anti-nuclear
movement in the late ‘70s, kicked off by the
founding of the Clamshell Alliance and the
occupation of the Shoreham nuclear power
plant in Massachusetts in 1977, then followed
by the Abalone Alliance and struggles over the
Diablo Canyon plant in California a few years
later. The main inspiration for anti-nuclear
activists—at least the main organizational
inspiration—came from a group called the
Movement for a New Society (MNS), based in
Philadelphia. MSN was spearheaded by a gay
rights activist named George Lakey, who—like
several other members of the group—was both
an anarchist, and a Quaker. Lakey and his
friends proposed a vision of nonviolent
revolution. Rather than a cataclysmic seizure
of power, they proposed the continual creation
and elaboration of new institutions, based on
new, non-alienating modes of interaction—
institutions that could be considered
David Graeber The rebirth of anarchism in North America, 1957-2007
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“prefigurative” as they provided a foretaste of
what a truly democratic society might be like.
Such prefigurative institutions could, gradually
replace the existing social order.
11 The vision
in itself was hardly new. It was a non-violent
version of the standard anarchist idea of
building a new society within the shell of the
old. What was new was that men like Lakey,
having been brought up Quakers, and acquired
a great deal of experience with Quaker
decision making processes, had a practical
vision of how some of these alternatives might
actually work. Many of what have now
become standard features of formal consensus
process—the principle that the facilitator
should never act as an interested party in the
debate, for example, or the idea of the
“block”—were first disseminated by MNS
trainings in Philadelphia and Boston.
The anti-nuclear movement was also the first
to make its basic organizational unit the
affinity group—a kind of minimal unit of
organization first developed by anarchists in
early twentieth century Spain—and to hold
action spokescouncils. As those involved
frequently pointed out to me, all this was at
first very much a learning process, a kind of
blind experiment, and things often seemed to
go very wrong. At first, organizers were such
consensus purists that they insisted that any
one individual had the right to block proposals
even on a nationwide level. Needless to say,
this proved unworkable.
12 At the same time,
direct action proved spectacularly successful in
putting the issue of nuclear power on the map.
If anything, the movement fell victim to its
own success. Though it rarely won a battle—
that is, for a blockade to prevent the
construction of any particular new plant—it
very quickly won the war. US government
plans to build 100 new generators were
scotched after a couple years and no new plans
to build nuclear plants have been announced
since. Attempts to move from nuclear plants to
nuclear missiles, and from there to a social
revolution, however, proved more of a
challenge, and the movement itself was never
able to jump from the nuclear issue to become
the basis of a broader revolutionary campaign.
After the early ‘80s, it largely disappeared.
This is not to say nothing was going on in the
late ‘80s and ‘90s. Radical AIDS activists
working with ACT UP, and radical
environmentalists with groups like Earth First!,
kept these techniques alive and developed
them. In the ‘90s, there was an effort to create
a North American anarchist federation around
a newspaper called Love & Rage that at its
peak involved hundreds of activists in different
cities. Still, it’s probably accurate to see this
period less as an era of grand mobilizations
than as one of molecular dissemination. A
typical example is the story of Food Not
Bombs!, a group originally founded by a few
friends from Boston who had been part of an
affinity group providing food during the
actions at Shoreham. In the early ‘80s veterans
of this group set up shop in a squatted house in
Boston and began dumpster-diving fresh
produce cast off by supermarkets and
restaurants, and preparing free vegetarian
meals to distribute in public places. After a few
years one of the founding members moved to
San Francisco and set up a similar operation
there; word spread (in part because of some
dramatic, televised arrests); and by the mid-
’90s autonomous chapters of Food Not Bombs
were appearing all over America, and Canada
as well. By the turn of the millennium there
were literally hundreds. But Food Not Bombs
is not an organization. There is no overarching
structure, no membership or annual meetings.
It’s just an idea—that food should go to those
that need it, and in a way that those fed can
themselves become part of the process if they
want to—plus some basic how-to information
(now easily available on the internet), and a
shared commitment to egalitarian decision-
making and the spirit of DIY. Gradually,
cooperatives, anarchist infoshops, clinic
defense groups, Anarchist Black Cross
prisoner collectives, pirate radio collectives,
squats, and chapters of Anti-Racist Action
began springing up on a similar molecular
basis across the continent. All became
workshops for the creation of direct
democracy. But especially since so much of it
developed, not on campuses, but within
countercultural milieus like the punk scene, it
remained well below the radar of not only the
corporate media, but even of mainstream Left
journals like The Nation. This, in turn, explains
how, when suddenly such groups became to
coalesce and coordinate in Seattle, it seemed,
for the rest of the country, as if a movement
had suddenly appeared from nowhere.
By the time we get to the birth of the
globalization movement, which debuted in
North America in the November 30, 1999
actions against the WTO Ministerial in Seattle,
though, it’s impossible to even pretend such
The rebirth of anarchism in North America, 1957-2007 David Graeber
© Historia Actual Online 2010
130
matters can even be considered within a purely
national framework. What the press insists on
calling the “anti-globalization movement” was,
from the very beginning, a self-consciously
global phenomenon. The actions against the
WTO Ministerial were first proposed by PGA,
a planetary network that came into being by
the initiative of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas;
the emphasis on the WTO reflected the
concerns of farmer’s groups in India; the
tactics employed could equally well be seen as
an amalgam of ideas drawn mainly from the
global South than as an indigenous American
development. It was the internet, above all, that
made all this possible. If nothing else, the
internet has allowed for a qualitative leap in
the range and speed of molecular
dissemination: there are now Food Not Bombs
chapters, for instance, in Caracas and
Bandung. The year or two directly after Seattle
also saw the emergence of the network of
Independent Media Centers, radical web
journalism that has completely transformed the
possibilities of information flow about actions
and events: activists who used to struggle for
months and years to put on actions that were
then entirely ignored by the media now know
that anything they do will be picked up and
reported instantly in photos, stories, and
videos, across the planet—if in a form
accessible largely only to other activists. The
great problem has been how to translate the
flow of information into structures of
collective decision-making—since egalitarian
decision-making is one thing that is almost
impossible to do on the internet. Or, more
precisely, the question is: when and on what
level are structures of collective decision-
making required? DAN, and the Continental
DAN network that was set up after Seattle, was
a first effort to address this problem.
Ultimately, it foundered. In doing so, however,
it too played a key role in disseminating certain
models of direct democracy, and making their
practice pretty much inextricable from the idea
of direct action.
After September 11, the level of repression in
the United States—already being ratcheted up
steadily in the year and a half after Seattle—
began increasing quite dramatically. Most of
the structures created in the early days of the
alterglobalization movement crumbled or
shrank radically in size. At time of writing
(late 2007) this process has already begun to
reverse itself: we have seen a plethora of new
organizations and new initiatives, many
ostensibly revivals of much older institutions
(the newfound efflorescence, Industrial
Workers of the World, or IWW, the revival of
SDS…) but now based on profoundly different
principles of process and organization. In the
meanwhile, the basic principles of “anarchist
process” have, as noted in the beginning of this
essay, reached the point where they have
become the very ground rules of organization
almost across the spectrum, with the exception
of most NGOs and old-fashioned, sectarian
Marxist groups. All reflect this same
conjunction between direct action and direct
democracy. It is precisely in the conjunction
between these two phenomenon, now pretty
much irreversibly established in the most
radical social movements in North America
and increasingly, elsewhere, that the future of
anarchism really lies.
NOTES
1
The more immediate inspiration was his former
philosophy teacher Arnold Kaufman at University
of Michigan.
2
Polletta, Francesca, Freedom is an Endless
Meeting: Democracy in American Social
Movements. Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
2002.
3
Polletta op cit, p. 195.
4
Mattick, Paul, Jr. “Old Left, New Left, What’s
Left?” Root & Branch No. 1 (1970): 15-24.
5
Demographic studies (e.g, Flacks, Richard, Youth
and Social Change. Chicago, Rand MacNally,
1971) tended to show that in the early years of
SDS, the movement was largely composed of
liberal arts students in elite universities, from
affluent, left or left-leaning professional families:
i.e., children of doctors, lawyers, teachers rather
than businessmen; children of successful immigrant
families rather than members of the old-money
elite. However after SDS expanded in the late ‘60s
the social base became much broader, and began to
include many students of working class
backgrounds as well. As we’ll see this latter pattern
is basically the one that always recurs in
revolutionary movements: a convergence of
alienated and rebellious children of the professional
classes with frustrated but upwardly mobile
children of the working class with some experience
of higher education.
6
Mattick op cit, p. 22.
7
Barber, David “‘A Fucking White Revolutionary
Mass Movement’ and Other Fables of Whiteness,
with Afterward by Noel Ignatiev.” Race Traitor, no
12 spring 2001, pp. 4-93.
8
In fact, those constituencies that most reliably
continue to vote democratic are precisely those who
have some hope of mobility through education:
immigrants, African-Americans, even women, who
are at this point attending university at far higher
David Graeber The rebirth of anarchism in North America, 1957-2007
© Historia Actual Online 2010
131
rates than men. There is certainly no parallel in
communities of color to the explicit anti-
intellectualism of so much of the radical right.
9
Polleta op cit.
10
See for example Freeman, Jo, “The Women’s
Liberation Movement: Its Origins, Structures, and
Ideas.” In Recent Sociology No. 4: Family,
Marriage, and the
Struggle of the Sexes (edited by Hans Peter
Dreitzel), pp. 201-216. New York: The Macmillan
Co, 1971; Evans, Sara
Personal Politics: the Roots of Women’s Liberation
in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left.
New York: Knopf, 1979.
11
Lakey, George, Strategy for a Living Revolution.
Philadelphia, Grossman Publishers, 1973.
12
Many of the standard complaints about the
“impracticality” of consensus go back to this very
early period.
... The emphasis on 'free schools', deschooling and alternative education accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, with anarchist or anarchist inspired educational projects operating in dozens of cities and rural areas (Haworth 2012, Hern 2003, Suissa 2010, Springer et al., 2016. Most accounts of such experiments argue that they are not simply about 'alternatives' but are intended to allow the building of strong people, and movements that can counter state power ethically and sustainably (Polletta 2002, Dixon 2014Graeber 2010). This logic shaped the emergence of anarchist gatherings in the 1980s. 1 ...
... The event was striking in its 'small a' anarchism. David Graeber (2010) describes this "As a form of practice, an ethical system that rejects the seizure of state power, and, to the extent possible, any appeal to or entanglement in institutions of state power, and that relies instead on classical anarchist principles of self-organization, voluntary association, direct action, and mutual aid" (Graeber 2010). The centrality of a "form of practice", with an ethical system as the center of an ideology, rather than a particular issue, campaign or identity helps to explain why the mission statement of Toronto's Active Resistance downplays anarchism. ...
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There is certainly no parallel in communities of color to the explicit antiintellectualism of so much of the radical right
  • Rates Than Men
rates than men. There is certainly no parallel in communities of color to the explicit antiintellectualism of so much of the radical right.
Sara Personal Politics: the Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left
  • Jo See For Example Freeman
See for example Freeman, Jo, "The Women's Liberation Movement: Its Origins, Structures, and Ideas." In Recent Sociology No. 4: Family, Marriage, and the Struggle of the Sexes (edited by Hans Peter Dreitzel), pp. 201-216. New York: The Macmillan Co, 1971; Evans, Sara Personal Politics: the Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Knopf, 1979.