Anarchy Blossoms amid Disenfranchised
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
Published on Tuesday, August 14, 2001 in the St Paul Pioneer
World Without Borders
Anarchy Blossoms Amid Disenfranchised
by Ron Grossman
Those images of protesters clad in black with their faces
hidden behind scarves and hoods as they stormed police lines
in Genoa make it tempting to dismiss their opposition to
globalization as stemming from anger, not reflection.
The name of their rallying cry doesn't help either.
Anarchism sounds too much like a synonym for the chaos and
confusion they recently brought to the streets of Italy and
to previous economic summits in Seattle, Washington,
Melbourne, Prague and Quebec City. Yet it would be foolish
to write off those young militants as inspired by nothing
more profound than "Easy Rider" or some other version of the
Hells Angels' philosophy of life.
The anarchist movement has a long history and a perfectly
It is not likely to go away anytime soon. It is more likely
due for a renaissance. Arguably, it is tailor-made for the
increasing numbers of people who feel alienated by the
incessant absorption of all the Earth's societies and local
cultures into a brave, new, one world of free trade and
That last mouthful may sound a bit mystical. But anarchism
can be easily understood by considering a kind of work-a-day
experience many of us share.
For instance, as a teen-ager I worked in a florist shop. The
owner was a hail-and-well-met fellow, overflowing with
enthusiasm and possessing a booming voice to match. Every
morning, he would take a look at our stack of orders for
prom corsages and funeral wreaths and announce the obvious:
"Boys, we've got our work cut out for us today." Then he
would dart from one workstation to another, pulling a
gladiola out of one centerpiece, impulsively sticking an
extra carnation into another and generally getting in the
He had a real talent for that, not being a florist himself
but having come to the business from a totally different
walk of life. From the standpoint of us worker bees, he was
a burden we had to bear until the daily relief from that
part of our toil. By 11 o'clock, he would generally get a
phone call from a buddy inviting him to lunch, a game of
cards, or maybe an afternoon at the racetrack.
Thus freed from the distraction of his presence, we would
churn out bridal bouquets and altar vases by the dozens. At
closing time, the boss would return. Surveying a shop floor
covered with scraps of ribbon, leaves and stems, he'd
proclaim victory: "Well, we got the job done, didn't we?"
No matter how many times repeated, that performance was
greeted by a collective rolling of our eyes at the boss's
inclusion of himself in the "we" who had gotten the job
done. During more than one smoke break, we toyed with the
calculation: If we had managed to turn out X amount of work
in the hours the boss left us in peace, how much more might
we have accomplished if he hadn't come in at all?
We raised precisely the philosophical question that had
haunted Prince Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, the great
theoreticians of anarchism: Bosses, who needs them?
Unlike their kissing cousins, the socialists, anarchists
apply that question to all social arrangements, from a small
workshop to the highest level of government. Socialists
argue that the problem with government is that it is in the
hands of the wrong people. Put right-minded folks -- that
is, socialists -- in charge of government and it would work
[Historically inaccurate -- anarchists were originally
considered to be the libertarian (anti-authoritarian) wing
of the socialist movement. -- DC]
Anarchists say that a boss is a boss, whether a factory
owner, a president or a commissar. Government is an
unnecessary burden at best and more likely a tyrannical
noose around its subjects' necks, argued Pierre-Joseph
Proudhon, the 19th-century French writer and the anarchist
movement's founding father.
"To be governed," he wrote, "is to be at every operation, at
every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed,
stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized,
admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished."
Proudhon's solution was to get rid of all bosses without
exception. It was he who coined the political use of the
word anarchy, which comes from the Greek and means "no
leader." Proudhon and his successors taught that, just as we
managed nicely in that florist shop without the boss, so
should all of society be run by the workers themselves.
How, you ask, would those little worker-administered
workshops coordinate their efforts in the absence of any
higher order authority?
Just like we did in the florist shop. Not infrequently, we
would run short of some necessity in those afternoons when
the boss was gone. We didn't phone up Sportsman's Racetrack
and ask that he be paged so he might call the wholesale
supply house. We just called ourselves and asked our
counterparts, the worker bees there, to send over some mums,
say, real quick.
But can you run a whole country that way? But how do you pay
each other for supplies and products if there is no
government to guarantee the money supply?
Those are, indeed, tough questions.
The fascinating thing is that they don't necessarily seem
important to ordinary people, when they find themselves up
against the wall of real life. Anarchism can make sense to
A few years back, I was traveling through a part of Greece
where a little village had been scheduled for demolition so
an airport could be expanded. A government wanting to take
away their ancestral homes had no standing in the eyes of
the peasants who lived there. They were flying black flags,
the traditional symbol of anarchy, from their windows. On
their walls they had written: i anarkhia, i thanatos
(anarchy or death).
The British novelist George Orwell was a
participant-observer in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
He reports that, in the midst of that bloody conflict, the
prostitutes of Barcelona kicked out their pimps and
procurers and proclaimed themselves to be an anarchist
Consider, then, globalization from the viewpoint of its
opponents -- and not just those young people who take to the
streets but all those with the nagging suspicion that
something is afoot that isn't to their benefit. Every few
months, they see the leaders of a few nations coming
together to plot the next step in the process. They do so
behind closed doors. Everybody else is, essentially, being
enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed,
licensed -- whether they like it or not.
Now, the leaders of the great economic powers aren't
dummies. They get reasonable public-relations advice, so
they don't come on like Louis XIV and say that they are
doing these things simply for their own benefit.
To the contrary, they piously proclaim that free trade will
launch all of us into an unprecedented era of worldwide
prosperity. They soft-pedal a reasonable corollary to that
prediction: While we might be headed to a rosy economic
future, there are bound to be bumps in the road leading
there. History makes that probable: The industrial
revolution of the 19th century similarly was hailed as
making prosperity available to all -- which eventually it
pretty much did. But not before several generations of
factory workers had put in 12-hour days working in
oppressive conditions and living in slums.
Which is why a lot of those 19th-century workers lent a
ready ear to the radical political prophets of their day.
Accordingly, we shouldn't be all that surprised to see
increasing numbers of our contemporaries fly the black flag
of anarchy, at least mentally. For those who feel that the
scale of authority is growing so large as to crush the
average person, anarchy is a logical mental refuge --
precisely because it holds out the promise of a return to a
Of course, like the fabled Missourians, you could say: "Show
me" an example of where anarchism has worked. It can't be
done, but there is no reason to think that such practical
considerations make it any less attractive. To the contrary,
the anarchist impulse seems to flourish where the prospects
for success are dimmest. Something about taking on the
greatest powers in the name of the powerless has always made
anarchists equate martyrdom with accomplishment.
Grossman is a Chicago Tribune reporter.
News for Anarchists & Activists:
"It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
*anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
-- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
_Detective Comics_ #608