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Meet the New New Left: bold, fun, and stupid. Protest Too Much
By FRANKLIN FOER The New Republic
"A woman dressed as a lamb stands atop a pile of debris, chanting into a bullhorn, "This is what anarchy looks like! This is what anarchy looks like!" She has a point. Everywhere you looked at last week's World Bank-International Monetary Fund protest there were anarchists. Thirty members of the Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc, an anarchist cell, hurled pylons from a construction site onto the street. Three topless women in gas masks paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with Magic Marker slogans on their backs urging protesters, smash the state. An anarchist pom-pom girl in a yellow sweater with an "A" tacked onto it danced in front of the Treasury Department. The small groups that wreaked havoc around Farragut and McPherson Squares were largely modeled on the anarchist brigades of the Spanish Civil War.
Welcome to the New New Left. For close to a decade now, commentators have wondered what would define the post-cold-war generation of student activists. For a while, the answer was identity politics. But the movement for ethnic studies, affirmative action, sensitivity training, and speech codes lost steam years ago. Anarchism has filled the gap. In the last few years, anarchists have helped launch flashy websites and a slew of organizations that go by menacing names like Direct Action Network and the Ruckus Society. They have started anarchist soccer leagues and held an "Alternative Spring Break" in Florida, where students got to practice hurling banners off 60-foot structures. The Seattle and Washington, D.C., protests were their coming-out parties.
Why anarchism--a movement with deep roots in Italy and Spain but not in the United States? One reason, of course, is the demise of its competitors. The old socialist parties that used to haunt college campuses have fallen on hard times. Their long-standing advantage over anarchists--the existence of real-world Communist and socialist experiments--has been rendered a liability by the collapse of communism and the demise of leftist governments in Western Europe. At least anarchism hasn't had a chance to fail. And, if communism doesn't have anything new to say about the manic global capitalism of the 1990s, identity politics doesn't have anything to say at all; in fact, corporations long ago turned multiculturalism into just another marketing tool. (One result of the shift from identity politics to anarchism has been to make the activist left much more white; according to The Wall Street Journal, World Bank-IMF protesters even hired organizers to recruit African Americans, but it didn't work.)
But anarchism is more than just a fallback ideology--it suits the moment. In fact, globalization's most vociferous critics share important assumptions with its biggest boosters. Like the Silicon Valley CEOs they disdain, the anarchists complain about overbearing government and champion decentralization. Like House Majority Leader Dick Armey and his libertarian cronies, they seethe with hostility toward the IMF and many of the other institutions that regulate the world economy.
And, most important of all, they've absorbed the central lesson of the consumerist ethic they claim to loathe: Pleasure sells. Socialist protests usually involve newspapers, leaflets, and convoluted sectarian squabbles. (Indeed, the only people I saw hawking reading material at the D.C. protests were members of the International Socialist Organization.) The World Bank-IMF demonstrations, by contrast, featured anarchist puppeteers, the Anarchist Marching Band, and the anarchist-aligned Radical Cheerleaders. On 15th Street, I kicked a soccer ball around with a guy in a black bandanna. On 18th Street, I watched a Buddhist circle dance, while bystanders were encouraged to take a turn beating the communal drum.
The protests felt like a carnival. And therein lies the New New Left's big success--and its big problem. The anarchists have done something no one has done in ages: They've made the left fun. They've done it by prioritizing action over theory--letting a thousand flowers bloom rather than looking for ideological coherence. But, in so doing, they've also made the left quite, well, stupid. Protest slogans are always dumb, but last week's slogans--"Spank the bank," "We want puppets, not a puppet government"--were almost entirely meaningless. When I asked anarchist protesters to define their ideology, they responded, nearly universally, that anarchism is socialism without the state. But that raises more questions than it answers, questions about which the New New Left couldn't care less. Unlike its 1960s predecessors, whose leaders devoured Marcuse and Mills, the New New Left has little patience for theory. Read a copy of Z magazine, the anarchist's organ of choice, and you'll find advice about protest tactics--not intellectual ruminations. When I asked protest organizers for a list of books about anarchism, the vast majority were completely flummoxed.
This isn't an accident. Instead of drawing adherents from academia, like the socialists, anarchism has tapped a different vein: the youth culture. Since the 1970s, most anarchists have emerged from the punk-rock milieu, where British groups like the Sex Pistols wrote paeans to the movement. Anarchism's connection to youth culture has kept it hip and current, in contrast to socialism, which often looks nerdy and old-fashioned. But the New New Left has also absorbed part of punk's quest for pure rebellion--a hatred for the establishment too frenzied to worry much about serious alternatives or moral persuasion. And that may well be the New New Left's downfall, for it makes it prone not only to mindlessness but to mindless violence as well.
Nobody at last week's protests better encapsulated the left's evolution than Dave Solnit. Dressed like a French mime in a green-and-white striped t-shirt, Solnit was spray-painting cloth banners in a Washington alley when I met him. Like many of the posters at the demonstration, his didn't completely make sense. Underneath an image of corn, he stenciled resist. A picture of a cat got the slogan RISE UP!
Solnit doesn't say it, but many of his friends claim that he was instrumental in organizing last November's protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. Since his days as a teen connoisseur of punk, Solnit has been an activist. He's sat through a thousand meetings and joined dozens of movements. He marched against nukes in the 1980s and the Gulf war in the '90s. But, after protesting the 1996 Democratic National Convention, he and his friends grew increasingly depressed. It wasn't just that their causes weren't going anywhere; pushing for those causes was boring. "Activism was a drag," he told me. "Not very much fun."
Between the identity politics of the '90s and the sectarianism of the dozens of miniscule socialist parties, meetings had become a giant headache. So, like evangelicals after the Scopes trial, Solnit and other activists dropped out of conventional left-wing politics. Along with a bunch of actor and painter friends, he helped start a group called Arts and Revolution. Instead of debating theory or tactics, they built puppets and performed street theater. In part, Solnit and his friends were inspired by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who argued that the left would grow only once it fostered its own subculture. In part, Solnit also borrowed from Madison Avenue. "The idea," he says, "is to make the left seem fun." They were soon drawing huge (by leftist standards) crowds and invitations to appear at rallies across the country.
At about the same time, Solnit and his activist friends developed a serious interest in anarchism. It wasn't a coincidence--both art and anarchism represented attempts to reassert individual identity over mindless allegiance to ethnicity and party. After all, next to the cult of artistic genius, no ideology has a more romantic conception of the individual than anarchism.
Where Solnit led, many have followed. At one end of the anarchist spectrum stand militants like Road Runner Crazy Kravitz and the Black Bloc anarchists. The Black Bloc anarchists dress entirely in black and practice vandalism. Crazy Kravitz, a Black Bloc fellow traveler, wears a puke-green blazer, covers his face with bandannas, and talks about smashing things. "You know why I'm here," he brags to me. "I plan on doin' some damage." His brand of anarchism holds that violence is the only morally acceptable response to the violence inherent in capitalism and private property. At protests, his ilk prance around like a paramilitary unit, throwing projectiles at the cops and kicking over newspaper boxes.
Crazy Kravitz isn't typical; most protesters are what might be called feel-good anarchists. They don't see much point in vandalizing Starbucks. Though they chant about "resistance," they'd rather give a hug than smash a window. They talk endlessly about solidarity and obsessively worry that they might somehow be unconsciously perpetuating evil "power relationships." The problem is that mainstream anarchists--in order to avoid sectarian conflict, and as a result of their laissez-faire, decentralized spirit--won't condemn the violence of their bandanna-wearing fellows. They might agree that violence is a problem tactically, but they're too steeped in relativism to condemn fellow protesters and too ignorant of ideology to construct a moral case for nonviolence. In short, they're unable to do what the mainstream labor and civil rights movements did: disavow people who share their enemies but compromise their moral integrity.
It's not just that the anarchists risk alienating mainstream America; they risk alienating their supposed allies. Ralph Nader's globalization guru Lori Wallach and union chief John Sweeney wax eloquent about the new liberal-left coalition that will unite student radicals, consumer advocates, and labor. But the labor-anarchist alliance is as tenuous as any in the history of the American left. For starters, labor doesn't have much interest in abolishing the World Bank or the IMF. Only two years ago, the AFL-CIO backed an $18 billion funding increase for the IMF. Labor's sudden embrace of the cause in the past few months feels like a tactical decision from above, not something supported, or even much understood, by the rank and file. Indeed, whenever labor representatives show up at IMF rallies, they switch the topic to something much dearer to their own hearts and bank accounts: permanent normal trading relations with China.
The fault line was on display at my corner Starbucks. To get a morning latte last week, I had to jockey for position with beefy guys with mustaches wearing UAW jackets and Teamsters hats. Of course, these union delegates must realize that each espresso they order is a slap in the face to their anarchist friends, whom they ostensibly came to Washington to join in protest against globalization. To the youthful activists, Starbucks represents all that is evil about globalization: it brews beans picked by exploited workers in the most environmentally destructive manner possible and then resells them at an outrageous price. The unionists, however, seem to feel--as most Americans do--that a $4 cup of java is a symbol of the good life. When they fret about globalization, they're not worrying about people in Bangladesh. They're worrying that someday they'll lose their jobs and have to start drinking sludge from 7-Eleven.
The anarchists, like their '60s predecessors, basically represent a revolt of the affluent. They are college students and graduates materially comfortable enough to condemn materialism and narrow self-interest. And, though their message is muddled, it seems to pretty much reprise the message of the '60s: concern for the Third World and loathing of American power. Labor has never had much patience for this sort of global altruism and anti-Americanism. In fact, the AFL-CIO's heyday in the '50s can be attributed, in part, to the fervor of its anti-communism. And the unions never turned against the Vietnam War. Although the labor movement has grown more liberal since then, you can still see streaks of the old militarism in its recent commercials about China, which hint at threats to American national security with ominous images of Chinese soldiers. This kind of thing is completely anathema to the anarchists. There's also tension on another front. Unions like environmental restrictions that affect the Third World, not restrictions that threaten their jobs. In fact, unions have helped their bosses scuttle the global-warming treaty.
And there's something else the unionists won't like about the anarchists: their proclivity toward violence. While most leftist movements--from SDS to the Weathermen--usually take time to devolve from idealism into violence, anarchism devolves almost immediately. A movement that doesn't care about ideology can't explain why violence is wrong. As a group, the protesters in Washington decided not to rat on the violent anarchists to the cops. "Nonviolence is a tactic. We shouldn't impose our tactics on anyone else," a protest organizer named Dianne explained at a meeting. Protesters complain that their image is tarred by the violence of their radical fringe, but it's their fault for refusing to enforce moral standards in their own ranks.
But confronting the problem of violence will require confronting the ethic of unthinking, unbridled action that lies at the movement's core. At last week's rally, I saw a middle-aged man dressed in a tie and blazer crossing in front of a mob of anarchists. Instantly, the group began to hound him. One woman with a shaved head pronounced him an IMF delegate and began yelling in his face. "Racist! Murderer! How can you allow the murder of innocent babies?" Angry protesters linked arms to prevent his escape. As the man pushed his way through, he whimpered, "I'm just an audio-visual technician." As he began to run down 19th Street, a kid in a bandanna chased him away, yelling, "Liar! Liar!" Bystanders were appalled.
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. And, sooner or later, it's likely to be the New New Left."
-- Ken Decker (email@example.com), April 28, 2000
For an engaging look at the history of anarchism, see this recent column in which David Greenberg describes libertarianism as anarchistic:
Beyond opposing formal government, most anarchists also reject capitalism in favor of a cooperative or communal method of allocating goods and land. (One exception is so-called 'individualist anarchists'essentially libertarianswho consider private property a right)
and concludes that "Today's anarchists do have a critique to make of global capitalism. Trivializing them runs the risk of making them martyrs and giving them a glamour they could never otherwise obtain."
-- Celia Thaxter (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 28, 2000.
Postscript regarding Greenbergs reference to private property rights:
I think private property should be a right, yet I don't understand the American obsession with it. Allow me to relay a little story.
This February I was able to board a boat that was carrying Senator John McCain and his campaign staff. Senator McCain stood in front of a small group of reporters and took questions. Seated amongst these reporters, notebook in hand, I could barely believe my good luck. For weeks I had been avidly following the McCain campaign and had daily envied all those journalists who had personal access to the senator. Now, as though in a dream, "the man" was standing but eight to ten feet away from me, wearing a crisp navy suit. His wife, Cindy, hovered about the periphery, eyeing the group warily.
A local journalist asked McCain what he thought about the recent WTO protests in Seattle. It was a serious question, and deserved a serious response. Instead, McCain gave a small lecture about the need to honor property rights, about how he had fought for and cherished the right to own property, that property needed to be "respected," and how wrong it was that some of the downtown business owners had had their property destroyed during the WTO riots, etc.
After about his seventh utterance of "property rights," McCain suddenly seemed like a dull uncle at dinner, lecturing the children. I looked up at the maverick politician (who now stood upon clay feet) in dismay. Was this all he could muster upon such an important international topic?
What is the obsession with property based upon? Perhaps it's a temperamental quality that most people possess. The idea of holding something, of owning something, seems to appeal to most folks. It must provide a sense of security. I guess I dont share it temperamentally, and thus do not understand it intellectually, or even emotionally. The one time I did own private property, the ownership made me vaguely uncomfortable, even insecure, the reverse of what one would expect. I felt strangely relieved upon selling it.
Perhaps some day I'll again own land, perhaps in the north. If I do, I won't mind if some kids crawl over my boundary line to hunt for, say, a few Liberty Caps. Why not? I can appreciate the outrage at having ones property destroyed or ones domicile broken into. But what honorable principle supports the dont cross my property line stance?
-- Celia Thaxter (email@example.com), April 28, 2000.
Perhaps it's my current state of sleep deprivation...but after reading Celia's excerpt, it seems that we have a fascinating hybrid brewing between the 'new left' & the 'new right'.
Is it new? Or the same old stuff?
-- flora (***@__._), April 28, 2000.
Celia, if the little darlings hurt themselves on your property, their parents will sue you.
We have quite a bit of fallen dead wood on our property. We live near a commercial camping resort. Campers normally clean out all the dead wood near the highway and use it for camp fires. We leave more wood down there every year. We also have a spot on a hillside washing out badly. We put heavy logs into place to counteract the erosion. Campers go to great lengths to take these logs. They trespass clearly within our boundaries. We try to talk to them, to offer them wood from another location, but they spook and drive away. We find this irritating. I suppose this irritation, if it becomes worse -- say they come take our firewood from the stack by the door -- it will affect our politics. In the meantime we pray for our trespassers to trespass against us without harm, lest they sue us into oblivion.
-- helen (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 28, 2000.