I hope to expand this into a longer crispy's handy guide to the new anarchism at some point.
By Crispin Sartwell
The second golden age of American anarchism is upon us. Probably there are more Americans
who consider themselves anarchists right now than there have been at any time in a hundred years.
Anti-globalization and peace activists, local artists and theater groups, community organizers, and
suburban high school students identify themselves, with varying degrees of seriousness, with the
now-ubiquitous, red, circle-A graffito. Whatever you may think of this development, it's
necessary to know something about it to understand what's going on in our political life.
Anarchism is simply opposition to power, whether economic or political, whether the mega-corporation or the political state. America has a venerable tradition of anti-statism, a tradition that
includes such figures as Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau, Emma
Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, and Noam Chomsky. Even mainstream political figures from Thomas
Jefferson to Barry Goldwater have provided the occasional flourish of anarchist rhetoric.
In the late nineteenth century, anarchism constituted the primary leftist competitor to Marxist
state socialism. But a series of bombings and assassinations by anarchists - culminating in the
murder of William McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz - sufficed to discredit the movement
and send it into a tailspin from which it is only now, a century later, emerging.
The contemporary movement is founded on a critique of global capitalism as an oppressive
force bent on extinguishing local cultures and communities, and of the connected growth of state
militarism, surveillance, and incarceration. It is in evidence wherever the WTO or World Bank is
meeting, and most recently at protests in Miami on the occasion of meetings to make the Western
hemisphere a free trade zone.
Here is a guide to some of the central thinkers and leaders of today's anarchism:
* Peter Lamborn Wilson: The idea of the temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), put forward by
Wilson under the name Hakim Bey in a book of the same name, is perhaps the central concept of
the new anarchism, and Wilson its most brilliant writer and theorist. The basic idea is to create
ephemeral sites of freedom that evade state surveillance, temporary mini-utopias that exist in the
gaps or at the margins of power systems. Wilson himself offers an incredibly elaborate lore for
such systems, and is a scholar of everything from pirate colonies in the Caribbean to strange
Islamic cults to the anarchist/poststructuralist philosophies of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze,
and Guy Debord.
* John Zerzan: His critique of technology and radical, if pointedly unrealistic, demand to return
to hunting, gathering, and tribalism have won this Oregon philosopher a fervent following. And
even if his solution appears impossible, Zerzan's treatment of the problems that arise out of
"progress" - including the possibility of universal annihilation - is sharp. Zerzan's views are often
represented in one of the few durable anarchist periodicals: Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed.
Reportedly, black-clad followers of Zerzan show up en masse at events in Eugene and Portland,
and folks don't know whether to be encouraged or concerned. You can't reach him by e-mail.
* Jello Biafra and Ian MacKaye: It's appropriate that two of the icons of the new anarchism
are punk musicians, in this case the lead singers of the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat/Fugazi,
respectively. If punk ever had a politics, it was anarchist, and both Biafra's Alternative Tentacles
(San Francisco) and MacKaye's Dischord (D.C.) are more or less anti-commercial businesses.
Though MacKaye has many times been offered major-label contracts and promotion, he has not
accepted, and does not even market merchandise or make videos. And Fugazi, one of the most
influential rock bands of the last twenty years, still charges about five dollars for admission to
their shows. Biafra, meanwhile, has run for president as a libertarian and issued a number of
spoken-word political rants on compact disc.
*William Upski Wimsatt: A rollicking writer about such topics as hip hop and graffiti,
Wimsatt's books Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons have emerged from self-publication to
become classics of contemporary anti-politics. Wimsatt is particularly sharp on urban issues and
situations (he comes from downtown Chicago) and on race, being perhaps the world's second
most famous "wigger" (after Eminem).
Whether any of these folks can assume the mantle of a Thoreau or even a Hoffman remains to be
seen. But they've got some momentum. When the current generation of high-school and college
aged anarchists grows up, they may turn out to be Republicans. Then again, they may not.
Crispin Sartwell's book "Extreme Virtue: Truth and Leadership in Five Great American Lives"
has just been published.