second golden age of anarchism

I hope to expand this into a longer crispy's handy guide to the new anarchism at some point.

Golden Age

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.