Monday, May 01, 2006

Mission Statement

As the inaugeral post for this new blog, I thought I might explain what I mean by saying I am "an Upstate Anarchist" and what ideas and values are going to inform all subsequent postings. The first part of the title "Upstate" is simple: I am from Upstate New York (Johnson City/Binghamton, to be more exact) and am concerned largely with life in this region. I also edit a cooperative blog (York Staters) completely dedicated to Upstate life and I plan on dual-posting on occasion, when the article is appropriate to both audiences. I may sometimes reflect on national and international issues, but always from the perspective of a born and bred York Stater.

It is, of course, the title of "Anarchist" that raises eyebrows. When I tell a new friend that I am an “anarchist,” I usually receive something of a mixed response. Those possessing little experience with the Left often respond with surprise, dismay and even fear (this nice boy that they knew as a fiddler and a whole-grainy vegetarian cook actually covers his face at night and blows things up!); others, with more knowledge of the Left usually treat this statement with sadness or disappointment, thinking of my beliefs as akin to those found in cultish Marxist groups. There is an incredible amount of innocent confusion and calculated disinformation about Anarchism in American society, much of it tied to the fact that anarchy and Anarchy are two related, but different words.

Little “a” anarchy is a lack of control; it’s the word we use to describe panicked crowds, post-coup Haitian slums and meetings where everyone is talking. Big “a” Anarchy, on the other hand is an ethical philosophy with a rich tradition. Proponents of Anarchism believe that their philosophy is the path to the most meaningful human relationships, meaningful human lives and meaningful human societies.

So how is Anarchism different from Marxism, which is more familiar (if also misunderstood) in mainstream America? In practice, Marxism tells its adherents that by following their leaders, and themselves acting as leaders for the ignorant working class, they will someday destroy Capitalism and create the Marxist Utopia. Anarchism, on the other hand, is a world-view, a set of values that guide action, not a distant, mythological goal. The Anarchist “utopia” appears every time people gather together as true equals and share in each other’s company. By following her values, the Anarchist is able to set up guideposts to aid her negotiation through life’s constant ambiguities and problems; there is no set guidebook or sacred position paper to Anarchism; it, like life, is something we muddle through all the while hoping for the best.

So what are these values? Or, I suppose the better question is, what is my interpretation of these values? In the film Moulin Rouge, a totally un-Anarchist source [1], there are a handful of “Bohemians” (read: “hippies”) setting up a play. Depicted as naïve dreamers, they espouse the Four Bohemian Virtues: Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love. In their satire, the authors of that film have inadvertently summed up what I believe are the most important Anarchist values. To fully explain what I mean, I will touch upon each in turn.

Truth. The Anarchist thrives upon the Truth, for we believe that the forces of oppression and violence gain strength through lies and secrecy. Many of us report our “conversion” to Anarchy as a revelation of the Truth of our society and it’s foundation in repression, fear and dishonesty. I myself remember vividly the February night I cried on a hill outside my freshman dorm as I looked into the windows and saw the chain of desolate lives and blood leading to it. We believe that Truth is on our side and that the more we shout it from overpasses and Internet screens, the more powerful the forces for Beauty, Freedom and Love are; continuous questioning, even of Anarchism itself, is a vital part of our philosophy. To quote Emerson's famous 1838 speech to the graduating class of Divinity College: "Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers and the very roots of the grass underground there do seem to stir and move to bear your witness." There is an old German protest song that I think of whenever I ponder the value of Truth: Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Our Thoughts are Free):
“Die Gedanken sind frei/My thoughts freely flower/Die Gedanken sind frei/My thoughts give me power/No scholar can map them/No hunter can trap them/No man can deny/Die Gedanken sind frei!…
And if tyrants take me/And throw me in prison/My thoughts will burst free/Like blossoms in season/Foundations will crumble/The structure will tumble/And free men will cry:/Die Gedanken sind frei!…”
Beauty. To me, the saddest distortion about Anarchism is the idea that we destroy for destruction’s sake. My Anarchism certainly seeks to eliminate the sources of suffering in our world, but its our celebration of beauty that I identify with. As a group, we love nothing more than to plant gardens, paint murals and rehabilitate beautiful old buildings. We seek to protect beauty and to create beauty. At the same time, we reject outside standards of ‘beauty,’ especially those created to sell us something. Anarchists have found beauty in ruined factory buildings, the screaming voice of a punk singer and the imperfect yet fantastic bodies that life has given each us. Anarchism has a long history of celebration of natural phenomena as beautiful: flowers, trickling cricks (that's an Upstate word for a creek), sagging breasts and hairy bellys and amazing natural processes like the growth of a child or the reclamation of paved land by colonizing plants.
As an example of the importance of Beauty in Anarchism, I turn once again to pop culture: the character “V” from the comic book
V for Vendetta [2] is an Anarchist who, in a repressive Fascist society, gathers up beautiful things, ranging from recordings of simple love songs to ancient paintings to sappy movies in his underground lair in order to protect them. In the film remake of the comic, V ask the character Evie to dance, she is surprised and inquires whether he has time for dancing, considering that it is the day of his revolution. He replies: “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.” I can’t better sum up the Anarchist love of Beauty.
Freedom. It is here more than any other place that Anarchists separate themselves from other Leftist movements. We believe that all humans have inherent dignity, all humans are equal in value and all humans deserve to be free. All Leftist movements proclaim these basic values, but only in Anarchism is there a striving to actually put this concept into action, to bring it to its logical conclusion: complete egalitarianism. Anarchism rejects hierarchy, the idea that one person is more important than any other; we have no revered (or vilified) leaders and no hero-gods; we do not trust technocrats or self-appointed geniuses to make our decisions for us. Instead we govern our communities by discussion, compromise and consensus. “Anarchism is the revolutionary idea that no one is more qualified than you are to decide what your life will be.”[3]
All Anarchists are equal and free actors and with this comes a deep responsibility. This is different from the “Freedom isn’t Free” garbage that Fascists and Patriots use to silence dissent to repression and militarism. Inherent in living the free life is the need to take control of one’s own life and one’s own decisions. “Freedom isn’t easy” ought to be the Anarchist slogan because with freedom we lose the ability to blame leaders and to explain away our own inactive, soulless lives. Anarchism, however, gives us the tools to free ourselves, to take responsibility for our own liberty. It is an invigorating way to view the world.
Love. At their heart, Anarchists love people. While it is true that Anarchists, as a group, make the best lovers,[4] we have extended love beyond the boundaries of sex just as we have extended sex beyond the boundaries created by society. We have a “joie de vivre,” a joy of life, that makes us endeavor to having loving, equality-based relationships with everyone whose willing to do the same. We simply love life, whether it’s a eating a well-cooked dinner with friends, hitch-hiking across the countryside of southern Spain just to see what’s out there, or playing a mournful tune on a fiddle. Many Anarchists expand this circle of living beyond simply our actions with other humans: we love the animal world (it’s of no coincidence that many Anarchists are also vegetarians and vegans) and the incredible interconnected ecosystem that maintains life. At the same time, we reject the hollow loves that Capitalist society encourages: the love of power, wealth, unfeeling sensual distraction, fetishistic materialism and unhealthy beauty.
Anarchists value communities based upon trust, truth and compassion, but seek always to extend this feeling to all that accept their love. In many ways, I've always viewed Anarchist love for their communities and the weak and voiceless world as akin to that of a mother bear or some other protective animal. We are a tender lot (I once heard us described as “Quakers who swear a lot”) but are terrible defenders of our beloved when roused to anger.
While it is certainly true that Anarchists have burnt down McMansions, broken the windows of Nike Towns, killed a President [5] and fought wars against Fascists, Theocrats and Technocrats, it is wrong to categorize our philosophy as an inherently violent, destructive one. It is without doubt that we will endeavor to destroy the forces of oppression and suffering in our world, but at it’s heart, Anarchism is a constructive philosophy that seeks to build a new world through everyday action, through the generous application and careful pondering of truth, beauty, freedom and love. That is the difference between anarchy and Anarchy, between Anarchy and Marxism and between living a life and simply abiding until the time comes to die.

-By Jesse

[1] In much of Western history, the Bible was the shared document of all people of European descent: politicians, writers and common folk peppered their speech with Biblical quotes, allusions and metaphors. In our era, for better or worse, young people often communicate in quotations and references from popular culture, especially Hollywood films. This I have no problem with, provided it is done conscientiously. I have a friend in Spain who makes a living by tearing apart discarded electronics components and using pieces to make beautiful jewelry. A carefully selected film reference can be like those bits of detritus: torn from the materialist junk of society, cherished for their hidden beauty and recycled for the dual causes of art and enlightenment.
[2] Who is an Anarchist in the original comic book and a Liberal in the movie. Such sadness.
[3] From the Crimethinc Collective’s pamphlet “Fighting for our lives: An Anarchist Primer”
[4] This comes from a having relationships based upon equality and Freedom, a fetish for telling the Truth to their partners and burning desire to create Beauty.
[5] This was Leon F. Czolgosz who killed William McKinley at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. In his wonderful paean to Leon (entitled “Leon”), Stanley Jenkins writes: “Oh Leon! Leon. You laid the president down. And you shot the president down. Just tell me this. Just tell me this one thing. How does it feel to have a face Mr. Czolgosz?” How is that for a footnote detour into the obscure?