Friday, November 4, 2011

Oakland, The Black Block, and the Ethics of Anarchy

Given the absence of any membership fee for the Occupy Movement, it was perhaps inevitable that there'd be the kind of unpleasantness that was seen in Oakland this last week.  Yesterday, the reportage of the actions of a few non-representative human beings was extensive, as the seemingly inevitable masked and black-clad young men smashing things made their always-welcome appearance.

Their actions diluted and distracted from what appears to have been an entire day of nonviolent direct action, as large crowds of demonstrators...families, kids, veterans, young people, blue-collar workers, and folks of all races and creeds...loudly but peaceably expressed their resistance to the structures of consumer culture that have cast our society out of balance.

Many media outlets identified the window-smashers and rock throwers as representing the actions of anarchists.   They're wearing black?  They're smashing things?  Must be anarchists.

Here, though, I must demur.

There were anarchists present in Oakland that day.  The anarchists, however, were the ones who showed up during the daylight hours.  They were the the students and moms and the kids and the workers.   They were the peaceful ones, the players of music, the chanters of slogans.  The smashers and throwers and breakers of [stuff]?  Not anarchists, not really.

Why not?  Aren't they the archetype of the anarchist, so definitive that they might show up in a children's picture book, under "A is for Anarchist?"

Anarchy, as I have and will continue to assert, is the fundamental ethical refutation of coercive power.   "No-power-over" is, after all, what that word means.  It stands in radical contrast to the power of the state and the subsidiary but related power of the marketplace.  It is not a system of government, but instead an ethic, a worldview that defines the actions of a human being no matter what the structural context in which they find themselves.

From that as a conceptual foundation, engaging in violence means that you haven't grasped or internalized the ethic you purport to live by.  Violence is, after all, the application of coercive power.  If you claim to reject coercion as inherently destructive to the integrity of human beings, and yet inflict direct and material harm on others to get what you want, then you have not internalized the slogans you wear on your black t-shirts.

You aren't an anarchist.  You're a hypocrite.

There is more to anarchy than saying "I can do anything I want, and no-one's the boss of me."  That is the ethic of solipsism, the delusional assumption that the entire universe revolves around you and your needs.  That ethic gets along just fine with consumerism.

Anarchy goes deeper, requiring an individual's rejection of violence even as a means of achieving their own needs.  For that, an anarchist turns to nonviolence, expressing their will while intentionally refusing to allow the ethos of violence to define them.

The folks who smashed and burned are no more anarchists than those men who recently attacked and cut the beards and hair of peaceable Amish-folk are Amish.

If you yield to the ethics and instruments of the Enemy, you serve the purposes of the Enemy.