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The anarchist subculture and the leftist protest ghetto in the United States

Kevin Keating | 12.04.2014 13:17 | Analysis | Social Struggles | Workers' Movements

A small contribution to understanding the larger problems of resistance in capitalist America...

The US anarchist subculture and the larger US leftist protest ghetto are expressions of the fact that there is no opposition to capitalism in the contemporary United States. By opposition I don’t mean an occasional deft line in a movie review in the New York Times or junior varsity insurrectionaries posting quotes from The Coming Insurrection on their Facebook pages. Opposition to capitalism means ongoing public resistance that can have an impact on the larger society around us. It has to be credible -- this means taken seriously by friend and foe alike. It is not a function of the fantasy projections of a subculture. It does not exist to reproduce the existence of a subculture. It doesn’t mean empty ritual activity ignored by everyone other than people prone to engage in empty ritual activity. It means disruptive collective action by the people who perform the crucial tasks animating the market order around us. It establishes an easy to reproduce template of analysis and action that can be used by other rebellious wage earners. Right now nothing like this, and no effort to catalyze this, is taking place in the US.

The anarchist scene and the protest ghetto are distinct from one another but with the happy precipitous decline of the Marxist-Leninist left the two increasingly overlap like circles in a Venn diagram. One expression of this is seen in a San Francisco Bay Area anarchist news magazine and web page called Fireworks. An examination of the most recent issue of Fireworks illustrates what happens when the anarchist subculture and the leftist protest ghetto converge.

Articles in Fireworks Issue 3, Spring 2014 (F3) make some reference to events involving working class people who don’t hang out at demos. F3 has an extremely summary piece about a summer 2013 strike by SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) employees. The overall quality of writing in F3 is quite good and the “Google News Round-Up” overview is excellent. However most of F3 is devoted to struggles of prisoners, police antics in the gentrification of an aquatic area where people live on boats, a respectful interview with some Marxist-Leninists, a slapdash piece on Mission District gentrification and concerns with the escalating reach of surveillance technologies. Fourteen out of twenty-three pages of content are devoted to these concerns. The BART strike article is less than a single column on a page with a three column layout. This piece gives no indication that the people who do Fireworks had any involvement with the BART strike and BART employees. The Mission District gentrification piece offers a high school book report caliber of analysis no different from a similar example of practical disengagement from any fight against Mission gentrification in the second print issue of Fireworks. The Mission article in F3 includes a reference to partisans of state capitalism in the wars in Central America in the 1980’s as participants in “revolutionary struggles.” Whatever the left wing of capital calls “revolutionary” gets a free pass from Fireworks.

The authors of Fireworks display a tremendous amount of emotional commitment to people who are totally dispossessed and subjugated like prisoners in California jails and penitentiaries and boat squatters. On a gut level this feels admirable. It is also an expression of how contemporary US anarchism – to the degree it exists at all outside of its subcultural safety zone -- is a worldview of extreme left-liberal volunteer social work, with someone else expected to do all the actual work. Nothing on display here shows Firework’s having any analysis distinct from those of amorphous leftist protesters. This accidentally suggests that most issues addressed in F3 can be addressed by work-within-the-system liberals at least as effectively as they can by people who like to call themselves anarchists, attach the label “anti-capitalist” to everything, and who jump for joy whenever someone breaks some windows.

Concerns regarding expanding surveillance technologies and struggles of people who are so subjugated and dispossessed as to have no capacity for leverage against this social order fall within the parameters of a civil liberties-oriented left-liberalism. It can convincingly be argued that many excesses of the system are simply that, excesses of the system, that there is nothing inherent to capitalist social relations about them, and that these wrongs can probably be remedied using the legitimate political mechanisms of the bourgeois democratic order. If this is the case these fields of activity should be ceded to work-within-the-system liberals.

Not everything liberal activist types do is bad. And there is nothing on display in F3 offering a clear intelligible “anti-capitalist” alternative to what work within the system liberals might come up with regarding struggles of prisoners and the homeless. If the objective is to immediately alleviate unnecessary human suffering, and this is a wholly admirable goal, then it should be ceded to people who are likely to produce results. The anarchist scene has no track record on these terms. If your goal is society-wide subversion it’s difficult to see any possible circumstances where struggles of prisoners and homeless people can breach the firewall isolating prisoners and homeless people from society as a whole and engender a larger society-wide movement of revolt. If what you want is social work, you should go to college, get an M.S.W., and pursue a career as a social worker. A cold-blooded, intelligent, real world opposition to the world of wage labor implies a completely different focus engaging with a radically different section of the population.

Capitalism is about wage labor. Wage labor is what distinguishes the capitalist mode of production from the ways that wealth was produced and allocated in earlier forms of class society. For an ostensible oppositional phenomenon to be “anti-capitalist” it has to be against wage labor -- and that means it has to be all about wage laborers and centrally focused on the wage slave class. An anti-wage labor/anti-market trajectory has to be integral to both the ideas and the actions; it can’t be stapled on as an afterthought. As a fight for the emergence of a mass political reality that does not exist at present it is irreconcilably antagonistic to bogus expressions of opposition to the current state of things; it is against electoral politics and labor unions; it is against the left, the center, and the right; it means violent antagonism to any and all forms of racial, ethnic or nationalist politics, it is against all democratic, populist and statist, small scale and large scale efforts to find anything other than a mass revolutionary solution to the problems generated by commodity relations -- nobody gets a free pass for having good intentions, engaging in petty vandalism, or for looking cool in a black leather jacket. It has to have some potential to spread and become general, even if this is just a potential for generalization by offering a good combative example. It can’t be “anti-capitalist” empty verbiage grafted onto every aspect of what’s harmful and oppressive about contemporary life.

Subversion has to be a mainstream phenomenon. Anti-capitalist class struggle doesn’t only mean workplace disputes -- although class conflict in the workplace is of paramount importance, especially among crucial sectors like metropolitan transit system employees. But it is absolutely not about every last phenomenon that makes people oppressed, repressed, or depressed, no matter how legitimate these other concerns and causes may be. An authentic anti-capitalist plan of action focuses on wage slaves and enlisted people in the armed forces to the rigorous exclusion of all else. This is not because toil is ennobling, or because after the revolution we will all turn into blue-uniformed worker bees, or because we like the army, or because people excluded from wage labor are somehow lesser beings, but because large numbers of certain specific people are in a potentially powerful position against market society that prisoners and the homeless as such will never be in. Big city transit system operators in particular are in an even more potentially powerful position than other wage earners.

F3’s authors present themselves as ferocious anarchist protesters ready to throw down against The Man but in reality they are both fickle and gullible. F3 is an expression of a disengaged, low energy scene made up of people who cannot take initiative in response to repeated opportunities for real world action that contemporary society offers them. This is most apparent in regard to the gentrification of San Francisco. I’ve noted the clear lack of engagement on display in two articles published in Fireworks about the gentrification of one of San Francisco’s last predominantly working class neighborhoods, the Mission District. Another example tells more. The scenester space Station 40 is identified as a “radical space” in a blurb on the back of Fireworks Issue 3, and as an “anti-capitalist social center” on Station 40’s own web page. Located on 16th Street at Mission, Station 40 is at the virtual ground zero of the current phase of tech sector-fueled Mission gentrification. Over a multiple year period S40 has hosted events where this space has been packed to the rafters with people grazing on riot porn from Athens, and also one where more than a hundred career college students and compulsive protesters sat in reverent half-lotus positions at the feet of a gaseous pedant from the Invisible Committee, but the people at S40 were unwilling, over a solid two year period of my repeatedly requesting this several years ago, to either host or themselves organize even a single public meeting about the galloping embourgeosification of the Mission. In an anti-gentrification struggle timing is everything and trying to get something rolling at a much earlier stage in the ruin of the Mission was going to be crucial. The Station 40 “crew” were not only unwilling to host a meeting about Mission gentrification, they were unwilling to say why and too dishonest or cowardly to decisively say that they would not host or organize an anti-gentrification meeting that would be open to people in the neighborhood at large. Finally the terminally earnest college professor Cindy Milstein, apparently the token adult of the space, primly informed me that Station 40 was not going to hold any public meeting about gentrification.(1) This is the key point. The people at Station 40 would not hold an event appealing to something beyond the subcultural consumption needs of scenesters. Reflecting the anarchist subculture’s relationship to the larger world around it, Station 40 has a passively parasitic relationship to the proletarian neighborhood where they are physically situated. Station 40’s role is to offer a safe space for subcultural bonding rituals and the ongoing indulgence of an insurrectionary fantasy life. This is consistent with anarchism in the US being a subcultural identity phenomenon to the exclusion of all else. The US anarchist subculture functions the way other subcultures spawned by consumer society function. The anarchist scene resembles subcultures that form among ardent fans of Star Trek, Harry Potter, the Greatful Dead, and collectors of Star Wars toys. Contemporary US anarchism is not primarily engaged with and against the larger society around us -- it is an attempt to escape from this society on a fantasy role-playing basis. It is not a real world social struggle phenomenon.

The larger scene generating Fireworks has staged two or three desultory protest events in SF’s Mission over the last two years, mostly geared to allow scenesters to hang out with one another, none of them involving any credible outreach to neighborhood working people. Their efforts are no substitute for collective action that can actually mean something to mainstream working class adults, efforts that working class adults will get involved with and make their own. They choose to act as all other Bay Area leftist protesters always do and thus their efforts are appropriately and assiduously ignored by a high ninety percent of individuals of all social classes.

When Bay Area anarchist scenesters venture outside of the comfort and safety of the anarchist scene they immediately shed whatever distinct identity they previously claimed as anarchists and become either perky democrats or Che Guevara T-shirt leftists. The spiky window-breakers go for the T-shirt option. Far from being so uncompromising that they unnecessarily alienate others, these nominal anarchists are without exception the most pliant and supine of leftists. Their intellectual laziness, gross historical ignorance and penchant for taking too much of their interpretation of reality from the one hundred percent capitalist hip-hop industry lets them sleepwalk into accepting fundamental suppositions fed to them by the Marxist-Leninist counter-revolution of the 20th century, minus the intense commitment and authentic conviction found among the cadre of M-L groups. In F3 this is seen in characteristic anti-authoritarian groveling before the myth of the Black Panther Party. You will be hard-pressed to find a more disastrous and dead-end example of what an opposition to this social order entails than the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther’s main enduring impact in Oakland, the city where they began and effectively had their biggest social base, was to help get a pro-business elite conservative Republican named Lionel Wilson elected as the city’s first black mayor. Their “armed self-defense” tactic resulted in an upwards of 40 to 1 negative kill ratio against the police. The Black Panther Party was riddled with police agents, predators and opportunists and its history is replete with numerous beatings and murders inflicted on its members and supporters by the party’s leaders or by goons under their orders. This included the torture and murder of Betty Van Patter, an accountant for the BPP who discovered financial irregularities consistent with the Black Panther Party being at that point a racket run by criminals. “Supreme Servant of the People” Huey P. Newton lived large in a rooftop penthouse above Lake Merritt on party funds and did more personal damage to low-income African Americans in Oakland than he ever did to the “white power structure,” specifically in his murder of a teenage street prostitute and the skull fracture Newton inflicted on an elderly tailor while pistol-whipping him. Both of these people had their lives changed much for the worse by the Supreme Servant of the People for the crime of calling Newton “baby,” a capital offense in the case of the young woman. There was nothing communist in the Black Panthers social objectives and nothing anarchist in its internal power relations.

Aside from their occasional sartorial flare the Black Panthers offer no examples of a pattern of action worth reproducing or a set of insights unique to them and useful today. A dispassionate study of movements for social change in the US in the post-World War Two period shows that the unglamorous and strictly non-violent civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties spearheaded most of the profound gains, and the attitude of people like Dr. King toward electoral politics was no worse than the ones actively pursued by the Panthers. The Black Panthers can’t accurately be described as Stalinist or Maoist, not because they lacked an affinity for history’s most prolific mass murderers Stalin and Mao, but because the Black Panther Party wasn’t politically consistent or coherent. Their political incoherence doesn’t exactly redeem them. The BPP aspired to be a left-wing totalitarian 20th century political phenomenon resembling a Marxist-Leninist formation in the Third World but they didn’t have the organizational skills, internal ideological cohesion and favorable real-world circumstances for pulling this off. The criminal-minded lumpens who formed a significant social base for the Black Panther Party tend to have a hyper-individualistic ethos akin to that of unsuccessful small businesspeople and this undercut the possibility of a more collective-oriented Stalinist or Maoist effort. Achingly naïve anarcho-leftists like the people who produce Fireworks are inordinately impressed by the Panther’s free breakfast program for children. If they think that’s something they should see the wonders worked by my EBT card. Their clueless awe regarding the BPP free breakfast program shows that this fraction of the Bay Area’s anarchist subculture uncritically applauds anything that looks spiky and smells like volunteer social work, in this case vicariously grooving on the Panthers as a much better-looking, more romantically appealing, well-dressed and Ray-Ban sporting version of Food Not Bombs.


An effort akin to Fireworks can play an energetic role in establishing a public presence for perspectives distinct from the forty-year long template of failure, irrelevance and worse that is the protest ghetto left in America -- with a very different, internally consistent, transparently clear politics, asserted among a different audience, and with a very different understanding on the part of its authors of the role they intend to play in this.

To start with, authentic revolutionary extremist politics involves swimming against the stream. It isn’t about being nice to everybody. It means not being afraid of stepping on a few toes. In a place as chock-a-block with repugnant political creepy-crawlies as the San Francisco Bay Area it means being blasé about stepping on many toes. A sustained collective effort is now needed for something more ambitious than applauding all the stuff that intellectually lazy and physically sluggish Bay Area protesters and scenesters already passively believe in.

Profound accelerating structural social inequality is creating opportunities for new forms of social struggle. Workplace actions by big city transit system employees hold great promise. Public transit systems like Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) San Francisco’s MUNI and the East Bay’s AC Transit bring together more members of the modern slave class that any other enterprise and from every possible combination of what makes up the contemporary proletariat; urban and suburban, employed and unemployed, badly paid and somewhat less badly paid, born in the US or not. Corporate America, management and capital’s agents the unions are ceaselessly attempting to erode transit worker’s compensation levels and working conditions. But transit employees are in a potentially formidable position against management to a degree that other members of today’s atomized, spatially dispersed and mystified wage earning class aren’t. In years to come, transit system employees can go for on-the-job actions outside of and against union control that keep transit systems operating while refusing to collect fares from riders, a series of “spare the fare days.” This can be a direct practical assertion of working class power building widespread face-to-face solidarity outside of narrow job categories. It can bring about a brief but real short circuit of market relations in one small necessary aspect of contemporary life. The mundane and humble character of this may be its most promising aspect.

As I wrote elsewhere examining the failure of an attempted transit system fare strike on San Francisco’s MUNI system in 2005:

“…When transit system operators go on a wildcat of this sort, and even if the event only lasts for one day, the event could become something akin to a non-violent city-wide workers' revolt. The economy would be shut down, or slowed and stalled to an overwhelming degree. Everything else in town would be occurring around the event for the life of the festivities. It would set a precedent for similar actions elsewhere, and not just related to mass transit systems. This is hard to imagine now, but as social conditions become more extreme, and the decline of the US is accompanied by unprecedented major shock experiences we may see a number of surprising events take place…”

An awareness of transit system employee’s latent power and the need for self-organization outside of and against capital’s union apparatus can be encouraged by outside agitation. Agitation along these lines took place among BART and MUNI employees and to a lesser degree among riders from 1991 to 1995, in the context of an abortive BART strike in 1997, and later in the initiation of what decomposed into a typical leftist culture of failure event responding to austerity measures on SF’s MUNI transit system in 2005. These efforts weren’t sufficient. They were scattershot. They have to take place linked to similar efforts in other cities, as conflicts between employees and management heat up, over a course of many years. And actions like these must spread among combative wage earners into other areas of social life.

The early 1990’s transit agit-prop efforts are examined here:

The people who do Fireworks posted a version of this article on their web site, dated August 13, 2013. If any of them had the inclination, energy and nerve they could have used the doc and its accompanying materials as a point of departure for similar agitation in the lead-up to and aftermath of the brief San Francisco Bay Area BART strike of July 2013. This didn’t happen. And in typical slapdash scenester style they choose to post a version of the doc that does not include the leaflets, posters, stickers and press clippings that are necessary for the main text to be intelligible. The leaflets in particular serve as a style model for how to communicate communist extremist perspectives to mainstream US working people. They are necessary for this doc to be used as intended, as a template for direct action in the real world.

A credible subversive effort requires political cohesion that will endure under stress, a collective shared vision in a long-term effort with a transparently clear perspective. Anyone can grasp this; we are not talking about quadratic equations. Sustained real world action must be combined with collective reading and discussion.

This is a short list of the best points of departure for our times:

The post-1964 political documents from The Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb. The chapter of Society of the Spectacle titled, “The Proletariat as Subject and Representation.” Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement by Gilles Dauve and Francois Martin, reading this last text in such a way as to discard Dauve’s “anti-politics” stuff. When Insurrections Die, by Gilles Dauve. And Unions Against Revolution, by Grandizo Munis.

Taken together these works offer a long-range historical tool kit. They emerge from the best moments of the modern revolutionary movement, the real movement to abolish existing conditions. They are antithetical to the struggles of leftist and nationalist politicians for a change of government. After the Situationists, Dauve and Munis, Paul Mattick’s essays in Anti-Bolshevik Communism and Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement are excellent and can be followed by the introduction to and essays in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, edited by D.A. Smart. These works are not suggested as an ultra-left version of Mosaic law but as materials to build intellectual muscle. The collective process of tangling with these works may even be more useful than the texts themselves. And any collective reading effort has to go hand in glove with action to avoid decomposing into passive intellectual entertainment.

Asserting uncompromising perspectives in the context of everyday life social struggles shaves away illusions. It separates the inventive, energetic individuals who have profound convictions and a capacity to persevere from the duds and lightweights who are on a slumming sabbatical from their parent’s social class and who always age out of their pose. 21st century minority communist action can’t guarantee anything, but it beats standing around with your hands in your pockets chatting with indolent friends at an endless series of easily ignored Bay Area leftist demos and blaming The Man for all your woes.

(1) Her firm determination to do nothing to contribute to resisting Mission District gentrification hasn’t stopped Cindy Milstein from subsequently posting exercises in soulful writing practice lamenting the gentrification of the Mission in various spots on the internet.

Kevin Keating
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Display the following 3 comments

  1. What is to be done? — Pointing out the obvious
  2. What is to be done! — K7
  3. Did the first commenter here read the article? — Kevin Keating