"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, September 19, 2005

So Who Wants to Be an Anarchist?

A question posed earlier on this blog, probing the possible interpretations of the word 'anarchist' as used by a product of Western civilization circa 2005, took on a different and more personal hue for me this weekend. Hue, saturation, and contrast, to be specific.

My husband's employer dispatched him to New York City for a couple of days last week. He never goes anywhere without his Contax U4R digital camera; it's the sort of object Sidney Reilly might have used to great advantage before the Bolshies executed him in 1918. He spent his small ration of spare time wandering around Manhattan and Brooklyn snapping pictures.

This photo was taken at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. It is 23 Wall Street, the J.P. Morgan Building, built in 1914.
Wall Street, 2005

He went to that spot as a sort of pilgrimage, in homage to Paul Strand, one of the towering pioneers of 20th C. photography. Strand stood on that spot in 1915; the resulting picture is an icon of New Realism fixed in platinum and potassium oxalate, and one of the most famous images ever printed.

Wall Street, 1915

If you really, really look at this picture, for a few moments you can see the world through the eyes of the people he captured walking down Wall Street. Yes, I know the critical consensus is that the picture captures the shrinking of modern man in the context of his overwhelmingly gargantuan surroundings. I still think it's a photograph overflowing with empathy.

Obviously a few things have been added since 1915. The food vendors and No Parking sign bleat out in color. There is another addition, more subtle, and much older: these pockmarks in the pink Tennessee marble facade. They have been there for 85 years, and were put there by anarchists.

On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon was pulled up to the sidewalk on the Wall Street side of the Morgan building. Seconds after noon, the wagon exploded. It had been filled with 100 lbs of TNT and 500 lbs. of amateur shrapnel. The sidewalks were crowded with lunchtime pedestrians; accounts of the damage are not exact, but approximately 400 people were injured and between 30 and 40 died. The horse didn't make it either.

Anarchists were immediately suspected, since there had been wave after wave of such violent attacks in the recent past, and the target was such a figurehead of unrepentant capitalism. This suspicion was solidified when circulars were found in a postbox at Cedar and Broadway, proclaiming

Remember we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchists Fighters.

No one was ever arrested in connection with the bombing; decades later historian Paul Avritch fingered Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist and acquaintance of Sacco and Vanzetti, claiming their prosecution was the motive for the attack. This theory remains unsubstantiated.

If you ask most people who went to American public schools after World War II who the "anarchists" were, they'll be able to mumble something incoherent about Sacco and Vanzetti, and how they probably weren't guilty and were executed because of bigotry towards Italian immigrants. Not one in 50 could give you a concrete example of the violence wrought by anarchists between 1870 and 1925; that one might know that President McKinley was assassinated by a self-professed anarchist. In fact, anarchists were responsible for assassinating half a dozen world leaders in the early 1900s, including the Prime Minister of Spain, the President of France, and the King of Italy. Their code of "propoganda by the deed" justified random acts of violence and murder; they believed that only by exploding the old order, literally, could freedom be gained.

Their tactics caused a backlash of anger, not just against anarchy, but against any group or movement that formed their base or lent even tacit support: immigrants, labor agitators, small c communists. Given that, what is the motivation, in 2005, of calling one's self an anarchist? Many of us know modern anarchy only through reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick's book length reply to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Nozick later backed away from much of this book (and even in his original formulation, he believed that pure anarchy was unachievable, although the barest minimal state that could be contrived was the only one he could endorse). Nevertheless, it remains a philosophical lodestode for the more rigorous type of political libertarian. These folks lack one notable animus of the bomb-throwing anarchists: they don't hate capitalism. In fact, they often call themselves anarcho-capitalists. They celebrate anarchy as the blossoming of enterprise, and in that and most others senses seem to have little to do with the other set of people who call themselves anarchists these days, the anti-globalization Nike-haters, Frankenfood neurotics, tree sitters, and people with "Free Rob Thaxton" bumperstickers.

Why, in the absence of a clear philosophical or tactical similarity, do either of these two groups call themselves "anarchists" ?? I am interested because of the abuse I've taken at times as a supporter of states' rights, which other than pasting a Confederate battle flag in the back of your domestic pickup truck window, is the best way to get yourself called a segregationist bigot these days. It's bad enough having to put up with the baggage when there is a philosophical connection. Why would you do it when there's not?

21 comments:

Jay D. Homnick said...

Fabulous, Kathy. The photographs, the arguments: a classic.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Can anarchists have a spokesperson?

Here in Oregon, anarchists are percieved as vandals and business haters (esp. certain coffee and burger joints).

That perception is at least partly true, and the news media perpetuates that perception.

When the anti-war demonstrations in Portland erupted in violence a few years ago the "demonstrators" blamed all of the vandalism on anarchists; the news media just parrotted those comments without investigation.

Hence my question.

If the anarchists are *NOT* the vandals that we (I) percieve them to be, why have they not tried to set the record straight?

I believe Kathy is saying that my perception is very close to reality.

Hunter Baker said...

Really dug the photos, Kathy. You're doing your own James Lileks thing here. Good stuff.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Thanks, Jay. If anyone would like to see more of John's New York photos, he's posted some here.

(For the curious: most, but not all, of the photo titles are from the Pogues song Thousands are Sailing.)

Kathy Hutchins said...

Hunter -- if you put my name in the same sentence with James Lileks's again (in the absence of some prominent emblem of negation like not, never, no way....) my ego will get so large I'll have to go confess my sins of pride in one of those lame-o face-to-face "reconciliation rooms" that look like the hospital cubicles where you register for outpatient surgery.

Hunter Baker said...

He is quite good, isn't he? Nevertheless, the compliment stands.

James Elliott said...

Supporting states' rights gets you branded a bigot? Despite the ill uses to which states rights have been put, people should take way more time to understand the principles of your position before doing that. That's just shoddy thinking.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

My perception:

If you are a conservative in favor of "states rights" you are branded a bigot.

If you are a liberal in favor of "states rights" you are merely pissed off about Bush v. Gore 2000 and/or you live in Oregon and want to smoke dope.

Again ... just my perception.

Tlaloc said...

"Given that, what is the motivation, in 2005, of calling one's self an anarchist?"

I can only speak for myself in this matter. For me then it's a simple matter of accuracy. Anarchism means without leaders or without authority and that is the simplest description of my political views as can be found within the English language.

That others have also used the term in ways I may not agree with or even believe truly represent anarchistic views is unfortunate. More annoying is corporate media deliberate misconstuing of the term to mean "chaos." No matter how many times you read it what happened in New Orleans was not Anarchy.

Tlaloc said...

"Here in Oregon, anarchists are percieved as vandals and business haters (esp. certain coffee and burger joints)."

Speak for yourself. Not all Oregonians see anarchists that way.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

I should've qualified my statement.

Most non-alleged-anarchist Oregonians ...

Tlaloc said...

"Most non-alleged-anarchist Oregonians ... "

I still suspect you're wrong but at least now it's open to doubt. Let me guess you live in Eastern Oregon?

mindflame said...

I’d beg to differ with anarchist; what happened in New Orleans sure was anarchy according to dictionary.com.

Tlaloc said...

"I’d beg to differ with anarchist; what happened in New Orleans sure was anarchy according to dictionary.com."

No it wasn't. It was chaos. Dictionary.com is a decent resource but is wrong in this case. Anarchy means without leaders or without authority, it does not mean without order. Chaos means without order. The two words are not identical or even corellated as it's quite possible to be orderly without leaders and chaotic with them.

The Liberal Anonymous said...

Sorry, Tlaloc, but anarchy means either of those things. (My sources are the OED and the fact that usage dictates meaning.) You were using it in a correct way, and so is mindflame.

However, it's all rather meaningless. You claim to be an anarchist, and the definition that you use to make that claim is a correct definition.

Tlaloc said...

"Sorry, Tlaloc, but anarchy means either of those things. (My sources are the OED and the fact that usage dictates meaning.) You were using it in a correct way, and so is mindflame."

I have to disagree that usage dictates meaning. What has happened to the word anarchy is that it's meaning has been confused with that of another word by ignorance or deliberate misuse resulting in the loss of distinction between the two words in common parliance. While this may be pretty typical it is not particularly desirable as it leads to a loss of accuracy. So we have a choice: allow it to continue or strive for precision.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

"I still suspect you're wrong but at least now it's open to doubt. Let me guess you live in Eastern Oregon?"


Western Oregon.

I live in Benton County, just north of Eugene, AKA kook central.

The vast majority of my colleagues were Gore/Kerry voters. These are the poeple (and myself) whom I speak of.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

"I have to disagree that usage dictates meaning..."

Perhaps usage dictates interpretation would be more accurate.

The same can be said for the word liberal. A liberal today is most definitely different than a liberal of 100 years ago.

Tlaloc said...

"I live in Benton County, just north of Eugene, AKA kook central.
The vast majority of my colleagues were Gore/Kerry voters. These are the poeple (and myself) whom I speak of."

Odd. I lived in Eugene for about twenty years and it has quite a large anarchist population.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

I was vague in my last post, sorry.

The preception that anarchists are vandals etc... comes not just from me, but from my colleagues as well, the vast majority of which are Gore/Kerry voters.

I believe that Eugene still has a large anarchist population (halfway down page).

Again ... I am talking about *perception*.

mindflame said...

I don't buy the whole premise for archaism. How can you have order without authority? Even if the authority derives from the people then it is still authority. Without any authority everyone seeks there own personal best interest (like they did in New Orleans). It would be as you say chaos. This is probably why you do not have big anarchist organizations, everyone would try to do things their own personal way.