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Chicago Tribune article: Almost fair to "anarchists"!?

by Guy Berliner Tuesday, Aug. 07, 2001 at 7:00 AM

What should we make of this article in the Chicago Tribune? Could it be one sign of an important if little heralded opening for radical political ideas in this country?

An excerpt:

Those images of protesters clad in black with their faces

hidden behind scarves and hoods as they stormed police

lines in Genoa make it tempting to dismiss their opposition

to globalization as stemming from anger, not reflection.

The name of their rallying cry doesn't help

either. Anarchism sounds too much like a synonym for the

chaos and confusion they recently brought to the streets

of Italy and to previous economic summits in Seattle,

Washington, D.C., Melbourne, Prague and Quebec City. Yet

it would be foolish to write off those young militants

as inspired by nothing more profound than "Easy Rider" or

some other version of the Hells Angels' philosophy of life.

The anarchist movement has a long history and a perfectly

coherent ideology.

It is not likely to go away anytime soon. It is more

likely due for a renaissance. Arguably, it is tailor-made

for the increasing numbers of people who feel alienated

by the incessant absorption of all the Earth's societies

and local cultures into a brave, new, one world of free

trade and Golden Arches.

That last mouthful may sound a bit mystical. But anarchism

can be easily understood by considering a kind of

work-a-day experience many of us share.

Take a gander at this article, you radicals you, and pray

tell what you think of it. This could signal an important opening

for discussion.

I'm trying to make up my mind on whether this article was

favorable or unfavorable. I'm having a hard time deciding.

On the one hand, we can rejoice when any radical, visionary

political ideas are treated with anything other than

total contempt and vilification in the corporate press. (Am I

the only one here who noticed the irony of this article

appearing in the same rightwing rag that, 115 years ago,

beat the drums most loudly for the bloodthirsty lynchmob

against the renowned anarchist martyrs of Haymarket

Square?) On the other hand, the conclusion that it leaves

us with invites dismissal of anarchism as thoroughly

quixotic tilting at windmills. It invites the reader to

view radicals as "beautiful dreamers." This serves the

interests of the powerful almost as well as contempt and


Unfortunately, a retort to this sort of

misleading and harmful argument requires skill

and careful thought. This shows our work is cut

out for us. I almost think one picture like that at


is worth more than a thousand words. But we also need some

historical analyses to really show in positive terms why

the author's dismissive conclusion is silly and wrong. I

think we could come up with many practical examples to

show that radical political thought is actually eminently

practical. Once upon a time, for example, abolitionists

would have been similarly dismissed. Or, for that matter,

should we dismiss the commandmant "Thou shalt not kill"

as silly and impractical because it is too often violated?

This makes me think that perhaps another powerful and

more accessible line of reasoning we can use in defense of

radical, visionary politics is an ethical one. Who really

thinks it's right in principle for one man or woman to

lord it over another against that person's will? Most

people would say that's wrong as a general rule. But we

don't often use or honor this sort of ethical reasoning,

or draw from it its logical conclusions in the political,

economic, and social spheres.

I often hear inane arguments against ethically

based politics, usually by people with extremely

retrograde politics, but sometimes even by self-professed

"progressives" -- arguments, for example, that the Geneva

Convention is somehow silly, because war is inherently

cruel and immoral, or the Convention's rules are regularly

violated. They thus miss entirely the moral tenor that the

Convention seeks to uphold, one entirely consistent with

humane principles, principles which, if followed, would

end war altogether. They also thus miss the importance of

demanding accountability from the powerful for abiding

by the commitments they themselves have made, and the

importance of attacking their hypocrisy when they fail

to do so. The more regularly they fail to do so (as in,

practically every war), the more powerful a tool this

could be. We must use this tool among others to discredit

the legitimacy of the rulers for failing to follow their

own rules. If those who rule are themselves shown to be

lawless, they can then rule only by force alone. This

greatly weakens them, because the strongest, most crucial

reinforcement to the rule of the powerful is the willing

submission of the ruled, without which it is ultimately

fatally undermined.

As to historical analysis, we can show people that the most

powerful individuals and institutions, when conditions are

right, can tumble like a house of cards. We already have

examples of just such collapses recently at hand. The

Soviet Empire seemed immovable in 1980. It collapsed

ten years later. Even if it wasn't really a victory for

democracy, it shows that rapid change is possible, and

oppressive institutions are anything but immortal. We

should apply this analysis further to all the other

institutions that today seem immovable to most people:

the state, the corporation, the police, and capitalism

itself. When people come to understand how relatively

young these institutions are, when they come to understand,

beneath the seemingly invincible strength, the real fragility

that undergirds them, then change will come to seem

possible, practical, necessary, and eventually, inevitable.

Eben Fodor -- in a book not ostensibly about radical

politics, _Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban

Growth and Improve Your Community_ -- makes the following

interesting remark: Having grown up in rural Maryland,

he attests that one could, in many small towns and rural

communities in this country, live for all one's formative

years without everr seeing a "cop." This held true until

relatively late in the last century. Once in a while,

one of them might appear on a trip from out of a major

city. The fact that the police state now seems to be so

much more ever present is a very recent phenomenon, and

owes much to the wider phenomenon of urban sprawl and

the attendant decimation of the countryside and rural

and smalltown life and economies in this country. The

seemingly ever present "police" are thus a product of

the perverted merger of rural life with urban life under

American capitalism, known in this country as automotive


"The police" as a specialized profession of "law

enforcement," i.e., a separate class of fulltime,

specialized "experts" charged with enforcing the law

AGAINST their fellow citizens, is a phenomenon that only

started appearing in the biggest cities of this country

around the middle of the 19th century. No doubt the

generation of Americans who fought the revolution against

British rule would have viewed such a concept with the

utmost horror, aversion, and contempt. Nor would they

have ever dreamed that freeborn American men and women

would passively submit to such a ubiquitous, omnipresent

subversion of freedom. And yet, the magic of corporate

state propaganda has made such a state of affairs seem

natural, ineluctable, and reasonable.

And so it goes with many other oppressive institutions

that are taken for granted. A detailed historical analysis

although hard work, is in order. And we ought not to fear

that it will bore people. I predict we will be surprised

to find how receptive they are to it. The support for most

such institutions is mostly cooked up by elite-controlled

media and is, to quote a popular aphorism, "a mile wide

and an inch deep."

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