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

by Guy Berliner Tuesday, Aug. 07, 2001 at 7:32 AM

Does this "favorable" article in the Chicago Tribune signal an important but little heralded opening?

[Apologies for duplicates. The earlier submission had the serious defect of failing to clearly set off my remarks from the excerpt of the Tribune article itself. IMCers: please delete the earlier submission. Sorry.]

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.
  from Ron Grossman, "Rebels with many causes,"  Chicago Tribune, August 5, 2001 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 the 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 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 vilification.

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 http://www.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=57531&group=webcast 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 seeming 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 "suburbanization.

"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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