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Will Weikart, "Renewing the Anarchist Tradition"

"Old Bottles, New Wine:

Renewing the Anarchist Tradition"

Will Weikart

Anarchists today are relatively united by our dual commitment to anti-capitalism and anti-statism and the general feel that both are necessary in themselves but also insufficient in themselves.We have a long history of being varyingly, paradoxically 1. misunderstood and misrepresented (over-blown), and 2. ignored altogether or not taken seriously (under-blown or not blown), in mass media and in the academy, respectively.  Regarding #1, to call anarchists misunderstood is generous because as a group we have repeatedly tried to convey our message(s) and represent ourselves to media that seem systematically incapable, in this era of the sound- and image-byte, of allowing even vaguely nuanced statements and truly critical analysis. 

Especially since the Seattle anti-WTO protests of 1999, The Big Scary Anarchists have served in the US (and other) popular imaginary(-ies) as the stereotypically masked, black-clad, allegedly violent bogey(wo)men (read: scapegoats) of the anti-globalization (or alter-globalization) protest movement - for both the sensational mainstream media and in the intelligence gathering efforts and pre-emptive repression by local and national law enforcement.  We are the embodiment of the “bad protesters” who are dangerous and who are over and against the imagined “good protesters”. 

Maintenance of the shroud of myth and misinformation clearly serves propaganda purposes too.  No wonder the coincidence since so much fodder for the media is gathered directly and uncritically through other official, news-producing bureaucracies such as police forces.  Dominant myths that circulate are at best misunderstandings and misinformation; at worst they are outright (police) lies which often take absurd form.  (“Anarchists’ plans to unleash venomous serpents on the city during RNC” etc.  etc.  This is hilarious but it’s…no joke.)

Likewise, as a legitimate and coherent social movement, anarchists are rarely acknowledged as such by the often dismissive or even hostile academy.  This is due only in part to old debates on the left between orthodox and/or sectarian marxists (many of whom found homes in university settings) and anarchists.  And it is increasingly disturbing since it has become clear to many observers that the global anarchist movement is growing and attracting new folks every day.  So the anarchists are a perpetual source of frustration for everyone from law enforcement to media to other potential left allies…to themselves (speaking for myself).

This second observation, concerning the academy, is at least somewhat understandable since anarchists, particularly in the US context, have typically harbored a mistrust of all institutions, very much including the academy. Unfortunately, the way this often gets translated is a dogmatic and widespread anti-theory, anti-intellectual stance in favor of “action”. This to me is merely another appropriation of the generalized anti-intellectual legacy and climate so unique to the US.  Even as a grad student I share much of this anti-academic sensibility but I begin to have problems where theory and intellectualism get conflated into academicism.  As the redheaded stepchildren of the left, anarchists’ own relative isolation is due partly to a combination of rejection/exile efforts by the old left and anarchists’ own self-imposed alienation and structured incapacities.  Everywhere is disjunction where there should be conjunction. 

Alas, on September 24-26, around 200 anarchists from the US and beyond (Canada, UK) gathered at the lushly verdant, quaint campus of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont for the 4th annual Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference.  Organizers said that this was the biggest draw of any RAT thus far. I’m not alone in seeing the conference as a much-needed attempt at addressing these types of concerns, as well as a space for anarchists to share ideas and update our theory where needed.  New York City sent many participants — at least three cars full but probably more — and among them, at least three CUNY Graduate Center students, two of whom were panelists/presenters.

This year’s conference was co-organized by the Institute for Social Ecology (founded I think by Murray Bookchin) and the Institute for Anarchist Studies.  The Goddard campus is just minutes from the main ISE facility that offers classes and houses several computer terminals, a sizeable library and many resources for activists/thinkers who are particularly interested in ecology.  Conference attendees stayed both in the empty Goddard College dorms (due to recent fiscal crises the students must now all live off-campus) and in tents on the ISE land.  In accord with stereotypes, attendees were by and large white and young (college-aged) bearded men (ha ha) but there was notable age diversity, a pretty good gender balance, and some queer presence.

RAT clearly succeeds in creating a much-needed space and context for theoretically oriented anarchists (most of whom, indeed, are also activists involved in various projects “on the ground”) — who think there is life beyond Bakunin, Proudhon and Kropotkin — to strategize and share ideas.  Panels were eclectic and covered topics as diverse as: anarcho-primitivism; Bataille’s radical subjectivity and carnival; fashion; autonomism; radical art movements and anarchism; the anti-authoritarian imagination in post-Bop musics; dual power; the commodity; horizontalidad; gender, race and power; international solidarity; and post-anarchism (the long-overdue and promising cross-fertilization of post-structural theories and anarchist thought).  There were also workshops on stenciling/street art and media, puppet performances, an art installation on the history of gender, and much campfire camaraderie.

In terms of affect, affirmation, openness and general good will, I’ll take RAT over the old Socialist Scholars (R.I.P.?) any day!  This was easily one of my best conference experiences and I plan to attend consistently in the future.  Unlike the recent anti-authoritarian (but not explicitly anarchist) Life After Capitalism conference, RAT managed to apparently altogether avoid sectarians’/vanguardists’ attempts at disruption or sabotage.


For more info on RAT please visit RAT