My friend Nadia was in town recently, and ended up staying at my place for a couple of nights. Nadia is an agent of the mysterious Crimethinc organization. Remember Crimethinc? That anarchist collective based out of Eugene, Oregon and North Carolina made a name for itself back in the early aughts with the publication of Days of War, Nights of Love, an incendiary book of manifestos, diatribes, propaganda graphics, and general radical righteousness. Days of War, Nights of Love became the closest thing to the Situationist International for the post-Dead Kennedys generation, inspiring masses of young people to don black hoodies and quote Bakunin.
Crimethinc’s follow-up books were hit-or-miss: Evasion was rightly criticized for its suburbanite silliness (sorry, dumpster diving is not a long-term blueprint for social change), while Recipes for Disaster was an impressive and practical guide to the organizing strategies of modern activism, and probably had more direct influence on subsequent decentralized protest movements than anyone realizes. In fact, Recipes for Disaster could be seen as a handbook for the tactics of the Occupy movement, even if many of the liberals who voiced support for Occupy would dismiss such writings as unrealistic and impossibly utopian. Crimethinc is still around, and they are the same as ever. It’s actually just you that has gotten more cynical.
Of course, context is important. I had no first-hand experience with Occupy Wall Street, but I did go check out Occupy Berlin. There I saw some tents, guys playing bongos, and I heard the blaring thump of techno music. In other words, it was not significantly different from any other weekend in the park around here. One way the Powers That Be trick us, over here in Europe, is by providing an incredibly high standard of living. State-subsidized health insurance pulls the rug out from under angry radicals’ feet, and when you combine that with the visual Prozac created by huge numbers of jaw-droppingly beautiful people, you end up with a sure-fire Recipe for Complacency.
I took Nadia out on the town and introduced her to some of my friends. This proved to be awkward. Since moving to Berlin, I’ve made an effort to meet people outside of my comfort zone. I know some punks and musicians, sure, but I’ve also befriended furniture designers, elementary school teachers, anesthesiologists, moms--hell, I even know a guy who works for the World Bank. These people offer a wide range of opinions, often wildly different from my own, and I appreciate that.
But I also appreciate how someone like Nadia introducing herself as a “full-time anarchist” fucks with these people. Time and again, my friends got defensive. It wasn’t that Nadia was being aggressive; actually, quite the opposite. She was politely answering their generic conversation starter: “So, what do you do?” Her simple, passive presence was enough to throw them into ideological turmoil.
These days it seems that all sorts of people, from across the social spectrum, when pressed for their political affiliation, will describe themselves as “anarchist.” I find this vaguely annoying. It’s like the tenured college professor who refers to himself as a “Marxist.” Your politics ought to be defined by what you do, not by which political philosophers you prefer to name-drop. Nadia, at least, puts her money where her mouth is: She spends her time traveling the world, distributing radical literature, and when she’s home in Eugene she works as an environmental activist and community organizer. It was interesting to see how affronted my friends were by this, how they felt compelled to challenge and debate her, as if her very existence threw their existences into question. After a while, Nadia got tired. “I actually just wanted to hang out and have a couple of drinks,” she admitted.
As we walked home, I reflected on the evening and was reminded of a quote from Winston Churchill: “Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.” Churchill might be putting things a bit bluntly, but his point is clear: ideological evolution is natural. My friends were perhaps reacting less to Nadia’s belief system (most of them would agree with her viewpoints, at least in theory) than to her refusal to “act her age.” Fair enough, but did they have to be so brusque about it? “Your friends are pretty confrontational,” Nadia observed wearily. This was true, but to me, it also pointed to the fact that Nadia was not used to being outside of her own comfort zone. Within the countercultural circles she usually traversed, a statement like “I’m a full-time anarchist,” would be met with enthusiastic nods of affirmation, instead of confused blank stares.
A few days after Nadia left town, I went to see the World Press Photo Exhibit. This is an annual display of award-winning photojournalism, encapsulating the terrors and horrors of the last year in succinct and grizzly fashion. As I wandered amongst the images of chaos and upheaval in Tahrir Square and Tripoli, saw dead bodies in Syria or the aftermath of nuclear catastrophe in Japan, I realized that anarchy is not some abstract ideal. It’s a real thing, and it’s happening all over the world right now. It’s not fun or romantic. Here in Berlin, safe within the illusory bubble of the most pleasant city on earth, it is easy to see why any rational person fears change. We are clinging desperately to our tiny island of placid civilization, while all around us the world unfurls. Who can blame us for being self-interested, for wanting to hold on to what we have while we still can? But let’s not beat around the bush, let’s not claim lofty ideals, or attach ourselves to idealistic isms. Let’s call ourselves what we are: nihilists.