Politicians and media pundits often use the term “anarchists” to conjure images of lawless hooligans causing mindless destruction, warning of a dystopian world that might exist without the rule of law.
In reality, anarchists have been involved in some of the most significant political projects of the last two centuries, whether it’s striking workers winning the eight-hour work day or communities coming together to participate in mutual aid projects. But HBO’s new six-part docuseries, “The Anarchists,” features self-described anarchists of a whole different variety: self-interested capitalists and crypto bros.
Anarchists carrying the torch of the long-standing political tradition are cringing at the series’ portrayal of anarchism as being compatible with capitalism. The series is ultimately a character-driven drama about murder and interpersonal conflicts, not a political documentary focused on ideology. But uncritically using the term anarchist to describe capitalists mystifies actual anarchist politics for the average viewer, they say.
“Their conception of anarchism is just completely and totally divorced from the 175-plus year political history of the anarchist movement,” Cam Pádraig, an anarchist who organizes with the Black Rose Anarchist Federation in the Bay Area, an anarchist socialist organization, told Motherboard. “Anarchism is a cooperative political doctrine critical of both the state and capitalism, and the filmmaker Todd Schramke… makes no attempt at addressing that at all.”
The series follows the growth of, and conflict within, the annual “Anarchapulco” conference in Acapulco, Mexico. Founded by entrepreneur and long-winded YouTuber Jeff Berwick in 2015, Anarchapulco caters to middle-to-upper class mostly white American expats who promote “free market” libertarian capitalism, as theorized by far-right thinkers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. In their view, governments should be abolished and everything should be privatized. Police officers would be replaced by private security forces, and public schools would become for-profit charter schools.
“The Anarchists” filmmaker Todd Schramke is friendly with Berwick, and has said in the past that he is influenced by public figures like Stefan Molyneux, a white supremacist infamous for amplifying disproven theories of eugenics and “scientific racism.” In addition to more traditional libertarian capitalists, Berwick’s Anarchapulco has more recently become a home for cryptocurrency and “web3” enthusiasts, who are hawking digital assets like NFTs and even trying to, uh, monetize colors.
“It's completely uncritical in a way that I haven't ever seen,” Jen Rogue, another anarchist who organizes with Black Rose in Texas, told Motherboard of the series. “Usually when you see people do documentaries on things that a filmmaker is sympathetic towards, there's usually some vague attempted balance or kind of deeper thinking. It’s just so shallow and propagandistic.”
Of course, the feud has moved online too.
After the anarchist news organization It’s Going Down critiqued HBO’s misuse of the term “anarchist” and called Berwick an anti-semitic grifter in a barrage of tweets, Berwick responded with a 30-minute YouTube rant in which he claimed his detractors were just “unhappy,” “poor,” and “jealous” of wealthy people and told them to “work on themselves.”
So-called Anarchist capitalists, or “ancaps” as they are sometimes called, have long battled with anti-capitalist anarchists over the use of the term “libertarian” which was historically associated with anti-capitalist anarchist politics as far back as 1858. That is until the 1970s, when laissez faire capitalists in the United States co-opted the term by forming the hyper-individualist Libertarian Party.
Berwick’s conception of libertarianism is clearly of the individualist bent. He chose Acapulco, Mexico as a landing pad for what some attendees call their “tribe” because it “seemed anarchist” to him. “The buses were all private, they race to get you. They got the music,” he says to the camera with a grin in the first episode. “Everyone is drinkin.’ All the girls are sayin’ hi.”
Anarchapulco guests stay in a luxury hotel, worship bitcoin and mingle with others who lament the statist American sheeple and their bloodsucking central banks. They seem to be suburbanites who are understandably bored by, and wish to flee, the mind-numbing grind of American life. Some who decide to stay for the long haul live out their fantasies in mansions together, a power dynamic anti-capitalist anarchists consider colonialist.
“One major thing that immediately stuck out to me, especially in episode one, as they were getting into people's backstories as to how they ended up in Anarchapulco, was this dynamic of expats moving to Mexico, making a village and not really interacting with locals, just straight up being colonizers in every humanly possible way,” Robin Young, an anarchist with Black Rose who lives in Miami, told Motherboard.
“They have little to no interest in or regard for the local population at all, which, in any case, are to be but material resources to further develop settlers' communities,” she continued. “They consider themselves an entitled ‘vanguard’ tasked with developing the ‘land’ of ‘uncharted’ financial freedom as a way to gain social liberties. Acapulco, as part of Mexican territory, is the ‘new’ land where this can be done—not for the sake of this territory, which is regarded as a pure source for resources.”
Berwick claims he’s an anarchist because he doesn’t believe in rulers, and doesn’t think anyone should be a slave. But for anti-capitalist anarchists, capitalism can’t be anarchistic because the economic system relies on rulers—bosses and owners—to coercively extract profits from a laboring class. Anarchists therefore consider “anarchist capitalism” to be oxymoronic.
“One Anarchapulco attendee Larken Rose framed taxes as giving your master the fruits of your labor, when they're expressly capitalists,” Pádraig pointed out. “They ignore the fundamental organization of production that is capitalism which is predicated on your boss extracting the complete value of your work from you. The fruits of your labor are being stolen from you.”
Anarchists of the socialist variety argue for workplaces that are democratically controlled by workers themselves, not bosses or state bureaucrats. Food, water, essential goods and art would be produced and freely shared and distributed in accordance to the needs and desires of people in a community, not the desires and needs of capitalists.
“That obviously, makes us very different from what the so-called libertarians believe,” Pádraig explains, “but it also makes us very different from what the State Socialists believe, because the State Socialists believe that you need to have an economy that is controlled on behalf of the working class through the managers of the state.”
Outside of a workplace context, some anarchists propose building neighborhood assemblies, where issues are debated and discussed face-to-face. Rotating delegates from assemblies could then meet at regional and even global assemblies to relay what was discussed at their local assemblies to the larger group. In such a system, they propose, people would cultivate a free society collectively.
“The ancaps’ idea of freedom is freedom from anybody interfering or talking to or being around them that isn't like, in their cult, or whatever,” said Rogue, the anarchist from Austin. “And to me, my idea of liberty is for everyone in my community to have everything they need to be the best version of themselves.”
Many anarchists are inspired by the Rojava Revolution in North and East Syria, and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. Both are large-scale, stateless anti-capitalist movements building decision-making structures from the bottom up.
“If the documentarian, or if HBO itself, wanted to produce a documentary about anarchists in Mexico, they have a long history they can pull from,” said Pádraig. He pointed to the anarchist-influenced Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) that helped spark the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Young, the anarchist from Miami, emphasized the pro-choice Green Wave, which successfully fought for decriminalizing abortion in Mexico.
“You have these histories that exist, you have contemporary anarchists in Mexico, but instead of doing that, instead of focusing a documentary which is ostensibly supposed to be about those groups of people, you are focusing on a niche of expat Americans who are using the power and influence they've accrued to individually change their lives by moving to this place,” said Pádraig. “It’s just totally absurd.”
Anarchists interviewed by Motherboard for this story withheld their real last names, citing concerns for their safety.