Why we should listen to anarchists in the age of Trump

A protester faces off with a line of riot police during a demonstration after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) A protester faces off with a line of riot police during a demonstration after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Among the sweeping changes that President Donald J. Trump has already brought to Washington with his inauguration is the specter of window-breaking anarchists.

“Less than two miles from the inaugural ceremonies,” The Washington Post reported on the front page of its website on Friday evening, “anarchists marched through the city’s streets, smashing bus-stop glass, vandalizing businesses and lighting fires.” It goes unexplained how the paper was able to confirm that these protesters were adherents of anarchist political philosophy, since fascists, soccer fans and others have been known for such conduct at times. (To The Post’s credit, at least, if these are the same protesters who also punched white nationalist Richard Spencer in the face, that pretty well points in the anarchist direction.) But whatever you think of such mayhem, or regardless of whom you accuse of it, anarchism is a tradition of thought and practice that we would do well to reconsider in times such as this.

Anarchism shares common roots in the late Enlightenment with liberal republicanism, through figures like William Godwin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. They agreed with earlier liberals like Locke, for instance, that people have the capacity to reason and the dignity to self-govern; the difference was that they went further in seeking self-governance at every level and in every corner of life. An occasional ballot box is not enough. Anarchism is not content with any form of coercion, whether by countries or corporations or an electoral college. It is skeptical of all pretenders to authority, like God’s warnings about kings in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ indifference to the powers that pretended to rule Palestine in his time. This is the anarchism, for instance, that Dorothy Day inherited and lived by.

On a day that saw the ascent of a man who promises to personally deliver more weapons, walls and wealth for some, anarchism offers a stark alternative. It calls for a politics that doesn’t begin and end with politicians.

Friday’s protests cried this message from the streets—again, regardless of what you think about property damage. They sought to turn our attention away from the presidential performance, to assert that other voices need to be heard besides those speaking from the Capitol steps, to dramatize the dangers they see coming.

On Saturday, women and their supporters marched in Washington and across the country. They have been criticized—like countless other historic demonstrations—for lacking a clear and disciplined enough message, for the likely absence of an immediate outcome translatable into legislation. Somehow it is not enough that they might be doing it for themselves and each other.

Another version of this alternative was evident, also, in the populism of the late 19th century, another era in which rural Americans rose up against the urban elites. But that time, the uprising found its chief footing in farmers’ cooperatives and labor unions—organizations of working people working to meet their own needs. Big men like William Jennings Bryan tried to ride the wave to power, but they mostly failed. Still, within a few decades, the populists’ demands came to pass—then-radical notions like a flexible money supply, women’s suffrage and a progressive income tax.

For the past year or two, we have been living in a theater of the absurd—subjected mercilessly to each latest utterance, and breathless commentary upon it, by one of the delusional egoists who made themselves front-runners for the presidency of the United States. This reality TV show has been going on for far too long, monopolizing our attention far too much. We have formed an addiction to politicians as saviors, as entertainers, as conversation-starters and conversation-stoppers, as pantomimes.

If there’s one thing that unites the populist uprisings in both major parties—on behalf of Bernie Sanders on the left and Trump on right—it is a feeling of powerlessness. Their supporters agree, for instance, about how sweeping international trade pacts have subjected their lives and livelihoods to forces beyond their control. Factories close without explanation or accountability to the communities that depend on them; the economy is supposed to have recovered, but so many of us are still living month-to-month, if that. And as far as those of us who can’t afford lobbyists are concerned, the people in charge do not seem to care.

One way of dealing with this chronic alienation is to rise up and elect a political outsider who describes the world as a horrible distopia that only he can save us from. But there are other ways, too.

Despite the caricatures of black-bloc-style chaos, the bulk of anarchist tradition has sought for people to be better organized in their everyday lives—while they work, where they live, how they manage disagreements. This type of power emanates from below, and it is shared. Anarchists aspire to a kind of world in which the Donald Trumps among us can shout all they want but nobody has the need for flocking to them. Real, daily democracy does not leave much room for quite so much greatness.

Barbara DeCoursey Roy
2 months ago

Your comments on the values of anarchy made me think about the Catholic notion of base communities and liberation theology as an antidote to the current American malaise.

Lisa Weber
2 months ago

I am no fan of violence, but if the anarchists punched Richard Spencer in the head, they deserve at least a little praise because someone needed to do it. Maybe it will cause him to rethink his own call to violence.

Horace Willis
2 months ago

The people being shown in the news are in my view anarchists in only the loosest sense of the word. I am an anarchist and I condemn them for their initiation of force. Anarchy means "no rulers" rather than "no rules". To me, modern anarchy is based on the non-aggression principle. It represents a purely voluntary society. The only time force is justified is in defense of self, others or property. In that case, it's use it fully justified.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months ago

To HW, Can't say I'm an anarchist even by your definition but I respect your viewpoint. A velvet, not a violent revolution is certainly what is called for to achieve a more bottom up than top down government. The violent actions of certain anarchists in the past can be used, as Cosgrove does his usual here, to paint (splatter) with a broad brush. But, even if pacifist, agent provocateurs are to be expected, especially under the present reign.

J Cosgrove
2 months ago

Anarchy or anarchist can be a fluid concept. It sounds like the author and commenters think of it as almost pacifist. But in history it has been anything but. Traditionally it has been atheistic and violent. The last time it held much political power (even though it supposedly eschewed politics) was in Spain prior to the civil war. One way to understand anarchism as practiced in Spain and which was very violent and anti Catholic/religion is to read a fantastic novel by Jose Maria Gironella titled

The Cypresses Believe in God

http://amzn.to/2jmSGPR

It is very long but provides insight to all the political forces leading up to the Civil War. The anarchists are covered in detail.

The anarchist burned any church they could get to and killed priests, nuns and brothers by the thousands. In Barcelona they tried to destroy the Sagrada Familia but because it was mostly stone, did not succeed. They did destroy all the plans and materials inside the church but the stone exterior held.

The basic philosophy has no place in a modern world, It sounds nice in conversation with talk of cooperation and liberty and freedom from government. The reason it can not succeed is because it is based on the cooperation of a small number of associated people and nothing further. It may have been possible in a hunter gatherer society but even there it was too restrictive to remain viable. It certainly cannot succeed in a modern society where tens of thousands (probably a lot higher) are inter connected at a minimum.

There is nothing in a free market capitalist society that says that people cannot organize this way but it will be very inefficient and will fall under this inefficiency.

Iven Heister
2 months ago

I appreciated this writeup, in particular the paragraph about the kinship anarchism has with Enlightenment liberal republicanism and the paragraph about the 'theater of the absurd' we have been caught up in for the past year and a half. I'm wondering if you would consider continuing this line of thought in these pages.

Carlos Orozco
2 months ago

"It has become very apparent that the left views Trump’s election as an absolute calamity. But it is a calamity that they brought upon themselves.

The left remained silent while the Obama administration spent two full terms at war. They excused Obama’s NSA scandals. They cheered the growth of an imperial presidency and an activist judiciary.

But worst of all, the left poisoned America with vicious identity politics and a deeply false narrative of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and privilege. How could a backlash not occur?

What matters most in the upcoming years is not what Trump can actually do in the face of this hatred. What matters is what he can undo."

-Ron Paul

Lisa Weber
2 months ago

Blaming Trump's election on President Obama makes no sense at all. Donald Trump has promoted hate, misogyny, xenophobia, environmental degradation - and all of that is his doing. He owns the cesspool that he created.

Carlos Orozco
2 months ago

Lisa,
I think a successful Obama presidency would have made a Donald Trump victory impossible. How else could we explain the American electorate going from embracing the postmodern messiahship of Barack Obama to joining the protest vote for Trump? The CIA narrative (with zero evidence) of Russian hacking just doesn't cut it.

Who is to blame for the disasters of Ukraine, Libya, Syria and Yemen? Was it Trump that ordered regime change in those countries?
How did President Obama curtail the surveillance state once the Snowden blew the whistle?
How did President Obama protect the blue collar worker from the excesses of free trade?
How did President Obama curtail the power of the fraudulent banking system that he helped reinflate after the 2007/2008 crisis?

Lisa Weber
2 months ago

There is not "zero evidence" of Russian hacking, for one. The other questions have to be answered by a president and Congress together. You cannot blame all of it on President Obama. Among other things, he faced relentless obstruction by the Republicans in Congress.

Carlos Orozco
2 months ago

What is the "evidence"? Strange that the left is now outraged when the CIA's propaganda is not immediately accepted as fact.
After eight years of meta-constitutional powers, Barack Obama cannot blame Congress for his failures. Let's hope Congress takes back power it has relinquished for, at the very least, the last two Executive administrations.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

One of the pope’s senior advisers urged Mr. Trump to listen to “dissenting” voices when it comes to the environment.
Michael O'LoughlinMarch 30, 2017
A deeper dive on 'Amoris Laetitia' is planned for the World Meeting of Families, to be held in Dublin in August 2018.
Gerard O'ConnellMarch 30, 2017
There would be no atheists if God appeared in the sky. But there’d be no believers either.
Terrance KleinMarch 29, 2017
Catholic Charities agencies across the United States could face huge budget holes should Congress approve the president’s proposed budget.
Michael O'LoughlinMarch 29, 2017