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.