Fifteen years ago today, on February 2nd, 2002, I became an anarchist. I was nineteen, living in NYC, and I attended the World Economic Forum protests. I knew the anarchists by reputation only — they wore all black and they smashed things. They were going to wear masks in defiance of NYC’s anti-mask laws. I wanted to know why, so I approached a man with his face obscured by a black bandanna.
“What’s anarchism?” I asked.
“Well, we hate capitalism and the state.” He was very forthcoming, which I appreciated.
“What do you all do about it?”
“We build up alternative institutions without hierarchy while attacking and interfering with the existing, oppressive ones we despise.”
“Oh,” I said. I pondered this for a moment, but honestly only a moment. “Do you have an extra mask?”
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” —Assata Shakur
I admit, I’m terrified.
(Usually I write blogposts several days ahead of time and put them through several rounds of edits. This one I wrote and posted this morning, because even though I’ve been thinking about, and listening to others’ thoughts about, a Trump victory, I didn’t actually think it was going to happen.)
We don’t know what happens now. We don’t know if all our much-acclaimed checks and balances will keep the status quo of the country (already a totalitarian nightmare of police check points, deportations, stop and frisk, and mass incarceration for many of its inhabitants) intact. We do know that this nation elected an “unelectable” racist demagogue who quotes Mussolini, brags about sexually assaulting women, and isn’t even a very good businessman.
We also know that the Republicans control the house and senate. This isn’t unprecedented: George Bush, Jr. came into office with a republican majority congress as well. Which didn’t go so well for anyone, at home or abroad, though most of us survived it.
There’s a simple-but-effective “political compass” used by many people I know. “Compass” has always seemed like a misnomer, and I prefer the word “map.” This map has two axes: left/right economics and libertarian/authoritarian structure. The idea is that individuals, groups, and societies can be placed on the map so that they can be understood in relation to one another.
It’s a good starting point. I’d like to expound upon it by recalibrating it and providing further subdivisions.
I was driving through northwestern Ohio, which from the car window sure looks like a series of small towns strung out along cornfields. No offense to cornfields of course. My high school in Maryland was surrounded on three sides by cornfields. But my phone was broken so I was stuck listening to the radio and I’d made the mistake of tuning in to the local Christian talk radio station.
When I was young and naive I half-heartedly campaigned for Ralph Nader. It was the year 2000 and I wasn’t quite old enough to vote but I had a green party pin on the lapel of my corduroy blazer. I’m as embarrassed of my teenage fashion choices as I am of having ever supported third party politics, if I’m being honest.
I had my excuses and talking points all lined up. Not about the corduroy, there’s no excusing corduroy. About the pin. About Ralph Nader.
“He’s unelectable,” someone might say.
“That’s only because we assume it to be true,” I said. “The only reason we’re locked into a two-party system is because people say we are.”
I think I got that line from my friend, the Nader campaign coordinator on campus. Thanks to the Nader campaign, he and I both got to feel like we were part of something important.
Nader lost, and a year later I realized that the only reason we’re trapped in capitalism and statist politics is because people assume we are. People assume revolution is off the table. People assume that taking autonomy for ourselves and defending it is off the table. We, as people, can reconstruct society to be anything we want it to be, and I’d been wasting my time imagining spending that potential on some vaguely-better version of the status quo.
I left Seattle on an Amtrak. Heading north, I saw the Olympic peninsula burning. I was watching a rainforest on fire. Rainforests aren’t supposed to be on fire.
I felt almost nothing.
I’ve heard it called “disaster fatigue.” No one on the train reacted while the announcer told us what we were watching. I’d been a committed environmentalist anarchist for more than a decade, and I was numb.
Toilets, at the very least those conceived by Western cultures, are a blindingly stupid idea. Civilization is full of incredibly stupid ideas, actually. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to toilets.
Toilets a bad idea because flushing our sewage is stupid and because the sitting position is a stupid one to be in when you shit.
Toilet were an improvement at the time, don’t get me wrong. We do have to deal with our sewage. Ignoring it is poisonous, and any sedentary community of even a modest population density is going to have to do something with their shit. So yes, moving to toilets was a step in the right direction. But they were a half-revolution.
Anyone who claims to know much about the gods of the trash is lying. The lore regarding these deities is obscure and has largely been fabricated. This article is, of course, as guilty as any other.
But humans evolved to be scavengers, and we’ve been pantheists and polytheists a lot longer than we’ve been atheists. Metaphorical or not, there are gods of refuse and waste. Their whim determines when and what a scavenger may eat.
In the civilized world, we’re offered an order, a consistency in life, that one rarely gets outside of polite society. It’s also probably why so many of us are so bored and depressed. At the risk of sounding banal, civilization is god to most people these days; it is the single provider of all of their needs. It’s the illusory force that people have chosen to sink their faith into.
It’s fascinating to watch the atheist veneer peel away from people who choose or are forced to live off the excess of society. An ironic superstition turns to half-earnest prayer within months. Ask most us: whether or not we actually believe in the gods of the trash is immaterial. We still worship them.
But the label isn’t really what matters. What does a city that’s not a city look like? That’s where it gets interesting.
The settlement of cities is one of the primary traits that distinguishes a civilization from other forms of societal structuring, like a band or a tribe. And if we’re looking to move past civilization (which is the core theme of my column), we’d better take a closer look at cities themselves.
My dictionary told me that a city is a large town. That didn’t do me much good, so I turned to town: “an urban area that has a name, defined boundaries, and local government….” And immediately, a lot of the problems with cities are apparent.
Government is an easy one for me to dismiss: I’m an anarchist. I don’t believe in “the State” or what is traditionally construed as government. I don’t like the idea of one central body that makes all the decisions. And I don’t like being told that all I get to do is pick the person who makes the decisions for me. I’m much more interested in community and individual self-governance. There’s that old cliche: democracy is two sheep and three wolves deciding what to have for dinner. Well, at least that’s a cliche in the circles I run in.
The first thing to know about surviving the apocalypse is this: you’re not going to survive the apocalypse. You’re not special. If everyone dies? That includes you. If the ecological crisis that triggers the collapse (my money is on runaway global warming, personally) doesn’t get you, then the further militarization of our society probably will.
If you want to survive, and I cannot express this strongly enough, you should not go run and hide in your little isolated cabin somewhere by yourself or with five of your friends! (Unless there are zombies.) If you simply retreat and wait for the world to right itself, you’re a coward and not even a very bright one; if you leave all of the work to other people, things aren’t going to come out so pretty. It is this sort of cowardice, this individualistic gusto, that arguably got us into this trouble in the first place. If you stand idly by and watch a fascistic army take control, you will, in the end, die. If you don’t try to organize with people to kickstart a permacultured agriculture to feed people, you will, in the end, die. If you live with two other people and never see another living soul again in your life? You might survive, but you might very well wish you hadn’t. When your appendix ruptures and whoops you forgot that your brother isn’t a surgeon? You will die.
Like it or not, humans are social animals. Our best hope to stay alive, and furthermore, to thrive, after an apocalyptic event is to discover social solutions.