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?”
He did, and he gave it to me. Simple as that, I became an anarchist.
* * *
A few months later, I dropped out of college to ride freight trains and go to protests — it was the style at the time, you understand. We broke into abandoned houses to sleep in puppy piles and we faced overt surveillance from the feds while we met in public parks to plot zombies-against-war marches. We ate trash and shoplifted and loved one another fiercely and everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
The anthem of that summer was the album Reinventing Axl Rose by Against Me. After we were mass-arrested in DC, all of us John Does who refused to identify ourselves to police sang “Baby I’m An Anarchist” at the top of our lungs to irritate our captors and keep our spirits high as we resisted being separated, named, and charged by the system.
Some years later, the woman who wrote that album wrote another song, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist.” Well, Laura Jane Grace, so was I. Fifteen years later, I still am.
* * *
My politics have changed dramatically in the intervening almost-half-my-life, to be sure. But the core of it remains the same: I desire a world without coercive hierarchy and I believe the way to reach for that world is by individually and collectively acting directly on our desires and enabling others to do the same.
There’s some cliche I heard as a kid: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you’ve got no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you’ve got no brain.” If that’s true, I’m the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow both because I ain’t either and never have been. But the core idea — that your politics settle away from radicalism as you age — is fascinating. It’s possible that it’s happening to me, but on a different scale than liberal/conservative.
Throughout most of my twenties, I identified more with green anarchism than red: that is to say, my focus was ecology and I’d have been more likely to call myself an individualist anarchist than an anarchist communist though I likely would have told you that was a false dichotomy. Now, I suppose, I’m on the other side of that still-false dichotomy. I swapped out the green-and-black enamel star on my black hoodie for a red-and-black enamel star on my black dress coat.
I have a love for chaos, still, that will never leave me. But I’m also a lot more excited about organization.
* * *
I don’t really know what teenage anarchist me would make of mid-thirties anarchist me. I do a lot of things I thought I’d never do: I work for money and shop at box stores and pay my taxes. I prefer owning nice things when I can. I avoid breaking the law unless the law needs breaking. This last November I had to hire people to help me make buttons — though I tied my own wage to theirs and donated any profits above labor costs to avoid exploiting anyone. I write about politics more often than I go into the streets. I hang out with liberals and I don’t, by default, distrust people who don’t circle their A’s. I understand the value of compromise, in personal relationships and political coalitions both.
But I don’t really care what teenage anarchist me would think, if I’m being honest. I’m not an anarchist for the sake of old-me. I’m not an anarchist simply out of habit, but out of deep and ever-deepening conviction.
While on the surface, there are things about me that have calmed down, anti-authoritarianism and a pro-collective spirit have sunk deeper into me over the years. The difference between teenage anarchist me and adult anarchist me is the difference between the goth garb I wore in high school and the one I wear now: as a teenager, I was trying on a persona and a costume. As an adult, it’s that I’ve found the clothes and ideas that suit me.
Rebellion has taken hold of my heart. It is no longer a costume, nor a poise. I’m not trying to impress anyone anymore by how radical I am. It’s just that, at this point, I simply cannot understand the idea that someone else would be in charge of me. I simply cannot understand that one would attempt to wield economic or political power over others.
* * *
I assume I’m in it for life at this point, but I’m no longer going to say I’m certain. That is to say, I no longer tell myself I’m certain in order to cement the idea in.
I think a lot of people get tattoos related to political identity in order to keep future-them from betraying that identity — veganism, straight edge, anarchism, what-have-you. It’s a precarious sort of “certainty,” and we all know drunks who laugh about their straight edge tattoos. Maybe one day I’ll laugh about the word “sedition” tattooed across my knuckles. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.
* * *
I can’t always understand or empathize with people for whom anarchism was a phase. I try, but it’s not easy.
It’s possible that I got lucky, in that I wasn’t exposed to anarchism socially but came upon it politically. I was never a punk in high school, just a weirdo, so I was never exposed to anarchism through music or through social pressure. I chose anarchism after flirting noncommittally first with libertarianism (but quickly grew aware that corporations would run everything) and then social democracy and the green party (but the spark just wasn’t there).
I’ve found, however, that fewer people “sell out” or abandon anarchy altogether than I assumed when I was younger. I’ve found that most people don’t embrace a different political framework (state communism or liberalism, let’s say) as much as they step back from political engagement. The only part that was a “phase” for most people was the active involvement in protests and their affiliated social circles. Which makes sense to me: we’ve all got our lives to lead.
When I was nineteen, I was an anarchist and that was all I was and it consumed my entire being. I’m thirty-four now, and I’m also a writer and a geek and a musician and a thousand other things. I’m capable of getting as much emotional fulfillment from learning to craft a short story as I am from organizing a demonstration. I have as many friends who write novels or make weird costumes as I do friends who live and breath political change.
That, more than anything, is to what I attribute my ability to stay in the game to the degree that I’ve been able to. Stepping outside the A-team social scene, outside the echo chamber, is what keeps me grounded. Of course, sci-fi nerd culture is its own echo chamber too, because echo chambers are what humans make when we hang out with other humans — we’re social creatures, and our ideas influence one another’s. It’s just good to get out of one chamber and into another for awhile.
* * *
That first summer was magic. I mean that literally. Never before had I experienced such emotion, nor such power. We could do anything. We were going to change the world.
We were wrong, of course, and though we had a hand in stopping the neoliberal consensus of free trade, the world went on largely as it did before we took our queer bodies to the wheel.
But we were right, too. We changed our own worlds, each of us. We were stubborn, pretentious little shits who thought we could do anything we wanted and that the world owed us to change… and we were right on both counts and it worked. For long moments at a time, we became free.
I’ve got no regrets about teenage anarchist me. I did things I wouldn’t do now and I also accumulated all the trauma I’m still reeling from, but I’m not sorry. The only regret I’ll cop to is that one time, in Oakland all those years ago, after our freight-trains-verus-hitchhiking race down the coast from Portland, when everyone was giving one another stick-and-poke tattoos that said “up the punx” in cursive on our necks behind our ears… my only regret is that I should have gotten that tattoo. I didn’t, because I thought I might regret it.
* * *
I don’t want to be a rebel anymore. I feel older than I should, already, and I’ve got all the conflict trauma I need. I don’t want to be outside of society and I try not to be when I can. I just want to write novels and make jewelry and love my friends.
But I can’t stand to live in a world of oppression and not do anything about it. I can’t stand to be ruled by capitalism, the state, or patriarchy. I can’t stand my complicity in a white supremacist, colonialist society. I can’t stand to have a boot on my neck or my boot on someone else’s.
Some of my friends of all ages are in it for the fight, and I respect that, and I used to be. Me, I just want to win already. I want to live in comparative peace in a world of horizontalism where it doesn’t make me a rebel to think that I’m the one who is in charge of me.
Until that day, though, I guess I’m a rebel still.
17 thoughts on “I Was A Teenage Anarchist And Now I’m A Mid-Thirties Anarchist”
I think I first met you in the early 2000’s. Thanks for “keeping it real” for all these years.
My process of political awakening was much more incremental and gradual than yours, but I’m in my fifties and still an anarchist. I doubt that will ever change. It’s such a core intellectual and even spiritual part of who I fundamentally am.
If your experience is anything like mine, you will soon experience ageism changing from “you’re young and inexperienced, wait till you get older” to “you’re just an old radical too stuck in your ways to acknowledge reality”. Whatever the age of the target, ageism is pure crap.
Reflections on anarchist & non-anarchist/anti-anarchist conceptions: The truth about being an anarchist
I think the whole anti-anarchist, non-anarchist “popular conception”, and views on anarchism is really based on political ignorance, superficiality, and intellectual laziness; to which I can’t see any “remedy” that anarchists can provide to “absolve” themselves– i.e., to provide remedy to those who don’t open their eyes, unplug their ears, and clear their minds!! They are simply “beyond repair” by anyone, let alone by an anarchist. This is, of course, about “ignorant” masses which often fall prey to bigots, racist, sexist, and reactionary politicians, propagandists, agitators, and demagogues.
Then there are “educated elites” which ranges from “educated” reactionaries, to liberals, nationalists (of different kinds), Leninist, and other authoritarians who clearly see anarchists for who they are– i.e., the questioners of authority, its legitimacy and necessity. They– i.e., the “educated” folks– clearly see an anarchist as a “trouble-maker”, as an uncompromising opponent whose aim is to dismantle the latter’s unjustified, and unjustifiable authority!! To be truthful to the principle of anarchism, anarchists are exactly feared, despised, and hunted down just because of the very principle they uphold. The orientation and principle does not recognize any unjustified authority. This is what the arrogant powerful does not wish to hear, and deal with.
As to my own journey, I personally have chosen the path of non-violence myself. Anarchist can question, and argue all they want, but as a matter of principle they cannot use coercion, and dictate. No domination and subjugation of any kind, shape, and form is permissible as a matter of principle. An anarchist observes, discusses, argues, questions, reflects, speaks, writes…. But the very principle that compels anarchists to question everything, prevents them not to ever dictate anything to anyone in any relationship and at any time (libertarian, anti-authoritarian tendency).
Therefore, no anarchist can ever dictate to other comrades what path they “should” take. There is no “party line” based on the dictates of “central committee comrades”, or more specifically “Lenin’s democratic centralism”, “Proletarian Dictatorship”, “Unique and distinct racial characteristics and national categories,…”, etc. Rather, it’s about voluntary associations and mutual agreement without force or threat of force, coercion, reprisal/punishment for the “breach of party discipline”, etc. It is about only following dictates of one’s own conscience based on knowledge driven from one’s own experience, interaction, discourse, reason and reflection. Simply put, it is voluntary, neither coercive, nor mandatory. It is autonomous, and it is decentralized.
In short, anarchists face the reactions of non-anarchists without being able to change their position based on the very principle of anarchism. Again, anarchists who have chosen a certain path for themselves cannot dictate it to another anarchist!! As Mikhail Bakunin observed: “Every anarchist [anti-authoritarian] is a socialist [egalitarian], but not every socialist is anarchist”. This means that an anarchist is both equality/justice seeker, and anti-authoritarian/libertarian, seeker of liberty from all domination and subjugation. Therefore, to be clear about the meaning of the term (anarchist), my suggestion is to use anti-authoritarian/libertarian egalitarian to clarify the meaning of the words “Anarchism, Anarchist”, with emphasis that authority has to be questioned. If it cannot justify itself, then it is to be dismantled which is really at the core of anarchism as a guide; which guides to taking action to initiate change. And this is really all I can say about it based on my own existential experience, being, reflection, and becoming.
Fair Oaks, CA
Bravo! Nicely done!
“But I can’t stand to live in a world of oppression and not do anything about it. I can’t stand to be ruled by capitalism, the state, or patriarchy. I can’t stand my complicity in a white supremacist, colonialist society. I can’t stand to have a boot on my neck or my boot on someone else’s.”
Fantastic. Thank you.
Good insight. I happened to turn anarchist in my late forties, after trying _almost_ everything else. :-). I was always wondering how it is to know nothing but anarchism in one’s adult life. Thanks for letting me know. :-)
Greetings to all restless ones from Athen’s Prosfygika. Drop by if you are around. Communal meal every Thursday, open assembly every Monday. ;)
I became an anarchist when I was 17, now I am 36. Not interested in rebellion, but in resistance and creating a better world. Always with the union, always for libertarian socialism.
It was nice meeting you in Stockholm a few years ago, kudos for keeping it real all those years.
I love this! I have to say I have always been displeased with the status quo, but I’ve never identified as an anarchist. Reading your words made me realize, maybe I am. :)
I agree on this point, especially: “My politics have changed dramatically in the intervening almost-half-my-life, to be sure. But the core of it remains the same: I desire a world without coercive hierarchy and I believe the way to reach for that world is by individually and collectively acting directly on our desires and enabling others to do the same.”
I’m sharing this on my social networks.
This is beautiful and resonated with me so much it’s a little scary. In a good way. Thanks for sharing. (Also I think we maybe crossed paths at one of those camping in the woods while dreaming and schemeing rendezvouses or convergences or whatever they were.)
I just received a copy of We Are Many in the mail today. I ordered it based on the description and nothing else. I wish you could have seen the smile on my face when I saw your name on the cover. It instantly triggered a nostalgia trip that’s lasted the entire day.
I can tell from reading this that when we first met we were both basically the same age and in very similar stages of our anarchism, although, you were much cooler than I was. I had considered myself an anarchist for a few years by then, but grew up in a tiny town having never known anyone that was politically engaged in the slightest, let alone anarchist.
Like you, I came into the social scene and punk rock through politics and not the other way around as it seems for most people. I still look back with silly embarrassment and an odd sense of pride at my first experience being around other anarchists.
I was 19 and had just hitchhiked from the midwest to Eugene so that I could change my life. I remember standing there on the porch of that campaign house in my blue jeans and red t-shirt feeling like a fool with how different I looked from everyone else. I was hyper aware of how much I stood out, but I still knew that I had finally found my community, my place.
I will always remember that you were the first one to actually have a full conversation with me. Me being awkward and you going on about how “lousey” you were and how much you missed your hair, lest you not be mistaken as a Nazi…kidding
I found myself that summer and in the months that passed I traded in my blue jeans for some Carharts and swapped out my shower tickets for a badge of honor. And damn, did I wear that badge with pride.
Over the years, though we never hung out too much, our summit hopping seemed to always bring us to the same places. And though that was pretty common back then, I still cherish those memories of being on the real A-Team. The camaraderie is something most people will never get the chance to experience and I really hope it’s not lost on the younger circle A’s.
My craziest and most random crossing of paths ever was being at a squat bar in Amsterdam. I was up the stairs on a computer and all of a sudden I hear my name called out. Looking back I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I looked down and it was you! Thank you for that. My biggest regret of that trip was taking that ride the next day and not staying in Amsterdam longer…… Ahh, those were the days.
A lot has changed in the following years, but the spirit has only gotten stronger. The real reason I’m writing this is to let you know that your writing, your perspective and your experiences resonate with me on a different level. Reading this post and some of your others it’s eerie sometimes how much it mirrors my own experience and perspective. Sometimes it’s like you take the words right out of my mouth and I thank you for that. You articulate it much better than I ever could. Thank you. Keep writing, Keep loving and keep being yourself!
The part about how people who are bound to anarchism seem to step back from engagement rather than shift in political flavor rings very true to me. In my life and in the concept that authentic people simply have the ability to run their own lives. Solid. Thanks for sharing.
YES. I love this! I was also a teenage anarchist, and now I am also a 34 year old anarchist. (I realized this I was one when I was 18 and working at a summer camp. I had a whole pile of anarchist theory/history books next to my bed and – for some reason – didn’t even realize that I self identified as such, until one of my 10 year old campers started calling me “the anarchist.” And, I realized she was right.) Anyway, thanks for sharing your story – and all the stories that you share.
I just re-read this. The last lines slay me. Your story is different but similar to my own. Thank you for sharing yours.
I think that one of the powerful effects of y’all’s generation of anarchists is that it’s influenced mine – we’ve got that whole “youthful vigor and idealism” shit going on, but it’s often tempered by the realism and strategic thought that we’ve learned from y’all.
Through your trial and error, youthful rebellion and more mature reflection, y’all helped build a world where I and my comrades don’t feel as much of a need to make our anarchism a defensive aspect of our personalities in order to merely establish our validity as a movement.
So like… Thanks for that. We appreciate it, big-time. <3
Beautiful thoughts, beautifully written!
As to my own personal experience, I was called “an anarchist” for the first time when I was 17 years old in my senior year in high school in 1969–1970. The principal of the all boy high school whose authority I had challenged about examination-day Schedule. His response was the judgment “anarchist”, followed by punishment!!!
That was the first time that I came face to face with the reality of power & “authority”!!