Anarchism in America

Pacific Street Films (2009)

Film Review

Despite its 2009 release, this fascinating documentary is largely based on 1980s interviews with America’s most prominent anarchists, including Karl Hess, Molly Stermer, Murray Boochkin and Ed Edamen. As well as a rare interview with Emma Goldman at age 64 (1933) when she was granted a 90-day permit to return to the US.

There is also footage from the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids, in which thousands of anarchists (including Goldman) were rounded up and jailed and/or deported; the global protests triggered by the police frame-up (1920) of Boston anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti; the Spanish Civil War (during which 3 million anarchists ran their own towns, schools, clinics and cultural centers for three years); and the anarchists involved in civil disobedience during the 1980s anti-nuclear movement.

Dispelling many common misconceptions about anarchism, the filmmakers depict anarchist political philosophy as the belief that people are capable of governing themselves independent of any state or hierarchical authority. They challenge all hierarchy – whether in male-female relations, the family, schools or work. Instead they champion decentralized participatory democracy.

Several of the anarchists interviewed view anarchism and distrust of authority as innate in the American cultural identity. This is evidenced by pervasive anti-government and anti-corporate sentiments among the greater US population. Hess asserts that right wing writer Ayn Rand borrowed most of her so-called “objectivist” philosophy from anarchist Emma Goldman.

Edamen asserts that at the end of the 20th century (before it was captured by the Koch brothers and other corporate elite), there were more anarchists in the US libertarian movement than any other group.

The filmmakers also highlight the anarchist roots seen in worker-run cooperatives and the homesteading (now called “prepper”) and anti-government punk rock groups such as the Dead Kennedys.

Comments
  1. […] via Anarchism: It’s Not What You Think it Is — The Most Revolutionary Act […]

  2. >>> “Dispelling many common misconceptions about anarchism, the filmmakers depict anarchist political philosophy as the belief that people are capable of governing themselves independent of any state or hierarchical authority. They challenge all hierarchy – whether in male-female relations, the family, schools or work. Instead they champion decentralized participatory democracy.”

    I have engaged in many detailed discussions over the years on this crucial point, and believe the assumptions which support it to be fundamentally flawed from a practical perspective. Here’s my reasoning:

    1) Self-governance is wholly dependent upon some level of altruism and cooperation among the populace; otherwise, socially destabilizing conflict will arise.
    2) We know from exhaustive sociological study that conflict among individuals increases in proportion to the level of competition over needs and wants (e.g. resources, habitation, mating, etc.).
    3) Competition within social groups increases proportionally with population density, cultural diversity, and other factors.
    4) There are now 7.4 billion people on Earth. Scientific research indicates this figure has already exceeded the planet’s ability to sustain such numbers, and climate change is certain to lower it further.
    5) All of the above render philosophical debates over whether human nature is essentially “good” or “bad” irrelevant.

    My reasoning here is not intended to be disrespectful, but simply objective. I wish we lived on a planet with enough room and resources for people to live harmoniously, but that just isn’t the case today. Hierarchical social organization, as much as I dislike it (and I do), is a necessity given the current circumstances. Maybe some day it will change.

  3. Thank you for your honest and thoughtful comment, Robert. I can only respond from my vantage point as a community organiser.

    My experience, after 36 years of grassroots organizing, is that women tend to have a very different perspective on democratic self-governance than men do. In every local grassroots group I have been involved in, it is always been women age 45-70 who do who do all the work of building grassroots groups and keeping them going. There may be charismatic male leaders – Martin Luther King is a classic example – but such men only remain in leadership so long as they have the trust and support of all the women who lick the envelopes and do all the phonebanking and fundraising to keep them in leadership. The moment they lose that trust they are gone.

    It used to bother me that all this work done by women was invisible but not any more. I and my female friends and comrades will continue to organize and nurture self-organizing groups that hold communities and neighborhoods together. For the most part these groups are only successful and long lasting to the extent that they operate by consensus and make sure everyone has their say. Social psychologists who study female communication patterns observe this is an inherent pattern with women – they never feel comfortable unless everyone has their say.

    In my experience, this work has been extremely effective in rebuilding a sense of community in an industrialized world characterized by profound individual alienation and isolation. It has also proved enormously effective in thwarting corporate control in my local community of New Plymouth – such as banning the construction of an LNG plant, removing fluoride from our water, creating a dedicated bike lane network and zero waste rubbish management, instituting a local time bank, local currency, a local seed bank, farmers market, crop swap, and savings pools (providing an alternative source of mortgages to banks),

    All of these initiatives were community-led initiatives, with our local district council having no choice but to pass enabling or disabling by-laws.

    I guess the technical term for this type of community organizing is “civic infrastructure,” but in my view it’s totally consistent with anarchist philosophy. In any case it’s happening now and I and my female friends are strongly motivated to keep it happening. In other words, I don’t think we’re going to be very responsive to arguments why it shouldn’t be happening.

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