“If you want something, you don’t wait for the world to deal it out for you. You take it.”
— Poppy Z. Brite from ‘Lost Souls’
A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. At the turn of the millennium, anarchism or “the idea” as it was originally called, rose from great undercurrents of radicalism and crashed like waves on the shores of worldwide social and political consciousness. This happened through an explosion of media around anarchist organizing, which was at the forefront of the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 and the subsequent massive mobilizations of the alternative globalization movement.
Since this rebirth, people have been ever more curious about anarchism and the media has been eager to cover it in the news—creating a real dilemma for anarchists. There is a long, terrible history of how the media has portrayed anarchists or told outright lies about anarchism and those who support it. For over the last hundred or so years, this misrepresentation has been detrimental to individual anarchists as well as to popular understandings and perceptions of our ideas. Anarchism has been depicted as destructive and chaotic. Anarchists have often been shown as mad, violent bomb throwers. And, more recently, they’ve been presented as disaffected, narcissistic punks or black clad vandals to be feared by the public.
In fact, there is an intentional propaganda war going on with anarchism as one of its main targets. Corporations and governments have been using PR firms to spin their narratives for decades as a way to advance their own agendas though criminalization and marginalization of dissent. By labeling anarchists as “dangerous,” “subversive,” “eco-terrorists,” and “violent” they have been able to pass draconian legislation and expand unfettered spying. They have also undermined successful activist campaigns as this same language is often later incorporated into legislation that specifically targets anarchists and activists, especially within the radical environmental and animal rights movements. Additionally, as journalism media has changed, it’s become common practice for PR firms or government agencies to spoon-feed press releases to overworked or lazy journalists that they then regurgitate without question. This means that even when media aren’t actively engaging in a negative propaganda war, they’re still perpetuating it.
Given this, it’s no surprise that for the last decade, some of us have fought against anarchism being mainstreamed within the media and shunned any contact with it at all costs. It also isn’t surprising that the question I often hear is: “why tell our stories if they are only going to be commodified, distorted or worse twisted and dismissed?” Our relationship with the media has been a mixed bag, to say the least. Even I, personally, have been misquoted and seen numerous news stories distort our intentions and our values, frequently washing them under sensationalism. But if we don’t engage with the media and participate in telling our own stories, then they’ll do it anyway. So, better us shaping our own narratives and countering their misinformation through their active propaganda war, with one of our own. We have the power to change the stories being told about us.
Effectively communicating our messages is also a way to counter what I call “brand anarchy,” where businesses/media appropriate the ideas and sell them back as rebellious alternatives within mainstream culture. As the ideas of anarchism have been popularized and coopted, a split set of narratives has developed. On the one hand, these ideas have become more politically charged. On the other, they have become less politicized and more watered down along with being commodified into another consumer market. “Brand anarchy” has become a cultural product through stores like Hot Topic and shows like Sons of Anarchy or recent music videos, even deodorant brands—all of which coopt the raw energy and liberating possibilities of anarchism just to make a buck.
It’s clear that there is a real need to change both the false depictions of anarchists and the de-politicized, commodified version of anarchism that the media and corporate culture are putting out there. And ideas are a dime a dozen with little impact if they stay in a box that no one can access. This means we have to find ways to better communicate our ideas and stories—especially for people like my mom who don’t live in the hubs of radicalism, know about or understand these ideas, and frequent obscure political websites or publications.
An anarchist PR project, really?
The good news is that we happen to be at an advantageous point to truly change conceptions of anarchism right now. Through perseverance, the tide of public opinion has been turning. This is especially the case given the popularity and positive perceptions of the recent decentralized disaster relief efforts and the Occupy movements, where anarchists and anarchist practices were very visible. In fact, many of the basic ideas of anarchism are already being lived by people that haven’t even heard of the “political/philosophical” references. This puts us in a solid position to tell our stories ourselves and to get our ideas out there, have them well received, and help offset the negative misrepresentations of who we are and what we believe. That said, there’s clearly still a lot of work left to be done.
Using media can help make it possible for people to explore otherwise inaccessible ideas of anarchism and to support those who may be sympathetic to it without even realizing it. Projects like Agency, which engage with the media, can be one of the ways to build off these gains and help to further change popular perceptions of anarchism. We, at Agency, are interested in sharing liberatory ideas as a way to ensure that depictions of anarchists are no longer distorted, dismissed or reduced to one-dimensional caricatures. Agency intends to do so by providing another space to engage with anarchist perspectives, including analysis and alternative views on current events. It also aims to help widen the political discourse around these perspectives, making them more visible and easy to connect with, by leveraging the more mainstream media outlets.
This collective project will be collaborative and, of course, Agency aims to provide some anarchist perspectives voices in these places, without trying to be the voices of anarchy. As we see it, anarchist ideas and the various forms they take are extremely complex, and are an often little understood set of philosophies that are really beautiful and dynamic. Although many subtleties exist most anarchists seek to find individual or collective freedom through the concepts of autonomy, mutual aid, direct action and liberation. For those of us who call ourselves anarchists, these ideas are a way to engage with the world, but they do not define us. Instead, we see anarchy as a guidepost or a point of reference that none of us own. Anarchy, needless to say, cannot be shoved into a box, even as we try, hence the complexities in explaining it to people, let alone media, and the importance of recognizing that there is not a single vision or version of anarchism.
The people working on the Agency project will never have the last say on anarchy, nor will we try to be the gatekeepers of what is or isn’t anarchist. There will be many tendencies and voices that join in this work. And to me, that’s the beauty of “the idea”—we can all weigh in and share what we think about anarchism the way we feel is necessary (or not). Also, there are no right or correct ways to do this, from zines, to music to websites and everything in between, it all just adds to the dialogue. Many voices. I love the liberation in that.
Sure, some of us have already been doing this informally for years, but there’s something exciting about a group of people consciously engaging in the tidal wave of anarchism. And, sure, this project is not an endeavor for every anarchist—nor should it be. Furthermore, there will be always be tensions and missteps, pitfalls and tough questions, in this endeavor and we welcome that. Media isn’t a science and we are real people. So, those of us engaged know well, that we’ll all have to be as careful as we can in the telling our collective dreams, histories, analysis, stories and perspectives in our efforts to counter the negative press and to gain more positive media recognition on our own terms. Let’s face it, though; the days of anarchism being in obscurity are waning. We can either decry this, and deny it, or we can choose to be excited about the possibilities that are in the air and the ability to influence our own disparate, yet overlapping narratives.
For a lot of us who are involved in the larger world outside of our safe anarchist bubbles, we have found the critical importance of engaging people in dialogues on our own terms about these views and ideas. Even if we aren’t trying to convert anyone, this helps to make sure that the liberating potential of anarchism isn’t limited to small, exclusive circles. And, while we understand that there is not one “true” form of anarchy, it helps to bring nuance and subtlety back to the many meanings of anarchism that are being lost in the public conversations. In other words, it would be a far greater travesty if we didn’t take on the risks of this type of project and instead allowed anarchist ideas to be relegated to obscure theory in isolated corners. As we see it, this is another vehicle to stop the propaganda machine from grinding us all up. This is our propaganda.
Anarchists and friends: our days have been arriving. Our voices are part of our agency to freedom. Until we’re all free!
scott crow is an international speaker and author. He has spent his varied life as an underground musician, coop business owner, political organizer, trainer, strategist and ‘green collar’ worker advocating for anarchism. He has been called a jackass, but thinks of those words as fond reflections of noble animals. He is the author of Black Flags and Windmills: Hope Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective (PM Press) and can be found at scottcrow.org.