I needed to know more.
Local anarchists Paul and Lara Messersmith-Glavin helped relocate the Institute for Anarchist Studies from New York to the Rose City earlier this year.
The Institute doesn’t have a physical presence beyond a local post office box, but it made sense to move it to Portland. Of the 11 board members located across the U.S. and Canada, three, including the Messersmith-Glavins, live here.
Lara teaches at Portland Community College and Paul is an acupuncturist at Seven Star Acupuncture. They invited me to their home to talk about social revolution while their 4-year-old son watched “Go, Diego, Go” cartoons in the living room.
The Institute is an anarchist think-tank that provides grants and publishing opportunities for anarchist writers around the globe. It publishes an annual journal called “Perspectives on Anarchist Theory” and a nonfiction book series about anarchism.
When you think of anarchy, you think chaos and a total absence of social structure, but adherents say there’s a difference between that definition and the principles of anarchism.
Anarchism is the theory that self-governing, cooperative communities can exist without capitalism, centralized government or national borders.
That’s pretty radical — and I remain skeptical of the idea — but it’s not as nonsensical as a total absence of governance and authority.
“The idea of non-governance is so funny if you’ve ever been in an anarchist space because we’re some of the most rule-bound people you’ve ever met,” Lara said. “We’re so careful about the language we use and the way in which we pay attention to each other. It’s the exact opposite of hooliganism.”
In fact, she said, the movement takes inspiration from a notable non-hooligan source — the Quakers. Decisions are made in a directly democratic way. Consensus, Lara said, doesn’t mean everyone must agree but everyone must feel heard.
This was not what I envisioned. Wouldn’t it be better, I suggested, to rename the Institute?
Lara thinks not.
“There are times when the word anarchist can be exciting for people, and we’ll use it intentionally because immediately people get electrified,” she said. “And then there are times where people already think they know what it means, and it makes them stop listening, so instead of using the word we’ll talk about the principles instead.”
She has a point. If she’d asked me to write about the 20th anniversary of a left-leaning, anti-capitalist, direct-democracy organization, I would have passed.
But anarchism? Tell me more.