By Josh MacPhee
The U.S. anarchist newspaper Profane Existence used to carry the tagline “Making Punk a Threat Again.” While I’m not sure what is so threatening about spiky jackets and unlistenable crust-punk, it raises a perfectly legitimate question: What would it look like to make anarchist culture threatening?
Let me be clear, I’ve got nothing against youth subculture – it’s what birthed me – but that doesn’t mean that it has what it takes to truly transform the world in the ways anarchism promises: an end to exploitation; meaningful engagement with questions of justice; equity of access and opportunity to all – to just name a few highlights.
Just what is the relationship between anarchism and art? We can look at this question historically, and pull out a long list of successful artists that rallied around the black flag (for at least part of their lives): André Breton, Gustave Courbet, Robert Henri, Donald Judd, Rockwell Kent, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac. Beyond this being a one big sausage-party, it is fair to say that what binds most of these artists together – and what drew them to anarchism – was the promise of individual freedom. Artists love the idea of freedom, the thought that they can and should be unfettered in their pursuit of a pure self-expression.
While the idea of individualist freedom was likely quite attractive during the 20th century, with its World Wars and rise of totalitarian governments, it just hasn’t aged well. If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that “individual liberty” is like WD-40 for neoliberalism. The 21st century and late-capitalism has brought us the freedom from unions and a social safety net, the freedom to choose between consumer products but little else, the freedom to recycle as individuals while the polar ice-caps melt due to massive corporate, state, and collective societal impact on the environment.
And what’s so great about self-expression anyway? We can broadcast to the world what we have for breakfast every single morning on Facebook and Instagram, while just about every form of collective expression is severely curtailed and suppressed. Collective bargaining has been under brutal attack for forty years, to the point that we have the smallest percentage of working people organised in unions in the United States since the advent of unionism. Even peaceful demonstrations are regularly kettled and attacked by riot cops and teargas. Every single form of Left protest group is under intense surveillance – even Quaker peace and justice organisations are routinely infiltrated by police informers. In the face of near-total social repression, it’s an amazing feat of propaganda and capitalist yoga that we regularly celebrate self-expression as rebellious, or even revolutionary, despite its being the only form of expression we’re allowed.
We’ve seen tremendous social and economic changes since the 1960s. The economies of the Global North have seen fundamental transformation by a three-fold process: the movement of manufacturing jobs to the Global South and rise of a service-based economy; the development of robotics, the algorithm economy, and the logistics industry; and the shift to a global economy built on finance capital. This has lead to a steady suppression of wages (as indexed to cost of living) and an increase in precarity, fueled by attacks on access to healthcare, job security, pensions, and affordable housing.
While art and culture may seem marginal to this process, they have played a couple key of roles. The ’60s anti-authoritarian revolt against the constraints of any overly bureaucratic managerial society led to a strange bi-product: capitalists saw the increasing costs of keeping unhappy and unfulfilled workers tethered to an assembly line, so they looked around to see what sector of the workforce was better adjusted and caused less problems. It turns out that artists, cultural workers, and freelancers made much fewer demands on the system than the labour in more organised workplaces, and seemed happy to give up things like pensions and job security in trade for an affective sense of freedom from the constraints of “the grind”. This insight relatively quickly helped in the transformation to a much more precarious work-on-demand economy, to the point that I now regularly see subway advertisements showing happy Black and Brown “mechanical turks” proclaiming that they are entrepreneurial Do-ers and don’t need things like company health-care plans, pensions, or even regular paychecks, dragging them down.
Meanwhile, merry ’60s and ’70s anarchist experiments like Provo white bikes, hippie crash-pads and communes, Digger free-stores, and alternative economic experiments have been weaponised by technological developments and venture capitalists. Airbnb, corporate city bike programs, co-worker development schemes, ZipCar, Groupon, Task Rabbit, and Uber are not simply built on the ruins of our utopias, but quite literally out their very fabric. While the counter-culture built their projects out of the exploration of new and exciting ways to build communities and push the boundaries of what can be accomplished through collectivity and sharing, the gig-economy empties out the very ontology of these ideas, invisibilising relationships (and exploitation) in order to extract profit, all the while maintaining the skin of liberatory activity, or freedom.
Any way you cut, these are dark days my friends. I can’t say I know what to do about, but I can comfortably say my artistic self-expression isn’t a significant part of the answer. Those of us that consider ourselves artists, anarchists, cultural workers, anti-authoritarians, designers, autonomists, have to ask some very hard questions about the roles our practices and histories have played in constructing the behemoth we now face. We have to seriously consider what collective expression can and should look like, and how to speak and act like a social force, instead of a rag-tag group of rebels.
Josh MacPhee is a designer, artist, activist, and archivist. He is a member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative (Justseeds.org) and the Occuprint collective (Occuprint.org). He is the coauthor of Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now, coeditor of Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics & Culture, and cofounder of the Interference Archive, a public collection of cultural materials produced by social movements (InterferenceArchive.org).