by Kim Kelly
Anarchists love propaganda. Really, so do radicals of every stripe and tendency, but I maintain that our team is the most fervent in its desire to spread the good word of anarchy and liberation by whatever means necessary. Given that – up until recently, anyway – perspectives and analyses from anarchists, anti-authoritarians, and basically anyone to the left of Jeremy Corbyn (or in the States, Bernie Sanders) have been left almost entirely unheard and unexplored in any kind of mainstream media platform, the majority of written propaganda ends up in movement media, explicitly leftist periodicals, or in DIY zines. Of course, stickers, flyers, posters, wheat-pasting, and social media campaigns are indispensable parts of any well-oiled propaganda machine, but for the sake of sticking to my own experience, let’s talk specifically about the nerdiest form of the revolutionary written word: editorial propaganda.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with preaching to the choir, especially one that tends to hold a wide variety of opinions about a number of crucial ideas and tactics, but in my opinion, there is something to be said for branching out, and infiltrating more high-profile venues. It’s not like there isn’t a precedent for it. Anarchist icons like Emma Goldman and Lucy Parsons travelled the US speaking to audiences of thousands; they weren’t concerned with who showed up, only that they did show up – and that they listened. The idea of sharing revolutionary ideas with the masses was tantamount to their efforts; how could regular, working people who lived their lives outside of the cozy confines of intellectual activist groups find out that a better world was possible if they were never given the opportunity to glimpse it? Hoarding knowledge within a small, rarified circle may allow said group to gain a deeper understanding of its own principles and mission, but then, what’s the use? How are you going to get enough people on board with said mission if they’re coming into it blind, sans context? You can’t foment revolution if nine out of ten people don’t know what the fuck you’re on about.
Goldman and Parsons also wrote for (and founded) anarchist and generally leftist publications, because in the 20th century, what newspaper editor in their right mind was going to give an anarchist – let alone a woman anarchist – a platform to spread their dangerous ideas? They changed the whole damn world using this two-pronged approach, and I personally think that a mixture of these two tactics is the ideal way forward for anarchist or otherwise radical writers. We owe it to ourselves, our cause, and our class to seize any opportunity we have to share our message with the masses, while also dedicating time to building our own alternative media systems. As Goldman said, “The most violent element in society is ignorance,” and shouldn’t eradicating that ignorance be one of our most treasured goals as anarchists?
Case in point: I’ve somehow landed in the extraordinarily unexpected position of writing regularly for Teen Vogue, a swank glossy-turned-online publication that focuses on fashion, culture, and, increasingly, politics. To date, I’ve published pieces on the prison industrial complex, capitalism, worker exploitation, anarchism, labour unions, and direct action, and launched a regular column on labour that’s dealt with the 2018 US prison strike and the struggles of Latinx farmworkers. In doing so, I’ve been able to reach thousands (if not millions by this point) of teens and young people, and offer them a more radical perspective on the news that is constantly filtering into and shaping their still-developing worldview. Over the past two years, US media has become far more receptive to – if not anarchist ideas themselves – publishing work by anarchist, anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist writers, perhaps as a response to the visible upswing in violent white nationalism post-Trump and growing liberal horror at the racist, sexist, white supremacist fascist scum squatting in the White House and every chamber of the US government. All of a sudden, editors have realised that people might actually be interested in exploring ideas outside of the mainstream two-party chokehold, and they’re commissioning people like me to present them. 2018 is wild.
Now, Teen Vogue itself is part of Condé Nast, a capitalist mass media enterprise with a net worth in the millions, which poses a contradiction that lies at the heart of any discussion of radical media tactics: how does an avowed anti-capitalist justify creating content off of which a capitalist institution will profit?
Simply put, I’ve got bills to pay and if Teen Vogue is happy to literally play a part in funding the revolution, then I’m calling it a win. The more resources our team is able to siphon away from the rich, the more good we can do, and the more progress we can make. We’re still living under capitalism, and as we work to dismantle it, we’ve got to eat. In thinking about all this, I’m reminded of course of the famous meme of the medieval peasant that pops up whenever capitalism is discussed online and invariably, some jerk pulls the “you probably tweeted this on an iPhone!” argument. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a cartoon of a haggard-looking worker saying, “We should improve society somewhat,” with a well-scrubbed modernite popping out of a nearby well to say, “Yet you participate in society. Curious! I am very intelligent” in response). It’s a simplistic way to shut down a bad faith argument, but the point remains true: criticising the violently exploitative nature of capitalism while trying to survive under said capitalist system by participating in it is not a mutually exclusive endeavour.
All of this is to say that I think breaking into mainstream media is a useful tactic for anarchists and other radicals who are seeking to organise on a broader scale. Obviously, there are questions of access and privilege at play here, too – given the nature of media, not every anarchist writer is going to have the immediate opportunity to stroll into a cushy freelancing gig, just like any writer of any other tendency wouldn’t – but this is where mutual aid and solidarity come in, too. Creating inroads into these kind of shiny legacy publications takes work, but once one of us is able to forge that path, they’re able to bring others in behind us.
A course of action that the collective I organise with here in New York City has undertaken that has proved to be quite effective has been to form a press working group, drawing in people with all levels of experience in media. We pool our resources, contacts, and knowledge to help one another workshop story ideas, craft pitches, reach out to friendly editors, and place articles – it’s a sort of anarchist writing workshop, with the very specific goal of insinuating ourselves into the larger mainstream media discourse. So far, it’s working, and is something that would be simple for other groups to replicate should they desire such a thing.
Ultimately, I believe we’re in the midst of a unique historical moment. People are hungry for change, and for hope – for something better. As anarchists, we have so much to offer, and so much work to do. If we’re presented with the opportunity to do that work on a large scale, then I say, we must grab that opportunity by the throat, and not let go. As Lucy Parsons said, “Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals.”
Self-thinking individuals need tools, and in this instance – in this moment – I believe that the pen truly is mightier than the sword. We must wield it wisely.
Kim Kelly is an anarchist based in New York City and an organiser with the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC).
Illustration by Caroline Caldwell