Dispatches from the present
Fourteen years ago, at the peak of a sultry and mostly uneventful summer, I and a handful of friends hitchhiked to a sleepy and polite corner of maritime Canada with the intent of starting some trouble. Halifax had been declared the site of a gathering of five hundred Canadian and American politicians, academics, think-tank operatives and industry leaders—a regular neoliberal Woodstock, which was not uncommon at the turn of the millennium—working to conceptualize a free-trade zone called Atlantica, whose territory would stretch from St. John’s, Newfoundland, through Maine, Vermont and New Brunswick, to Buffalo, New York. Also at the meeting, however uninvited, were hundreds of protesters: labor unions (both representatives and work-and-file), environmentalists, representatives of Canadian Indigenous groups and others concerned with the conspicuously undemocratic, elite nature of neoliberal free-trade agreements. And then there was us: the anarchists, communists and other assorted radicals who drifted from protest to protest, whose goal wasn’t to fight for a more open or friendly version of the current arrangement of things but to destroy it altogether.
We weren’t much liked by the larger body of protesters, nor they by us. They believed in voicing opposition, in demonstrating through numbers the unpopularity of a certain plan or policy, and ultimately in convincing their enemies to change their minds. We, on the other hand, believed in “direct action”: A meeting of villains happening somewhere? Go scare them out of the building and prevent them from getting back in. The war might not be over, but at least you’ve disrupted—however fleetingly—business as usual.
Anarchists around the turn of the millennium liked to pose angry for the cameras. Behind the scenes, however, all the talk was about passion, romance, joy. This fixation was reflected in the readings that circulated among my friends: Days of War, Nights of Love; “Armed Joy”; The Revolution of Everyday Life. If there was talk of destruction, it was for the sake of something more beautiful, more joyous, as captured in an oft-circulated tune by the protest singer Casey Neill, who dreamt of “dancing on the ruins of multinational corporations.” Or it was for the exuberance that the destructive act might allow for, as in a chant devised by a friend: “Burn it down, nothing left / everybody fun till death!”
The internet on January 6th was awash with a relentless stream of images coming from the protest in Washington, D.C. and the subsequent breach of the Capitol. Some of them were dreadful, shocking: the shots of the two men in the Senate chamber with zip-tie handcuffs—one clad in a green helmet and Kevlar vest, the other in black tactical gear with a pistol at his side—horrified me; the clip of Ashli Babbitt sinking lifeless to the floor after being shot in the neck made my blood run cold.
However homogenous crowds might be from a bird’s-eye view, however, from a perspective on the ground they are deeply heterogeneous. And however sinister and genuinely villainous some elements of the Capitol protest seem to have been, I couldn’t help but recognize the costumes, selfies and blunt-smoking in the rotunda as something more connected to the storied, decades-long American tradition of joyful disobedience than to the deliberately destructive, potentially insurrectionary activity happening elsewhere in the building.
Watching the happenings at the Capitol from the distant vantage point of my apartment in Hyde Park, I could recognize some of the exuberant, joyous energy that I had once felt in those anarchist meetings. But now, far from the heat and thrill of the crowd, it was also easy for me to see how those elements were handmaidens to the darker, more sinister parts: that whatever motives the guys in Viking helmets and animal skins might articulate, the effect of their participation—beyond their howling at the Senate podium, selfies with statues and even cop-fighting—was to serve as cover for the raids of the offices and other nefarious plots being carried out in the darker recesses of the building.
In the days following the Capitol protest, I found myself dwelling on memories from my time among the anarchists and reassessing my motives for participation. We claimed to be fighting for liberté, egalité, fraternité—but like Robespierre, our zealotry more often than not drove us to sow chaos instead, and the bright future we imagined on the other side of the turmoil proved to be a mirage on a desert horizon. “Politics,” in our poetic yet unimaginative minds, was the only concept we could muster for the domain in which we might fulfill our hopes for a better world. And rather than submitting our thinking to the dialectic of reality, which involves taking stock of the real possibilities and constraints on action, we built a utopia in conversation with one another—then assumed that was all it took to create one.
I couldn’t help but recognize a similar dreamy fanaticism at work among the rioters at the Capitol. When I hear the shouts of “this is our house,” I don’t immediately hear—as Alec MacGillis at ProPublica did—an expression of “white nativist entitlement.” I hear—perhaps in an excess of Christian charity—something hauntingly familiar: an echo of my own quixotic idealism, the sound of desperation becoming delirium, utopia groaning from within the confines of a limited imagination.
Image credit: Blink O’fanaye (CC BY / Flickr)