When Anarchism Goes Pop


Photograph by Paolo Gerbaudo

by Paolo Gerbaudo

In current protest culture the estranged ideologies of anarchism and progressive populism are coming together around a critique of the neoliberal “corporate state” and a new imaginary of mass insurgency.

“GTFO: Get the Fuck Out!” This request directed at the hated political elites through a number of videos connected to the recent Anonymous Million Mask March mobilisation on November 5, 2013, condenses in the bluntest of ways the zeitgeist of contemporary radical politics, whose manifestations have already been seen in the like of the indignados and Occupy.

What is peculiar in this and similar messages is not simply their antagonistic attitude and sarcastic tone, but the way in which they aim to captivate broad sectors of the population, making use of tropes originating from popular culture and digital culture (the two increasingly becoming indistiguishable). Such messages point to the rise of a new political culture at the point of confluence of a broadly defined anarchist (or leftist libertarian) defiance towards the State and the populist ambition of addressing the entirety of “the people”, regardless of their specific occupations and political beliefs. The result of this re-mixing is a complex and contradictory emerging ideology that can best be named as “anarcho-populism”.

Anarcho-populism (not intended in a pejorative sense) stands to indicate the uncanny marriage between anarchism and progressive populism at a time of widespread economic and political crisis. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-08 anti-government messages of the “GTFO” type are not targeted any more at a small bunch of militant anarchists. Rather they are aimed at large, potentially majoritarian sectors of the population, increasingly disgruntled with a State that is taking more and more the semblance of an obnoxious Leviathan preoccupied with buttressing collapsing banks and spying on citizens, rather than defending any notion of the common good.

Examples of the rise of anarcho-populism are all around us. Just look at Occupy’s claim to represent the 99% coupled with the indignados’ slogan “they don’t represent me” or at Russell Brand’s recent apologia for anarchism on BBC Newsnight. What we see in these cultural expressions is a form of anarchism that does not content itself with preaching to the already converted and to the activist ghetto, but which involves an appeal to the “common people” and against the elites both economic and political, of the type that we traditionally associated with populism. What we witness is the rise of anarcho-populism as “anarchism goes pop” or Mikhail Bakunin meets Russell Brand – this is the rise of an anarchism that does not disdain using lolcats to get its message across.

The rise of anarcho-populism 

What makes “anarcho-populism” such a mind-boggling expression is the fact that anarchism and populism are two political orientations that for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century have appeared incompatible with one another, besides some notable exceptions, such as the populist anarchists of the Russian group Narodnaya (The People’s Will).

Since the time of the propaganda by the deed and its terrorist tactics, anarchism has been mostly associated with a voluntarist and conspiratorial political attitude, rarely preoccupied with winning the consensus of the masses of the population, and laying hope instead in the power of an heroic and self-organised few. This is certainly not the whole story of early anarchism. But to a great extent it is the one that stuck in the public imagination.

In more recent years, anarchism in the broad sense, as rejection of bureaucracy and distrust of institutions, has come to constitute the hegemonic culture in protest movements, as people like David Graeber have noticed (though being an anarchist he didn’t use the term “hegemony”). One needs to go back as far as 1968 and to the declarations of sympathy by the likes of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke to trace the origins of this revival of anarchism. However, also this neo-anarchism has often been beset by an incapacity to break out of small group politics, and minoritarian intentional communities.

One could say that exactly the reverse applies to populism. Populism, or better progressive and democratic populism, as manifested in the farmers and trade unionists of the People’s party in the US in late nineteenth century, or more recently in the Socialist populism of Chavez and Morales has instead traditionally concerned itself with defending that all-encompassing and hard to catch entity that goes under the name of the people and often precisely by using the redistributive and directive machinery of the modern nation-state. It is evident that anarchism and populism are at odds with one another. So how are these two political streams converging in contemporary protest politics?

The reasons for this surprising marriage lie to a great extent in the peculiar socio-economic conditions that we are witnessing in the aftermath of the housing bubble. In front of the widespread social discontent spawned by the financial crisis, and the state’s complicity with the “socialism of the rich” in which bankers have been saved by rivers of public money, typical anarchist motives are becoming palatable to social sectors well beyond its traditional heartlands in the urban bohemia and in the idealist middle class youth. In this context, anti-Statist positions and appeals to the people do not appear any more as completely incompatible positions.

Anarcho-populism involves the popularisation, that is the translation into a popular vernacular of typical anarchist themes, and the adoption of a language that can make anti-authoritarianism and anti-statism resonant at the time of the financial crisis and social media. This ideology emerges in interaction with a complex array of political cultures, subcultures and social attitudes ranging from anti-authoritarian activism, to techno-libertarianism, to end with a rising “plebeian” hatred towards all elites and conspiracy theories of the zeitgeist and 9/11 ‘truthers’ type, that have been represented across many contemporary movements, almost invariably to the dislike of “proper” activists.

It is within this complex and contradictory terrain that anarcho-populism finds new collective icons and names capable of capturing emerging fears and hopes.

The mask and the mass 

To dig into the nature of anarcho-populism it is worth looking at the most famous icon of current protest culture: the mask of Guy Fawkes, popularised by Alan Moore comics series V for Vendetta and its Hollywood adaptation, and then adopted by the hacker group, Anonymous, as one of its most beloved public avatars. Despite the ubiquity of this symbol in current protest culture, it has often been overlooked why this icon has become such a popular reference for contemporary protesters.

V for Vendetta, Warner Bros., 2005

At first sight the popularity of the V for Vendetta movie, could just be read as a symptom of a popular fascination with the heroic figure of a revolutionary vigilante fighting single-handedly against the State. Yet, a crucial element in the fortune of the comic and more so of the movie among protest participants, consists in its evocation of a sense of possibility for a mass popular rebellion. This is a sense of possibility that has become surprisingly relevant in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions of 2011 and which can be read in declarations such as the one uttered by Russell Brand on Newsnight: “yeah, totally. There’s gonna be a revolution. It’s totally going to happen. I ain’t got a flicker of doubt. This is the end. This is time to wake up”.

V for Vendetta has come to provide a powerful narrative reference to capture the desire for a new mass insurgency, in which a multiplicity of individuals can somehow act just as if they were one individual, V, united almost physically in their fight against a obnoxious enemy. It is not by chance that possibly the most popular sequence in the movie is the final revolution scene in which masses of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks and costumes take to the streets and converge towards Parliament square. This sequence movingly depicts thousands of people unrecognisable behind their mask, and acting in unison against the State and its repressive apparatuses.

The elision of individuality that is conveyed in this scene, and that is performed in Anonymous protests, by people all wearing the same mask, has often been criticised or derided. However, this practice of voluntarily forsaking one’s individual identity behind a veil of anonymity has something important to say about the contemporary conditions. These are times in which individuality has translated for many people into a frustrating condition of precarity and an obsession with choices, which has proven to be only an illusion of freedom – and in this context the value of collective solidarity acquires a new relevance.

Further insights, into this new mass political imaginary come from Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy, a poem that has become an oft-cited cultural reference for participants in Anonymous, Occupy and other movements. In the poem, Shelley, writing in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, depicts a non-violent popular rebellion against an autocratic and blood-thirsty State. The poem significantly concludes with the following call:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few

What we find in Shelley’s poem is the appeal to the people as a mass capable of overcoming authorities thanks to its numerical superiority in a way that reminds us of the Anonymous assertion “we are legion, expect us” or of Occupy’s motto “We are the 99%”.

Dreadful Scene at Manchester Meeting of Reformers, Peterloo Massacre, August. 16. 1819

These cultural references are a manifestation of that majoritarian turn in social movements that I have discussed in a previous openDemocracy article, and, are either couched in “we are the 99%” type declarations or in appeals to all the citizens against autocratic political and economic elites. What I add here is that such majoritarian ambition goes hand in hand with an anarchist orientation that identifies in the structure of the State the main culprit for the grievances experienced by large sectors of the population, directing its anger not simply at the business class responsible for dodgy mortgages and housing speculations, but also at the political class that has allowed them to act against the interest of “the people”.

A failing state

Anarcho-populism is the dominant ideology in contemporary protest movements. It is a form of mass anarchism, or of libertarian populism, in which political traditions apparently at odds with one another come together in contradictory ways. This development can be understood as a consequence of the current situation of economic and political crisis, in which traditional anarchist and anti-statist themes are capable of resonating with sectors of the population well beyond its traditional heartlands. At the time of the NSA scandal and of the politics of austerity, being against the State is no longer an identitarian declaration that only befits the mouths of dishevelled drop-outs hanging out in squats and communes, but it is a persuasion that wide sectors of the population can at the very least relate to.

Thus the rise of anarcho-populism fundamentally points to the inability of the State to present itself as a defender of the common good, and of statist ideologies like socialism to argue a new case for utilising that State as a dam against the chaos of finance capitalism.

Definitely this is a starkly different political response to a major economic crisis than the one that took hold after the 1929 crash. While in the 30s people asked for more State either in the form of totalitarianism or in the social-democracy of the new deal, nowadays protest movements largely see in the State part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Yet will not dealing with the contemporary condition, and achieving significant change, also involve occupying the State?

Piece originally published at Open Democracy | Creative Commons License