I recently gave a talk arguing that there’s a significant area of overlap between anarchist currents that are otherwise opposed. This is very much a work in progress and a line of thought I’m still trying to sort out. I have more notes for where else I’d like to do w/ this and I’d really like to write up something that deals in a lot of depth w/ insurrectionist writings in a direct way, drawing in part on my notes on PNAB#1 (I got the second issue recently and plan to read it soonish, I have a massive backlog of reading…) Eventually I hope to get this longer piece done, though I also have a few other pieces of writing I want to do. I didn’t have time for that before this talk, this was the best I could get together in the available time. Thanks to y’all for your support/encouragment and input on this, you know who you are. ❤

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I’m going to be talking today about insurrectionary anarchism and mass anarchism. I wanted to do this talk for two main reasons. The first reason is political. It seems to me that anarchism is unnecessarily divided. Some insurrectionary anarchists dislike and misrepresent anarchists who belong to anarchist organization and they do the same to anarchists who do workplace organizing. Likewise, anarchists in formal organizations often present insurrectionary anarchists as a
sort of cartoon villain. No good comes of this. What I want to do in this talk is start from affinity, what we have in common. There are differences between anarchists, but those differences don’t have to be divisions.

The second reason I want to give this talk is personal. I’m pretty new to insurrectionary anarchism. Not too long ago I met some very smart, kind people from Bloomington Indiana. I don’t know if any of you know Yadira Lopez or Franny Glass or Hugh. I met them, they’re really interesting and very generous and have helped me start to think about insurrectionary anarchism in a serious way. I don’t have fully worked out thoughts on this, I’m still thinking all this through. I’m going to present my thoughts then I’d love to have a discussion where we try to further develop some of the points in common between insurrectionary and other anarchism. And afterward if people want to recommend stuff for me to read I’d really appreciate it.

Okay enough about me, back to my topic. Like I said, I want to talk about mass anarchism and insurrectionary anarchism. I get the term mass anarchism from this book called Black Flame, it’s a history of anarchism that I highly recommend to you all. The authors argue that both mass anarchism and insurrectionary anarchism have different strategies but they are both forms of class struggle.

I want to revise the terms here. I don’t actually want to talk about insurrectionary anarchism and mass anarchism so much as insurrectionary activity and mass activity or insurrectionary practices and mass practices. Mass activity is anarchist involvement in every struggles and social movements. You can think of this as being about anarchists working with other people about those people’s
concerns. Many people who consider themselves insurrectionary anarchists already are involved in mass movements. In mass activity, anarchists work with people who don’t share as much with us in terms of our vision and value system. Insurrectionary practices are when anarchists gather with people who we have more in common with, and we wage intense confrontations with the powers that be.

Now personally I’ve been an anarchist for 10 or 12 years now. For the past six years or so the main thing I’ve focused primarily on mass activity. Specifically, workplace organizing, mostly through a radical union called the Industrial Workers of the World. Through these experiences I’m starting to think that there is an important area of overlap, a common core, between mass practices and insurrectionary practices.

As a way into what these practices have in common, I want to tell you about two moments in my life that had a big impact on me. In April of 2000 I went to Washington DC for the protests against the World Bank. I had friends who had gone to Seattle the November before, and had seen and a read a lot about it. It was incredibly exciting. It felt like something really big was possible. I didn’t really understand a lot of the issues – except the key parts, the moral outrage at how wrong things are, and how the big structures of power are rotten to the core – but I knew I wanted to be part of it. So I went to DC. While in DC I helped block a street with some people carrying around beautiful puppets, especially a big yellow face. I also saw the black bloc in action. One black bloc moment for me was particularly key. I came around a corner and saw an intersection blocked off at one side with a chain link fence. A small group of police stood behind the fence, closer to me. On the other side, the
intersection was full of protesters. People were filing in from one street in big numbers. Blocking the other two streets were big police lines. It looked like it was going to get ugly. The black bloc entered the intersection and began to gather by the fence. Suddenly the fences came loose. The people at the front had some how disconnected the fence. They held the sections of the fence and charged forward at the police behind it. The police ran. The bloc pushed the police back for a long way. Maybe it was only a block or three, but it felt like miles. I was watching police run from protesters. I had never seen anything like it. [A while back I had a very small hand in a pamphlet called “Event Horizon,” written collaboratively under the name The Free Association; it focused on these sorts of moments. Also, you can see bits of the black bloc moment that I mentioned, the bit with the chainlink fence, in this video.]

In 2003 I became part of an effort to organize a union at my own workplace for the first time. It was frightening, and hard, and exciting. And I felt such a close connection to my coworkers. We called each other brother and sister in good old labor union fashion, and I have to say, it wasn’t nostalgia – we really meant it, really felt like we were family. It’s a level of intensity of friendship and connection that I have rarely experienced at other times. Later I spoke up to my employer in a way I never would have before. (People who know me in my personal life sometimes don’t believe me, but I’m actually quite shy by disposition, and still get nervous about speaking in front of groups even though I’ve now done it a bunch.) I didn’t want to speak up, I was very afraid both of conflict and of speaking in front of a group. I was also really afraid of losing my job and not being able to pay my bills. But conditions were bad and all of us were pissed and things had to change. Our group had
rehearsed who was going to say what, but we didn’t think about what to do if someone froze up under pressure. That’s what happened. I said my bit, then the other people didn’t say their’s. I waited a moment then said some more, really telling the boss what I thought. He turned bright red and started to stammer. Then other people started to speak up. Our manager looked sick, like he thought the big boss might fire him over this. It felt really good to make them listen to us for once, to turn the tables on the boss.

I tell these stories because I think these stories get at a common core between insurrectionary and mass practices. Both involve creating moments of conflict that suspend the rules of everyday life under capitalist society. These moments have a transformative potential. For me, in the moments I described to you, I saw figures of power – the police, bosses and managers – challenged and their power temporarily overturned, and they were genuinely worried by this. These moments changed my life in three ways. From talking to other people, they did the same thing for others too. First, these moments expanded my sense of what was possible. Through both of these experiences I had a greater sense of what we could accomplish collectively. Second, these moments provided an intensely powerful feeling of connection with the other people I went through them with. The people I went through this stuff with now live all over the country and we don’t talk often but we still have this strong bond based on what we went through. These moments forged powerful relationships between us, relationships of respect and trust. Third, these moments also changed my aspirations. I wanted to experience that kind of overturning again because it was like nothing I had ever felt before. I wanted to forge those kinds of connections with people again. And above all, I had a deeper
commitment to overturning the whole system.

Some of my closest comrades and I (mostly people in the IWW) have started to think about our efforts as about getting people to have these sorts of transformative experiences. In workplace organizing, it works like this. We talk to our co-workers, meeting them where they’re at. We ask questions to find out what they’re concerned about and to build relationships with them. From there, we start to build a group in the workplace, a group of people who want to confront the problems on the job. We start to take action against the boss for those problems. These actions can transform people in the way I described, and they strengthen our relationships with them. We talk with them about our
shared experiences of conflict on the job and we talk with them about our vision and values as anarchist revolutionaries. That is, we talk about how don’t simply want better pay and more free time – we don’t just want a more livable form of capitalism, we want revolutionary change that creates a totally new society. What we’ve seen over the years is that doing this gets some people who were not previously anarchists to start become anarchist revolutionaries. Some of those
people go on to do the same thing in other workplaces. We transform people and ourselves, and some of those people go on to transform other people and themselves. As a result of this, when big
confrontations happen, like the RNC protests here a while ago, there are more people around who are willing to mobilize for confrontations outside of work, on the streets. And sometimes, people go through transformative experiences in those street confrontations, which they carry with them back to their workplaces…

So I see it like this. Things can work in two directions, depending on where people start out. People can start with experiences of insurrectionary practices then move to mass practices – this is what
happened to me. Or people can start with experiences of mass practices and move to insurrectionary practices – this is what happened with some of my co-workers. And really people do both over the long term. My point is simply that whatever people do first will set them on a path and whatever people do second will deepen their commitment to that path. Mass practices can radicalize people who were previously less radical, winning them to our vision. Further mass practices as well as experiences of insurrectionary practices can deepen their commitment to a revolutionary perspective. Likewise insurrectionary practices can radicalize people who were previously less radical, winning them to our vision. Further insurrectionary practices as well
as experiences of mass practices can deepen their commitment to a revolutionary perspective.

By the way, I want to point one thing that I’m not saying here. I am not saying that the experience of struggle is enough. I think the experience of struggle can get people started on the road. From there people need other experiences too – people need relationships with other revolutionaries, they need conversations with other revolutionaries about vision and values, and people need to read
good revolutionary writing. But the experience of struggle can open people up to all that.

I’m almost done here but before I finish I want to shift gears to talk briefly about three final things. First, I want to talk about ways that mass and insurrectional approaches can go wrong. I have tried to talk about mass practices and insurrectionary practices in this talk, instead of mass anarchism and insurrectionary anarchism. It seems to me that mass anarchism and insurrectionary anarchism are terms that talk about how some anarchists focus on one set of approaches. People become specialists in one sort of approach. I don’t mean ‘specialist’ so much in the sense of expert but rather in the sense of what people put most of their energy and time into. I’m sort of a specialist in workplace-based mass approaches, and I am very inexperienced at insurrectionary practices. Other people are specialists in insurrection and are inexperienced at mass practices. I think it’s easy for people to get emotionally invested in an identity tied to the practices they like best and are most comfortable and familiar with. People should be proud of their experiences and their skills, but
being too emotionally invested in a personal identity tied to all this can cause lots of problems. I think it’s important not to get too invested in a personal identity formed around these practices. We
should focus on doing activities, not on being something. That’s why I talked about mass and insurrectionary practices instead of mass and insurrectionary anarchism.

Second, I think both mass anarchism and insurrectionary anarchism can go wrong in another way. Namely, both can fall into using the wrong criteria to evaluate their activities, criteria that share elements in common with the logic of capitalism. For mass anarchism, this can be something like “look how much money we won! We got a big raise from the boss!” or “we eliminated lead paint from the housing development!” These improvements in people’s health and wealth and safety under
capitalism are very important. But they’re still about better lives under capitalism. Our vision as revolutionaries is not a more comfortable capitalist society, we want a totally different society. We can’t and shouldn’t measure our progress toward a new society by improvements we won under this society. Furthermore, we will not get to a new society by raising wages so high that capitalism just disappears. At some point, a confrontation leading to a major social rupture – that is, an insurrection or many insurrections involving most of the working class – will have to happen.

Insurrectionary anarchists are sometimes better than mass anarchists at expressing their total rejection of capitalism, they do so in a powerful language of moral outrage. On the other hand, sometimes insurrectionary anarchists can fall into a similar assessment based on a logic of capitalism. I’ve heard people talk about how much damage is being done to capitalism by militant confrontation, measured in the dollar amounts that it costs to fix damaged property and the expenses of policing big mobilizations. Let’s look for a moment at what happens when anarchists smash windows or destroy an ATM, or even rob a bank as some people have done in Europe. In each of these cases, a capitalist business loses something valuable. But each of these businesses has
insurance, so they get back the value of what they lost. Furthermore, someone is hired to replace the glass and repair the ATM. That person creates new demand for the products used to make the repairs. Arguably, this sort of property destruction could actually slightly increase the gross domestic product of a country. I’m not arguing against property destruction per se, my point is that measuring actions in terms of the financial cost to capitalism does not really help us get out of capitalism. We are not going to raise costs to capitalists to such a degree that capitalism ceases to exist, whether we’re raising those costs through wage raises or through property damage. In both cases, at least for the time being, we should measure workplace activity or mass activity and insurrectionary activity less in terms of what it does to the capitalists and more in terms of what
it does for the revolutionary movement – the question should not be “what does it cost the capitalists” but rather “how does it make it so there are more of us with more commitment and skills?”

Third and finally, I think we need to have a serious movement-wide discussion about what we think a revolutionary situation looks like. Revolution will probably take some time, as in, we’re not going to end capitalism in one day. I’m not sure we can have a revolution unless it’s truly global. Even if we could, though, if revolution can happen at a smaller scale, let’s think about that for a moment. A genuinely revolutionary situation where we could end capitalism, even if it happened in just one country, like the United States, would involve hundreds of millions of people. If it happened in just one U.S. state or even in just one major metropolitan area it would involve millions of people. I don’t have clear ideas about what any of this looks like but I think we need to be thinking in terms of a large scope, huge bodies of people. I don’t think this is something anyone can control, but we need to figure out ways to make our struggles self-reinforcing and self-expanding. This is why I was trying to suggest an inter-relationship between mass and Insurrectionary practices that build on each other. At a bare minimum, we need to get to the point where our movement can start to talk seriously about mass practices and insurrectionary practices that expand to encompass hundreds of thousands people.

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