Where There’s A Big Tent, There’s A Fucking Circus

Submission from H.C. received on 07.13.22


The last month or so has prompted some amount of critical discourse among the normally un-critical anarchists in this city. Two recent communiques posted on Filler have been a mixed bag – one instructive, the other less inspiring. One (https://fillerpgh.wordpress.com/2022/07/02/the-city-county-building-is-a-trap-and-notes-to-consider-for-the-summer/) offered a critique of the futility of anarchist mobilization toward public protest outside of the halls of power. It alludes to the simple fact that such matters laid before the dull functionaries of this political machine – who are not even in the building at the time of protest – are nothing but a demand made upon the state to restore our rights, mete out some form of justice, draft policy that allows the state to function with our seal of approval –  the warm feeling that we made this happen by making our voices heard.

Change which can materially have an effect on our immiseration, however, is so rarely achieved that even the activists organizing these mass displays of protest and/or solidarity consider them entirely symbolic and ineffectual gestures that simply serve the purpose of making their voices heard (loosely quoting a local organizer of this coalition responding to this exact line of critique in the comments section of AbortionDefensePGH’s social media site). Okay, well, your voice is heard. What did it accomplish?

If the answer is “nothing” then perhaps anarchists should do well to abandon these behaviors and their organizers in favor of something less controlled – some act of destructive sabotage that – even if nothing changes – refuses the hollow echoing of our frustrated voices pitifully begging for change from slick politicians.

One trend among participants in the mass gathering – illustrated in an anarchist organizer’s recent reportback (https://fillerpgh.wordpress.com/2022/07/08/pittsburgh-a-black-anarchist-perspective-on-the-roe-v-wade-protest/)- has been an outspoken hostility toward moribund Marxist authoritarian groups such as SALT and the PSL, for their national-level party structures’ complicity with silencing and perpetuating abuse and transphobic discrimination among their ranks. While scandalous and entirely believable, these organizations more plainly are worthy of critique for their constant opportunism, attempting to recruit well-intentioned and newly-radicalized people away from these vibrant, energizing (but remember, still entirely symbolic!) protests into the internal bureaucracy of their party organizations.

Were there not an ongoing narrative of the abusive and transphobic nature of groups like SALT and PSL, would our anarchist comrades be welcoming them with open arms into the Big Tent alongside progressives, nonprofit workers, liberal feminists and democratic party adherents? Why do our comrades seemingly have no issue organizing among members of the Maoist group “For The People” (in the form of the groups Abortion Defense PGH and Justice 4 Jim Rogers)?  Both groups are tied to Maoist organizationalism in similarly murky ways as any PSL, SALT or RevCom front group, but FTP whose fervent opposition to the abusive cult dynamics of other (read: at the moment NOT US!) Marxist organizations on the national level is done not out of a sense of altruism, but a clever branding of their struggle as “true”, as representative of the safety of women or people of color whom must be defended from those discreet individuals known as abusers that dwell in OTHER Marxist organizations.

While I am hardly an organizationalist or a proponent of left unity, I feel that by parroting this line, we are simply acting as willing participants in a group like FTP’s political maneuvering to be the “most pure” party to lead the masses forward toward glory. We are stupidly mistaken if groups such as the PSL, SALT, the DSA and Maoist groups (the latter of whom largely end up becoming quasi-religious antisex purity cults or autocannibalizing left-zealot polycules) or anarchist ones such as the IWW, Food Not Bombs, your local insurrectionist cell, etc are not free from enacting harm or bigotry because of some political flaw in their structure or beliefs. The answers to this are far less easy to parse than can be achieved by shouting slogans at The Bads and posturing one’s identity, beliefs or job experience as The Good, particularly attuned to sniffing out abusers hiding among our idyllic social and political cliques. Perhaps we can move forward without trying to spot abusers, predators, TERFs, etc – whatever pejorative for The Bads applies – as if it is some preferable means of sidlining people or organizations (whose local chapters likely have nothing to do with or no real opinion on high-profile abuse scandals despite what their party line dictates) rather than understanding that our goals as anarchists are fundamentally hostile to theirs, and thus can be the point where we diverge on our own terms from their sad spectacles of bickering over who is morally pure enough to lead the march.

It is not unnecessary to state that the peril of anarchists involving themselves in mass actions and “big tent” displays of political outrage is that – at the end of the long day of activism – we can sit in our homes and delude ourselves that WE did a stupid, futile and symbolic action in a way somehow more politically reconcilable with our anti-society beliefs than did the sea of democrats, NGO deskjobbers, would-be Stasi and TERF yarnbombers doing the exact same activities, shouting the same slogans and assembling with the same list of demands. By stepping into these arenas of political mystification, anarchists resign ourselves to the terms of the state, and ally ourselves with those whose political activity seeks to reform or wrest control of the state and its power. When under the big tent, the voices of the suburban racial justice democrat with a Ring camera, the wannabe Shining Path infant-boiler, the tech-startup girlboss, the meme-radicalized anti-civ anarchist, and the Marxist do-gooder pretending to memorize your pronouns are shouting in glorious unison at an empty civic office building. They are all surrounded by armed police, being paid overtime by our Mayor, whom many of you are pretending you didn’t vote for on the basis of his incredibly vague “demilitarization” police reform agenda.

Anarchism is getting more dilute as a political and philosophical subculture with some semblance of conviction or even ability to articulate what one believes, and our participation among mass does nothing to serve our particular interest or affirm these beliefs and behaviors; the only reassurance that our involvement in such displays is not entirely a betrayal of our principles is the comforting pessimism that the pro-revolutionary Marxists attempting to fold us into their bids for power and control are entirely delusional.

To echo the earlier critique, Pittsburgh’s scene of anarchism is still mired in the grinding agony of activist ritualism that precludes the possibility of something – if not more marvelous – than perhaps less legible to our enemies than the Good Work of activists. Truly, it is good that actual strategic discussion is being offered by anarchists in this city. Kudos to the writer who pushed back against the potential for yet another “protest season” (ugh!!) to grind to a halt in pointless rallies and miles-long marches and chanting the same old slogans.  

We anarchists would perhaps do well to sidestep the displays of political theatre and, instead, break out into far more various, decentralized and subterranean actions that hope to strike at weak points in the smooth functioning of the state and capital. To do less would allow the ossification of refusal into the meaningless aesthetics of rebellion, the high drama of sectarian deck-chair rearranging on a sinking ship of leftism, the sittings around and being lectured in intersections far behind police barricades manned by bored officers, and the joyless parade of those willing to let their displeasure be marshalled, politicked-to and bullhorn-chanted at.  

– H.C., July 2022


Photo from the 2009 Pittsburgh G20 summit.

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