Thoughts on anarchist movement strategy and liberation struggle during the electoral cycle
By Panagioti Tsolkas / Antistasis Project [updated 1/6/21]
(You can also find a shorter, tighter version of this essay here as well.)
Engravings by Greek artist Thomas Molos, 1921 – 2009
Spoiler Alert: Neither an anti-voting rant or a political endorsement
For those of us who pay attention to politics and social movements, being days from an election like this can feel like being just far enough away from a destination on the horizon to tell if its a revolution or an apocalypse coming up ahead. Do we speed up? Stop and rest? Find some other way around?
For those who are not inclined to read something this long, let me summarize it real quick: get the hell out there over the next few days and talk to your friends, family and neighbors about what’s going on around us, and prepare to raise hell, if needed, over the outcome of the election.
In my earlier days of community organizing, I once tried to explain to my Spartan papou1 why I was an anarchist. He didn’t believe me. He didn’t just try to talk me out of being an anarchist, he tried to convince me that they didn’t actually even exist, that they, we, were actually just a figment of some capitalists imagination, functioning as a bohemian distraction or worse an agent provocateur for some counterrevolutionary purpose.
Later in life I came to realize he was probably just regurgitating opinions from the communist newspapers he still read with great loyalty up until his last days, even after all these decades past his time as a guerilla in the trenches of the Greek antistasis and civil war. But his position intrigued me much more than the dry analysis in books by V.I. Lenin (books I had also read). Even if we didn’t agree, he lived a resistance in a moment when the stakes are as high as they can get.
I bring these things up for discussion now on the precipice of a major U.S. election, because I think there is value in this moment, while politics and its social impacts are on peoples’ minds, to look deeper at what’s happening around us and what role we can play in upheavals across the political spectrum.
Let me be clear about my papou’s opinion on anarchists. It was, and in some ways still is, a popular conspiracy aimed at suppressing one movement in favor of another. It played out to a brutal end in places and times like Kronstadt in 1921, Barcelona in 1936. Being that the strategic use of conspiracy theory has once again come front and center as a prominent social force, I think its worth dissecting it in the current context.
On the far-right end of the political spectrum, we’ve been seeing a whole mess of conspiracies tossed out, in hopes that they distract and divert enough attention to affect the direction of society: Democrats are pedophiles and communists, the uprisings against police abuse are orchestrated by actors, Biden has a body double, Obama had no birth certificate, that pizza shop near D.C. was an underground sex slave exchange, etc.
Its bigger than influencing the outcome at the polls (though that is certainly one goal.) I think its more about controlling the narrative of resistance.
As an active part of anarchist movements and various grassroots social change efforts more generally over the past two decades, I feel pretty confident saying that we’ve had a major failure to inspire an affinity with the concept of resistance broadly enough to reach the apolitical people or folks on the fence with their affinity to a party or philosophy. These folks, many of who were chanting “we are the 99%” during Occupy Wall Street, have been lured into the façade of Trump as a rebellious option.
Of course, its not just Trump’s well-oiled conspiracy-theory social media propaganda machine to blame. Everyone with a brain knows the Democratic Party is also full of shit, pushing a neoliberal economic agenda, throwing us some bones to pacify people. Its just the better option at the moment, at least for all who want to curtail the slide into fascism and retain some basic protections (i.e. reproductive health, labor unions, public assistance) as well as generally create space for pushing social and ecological justice struggles forward.
A little history break real quick: October 28, 1940, this week 80 years ago, marked the anniversary of Oxi Day (pronounced ‘oh-hee‘), when Mussolini’s fascist forces were refused entry to Greece. It was a loud and clear message that some people weren’t going to step aside for the march of far-right totalitarian political regimes seeking to expand their control into surrounding countries.
The modern day celebration of this holiday can get confusing, with its hypernationalism and flag-waving from a country that, for the past 10 years, had literal neo-Nazis elected to parliament seats. 2
Despite that, the decision to refuse Mussolini a peaceful passage towards expanding his new Italian empire across the Balkans and North Africa stands as an important moment in the collective partisan resistance that played a huge role in defeating the ideology represented by the Italian fascists and German Nazis.
As we know, it didn’t disappear, but it was driven back into the margins, and dispersed across the planet, where it has remained, bubbling up occasionally like a festering wound.
Four years ago, that lingering infected sore on humanity saw a major entry point through extreme nationalism and ego-mania of Donald Trump, generally re-branded as the Alt-Right or Western chauvanism.
No, I’m not saying the U.S. Empire is currently in a fascist or totalitarian condition. But it’s impossible not to be thinking about what this means for us today, as we see similar rhetoric surfacing, talk of refusal to accept election results, paramilitary nationalists killing people in the street during uprisings against racist policing.
Over the past four years, the word resistance made its way into mainstream discourse under the current presidential administration with greater prominence in this country than decades prior, arguably since the partisan movements surrounding WWII. 3
Since Trump’s 2016 campaign, groups that usually tended towards online petitions and political endorsements began using the rhetoric of resistance in stickers, shirts, coffee mugs, etc.
Having spent years as part of small-scale resistance movements in the U.S.4 and watching this development with much interest, I think there is a lot of potential coalescing around this willingness to embrace the concept of resistance. Sure, there are some elements of co-optation and insincerity that are frustrating, but much more so, there is an opening of space for pushing a deeper level of social change in the direction of liberation, equality and ecology.
Now that the concept of resistance has moved from fringe towards center, we have a chance to shape an understanding of it in front of a wider audience than perhaps ever before in this country, in a domestic context. Because resistance isn’t just about engaging in conflict, it’s about incorporating a principle of defiance into daily life, exercising it until it becomes a natural reflex, a response to injustice and oppression, both felt and witnessed, against people, places, cultures, ideas. Eating, breathing, sleeping, loving, resisting. Developing the courage to embrace resistance means placing it among the bare necessities.
There’s not a need to rehash the obvious rise of neo-Nazi politics since Trump’s election. It’s been belabored enough. It’s irrefutable that he has been blowing a dog whistle long and hard to gather support from the dregs of white supremacist organizations who are attempting to “unite the right” under fascist ambitions, and largely succeeding, sparking a resurgence neo-Nazism parading as populist patriotism. The immediate praise from Greece’s Golden Dawn party should have been a clear indication for anyone who was doubting it.
As a former Golden Dawn elected official and disgraced spokesperson, Ilias Panagiotaros, said to a reporter in 2016, “Trump is the planet’s keeper. He’s the president of the world’s superpower, and whether you like him or not, his policies are now validating beliefs and concerns across the globe.”
He continued, “Trump’s policies have given us a new wind of support. It’s validating and reinforcing our nationalistic and patriotic policies — policies that we have been advocating for years.”
The more important conversation is what we do from here.
It’s obvious that the movement to oust Trump by election is an important part of the process unfolding before us. Even for an anarchist like myself, who doesn’t feel any draw towards overly-glorifying electoralism and the façade of democracy it provides,5 a vote contesting Trump is worth the minimal effort it requires. But our strategic thinking and planning must be dynamic and visionary enough to see beyond November third.
Regardless of the electoral results, joining in on this moment to counter what Trump has mobilized (with his massive campaign of social media conspiracy theories that place him as a savior) is an opportunity to take part in a community organizing effort with the people most likely to be getting masses out into the street if Trump loses and refuses to leave, or wins and continues to call on paramilitary far-right support to repress the steady flow of uprisings occurring against his police, prisons, pipelines, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.
The next few days of canvassing, phonbanking, poll watching, etc. are worth including in our diversity of tactics with the primary strategic goal of dispersing the neo-Nazis that have rallied around him back into the margins.
Alongside that, while the Democratic Party leaves much to be desired for those of us striving towards liberation, recent movement history shows quite clearly that larger gains are made under less repressive U.S. regimes. Global justice organizing, climate justice mobilizations, immigrant solidarity, these are the things we develop further when not playing defense against the heavier flow of racism, sexism, war mongering and bigotry that tends to accompany Republican regimes more intensely.
I hear from friends and comrades about a fear that a defeat of Trump could lead to a laziness or apathy that would slow the momentum of movements that are energized by facing off with Trump. To that I name a few specific examples: Occupy Wall Street and the explosion of a housing justice movement; #NoDAPL, Tar Sands Blockade and the rise of anti-pipeline struggles; the immigrant solidarity push for DACA, the DREAM Act and the release of low-priority deportations; the growth of prison abolition and the unprecedented 2016 prison strike. These were all moments where social movements were able to have their organizing in the streets shape policy and public opinion on critical issues, under Democratic Party administrations.
A massive energy infrastructure plan was halted and federal contracts with private prisons had been cancelled in the year before Trumps took office. He reversed those decisions almost immediately. The DAPL construction continued. Prison industry stock shot back up.
Reaching back to the ‘99 Seattle WTO protests and other anti-globalization uprisings, our organized resistance unified groups across broad coalitions to push economic changes at a fundamental level. Even though President Clinton was a pusher of NAFTA just a few years before, the movement on the streets was able to grow in a way that was almost immediately stifled in the second Bush era, where contesting a policy of endless wars for oil (under the guise of combating terrorism) consumed so much of activist energy for two terms, that the fight to shut down corporate globalization summits took a back seat to the RNC convergences.
We can and should use the last remaining days till the election, and likely the days following it if results are contested, attempting to secure a strategic outcome of a less repression condition and a less ripe scenario for further growth of fascist-style politics. In doing so, we develop relationships and prepare for a very real possibility that Trump makes good on his expressed intent to stay in his position despite ballot results.
If Biden wins, we get some breathing room for planning to crash every economic summit, blockade every pipeline, defund every police department and leave every prison is ashes.
In the weeks and months ahead, regardless of the election outcome, anarchists will have the task of both radicalizing disappointed Dems and peeling away Trump supporters as the haze clears from their brain and they realize what they helped usher in.
All that is not to say that grassroots movements in the streets can’t or don’t make gains under Republicans. Because of course, we spent much of this year proving that we sure as hell can. We turned out massive crowds amidst a pandemic. We saw the burning down an entire police station, and rebellions in dozens of cities force real conversations about cutting bloated police budgets (Note: Police department appropriations generally account for the largest share of the budget in 35 of the 50 largest cities). We watched the tearing down of Confederate and colonialist statues and the blockading of border wall construction in so-called California and Arizona all calling into question centuries of white supremacy and ecocide.
An election versus a resistance is not an either/or dilemma. It’s about looking at what we can make out of what we have to work with. In other words, an election is an event, resistance is a commitment.
- My grandfather was Spartan, as in from Sparti, but he was also a throw-the-baby-off-the-cliff kinda guy. Passionate about politics and revolution, but hard to get along with.
- Not to mention that the defeat of fascism saw the rise of a neoliberal economic model that also relied on massive repression and global exploitation to sustain (or that the brutality and racism of those groups was largely inspired by the Manifest Destiny delusion that drove the westward expansion of the U.S. empire).
- In those instances, the resistance being referenced was usually something in other countries, describing confrontational groups usually with an anti-fascist or anti-imperialist focus, a radical analysis and direct action tendency.
- For example, anarchist direct action groups such as Earth First!, which uses disruptions, blockades and sabotage to defend people and the earth from corporations, as well as support political prisoners captured by the state which accommodates the economic interests causing the damage.
- In the bigger picture, the power of the globalized economy, the Dictatorship of the Market, has so much more influence over this nation, and the planet, than the items or candidates on any ballot. On a smaller scale, the absence of democratic participation in places most people have to spend their work week or a majority of the money they earn (rent, food, etc) also exposes an absence of democracy in daily life.