Power and Politics: Anarchy has its place

Junk art causes no harm, and sometimes even amuses. The same can't be said for junk politics.

riots in Gaza, Fatah , b (photo credit: AP [file])
riots in Gaza, Fatah , b
(photo credit: AP [file])
It could have been the Tel Aviv Museum or London's Tate Modern, but this time we had plunked down our cash for admission to Vienna's Secession Building. We were intrigued by this 1898 edifice, with its gold cupola and Art Deco facade, and we vaguely knew there was some kind of Gustav Klimt connection. Sure enough, we found Klimt's famous "Beethoven Frieze" and felt we had got our money's worth. Afterwards, strolling around the museum, we came across a mammoth, well-lit, white-walled room containing what is euphemistically known in the post-modern art world as an "installation." This one consisted of overturned chairs, shirts and trousers hanging askew on clothing racks or strewn on the floor, shoes thrown about helter-skelter and an open chest of drawers. Two guards patrolled the room in case some working-class philistine took it into his head to try and bring a semblance of order to the place by picking up the clothing or setting straight the overturned chairs. I've been contentedly trained by my more cultured partner to enjoy the work of a Mark Rothko or a Piet Mondrian and, on a tolerant day, maybe even a Jackson Pollock; I've learned to enjoy colorful paintings that are little more than paint splotches dribbled on canvas - but I draw the line at "installation art," which seems to revel in mayhem, meaningless rebellion and nihilism. Put it this way: Some folks consider a six-foot-high collection of wooden shipping pallets sandwiching construction debris and packaging material to be "art" - I don't. But junk art is harmless. Sure, there's the question of whether tax money ought to be thus squandered, but those with nothing to believe in and no frames of reference also pay taxes. So, I say, let them have their overturned chairs, shipping pallets and moaning suitcases (trust me on this one). But in the political realm, I would not cede an inch to anarchy. THE CHIEF imperative of any political system is stability so that citizens can pursue lives worth living. Everyone is "born free," but the reason, philosophers tell us, that human beings cede their natural-born and absolute freedom to a sovereign (the modern nation state, for example) is because the alternative, every-man-for-himself jungle would be beastly. It would mimic "the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" state of nature depicted by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 masterpiece of political theory, Leviathan. In other words, the anarchist idea that the authority of the state is inherently illegitimate and ought to be resisted is a prescription for sending humanity back to the early Stone Age. To buy into the anarchist worldview requires a very special combination of naivete and nihilism. Still, though few in numbers, anarchists have made their raucous, often violent mark on society by hijacking the anti-globalization cause and, locally, by championing the Palestinians' war against Israel. Most anarchists align themselves with the hard Left (though libertarian capitalist thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick were exceptions). Generally speaking, anarchists share a wildly optimistic conception of human nature, believing that people are intrinsically good; and that if only the corruptive, coercive State would get out of the way, humanity's default temperament would lead it to mutual aid and utopia. Emma Goldman asserted in 1917: "Anarchy stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraints of government." In her 1931 autobiography, Goldman explained that such absolute freedom would be feasible because anarchy offers "the possibility of organization without discipline, fear or punishment, and without the pressure of poverty." FRANKLY, I can more easily abide anarchy's pie-in-the-sky idealism than its down-to-earth hypocrisy. But in any event, I cannot forgive anarchists for having, in effect, made common cause with retrograde Islamist and Palestinian Arab terrorists. Anarchist hypocrisy manifests itself in a myriad ways. You won't find anarchists jetting off to Moscow or Beijing searching for a confrontation with Russian or Chinese security forces. So what if those regimes are illegally trading weapons to Sudan for use by the Janjaweed militias in the Darfour genocide? So what if Russia and China are polluting the earth's environment with abandon while restricting civil liberties - killing reporters, blocking access to the Web? None of this tips the scales for "direct action" against Russia or China. You won't find anarchists peacefully marching in any Arab capital, let alone looking for a "direct action" opportunity in defense of gay rights, women's rights or workers' rights. The most you can hope for is a limp Web site posting support for Egyptian textile workers. Mugabe's reign of terror in Zimbabwe draws a yawn from the worldwide anarchist community. You won't see anarchists marching in the streets of Brazzaville to protest the exploitation of children kidnapped and forced to become soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mass starvation of Korean peasants carried out by the murderous Pyongyang regime doesn't elicit anarchist "direct action." Nor does Iran's institutionalized oppression of women, execution of children as young as 14 or campaign against the Baha'i community serve as an incentive for "direct action." And, needless to say, anarchists are not rioting outside Iranian embassies to call attention to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's efforts to build nuclear reactors - let alone proliferate atom bombs - in the Middle East. Come to think of it, as venues for rioting, anarchists prefer more comfortable Western settings - Scotland (2005), Davos (2000), Seattle (1999), Genoa (2001), Prague (2000), Madrid (1994), Nice (2000) and London (1999) - places where you're never too far from good food, hot water, the Internet and a not-unsympathetic media. The next big anarchist circus will take place on the outskirts of Heiligendamm, a Baltic Sea resort in northern Germany, where leaders of the G-8 are scheduled to meet in June. It's tough to be a revolutionary. THE MAJORITY of non-Arab foreign "activists" who come to Israel for "direct action" in support of the Palestinian war effort are anarchists. Israel offers that extra buzz of (self-inflicted) danger - you never know, you might slip under an army bulldozer and your suddenly meaningful life become fodder for a progressive playwright. In fairness, we can't really expect foreign anarchists to know that had the Palestinian Arab leadership not defied the UN's 1947 plan for the Partition of Palestine, there would already be a Palestinian state alongside a truncated Israel. Or that - more recently - it was Yasser Arafat who launched the second intifada, in September 2000, by rejecting Ehud Barak's obscenely munificent peace offer. Or that before the IDF got a handle on the "free flow of Palestinian traffic," suicide bombers and drive-by shooters had slaughtered 1,130 Israeli bus passengers, caf and mall patrons and schoolchildren. We can't expect anarchists to know that thanks to the barriers, checkpoints, fences, walls and ancillary "indignities" Palestinian Arabs now face, the number of Israeli fatalities is down dramatically, from 451 killed in 2002 to 30 last year. We really can't expect foreign anarchists to be aware that before the current Palestinian violence, West Bank and Gaza Arabs could travel to Tel Aviv unimpeded (you'd see cars with the PA's green license plates all over the country) or that traffic between Gaza and the West Bank flowed freely. Nor can we expect foreign anarchists to know that Arab terrorists relentlessly attacked Israel between 1948 and 1967 - before there was a West Bank "occupation." I suppose a deeply-rooted ignorance of history is as essential to any genuine anarchist as a complete misreading of human nature. I AM, HOWEVER, far less indulgent of Israeli-born Jewish anarchists. They know the deadly consequences of removing IDF blockades from roads connecting Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank to thoroughfares such as Route 60, which runs up and down the spine of Judea and Samaria. And yet these anarchists can be seen trying to remove those same barricades. Every Friday the Israeli anarchists join comrades from abroad and local Palestinian Arabs at the security barrier near Bil'in (just over the Green Line, in the vicinity of Modi'in Illit) for a choreographed "direct action." They know how many lives the security barrier has saved, yet they try to tear it down. Israeli anarchists live at the furthermost anti-Zionist reaches of hard-Left lalaland. How else to explain why well-educated, financially comfortable Jewish young people would commit themselves to dismantling the world's only Jewish country (on the grounds that they oppose the coercive structure of the state), yet devote themselves to promoting, in its place, the building of what in all likelihood would be a violently coercive Islamist state? They assiduously film, photograph and disseminate their violent encounters with the IDF, hoping to make it onto the Israeli evening news (and into the international media). Their modus operandi is to taunt the soldiers with some form of vandalism or violence; and then, in a sort of video ambush, "document" the troops "overreacting" to the anarchists' "direct action." Good footage isn't hard to manufacture, and it was fairly predictable that producers of Israeli television news programs would allow "good pictures" to trump their news judgment. Forced on May 9 to choose between another installment of the annual State Comptroller's Report on government efficiency or IDF soldiers and Border Police wrestling with anarchist women and poking male anarchists in the stomach with a rifle barrel south of Hebron, Channel 10 and Channel 2 both opted to lead their broadcasts with the action footage helpfully supplied by the anarchists. DR. URI GORDON, who is both a scholar of anarchism and himself an anarchist, defended, in the course of a telephone conversation and exchange of e-mails, the behavior of Israeli anarchists. He said that Israel's 200 to 300 anarchists place greater importance on the journey ("direct action") than on the destination - a world without states or borders comprising communities where everybody lives in equality and mutual aid. According to Gordon, anarchists champion a Palestinian state because the Palestinians are anyway living under the dominion of a state - Israel. Anarchists' commitment to human rights, he explained, must take precedence over their principled opposition to the state in general. You can't tell the Palestinians to live under occupation forever - which is why anarchists' solidarity with the Palestinians is worthwhile, even at the price of ideological inconsistency. And anyway, Gordon argued, on a qualitative level, a Palestinian state is superior to the present situation even if it brings yet another state into existence. Gordon complained that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served as a sort of lightning rod for Islamists, as well as deflecting both Israelis and Palestinians to the wrong issues when they should be thinking about anti-capitalism, feminism and ecology. Finally, by working hand-in-hand with the Palestinians via direct action, anarchists feel they are swaying Palestinian minds and showing them that not all Israelis support the occupation. Solidarity, he argues, is not about supporting those who share your politics, it's about supporting those who struggle against injustice. It matters little that their assumptions, methods, politics and goals differ from our own. IN A SENSE, anarchists like Gordon have adopted Fatah's plan for the phased destruction of Israel: First dismantle the "occupation" of 1967, then the "occupation" of 1948. His politics isn't intended as charity for the Palestinians, he explained, it's part of his commitment to building the non-chauvinistic society he envisions. Such extraordinary inability to gauge reality, and the anarchists' odd blending of naivete and nihilism, does little harm when confronted in a museum art installation. But in the political sphere, muddled relativism and irrationality of this sort are lethal. It may not be his intent, but Gordon's way will bring us not Emma Goldman's anarchist utopia but a Hamastan, Shari'a law, and the very centralized fascism anarchists claim to oppose. Thankfully, however, unlike the world of museums, the civilized political realm encourages law, order and stability.