Book Review: Translating Anarchy
July 19, 2014
As an anarchist who participated in the larger Occupy phenomenon (in my case, Occupy Grand Rapids) I never really followed much of what was happening with Occupy Wall Street in New York City. When the occupations spread across the country, my inspiration came from elsewhere, cities like Oakland, Seattle, and St. Louis seemed to offer more interesting forms of anarchist involvement. By contrast, what I saw coming out of New York City—such as the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”—was generally not that exciting. Its political analysis was overly simplified and anarchist ideas were more or less nonexistent.
Nevertheless, I have always been interested in anarchists’ role in Occupy Wall Street. From the media reports on David Graeber’s involvement and other coverage, to the ways the occupation functioned, the presence of anarchists was obvious. To that end, Mark Bray’s Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street offers a very thorough account of anarchist involvement. Bray—as an organizer with Occupy Wall Street’s Press Working Group—has intimate knowledge of how Occupy Wall Street functioned. Using his connections, Bray interviewed 192 “main organizers” during the period from December 2011 to February 2013 (p. 40). From that analysis, Bray found that 39% of organizers self-identified as anarchists and that many more were influenced by anarchist ideas. In sum, he concludes that 72% of organizers had politics that were “anarchistic” and largely consistent with anarchist ideas (43).
Beyond the quantitative analysis of organizers’ politics, Bray provides further insight into Occupy Wall Street to show that anarchism was at the core of the movement. This was seen in its forms, such as the use of consensus, general assemblies, direct action, and affinity groups. In each case, Translating Anarchy offers short historical overviews of the origins of the particular form, often discussing both potential benefits and drawbacks. Elsewhere, Bray looks at the functioning of various groups within Occupy Wall Street—such as the Direct Action Working Group—and shows that they were largely dominated by anarchists (192) and that as such anarchists exerted considerable influence on the movement.
From this context, Translating Anarchy attempts to draw out lessons from Occupy Wall Street to inform contemporary anarchist practice. As a rather large contemporary social struggle that had considerable anarchist involvement and participation, there is certainly much to consider. In Translating Anarchy, Bray doesn’t hesitate to make recommendations on strategy and tactics, especially in the realm of how anarchists convey their ideas to a larger audience—which is question of considerable importance to anyone who wishes to see anarchist ideas spread.
Much of Bray’s book is based on how Occupy Wall Street sought to communicate anarchist ideas to a larger audience. While Bray does explore the media created by Occupy Wall Street to communicate its ideas, his primary concern is how anarchist ideas were spread in the corporate media—a process that he describes as “translating anarchy.”
Bray ably analyzes the problems with the corporate media and articulates strong points on its limits (20). Among those are his insights that the media expects protestors to engage in a “mimicry of the elite” in that they are only taken seriously if they are “mirrors in which the elite can recognize themselves” (26)—or through “communication with the elite” by engaging them “in the proper manner through the proper channels” (27). As a member of the Press Working Group, Bray and others sought to navigate these issues, along with the media’s tendency to simplify past movements as a way of limiting contemporary struggles (30-31). He writes that the refusal to issue demands and go through official channels was proof that they were anarchists, but the media failed to grasp that (38-39). He explains that the media missed anarchist involvement because “they didn’t know who to look for” and just sought out particular tropes (i.e. black-clad youth breaking things) (108). Similarly, Bray writes, “very rarely did reporters put the pieces together to realize that our general assemblies, consensus decision-making process, lack of hierarchy, resistance to electoral politics, and emphasis on direct action had anarchism written all over them” (108).
For Bray, one of the most exciting parts of Occupy Wall Street was the opening it created for the mass dissemination of anarchist politics (112). He writes that “our message” of economic justice and participatory democracy resonated widely in the larger society (113). In addition, Occupy Wall Street was getting across an anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist critique across which would not have been possible had they been using the term “anarchism” (113). At least that is what Bray claims throughout the book, but there is unfortunately no way of knowing whether that was indeed true. Instead he says that Occupy Wall Street was “…’translating anarchy’ to people who were receptive to its contents but exceedingly wary of its usual linguistic packaging and popular rhetorical baggage” (113). Bray says that he wasn’t alone in this view—most of the self-identified anarchists—65%—wouldn’t use “anarchist” when talking to people (113). There was general agreement that people were interested in “emphasizing the ideas behind anarchism rather than their misunderstood label” (122-123).
Bray gives many examples of anarchists who used other words to describe their views within the context of Occupy Wall Street while also providing some historical examples of anarchists doing this (123-126). He argues that while “it may seem strange for anarchists to build a group or movement without specifically anarchist politics, or to use strategic language to present their ideas to society, …it’s nothing new” (124). For Bray, this strategy manifests itself in specific ways: presenting ideas in an “accessible format” (dress, language, etc), giving tangible examples rather than ideology, and starting from the position that the two major political parties in the United States are dominated by corporations (134). While over half the members of the Press Working Group were anarchists, they had broad political agreement on the following points: “(1) the current economic system is oppressive and only works for the 1%; (2) both political parties are beholden to the 1%; therefore (3) the solution can only come from people-power” (138).
While the following is a lengthy quote, Brays says that it is representative of the sound-bites the strategy of “translating anarchy” generated:
“Occupy is a response to the mass economic injustice perpetrated by Wall Street and the 1% on the American people. Since 2008, we’ve seen the banks illegally evict thousands of families while Wall Street executives get Christmas bonuses for destroying lives. But we’ve had enough! We need an economy based on human need rather than Wall Street profits that provides working people with food, housing, healthcare and education. But we’ve seen that both Bush and Obama bailed out the banks, not the people. Both parties rely on banks and corporations and prioritize the 1% over the 99%. We’ve been told to turn to the politicians for answers, but after Obama we’ve seen that movie, and we know how it ends. If we want a true democracy, we have to make it ourselves. That’s why we’re in the streets” (139).
Bray argues that this was a useful message because it had “a (partially veiled) critique of capitalism” (141). He analyzes the sound-bite for several pages, saying that “many people latched onto this kind of open, accessible messaging and pursued is anarchist(ic) currents” (146).
Bray writes that another successful example of messaging was the “we are the 99%” slogan which he describes as a means of “presenting anarchist concepts in a digestible form” (155). While he does mention some of its limits (for example, when people asserted that the police were “the 99%”), he says that it was a strategic use of “more accessible, and at times over-simplified rhetoric, for a mainstream audience in order to pull people in” (157).
…or Getting Lost in Translation?
Of course, the obvious question to ask is whether this strategy was successful at transmitting anarchist ideas to a larger population. Ultimately, Bray doesn’t make a convincing case that it was. While he mentions people who came into Occupy Wall Street as liberals and came out as anarchists, it is rather difficult to evaluate how many people reading or watching media coverage got the anarchist message that was allegedly being “translated.” In the sample sound-bite Bray gives, it isn’t very clear. One could easily use the concepts evoked within to justify any number of approaches—including voting, legislating, petitioning, or maybe, anarchist direct action. This was a consistent problem with Occupy across the United States, it seemed to be a catch all for any number of different views.
For example, Bray writes that:
“…it’s understandable that liberal journalists would interpret our rhetoric as a call for free expression and an improved social safety net, while in fact we used popular political discourse to make a case for an autonomous, non-electoral social movement working toward a non-capitalist economy that would replace the profit incentive with a prioritization of non-human need” (5).
But it wasn’t just the journalists that were missing the point, many participants in Occupy Wall Street didn’t seem to “get it” and still saw the effort as one targeted towards any number of reformist goals. Clearly, something was lost when the anarchist ideas were “translated” into mainstream rhetoric.
Bray does engage with some of these criticisms in Translating Anarchy. At various points, Bray says that it was necessary for anarchists who spoke directly about their politics and who distributed anarchist literature to push people towards anarchism (160-161). For me, that says that there were real limits to the strategy of “translating anarchy.” Near the end of the book, Bray offers some useful comments for evaluating the success of this strategy. He says that “the typical ‘Occupier’ left the movement with a tattered checker-board politics” which suggests the anarchism didn’t come across clearly either in the messaging or in people experiencing horizontal forms of organizing. Similarly, he said argues that anarchists needed to be more visible and more clear in their politics, largely by having anarchist events and organizations present. While doesn’t necessarily refute the idea of “translating anarchy,” it does question whether the ideas were all that clear in the first place. Bray writes that the practice “…could bring in progressives and left-leaning democrats and infuse their politics with anarchist ideas. Some of them left with a more critical stance on electoral politics and a greater appreciation for direct action and direct democracy, and others walked away as anarchists” (170). That doesn’t read as a ringing endorsement of the success of “translating anarchy”—as anarchists we want a lot more than “a more critical stance on electoral politics.”
Bray argues this was “an important step toward the long-term creation of a left libertarian mass movement” (170), but doesn’t provide a convincing argument as to why this is better. It seemed like another argument in favor of coalition-type politics where anarchists—as so often is the case—will get burned in the end. The anti-globalization efforts of the early 2000s come immediately to mind. While they may have offered a place to spread anarchist ideas and tactics, the larger movement was all too willing to discard anarchists once they were no longer useful. At the same time, many anarchists were too busy doing the organizing rather than pursing their goals as anarchists. This is something Bray mentions in relation to Occupy Wall Street when he writes that “most anarchists, such as myself, were putting all their energy into actually organizing the movement” and therefore could not work on projects within Occupy Wall Street that specifically articulated anarchist ideas (262).
An issue that also bears consideration is whether as anarchists it is appropriate to “hide” our views by cloaking them in populist and mainstream rhetoric. In recent years there has been much talk about using the concept of “affinity” rather than political identity as the basis for working together (largely coming out of the insurrectionary anarchist tradition). Bray doesn’t acknowledge that discussion, despite its considerable presence in anarchist discourse. Instead, he sides with the chorus of people who claim to be “anarchist” yet consistently advocate disguising their views. He advocates a “strategic” means of re-explaining anarchist ideas in plainer language without using the word “anarchy.” Of course, unless you are some kind of unthinking anarchist robot that has no capacity to consider the context of the situation you are in, this is something we all tend to do on various occasions. However, Bray seems to be arguing for a deeper avoidance of the idea of “anarchy.” Most often, anarchism is rejected as a term for the purpose of bringing in larger numbers of people. In the context of Occupy Wall Street, it isn’t hard to see how this could be problematic: people show up thinking “the movement” is about some vague concept of “democracy” only to hear that its really just a front for anti-capitalism, or as Bray writes, “most Occupy participants wanted to reform capitalism, most organizers wanted to destroy it” (4). Bray writes that the supporters of the movement (not the actually organizers) were “overwhelmingly liberal, and generally considered goals such as ‘getting money out of politics’ to be their endgames” (40). He writes that Occupy Wall Street managed to attract “a think outer layer of liberals and progressives around an inner core that was predominately anarchist in character” (40). It’s somewhat reminiscent of the leftist strategy of using popular issues—for example the anti-war movement in the 2000s—as a way to pull people in to socialist parties. No matter the case, it is a recipe for disagreement and frustration. Moreover, while it might be somewhat preferable for people to use “anarchist forms” for making decisions within social struggles, without a specific effort to articulate the “anarchism” behind those forms, they are just shells that can be used for reformist ends. Bray admits this when he writes that “there were plenty of liberals and moderates who mastered consensus process during their time with Occupy and left with essentially the same ‘repeal Citizens United’ politics they came in with” (260). Beyond that, arguing with liberals might be fun for a while, but it seems unlikely that it will eventually lead to anarchy, as anyone who has done that for any amount of time likely knows.
A Specific Type of Anarchism
While Bray’s book is about “the anarchism of Occupy Wall Street,” it’s also clear from the text that he is advocating for a specific type of mass anarchism generally associated with class struggle anarchism.
For Bray, anarchism is “…at the forefront of the world’s revolutionary left” (268). As such, Bray articulates a leftist vision of anarchism that owes much to the class struggle tradition. At various points he speaks of the “red and black flag” of anarchism (44). Not surprisingly, he argues for the things that are generally associated with that tradition: federations, large organizations, large economies, and mass society. Bray only engages arguments against these in small ways, often by simple dismissal. For example, he rejects primitivism and its advocates stating that “…those who are fine with billions of people dying in order to thin the population and return to some supposed ‘state of nature’ have nothing to do with a doctrine that prioritizes the needs of all” which is a standard smear (55). Ironically, later in the book he speaks of past ways of living as being proof that the future need not be the same as the present, which is a key point of anarcho-primitivist thought, that for much of human history we lived as “anarchists.” (75). Bray reports that the “environmental destruction” inherent in capitalism was the most popular reason why anarchists were there, a problem which the primitivist critique is attempting to address, albeit by arguing that the problem is the mass society and the structures that go along with it (65). Yet, despite this, Bray repeatedly advocates for a need for large organizations to “project our vision of global mutual aid and democratic coordination” (101). His anarchism is one of global scale, with all the structures that would entail. As he says, it’s hard for many people to see how anarchist forms could “…scale up to include large numbers of people across large geographical areas”—although he never considers that the scale itself may be the problem (101 and 262).
In providing an overview of anarchist history, Bray’s presentation seemed reminiscent of the book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism and indeed in his endnotes he references that book. In following a similar line of thought, he argues that the anarcho-syndicalist tradition is considerably larger than what is often written (49). Moreover, he argues that the history of “capital-A” anarchism (that of mass organizations and federations) was considerably larger than that of “small-a” anarchism and that it had “much more success and popular support” (53). In Bray’s overview, the reason that “small-a” anarchism seemed “new” in the post-1960s era was because the other form of anarchism was so pervasive. Nevertheless, he admits that most anarchists of Occupy Wall Street were “small-a” anarchists. If that so, one has to wonder if they would they really want the globalized vision that Bray articulates? In light of these arguments, it follows that Bray repeatedly invokes the Spanish CNT as an example of a large anarcho-syndicalist union in which it not all members were anarchist, but where people encountered anarchist ideas through struggle—which he uses to argue in favor of “large outward-facing anarchist formations (whether implicitly or explicitly)” (54).
In discussing anarchism, Bray largely speaks in favor of his particular brand of anarchism and ignores other currents within the anarchist space. In one case, he speaks of an anarchist who identified as an “insurrectionary anarcho-nihilist” who rejects the notion of a positive program, but Bray rejects that view and argues for a “positive vision” (75). He says that when most anarchists within Occupy Wall Street spoke of future societies, they were essentially articulating anarchist-communist positions (76). Of course, this may reflect what Bray wants out of anarchism as much as anything else. Bray generally ignores anarchist currents that would challenge his ideas. This is especially true of the insurrectionary tendency, which seemed to have considerable influence on how anarchists across the United States engaged with Occupy (see for example the collection Occupy Everything: Anarchists in the Occupy Movement, 2009-2011). Instead, he seems content to bring up the common boogeymen of class-struggle anarchists, the primitivists and anarcho-punks as a way of arguing in favor of traditional federations and large-scale organizations (130-131), all the while assuming that the core question for anarchists is how to manage a global society that is quite similar to the existing world.
While Bray’s book has an intriguing premise and offers an interesting account of anarchist involvement in Occupy Wall Street, it has major limitations. Translating Anarchy has some interesting ideas to consider, but overall, its conclusions were not convincing and its brand of anarchism was much too narrow. Those who take the time to read through it might come away with a few useful ideas, but ultimately would find a presentation of many ideas that have been relatively standard debates within the anarchist space over the past thirteen years. These debates and discussions—whether we should be building “mass” anarchist organizations, building alternative institutions, or engaging in some other strategy—have been discussed elsewhere. At many points, the issues explored don’t even seem that relevant, for example, the strategy of building alternative institutions or primitivism, are hardly contemporary debates within the anarchist space. In many ways, the book is just another articulation of a century old strategy of revolution—without a convincing argument that it will turn out any better this time around.
Mark Bray, Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, (New York: Zero Books, 2013).
Book Review: Translating Anarchy was published on July 19, 2014