The allure, to me, of polyamory has always been its promise of addressing reality head on. Of communicating and grappling with the complexities in our lives and relationships in an honest and audacious manner. But I am not so on board with those who define it as in terms of “casual love.”
The comparison to casual sex is entirely misguided in my opinion. …Of course I freely admit I may not have the highest credentials in this area. Casual sex will probably always seem like a crazy scifi concept to me, completely detached from far more realistic and tangible notions like space elevators and time travel devices the size of galaxies. In some sense it’s silly to pay such an outlandish notion too much attention when there’s toy spacetime metrics to solve, but I appreciate on some level that this probably isn’t the case for all you cool kids. And you’re probably all making out with each other or something the moment I leave the room. Sounds wonderful. However, even though it might be experimentally unfeasible to test in a Type I Civilization, I’ve done the calculations and casual sex, casual flirtation, casual infatuation, all of those are quite workable at high frequencies and there don’t seem to be any exclusion principles to their wavefunctions. The hairy bits are ultimately just engineering problems. And since yall seem to be on such a higher Kardashev coolness scale than myself, with your hip dance parties and your zero-point energy extraction devices that spit out exotic matter like socially conventional small talk, I have no doubt you can solve these issues.
But casual love? I may be hanging too much on either of those words, yet I still suspect I disagree more than I agree.
Mostly because love isn’t some kind of passive entertainment or fleeting hunger, love involves serious ontological reconfigurations. Or at least there’s a thing that happens, when you grow to know a person, when that person is smart, creative, and kind, when they can surprise you, see the same things you can see, and behave with either such compassion or regularity that you can relax your shields around them, where they become qualitatively more real to you. Almost as real as yourself. Where your mirror neurons jiggle and dance in tune with them, a ghost of them moving alongside you at all times.
Loving someone remakes yourself. But most importantly, even if that ghost fades to a silent unnoticed echo, the impression left by the experience reshapes your ethical reality. You are not alone. Tangibly. Provably. There are other minds. In a way impossible to ascertain merely kicking balls with the shrieking automatons on the playground or banging one in a bathroom or being overcome with the novelty of a new automaton with handsome hydraulics. And this implies an absolute ethical obligation.
To love is to mesh so rawly with another storm of thoughts your identity blurs with theirs. Which is no reason to shy away! But falling in love marks a phase change in the ethical landscape. Whereas before you at least cared about them in an abstract or probabilistic way, afterward that empathy is hardwired, absolute, and immediate.
While your obliged behavior might remain precisely the same (avoiding smothering them, non-dramatically wishing them goodbye as they take off for Mars the next day, distancing yourself or others from them if they grow abusive…) if you can dismiss the rewiring in yourself as no biggie then I wouldn’t remotely call that love. There’s a plethora of lesser words available for mere passing emotions.
Certainly one could argue that in a world of higher bandwidth communication, of greater security and default intimacy, the phase boundary might break down a bit. But I would argue that even if we were to handwave away the limitations of human brains and even the possible proportional synchronization limits to any mind, loving someone is never in any sense a “casual” affair. Even if you could fully love everyone on the planet that wouldn’t or shouldn’t defang your love of its intensity. Love isn’t a fleeting selfish craving where the loss of one in seven billion available sources to death by malnutrition would be a near infinitesimal concern. Just as your love is not a pie that can only be subdivided into smaller unworthier pieces, love is not something you can fill a limited stomach with by simply having many cartons to spoon from.
The power of love doesn’t and shouldn’t lie in its scarcity.
Yes, there are deep problems with our current society, but I’d diagnose those problems as constraints on and impediments to our capacity to deal with intensity, not the existence of intensity itself!
The impulse to water down feelings and consequently declare oneself “mature” is a deadening, cheapening, and unethical approach to life. Rationality, self-knowledge, and clarity of mind are in no sense antithetical to intensity. And resisting the latter is certainly not a good path to any of the former.
Anarchists who intend to act as though we didn’t live in a dystopic world must find themselves perplexed at every moment. With the ecosystems of civil society so atrophied and virtually every surviving institution of value captured and beaten into participating in the bloody circus of statism, who do you call? What do you do when you see a thug with a gun (and a badge) looming over someone, much less kidnapping or shooting people? Hell, how do you deal with the existence of sitcoms?
Ethically navigating the horrors of our world is a challenging task for anyone with a shred of humanity, but it’s unfathomable once you abandon the notion of strategy – the pursuit of wider context.
And yet the appeal of immediatism has grown widely in recent years, under various banners and in many circles. Perhaps this is a reaction to the patently ludicrous Plans of social democrats, state communists, vulgar libertarians and organizationalist ideologues–in such light it’s clearly a sympathetic instinct. But it is also a surrender of the mind and heart.
Immediatism, in almost every formulation, has two sides.
On one side is Rothbard’s famous “big button” that we might break our fingers pushing to suddenly poof away the militaries, courts, politicians and police of the world – come what may in the aftermath. I waft back and forth on this hypothetical. It’s certainly rhetorically convenient for emphasizing the scale of state atrocities being committed right now, but unconvincing to anyone versed in the wilds of sociopaths, thugs and would-be-DMV-administrators that currently infest our world. The state is but the apex predator in a rich ecosystem of would-be states. As anarchists our goal to abolish power relations doesn’t stop at merely the most prominent ones. And fractured civil war between would-be warlords and social democrats can be many times more destructive and oppressive than the off-hand tyranny of old, fat and senile sociopaths.
We anarchists are objectively right, centralization is inefficient. But this cuts two ways. Rwanda’s machetes were more efficient than Hitler’s gas chambers. Robust markets will efficiently deliver death just as much as any other “good” a certain culture might value. Meanwhile the wicked truth is libertarians often flourish in overextended empires where the mountains are high and the emperor far away. At one time I used to retort that if I could push a button and create a single incredibly centralized global government I would. Better to have a single enemy to focus on than two hundred, interlocking, redundant and locally attentive ones.
States create game theoretic environments around their peripheries that suppress cooperation and reward antisocial strategies. Primordial empires wouldn’t have persisted if they didn’t constantly sow the seeds of future cops, rulers, and bureaucrats through the cultural and economic norms they instilled. But not every bully can grow up to be picked as Head Genocidaire and the landscape is littered with the failures. Some are too stupid to make it, some confined to small-time crime, some in miniature statelettes like the mob running in parallel to their more official brothers, some seeing greater advantage in milking hidden privileges from the current state, and some simply unlucky. Many more, despite being distorted and corrupted by their environment, are too humane to function well in the gears of state power. They nevertheless instinctively support the stability of any known social form and lash out at deviation, thoroughly persuaded that cooperation is impossible on any significant level and our only hope is to eek out a living as moss on a wall without attracting the wrath of whatever sociopaths are in power.
If we were to press that magical button these residual forces, endemic across our society, would immediately begin the reconstitution of states. There would be serious opportunity for sustained development of more ideal communities (as we have seen in virtually every crisis), but so too, in the absence of vigorous preexisting social antibodies to power accumulation, would there be terror and micro-totalitarianisms. Not universally, but all too often even a small presence leads to widespread PTSD, a willingness to grasp any known “solution” however imperfect rather than spend the time and iterations of trial-and-error necessary to win categorical improvements. The most staunch conservatives and proponents of totalitarianism I’ve met have been survivors of civil wars. Only when there are anarchist community centers in every neighborhood, self-defense cooperatives, arbitration bodies, autonomous basic-needs infrastructure, widespread awareness of alternative justice systems, et alia, would pushing that button actually be a surefire reduction in state violence.
Of course I don’t fault anyone for lusting after that button, I even tend to lean towards pushing it in my read of the weighted probabilities, but A) the button is very much just an unrealistic thought experiment, and B) focusing on the dichotomy it frames things in is incredibly strategically unhealthy. We don’t win the moment a state ceases to exist, much less all two hundred or so officially registered “states.” To even speak of anything approaching a win condition for us we must damn well consider the default strategies and frameworks ossified in a number of people’s heads. While the decline and fall of existing states will be an amazing battle to win, it is not the war. We win by turning the tide against power psychosis, not certain symptoms. And that, sadly, is an inherently gradual thing without clear markers.
But then we’re anarchists: Our decentralized and autonomous asses flourish in situations involving vastly complicated contexts unknowable to a single actor or reducible to simple terms! Which brings me to my second point.
The other side of immediatism is the adoption of limited ethics, whether deontological or nihilistic. Pretending we live today in the world we’d like to see (or dismissing any ideal or goal as hopeless) explicitly involves ditching context.
The world is not a simple place and simplistic abstractions (even in the form of “shit’s too complicated” or “we’re sure to lose”) do violence through irresponsibility. Further they signal a cognitive surrender to the ossified and sweeping logic of the state.
Rather than delve after the true comprehensive roots of a dynamic and risk being reshaped in the process, the rigid algorithms that make up the psychosis of power try to impose simplified and relatively unchanging macroscopic abstractions. To think, to reformulate with greater context, is to risk deviation from the game theoretic dynamics that preserve simplicity. The drive for control is the drive to reduce the amount of thinking one has to do–often by force. The state requires this strategic rigidity and simplicity in its components so that they might be A) calculable and B) stable in the weird niche of game theoretic phase space it survives in. While the state embraces limited attempts at foresight, explorations in meta-strategy and awareness are always, by necessity, confined.
Conscious intentional actors are the state’s worst nightmare. The mere pressure of oppositional tactics alone is easily integrated into state calculations, even reformulated as a vital organ. If every sharp grievance is turned into a mindless rupture, then the number of burnt cars this week becomes just another focus group report. They have storefronts and cops aplenty to sacrifice. Sure, despite our best efforts they might miscalculate still, and our endless siege rush through the cracks to some meaningful accomplishment/destruction, but there’s no good reason to settle for this minimal effectiveness. Like the old post-left slogan, “an insurrection of generals not an army of soldiers” actively thinking through strategies of attack and exploitation individually is the only way to leverage the state’s calculational constraints. What does our embrace of agency as anarchists even mean, if in our resistance we gravitate towards any form of attack in front of us or stirs our first impulse? If all your resistance can be easily replaced with a lego mindstorms robot, identifying cops via python script and chucking firebombs at them, it stands to reason you might be at least a little bit more effective at building such robots. And if you’re willing to take one step of foresight in the causal pursuit of our desires, why not more?
Barely better than chucking our bodies at their nightsticks or shooting the first thug with a badge we see kidnapping people is the sort of internalized legalism that tries to slice up the world in terms of immediately visible violence. We see this most egregiously among certain vulgar anarcho-capitalists who famously can’t tell if something is unethical unless things have gotten to the point where someone is openly pointing a gun. Never mind amorphous culturally implied threats or conversations about the unbelievable subsidy left by historical genocide and slavery. Coercive power and profit from it is a tangled thing and if we throw up our hands at a few steps of removal or the blurring of direct responsibility through convoluted shell games we invite sociopaths to walk all over us. Pick two random people, even two random anarchists, and they’ll give you two very different definitions of “what counts”.
The answer is, of course, that it all counts.
Lines of power, control and implicit coercion crisscross our world; we are all chained up in them to varying degrees. Perhaps it really would be a good thing, if we all started blazing away at our oppressors and the only people left standing to start over were a couple saintly homeless queer disabled black kids. Sometimes, in despair, I think exactly that.
I understand the common impulse to ignore the big picture entirely and attempt to lose oneself in the accounting of proportionality, personal blame and other relatively crisp immediates. But this is suicidally insufficient and to constrain ourselves to such immediate reactions is to become complicit. It is the nature of tangles that they cannot be resolved by merely pushing back. We do not live in a world where violence is a deviation rather than the norm and, thus, easily squashed the moment it rears its head. When a shell game has been going on for centuries, passing balls of coercion between billions, retribution can only get us so far. How responsible is the individual cop that shoots us for resisting an IRS warrant versus the officer who gave the order, or the politician who signed the law, or the friend who snitched, or the teacher whose salary it’ll partially go to? How “responsible” is a white american who’s benefited from centuries of subsidy for the relative immiseration of a decedent of slaves? What of the beneficiaries of economies of scale generated by a transportation infrastructure built on genocide? The framework of blame is the fantasy of quick answers from immediate context. We cannot know the constraints placed on other people, the distorted choices and incomplete information available to them. “Responsibility” much less “proportionality” are profoundly arbitrary in most situations. Focusing on them frequently poses daunting collective action problems as well as issues of representation and, thus, effectively prioritizing some situations of sharp oppression over others.
But all is not lost, we can at least try to minimize oppressive constraining bullshit or, equivalently, maximize agency. This instinct is shared by both those who talk of responses being justified “up to what’s necessary to immediately stop the aggression” and those who instead talk about rehabilitory approaches that “even if they may never end up working all that well all of the time,” will at least avoid escalating to the point of murdering every last person who adamantly refuses to stop some micro-aggression. Both approaches, however, by attempting to write out a simple universal operating method, are too cute and fall into the same statist trap of ossified frameworks rather than active and fully-context-sensitive strategizing.
As anarchists, native to the knowledge problems of subjectivity, we need to embrace knowing when we don’t have the answers. Not knowing the full particulars and context of a comrade struggling on the other side of the world we can at best only helpfully point out glaring contradictions, externalities or potential inefficiencies of one strategy versus another (imprisoning people in gulags, for example, won’t make them freer or lead to the state withering away). Sometimes this means not acting. Shooting a politician might lead to better conditions, it might lead to sharply worse ones. Same with blowing away the first cop you see. Sincere passionate, highly intelligent and considered anarchists will disagree on whether or not to push Rothbard’s hypothetical button this very moment. Merely by virtue of having different life experiences and seeing different spatterings of data on social conditions. On the other hand dramatically increasing the power of the state to fight the corporations historically inseparable from the state, without a viable means of then fighting the resulting super-empowered state (never mind whether it gets the corporations or just increases the potency of regulatory capture), is clearly a strategy developed with limited exploration of ramifications. Continuing to investigate is important.
Merely blindly escalating to the level of retaliation necessary to fend off each and every aggression flowing through the facet of this world would mean a total war of annihilation. Conversely, in many cases, failing to escalate beyond some arbitrary line or apportioning our efforts according to degrees of “responsibility” rather than “what will stop the violence” can leave us in an intractable mess. The solution is to reject the paradigm of escalation entirely, a notion that was only possible by examining interactions in isolation. Reprisal is but one tiny sliver of tactics. When facing an ungodly mesh of knots you don’t push or pull, you examine the whole structure and look for weak points. The question before us, as anarchists, isn’t how hard to bluntly react when our world fails to be perfect but where and how to proactively strike against dystopia.
Sometimes that means letting things pass in silence, sometimes it means sucker punching, and sometimes it means something completely orthogonal.
Some problems can’t be solved directly. Sometimes you have to go around them. This requires seeing the full breadth of our society as it is, not as we’d like it to be. In a world filled with people who feel entitled to control others in a million tiny and not-so-tiny ways, selfcenteredly focusing on wiping the blood off our own hands or trying to pin precise apportionments of blame can only leave us complicit in the blood awash around us. There is no universal formula, no simple heuristic or paint-by-numbers methodology that will get us to a better world. Indeed such shortsighted procedurism flies in the face of virtually every anarchist vision. “Freedom” is a meaningless slogan without vigilance and agency. If “freedom” from proactive consideration is what we were looking for this world already offers many avenues. Indeed that is practically all it embraces.
That anarchists occasionally throw up their hands and retreat to a tiny sphere of immediate considerations – whether embracing blind optimism or blind despair–is entirely understandable given the challenges we face. But such a retreat is not a victory, nor could it ever somehow be representative of liberation.
I’ve identified as an anarchist for over two decades. Like any ideology or flag of identification it is, to most people, a weird, antiquated sort of thing to do. Relatively few people actually care about the world and those with the audacity to set out to change it are rarer still. Even among them radicalism is infrequent, and such prominent flag-flying practically extinct. It is, I’ll readily admit, on the face of it rather intellectually suspect. Akin to the lone old Marxist grumbling in the back of the hackerspace at the nerve of people to choose terminology outside his tradition’s memetic scaffolding. We’re all busy getting things done as informed, free-thinking, universally iconoclastic individuals these days, why willingly chain yourself to the baggage of centuries old political tensions and the flotsam of small but frequently problematic milieu?
This sort of questioning washes in with every wave of burnout and trauma. What once felt exciting and liberating becomes all too familiar and constraining. And in many people’s need to push back, to reassert their underlying agency as human beings rather than characters in a political narrative and question ties of assumed “affinity” with scurrilous personalities or behaviors they end up floating away entirely.
So I thought I’d write a little piece about why I don’t leave. How coming in originally with a deeply suspicious and critical eye on these issues I ended up nevertheless choosing to hoist the black flag on which nothing is written and cast a huge chunk of my life in its shadow.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with me that it’s ultimately not about the people or even the history but the word and conceptual space itself.
“Anarchy” is unarguably the greatest and most consequential Orwellianism in the world. In every language to have touched Greek it bundles a kind of sociopathic chaos onto the concept of pure freedom. Freedom in our common tongue isn’t merely slavery, it’s a nightmarish state of death and domination devoid of substantive empathy. And the implication is the root of virtually every paradigm, social ecosystem, and cognitive strategy on display: That there is no escape from lines of domination, no aspect of relation to one another outside the binary of controller and controlled. Anarchy, as a word, is the ultimate reset button on those who dare to dream outside the rules of the games we play. A reminder that society is, supposedly, a zero sum game, and any present deviation from that reality a fleeting collective irrationality, capable of being popped at any moment by exploring too far or thinking too deeply. We have a word for the absence of rulership, and we use it to signify fractured rulership.
This is, once you start to notice it, a poisonous, ruinous affair that spreads widely if subtly in effect. There are many kinks in our languages and conceptual schemas, and we frequently manage to work around most of them, but “anarchy” sits at the center of a topological defect so vast it almost characterizes the entire landscape of our social relations. That we might be able to slither out an equivalent victory without contesting this conceptual perversion directly shouldn’t blind us to its centrality. We are not merely using an ungainly word to describe something everyone is basically already on board with. We are challenging an assumption that underpins virtually every other political, ethical or motivational paradigm. Both conservatism and liberalism, broadly recognized, see sociopathy as fundamental, one embraces that nihilism opportunistically, the other seeks to hide from it by embracing arbitrary, shortsighted abstraction and rejecting all inquiry into the roots.
The prominent use of the term “anarchy” is not a pedantic definitional battle to save the legacy of some long dead but kinda awesome communards, nor is it an attempt to set our lives by their historically-situated rhetorical proclamations and strategic fumblings. It is a surgical strike on the chessboard and a clearing of the air. No endeavor can make significant headway in the long run without self honesty. It is through pressing concepts and notions to their extremes and examining their high-energy behavior for contradictions or simplifications that we avoid getting lost in a miasma of localized abstractions of indeterminate depth or arbitrariness, unable to effectively navigate or orient ourselves. A willingness to bite bullets, to fearlessly and seriously swim to the boundaries of the possible, is vital not just in changing the world but having any agency in our own lives.
And what is lost through identification with the marginalizing term “anarchy” is arguably more than made up for through that marginalization. While all those who identify with anarchy do not always live up to the radical inquiry it suggests, at worst anarchist circles serve as fertile territory for explorations in extremism. Unbridled sociopaths, the inventively unhinged, and ideological robots of a thousands colors contribute to a deluge of first-hand data and such productive, passionate experimentation as found nowhere else. There are also, of course, saints and angels to be found in abundance too, human beings so sharply and intensely human you can get addicted to their realness. Through two centuries of struggle “anarchy”, like the word “love” has become a defect pummeled into a hole. Things happen there. Radiation comes blasting out.
I’m not arguing that mundane, petty, shortsighted prickishness doesn’t in some ways characterize wide swathes of those who identify as anarchists. Or that utterly reprehensible behaviors and structures aren’t replicated by many wrapped in our flag. We all know that most communists are just capitalists who think the game should be confined to social capital. But, however much we may opportunistically or aspirationally use the phrase, there is no “anarchist movement”. There are rather countless circles and individuals on various trajectories, interacting at this single point and sometimes allowing the goodwill or romanticism attached to “anarchism” to bind them to people of wildly different motivation or experience. Anarchism has gone through many iterations, with bundles of associated things rising and falling, while other, largely unrelated waves do the same. There are many anarchist cultures and global scenes, some almost hermetically sealed to each other. Whatever horror appears to span the anarchist world you’ve seen, it is likely that this too shall pass. Far better and far worse, and just far different ones will take their place. Some of today’s breakaway clusters, insurgent inclinations, and alien appropriators will be tomorrow’s mainstay.
Some of this is just inevitable cultural tectonics, some of it is the direct result of conscious exploits or better ideas. People can and do have significant impacts on the trajectory of anarchist milieus and conceptual evolution. Things will change and you can have a significant effect in changing them.
But no, not every victory is immediately possible wearing the anarchist flag. Don’t get me wrong, there are countless critical insights unique to anarchist discourse, some still to be detached as modules and exported like so many others to “the left”, to subcultures, and to the mainstream, others so deeply embedded with a universal rejection of power relations they are possibly undetachable. Some things will likely only ever be possible under the flag of anarchism. Yet, if you’re looking for a specific victory the anarchist label is indeed sometimes a bad bet. You can do better with the loose “movement of movements”. You can do better with your friends. You can do better within “non-ideological” projects that sacrifice processing efficiency by cloaking deep motivations and settling on superficial but productive affinities.
Some people will tell you anarchism is about the existing insights. Those too largely can and will be exported. It’s not the array of tools and insights developed so far but the rootedness that has driven those insights.
As I said “Anarchism” has a clearer etymology than “feminism”, or “communism”, or “socialism”, or “social justice”, and it targets not something as macroscopic and aggregate as “women” or “community” but an incredibly important conceptual tangle that gets at the root of many of our society’s problems. The crux of “anarchy” is an ethical orientation, not a political platform. It’s intellectually easy to be a sociopath and also a feminist or a communist, or whatever. In the very best currents of such traditions “never holding control over another mind” is still only loosely stitched on as a bullet point. Anarchism is simply more closely tied to “no power relations ever” or “see others freedom as your own” and this matters in a wider array of situations than something historically particular. Anarchism can be corrupted and obviously often is, but it’s harder, in the grand scheme of things, to corrupt anarchism than anything else. We’ve numbered in the millions and moved the world yet deliberately never seized power. For all the shit that’s cropped up in our ranks, unlike virtually any other comparable framework you care to name no anarchist has ever been responsible for genocide or megadeath. That is actually, sadly, amazingly unique in history. Our focus on power itself rather than any of its instantiations has an effect that’s hard to deny. We may fuck up, but we course-correct. If not ourselves then our comrades. The cognitive dissonance is usually just too great.
Yes, this bias sometimes comes at the expense of immediate returns, praise, and the exhilaration of momentum. Do our banners fly over huge armies? Not always. But what often matters more is who gets the ball rolling, who provides the tools that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered or dreamt of. What anarchism provides is not so much an ideological platform and a cohesive movement but a think tank and a laboratory. It is far from the only space capable of insight and has no monopoly on useful information–indeed many spaces are practically defined by exclusive access to certain experiences and insights. But just as it is hard to plot a radical arc that doesn’t pass into “anarchy” there is still so much more to discover and resolve. Beyond our current experiences, beyond our present concerns. This is the realm of maximum possible impact. Anarchists exist in and are native to virtually every struggle and community. We famously punch many many orders of magnitude above our weight and we do so not by seizing other people as tools but by providing people with new tools, by seeing hopes and dangers long in advance. The whole point of getting to the roots is to map out the stuff no one else has seen yet, to recognize new possibilities, to prepare for wildly different futures, to do the hard work no one else sees the utility in. You don’t walk away from that awareness and somehow come out more productive.
Probably the complaint I receive the most is: there’s so little forgiveness or empathy in the anarchist community, it’s all just hyper line-drawing moralism. Well, yeah, you get some decent human beings in a room suddenly more free from bullshit and they’ll start upping their standards. Opening your eyes to power relations and daring to stand against them is a fucking dangerous, traumatizing thing. Suspicion and defensive walls are only natural. This creates a mildly productive competitive dynamic where we’re all constantly burning bridges while each learning more about decency all the time. This state of affairs works well enough yet of course is suboptimal. People get run out for being from a different culture; while some sociopaths are allowed to dig in deep once they learn some sufficient “rules” to play within. The latter is an amazing opportunity for us to preemptively map out every last corner for sociopathy to hide in through experiment. The former, however, doesn’t take much to change. All it takes is meeting people halfway yourself. You don’t have to change the entire “scene” all you have to do is get critical mass to count as your own scene. And share your insights!
The second most frequent complaint is that anarchism has failed to ingest certain good ideas or realizations from other people. In my experience that’s just not true, or at least not a good portrayal of what’s going wrong. There’s plenty of anarchists deeply aware of critical race theory, or ableism, or neuroscience, or Hayekian calculation limits, or whatever–and plenty of anarchist discussions and developments on those ideas. The problem is internal communication and documentation; so many of our theoretical insights and developments happen in conversation or on the ground. Circulation takes forever. Right now we’re in a stage where we’re constantly re-inventing the wheel. We don’t publish our ideas to the world in any accessible or mapped way, just to our immediate friends. So we entered the 00s lurching, bitten by the 80s luddite zombies and didn’t sufficiently embrace or shape the internet. So what? This is rotten and embarrassing situation to be sure, but it’s obviously a transient one that you can help speed up our recovery from.
At the start of this I wasn’t entirely honest, I too have tried to leave anarchist circles. Almost a decade ago, but years after I’d done my time in various trenches and cycled through burnouts. I know the allure. The laundry list of failings and frustrations with the milieu, with the canonical discourses, with the daunting challenges we face. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself. What are you going to do, just go ride bikes? Work on some feel-good campaign adrift and at the mercy of a wider context? Get high off cynical elitism reading Baedan? Vacations are good and all, but at some point everything else starts to pale in comparison. The cruft and collisions anarchy can draw are often quite wild and I don’t blame anyone occasionally ducking out for some security or safety. But amid the blazing horrors, the anarchist singularity is simply the best place to find rooted concepts and as a result real, long-term hopes and the sort of affinities that really truly matter. Not just people deeply committed to good, but friends who will find paths towards it that you didn’t even think of. Not just victories in the immediate, but opportunities for coherent progress on the whole.
I hate to break it to you, but there’s no avoiding it at this point. You’re in this for the long haul.
Pacifist, Anarchist, Beatnik, Catholic, Chemist, Activist, Father
To hear my mother tell it among an ever growing list of cartoonish atrocities my father literally burned down the homes of Jews, murdered his first wife, and ran a baby rape conspiracy. At best this is followed by the loaded concession: “…But then he told so many lies you never could trust anything about him.” And his brother Gene finally sadly nodded diplomatically a little bit on that sentence and said “Well, with Ted you never really knew anything for sure.”
“He was,” his brother later sighed, utterly unprompted, “the consummate anarchist.”
Born Theodore William Gerard Gillis on October 26th 1931, in Queens, New York to a racist Irish political patriarch from Hell’s Kitchen and a Polish-Ukrainian waitress, Ted grew up an alienated middle child. Never close to or open with his family he finally he “borrowed” a chunk of money from them in the 60s and took off, cutting all contact. By all accounts Ted could wax dishonest, stubborn, and self-isolating. His alienation and bitter stoicism permitted few very far in over the course of his life. As his first child in the years before age rotted his mind I alone was born entirely inside his bubble; before me “the stories” never changed, nor any faucet of his character, and the facts have consistently backed them up. Here is a little of what we know:
Ted grew distant from his parents and brothers early on, in his pre-adolescence he found friendship with a old veteran neighbor and together they listened to radio reports of Franco’s bombs and Hitler’s conquests, carefully marking troop movements out on maps and talking about some of the things his neighbor had seen in the first World War. As a teenager in Queens he was accepted at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School a Catholic school that drew children from a mix of races, there he became a studied troublemaker, proud cheat, and member of a loose gang of outcasts. Eventually all the running from authorities paid off when he discovered a talent on the track at sprinting. His first true passion Ted loved the 50 yard dash, and would still talk obsessively sixty years later about the design of various shoes he wore and the shit he received for adopting an effete *white* pair. His career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.
He served the majority of the war as an air traffic controller but at one point was shot down copiloting a helicopter accidentally behind enemy lines while the front suddenly shifted south. Cut off for a couple months he was protected from Northern troops by a family of leftists who he later endeavored to protect in turn and who served as his springpad into anarchism. (When I was young in the early 90s I remember him awkwardly but not unpleasantly meeting up with members of that family visiting America; they had stayed in contact.) This adventure and momentary respite from his bitter service in ranks of the military is however second in impact to the bomb that ripped him open and left him with a plastic esophagus among other life-long health problems. It was during his long hospitalization that a delayed letter finally arrived: he’d been accepted to train for the US Olympic team.
Upon return Ted went to college in DC and partied endlessly with the children of ambassadors, getting up to larger shenanigans, trying to hide his class origins and dating a string of girls. He had no plans upon graduation and when approached about a job working with nitroglycerine said yes thinking it was a joke. It paid well for the risk and he left within a couple years. He got his masters in chemical engineering in the UK at the University of Surrey with a thesis on brownian motion and moved to Riverside California as part of a start up company applying a new gold-plating technique.
The move to California paralleled a growing identification with the Beatnik movement and the currents of individualist pacifist anarchism rising in popularity at that time. He worked alongside a pacifist anarchist mentor of Cesar Chavez in campaigns and was elected an activist county commissioner during water disputes. He came to travel and work primarily as a legal observer and in 1970 while assisting a student insurrection in Isla Vista helped burn down a Bank of America in a riot after a student was murdered by the police.
Some important loose ends nobody can quite recall sufficient facts for: At some point between Korea in 1955 and Santa Barbara in 1970 he married a woman whose father ran a business making preservatives for telephone poles and bitterly despised his politics, she died in a traffic accident within a year. He always referred to her as his one true love. Towards the end of the 60s we know he worked for NASA developing rocket fuel and early designs for what became the Space Shuttle, but the particulars aren’t clear. His time with NASA left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, prompting continued denunciations of space exploration as inherently miltarist, anti-environmentalist, and superfluous to God’s Plan. The ideological roots of this hostility lay in his interpretation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ted’s favorite thinker, and who he claimed to have briefly met before Chardin’s death, an encounter he was immensely proud of. I always placed this as after Korea, although if it happened, it would have to have been in New York before his Korean service, which makes sense since Chardin lived there and Ted’s connection to Catholicism was stronger then.
In 1984 a young woman read a series of articles on the ethics of storytelling and folksinging he was publishing in a radical journal (one of which was on cultural appropriation) and within a year they were married. Whereupon he moved from sunny East Palo Alto to rainy Portland with his dog and cat and became a father of three children. Their marriage was rough and divorce even rougher, leaving both destitute.
Having ditched chemical engineering in the 60s, Ted spent the 70s through 90s oscillating between activist bum and scheming grifter. He had little compulsion against certain forms of manipulation but believed in pacifism and deescalation intensely and loathed cops, politicians, the rich and the military with a fierce fire. The period I knew him most intimately over was the 90s. He was a silent, hesitant, withdrawn man, yet prone to bouts of charm, simmering rage towards institutions and those in power, flashes of outrage and frustration with crowds, stubborn stoicism in his personal life, and warm delight in his children.
As his old age set in he bumbled around between any paralegal work that would fuck with the cops, various schemes that usually involved convoluted cheats of the system… and at one point a plan to assassinate Dick Cheney. He married for a third time in the late 90s to a woman his children despised and who prompted the end of their visitations. Ted seperated from her a few years later but quickly suffered a series of physical declines and was finally made a permanent ward of the state, limited to a bed and few words from 2007 to 2013. He spent these years alone and largely checked out, full of resentment bottled up with stronger stoicism, and died on October 5th, 2013.
Although his goalposts shifted repeatedly and he held onto some minor accomplishments, Ted lived a largely failed life. He had sometimes stunning foresight but little real impact, and whether through timidity or bad luck this ineffectualness drove him to more deeply embrace Catholicism, 80s environmentalism, and Chardin’s notions of teological progress as he aged. Ted didn’t care that I didn’t believe in God, that I rejected faith and mysticism as fundamentally unethical, or even that I came to vehemently reject his hostility to space exploration. He thought I was wrong, of course, but framed our differences as ones of amorphous “experience” and so could openly admire my disagreement as the product of integrity and verve. His anarchism, so strongly couched in consideration of others and a refusal to escalate, was maddening. The most ill will I ever felt towards him was as a toddler when he’d sedately catch or accept my temper tantrum punches. A few times he laughed, and the shock and fury of this rare patronizing dismissal spurred me to race against him for years, to make impacts in argument or insight that mattered. He embraced these with delight and relief. I don’t think he was ever happier than he was in the early 90s, taking me to a far-left catholic church (although explicitly never asking or expecting I believe), sharing illicit sugary substances, and talking about mathematics, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Raising me (and then my sisters) became his retirement, promised land, and second chance. And when I (and later my sisters) broke off formal visitations a little over a decade before he died, it broke him deeply. In everything else, his marriages, housing, and income he’d come to accept drifting, not struggling too hard to make something of his life nor lamenting about it. But when the day came and I finally shoved back his domineering third wife and permanently walked out, he was indescribably disconsolate, thin aging skin holding together boiling regrets. But he was, as ever, instinctively and vigorously respectful of my agency.
My mother has tried to convince everyone for decades that my father was an unparalleled monster. And there were certainly glimpses of something harsher, a mind that usually knew how to get what it wanted and frequently saw nothing wrong with lying. Ted lied ruthlessly to institutions and anyone with relative power or wealth. Even still he was always explicit in these acts before me and they were not without internal turbulence. Nor were they all of the same craftsmanship. Cheating a corporation or the government could be delightfully involved scheme, lying to his tyrannical third wife was just an awkward, stupid, defensive act. Ted was probably a bad husband, and I have no way of objectively measuring just how bad, much less in what ways to which wives. By the age differential with my mother he was clearly a lecherous old activist, and in patriarchy that carries certain likelihoods, but in both marriages what I saw was a mostly beaten down lonely old man, squirrely, manipulative and vindictive occasionally, but relieved to have secured any companionship. He was bent but never broken, any excuse to go to the store or walk to the bus in the free air saw him dramatically uncurl and rejoice in small things.
I don’t know what the category “father” is supposed to mean. I’m not sure I’m okay with reifying those kind of relations, much less some specific, idealic formulation. But Ted was a really standout human being who was there for me at the start of my life and throughout much of it. If a parent is someone who shows you the world and holds your hand, then Ted Gillis was probably the best I’ve ever seen. The moment he knew he’d be bringing a person into this world he put his entire mind into making sure he did right.
In addition to being unbelievably gentle and self-sacrificing on many fronts, Ted treated me with a direct respect, dignity and compassion that I’ve only witnessed once or twice in my life with anyone else, much less from a parent. His commitment to talking directly and considerately to me like a human being has given me an incalculable leg up in life. And while he may have come up short at virtually everything else and decayed over his last decade from borderline incompetent old man to a vegetable in an unfathomable private hell, the insight he showed as a parent, friend, guide, and counselor, occasionally exposed a genius so sharp it takes my breath away to remember it, and a solitary audacity and resolute commitment that truly made him singular.
I will always remember the first time I paused while flicking through channels and heard “boy, this planet really smells!” I was immediately hooked. And I spent the following long dark years before Serenity a fervent evangelist. That we even got our Big Damn Movie shocks me to this day and I want to make clear that I am more than content to sit back, wrap up my fandom with a little bow, put it on a shelf, and only ever trot it out when someone makes the mistake of asking the wrong question at a party. We got our ending–such as it is–and I have no illusions that our wildly successful cast will ever disentangle themselves from their various contracts in time to film anything other than Firefly: The Geriatrics.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to consider the possibilities and the recent successful Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie certainly set off quite a lot of chatter. What surprised me the most though were those who felt the story was finished and that any continuation would have to resort to the dark magic of prequeling, retconning or rebooting. That’s patently ludicrous and I feel it warrants a moment’s response. (Also–in a slightly more self-serving vein–the years have taught me that nothing revitalizes one’s writing like tapping into some geek righteousness. Spend months crafting a very compassionately nuanced and analytical exploration of objectification and pornography, get ten reads; feverishly slobber off some drelk on Star Wars, get ten thousand a day. And while I don’t have any illusions about the odds of striking readership gold again, that kind of piece always breaks my writer’s perfectionism and boy could I use a hand there again.)
Honestly I see Serenity as the perfect launching point for a really solid series and/or sequels. Here’s how Firefly continues in my head:
Remember that in all likelihood Mal and the crew are not famous. The whole point of Wikileaks was to keep B Manning’s name out of the papers and it’s very much not in the nature of Serenity’s crew to stick their heads up further than absolutely required. All the rest of the ‘verse knows is that a bit of video and possibly some boring records got leaked. Of course Mal’s name is finally very much on the government’s radar but there’s some reticence towards generating another big splashy scene hunting the crew down. A Pentagon Papers scandal like Miranda generates the kind of turbulence that changes which corrupt and privileged politicians/businessmen are holding the reins of political power, but it hardly shoves the majority of those responsible or connected to those responsible into the wastebin. Key members of parliament are going to remain, more or less, key members of parliament. Thus there’s incentive for the best repositioned factions of those in power to keep a walking potential after-tremor of the scandal like Malcolm, River and company alive and in play. It’s not in anyone’s interest to make Miranda into a truly tumultuous affair, no one wants systemic change after all, but once the news cycles have petered it out into background static, softly kicking the hornets nest again to re-malign one’s competitors becomes a survivable tactic. Insofar as those with the most amount of power post-Miranda ever consider Mal and the crew, they like that they have a piece in play that could get Miranda mildly back into the news.
But of course this is a two-sided coin. While the upper echelons of the police/military aren’t going to go on a land-burning and sea-boiling crusade for our Big Damn Heroes, there’s lots and lots of space and motivation for other hammers to come swinging at them. Those with–for whatever byzantine reason due to the most current web of politics at any moment–a stake in not having Miranda come up will very much like to see Serenity snuffed out in a silent explosion out on the ass-end of the ‘verse. As will any remnants of those with direct responsibility for Miranda carrying an itchy personal grudge at the notion of letting a flea get away after a bite. And of course River will remain–if not grow–both dangerous and valuable.
If Mal was unable to get underscrupulous jobs before because of his chaotic conscience and attention grabbing antics, now things are surely only peachy.
This is the real linchpin on which Serenity instantly transforms from a crescendo and coda to the opening salvo in our little old firefly’s real journey. Whereas before the crew were junior-grade lumpenproles, in constant danger of being crushed by a stray step but capable of eking out an honestly dishonest living begging for warm bowls of crime-filled gruel and saluting passing cops with their best pearly-white smiles, now they’re actual outlaws.
If Firefly was ever in any chance of returning as a series the first season or two after Serenity would be a tense affair of survival and piracy. Every relationship or period of sedentary safety would have an all-too-pressing expiration date and they’d have to be far more proactive about heists… and a little less discriminatory Sure the sense of soft familial love would be strengthened by Simon and Kaylee, but the tension of “me and mine” versus common humanity with strangers would be again be a salient running theme, and tensions of ends-and-means would surely heighten as the crew turns more and more to piracy.
But! Things are not quite so glum for our occasionally-intrepid mercenaries. There are alternatives to slowly filling the fleshy shoes of the Reavers, although perhaps even less palpable. In my mind Mal and the crew eventually find the kind of sponsors of hired-guns undaunted by the powers-that-be behind the Alliance: other Alliance powers-that-be. First corporate espionage/subversion/thuggery, and then later direct employ from figures inside parliament itself. Although the crew is never treated as anything more than a few steps removed pawn only sometimes on the edge of awareness of their situations, the potential for system-spanning plot entanglements and culture/paradigm clash is immense. As are the internal tensions and counter-schemes, because our Big Damn Heroes are hardly passive.
Firefly certainly did not die with Serenity, nor did the struggles of our crew.
There are quantum-telegraph cables to be cut, murderous gunmen to be tracked down, samples of vats of copyrighted plastics and proteins to be stolen, reavers dispersed by the Alliance into local raiding parties in garbage fields, denizens of small spacestations bandying together to fend off the thugs of spectrum monopolists…
I’ve always really, really wanted to see the crew rob a giant particle accelerator in space. I think there’s so much potential there in the implicit cultural and paradigmatic clash. Firefly borrows strongly from Star Wars’ complete disinterest in science, but explicitly contextualizes this tendency as a cultural and subjective perspective by working hard to make strides towards a believable scientific framework in the background. In much the same way that Joss Whedon is personally a fan of the Alliance’s social democracy (with universal healthcare), yet the story is shot primarily from a libertarian perspective with the other aspects of the underlying reality obscured in what seem like minor details.
Neither Blue Sun nor the history of Shepard Book were sufficiently handled on by the comics–if they’re even cannon–and there’s so much more room to touch on them, if only fleetingly. Just as the first season built up a pile of references and floating plots, so too would one expect any new series to continue shaking in references and background details to entirely new aspects of their society and relationships with new characters. There’s so much more to explore in the ‘verse and so much more to be mined from the cultural, aesthetic and paradigmatic clash between periphery and core that made episodes like “Ariel” so popular.
Cosmopolitan revolutionary and radical movements surely exist in the core of the Alliance and I’d like to thing we’d get to see them open up and explore the reference implicit in Simon’s friends. But sadly a treatment that looks anything like real revolutionary and radical groups rather than nth-iterated cartoonish abstractions of hollywood tropes kinda beggars belief. (It’s still viscerally painful for me to watch those scenes in Children of Men, so embarrassingly unreal are the supposed radicals, excellent though the rest of the film is.) So maybe instead of coming into the ranks of radicals and revolutionaries, the final apex of the story is one of finally actually saving people instead of watching them die or telling their tale. I love the idea of a different sort of social landscape opening up in the border planets over the course of the story, of the sort of wildcat labor struggles that filled the wild west after the civil war was won and the railroads established. Futuristic struggles and battles between Wobblies and Pinkertons would nicely parallel the actual west, where a volunteer Confederate soldier and abolitionist like Albert Parsons could ride with the Texas cavalry, start a paper in Waco, fight the Klan, marry an unbelievably badass freed slave, and die on the gallows in Chicago as an anarchist union organizer.
Serenity framed itself and the prior prelude of Firefly as Mal’s struggle to finally stand for something, to shake off the wounded defensive nihilism of the Browncoats’ defeat and come back into the world. But it also brought to the fore River’s similar but hidden journey in ways that hinted at her always being the main character, albeit temporarily obscured in the background detail. In that light Firefly Season One and its spectacular finale look a lot like opening chapter of a George RR Martin book: the person indicated to be of central narrative importance is there primarily to set things up and characters gonna die quickly.
Serenity ends with River exactly where Mal began five years before the show in that junkyard: a couple years after a personal hell, just beginning to coming out of her shell and looking up at what could be. That’s a lot of seasons to come. I can’t wait to find out what she finally comes to believe in.
Because that? That’ll be an interesting day.
There’s utility to having different conversations with different groups of people, at different levels of knowledge. When someone posts something on their own goddamn wall they get to decide who they’re looking to have a conversation with. They don’t and shouldn’t owe you shit.
Hierarchies of knowledge and experience are shitty, and feedback loops that reinforce these suck, which is why everyone should make an effort in their life to be aware of these myriad processes and try to help explain and teach other people, especially those individuals without other/good avenues of gaining that information. But. This does not mean doing that all the time, in every conversation. Or even most of them.
Here’s some good internet etiquette: Inquire once if someone could explain or pass a link. If they say they no, recognize this conversation isn’t for you, and that’s not necessarily them trying to play catty popularity games of excluding you, it’s just a frustrating reality of specialized knowledge and our society’s insufficiently developed communications technologies. Perfectly decent people need space / separate audiences sometimes. Don’t derail the conversation they were trying to have by expressing your frustration, take the hint and shut the fuck up.
When someone posts something in public do not assume they have you in mind as their intended audience, or that they SHOULD. Sometimes them not considering you is rooted in fucked up dynamics. When someone implies quite strongly that their audience is Everyone or Everyone That Matters (like for example a very public newspaper article), that’s obviously obnoxious and can contribute to the institutionalization of oppressive dynamics.
Closed minds suck. We should always be exploring beyond our horizons as well as exploring the framing context, chance and individual particulars behind our own journey to assist others rather than pulling the ladder up behind us. But someone not willing to drop everything to talk with you right now doesn’t neccessarily mean they have a closed mind.
One of my oldest friends, probably the comrade I’ve known the longest beside my dad, was arrested this morning by armed thugs and charged with literally 72 felonies. It’s a ridiculous nuke intended to be heard around the country, much like the FBI frame job of five in Cleveland two days ago, and just as preposterous. But what it means is yet another friend might be going to jail for a very long time. The shy transfer student I argued into anarchism almost a decade ago in long raucous sessions while skipping class, the person who, during those long dark years when I had almost entirely withdrawn from society, gave me a place to sleep, a sense of home, and shared their friends, resolutely dragging the most amazing wonderful people to hang out with my hollow, sullen and cantankerously heretical ass. Almost everyone I love, every relationship I cherish in the movement today I owe in part to Pax.
When they broke down Pax’s door it was ‘two years into an investigation.’
It’s sad how comfortable we get with this war we’re in. How analytical and distant, how unsurprising everything is. Just another minor, almost inevitable move on an almost trivial part of the vast chessboard. How everything lives within us at once without turbulence. I want to cry, hell, I want to sob for hours. I want to hug everyone in town as deeply and warmly as any hug can be. I want to pledge vengeance in giant burning letters that dwarf downtown. I want to see Pax radiating wry cheer and high-five them at the success of *seventy two* counts. I want to immediately have desperate strategy conversations with certain individuals because jesus fuck this has implications, although I know that frankly we all have more important things to be working on right now. Every time they take a friend from us it’s like a punch you knew was coming. With oh so many more eventually to come. They’re going to take nearly all of us before this war is done. But it will be fucking done one day. That’s what I have to say. Nothing about dancing on the ruins or piles of dead or any such cheap dramatic imagery.
One day it will be done.