24 December 2007

Those Wacky Anarchists!

In the mid-1960s Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, published a slender volume entitled A Critique of Pure Tolerance (2nd Edition ~ Boston: Beacon Press, 1969). Each author contributed an essay and, in combination, they aimed to reveal and assess the various ways contemporary capitalist societies sometimes bluntly, sometimes subtly, but nevertheless systematically, absorb and defuse dissent and resistance. The book apparently is now out of print. It raises all sorts of questions and is in many ways problematic. I thank, once again, my undergraduate advisor Jim Fratto for prompting me to read it. All of that said, a story in today's New York Times brought the book to mind. The story - "Anarchists in the Aisles? Stores Provide a Stage" - recounts efforts by politically engaged artists to disrupt shopping on auto-pilot. These enterprises seem to me humorous and provocative; I have posted here and here on some similar, less furtive endavors. But here is the question. What does it mean when "anarchists" make it onto the front page of The Times? Do they become a human interest story? Are their activities transformed into an entertaining tale of cute pranks? Is the message they hope to convey or the thought processes they hope to prompt simply absorbed, put on display, offered for sale?


Anonymous Steve Lambert said...

does it mean we're winning?

24 December, 2007 13:40  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Well Steve, I like your optimism even if I don't quite share it! Perhaps it is a matter of my advanced years.

As I just quickly skimed the Marcuse essay it seems like we are in roughly the same spot as we were in the early 60s - lots of indiscriminate violence and repression combined with, if anything, significantly more sophisticated and ubiquitous political-economic-religious marketing campaigns.

Having said all that, I think the actions reported in The Times are definitely well-deserved and perhaps even useful. I have something similar in mind for the New Year here in barren Western NY. So, my post is intended to raise questions, not as criticism.

24 December, 2007 15:29  
Anonymous Steve Lambert said...

I realize it's a bit optimistic, and I'm partly kidding, but I do think that having popular understanding of radical ideas is a key step toward change. And presenting those ideas in ways that everyday people understand, in the places those people are already, is also important. (For now, whether everything covered in the Times is the perfect example of that can be a separate matter) But it always tickles me a bit when a mainstream media outlet ends up explaining some radical idea or method of protest.

That said, the question I believe you are asking is whether or not this story on the front page of the Times is an example of absorbing dissent, or reporting on it. It's tough to answer and I don't know. I'm willing to take the glass half-full perspective for now. But maybe I should read that Marcuse essay...

24 December, 2007 21:43  
Anonymous jason said...

What does it mean when "anarchists" make it onto the front page of The Times?

As long as it's not part of an effort to label them as destructive, hate-mongering purveyors of all things chaotic, then I say hooray! Coupled with the near-glowing review of the NYC Anarchist Book Fair earlier this year, I'm damn near ready to declare total victory.

But seriously, I have a hard time seeing this article as much more than "an entertaining tale of cute pranks," mostly because, well, that's pretty much what they are. I'm still not quite sure, but I'm leaning towards viewing the Jennings' Anarchist dolls as more self-parody (if he's making them from the position of an anarchist) than earnest dissemination of radical ideas (wtf is the Kropotkin jab all about?).

I realize that the act of placing something for free in a dense maze of buying and selling is itself potentially subversive, but when discussed in tandem with the efforts of religious homophobes and eager novelists, shopdropping comes off as a last ditch effort by the terminally ignored, rather than a genuine effort to promote an economic alternative to the profit motive. Hmmm, maybe that's the aforementioned absorption of dissent tirelessly at work?!?

Regardless, I think that any publicity at all for this type of activity is generally a positive (that is, unless it motivates the NYPD to develop a new anti-shopdropping department), even if the point is missed. If more people, after reading this article, are suddenly inspired to start leaving their free creations on the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target, I don't see how it could be anything other than a good thing (or, at worst, neutral).

25 December, 2007 01:40  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Agreed on all points. I hope you have a peaceful holiday. JJ

25 December, 2007 12:59  

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