As members of the New York City police department stormed into Zuccotti Park in November 2011 and ransacked the Occupy Wall Street camp, one of their primary targets was a small area that had become known as the People’s Library. Police seized an estimated 4,000 books, and when OWS librarians were allowed to inspect the confiscated materials, they saw that the police had treated them like trash.
Government officials shut down OWS libraries and surrounding encampments in Manhattan and across the country because they viewed them as threats to business-as-usual, according to Cindy Milstein, an anarchist author and educator. “Why was Occupy Wall Street’s library again and again the target of policing? It was just free books there sitting on a bench in a plaza,” Milstein said in an interview.
Managers of modern capitalism do not appreciate people banding together outside official institutions to provide services, such as libraries or free food, that are in the public good. “That is a very dangerous idea, the idea that people can create their own spaces,” she said.
Libraries — or perhaps the mythology of what a library is — embody much of what anarchism stands for, Milstein asserted. And they are still valued in current social structures, despite shrinking budgets as cities and counties make major cutbacks.
“People still say, ‘We need spaces where anyone can walk in and borrow and share things.’ Society still thinks that is a social good,” she explained. “Clearly, libraries are in structures that are hierarchical, whether it is a library board or a city, but they still cling to a sensibility, a form of social organization and social relationship that defies the logic of commodification.”
In recent global uprisings against the dominant political and economic systems, participants embraced key values of anarchism like mutual aid and cooperation, even if the participants did not identify themselves as anarchists. From the 2011 Arab Spring to the Occupy movement to the ongoing demonstrations against police violence, Milstein noted, people are taking over buildings and public squares, asking each other, “How can we self-govern and self-manage and self-organize to provide ourselves with everything from education to art to medicine to food to housing?”
It’s a social organizational approach that the ruling elite have tried to stamp out. But they often run into barriers as the basic principles of anarchism are hard to destroy. “What I understand anarchism to be doing is de-commodifying and re-commoning the world and making it a place where we together have shared power from below to decide what those spaces are going to be and how we are going to provide things people need and desire together,” Milstein said. “That’s what anarchism is.”
Milstein, who was mentored by renowned anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, has written and contributed to several books on anarchism, including “Anarchism and Its Aspirations” and “Paths Toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism.” But even though she educates people on the principles of anarchism, Milstein isn’t overly concerned with promoting the idea that anarchists are going to be the force that catalyzes or single-handedly initiates a social transformation that ends capitalism.
“Instead, anarchism as a word to capture a set of ethics and political philosophy is more interesting to me,” she said. “I feel increasingly like it embodies most of the elements that seem to be the zeitgeist of how people are practicing their politics right now globally.”
Anarchism and its set of ethics could be peaking at the right time in its history, which is a short one relative to other political philosophies and practices. Even before anarchism was given a name, it was widely embraced. People throughout human history have looked at each other and said, “Together, we can actually figure this out and make a world that’s more humane and empathetic,” Milstein explained. “You see that emerging time and time again in human history when there are struggles and people asking for a better world,” she said.
Today, anarchism, more than any other “-ism” or tendency, has emerged as the underlying form and practice that is happening when people are resisting injustices such as austerity, evictions and police militarization. But through this resistance, people are not making a single demand. “They’re trying to create a whole new way of life, a whole new form of social order,” Milstein asserted. “That’s why they are so threatening.”
Unlike some supporters of the anti-globalization and Occupy movements, Milstein is not abandoning a bottom-up approach. When there are top-down structures where one person or a small group of people is trying to make a decision, even if they have the best intentions, they still get caught up in their own assumptions and own understanding of the world, Milstein said. But when there are two or three or four more people, and they go, “Hey, but we haven’t thought of that,” the result will be a fuller and richer decision-making process.
“The problem with very hierarchically structured decision-making is it can’t possibly take into account the complexity of humanity,” she said. “Those at the top have become so insular and can only understand their own self-interest.”
Despite its detractors, collective decision-making has shown that it is not any more or less inefficient than a top-down approach. “We’re kind of bad at it because we live in a society that does not encourage it,” said Milstein, who has been part of collectives whose members “can make decisions relatively quickly.”
Some notable left-wing writers have renounced the value of collective decision-making. Naomi Klein, in her 2014 book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” emphasized that the five years of research for her book on climate change left her impatient. “As many are coming to realize, the fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization, is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford,” Klein writes in the book.
Klein admits that in the past she defended “the right of young movements to their amorphous structures — whether that means rejecting identifiable leadership or eschewing programmatic demands.” But for Klein, the specter of climate change means people must throw out such quaint notions because time is too short to adhere to these ideals.
Milstein recognizes the urgency for people to find ways to break apart the system before it produces new wars, curtails more freedoms and exacts greater harm on the natural world. But she believes the urgent quest to avoid a dystopian future should be tempered with patience and a dedication to autonomous values.
Using the urgency of combatting climate change as a reason to embrace a top-down approach to decision-making will prove self-defeating, she said. “To say, whether it’s Naomi Klein or someone else, that we don’t have time to act with empathy and humanity, the minute you start saying some people are better than others to make decisions — that’s the logic that Naomi Klein is using — you’re just going back to the same structures that are already making the horrendous decisions,” she contended.
For Milstein, anarchism represents both a process for achieving a better world and a way to accentuate people’s ability to live good lives. “That’s always going to be a project and a process. And everybody should be included in that, not just a small number of people,” she said.
Starting about two years ago, when she was taking care of her parents who were each facing serious illnesses, Milstein witnessed first-hand the efficiency of collective decision-making in the hospice care provided to them.
It was a time of anxiety and grief for Milstein, dealing with the impending loss of two people she deeply loved and admired. But the style of hospice care and the operations inside the actual physical hospice building where her parents lived the final part of their lives until their deaths in 2013 helped to make the experience less painful.
“The whole principle of hospice is how do people die well, with dignity and minimizing suffering,” she said. “I was really struck by people within that structure. Everybody was taking care of everybody else and looking out for each other’s needs. It was transparent, collective decision-making, but yet decisions had to be made fast. It was not anarchist, but I was really struck in situations of life and death, you can make decisions quickly. When the culture of it is to take into account the whole person and whole family and whole community care — that’s an underlying principle in how everything is structured — you can make decisions quickly.”
As hospice care becomes commoditized, though, it will change how people are treated. There’s a profit motive in life extension, with hospitals and medical technology companies viewing the prolonged suffering of people as opportunities for strengthening their bottom lines. But an important question arises: Even if people can live longer, should they? “Capitalism has given us ‘life supports’ that aren’t about quality,” said Milstein, who was forced into difficult discussions with her family about whether to take her father off life support.
“Is living longer the question? To ask a different question, how do we extend life-affirming lives that also understand life-affirming deaths when we come to that point? Capitalism is not going to give us that,” she said.
Re-commoning the World
Radical thinking is infiltrating many parts of the world as people rise up from below to challenge the consolidation of power from above. In these confrontations, land is the key category as it has been throughout most of human history when dominant institutions seek to remove people from the ground on which they’ve lived.
“That’s why I come back to this moment in history, this zeitgeist of people reclaiming land,” Milstein said. “Whether it’s urban or rural, all these movements have bridged millions of people together on physical space and on standing together on that space and saying, ‘We’re here together, let’s have a different direct relationship again to our food, to our art, to our education, to our health care.'”
An important step will be to “de-commodify our world by making, producing and distributing in different ways the things we need,” she said. “We create an economy that is truly something we share and self-govern outside the commodity form. We’d probably get a cultural relationship again if land was seen as something that shouldn’t be private property but was seen as a common good that we can share together and not deplete.”
In San Francisco, especially in the Mission District where she lives, Milstein is witnessing a battle for space. Many of her neighbors are facing evictions as developers seek to build higher-priced housing. San Francisco is probably the worst city in the U.S. with displacement as the rich are kicking out the poor and working class, she said.
Because of the profound transformation of cities globally, Milstein believes the forces surrounding capital, especially in the high-technology, information age, have decided that cities are going to be the hubs of where the elite will live with large amounts of pleasure and wealth and by kicking everybody else out.
“If you consolidate people in close-knit areas, they have better capacity to share what could be diminishing resources, like water, for instance. The rich are ensuring that they have this community where they have water when in the rest of California people are pushed out and dispersed widely. They can just cut everybody else off from water,” Milstein said.
No matter the battle, Milstein has drawn many positives from the uprisings over the past two decades. She doesn’t buy into the argument that Occupy, for example, was a failure. “We win so much even in our losses,” she said. “We win a greater sense of who we could be and what our world could be.”
With moments like Occupy, people will say, “It’s dead, so therefore it’s a failure.” But Milstein counters that the love and support, along with a wealth of wisdom, can be carried forward from these moments.
“We’re frail human beings who make mistakes. We recognize the fullness of our capacity to be dynamic individuals, to revisit and understand we’re all going to make mistakes,” she said. And anarchism is a system that “allows you the flexibility to more often than not make humane, egalitarian, full decisions that account for everybody living as good a life as we can,” she said.
Whether it’s through anarchism or a similar “-ism,” people can minimize the amount of social suffering from inequality and wars and ecological destruction. In this new world, humans will still suffer. “But our suffering will be so much less and will be dealt with in so many lovelier ways,” Milstein said.
Mark Hand covers energy issues and political action. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .