Why is it we are so reluctant to question the way things are? We are afraid to criticize government and the rules our leaders make for us. The idea of anarchy seems like a radical one, but if we really think about it, is it any worse than the issues we face due to a corrupt government and an imbalance in social order? As the saying goes, the rich get richer. Yet the poor, working-class Americans settle for just barely getting by. Capitalism is harmful in more ways than one, yet we accept it.
Really, the idea of anarchism isn’t as bad as what we’re trained to believe. “A person who embraced this philosophy opposed any citizen being controlled by forces other than his or her own decision making,” (Voices of Revolution; 115). Would it be so detrimental to our society if we were allowed to make our own decisions without the guidance of those who are often corrupt capitalist leaders?
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, two leaders emerged in an attempt to spark an anarchist movement. Albert Parsons, founder of The Alarm, and Emma Goldman, the creator of Mother Earth, spoke to the nation’s poor, urging them to fight back against capitalism and revolt by whatever means necessary. They supported the use of violence, stating that the only way to create an acceptable society would be to destroy the one already in existence. This is certainly a radical idea, but wasn’t our nation founded on radical ideas, mass uprisings and revolutions?
Parsons was deeply concerned about issue of race, noticing the inequality that existed even after the abolition of slavery. He wrote, “they are now ‘free men’ without an inch of soil, a cent of money, a stitch of clothes or a morsel of food.” This recognition of injustice among African Americans later extended to other immigrants from multiple cultural backgrounds, many of whom “toiled at the mercy of factory owners,” (Voices of Revolution; 118). Parsons spoke out for better working conditions and higher wages, denouncing capitalism as the root of the nation’s misery. He also pointed out in his publication that work was no longer something to enjoy or take pride in; it simply allowed the rich to control the poor and benefit from their work. Laborers become numbers in the workplace, without individuality, passion or any sense of fulfillment. This is true even today. Work is nothing more than a chore to most people. It puts food on the table and pays the bills– sometimes. Our jobs break our spirits but we do nothing about it. It’s part of life; that’s just how it is.
“Constant repetition of the same minute task benefited only the employer, he wrote, while promoting boredom and frustration among the workers, accentuating the master-slave relationship … Workers were merely hired hands, cogs in an intricate machine, receiving little satisfaction from the monotonous, mind-numbing drudgery performed,” (Voices of Revolution; 129). This is a problem most of us can relate to. Who doesn’t feel bored or drained at work? How many of us truly feel fulfilled in our jobs? The anarchist leaders of the time wanted the poor to benefit from their own labors– an idea that seems like it should be a given, a right for all humans, rather than a controversial, unrealistic goal.
It was perhaps their means of achieving this utopia that concerned the mainstream (coupled with the fact that much of the mainstream was controlled by the government they attacked). Specifically, Parsons encouraged the use of dynamite against the police and other officials. He wrote, “the privileged are not in the least disturbed by argument, protest or petitions. They have but one answer to all appeals– force.” He therefore deemed violence a necessity; if the downtrodden that he spoke to were so often attacked by police, perhaps the only realistic way to fight back would be with equal or higher force. He continued, “We have nothing to lose but our chains; we have a world to win! Lead on to liberty or death.” Such radical speech frightened many of the people who were already afraid to question the world as they knew it.
The mainstream press certainly didn’t help the cause. As usual, they fought against the radicals by exaggerating the truth or fabricating information altogether. At an anarchist meeting in 1886, an unknown assailant threw a bomb into a crowd of police officers, who had come to order the meeting to end (and the speaker did, in fact, step down from the platform as they had asked). After the explosion, which wounded several officers, many members of the police fired their guns randomly into the crowd. Yes, they fired randomly into a crowd of bystanders. The mainstream papers stated that eight police officers had been killed in the incident, and at least as many protesters were found dead as well. They conveniently left out, however, that among the fatalities, only one officer was killed by the bomb. The rest of the victims were shot by police bullets. The press then went on to spread the rumour that this would be the first attack of many, and that anarchists wanted to control the whole nation. “The villainous teachings of the Anarchists bore bloody fruit in Chicago,” a New York Times article began. They insisted that this event was part of an organized plot to destroy America. Not surprisingly, this started a panic that no one had thought to question. Worse yet, the people of America were so frightened that they rejected any sort of progressive thought, much less the radical idea of anarchism.
This is not a new tactic used by mainstream media and our government. We are controlled by fear, because when we are afraid, we will believe anything. When Emma Goldman emerged as a leader of the anarchist movement, she fell victim to rumours put out by the mainstream press. In 1901, when a factory worker who claimed to be an anarchist assassinated President McKinley, leading newspapers held Goldman responsible for the murder (even though she didn’t know him and he wasn’t a member of any anarchist organization). The press stated that her goal was to kill all rulers. In response, she launched her own paper, Mother Earth. Unlike Parsons, she targeted not only the poor, but also the middle-class professionals, who she urged “to come down off their pedestals and realize that they, too, were being exploited by the American aristocracy of wealth,” (Voices of Revolution; 129). The only way to establish unity and equality in America was to work together against capitalism. Even still, her efforts only lead to her eventual imprisonment and deportation.
Though there was never an anarchist revolution, this issue still raises a few good points. Oftentimes, the government does more harm than good. With every law comes more laws until we are bound up in ethical dilemmas and enslaved by subtext. In an ideal universe, we would be moral enough to know right from wrong without corporate chaperoning. We would be individual enough to think for ourselves and not follow the masses into oblivion. We would recognize basic human rights and value fairness and balance among all social classes. Instead, we rely on the government to tell us how things should be, when the leaders of our nation hardly know better than ourselves. We give these leaders power over us, though they are born no better than we are. Worst of all, we don’t question them. We settle. Because that’s the way things are.
Parsons and Goldman envisioned a world where we would all work together and help one another in a free society. Is this a realistic goal in a world plagued by greed, self-absorption and jealousy? Perhaps not, but we could at least work toward a more balanced society. Our nation was founded on the idea of freedom, why not keep it that way?
(For more information, see Voices of Revolution by Rodger Streitmatter, Chapter 7).