Rethinking Anarchism: An Interview with 'Agency'

Devon Douglas-Bowers I Politics & Government I Interview I December 11th, 2014

Below is the transcript of a recent interview I did with Agency , a new website that looks to promote "contemporary anarchist perspectives and practices through commentary on current events, media relations, and educational campaigns. "

What made you come up with this idea? What made you come up with the name?

Ryan Only: Separate from one another, Jen Angel and I each had an idea to create "an anarchist PR project." When we came together and started talking about what it could look like, we had a lot of the same ideas and so we came up with the concept and elements for Agency. This felt very organic because both my and Jen's activism and paid work has been around the intersections of media, publicity, and social movements and social justice struggles.

Personally, I'm interested in how the media captivates and compels the public around spectacles and sensationalism. Right after the WTO protests in Seattle, I was involved in organizing many of the mass-actions that followed in DC and other places - and was involved in efforts that tried to give a more honest perspective to the media on anarchists participation in those actions. There's a history of media bastardizing anarchists, and a history of anarchists either shying away from or outright rejecting the media, and also of watering down our politics in fear the media will misrepresent us. I want to explore what it looks like to challenge false perceptions of anarchism, and also to challenge the tactics and approaches anarchists may take out of habit rather than what might actually be best for advancing our ideas and cause.

Jen Angel: During the last few years, especially since Occupy, the mainstream media and public have been more interested in the ideas of anarchism than they have in my lifetime. Like Ryan said, the media often doesn't get it right, or they tend to interview the same anarchists over and over - partially because journalists don't know anything about anarchism and don't know who to interview. We started having these conversations about what would happen if we tried to intervene and give journalists better information - and what if we connected them to other anarchists they could interview?

Anyone who has worked with the media knows that even when you give them good information, it can be manipulated or misrepresented to advance a story or make a soundbite - but what if some of the good information got through? That would be worth it, and that's the kind of thing Ryan and I already do with our media work. With Agency, we are applying those skills to anarchism.

Ryan: I like seeing what happens when anarchists actually talk about what we want and the world we want to live in-and I like talking to people outside of anarchist social scenes. And I think it's uncommonly explored terrain for anarchists - and I think there's a lot that can be done - and moved forward by exploring this terrain.

Agency is also the realization of an inside joke that I've been making with a good friend for the last 10 years. That is, seeing the ways in which PETA are able to take any news story and use it to garner attention for promoting an animal rights perspective. This friend and I have joked for years, what if we had an anarchist PETA? That is, an organization that worked to engage with an anarchist perspective on major news stories - thus promoting radical analysis of how the state and capitalism are at the roots of many social ills, and how a society organized in opposition to these systems can be more healthy and more free - and what if we worked to seize whatever opportunities we could as a platform to promote these ideas?

Jen: The name is a play on words.

Ryan: Yes, the name, Agency, is a play off of the PR industry idea of PR agencies and also in sociology and philosophy, agency is the capacity of a person to act in the world. As anarchists, Agency is what we want: a world where each person has autonomy and self-determination over their lives.

What would you say to those who argue that this is kind of pointless, that anarchists will always get a bad rap in the media?

Jen: Although we just launched our website in October, we have been working on this project for over a year. Part of that work was reaching out to other anarchists for their input and feedback. I was surprised that very few of the people we talked with said that it was pointless to talk to the media - that was something I heard a lot from people when I first started working in the anarchist community, in the '90s.

Ryan: I think it's wrong to say it is pointless to talk to the media in general. It's really a case by case thing - it can be pointless, sure. But is it always? Or even a majority of the time? No, I would argue that most of the time it is fruitful and effective- and sometimes it can be groundbreaking. Look at the little work that has been done by anarchists in the media. It can be successful, it can reach people and win hearts and minds (look at Seattle and what pictures of anarchists in the black bloc and anarchists on the front lines of human barricades did to bring attention to the horrors of economic globalization), look at the Arab Spring, look at Occupy. Look at the internet and what open source thinking has done to expand humanity's access to information and communication. All of these things are a product of anarchists engaging with the media in some form or another.

Jen: Because of our experience working with media on behalf of other social justice campaigns, we know that it can be one of many effective tools to influencing how the public understanding of issues.

Ryan and I both think that anarchism is a movement - it's not a members-only club. We need more anarchists and people interested in anarchist ways of being in order to make positive change in the world. We want to use every tool that we have to expose others to anarchist ideas and ways of organizing. As I said before, the public and media are talking about anarchism now in an unprecedented way - this is an opportunity for us to use different methods to educate anyone interested in a different way of living.

Do you think that due to the political, economic, and social times, that people are more receptive to anarchism?

Ryan: Absolutely. There has been an "anarchist turn" in the last 20 years at the very least… The anti-globalization movement, the anti-war movement, Occupy, uprisings in the middle east, the internet - all these things have had an element of anarchist influence or inspiration.

Jen: And the plethora of books and articles on anarchism, especially post-Occupy, is certainly evidence for that.

Is there a diversity of anarchist leanings with regards to contributors? What are some of the differences?

Ryan: Most importantly, Agency promotes a diversity of anarchist positions that adhere to an anti-state, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppression framework. We acknowledge that there are many different anarchist perspectives and visions, and this project's aim is to make the public aware of a range of anarchist beliefs, in a spirit of solidarity and non-sectarianism.

We are working with anarchists across the spectrum, within that framework. We have already published pieces by anarchists who have historically had tension with each other. My hope is to publish things from everyone from Ashanti Alston to John Zerzan, from Noam Chomsky to Starhawk, from Cindy Milstein to CrimethInc. We are very excited to already be working on or have published contributions from Klee Benally, Natasha Lennard, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Scott Crow, Eric Laursen, Carwil Bjork-James and many others.

We want this project to present a broad spectrum of anarchist ideas. Anarchists often are own worst enemies, and I think that's a sad reality. This is a non-sectarian project, but there's plenty of room for disagreement - we just want our differences to move us forward and not hold us back.

Jen: The goal is to raise awareness of anarchism as a whole, and we are completely prepared to do promote diverse (and contradictory) parts of anarchism as long as the ideas, groups, and individuals we are working with identify publicly as anarchists and share our core beliefs that Ryan mentioned, like opposition to the state and capitalism. We will not, for example, be promoting the work of libertarians or anarcho-capitalists.

This is not an attempt to water down or make palatable the more militant parts of anarchism or of the community. Some anarchists run child-care programs and some anarchists smash windows and engage in sabotage. Sometimes the same individuals do both things.

Helping anarchists be more transparent about what they are doing and why, and with what goals, will make anarchist ideas more accessible in hopes of allowing more folks to understand that a different world is possible.

Do you intend to reach out to other groups online and in the real world to promote anarchism in the media?

Jen: Yes, we basically want to use our media skills to promote the work of other anarchists. Part of our preparation for the launch of this project was reaching out to comrades around the US for their input and feedback.

There are lots of ways that we work with individual anarchists or groups, such as:

- Soliciting and circulating new or existing commentary on current events from an anarchist perspective, written for non-anarchists

- Creating issue guides for journalists on generally accepted anarchist thinking on specific topics, and connecting journalists to anarchists who work on those topics

- Tracking mentions of anarchists in mainstream media and intervening through Letters to the Editor or building relationships specific reporters

How do you think that Agency will change the dialogue surrounding anarchists and anarchism?

Ryan: Within anarchist communities - we want to introduce nuance around the idea of engaging with the media. Media engagement by anarchists should be a tactical and strategic question. We need to transcend the knee jerk idea of "corporate media=bad"… and actually have discussions about when and how to engage with the media. As anarchists, we need to write our own narrative instead of letting others tell our story.

I want anarchism - as a world view that promotes freedom, equality, and self-determination - to be a household concept. I want anarchism to be a threat to power structures that rely on and perpetrate inequality and disparity in the world. And we can make anarchism a threat by building understanding among a broader spectrum of people of what anarchism is and how anarchy works.

What are some of the end goals for Agency? What's the endgame?

Ryan: The endgame is anarchist revolution. The goals of agency are much more modest.

We want to publish and publicize anarchist perspectives on current events and we want them to be heard and read by millions of people.