Talking Anarchism with 'Anarchist Memes'Devon Douglas-Bowers I Politics & Government I Interview I June 19th, 2014
The following is the transcript of a recent interview I had with the administrators of the Facebook page ' Anarchist Memes.' In the interview we discuss the creation of the Anarchist Memes page, anarchism as it relates to social media, and how people can learn about anarchist thought.
1. How did the Anarchist Memes page come to be?
[Ao]: Anarchist Memes was originally the brainchild of an Australian Wobbly who was experimenting with using social media, and image macros in particular, to spread anarchist ideology. When the page began to draw a lot of attention, he assembled a small team of wobblies and other anarchists he knew online from around the globe to begin keeping up with the demand for images and moderation, as well as to begin giving the page a more serious edge by more regularly posting news and information. The page grew more quickly than anyone had imagined and soon a couple admins became a team of over 30 moderators.
[E]: It should probably be noted here that the current admin collective is actually a "second founding" of sorts. Many of the current admins were added around the same time, in response to a rather controversial situation including a former admin who was removed from the page.
[Ao]: Indeed, this is when we became a 'collective' rather than a loose team and restructured our decision making processes to reflect that democratic and horizontal character. Many of us have been around for a variety of time spans, ranging from 2.5 years to a couple of months depending on the individual admin. This isn't to suggest the page was originally an authoritarian creation, simply that it wa small enough for ideological agreement not to be much of an issue. We now represent a much larger section of anarchist thought than we did in the earliest days of the page. This has its benefits and downfalls, but as someone who has been around since the very early days of the page, I'm happy to see us finally functioning as cohesive group with formal processes and a range of ideas (though we have some mandatory principles of agreement), rather than a small team who always seemed to agree on everything. Constant consensus can be a curse when it kills discussion.
2. What kind of activities does the page engage in to promote anarchist thought and discussion amongst its members?
[k]: Well, we certainly try to share news articles, opinion pieces, literature, and of course, image macros (we are Anarchist MEMES after all) but that's really surface level stuff. Posting these things in itself tends to instigate conversation amongst fans of the page that we tend to moderate and occasionally join. What I think really works is when admins engage in the conversation and suggest class struggle organizations or any other radical organization to join after briefly getting to know the participants. Whether it's an IWW local or a branch of an anarchist federation or a nearby chapter of the Torch Network, our crowd is the type that wants to get involved and, to borrow a bit of a liberal line, "create real change." Discussion is all fine and dandy, but if we're limited to that we're just another group of assholes standing around a burning building talking about the best way to put it out. Getting people actually involved and active, that's the bee's knees.
[E]: We take quite a bit of care to very specifically and decisively critique reactionary norms within anarchist spaces, too. As many have probably noticed, we take a very strong stance against transphobia, ableism and anti-feminism. Complete internal condemnation of such attitudes has to start somewhere, and we're not swayed by the (oft-repeated) argument that such things 'create division' within 'the movement'. Racism creates division, sexism creates division, transphobia creates division. If someone thinks themselves an anarchist but are not ready to face these facts and change their praxis accordingly, them feeling alienated is not a loss, it's a win.
The main goal is always to have people self-criticize and understand how their own reactionary actions and modes of operation can hurt the ability of revolutionaries to organize among the oppressed sections of society. We've been rather successful in this capacity, and we do get quite a few people sending us messages thanking us for being so hardline about stuff like this. Either because they come from a background where they feel marginalized by many self-termed 'anarchist' spaces (the ones we are critiquing) or because they used to not see the problems inherent in, for example, anti-feminism, and do now because we refused to shut up and had them look up theory to try and argue against it. Stubbornness is sometimes a virtue it seems.
3. Why do you think that a social media platform for anarchism is needed as compared to a physical platform?
[E]: I've always disliked the assertion that there is some sort of great divide between 'the real world' and 'the internet', like you have to sacrifice a goat and cast some sort of incantation to cross over into the digital world. It's a very silly assertion that the two are entirely separate, and don't impact each other in any way whatsoever, and yet a lot of people are acting like that is the case. I've seen a lot of people post stuff like "don't take it so seriously, it's just the internet" and I'm like, why? How does the fact that something is on the internet make it any less a part of 'the real world'?
For me, this understanding that what is said and done on the internet is still said and done in 'the real world' makes it very obvious that we need a presence on social media as well if we want our outreach and propaganda to be effective. Quite a few people have taken to shaming, for example, introverts because they 'limit their social life' to 'the internet' rather than 'the real world', which I think is a laughable position. If we actually look at the way things are today, a lot of our social interactions take place online, and we're at a point where this trend exists for almost all groups in industrialized society. Just turning away from that is a waste of potential.
Those people who, back in 1900, would stand on a soapbox on the streets and spread political radicalism, those people have started using social media. Those people did not do that because the streets were 'more real'; it was just the most effective way to spread their views. Don't limit yourself to 'old' platforms, go where the people are, use whatever platform is most efficient. Since so many people are on Facebook and so many of our social interactions take place on Facebook, it only makes sense to create a platform for anarchist outreach and propaganda on Facebook. It helps that Facebook is comparatively easy to use, free, and despite all its flaws, it still manages to get the word out better than shouting at people on the streets or selling physical newspapers would.
[Ao]: Social Media is extremely powerful in current times, especially for youth. As centers for meeting and information sharing have begun to fade from the real world, creating online community is essential to spreading and perpetuating a living ideology. Social media is cost free and is not labor intensive, yet it is a primary way many people find information and events and therefore is essential for spreading ideas and awareness. Many still see anarchists as angry bomb throwing kids without real ideas or organizing, as years of government and corporate propaganda has portrayed us. If we wish to dismantle these ideas and show others that anarchists are serious revolutionaries whose ideas are grounded in a 250+ year theoretical tradition, we must go to where the people are.
Marx once said something along the lines of 'the capitalist will sell us the rope with which we will hang him', and I believe this is essential advice. The government, the corporate media, the right wing, and other agents of disinformation and propaganda utilize social media,so we must do an even better job if we wish for our ideas to be heard. We must not be afraid that facebook is a 'capitalist device'. We live in capitalism, we must use what it offers us to tear it down and build something new. The beautiful thing about social media, as opposed to mainstream media or books, is that it is user driven, and that we do not need to bring a profit to producers or anyone else to exist. As long as people visit our page and share our posts, our ideas will be seen. Additionally, social media is free and easy to use. That means we can reach those who are curious about anarchist ideas, but who are not yet ready to, for example, buy a book on anarchism, or attend a lecture they may not yet know how to find.
This is, of course, not to say that an online platform is more important than a physical platform. We should be striving to create as many physical anarchists spaces as possible. Nothing is as good as physical organizing. That doesn't mean we shouldn't utilize everything we can to spread our ideas- we should. That's why, although sometimes I find myself more focused on my organizing here in my community, I still think Anarchist Memes has an essential role to play in spreading anarchist thought and inspiring others to become involved in their own communities.
[k]: Same reason we thought newspapers and leaflets were the way to go in the late 1800's and through the 1950's and zines were important from the 60's to today. Gotta put information out where the people have interest in seeing it. Over 750 million people use Facebook every day. 500 million tweets are sent each day. Through any number of the 170+ million Tumblr blogs, every day there are about 100 million unique posts. That kind of potential can't be ignored. It's high time to evolve.
[OM]: In addition to what was said by my fellow admins, organization and propaganda via the internet has two added major benefits:
1. It transcends regional and national boundaries rather easily compared to other forms of organization and propaganda. Looking at globalized capitalism, the importance of international organization cannot be over-estimated for Anarchism. Contemporary Anarchism, at least in my country (Germany) often lacks international orientation, and usage of the internet is often hindered by technophobia and IT illiteracy.
2. For people with disabilities and those who live away from active Anarchist circles, participating online is often the best (or even the only way) of participating. As an example: due to a neurological condition, I am impaired in my auditory processing, which can make face-to-face interaction difficult for me, while online communication is comparatively easy.
4. What are some of the problems from both Facebook and other users that you all have to deal with? Do you have plans to deal with Facebook if it again represses the page?
[k]: With the 750+ million daily users on Facebook, you're gonna get some shitty people. We field everything from racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and all that shitty verbal stuff to porn, gore, abuse of women, abuse of children, and sometimes combinations of the above. We've dealt with nazis, MRAs, Rothbardian capitalists, TERFs, you know, assholes. It's a daily thing. We've earned ourselves the nickname "Banarchist memes" amongst a lot of these groups because we take a "no platform" stance to this type of asshattery and remove these elements as quickly as possible. Even with a relatively large admin staff, we don't always have enough eyes to catch all of it, so even with the "Banarchist Memes" nickname floating around, there's a contingent that thinks we don't care enough to rid our space of the filth. It's a lose-lose sometimes, but we try, and for the most part I feel we do pretty well.
[D]: We even have our own "Shit Anarchist Memes says," courtesy of the groups [k] mentioned above. There are infamous familiar faces that appear outside of AM, on other anarchist pages, which can be a bit disheartening when we make that effort to keep the reactionaries out. It's a bit like, "First I had to read your horrible stuff as an admin, now you're going to spout it here, too?" Outside of Facebook, or the internet, if you exclude someone problematic from the group, then you're much less likely to see them again shy of something that warrants a restraining order.
[OM]" We have already been taken down once by facebook and the page has only been restored after a major outcry. As precautions, we have spread to other internet platforms, including twitter and our own internet forum at anarchistmemes.org.
And as my fellow admins have stated, the complaints about our safer space policy can get really annoying and removing the people violating definitely is a stressful and repetitive task.
[E]: We've still got the most output on our Facebook page, though, by far. At the high point of our 'seeking out other platforms' phase (don't know if that's the correct word to use, but bear with me) right after our initial takedown we even had a Team Fortress 2 and a Minecraft server for a while. Go where the people are, and all that. In the end, we reach by far the majority of our subscribers on Facebook, and as such we primarily focus on Facebook.
5. How do you think that social media can actively combat the stereotypes about anarchist thought?
[k]" Well, first we have to establish a real foothold. I mean the left needs pages that contend with things like "I Fucking Love Science" or George Takei's fan page. We get a great following, but it's a lot of preaching to the choir, pissing off the jerks, and not enough of bringing in new blood. We get people saying we were their gateway to the ethos, but it'll never be enough people. The last "anarchist" tidbit that really went viral was a local news video of some kids bloc'd up during May Day this year. They all screamed their "fuck you"s to the local reporter
"We're out here to combat the bourgeois liberal notion of a market state and we think your media organization plays into that idea. We're here to combat capitalism in all its forms, which is why most of the people here are not willing to talk to you. This International Workers Day contingent is hellbent on exemplifying the ethos that rule of law is another shackle to break free from, and only horizontal government - truly by the people - is best for the worker. You don't need your boss, you don't need your congressperson, you don't need your president, they all need YOU."
That's what pages on the left need to be instilling in these people taking to the streets. Educating people on how to speak about anarchism to non-anarchists (even though I'd consider that bloc non-anarchist, that's another story) is paramount. With silly kids running around spray painting circle-As on things and screaming obscenities at their local reporters, our message is entirely lost. That's where the stereotypes come from, and that's the type of people social media can reach.
[E]: Yeah, whether we like it or not, the media will be watching. Having some media awareness is key in situations where you will have media attention. We need to get better at "PR", to put it another way.
6. Does Anarchist Memes work with other pages and in what fashion?
[E]: We do have a relationship with quite a few pages, such as Lesbians And Feminists Against Transphobia, Fuckin' A, Green Anarchist Agency, Still Laughing At "Anarcho"-Capitalism and so on. Most of the time it's not really all that organized, it's very informal, and I don't want anyone to get the idea that it's like, an iron-bound alliance or anything, because that's about as far from the truth as it can get. We like their work, we share some of their stuff, sometimes they share some of our stuff, sometimes we post on each others pages as our pages, and so on.
[Ao]: Many of us also have personal relationships with admins on other pages and network with them directly, sharing the news and information which each of us deem most important to spread. Again, this is rather informal, but it helps to spread the most essential and time sensitive information quickly and effectively.
[OM]: In addition, quite a few of us also admin other pages like those mentioned by [E].
7. How do you encourage people to get into the streets or organize/advocate in their own communities?
[Ao]: Anarchist Memes has always been dedicated to bridging the gap between the online and physical world by inspiring others to learn about and discuss anarchism online was well as to organize in their real lives. Admins regularly post organizing guides, different ideas of ways to get involved, and opportunities to join activists online and in person. Admins also regularly reach out to followers of the page for their organizing questions, tips, and ideas to keep the page as participatory and relevant as possible. Many admins even choose to update followers of the page on their own organizing efforts to inspire them to do the same, as well as to receive support and advice. Above all, we regularly remind our followers that while we appreciate their likes and comments, online activism is never enough on its own, and that they must be even more involved offline as they are online if they wish to make a difference.
[E]: With that said, there are people who can't organize physically in a dedicated organization, for one reason or another (be it health issues, lack of opportunity, lack of time, or something else) and are pretty much limited to either online organizing or day-to-day awareness building and propaganda. We try to have something for that portion of our subscribers as well.
8. What is the best way for people to learn more about anarchism as a political philosophy ?
[Ao]: There is no one best way to learn about anarchism. While we believe our organizing must always be grounded in theory, we also believe theory will remain stagnant if we do not learn from our real life organizing efforts. Those new to anarchism may want to start off by reading some basic theoretical texts, but the best way to learn is often from those more experienced than us, so we encourage even the newest of anarchists to find their local anarchist organizations, get involved, and to ask questions. We don't learn from pretending to know all the answers, we learn from admitting what we don't yet understand. That being said, revolutionary discipline is essential. There is no excuse not to read, not to understand the ideology which you are seeking to organize towards. I only wish to make it clear that sitting in your bed and reading about organizing will not teach you how to be an effective organizer. For that, you have to get your hands dirty.
[E]: As for specific places to find theoretical texts and explanations of anarchist ideology and theory. If that is what you happen to be looking for, I find that 'An Anarchist FAQ' and its reading list is a great place to start out. I would advise anyone with even the slightest interest to check it out. The struggle, to an extent, is also an intellectual struggle.