The current COVID-19 pandemic has influenced all types of socio-political movements, including what is commonly referred to as the far-left. This brief analysis will focus on how this crisis has impacted and helped to shape the contemporary leftist milieu, focusing particular attention towards information hubs and activities historically-linked to anarchist and insurrectionary anarchist tendencies. While a detailed background on the nature of insurrectionary critique and praxis is beyond the scope here, I have written about it in the past in both longer and shorter forms. Further, while anarchist activity is global and often intentionally transnational, this discussion will focus on North America, with isolated examples from Western Europe.
In order to survey the current discourse, I examined several English-language online repositories for anarchist, insurrectionary anarchist, and action-centric news and analysis including 325, Act for Freedom, Anarchists Worldwide, Abolition Media Worldwide, Enough is Enough, and It’s Going Down. In addition, I reviewed a variety of lesser-known digital communities, such as the network of Telegram channels, Discord servers, etc. Throughout surveying these sources, I can summarize anarchist response as taking at least three main forms:
1) Publishing critiques of state action, calls for agitation, and reporting on sporadic attacks;
2) Organizing networks to provide mutual aid and disaster relief to affected communities; and,
3) Advocating for, and providing direct support to prisoners;
In my assessment, while the public health crisis and resulting state-mandated closures could serve as fodder for outreach efforts and mobilization, the anti-authoritarian left is far more focused on critiquing state action and ensuring communities can sustain basic human needs then in fomenting uprisings or planning reactionary violence.
Critiques & Action Reports
As one may expect, the main response to the crisis has been to try and make sense of the changing landscape through analysis and critique. Several prominent anarchist publishers have authored texts of this nature including the global insurrectionary Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), members of Greek armed group Revolutionary Struggle, Brazilian militants, several pieces by the CrimethInc. Network and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation, as well as more localized hubs such as Montreal’s Counter-Information, North Shore Counter-Info, or anonymous Bristol-based anarchists. Anarchists have also been careful to collect and curate these texts, further serving as information repositories and circulators through trusted sites such as The Anarchist Library. Anarchist publications which pre-existed the virus have also not been immune, and have increasingly focused on the crisis and its responses, such as the March/April issue of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based anarchist paper Anathema.
These same hubs are also reporting on clandestine, militant actions, noting that closures and quarantine are likely contributing to the motives of saboteurs and vandals. For example, 325, one of the hubs for circulating insurrectionary anarchist texts, included a claim of responsibility from Thessaloniki, Greece, in which attackers set fire and left incendiary devices targeting government and security forces. Critics of US immigration policy set fire to an Amazon vehicle in protest (and recognition of anarchist holiday May Day) of deteriorating condition — as the tech company provides cloud storage to US authorities. These digital communities are keen to document attacks which were motivated by the crisis, despite their seeming rarity. In another example, demonstrators clashed with English police and set fire to vehicles in response to the declared state of emergency. In others, well-established insurrectionary networks and monikers such as the FAI — which in the past have engaged in frequent use of mail bombs and arson — have focused attention on the crisis, such as a communique detailing an FAI/Earth Liberation Front vandalism in Sweden.
With prolonged restrictions to freedom of movement, we are likely to see more of these incidents, especially in locales where these networks are already active (e.g., Greece, Italy, Spain, Chile, Mexico), especially if COVID-19-related adjustment policies are interpreted as permanent or semi-permanent realignments. Overall, however, while reporting on incidents of militant protest in response to state action are present, most of these digital communities remain focused on critique and mutual aid.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief
In light of the need for communities to find new ways to meet their material needs, anarchist-aligned networks have utilized skills learned during prior crises (e.g.,post-Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandyrelief networks) to organize for self-sufficiency, including producing and distributing personal protective equipment. Portland, Oregon-based anarchists and anti-fascists have taken to producing hand sanitizer for those in short supply, and long-term anarchist aid projects such as Food Not Bombs which distributes free food in public spaces have continued to function and expand. As early as mid-March 2020, anarchist information hubs including It’s Going Down led efforts to collect and update information on mutual aid networks. This repository currently (as of 1 May 2020) contains links to nearly 230 mutual aid projects, linking to traditional webpages, as well as shared documents, Slack channels, and other forms of decentralized, distributed communication. This directory covers networks in 41 US states and the District of Columbia.
Long-term anarchist and allied networks, such as the Socialist Rifle Association, Cooperation Jackson, and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, quickly assembled comprehensive resource lists which guided individuals how to construct hand washing stations, produce fabric masks, or maintain operational security while using online video suites. Anarchists and other leftists have been at the forefront of developing such methods, providing individuals with templates to invite allies into mutual aid project, crowd sourcing global relief efforts to connect people, collecting and distributing money, and developing guides and resources for distribution. These solidarity networks offering direct aid and support are unlikely to contribute to crisis-fueled violence as they are keenly aware of the dangers to marginalized communities (e.g., communities of color, undocumented citizens, incarcerated people), and the need to help provide support for those most effected. If conditions worsen, individuals may be more primed to break the law, especially prohibitions against theft, public assembly, trespassing, and occupying buildings thought to be abandoned.
Advocating for and Supporting Prisoners
Anarchist efforts during the crisis have also focused on supporting prisoners and helping to provide a platform for incarcerated voices to be heard. Some of these efforts have mirrored the wider community — critiquing state (in)action and policing strategies, while others sought to utilize prisoners’ experiential knowledge for dealing with prolonged isolation. Still other anarchist coverage centered on distributing news of prisoner uprisings, prison strikes, and other less-widely-heard news from behind bars. Some have thought to advocate for prisoners as vulnerable persons while others have seemingly elevated prisoners’ experiences as sites of learning for dealing with crisis, isolation, and acute stress.
Anarchists are likely to continue following and supporting the efforts of prisoners to protect themselves from the health crisis and deteriorating conditions inside these facilities, and to support and circulate news from prisoner-led rebellions and strikes. In the past, anarchist support for prisoners has ranged from organizing financial support and letter writing, to coordinating noise demonstrations and vandalism of state offices.
Bearing in mind the aforementioned activities, the pandemic and resulting closures could serve to further radicalize and activate individuals as state authority is extended, freedom of movement and assembly is restricted, far-right reactionary movements build, and austerity-trigger ‘shock doctrine’ policies become understood as permanent restructurings beyond the crisis. Anarchist protest tactics are likely to adapt with broader social movements as they realign in the face of social distancing and other protective measures, though these innovations are unlikely to fundamentally alter the movement’s commonly-held hesitation to deploy violence.
Since the mid-twentieth century, ‘anarchist extremism’ has become a bit of a misnomer in North America, as while anarchists do break the law, disrupt commerce, damage property, and clash with police at demonstrations, these are better understood through a social movement lens, with ‘extremism’ — acts of violence intended to kill and communicate fear — existing as rare outliers. Although there are some nations where clandestine networks of anarchist and other militant leftists have continues to sporadically employ potentially lethal means (e.g., the sending of mail bombs in Italy, or shooting attacks in Greece), these are not common in North America. Some are quick to point to incidents such as the attack by Williem van Spronsen, who attempted to destroy Immigration and Customs Enforcement property at a privately-owned immigrant detention center by igniting a propane tank before he was shot and killed by police. While Spronsen’s actions were widely praised by anarchist, anti-fascists, and other leftists, many did so precisely because the incident targeted property.
This patterned propensity to target property is constant throughout attacks on government buildings, police infrastructure, diplomatic institutions, private businesses, and service providers. Similarly, the large scale arsons of groups such as the Earth Liberation Front while resulting in tens of millions of dollars of lost property, have not resulted in human injury or death. These incidents can be expected to increase if widespread, recurrent, or unresolved injustices are further exacerbated by the current crisis. Anarchist have also been helping to develop, publicize, and organize a variety of mass protest response to state austerity and readjustment efforts including promoting rent strikes, general strikes, industry-specific labor strikes, and other decentralized actions.In the most basic sense, anarchist are likely to respond to the current health crisis in much the same way they responded to other humanitarian crises: through critique, grassroots mobilization, and sporadic acts of militancy which aim to damage property while taking care to avoid human causalities.
Government overreach, police violence, and the uneven manner through which communities are impacted (e.g., the plight of homeless individuals in the face of pandemic) are likely to form the basis of inter-movement messaging and outreach efforts but are unlikely to serve as precursors to violence. Leftists will likely highlight a seemingly intractable conflict between individual and state authority that is fundamental to the anarchist critique of power and authority. Further, leftist analysis which concludes that human lives are being sacrificed for capital accumulation and an economy ‘reopened’ are likely to be exploited for anti-capitalist messaging. Similar injustices are likely to serve as propaganda sources and, to some degree, calls for action. Even when anarchist activity is illegal and disruptive, however, it is not likely to lead to violence against persons.
The views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI or the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation