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Why Anti-Government Activists Aren't Celebrating The Shutdown

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The Occupy DC protesters gathered in Freedom Plaza before marching to the White House and U.S. Chamber of Commerce on October 6, 2011.
Patrick Madden
The Occupy DC protesters gathered in Freedom Plaza before marching to the White House and U.S. Chamber of Commerce on October 6, 2011.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems to have a new favorite word in recent weeks: "Anarchists."

"We have a situation where we have a good day for the anarchists," Reid said to his Senate colleagues on the first day of the shutdown. "Why? Because the government is closed."

He uses the word "anarchists" as a disparaging term for the Tea Party Republicans he blames for the current impasse.

But it turns out actual anarchists aren't too happy about the shutdown. Neither are more conservative small government proponents, Libertarians.

Legba Carrefour is an anarchist organizer in D.C. He says this week's government shutdown looks nothing like an anarchist utopia. It's not even a real shutdown.

"Look, when there's a real shutdown of government, it's going to come from below, not from above. It's not going to be because a certain segment of politicians got into a fight with another segment of politicians."

So what would it look like, if the oppressive state apparatus came screeching to a halt? Carrefour has an example from a day in recent meteorological history. "The Snowpocalypse — the day when the entire government did shut down." Back in December, 2009.

"D.C. was like this weird, insurrectionary utopia in snow for 24 hours. Everyone was in the streets, kind of stunned and dazed, everyone was really nice to each other, it seemed like alcohol was communized, as far as I could tell, people dug each other out, people helped each other, and it was a kind of utopian vision for me."

Anarchism means a lot of different things to different people. In general, anarchists oppose hierarchies like governments or corporations, in favor of horizontal organization, where everyone is more or less equal. It's a political theory dating back to the Enlightenment. Nathan Schneider is a writer who identifies as an anarchist — he recently wrote a blog post questioning the idea that the shutdown is some kind of anarchist dream. He says Reid's frequent use of the term suggests an amnesia in American political discourse over what anarchism is all about.

"Right now, anarchism is mainly used as an insult, anarchist is an insult."

While anarchists oppose government in general, he says, the parts of the government they're most opposed to are still running.

"The security apparatus, the military, these arms of oppression — prisons aren't shutting down."

But the social safety net that many anarchists approve of is in danger.

"An anarchist vision of society is one in which it's a non-negotiable that everybody's basic needs are met," says Schneider.

So, some anarchists do see value in the federal government. Sam Jewler, who became interested in anarchism while participating in Occupy D.C. protests, says even though in an ideal society there would be no state, right now it's a necessary evil.

"Even though I have anarchist tendencies, I see the government as an invaluable bulwark against corporate power."

If government disappeared today, he says, individuals would be less free, because power-hungry corporations would dominate.

"If they were able to do everything they wanted to do, we'd have no clean water, no clean air, no livable wages."

So, if anarchists aren't exactly celebrating the shutdown, what about small-government proponents on the other side of the political spectrum?

"We would like to see a permanent shutdown of non-essential services," says Laura Delhomme, a spokesperson for the Libertarian Party of Virginia, and the Libertarian candidate to represent Arlington in the Virginia House of Delegates. Libertarians were historically related to anarchists, but today's party focuses on getting government out of the way, while today's anarchists are just as focused on fighting corporate power.

Delhomme is no fan of the current shutdown. She says it's just political theater, but it does highlight services that could be stripped from the federal government.

"Those non-essential services should be left to the free market. Government shouldn't be doing things that aren't surrounding defense, or protection of property, or protection of our physical security."

She acknowledges that would mean a lot of people losing their jobs, particularly in the county she's running to represent. But without the government dragging down private enterprise, she says, those workers would quickly find jobs in the private sector.

Ryan Sabot, chairman of the D.C. Libertarian Party, says there's no question that many of the services the federal government provides are necessary to society. "But a Libertarian would question whether or not that's actually the job of the federal government, or whether that's the job of a state government, or even a private organization."

He says the shutdown does provide a chance to think outside the box. For example, with all the national parks and monuments closed because of congressional gridlock, maybe it's time to re-think how we administer those national treasures.

"We don't have to lose the Washington Monument. It can just be passed on to another entity that can take care of it, maybe in a better way than the federal park service can, for example. And that's a fresh example that I don't think Americans are used to hearing."

Anarchists too say the shutdown could be a learning moment. If it drags on, they're ready to step in to the gaps left by shuttered federal services, providing an example of how grassroots groups can replace government.

Patrick Bruner, who was an Occupy Wall Street organizer, has been part of recent shutdown-related discussions. He says plans are in the works to create people-powered alternatives to things like food stamps and Head Start.

"So that children can have classes and babysitters and be fed. And organizing for things like in D.C., when the trash starts piling up, to provide an alternative for garbage trucks."

Something similar happened in 2011 in Minnesota, when the state government shut down for two weeks. Anarchists and other anti-authoritarians took over a local park, pooling resources to offer free meals to the public. They called it Shut down Rise Up.

[Music: "Elephant Parade" by Jon Brion from Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind]


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