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"Outlaw Politics and the Spanish Anarchists"

by Peter Coyote


January 2004

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The word ‘outlaw’ with its breezy, archaic ring, hints at the cloaked swagger of highwaymen throwing down on the king’s agents. During the Sixties, it was common for dissidents of every stripe to cloak ourselves in this borrowed anti-establishment glamour. The identity of outlaw then might have signaled opposition to the war in Vietnam, hypocritical sexual morality, bourgeois existence, and/or venal drug laws. The word itself, a gallant sword raised in challenge to the grey, monolithic castles of the establishment.

That charming denotation of being a fugitive is the second definition of outlaw in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. The first, more telling and disturbing, deserves careful attention. It defines the word thus: “to deprive of the benefit and protection of the law: declare to be an outlaw”. This pivot from noun to verb shifts the ground beneath us as radically as an earthquake. Power now resides with those who can define us “outside” the law. Easy judgments and youthful certainty of our impunity need to be reviewed, lest our fates mimic the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. The anarchists won power and refused to take over the Parliament, declaring the Parliament a fiction. However, their enemies in Madrid, suffering no such ideological blindness, assumed their seats and had them shot.

From the mid-1960’s to the mid-‘70’s, I was a member of an anarchist community called the Diggers which later evolved into a larger, more amorphous group called The Free Family. During this period we lived communally and without hierarchies and formal leadership. We sought first and foremost personal authenticity, and secondarily political and social systems which would permit authentic men and women to thrive. To test ourselves we eschewed the use of money and performed our acts anonymously, believing, perhaps over-simplistically, that a person who was not getting rich or famous, pursued goals because they reflected heartfelt desires. Our aim was to re-imagine America and then make those imaginings real by acting them out. To that end, we fed hundreds of people every day, for free, established free medical clinics, free stores, free festivals, even a free bank. (Try imagining that awhile).

Comrades on the ideological Left critiqued us for not having an overarching political ideology within which we operated, but that was not the case. We had reviewed Communist and Socialist alternatives seriously (both permeated counter-culture political fancies) and could see the strangulation of authentic individual evolution in Socialist-realist art and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. We understood that ideological rigidities, whether capitalist or Communist, spelled disaster for creative possibilities and social solutions. It was hard to imagine people actually throwing themselves on the barricades to be the ‘proletariat bourgeoisie’, but we knew that people would defend their rights to live in ways they had discovered compelling and necessary.

The Diggers became the conscience of the underground in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the parties and ‘life-acting’ situations we created as organizing events are legendary even today. The worm in the Digger apple was the fear that one’s imagination itself might have been colonized by growing up on “Maggie’s Farm”. That possibility, if honestly faced, was an unsettling and dizzying rebus loop that caused me and a number of my closest friends to seek in drugs a surcease form the anxieties of living in a perpetually inventive state. Marijuana was ubiquitous, acid was the common denominator of every graphic and poster, clothing style and musical group, but for the Diggers, driven to reconfigure the culture itself, our duty was more exalted and required more powerful tools: heroin and speed --- the crutches of fellows in disenfranchisement--- jazzmen, poets, vets home from the killing fields. Who, at 23, could have anticipated that the body did not have unlimited credit and that when the vig was called in, it was called in hard.

Within this spectrum of political, psychic, and social alternatives we refer to as the counter-culture, the placebo of ‘consciousness’ was often advanced as the generic cure for the societal ills the counter-culture was collectively opposed to. A widely held assumption decreed that if the majority of people simply got ‘high', then society would ‘evolve’ by some painless, bloodless process like a cicada abandoning its old skin. Fidelity to this fiction allowed contradictions like Hippie capitalism, drug profiteering and wildly lucrative record contracts to thrive unchallenged. Hip merchants peddled gauzy clothes, trinkets and hash pipes as their contribution to the ‘revolution’ at the same time the Rolling Stones were hoodwinking the audience at Altamont into thinking they were guests at a free concert and when they were actually extras in a film-and-record deal for the band.

Writing this now, nearly forty years later, colonized by Hepatitis C, having buried a tragic number of friends and lovers far too young, and enraged daily as a cadre of questionably elected thugs co-opt our national life and purpose, the time is already overdue to shoot some cherished mental pets and address this situation from an objective and practical standpoint, with survival as the common denominator. The purpose of this query is not to bury the Sixties or engage in querulous self-criticism. On many levels counter-culture analyses were absolutely correct, and certainly on cultural levels this generation changed America for the better. There is nowhere in the country today where one cannot find organic food and alternative medical and spiritual practices. Women’s rights, civil liberties, and the environment are progressive ‘givens’ in the political dialogue. No matter how often they are betrayed, they are established in the language and dealt in at the table in some manner.

On the political front, however, even hope is in retrograde, and it would not be an overstatement to say, things are worse than ever. The US is now openly debating “useable” nukes and “regime change” as ordinary occurrences. Not only did we as a generation not stop Imperialism and unfettered capitalism, but, we have been surrounded, seduced, subsumed, and sucked off, to some degree or another, by materialism on a global scale. The squatters in the White House don’t give a literal shit whether the air gets as thick as chocolate soup or every poverty-line citizen living next to power stations in the cancer belt of Texas-Louisiana-and-Mississippi glow like red coral and drop dead.

They don’t care if they leave thousands of tons of depleted uranium scattered over Bosnia, Iran, and Afghanistan, any more than they care that the blood and urine of the people living there is off-the-charts irradiated and that those same people will be breeding deformities and malfunctions into the human gene pool forever (those that don’t die of leukemia first). They’ve given about as much thought to the effects of industrialization on our planetary life-support systems as they have to post-war Iraq.

Perhaps you’ve sensed the pact-in-hell the Repugnants have made with the Christian right, offering the Pat Robertsons and Jimmy Swaggarts Croesus riches through tax breaks in return for the political muscle of their flocks. The Ur-cowboy in the White House (consistently photographed alone, without women and children) is their boy. Him and his snake-waving, bible-thumpers are bell-wethering the rest of us eagerly into their Christer apocalypse. Social and environmental collapse and troubles in the Mid-East don’t worry them at all because they presage The Last Days: the time when the Jews convert (I’m not kidding), when Christ re-appears (forgets he was a Jew) and separates the good people (them) from the bad (us), takes them to heaven, and destroys everything in a cloud of fire.

It’s called Christian Dominionism, and it’s running our foreign policy vis a vis Israel and Palestine, and therefore in the Middle East. An ardent supporter is running the Nation’s Justice Department (John Ashcroft) and all are dividing the world into good guys and bad guys according to their own Manichaean standards. This is not a situation that is going to be ducked by getting rich or high. It will not be corrected by buying weapons and nurturing resistant guerrilla fantasies either.

I am close friends today with several of the Weathermen, the group that bombed the hell out of Sixty-odd Federal buildings during the Vietnam era. They spent nearly 20 years hiding out underground; several spent multiple decades in prison; some will never be released. I always admired their courage and dedication and count a couple among my closest friends, but I disagreed with them at the time and still do today. The United States mints violence. Review the Plain of Jars in Cambodia for a quick lesson of how one of the most fertile spots on earth can be obliterated into inhabitability. Say the words “Three million” three million times and you’ll get a physical understanding of the numbers we murdered in Southeast Asia for what turned out to be establishing Capitalism as the only acceptable mode of economic development the United States will tolerate.

Having watched my government in action, and having observed it’s hirelings (or allies) in Vietnam, Columbia, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran and Iraq (to name a few), I’m going to be among the last calling for armed revolution. Those quick to do so have not studied life in Kansas and Missouri during and after the Civil War, or browsed the libraries of commemorative placards in Europe, honoring citizens dragged from their homes by neighbors and shot against the old stone walls. It may come to that some day if the powers that be keep betraying the middle class, but there is plenty that can and should be done before that, and hiding behind outlaw, anti-establishment posturing will accomplish it.

Fifty percent of our citizens vote, usually less. That means that the politicians in office represent, at best, 25.1% of the population. Usually the number is in the high-teens. The first thing I ask someone who complains about a social issue is if they voted. If they didn’t, I have to physically stifle an impulse to bitch-slap them. Participating in the privileges and benefits of our society and taking no responsibility for them is not freedom but license and deserves rebuke. For all its faults and sins, this country is not a one-party Fascist state. It is not Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Iran, or Iraq. It is not these places even for African-Americans, Middle-Easterners or Native-Americans and dissenters who have not yet learned to fear paramilitary death squads.

America is far from proximate to all it can be or as beneficent as it advertises itself, but in the real world, degrees count, and this simple observation leads me to the following conclusions. The current debacle is mutable. The political class in Washington will still respond to pressure and public foment. (Review the repeal of the FCC decision to allow media to merge without limits or the passage of the privacy bill in California.) Until this pressure has been organized and applied however, it’s folly to opt out, abandon political engagement for the personal, or prepare for armed revolution.

Opting out and not voting is the Spanish anarchist alternative. So let’s review some priorities for action. The set-of-all-sets, that which contains every imaginable set on earth is our environment. Wreck it and all theater for which the planet is a stage is over; all the Creator’s original designs obliterated. All of them. The systemic threat to our environment is nuclear radiation. It is a biocide. It kills all life. Dead. At this moment there are still 18,000 nuclear weapons between the US and Russia alone, on hair-trigger alert.

You may not be aware of the number of tons of radioactive waste leaking into rivers and the underground water-table from dumps in Hanford, Washington and off-shore San Francisco near the Farallon Islands to name two, but they’re there, dripping lethal, cell-altering particles into the food we eat and the water we drink. Unless nuclear radiation (including depleted uranium weapons) is globally tabooed the entire planet will one day be a sacrifice zone and the current epidemics of asthma, cancer, childhood behavioral issues, and birth defects will look like the good old days. I am not trying to substitute my “trip” for yours. There are hundreds of good and worthy issues which eventually need to be addressed, but none have the immediacy and common-denominator quality of this one.

While the Bush administration is, spending hundreds of billions, whanking around with missile shields to protect us from enemies which don’t exist, they are refusing to spend millions to buy Russia’s fissionable material, (stored in decrepit facilities without security systems, guarded by soldiers earning $100 a month) and bring it under US or UN supervision. According to brain-trusters at Harvard and MIT who ponder these issues, terrorists could bring a dirty bomb into San Francisco or New York harbor this weekend and we could lose a major city. The day after the first nuclear terrorist tragedy we’ll be reviewing how we “dropped the ball” and failed to “connect the dots” only this time with far fewer people.

The second critical priority is fundamental campaign finance reform. Nothing that the largest common denominator of citizens care about in our public life stands a chance of being enacted into law while corporations dominates society’s civic sector. Politicians work for the people who pay them, as we all do. If we want them to serve our interests we need to reform the campaign process or we can kiss the sweet ass of participatory democracy goodbye. By Fundamental Finance Reform I do not mean the McCain-Feingold bill advanced by the political class as an antidote to public outrage, but reform which will truly harness the political class to the service of the people: Full federal funding of all Federal elections. A ban on all soft money. Give all qualified candidates the same amount and how they handle it becomes part of what we learn about them.

Free prime-time air-time for all qualified candidates, in return for which they must appear in unstructured debates (without minders, handlers, etc.) on each network and take questions from one another and the audience. The airwaves are the people’s and this regulation should be a broadcast licensing requirement. Offering individuals and non-profits the same tax-deductions corporation now receive for ‘disseminating information’ (lobbying---usually against the public interest.) Raising Legislative salaries to compete with private sector employment of equal responsibility and banning all gifts, emoluments, speaking fees, tickets, stipends, fund-raisers, -- a nickel from anyone while in office, and ban on working for anyone they did business with for five years thereafter.

Legislation like this will have to be imposed on the political class. It could be accomplished with minimum funds and state-by-state petitions and referendums organized by volunteers. (Imagine visiting a legislator with a petition on which 200,000 people have pledged to work for their re-election if they support this legislation or against them if they don’t.) This reform is so basic, so critically important that I suggest temporarily shelving less critical single-issues in deference to changing the ground of our political life. An unshakeable proponent of women’s choice, I would still vote for a pro-life politician who pledged to support campaign finance reform, because we a truly responsive legislature will necessarily serve the public interest. This is a triage situation folks. If we want to save a way of life worth living for more than the top 5% of the capital owning class, we must discipline ourselves to exploit the power of numbers.

The third priority regards the vote itself. The electronic voting machines posited as a response to the last Presidential election, are a dangerous scam. (Click onto www.blackboxvoting.com and read about the facility with which they can be manipulated.) The three major manufacturers of electronic voting machines are owned by Republicans. There is no government agency which supervises the software and in fact, the government is not allowed to check it because it is ‘proprietary.’ The vote has been privatized and guess to whom it belongs? Senator Chuck Hagel, surprise Republican winner in Nebraska owns the local voting machine company.

There are other, more egregious cases of voter fraud, about which enlightenment is a two minute internet search away. Old-fashioned paper ballots leave a trail. They work well all over the world, and nothing in the Constitution declares that we need results in time for the eleven o’clock news. Failure to block this unasked for technological gift will be place us in the position of the ancient Greeks accepting the Trojan horse

The fourth priority is a free choice. If you have organized your time to fight for the first three priorities your choice in this last tier will have a planet to thrive on and an honest political process to support it. I offer this perspective to High Times today because traditionally it has been a refuge for many a-political souls who concentrate on consciousness alteration. Today, self-interest demands strategies simply to protect one’s pursuits of pleasure.

If High Timers do nothing they are likely to be doing laundry in the joint after an Ashcroft sneak-and-peak search they failed to know about. Even white-collar jobs are being shipped overseas to techies in Bosnia and India that will do for $6,000 what they pay Americans $150,000 for. The sharks are eating their way down the food chain, right towards the “trippers” and “chillers”. Think Spanish anarchists.

Taking refuge in 1960’s ‘rage against the machine’ outlaw posturing is like going up against an UZI toting crack-dealer, with your picturesque Single-Action Colt revolver. While we’re being distracted by chatter about terrorism, the entire planet is 15 minutes away from nuclear annhilation (literally) and no one is talking about it. The “law” and all its attendant institutions are keeping mum. They’re like the captain of the Titanic announcing that the pool is open and the water is fine. You probably have no idea that less than 10 years ago a Norwegian satellite rocket was mistaken by the Russian military for incoming American missiles. The Russians prepared to launch their retailiatory counter-strike. Their leader, Yeltsin, whose finger was on the button, was completely smashed. Ten seconds before he was to fire, the Norwegian rocket veered off course, and because of that lucky accident, I’m here to write and you to read.

If today’s outlaws have any task clearly before them, it is to use their wits, skills, anarchic energy and passion to stop those so hypnotized by power and greed from perpetuating this ‘death-producing’culture. We all know how to talk the talk. Walking the walk is actually pitting yourself against the beast. Shy of that, you’re a wanker. The world needs more good men and women to stand up. Are you one of them, or do you just buy this magazine to show off on the coffee table?

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