From Mask Magazine – Interview by Hanna Hurr
To Change Everything, Start Anywhere
The radical milieu in the U.S. is vibrant and complex, but few projects last very long. Generations shift rapidly, and so do our projects. CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective seems to be an exception.
If you’ve ever lived in a punk house, participated in running an infoshop or social center, gone to an anarchist book fair or protest convergence, chances are you’ve seen CrimethInc. posters pinned to the walls, copies of Recipes for Disaster or Days of War, Nights of Love on the bookshelves, or stacks of Fighting for Our Lives pamphlets lying around. Perhaps you read the“Letter from Anarchists” at your local Occupy camp. There are few contemporary anarchist organizations whose work has passed through so many hands and been read by so many people as the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective. In its twenty years of activity, CrimethInc. has distributed hundreds of thousands of books, posters, magazines, and stickers to countless people on all continents including Antarctica.
The idea that history is something we make by our actions, not something that merely happens to us, is central to CrimethInc.’s approach. In their familiar, high-fidelity way, they encourage people to take this history into their own hands. Tempting us to grab the steering wheel of our own lives and turn toward something that enables a more livable existence. Though the collective members remain in anonymity – some twenty years later! – the idea somehow persists that CrimethInc. can be anyone.
In a society which glorifies their power and our passivity, all thought which challenges this passivity is thoughtcrime. Crimethink is the transgression without which freedom and self-determination are impossible — it is the skeleton key that unlocks the prisons of our age.
CrimethInc. is the black market where we trade in this precious contraband. Here, the secret worlds of shoplifters, rioters, dropouts, deserters, adulterers, vandals, daydreamers – that is to say, of all of us, in those moments when, wanting more, we indulge in little revolts — converge to form gateways to new worlds where theft, cheating, warfare, boredom, and so on are simply obsolete.
In recent years, CrimethInc. has concentrated on publishing analysis of and reports from struggles taking place around the world, in the form of journalistic features or essays. Some of the most in-depth and informative coverage out there of the Arab Spring, the Brazilian uprising, and the Montréal student strikes is available on their website.
Until now, CrimethInc. has funded its projects internally through selling books, touring projects, and (one would expect from the name) a little crime here and there. But earlier this month, the collective launched its first ever crowd-funding campaign: “To Change Everything”.
Building on its reputation of producing literature that has fueled anarchist movements for decades, CrimethInc. has set out to print and distribute – once again free of charge – a booklet for a broader audience in the new context of global upheaval and revolt.
We called up one of the participants to talk about the history of the collective, what is different about the project now compared to then, and what inspired the decision to try Kickstarter.
What were the early days of CrimethInc. collective like, and how did it get to where it is today?
CrimethInc. came to be in the 1990s out of the do-it-yourself underground – the zine revolution, the DIY punk networks, and so on. There was a moment when people involved in various subcultural networks suddenly started meeting on a national and then international basis. Many people who hadn’t previously been involved in Left or anarchist organizing found these networks via their personal rebellions or subcultures, and slowly figured out that the things drawing them together were actually much bigger than those subcultures — that the rebellions they were engaged in, or the subversive desires they were trying to pursue, actually extended throughout the social body as a whole.
One of the things that distinguishes most CrimethInc. texts – even from the early days – is a refusal to concentrate on merely subcultural concerns. Perhaps the texts use those references as a point of departure, but they almost always try to engage a broader audience regarding the possibilities of life.
Some of the focus on horizontality that has characterized our project ever since then can be traced to the zine revolution, with its emphasis on self-publishing. The late 20th century was the heyday of top-down communication, with the dominant model for media being television. As a fierce reaction to this, self-publishing and do-it-yourself made a lot of sense. It provided spaces in which anarchist values could arise.
Since the internet took off and suddenly everything is self-publishing, we’ve seen what I call information inflation. There’s more and more information circulating, so it’s harder and harder to pay attention to any of it. One of the paradoxical effects of this was that attention began to tend to centralize around some of the bigger nodes. Thus, at the turn of the century, you see the emergence of a few large-scale publications. Clamor Magazine was one of these; also some early CrimethInc. projects likeInside Front, Harbinger, and, somewhat later, Rolling Thunder. These ambitious, large-scale magazines were one of the last holdovers of the grass-roots horizontal self-publishing network from back in the day.
The networks that remain of the zine underground make up the anarchist distribution networks of today. It’s unfortunate that CrimethInc. is one of the only survivors of that era, because there were a lot of interesting things happening then. The United States is classically the nation of forgetting, where you have to reinvent the wheel with every generation. And the generations don’t come every 25 years here – they come every 5 years. It’s actually surprising that our project has lasted 20 years now.
One of CrimethInc.’s most widely distributed texts is Fighting for Our Lives, which you’ve distributed over 650,000 copies of over the years. How did that text come to be?
Fighting for Our Lives was written very rapidly, as an outpouring of a particular moment. The year 2002 was a very grim year in a lot of ways. The do-it-yourself underground was collapsing, which coincided with the end of the anti-globalization movement. The Bush presidency was getting off the ground. Fighting for Our Lives appeared at that juncture, when the old subcultural networks were ceasing to have the vibrance and appeal that previously had made them such exciting spaces for creativity and experimentation. In response, we published Fighting for Our Lives, as a dramatic and ambitious attempt to engage a much broader range of people than we had ever done before.
After 9/11 there was a lot of dismay and paralysis. A lot of anarchists were pulling back in fear of repression, in fear of many of the things that have come to pass since then. But in the midst of this there were CrimethInc. networks, groups that had entered the anti-globalization movement somewhat late in the game, that still expressed the sort of youthful enthusiasm of those who had never been through a global upheaval before. Despite everything, we retained considerable enthusiasm and optimism;Fighting for Our Lives reads as a historical document of that.
Or else, here’s another way of understanding the origin story of Fighting for Our Lives. In the early days, CrimethInc. projects were generally the result of finding sudden – usually illegal – access to resources that had previously been inaccessible to us. This is how we made everything to be distributed for free. At some point, we started trying to do things on a larger and more ambitious scale. That meant newsprint at first, and then we published our first book.
When we published the first book, there was a long debate between some collective members about whether we’d be able to sell a thousand of them. In fact, what happened was that we sold many thousands of copies of the book very swiftly. Suddenly we were in the black financially, which had never even been thinkable before.
Instead of hoarding those funds, or investing them or paying ourselves, we immediately set out to hold a sort of a potlatch in which to destroy all of the resources that we had accidentally acquired in some kind of tremendous public banquet. In the end, we poured tens of thousands of dollars – many tens of thousands of dollars – into that project. I mean, just the printing for the first run was seventeen thousand dollars, and then we paid the postage out of our pockets to send them to whoever asked for them.
I remember being in the mail-order house the month that Fighting for Our Lives came out. There was a computer that would ding every time an order came in. And there was a room in which many desperate people were just making boxes non-stop, because this computer dinged and dinged a few times every minute.
That kind of ambition, that idea of … you know … “let’s break all the rules, let’s show that we don’t have to sell things. It doesn’t matter if we’re penniless, we don’t need to be responsible like a business would be.” That’s really dear to my heart: the way that ambitious revolutionaries can conduct themselves.
How would you describe CrimethInc. of this era?
One of the things that distinguishes contemporary CrimethInc. projects from the CrimethInc. projects of that era is that we weren’t doing as much pure and simple journalism back then. CrimethInc. was not playing a role as think tank or a channel of communication for anarchists in different parts of the world around specific struggles and strategies. It was much more passionately experimental, almost like an art experiment.
What do you mean by that?
Well, imagine a crew of people who are sworn to the idea of making everything an experiment, without any particular framework for what that should look like. Nowadays, if I say “insurrectionary anarchism” you immediately imagine broken windows, but at that time the templates hadn’t become quite so standardized.
To give an example: One time, a CrimethInc. cell was invited to present a workshop at some music festival. They decided that the topic for the discussion would be fear; this was summer of 2001, when bullets were being fired at anarchists in Gothenburg and Carlo Giuliani was murdered in Genoa during the G8 protests. So fear was very much an issue that anarchists were trying to confront. In the workshop, one of the speakers explained that one of his greatest fears was being burnt, and invited the audience to join in physically holding his body down and pushing a burning hot brand into his arm, as an experiment in confronting fear. Afterwards, the discussion could proceed with an immediate, embodied content, not as something abstract. That’s an example of what I mean by approaching everything as an experiment. It was also, well, a little bit crazy. Those people were maniacs. Not in the sense that they participated in different rituals than everyone else, but that they were unpredictable. Things could go many different directions. What they lacked in quality control, they made up for in escape velocity.
I see Fighting for Our Lives as a text that gave lots of people the courage to talk to others about their interests and politics.
Somebody said something to me about that back in the day that I thought was really smart. He said that because the text was framed so as to be directed at a broader audience, it cast a certain spell or conveyed a certain power to whoever picked it up, which was the feeling that one could be in dialogue about the subject with people who were not subculturally or politically identified in the same way. That was probably significant.
Whether it was intentional or not, it seems very strategic.
I imagine it also helped create some kind of continuity in the anarchist movement. The sudden peak of the anti-globalization era really came out of nowhere, and it could have died back a lot further had there not been work done to give that initial explosion of activity some staying power. And not just by CrimethInc. but by everyone that was committed to putting roots down so that there could be projects that lasted 20 years.
It must have been unheard of to do something at that scale. It sounds crazy even now. Was it really crazy for you as well?
Certainly. But for me the point was always that, if we stake our lives on the idea that this world is unlivable – not just unsustainable, but unlivable, a very important distinction – and that the only thing that has any value is taking actions to create the possibility of another life … if that’s the case, then there’s no reason to do anything with any of our resources and time except to invest them in extremely ambitious things.
When the first 250,000 copies had just come back from the printer and we announced the project, some anarchists wanted to know, “How did you do this? It just seems impossible!” It wasn’t impossible. It was the same amount of money that a small group of people would spend on rent over a couple of years, you know. But for us, we were like, we only made 250,000 copies, there’s four times that many people in the U.S. military. How are we actually going to be a threat unless we’re thinking on a tremendous scale, not just of numbers or people and publications, but also the scale of what we can expect from ourselves as aspiring revolutionaries?
It wouldn’t seem to make sense on paper that our collective is still functional and active today, considering that every time that we’ve ever had access to resources we totally used them up and had to start from zero again immediately thereafter – or less than zero.
But it wasn’t access to financial resources that drove us, it was the conviction that the thing that makes life sweet is a rebellion against the world of measure and common sense.
You’re two weeks into CrimethInc.’s first Kickstarter Campaign – to fund the printing of the new booklet, “To Change Everything”. On the Kickstarter campaign page, you compare the booklet to Fighting for Our Lives. What’s different this time around?
One of the things that distinguishes this project from Fighting for Our Lives is that now we’re working on an international level. Right now there are something like a dozen and a half different translation collectives around the world that are working on their own versions of this project. The coordination between all of these different groups has been demanding but exciting. We are working with people to figure out what the best version of this could be in each context, to be challenging in the Serbian context, or in the Brazilian context, or in the Philippines.
The virtue of Fighting for Our Lives was very much that – like many CrimethInc. things of that era – it was the work of enthusiastic young people. Young people of all ages – I think the oldest person who participated in reviewing the text before it went to print was actually in her fifties. Back then, it was the work of people who hadn’t been anarchists militants for decades. We’re situated differently now, in the context of what is happening in our lives and on the geopolitical stage. Some of the people involved in our collective who are barely in their twenties have been through some of the stuff that we considered the worst things that could possibly happen to you as an activist fifteen years ago.
So yes, this text is actually directed at a broader readership than Fighting for Our Lives was, and it sets out to engage with the current context.
You described Fighting for Our Lives as a post-9/11 event. We talk a lot about the end of the anti-globalization era. Do you see the current moment as a similarly important shift that demands a new way of doing outreach, talking about the world, and how to revolt?
That’s an interesting question. It would be an exaggeration to say that we had any strategic sense of the historical moment when we published Fighting for Our Lives. We worked that out afterwards, reverse-engineering it after the fact. I wouldn’t care to exaggerate similarly today, either. As much as we talk about strategy, we have to work intuitively.
I will say that in the wake of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and the various uprisings that have taken place around the world, it seems evident to me – and hopefully to many others – that one of the hard limits that those movements all ran into was the infrastructure of the State. And that in order to be able to get a movement or struggle off the ground that can actually have a chance of challenging the root sources of suffering today, it has to be an anti-capitalist and an anti-state movement. In that regard, I think that this project is long overdue. Not just this project, of course, but the many projects like it that we hope to see from other comrades.
Egypt, for example, has been at the forefront of the intensifying crises that are taking place worldwide. In Egypt, aspiring revolutionaries ultimately came up against the infrastructure of the State. They were able to overthrow two governments, but the problem is not specific governments. The problem is what some call the deep state, the infrastructure that exists to enforce the misery of capitalism upon us and will continue doing so until we’re able to identify it as the problem and mobilize against it.
I think many people were surprised to see CrimethInc. doing a Kickstarter campaign. Is this a change in direction or tactics?
I was actually expecting more outcry about us using Kickstarter. It seems like everybody has just accepted this. I want more judgmental anarchists who are like, “This is bullshit, Kickstarter runs on industrialism which is a product of civilization, how dare you use Kickstarter?!” or something like that. I’m joking, of course … sort of. But the way that I understand this project is as one experiment among twenty years-worth of experiments in which we try to figure out how to engage with social forms and structures in a way that aims for their demolition.
We don’t have any faith in Kickstarter as a liberating format or some more “democratic” (to use a repugnant word) way to gather funds. Kickstarter is representative of the global capitalist moment, in two ways. First of all, because it’s about maximizing the fluidity of the economy so that the most profitable efforts can rise immediately to the top out of a pool of otherwise expendable surplus workers. And secondly, because Kickstarter represents a shift towards a sort of new feudalism. In the old days, everybody would buy a ten dollar book and the ten dollars of the richest purchaser and the ten dollars of the poorest purchaser were equal. Nowadays, the distribution of wealth is so imbalanced, that in order to be able to even carry out an economic project you have to have a way for the wealthy and those of high status to experience their status as pleasurable and fulfilling in the rewards of the sales campaign, and thereby contribute disproportionately to the sales. It’s like a capitalist return to feudalism: it’s no longer this Fordist thing were everybody gets a Model T. Every product that goes on sale now has to have a higher-end version for those to whom spending a thousand dollars is the same as spending ten. And this is indicative of an extremely striated economic situation.
This is not to say that we aren’t extremely grateful to those who have been able to donate considerable sums, some of whom I think don’t actually have that much access to resources and are functioning on the same logic that we always have — that the only thing to do with resources is to put them into the struggle.
You reached half your goal in two days and you’ve already passed your first stretch goal. Did this surprise you?
Definitely. There’s something very classically CrimethInc. about the way this has turned out. For months we argued anxiously over whether we could possibly make a five thousand dollar Kickstarter work. And then somebody escalated and said, well, if five thousand won’t work, we should set it at fifteen thousand. Other people responded, “That’s stupid, it will be a disaster.” We opted for the disaster, of course — double or nothing.
In the first week we made not only that goal but also our first stretch goal, which goes to show that we were sort of out of touch with reality. I guess we have a different relationship to money than many people do, perhaps because we’re used to doing so much with so little.
People have been very supportive and encouraging in ways that feel really caring. We don’t often ask for help of any kind and so to have this project immediately receive so much support was really heartening for us – not because it’s important that people care about CrimethInc., but because it indicates that there is some interest in ambitious anarchist projects, in the struggle for liberation. That’s the important thing.
A few weeks ago, the United Nations Climate Summit took place in New York City. Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in New York for various demonstrations and events, the largest being the People’s Climate March organized by 350.org which gathered over 300,000 people. 350.org and its affiliate organizers have been widely criticized on the left, especially with regards to their pacifying rhetoric and restrictions. Interestingly, they used “To Change Everything” as one of their main slogans, making reference (perhaps accidentally) to a slogan used in CrimetInc.’s Kickstarter campaign.
There’s also a Naomi Klein book titled “This Changes Everything” about climate change. Like I said before, from our perspective, climate change is not the main problem with capitalism, it’s not even the second biggest problem with it. To say it another way, if you didn’t understand the problem when it was simply a matter of exploitation and having to sell our lives away to survive, I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s strange that the fact that this system is not sustainable would be what turns a person against it, as if it is desirable in other ways. The fact that it squanders our lives has been clear enough already for generations. The idea that capitalism was fine until climate change “changed everything” is just … typically reformist.
Last month, while on other side of the Atlantic, I was looking over the People’s Climate March website, seeing this rhetoric about impacted communities. The same rhetoric was seen in Ferguson. It’s the kind of rhetoric that’s aimed to immobilize anybody who wants to take action autonomously against the insufferable nightmare of white supremacy and capitalism.
I noticed that one of their posters said, “To change everything, we need everyone.” It is noteworthy that it puts forth the same thesis that paralyzed Occupy. This was once an anarchist thesis – the thesis that we have to have total consensus in order to be able to move forward, and that such unanimity is required for social change. And how are we going to arrive at this unanimity? It’s the kind of unanimity that can only be achieved when it is enforced on us by authoritarian structures.
As anarchists, we have a fundamentally different idea of how social change happens. In our view, people who are on the receiving end of oppression should stand up for themselves and break the illusion of consensus that this whole society is founded upon. To change everything, start anywhere. That’s fundamentally different from, “Don’t you try to change anything until everyone is on board.” The People’s Climate March revision of our slogan is a justification for inaction, for delegating our own agency to those who already hold power, and to marches of 300,000 people in which nobody even gets arrested.
Really now — I don’t think there’s ever been 300,000 people anywhere in New York without someone getting arrested. What that says to me is that the level of management taking place on the ground there was intense. Perhaps this offers us a vision of the future: a world in which, even when we think that we are taking action against the injustices of our age, the ways that we try to do so are so top-managed that we actually are unable to use our agency effectively against them.
I know for a fact that in New York there are targets, there are corporations, there are political party headquarters, there are spaces where you can find people who are responsible for the destruction of the earth. To quote the folk singer, “The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” And a lot of those people are in New York. The idea that you can have 300,000 people in one place who said that they wanted change and yet nobody would get arrested, would take even misdemeanor-level action against those targets … that shows that 350.org and the people who believe in protest activity like the People’s Climate March are determined to march lockstep into climate catastrophe in such a way that no one will have any hope of actually being able to stand up for themselves.
To bring this back to the slogan, “To Change Everything”: we’ve been sending out postcards for years that said, “To change everything, start anywhere”. It means that wherever you are, wherever you’re situated, take action there, and in so doing you will find others who’re prepared to take action. From that starting point, it will be possible for us to transform the world. This world is the product of our collective willingness to abide the ruling powers, and all it takes to step towards a different world is for us to cease to obey, to cease to be compliant.
I am certain that some slogan crafter, on salary unlike us, came across one of these postcards and was like, “Oh that’s a great slogan, I’ll just change it a little…” I get it, I’ve had jobs, and I always cheated when I had a job. I would take other people’s work – of course you do, because you don’t really believe in it, you’re not passionate about it, you’re just trying to do your best to get to 5:00 pm clock-out and go drink or whatever it is that you do.
So I want to send a shoutout to whoever it was that, presumably on salary, made a botched, reformist, and ultimately counter-productive version of that slogan. I don’t feel that it calls our project into question, or that it takes away the power of those words. But I definitely think that it clarifies the difference between us, as revolutionary anarchists, and the kind of top-down, management-oriented, control-oriented people who pretend to be addressing the crises of our era as they perpetuate them.
With this campaign, you’re aiming for a more global reach. The aesthetic is a little different than previous material, I assume the same is true for the rhetoric and themes. What are some of the challenges with writing for what seems like a very different audience? How can you be appealing to so many in such different situations, and still remain relevant?
It’s always a leap of faith to try to communicate with people outside of your immediate frame of experience. Not only because you don’t necessarily know what their concerns and experiences are – you can only extrapolate from yours and those of people that you know. But also, if you’re trying to speak to a lot of people, you can’t actually adopt the language that has been tired out by advertising campaigns and political campaigns and all these other formats that are supposed to speak to a lot of people. In order to do this effectively, you actually have to produce a new way of speaking that, even though it’s new, is suddenly able to communicate to more people than the old ways. And that’s something that can only be a leap of faith. It’s an art, not a science.
With some CrimethInc. projects, we’ve succeeded in speaking to many more people than we anticipated; in other cases, we thought something would speak to a lot of people and it didn’t, and that’s all right. That’s part of the process. In terms of the design, in terms of the priorities, in terms of the language itself, we are once again, as we have over and over for years, trying to reinvent the way that we speak and the images and aesthetics that we invest meaning in.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak and reflect on this.