This Week with David Rovics
This Week with David Rovics
Why I Wrote the Song, "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You"

Why I Wrote the Song, "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You"

Listen to this song, and take the red pill, friends.

While I spend most of my waking hours banging my head against a wall, figuratively speaking, occasionally I get reflective.  I've noticed that reflection can occasionally be useful in helping us figure out how to bang our heads against the wall more effectively.

I suppose the most depressing thing about being a middle-aged radical approaching senior citizenship is coming to terms with the reality that despite my efforts to build a movement that would lead to an anti-capitalist, internationalist revolution, things generally just keep on getting worse, and the movement I've dreamed of for my entire adult life is very far from happening.

To paraphrase my friend Pol Mac Adaim, the best thing we can do is to leave behind bread crumbs that point the way forward, so future generations might benefit from them.  That's the mind frame I'm in, as I write now -- and often on other occasions as well.

So in the name of reflection, I find myself taking a little survey of what I've been trying to do, and how that's been going.  Mainly, how I've applied my time and effort has been through writing and recording songs, and playing them for audiences.  The last reflection on a song I wrote was about "St Patrick Battalion," a song about international solidarity and against imperialism, which is pretty clearly the song I've written that's gotten out there the most, been covered the most, and overall, the one that's been heard the most.

But a close competitor with that one, and my most popular song on Spotify, is "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You," which I wrote sometime around 2007.

The song is a satirical statement mocking sectarianism, in some -- but far from all -- of its familiar forms.  If the main topic is sectarianism generally, the subtopic is a critique of what political punks when I was young called "lifestylism" -- or in today's lingo, the kind of orientation that would fall into the category of "virtue-signaling."

Given its pithy nature, it's hard to say whether "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You" is a particularly well-written song, although by my standard measure of audience reaction, it apparently is -- each verse tends to elicit knowing laughter, often along with furtive glances in the direction of someone in the room the verse might somehow apply to.  Generally, the people you might most visibly associate with the group I'm making fun of in a particular verse is the group that will tend to react most effusively, and positively, to it.

The fact that this song is one of the most popular ones I've written is itself a tremendous source of optimism for me, and I hope for some others, too.

The experience I have at shows where I sing the song is mirrored in a vague, statistical way at least, on Spotify and YouTube.  On both of these platforms, my audience is primarily young.  This is also true of my physical audiences, in many parts of the world.  We can probably assume the young folks listening to this music online are basically the people I'm playing for live -- just that online there are more of them.

If this assumption is accurate, what does the popularity of this particular song among my youthful and leftwing audience tell us?  And to slightly complicate the question, if this cohort of largely young radicals is the same cohort that has made "St Patrick Battalion" my other most popular song -- and by my observation at shows, measuring by how many people sing along with which songs, it is -- what does that tell us?

Add to these observations of audiences and analysis of online statistics a mental survey of the sorts of conversations I have with these same young people before and after shows and even online, my conclusions are inescapable.  Which is, "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You" is popular in my circles because in my circles people tend to feel very strongly that sectarianism, arrogance, and virtue-signaling suck and instead what we need is real broad-based, inclusive organizing.  And "St Patrick Battalion" is popular in my circles because people think imperialism sucks and solidarity and empathy are beautiful and admirable -- especially the kind of solidarity that puts your own life on the line to oppose a war of aggression, and/or to support the cause of freedom and justice and things like that.

In a world where there seems to be a lot more nationalism than internationalism manifesting, and in a society like the US, that seems to be so characterized by division much more than by common ground or common vision, these qualities in my audience seem very positive indeed.  If internationalism and inclusivity represent where people in my youthful leftwing circles are coming from, perhaps there are a lot more people out there who feel like that.

I sure hope so, because I have increasingly come to believe that internationalism and inclusivity are the two most important orientations for any person or people who harbor any real hopes for creating a better world.  These are also the two perspectives that seem to be most under attack by those forces in society who seek to maintain their power and control over the rest of us.

In a world where a relative handful of people own most of the wealth, leaving the vast majority of the rest of us to squabble over the scraps, the plutocrats in control are completely dependent on successfully keeping us divided, at each other's throats.  History demonstrates amply that as soon as we stop fighting each other, only the most extreme forms of violent repression can keep a disenfranchised population like ours from holding the banks and billionaires responsible for their actions.

By the time I wrote "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You," I was just about 40 years old.  I had already been touring and playing for various gatherings of radicals for well over a decade -- and it had been a very long and busy decade.  When I was in my twenties, if I had had the idea for this song, I probably wouldn't have written it, because I was still pretty sectarian myself.  By the time I wrote it I had developed a much more ecumenical orientation politically, but even so, I was really worried I was going to alienate a lot of friends and fans with this song.  And it has been so heartening to find that even if I did alienate a few sectarian-oriented people in my social circles, the song energized and basically had the opposite effect of alienation for many more people.

The things I thought, said, and did during my most sectarian phase, in my early twenties, can be pretty horrifying to recall.

Many people seem to be just realizing that there are people with some really bizarre ideas out there, and they're realizing this because of the internet, and social media in particular.  But prior to social media being around to amplify the rantings of anyone with a Facebook or TikTok account, I can tell you that the little group of fellow hippies and punks in my little milieu of radical youth when I was one of them had a lot of crazy ideas that we shared among each other.  Thankfully, we didn't often get around to trying to communicate these ideas beyond our little clique, unless it was to contribute to a zine or something, in which case there was often some kind of collective effort involving some form of curation, much like the Indymedia Centers that were all the rave among radical online youth prior to Facebook, which tended towards improving statements and making them less sectarian in nature.

Because of the way social media can serve as a means of amplifying the most sectarian, divisive, condescending and bizarre notions that any idiot might manage to get algorithmic traction with, there's something very reassuring about seeing how the stats break down in terms of my audience's demographics and musical preferences.  But recalling my youth, there's no doubt that none of this is new -- whether we're talking about sectarianism or the widespread desire to move past it.

And then, taking the longer historical view, for me at least it all becomes abundantly more obvious that successful social movements are always inclusive and broad-based.  They fall apart when they take a sectarian turn.  And the forces of control in our society -- and the algorithms and other technologies of division and control that they increasingly employ -- are always working hard to make sure to emphasize the internal contradictions that cause social movements to turn inward and drive away potential participants and supporters.

Looking at the past, everything tends to seem more obvious.  Like how the internationalist, radical labor movement of the early twentieth century was derailed by the nationalism of World War 1, and the opportunity this gave the capitalist class to repress the forces of internationalism and labor militancy.

Or how the same ruling class and its mouthpieces in the tabloid press stoked divisions back then between the supposedly radical, brick-throwing immigrants who were allegedly behind all the labor organizing, and the supposedly law-abiding Americans who had no interest in such socialist, communist or anarchist ideas.

Looking at more recent times, like the times I've lived through, seeing what's happening with regards to the efforts of the ruling class to maintain docile tranquility, making sense of what's going on seems much murkier and prone to misunderstanding.  But the pattern that repeats itself seems to do so with more and more predictability.  Every time an inclusive movement is building, a controversy -- or many of them -- develops, calling into question whether some segment of the movement belongs in it, or is taking up too much space within it, or "centering themselves" too much, or causing problems for other people within the movement.  These controversies then do their daily, grinding work, in collaboration with the algorithms of control, to erode and destroy the movement, one after another.

A hundred years ago they were telling the native-born workers to be suspicious of the foreign-born workers, and for the whites to be suspicious of the Blacks.  And that kind of messaging stuck with us, and continues to be one of the major factors hampering the kind of class-based movements that have led to such prosperity in so many European countries.

But then we can add to that kind of ruling class divide-and-conquer messaging around race and nationality the many other ways we are so chronically divided.  When I was young and organized left groups and parties were more commonplace, it was a wonder if you'd ever see members of different parties amicably talking with one another at the same demo.  As inclusive as the 1960's New Left tended to be, there was the impact of the propaganda that was to some extent successfully promulgated among the general population that the youth had the answers, and the older generation were just hopelessly stuck in a repressed worldview.  

Bizarrely, two generations later, this patently fake, corporate, generational breakdown of who has power and responsibility to make changes in society is still ever-present, a cult of youth that permeates social media.  Two generations after it was used to confuse the Baby Boomers, the same divide-and-conquer strategy still works like a charm, perhaps better than ever, making sure the younger generations are well-prepared to reject any wisdom that might have been there to build on from older generations of radicals.

In so many ways, social movements have followed a pattern of coming into existence and growing because of the horrendous situation at hand -- be it a movement centered around opposing a genocidal war, stopping climate change, ending police brutality or many other examples -- and then the forces and factors that tend towards division and dissension seek to dominate the discourse and collapse the movement in question.

It seems like a statement of the obvious to many, but to others the idea is shocking, that the movements that are able to be mass movements that can sustain themselves and have a real impact tend to exhibit the kinds of inclusive qualities typical of any modern labor union.  Not only can people of different races, genders, nationalities and religions be part of the same labor union, but even if some of the members believe in the right to abortion and others think abortion should be illegal, they can still be in the same union.  Even if some members believe their race or their nationality or their religion is superior to others in the group, even if some of the workers support Trump, others support Sanders, and others want to violently overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat, if they all believe in equal pay for equal work and other basic principles all the union members need to adhere to, the successful union finds a way to work with such a disparate membership.  Some may be trans and others may believe all LGBTQ people are going to hell.  But they can still be in the same union.

Why?  Because of the basic reality that with the alternative of shunning large segments of the working class because of their perceived impurities of one kind or another, these shunned people aren't going to disappear.  They'll be the strikebreakers you encounter, next time you really need the solidarity of the entire working class, and you won't have it.  That's a divided and conquered people right there in a nutshell.

What if we had a union where our priority was not on organizing the working class, but on having a safe space that only union members who fit certain qualifications could be part of?  Our workforce has lots of immigrants and people of color in it, so we can't have any Trump supporters, they're not safe.  There goes half the membership.  Our workforce has ardent supporters of Israel in it who think the pro-Palestine people are antisemites.  We'll have to keep out those genocide-supporters.  Our workforce has people in it who support sending billions of our tax dollars to pay for Ukraine's war against Russia, so we'll have to keep out those militaristic NATO-supporters.  Or do we keep out those authoritarian Putin-supporters?  Maybe both...?

I first became a sectarian thinker as a teenager, and went in deep.  I embodied every cliche in the song.  I barely tolerated the existence of meat-eaters in my circle of friends, and had to harangue them regularly for their sins.  I believed in the necessity for some kind of violent revolution, and I thought pacifism was the gateway to fascism or something like that.  I had no interest in unions because I had grown to believe in the Maoist theories of the labor aristocracy, or at least my warped understanding of them as a clueless teenager.

As I thankfully emerged from this pit of black-and-white thinking by my mid-twenties, it was plain to see the impact of others who were struggling with this kind of sectarian thinking amid the ranks of the environmental movement and later in the ranks of the global justice movement, the movement against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Palestine solidarity movement circa 2000 onward, and later in an even more pervasive way in what the media called the racial justice movement, and in other movements rooted in the completely dysfunctional arena of miscommunication that we call "socials" nowadays.

What personal perspective as well as historical perspective and direct observation and participation in social movements over the past 45 years or so has taught me, beyond any doubt, is the way forward is inclusive and all about finding common ground and organizing to achieve it together.  And this way forward means that our focus needs to be on dwelling on the things that unite us, and not so much on the things that divide us.  It means solidarity and empathy between people, rather than competition for who has the sharpest analysis, who has the healthiest lifestyle, who has the deepest understanding of intersectionality, who is using the right or wrong vocabulary, who is more oppressed by whatever measure, or any of the other similar intellectual rabbit holes that can get a movement lost.

As time goes on, the matrix of control led by the gigantic tech corporations and their government minders seems more and more like the movie, the Matrix, to me.  Humanity, particularly in the more obsessively-"connected" societies like this one, seems more and more disconnected, atomized and alienated.

I often reflect at shows before I sing "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You" that I wrote the song before X/Twitter existed, before most people were on Facebook, before the corporate control over our means of communication became completely hegemonic, to paraphrase the late Glen Ford.  Now, with the extent of anonymous trolling culture and antagonistic behavior being so much the norm on so much of social media -- that is, where we live and communicate -- the song seems to have an innocence about it, like it's from another age, and, truly, it is.

It's from an age when it was still a great challenge to communicate and find common ground, where the forces of division were very active in all kinds of arenas, from the schools to the TV to Hollywood to the Counterintelligence Program that heroic activists exposed when they raided the FBI offices in Pennsylvania back in 1971 -- a program which has undoubtedly continued to this day, a claim for which copious evidence exists.

But it's from an age before Indymedia was hijacked by "social media," before the commons of the free internet was replaced by the online equivalent of hanging out at the mall, before we basically moved into the Matrix, continuing to think we're having real conversations with each other, while actually just feeding the algorithms of conflict, control, division, and addiction.

As I write, the movement against the genocide in Gaza is gaining steam in this country and around the world.  The future of this movement, as with the future generally, is unknown.  But if it or any other movement has a chance, it will come from engaging with the broader society to join us, in the real world, such as with the campus occupations cropping up everywhere, rather than in having ideological arguments inside of the Matrix about who among us is Jewish enough or Muslim enough or ideologically pure enough to speak (or sing) at a rally.

1 Comment
This Week with David Rovics
This Week with David Rovics
If I do an interview, whether as the interviewer or interviewee, or a livestream event, new song, audio essay or various other things, it’ll often go out as a podcast here.