Anarchist Mom

I first met Liz Seymour some 20 years ago. She lived then in the same house where she now lives, in Greensboro, N.C. She was (and still is) roughly ten years older than me, a Smith grad with a bohemian streak who wrote freelance articles for national magazines and newspapers, often about the home furnishings industry that had a strong presence in the N.C. piedmont.

I never fell completely out of touch with her — it’s a long story, for another time perhaps — but it wasn’t until her daughter Isabel came to New York as a Columbia student that I really got reconnected. That’s because Isabel had made an interesting lifestyle choice: she had become an anarchist. I first became aware of this when Isabel was arrested for her role in “disrupting” the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Isabel was about 19 or 20 at the time. She wrote her family a heartfelt essay, her version of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” explaining why she had come to dislike and/or distrust government and capitalism in particular. It was a very compelling letter, eschewing anger for explanation, wide-eyed but hardly naive. It was so compelling, in fact, that Isabel won an unlikely convert to her anarchist cause: her own mom, Liz.

At the time, I was researching a book on the psychology of money. I interviewed Isabel extensively about her life and philosophy, and realized she’d make a good chapter. When I learned that her mom had also been won over, I knew that the chapter would be even better. So when Isabel graduated from Columbia, I volunteered to drive her and all her stuff back to Greensboro and spend a few days in Liz Seymour’s house in Greensboro, which by that time she had turned into an anarchist collective.

It was a very interesting few days, to say the least. I went dumpster diving for food with mom and daughter; hung out as they cooked up dinner for their Food Not Bombs charity; interviewed the roaming cast of characters that came through Liz’s home, most of them young and punky and pissed off at someone or other. All of them tried to live as far off the grid of capitalism as they could. Sometimes this meant shoplifting or bartering or hitchhiking. A few of them participated in medical trials down in Research Triangle Park that paid a lot of money for a few days of swallowing pills and powders that they were assured wouldn’t do them much damage.

The weirdest disconnect for me was that I was closing an article for the Times over the phone that week, a piece about youngish inheritors and how the flood of money changes their lives. (This, too, was part of my research for the psychology of money book.) And here I was in an anarchist enclave where the inheritance had traveled in the opposite direction: Isabel had turned middle-class Liz into Anarchist Mom.

A few weeks after that reporting trip to Greensboro, I took another reporting trip, this time to Chicago to meet an economist named Steve Levitt. I hoped he too might fit into my psychology of money book, though I doubted it, since his research had almost nothing to do with money. But it turned out even better than that: that trip to Chicago begat what came to be known as Freakonomics. Sadly, the original book was put on the backburner and, eventually, abandoned.

Of all the reporting and research I did for that book, the anarchist story was easily among the strongest. The way things look now, I am pretty sure I will never write it up. But here’s the good news: Liz Seymour, Anarchist Mom herself, has started a blog, and is working toward writing a book of her own. She is a wonderful writer, and I am sure her book will tell the story far better than I ever could have. She is such a good writer that you may find her blog enjoyable even if her politics make you uncomfortable. You cannot help but learn a lot from reading it, and you cannot help but think a lot. I hope Liz hurries up and finishes her book, because I can’t wait to see her and her band of anarchists on Oprah.


dd

" I went dumpster diving for food with mom and daughter; hung out as they cooked up dinner for their Food Not Bombs charity;"

Is anyone else bothered by the juxtaposition of those two events?

Shudder.

N. Taylor

The link to Ms. Seymour's blog is incorrect.

JMR

Interesting, is against both government and capitalism. Yet government considerably damages capitalism. In fact, the anarchists I know are very much capitalistic because it is the absence of government interference. So apparently these people would be unhappy no matter what life would be like.

zoe

What type of anarchist is she? Anarcho-collectivist?

Her methods are interesting because they depend upon a capitalist state preceding the anarchy she supports.

Antonio Galvan

The link does work, but only after the 2nd or 3rd attempt...

Stephen: I think you should definitively finish up your book. Money is one of the biggest drivers of our psychology nowadays. Everything we do is for money, everything we learn is how to get it. We are history's most relevant expression of the "homo oeconomicus". Maybe if more people understood this, we could change some of the actions, facts and consequences that Mrs. Seymour is so against, without the need of such radicalism, and with the help of our brains.

Westy

I for one still hold out hope that you will have a change of heart and finish your prior book (while not abandoning this Freakonomics venue). It sounds interesting.
Could you reconsider?

David Sucher

" All of them tried to live as far off the grid of capitalism as they could. Sometimes this meant shoplifting or bartering or hitchhiking."

Is that meant to be subtle mockery? As if "shoplifting or bartering or hitchhiking" indicates any sort of genuine, principled "off the grid" living? You can't gussy-up shoplifting as anything more than stealing; bartering is just a an early-stage form of capitalism; hitchhiking...that's anarchistic? Begging/soliciting rides from someone who has paid for a car and the gas to run it suggests independence from capitalist society? What self-indulgence. I hope that's only Dubner's superficial take and these folks have more to offer.

Otherwise, if "anarchism" means "shoplifting or bartering or hitchhiking" then the Wall Street Journal editorial page has nothing to worry about.

Bloggrrl

I found her blog fascinating. Thanks for the link!

Silvanus

While Anarchism has a long (and pilloried) history, there are differences between anarchist groups.

Anarcho-syndicalism: This is what Noam Chomsky ascribes to.

Anarcho-capitalism: This is what most free market liberals ascribe to in their darkest of dark places. : )

Both positions advocate an end to the government. Both positions are nearly antithetical to the other's motivations, one is based on communalistic and the other is based on individualistic values. The likes of Ayn Rand is an anarcho-capitalist- which is interesting, since the myth of personal independence from society is only possible for Rand in the middle of New York City- only in extreme wealth can someone delude themselves that they need no one else.

Tanvir

Freakonomics seems to be an interesting book. On the topic on anarchism…Estonia has a government that has limited restrictions on businesses and according to many economists a free market equals greater individual freedom. I just saw a website about Estonia's Singing Revolution (http://singingrevolution.com) which is quite inspirational and educational.

Spock

@ JMR

I think they mean, "against capitalism" in the sense that they're "against property rights". I know it doesn't fit well with the fact that they're bartering, but that's the idea I've picked up from self-described anarchists.

Justin James

"Her methods are interesting because they depend upon a capitalist state preceding the anarchy she supports."

Precisely right. I had the occassion to meet some of my local neighborhood anarchists a few years ago. I was baffled at how they could be claiming to live "off of the grid" and with "no dependency on the government" considering their lifestyle:

* Sleeping under the bridge that the government build with money taxed from the paychecks of workers.
* Eating food disposed of by a for-profit food store.
* Purchasing tobacco and alcohol products, both big businesses and highly government regulated.
* Hitching a ride from me in my Ford Mustang GT Convertable, that symbol of the American Way.
* "Eating vegetarian"... until I offered to buy them hamburgers from a diner (nothing more "capitalist" than a 24 x 7 diner, serving an underserved market at an inflated price!) with the money I earned at my capitalist job.
* Using the park facilities (the bridge runs over the "Riverwalk") for hygeine, again, paid for by my tax dollars and maintained by the government.
* Regular trips to the hospital, due to injuries sustained while drinking (or otherwise under the influence), malnutrition, eating out of dumpsters, poor access to doctors, etc. All written off by the "medical-industrial complex" and therefore passed onto me and my health insurer.

Sounds to me like a pretty parasitic way to live off of the institutions you claim to despise. Try raising a kid under those conditions, it's called "neglect" and the "evil government" is happy to put your kids in the care of someone who actually cares. Odd, I do not consider a system in which neglecting a child would be part and parcel of the way of life to be "viable".

Maybe these folks didn't represent "real" anarchists... but arguments between members of fringe groups over who is "real" and who is "pseuo-real" are just silly, it's like those Wikipedia articles that try to draw a fine distinction between Norwegian death metal and Swedish black metal... splitting hairs and only 10 people care. Everyone I have met who claims to be an "anarchist" and tries to live that lifestyle was living no differently in function (albeit a bit differently in form) than the welfare cheats I have met and the criminals I have met. None of them could exist if everyone followed that lifestyle. It is an anomaly in the vector space of politics, and it violates the principlesc behind Kant's Categorical Imperitive [sic, I'm too tired to spell right], which makes it a non-starter in my book. Any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and it completely unsustainable if we all followed it? No way.

J.Ja

Read more...

jayesh

i agree with spock... but would like to add "against OTHER PEOPLE'S property rights" the very menace of non-productive people who like to live on other people's work. They should come live in a non-capitalist country to see what capitalism means to freedom. also, was anyone bothered by the fact that taking tests for drug companies didnt seem connected to capitalism to them? (i guess it is removed as far as working hard os concerned)

David

"Yet government considerably damages capitalism."

what nonsense!

Government supports capitalism and often has to step in to save it from its own excess...

...Adam Smith knew it and we would do well to not forget...

a. fish

It seems to me that the self-described anarchist needs to pick another name. What they really mean is that there are some evils in capitalism and they want to separate themselves from those. Unfortunately (or maybe quite the opposite), they cannot get away from it altogether, so they end up, inadvertently maybe, taking advantage of faithfully hardworking people. However, it would be ridiculous to deny that capitalism does(/has done) some harm.

(But what name they should chose, I've no idea.)

Mani

The retorts that Liz's lifestyle is somehow invalid because "they depend upon a capitalist state preceding the anarchy she supports" are bunk. That is because a capitalist state did precede the anarchy she is supporting. How else should she do it?

If she had done it otherwise, I'd expect these same detractors would be targeting her for not basing her ideologies in cold reality, right from the other side of their mouths.

I'll reserve my opinion on Liz and Isabel's politics until I give them a fair reading. What we loosely term "anarchism" is a (fittingly) unruly, diverse, and unorganized collection of schools of though (as some posters have noted), and it would be inaccurate for me to place them in one or the other without real assessment.

In general, though, my usual problem with anarchist philosophies (versus meritocracy, capitalism, etc.) is that they are founded upon axioms which must be accepted by everyone in the community to be true, constantly, and which have no referrent (sic) in reality - things such as innate rights (or lack thereof).

This is shaky. Whenever reality and ideology conflict, one of two things happens: an ideology that can forcefully and aggressively assert itself will alter reality, or reality will trump our ethereal notions of "justice," "human nature," "liberty," and so on. Given the lack of formal organization, anarchist societies cannot achieve the power to accomplish the former - therefore, they will subject to the latter.

It doesn't matter what you believe about rights, justice, or any kind of nature - the world will work exactly the same way regardless. (And, unless you forcibly change that, people are very likely to, as well.) Thus it makes sense to me that rather than decide how things would be in your ideal state, and try to fit that square peg into the round hole of reality, we ought to study that hole and carve the best-fit round peg to fill it.

Capitalism doesn't operate on principles as much as it does on practice. Similarly, meritocracy isn't built on an assumption of entitlement, but a demonstration (reality versus ideology). I'll readily concede that neither of those, in the absolute extreme, is desirable for the overall human condition, but I see both capitalism and meritocracy as perspectives, or angles, to approach the problem of building a good society (whatever that is).

The problem with any extremism is they confuse the means for the ends.

Read more...

severin

Murray Rothbard, now there was a well thought out anarchist who I can respect. These two seem more like parasites on society, stealing, begging and otherwise being unproductive.

Chas S. Clifton

"young and punky and pissed off at someone or other"

That is a sure-fire stance for being able to effect political change. Not.

T

Maybe when somebody can happily decide to live this way without much cost to society is a sign of a good capitalist/free market system.

Paul Escobar

Anarchists DO NOT have to "dumpster dive" or become "lab rats".

I would consider myself an "Anarchist", leaning towards Bakunin and Chomsky...rather than Rand.

And I've never eaten garbage or allowed myself to be a guinea pig.

I am a normal person, who works hard, and believes that the more democracy we have...the better. Be it democracy in the workplace, or democracy in local communities.

Anarchism, as George Orwell favourably reviewed it in Spain, was about expanding democracy into work and life. Not about letting a Soviet Commisar, or Capitalist CEO have unimaginable power.

For a summary of what sane Anarchists, like Noam Chomsky, ACTUALLY believe...
Please read this article:
http://www.citizensrequired.com/unit/rt_noam/noam.shtml