After the fall of Utopia: The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Perspective. By: Nikita ValentinovRead Now
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone was a brief and deadly experiment in horizontal political organization, inspired and led by local “anarchist” and libertarian “socialists”. The zone, which for a brief moment occupied 9 acres of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, blurred the line between performance art and insurrection. It was founded in the wake of the police withdrawal from Seattle’s East Precinct and the abandonment of the surrounding area, after weeks of clashes between the state and protestors. A summer of police killings, and lockdowns that had left millions unemployed produced a fuel-air mixture of chaos. Out of that chaos, a micro-model of a new society – an anarchist utopia – was to emerge.
It is now two years later. What remains of that utopia? Only the monuments to its folly. The handfuls of carrots and cabbages that were to bring sustainable food security to a new kind of society persist, as does the “Black Lives Matter'' mural that adorns East Pine street. It was there that I watched a 50-year-old woman get shot in the chest with a tear gas canister. It was there that a 16-year-old black boy was killed by the very same protestors that said that his life mattered. What began as an uprising against police killings of black men and women, ended in the death of a black child. On June 29th, not one month after its establishment, two teenage boys in a stolen white Jeep were gunned down after crashing into a concrete barricade. Paranoia and fear had brought the CHAZ full circle and I was there to witness all of it. I was on the security team after all. But the Chaz that killed the black child and the Chaz that drove the police from the East Precinct was not the same animal. Little by little, the initial wave of popular anger was captured by a group of people who believed not in justice, but in themselves.
The political “directorate” of the CHAZ was a motley collection of slam poets, self-promoters, and social-climbers. A group that, like George Orwell, attacked the left from the left, denouncing any expression of actually existing socialism as “authoritarian” in an attempt to make themselves palatable to the lowest common denominator among liberals. The “directorate” sold its naive ilk on rule without authority, on power that would grow not out of the barrel of a gun, but from the brush stroke of an artist. Theirs was the same mistake that has been repeated by the left in the United States since the 60’s; that the revolution would be won not by the disciplined masses of the working class led by a vanguard party, but by changing the hearts and minds of the nation through cultural productions.
And so, in place of solidarity, they gave us self-expression, in place of organization they gave us individualism, and in place of material reality our leaders gave us simulation. The CHAZ had undergone a profound transformation. Cosplay replaced popular anger. Theater replaced collective action. The people thus went to work on building a utopian facade rather than continuing to confront the police. A community garden was erected, which demonstrators mused would one day be the standard for all food production in the United States. A “No-Cop, CO-OP” popped up that doled out snacks and water free of charge, their idea of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need”. The homeless were allowed to camp in the park and along sidewalks, and graffiti proclaiming the end of capitalism was sprayed as far as the eye could see. The state allowed all of these petty radicalisms to run their course. It set up bathrooms and kept the water and electricity on and provided emergency services to the CHAZ.
Chief among the simulations were the “people’s councils” that were erected in direct opposition to the left’s tradition of democratic centralism. These acted as the main political body. They operated on the principle of consensus, every member who chose to be one (there was no criteria for membership other than to be phenotypically “left”) could speak. Every decision was non-binding and up to the individual on how they wished to carry it out. The “directorate” believed that they could decouple themselves from the political process unfolding within their own project. When concerns were brought to their attention about the potential for violence, the response was that “the people are doing the work”. By removing themselves from the machinations of the political body, this “directorate” was able to self-promote without accountability to a mass though deluded – that still expected some form of justice.
Those that pull the earth off its axis and stand squarely atop it are ultimately rare. We are all products of our time. And though those who ascribe to the faith of anarchism may by some rhetorical flourishes make people believe otherwise, theirs is a bourgeois ideology. And so, the architects of the CHAZ were, just as we all are, the new neoliberal man; Homo-narcissus. The self was to be placed above all other considerations. What was good for it, was good for the whole. But a structure premised on ease of celebrity lacks the crucial ability to bind vanguard to mass, spearpoint to phalanx. Distortions and instability when they arise in the body, as all systems put to the test must face, cannot be addressed and ameliorated by a party elite more preoccupied with how many engagements their tweet gets than the lives and safety of those that they are responsible for.
From the outset, the discipline of the mass as forged by the “people's councils” was in a state of terminal decline. Spontaneous actions and rule by consensus can only take you so far. Eventually the business of revolution must be rationally planned. To rely on spontaneity is to rely on the alignment of interests by accident alone. Debates in the councils went from whether to attack the West Precinct next to whether the demonstrators were “uplifting black voices enough”. Strategy began to give way to the same tired race and gender-based identity politics that have plagued the left for a half-century. But when everyone is allowed a chance to speak, there can be no ideological cohesion and so debate becomes a means by which to socially enrich the self.
One demonstrator, fed-up with the paralysis, took to the council to convince the mass that the fight was not over and that it must be taken to other parts of the city. The small group of hapless protestors that she managed to convince were immediately kettled by police. It was by that point too late. The majority of people were happy to stand in the middle of the street and make individualist pronouncements of faith in whichever dead or ineffectual ideology they preferred that day. The “directorate,” rather than step in at this critical juncture to refocus the crowd, was busy doing much the same. All that was needed to push it over the edge was an enemy.
Authoritative social apparatuses are necessary to ensure that individuals can trust one another without knowing one another. Just as white blood cells destroy a virus, these apparatuses vet the membership that forms the body, necessarily expelling those who prove toxic to the health of the whole. Disorganization and unconditional entry within any political body produces the opposite: fear and paranoia. When an authoritative organization is met with the enemy it is able to steel its ranks, purge those who are sympathetic, and put up a vigorous resistance to the outsider. But when vetting and proper organization are absent, the arrival of a threat shatters any guise of clarity, and it becomes impossible to distinguish friend from foe from within.
Asymmetric information absorption, a direct result of disorganization by design (what anarchists and libertarian socialists call horizontalism) prevents any meaningful resistance from materializing to combat the enemy. The enemy becomes an amorphous mass in the peripheral at all times. The ennemi du mois of the CHAZ were the proud boys. A group of ideologically incohesive right-wingers who were at odds with CHAZ denizens in the same way that football hooligans from Chelsea and Arsenal are at odds with each other. With the potential for violence, the paranoia that had been left to fester within the “people's councils” went septic and the patient died of shock. A comrade of mine wearing a yellow rain-jacket to the zone, which bore vague resemblance to the gold-trimmed black polo-shirts worn by the proud boys, was accused of being one of them by fellow protestors. Surrounded, he was deemed ‘fascist looking enough’ to warrant a (narrowly escaped) beating.
The “people’s councils” began to hold show-trials on who was secretly a cop or not and who was secretly on the side of the Proud Boys (of course being that they were show-trials of the anarchist variety no actual sentences were ever carried out). The mood began to resemble the most exaggerated anti-Stalinist accounts of the purges while lacking any of their mythologized efficacy. Everyone became a potential enemy. On June 15th of 2020 the Proud Boys reared their head at the outskirts of the CHAZ and smashed a man’s cellphone after getting into a scuffle with him. Reports were coming in daily of right-wing attacks on the borders of the demonstration. People began to fear the worst. And then of course it happened, the “enemy” arrived at the gates of the CHAZ in a White Jeep. The final confrontation had come to a head. After all the shots were fired, and the fog of war had lifted, in the front seat of that car lay a dead black child.
Months later, I saw something that struck me despite its seeming mundaneness. At a seafood market, I watched as a live fish relentlessly attacked a ginger root that had been left floating in its tank, a root meant to season the fish before cooking it. This fish hadn’t even the slightest comprehension of its predicament nor of the inevitability of its fate. Yet it threw itself upon the ginger root with all of its impotent fishy might. I fear that we too are stuck attacking the ginger. Preoccupied with brawling the proud boys in the streets, stuck looting businesses, and burning police cars. We fight only the most apparent manifestations of our fate as neoliberal subjects because we do not understand the power around us. We do not face the things in this world that really determine the outcomes of our lives. To do so would be an enormous undertaking, a conflict not only with the bourgeoisie but capital itself, with our dead labor. And it is from this terrible state of things that we retreat into our simulations. We build our potemkin utopia that crumbles in two months. We dream of childish things: community gardens that can feed industrial civilizations, economies based on gift-giving, or a political apparatus without authority where the individual is free to express themselves in any way they see fit. We run into the arms of the very bourgeois morbo mentalis that we claim to run from. We do all of this, and we forget the very lives that this idealism costs; the little caskets we leave behind.
But what has been forgotten shall be reborn. Lenin will walk across the world again. The relentless tide of history shall wash away bourgeois ideology in all its forms. Of this I am confident.
Born to Soviet immigrants and raised in Seattle Washington, Nikita Valentinov is a graduate of the University of Washington and is intellectually inspired by Paul Cockshott, Stafford Beer, Wassily Leontif, Marx, and Lenin. Nikita is a former member of the all-volunteer CHAZ security team, along with a million other failed political start-ups. Despite disillusionment with the state of mass politics he is confident in the inevitability of the cause. Nikita works in an Amazon warehouse and is currently stealing company time to write this article.
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