Anarchism and Counter-Culture: the Centrality of ideas

Anarchism and Counter-Culture: the Centrality of ideas

A presentation at the Johannesburg leg of the Afrikan HipHop Caravan

Goethe Institute, 20 February 2013

by Warren McGregor


Poster_hiphopcaravan.inddOne may ask what a presentation on anarchism has to do with hip-hop. I contend that within these two movements exist shared ideas and sentiments, building blocks of a deeply critical and self-conscious political culture. Both share a deep anti-establishment ethos; a mistrust of established institutions of social and political control. Both come from and are based amongst the oppressed.[1] At its core, hip-hop shares with anarchism its desire for political and social change via people’s movements and expression.

A fuller discussion and appreciation of anarchist culture, however, and its message of grassroots community and individual empowerment, can, I think, serve to broaden the already rich tapestry of hip-hop culture and its impact on those it serves to educate.

Drawing a Sketch

All forms of society, or social organisation, have their own ideological cultural sets: the main ideas that build and maintain the structure of that society. In the modern age of neo-liberal capitalist and state control, some key ideas dominate; you might have heard these before:

  • Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” (as regards neo-liberal social spending cuts and privatisation)
  • Francis Fukuyama’s – “the end of history;” that with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, capitalism had defeated socialism
  • That democracy equates to voting into power those who rule you
  • Men bring home the bacon; boys will be boys; women look after the kids and clean the house
  • Black people can’t govern themselves
  • All whites are oppressors
  • God is forgiving and solves all problems if you pray
  • The ANC’s slogan “A Better Life For All”
  • Africa Unite! (which presupposes a singular African identity)

I Want to Talk about the Role of Ideas…

In a variety of areas and in many people’s minds, these are some of the dominant social ideas. In fact, many people accept these not as ideas but social realities set in stone. However, they are just that: ideas that we make and remake. Ideas determine how we think and how we act. Ideas determine how we socialise and how we relate to societal organisation – political and economic.

The World Today

We exist in a world that is fundamentally unjust and unequal. The dominant economic ideology is capitalism in its neo-liberal form, and the dominant ideologies of social and political organisation in many parts of the world are the nation state and representative democracy respectively. These systems establish class rule of the few over the majority.

Class rule promotes competition, greed, individualism; only those with money and power are counted as people of value. If you’re poor, well that’s your fault – you’re lazy. Get a job, contribute!

In southern Africa, our shared histories have also meant rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other such forms of oppression.

Human Nature

Both ideologies of capitalism and the state are promoted as either inevitable, part of human nature, or the best we have. However, we exist in a world with massive poverty and huge disparities in terms of access to power and wealth. Rampant political and economic corruption, waste, inefficiency and ecological destruction are just some other terrible features of this particular global society. However, if the state and capitalism are inevitable and immovable, this then must mean that suffering, poverty and domination are natural to the human condition.

I Disagree!

Human nature (and the way we organise ourselves) is neither fixed nor inevitable. We are born into societies and all societies have dominant ideas. These ideas and the alternatives offered from within those societies are what determine who we are and how we think. If we are born into a society that valorises greed, surely we should expect many to be greedy. What about promoting social values that are entirely different?

Protest and the Poverty of Alternatives

These last few decades have seen tremendous upsurges of protest against inequality and powerlessness. All these have risen within local contexts either of failed statist projects (Marxist Communism, the Keynesian Welfare State and Social Democracy, African Socialism, etc.) or in the context of post-independence structural adjustment programmes and neo-liberal capitalism. From Latin American indigenous struggles, to the community struggles and uprisings in southern and northern Africa, to austerity protests in Europe and worker struggles in East Asia, many seek not only slow, piecemeal reform, but also substantial social change. 

Many ideas influence these struggles, but do many of them actually question the dominant forms of economic and social organisation: capitalism and the state?

Here, within a global context of perpetual protest with little reward, the ideas of anarchism and its culture of direct democracy, can exist as vital tools of analysis of past and current struggles. Anarchists imagine a new world – it’s easy if you try – and seek to organise for that vision.

So, if ideas are central to the way the world is structured now, the only way to change the world is to mobilise others to do so using different ideas.

What is Anarchism?

It is often misunderstood – by opponents and by those claiming the title – as chaos, disorder, lawlessness, etc. Also many associate it with veganism, dumpster-diving, white punk-rockers, animal rights activists, etc. 

Anarchism is not a matter of self-identity – although many claim the title, but have divergent ideas for understanding society and social change. It is a clear, coherent political ideology born out of the struggles of workers and their organisations and communities in the mid-to-late 1800s, even if many don’t realise this. It is revolutionary libertarian socialism that seeks mass working class and peasant organisation to revolutionise social and economic control by dismantling the state and capitalism; to run society via federations of directly democratic work and community councils and the economy to meet people’s needs.

Anarchism is against:

  • economic exploitation, i.e. bosses and landlords
  • domination between classes and between individuals (sex/gender oppression, ageism, racism, etc.)
  • political subordination, particularly in the form of the state and other such hierarchical institutions which centralise power in the hands of a few by affording them control over the means of administration and coercion

Anarchism is for:

  • a world of individual freedom – an organised emancipation from exploitation and domination
  • societies and economies based on self-management by worker and community councils federated internationally.

This individual freedom can only be realised within a context of social freedom – this social freedom can only be realised through mass-based working class revolution. We see mass organisations of counter-power – revolutionary syndicalist trade unions linked to revolutionary community organisations – as the lever of revolution and reconstruction. Anarchists work with and in working class communities and organisations, spreading the ideas and principles of anarchism, to achieve a leadership of ideas, not individuals.

Anarchism insists on building tomorrow today. These organisations of counter-power, built within the shell of this rotten world, will function as the worker and community councils of the future society. Anarchism, thus, is a prefigurative politics. This politics determines anarchist practice today for tomorrow. It argues that the counter-power we build must reflect and have as its principles those of the future society.

Anarchist Counter-Culture

We seek to foster a counter-culture – a culture of ideas, debate and discussion – opposed to the dominant ideas of capitalism, the state and hierarchy.  We build a counter-culture that promotes working class pride and rejects the culture of the ruling class.

As such, these organisations of counter-power must be based on and continue to develop a counter-culture that meets emancipatory desires.

Anarchist Principles [2]

Direct democracy

Decisions in movements should be made to ensure everyone has an equal say and that power is located with all members, not a few officials. This empowers people; it enables them to have a voice and builds people’s confidence; and only a confident working class can end all forms of oppression.

Direct action

These include protests, strikes, occupations, etc. against capitalist and state bosses. The reforms won through such actions build counter-power and the working class’s confidence – in itself and its organisations.


We fight for true worker control and people’s power over their organisations. If based on direct democracy and with the confidence of direct action, workers and people control their own organisations and are not beholden to a middle class, more educated stratum that dominates people’s struggles and determine their campaigns.

We aim for respect, mutual aid and solidarity as the basis of organisation.

We should also fight oppression within our organisations and in the working class to build relations of solidarity in our movements today.

History and Examples of Anarchist Counter-Culture

Anarchist working class organisations have used a variety of cultural tools such as music, poetry, art, self-education, organising and drama to build this counter-culture. These promoted not only anarchism and struggle, but important philosophical and social questions related to their communities. They used a variety of means, like radio stations, plays, spoken and written word, to build a revolutionary counter-culture amongst the working poor. They built cultural centres, schools and took over urban spaces that regularly hosted counter-cultural picnics, discussion sessions, parades, carnivals even! Counter-culture laid the basis for anarchist revolutions in Spain, Manchuria and Ukraine which were built over many decades of education, direct action and organisation. Anarchist slogans and songs persist even today: e.g. the popular Cosatu slogan, “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All” is the original slogan of the syndicalist (anarchist trade union) Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Migrant workers, exiles and publications helped spread anarchist and syndicalist ideas globally.

Recent Counter-Culture in SA

The 1970s and 80s particularly offer us clear lessons to be studied. Mass organisational counter-power to capitalism and apartheid was built and produced a mass working class counter-culture. This spread through not just protest, but pamphlets, newsletters, struggle songs, plays and magnificent posters.

Art, Counter-Culture and Change

Art continues to play a vital role in spreading ideas, whether progressive or not. A consumerist pop and rap culture exists as a strong pole of attraction to many young people globally. It influences the way we talk, what we wear, what we want to do with our lives and how we view the world.

However, a revolutionary counter-culture on its own does not make revolution. Ideas must be applied and these ideas need to serve to empower people to contribute to creating change with others. If artists really want to change the world, this desire and their art must be linked with and to working class struggles and organisations (in SA this means the black and African working class in particular).

With that, we also need to move from reflection to active contribution.

Not only could our artists and the culture they promote reflect society, it could contribute to an understanding of the issues that affect the majority of human kind and offer a coherent way forward out of misery and domination.

We need a large scale working class counter-culture based on principles of direct democracy, self-management and revolution; history has shown this as the only ways to fight against the impact of dominant ideas on all our lives. Our art needs to inspire, reflect and direct. To show that not only is there an alternative and what that is, but also that we are building and mobilising, with song and dance, word and movement, towards creating that future now!

Anarchism has the tools for this.

Ideas can empower! Ideas can emancipate! Forward to the anarchist social revolution!


[1] This is not to say that an uncritical, often sexist and racist Hip Hop culture has emerged and flourished within the mainstream media. It is merely to suggest that the roots of Hip Hop are far from this, in the lives of ordinary people struggling under sexist, racist oppression, exploitation and poverty.

[2] Thanks to Shawn Hattingh and his PowerPoint presentation “Anarchism and a Revolutionary Counterculture.”