An anarchist future depends on more people adopting anarchist principles. It occurs to me that learning how individuals became anarchists may be useful. So here is my story.
I’ve always been a little independent and rebellious, but my teenage years really brought that out. Partially it was my natural reaction to the suffocating socialization we are all subjected to. Partially it was me being pissed that the world turned out to be a lot shittier than I had been led to believe. I started learning real history at this point, particularly Native American history.
I got into a lot of trouble. I ran away frequently. Eventually, I was kicked out of school and out of my house. (Truth be told, I wanted to get kicked out of both. I really hated them.) Luckily for me I had been part of a work experience program in high school and, through them, had been working for a law firm.
I sort of skated into law firm work and was able to pay the bills without too much suffering. At twenty-five, I found myself managing the Florida operations of a litigation support service. I was busy and stressed and not particularly happy, but the money was good.
I started the office from the ground up. When a year had gone by, I called the home office to find out about their raise policy. I was told that, unless there was a promotion, nobody got more than .50 an hour raise. With a promotion, people could get a dollar.
Now the people who worked for me did not get paid what they deserved, not even close. Starting salaries for the organization were pathetic. And these people worked their asses off. They were there late and on weekends (sometimes with their kids). They didn’t get overtime.
After my boss told me what I could offer, I went silent on the phone. Sensing that I wasn’t happy about what she had just told me, she said “remember, if you pay your staff too much, you won’t get a big bonus at the end of the year.”
I got a percentage of the profits, you see, and that was supposed to motivate me somehow. But I knew that I never wanted to be that person, the person who gave other people less than they deserved so that they could get more. And I realized that all businesses operated on that same ‘me first’ principle. I left shortly thereafter to try my luck with nonprofits.
So off I went to California to get my bachelor degree and a nonprofit job. (Nonprofits require a B.A. to sweep the floor.) By that time I had my high school diploma and an A.A. in sociology – night school mostly. It didn’t take long for me to end up in a management position again. I didn’t plan for it or want it. I was trying to juggle college and a full time job, after all. I just had this stupid habit of feeling compelled to get done whatever needed to get done.
But, in the end, the nonprofit work wasn’t much better than the for profit work. We were helping people, but not as many as we should have been. We were government funded. When I calculated the percentage of tax dollars that actually went to direct services, it made me want to cry. Some of the grants went through so many agencies that, by the time each agency shaved their overhead costs off the top, there was virtually nothing left.
And even though the organization I worked for made a good pretense of listening to and caring about staff, much of it was for show. Additional funding we received went straight into raises for my boss and a fat consulting fee for a wealthy board member. Meanwhile, we were short-staffed and asking employees to start paying a portion of their rising health care costs.
Worse than the frustration, overwork, and disillusionment was how being a manager changed my relationship with all the people I worked with. Although I felt like I spent most of my day battling with my boss on behalf of the staff, in the end I was just one of the managers who was making decisions behind their backs – decisions they often did not like, decisions that were sometimes bad. It didn’t matter if I had fought the decision in those meetings. Once it was made I had to stand behind it.
I’ve worked for other nonprofits since that one. And while I have steadfastly avoided any more management positions, I have seen the same dynamic in every place I have worked. Larger nonprofits, especially here in DC, have the added issues of ivy league elitism and grotesque hierarchy (which they are in denial of). Yet somehow they think that they are going to make the world a more democratic, egalitarian, and just place from within an organization that is anything but.
It ain’t gonna happen.
Now I don’t mean to bag on the people that I have worked with. In fact, if the woman who told me that I wouldn’t get a big bonus if I gave my staff too much had been an asshole, my life might have taken a different course. The fact is that most of the people I have worked with aren’t any more evil or selfish than any other people. It was putting power into the hands of a few and pretending that they could actually represent the needs, desires and thoughts of everyone else that made everything go bad.
In short, experiencing the disasters of hierarchy led me to ask if it were possible to live without it. Once I started looking around, I realized that it is possible. In fact, I think it is impossible to live with it.
So that’s pretty much it. Take a fiercely independent person, let them experience the disasters of hierarchy from both perspectives, throw in a bit of anarchist leaning literature and…voila.
Any other anarchists out there want to share their journey or epiphany or slog to anarchism?