Before I launch into this, I must begin with a confession: I don’t know when or why I bought the long-titled book, T.A.Z.: Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey. Often referred to, simply, as TAZ.
It was waiting for me, amongst a towering pile of several months’ worth of literary (and administrative) communications when I visited my UK postal address in early October. Perhaps at some point in the last few months I’d read about it and become so excited I immediately ordered it? Maybe someone sent it to me because they thought it was something it would be valuable for me to read? Perhaps, maybe maybe maybe, I just got confused on Amazon during one of my beautiful botellón cava nights back in the Summer. Ah, that beautiful Summer, back when I was blissfully piling on the weight I’m now arduously trying to shift (which I’m doing while watching1 The Wire, an acclaimed TV show that is disappointingly appropriate for sweat-drenched viewing while vainly self harming in a perverse indoor zoo built for physical preening (a gym)).
This book, TAZ, is a manifesto seeking to encourage the creation of anarchist utopias. Not utopias in the technical sense, because as anyone with an English degree at least as good as mine (which is mediocre), utopia means “nowhere”. What Hakim Bey wants is for his readers to seek places for a temporary experience of statelessness (outside governed, repressive, society), for it is only by combining a series of temporary autonomous zones that anyone can attain a more permanent life of “freedom”. Is the idea.
Bey writes at length about the pirate republics of the 17th century, about the egalitarian morals that occurred within these outsider, though parasitic, communities. The rules that most people uphold and remain confined by are rules that allow the rich to remain rich and keep the poor (which is most of us) poor. One of the pirates is “quoted” from a speech to the captain of a captured merchant ship who refuses to join the pirates, instead preferring death and the “rule of law”. The pirate says (I’m paraphrasing):
Is it not absurd that you care for rules that keep you and the majority of people poor and the minority of people rich? Is it not dire that you feel there is more dignity to be found in dying for another man’s wealth (which far outstrips his need) than you feel there is to be found in pursuing more personal comforts and freedom?
And, yeah, this is kinda fucking absurd. Robin Hood is held up as a folk hero, but the application of his ideology is not at all approved of. Bey was writing in the 1980s, in the era of Reaganomics and Thatcherite explosions of wealth, and thirty years later we are again in a period where wealth continues to be used as a violently significant statement of personal value. It is not ridiculous to wish to escape the trappings of capitalist society when – for so many people – it is a struggle.
Bey writes though, clearly, as someone who is disaffected but able to be disaffected. I doubt he has dependents.
It is easy to believe in ideal, theoretical societies because, yes, we do live in the worst of all possible worlds.
BUT, Bey – and the other educated, bitter, men who write this kind of tract – ignore the deep impracticalities of a stateless world. There are no blank spots on the map any more, Bey repeats, which is why the autonomous zones he advises we seek need to be temporary – we can no longer have a few decades of a pirate republic in the Caribbean because someone would spot it from the deck of a cruise ship within a week and it would be closed down.
Yes, society does enrich the few at the expense of the many, but there are so many people who crave the status quo that a meaningful revolution in the “developed world” is a complete impossibility (look at the current state of international politics). The only people who can afford to get to the outskirts of knowledge, or who can establish wilderness societies on the edges of the map, now, are people with capital. And though the democratisation promised by the internet may help some people achieve this blissful anarchism, it isn’t possible – practically – for every single person in the world to crowfund their own communal Shangri-La.
Bey’s idea of a community-focused, self-sufficient nomadic community is appealing, but it ignores the fact that the transition to it is impossible on a mass scale, and that the only people who have the means and the motive to escape are NEVER the people, in whatever part of the world, who are most fucked over by capitalism. Like me, innit: I don’t really exist within normal societal modes for someone of my education/class background/culture, but being able to live an “alternative lifestyle” is a choice I am able to make because of my privilege, something that men like Bey would deny.
And, alas, the other thing that I need to mention – an all too common subtext in outsider manifestoes – Bey repeatedly expresses broadly unacceptable sexual desires, namely a near-obsession with the eroticism of prepubescent boys masturbating. Sexual abuse is morally wrong and abhorrent, and offers an easy, reductive, dismissal of the writer’s (otherwise more nuanced) call for loosening of societal shackles. Actually, that’s not true, there is a passage on abortion that has no justification. I don’t get the impression Bey was a pleasant individual, and the fact that he doesn’t bother to hide misogyny or paedophilic desire leads me to believe that he wouldn’t be a great leader of a dystopian society…
Yes, I do agree with Hakim Bey that the world would be better if it was fairer and kinder and less generally repressive, but I don’t think letting the “norms” instead be set by the openly paedophilic is the right way to go either. And that’s the problem with society as it is: it’s as bad as it can be, and as good as it can be. It’s fucking shit, but it is better than anything we can actually change it to without massive fucking bloodshed? Probably, alas, not. Which I know is bleak, but I’m not an optimist.
TAZ is an odd, intriguing book. No regrets, but I’m also not an anarchist now, so maybe it is technically a favour. Worth a look.
1. Please note that this is not re-watching. I didn’t see The Wire when it was on originally (because I was but a boy and streaming didn’t exist) and I never made time for it during the periods in my life when I watched many box sets. As a piece, it has dated a bit, particularly its credit sequence and some of its use of foreshadowing, which often feels heavy-handed (eg in the episode I watched yesterday, we saw (for the first time) the happy social life of a detective who would later be – possibly fatally – shot). I can see why it’s acclaimed, but I also don’t feel like I’m demeaning it as an artwork by watching in a Barcelona gym, so who knows what that means? Its inclusion of homosexuality – particularly black working class homosexuality – still feels (bleakly) progressive, but there is a salaciousness to its depiction of gay women that is, alas, of its time. I’ve still got 49 episodes to go, though, so maybe it’ll iron out its own faults… ↩
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