The Anarchists Is a Messy, Gripping Anarcho-Capitalist Saga

Narchy is not a popular choice. But if you’ve taken a look at the state of the world recently—from the rise of authoritarianism and the acceleration of climate change to the devolution of the Supreme Court and this past week’s roller-coaster ride with Boris Johnson in the UK—then you might well have found yourself wondering whether anyone, anywhere, is really fit to lead their fellow human beings. You may have opened your mind to anarchism, perhaps just for a moment.

In that sense, the spirit that animates Anarchapulco, the annual conference of self-identified anarchists that is the subject of HBO’s messily made but often fascinating documentary series Anarchists, is as mainstream as it’s ever been. The macho anarcho-capitalism of American individualists (Capacity The idea of assembling a group of ex-pats to live in the dangerous, glamorous Mexican city may seem appealing to many. This Randian vision to destroy the state is not like its socialist precursor. It does not require mutual aid or interdependence. Instead, it focuses on the goal of amassing enough cash to support the government. This convergence of individual liberty and unchecked greed raises the show’s most compelling, if not its most rigorously investigated, questions: Can a group of people unbound by shared legal or financial obligations ever really function as a community? What is the best way to find out? you can’t tell me what to doIs it a practical political philosophy that is viable?

Anarchists—another title to add to the long list of intriguing docuseries that probably would’ve made better focused, feature-length docs—circles loosely around these dilemmas throughout six episodes that alternate between origin story, character study, true crime, and trend report. Filmmaker Todd Schramke spent six years documenting the ancap scene in Acapulco, beginning with the first-ever Anarchapulco, a scrappy gathering of some 150 people eager to liberate themselves from such “statist” institutions as taxes, the military, and central banks. In chronological fashion, with early episodes structured around each year’s conference rather than any larger argument or theme, the series traces Anarchapulco’s meteoric, crypto-fueled rise and the equally rapid dissolution of the community that grew up around it.

The characters are captivating—so much so that their personalities often overpower Schramke’s own perspective. Anarchapulco founder Jeff Berwick rode the dot-com wave of the late ’90s, partied his way around the world, fell hard for conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin’s Federal Reserve takedown The Creature from Jekyll IslandsHe decided to settle in Acapulco and live the best life he had ever known. Schramke hardly touches on the question whether Mexico is more laid back than the U.S.A for everybody or just the well-off white Americans. “Governments are the cause of almost every major problem on Earth,” Berwick opines. It’s hard to argue against, but as AnarchistsAn ancap Earth might have different major problems, as the suggestion suggests.

Nathan and Lisa Freeman are an Acapulco-curious married couple that unschool their children. They join the group of characters at the 2015 event when they realize the need for organizational support from Berwick, who is constantly drunk. Although Nathan’s devotion to the conference strains the marriage, forcing Lisa to do the bulk of the child-rearing, they come across, in early episodes, as the most stable members of a volatile circle. The other extreme is a young couple named Lily Forester (dreadlocked and pseudonymous) who are at the opposite end of the spectrum. (He isn’t the only person in Anarchists To borrow nom de guerre The hero of Atlas Shrugged. There’s also a Juan Galt.) Real fugitives fled Acapulco following a marijuana-related conviction. Only to discover that the community was too commercialized and radicalized, they make a living from the underground while those with more money, such as Berwick or the Freemans strike it rich in the crypto boom of the mid-2010s.

As you might expect, people who’ve arranged their lives around the conviction that they should get to do whatever they want don’t turn out to be so great at communication, cooperation, or compromise. (Nathan’s official title is Chief Cat Herder.) The formation of Factions. Anarchaforko is a grassroots alternative to the crypto-juiced Anarchapulco. Tensions among Anarchapulco’s own leaders, which might’ve been foreseen considering the definitional anarchist disdain for leaders, escalate. The community grows at the same time. There are also idealists such as Erika Harris (a Black woman feeling marginalized in this environment), and there are obviously unhinged people like Paul Propert who is a veteran with an obsessive, violent temper.

Then there’s a murder, and Anarchists The true-crime documentary doc is made for just a few episodes. Tragically, it isn’t the only unnatural death Schramke captures among the anarcho-capitalists of Acapulco. This internal turmoil combined with the 2018 crypto crash causes the community to fail. The result is a leaderless, ill-fated society that was built upon a base of privilege and surrounded by a Mexican tourist destination where the native population faces constant threats from organized crime. Everybody seems to have learned a different lesson. In the final episode, Berwick is countering conference attendees’ fear of traveling to a place where one of their comrades was killed by insisting that “men need to become much stronger men again.”

Schramke does not offer his analysis, but he shares his experiences and gives exposition via sporadic voiceovers. There are many loose ends. He digs into several characters’ pasts and finds broken families, childhood trauma, substance abuse, and more, without ever synthesizing how such histories might lead a person to ancap ideology. He dabbles in exploring the community’s foundational beliefs but relies on its current and former adherents to point out their blind spots; as a result, the series’ analyses of elements like class, identity, expatriation, and whether it’s even possible to build a revolutionary movement around the sovereignty of the individual remain extremely limited.

Still, Schramke reaps remarkable candor from relationships with subjects that evidently deepened over the course of years’ worth of filming. It’s a well-rounded film, despite the overstuffed format. AnarchistsIt is a beautiful place. “What is community?” wonders Harris, one of the doc’s most insightful participants and someone from whom I’d have liked to hear more. “If you can’t rally around someone when they’re down, what is the frickin’ point?” As geopolitical chaos drives more and more people to increasingly extreme ideologies, it’s worth raising the question lest we be left to live with the answer.

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