“Are we who live in the present, doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom?” (Bey, 1991).
How does a community function autonomously, completely separate from the State? This is a question that is commonly posed by both proponents and critics of anarchism. It is difficult to imagine living separate from police, capital, and a centralized governing body; but it is not impossible. Autonomous zones have outwardly defied dominant forms of control throughout history in a multitude of ways. Recently we can recall Seattle’s CHOP (the Capitol Hill Organized Protest) that formed after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 as an example of their relevance today. Ideas of autonomy have been embedded in political and artistic movements throughout modern history. We have seen autonomous zones in William S. Burrough’s stories of pirate ships, in radical philosophy and theory, in the fields of rural Essex, music venues, desert festivals, and on the front steps of Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Their impermanence must be understood in order to wholly comprehend the nature of its rebellion. Autonomous zones are effective because they are temporary while the lessons they teach us last far longer.
I am starting to explore various forms of autonomous zones, analyzing the cultures that support their existence and the long term impacts of these short term political movements. In the following months, I intend to write a series of essays on its different forms and contributions to their dedicated movements. I will investigate autonomy in terms of history, music, literature, food, philosophy, and the Internet to demonstrate anarchy’s applicability in our day-to-day.
Our discussion of the autonomous zone as we understand it can be credited to the problematic figure Hakim Bey. Bey is a pseudonym for anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson, who first coined the concept of the “temporary autonomous zone” (TAZ) in his 1991 manifesto titled T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. In it, Bey argues that the TAZ’s greatest strength is its invisibility and impermanence, “the State cannot recognize it because History has no definition of it” (Bey, 1999). The TAZ vanishes as quickly as it appears, making it a useful tactic in an era where the State is omnipresent; resistance develops in its cracks.
Look at Seattle’s CHAZ (aka CHOP), which lasted less than a month in June and July of 2020, or the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, which was in operation for just about two months in the fall of 2011 before the NYPD finally swept the camp. These camps only existed in their full form for a period of a couple weeks, but their impact has rippled for much longer. These demonstrations of autonomy, while certainly imperfect, prove to the State that its constituency is indeed capable of laterally organizing their own, more egalitarian community. This prospect scares the shit out of a government that expects and demands complacent obedience.
That being said, the TAZ can hardly ever maintain physical permanence, but “such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life,” their message resonates beyond the corporeal (Bey, 1998). This framework of impermanence is integral to my research on autonomous zones within the culture of what Bey refers to as the Spectacle. The TAZ is a jarring abstraction from this distracted, dominant culture that he describes. What is so significant about the TAZ, in all its iterations, is its extraordinary and fleeting existence that operates within the drudgery and toil of the otherwise ordinary and controlled world. While Hakim Bey’s character has justifiably been called into question, his definition of the temporary autonomous zone is still relevant to our visualizations of autonomy to this day. As Occupy and CHOP demonstrated, developing a TAZ can serve as a wake-up call to those in power. The TAZ is a statement of defiance, a rejection of State-sanctioned cruelty. Their appearance, however brief, disrupts the natural order and therefore catalyzes change. As argued in TAZ, perhaps autonomous zones have become more relevant than ever before in late-stage capitalism “[as] it sometimes appears that the TAZ is the last and only means of creating an Outside or true space of resistance to the totality” (Bey, 1997). This resistance has many forms. Occupy and CHOP are perhaps the most traditional and well-known examples of a TAZ, but not every autonomous zone should be expected to function in the same way. Each TAZ is unique to its social circumstances, a TAZ can appear on the high seas, in a trip to the Nevada desert, and even in pockets of the Internet. What unites all of its variations is their defiance of the status quo and earnest efforts to create an example of a freer reality.