Jeff Berwick had a brain blast while partying his way around the world in the wake of the dot-com crash, protected by legal and military systems that regulated the safety of his air travel and allowed him to exchange currency for accommodation: it’s so unfair that there are governments to tell you what to do, right?
The Anarchists opens with a super fun scene of small children burning books of law and screaming “F*ck you!” at the burning pages, while their parents look on with glowing approval. All this is apparently a proud moment of anti-state freedom. No one can tell us what to do! Etc. Now I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about a lot of non-reality-based groups. I can sympathize with the perspectives of flat-earthers and even some folks strolling into self-improvement cults with high hopes. But this celebratory book-burning ranked high on my scale of the disconcerting and the disturbing.
The Anarchists is a six-part documentary series from HBO that tells the story of a group of anarcho-capitalists (although the definition of that term varies among the interviewees) who establish an enclave of libertarian expatriates in Acapulco, Mexico.
The settlement began when Berwick took a pause on his globetrotting to “just stay” in Mexico for a while to decide what he wanted to do. Then he starts getting into some literature that reinforces his concepts of his own exceptionalism and the fact that anyone who tells him what to do is the bad guy.
“They don’t teach any of this stuff in school! This is the real stuff, the important stuff.”
Besides clearly not paying attention in social studies, Berwick coalesces a mixture of conspiracy theory and Sparknote-version of political history in his definition of anarcho-capitalism. Then he starts making YouTube videos and connecting with the like-minded. Berwick’s idea of “unfree” apparently is not being able to be intoxicated and aggressive in an airport and not being able to call airline workers he doesn’t like a “f*cking bitch.” The next day in an interview he laughs about his airport arrest, calling the U.S. a “police state” because he wasn’t allowed to verbally assault a woman in her place of work, both confirming that he 1. doesn’t understand what a police state is and 2. is just kind of an asshole.
If I sound incensed, it’s because I am.
The documentary’s first episode, at least, is a brilliant takedown of its subject matter—brilliant in the sense that they just let them just … talk. They say things like “escape society” by moving to Mexico, which is as childish and egocentric as it sounds. They describe their half-baked understanding of anarcho-capitalism. They laugh off the “dangers” of Mexico from atop a well-guarded tourist hub. You can see them wanting to be important, wanting to be consequential: we made this move, this bold choice, so we can’t possibly be just like everybody else! There’s a deep, awkward tragicness about these people, a determined but frankly irrational conception of their world that they proffer up as if it’s deeply well-reasoned. That aspect the movement is well and truly Randian.
On the flip side, there’s a wobbly danger in this kind of media that people are going to tune in and be taken in by this. The same people who pick up Atlas Shrugged and latch onto pull quotes because “yeah, that sounds like something that sounds true” instead of critically taking a step back and realizing the entire book is an extravagant fever dream of heroes and villains that doesn’t actually reflect how society functions. These are exactly the ideologies skewered so effectively in narratively like Bioshock and Bioshock II: pretending like you can opt out of caring about any kind of social obligation is as disastrously selfish as it sounds, and that story probably ends with factions at each other’s throat for profit, influence, or resources…the state reduced to a single megalomaniac truly free to pursue whatever ends they personally think are desirable, without the constraints of governmental checks to protect people whom they might affect. We all just lived through a pandemic that made this kind of thinking openly deadly on a large scale.
The fundamental self-righteousness of the anarchists is stunning: to sit down in front of the camera and cheerfully and uncritically recite their doctrine as if it should be self-evidently true to anybody listening is some level of indoctrination. Berwick gesticulates at the camera in a popped-collar Hugo Boss polo shirt in a palatial house, talking about how he’s escaped society. It’s…something.
“The state owns children as soon as they’re born in the U.S., because you have to ask for permission not to send them to school,” says one follower who uprooted his family to live perma-vacation in Acapulco. “I’d sooner send my kids to a porn set than to a public school.”
The Acapulco anarchists then begin to organize a conference—with expensive tickets, naturally—where speakers can give talks from a smorgasbord of perspectives on anarchy. Some of them are more mainstream libertarian (“I don’t want to subsidize your pregnancy, sorry ladies”) and some….Well. An “uncschooling advocate” appears to speak against discrimination against children. “Unschooling” enables children to explore their own interests and ignore anything they don’t want to hear, much like their parents who cherry-pick from social sciences at their convenience to support pre-existing worldviews.
All these people have “way above average intelligence” insists the same figurehead anarchist couple. “They’re all smart.” Apparently, the first year of the conference was little rocky. “No organization to it whatsoever” complains one anarchist.
But soon the conference improves under other leadership, becoming a massive expo of self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist thought. Then they posted a whole bunch of anarchist content—you know, the usually well-dressed white people eating out at a nice restaurant all together.
Here are the stories of two of the self-proclaimed anarchists who arrive for one of the subsequent conferences:
Two young hetero white Americans (with dreads, of course) are driving across state lines and are shocked and offended by being arrested for having massive amounts of weed. They kept insisting to the cops that the cops should just, you know, let them go. I mean, how horrible. Then, very rudely, the police started calling them flight risks. The young white people’s family wires money for bail and a truck off eBay and they fled the country for Mexico, taking directions of Berwick about how to cross without passports.
If you can get past episode one, good for you and your ability to regulate your blood pressure. I sure couldn’t.
Did I think it was possible to truly gentrify anarchy before The Anarchists? Honestly, my mind has been opened.
If you want to OD on good ol’ fashioned hysterical American individualism this summer, that real bootstraps/f*ck the rest of humanity attitude, you know where to go to stream it.
But really, more seriously, The Anarchists is a fascinating blow against these insular, online movements so mired in their own doctrine look when exposed to the light of broader, less indoctrinated audiences. At no point in episode one does the documentarian, Todd Schramke, say anything along the lines of “can you believe this?” Hell, for I know he might be in the process of being converted. He just lets them talk, talk, talk.
No, the most direct, cutting contradiction to the Randian claims in the first episode is one of the Acapulco locals, a man who calls the anarchists’ ideas of the city as a stateless paradise “a little naïve” before going on to detail the literal warzone that Acapulco was a few years earlier, with some brief footage of bodies in the street. But of course, the libertarian ideals espoused by the anarchists reassure them that if they aren’t cartel drugrunners, they have nothing to worry about. Because crime only happens to guilty people and people who don’t have money to stay in the nice hotels with the nice security.
I’ve been to some of those Acapulco resorts; they’re the kind of place I save up all year to spend four days. My wife and I call them Disneyland Mexico, a fantasy world of tourist pleasures with no mundane, real-world abrasions to disrupt the illusion. I’ve never seen anyone buy into the illusion so completely before.
“If this beautiful paradise can be a beacon of freedom, it’s gonna be unstoppable,” says one leading anarchist (you see what I did there?) with utter conviction.
As soon as one of those dreadlocked Americans on the run from the law, though, begins to criticize the conference for not being groundbreaking or “anything you couldn’t find on YouTube” on social media, the anarchists commence to flip out. (Something, something, free speech, something, something, hypocrisy.)
“You can’t do this,” sparks one of the main anarchist spokespeople, unaware of the truly absurd number of contradictions.
If you want a truly bitter laugh at the dregs of humanity, do I have the show for you.