Acton Institute Powerblog

The Anarchists Is a Case Study in the Decadence of Autonomy

(Image credit: HBO)

A new HBO Max series takes a look at the tragic implosion of a community of self-described anarchists who “escaped” statist America for freedom in Mexico. Tragedy ensues.

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I have a reasonably high tolerance for uncomfortable television and movies, maybe a higher tolerance than I should, but the first thing I would say about the HBO Max series The Anarchists is that it is not for the faint of heart. In this case, though, the tough stomach required is not due to excessive violence, cringey sexual content, or other common factors in objectionable material. The series is tough to watch because it directly touches on elements of human depravity that are unpleasant to engage. It shines a light on a certain darkness that can creep over the human soul that is more than I bargained for when deciding to watch the documentary. And yet, out of the very depressing reality that the series covers, a lesson is to be discovered of profound importance for the intellectually curious and morally rooted.

The Anarchists is a look behind the scenes at a group of American-born anarchists who took refuge together in Acapulco, Mexico, leaving behind their careers and domestic roots for a life committed to autonomy. Eventually, select members of these anarchistic refugees start an annual conference called Anarchapulco. The documentary covers the rise and fall of the conference, dovetailed with the rise and fall of this community. The gripping drama that is both tangential to and at the root of this group’s implosion is the murder of a drug-dealing fugitive member of their community, and the eventual suicide of the PTSD-suffering veteran widely believed to have been complicit in the murder.

The tensions are heightened by the sensational real-life drama that defined this community—murder, drugs, inordinate alcohol consumption, scandal, fraud, corruption, violence, lawbreaking, and all the rest. Yet the filmmakers include some modest level of the philosophy of anarchism to seep through as well, allowing the leaders of the movement to state their case for a society disconnected from rules, norms, and institutions.

The filming of this sect could ideally have led to a provocative documentary on an iconoclastic group of intellectually eccentric adults. Perhaps the filmmakers (and the subjects of the documentary themselves) could have crafted a series that evaluated the pros and cons of anarcho-capitalistic thinking, countercultural philosophy, and the capacity for human autonomy unhindered by the laws of nature and the laws of men. But alas, like the philosophy of anarchism itself, such a documentary was doomed from the beginning, assured only of ending in the chaos and despair this series had to highlight. Missing from the Acapulco anarchy movement was a framework for liberty rooted in morality and ordered love. Ultimately, what was palpably present in the Acapulco anarchy movement was the fate of all human autonomy untethered from the law of God and awareness of the basic human condition.

Those of us who value the concept of liberty are wise to consider the bondage that futile human efforts at liberty paradoxically create when said liberty is uprooted from the soil of morality, love, character, and biblical wisdom that must sustain it. And that is what The Anarchists is really about—bondage, not liberty. The bondage of an intelligent young woman destined to a life as a fugitive, all because of her pursuit of what she foolishly called liberty. The bondage of a well-intentioned mother who, along with her three children, watched her husband drink himself to death (literally), only to become abandoned to economic despair and isolation in the aftermath of broken dreams and misguided aspirations. The bondage of a virtual cult leader—for the record, entrepreneur Jeff Berwick—driving the whole operation, corrupted by his own greed and substance abuse, functioning with no moral compass or regard for neighbor. Every single character in this series becomes a tragic figure, and essentially all for the exact same reasons.

One of the community’s members states with deep regret near the end of the final episode:

When we give into negative urges, when we act like wild and crazy people, we’re putting up this persona that we’re a bunch of high school kids with no consequences. When I see these people fail, they make statism look like a better alternative.

This ought to be the takeaway of the series for those of us who loathe statism yet find anarchy a godless non sequitur to the problem of excessive government. Our cause can never be a free society for the mere sake of a free society, but rather a free society for the enlightened cause of human flourishing. The anarchy movement, covered fairly and thoroughly in this series, is a case study in our God-created need for authority, cooperation, community, freedom, and responsibility. The grift, abuse, violence, and darkness that took root in this community came about for the simple reason that their freedom tree was planted in that very depleted soil.

Another despondent anarchist notes at the series’ conclusion:

If you take away our comfort, our food, all that kind of stuff, we’re animals. We’ll do the worst things to each other. We have to see the animal side of ourselves before we advocate for the responsibility of freedom.

The responsibility of freedom is a glorious thing, and it is fundamentally irreconcilable with some romantic notion of “autonomy.” Freedom can never flourish as “every man doing what is right in his own eyes”—and in fairness to the community at the heart of this series, murder, drugs, and debauchery should be the expected result in any forum celebrating autonomy.

Man was created with dignity to be free, but with a nod to his eternal destiny. Our freedom and eternal destiny are inseparable from law, from order, from community, and from civility. It is easy to watch a series like this and suspect the modern anarchy movement guilty of a flawed or miscalculated sociology. But I am sad to say, sadder after watching this series, that it is not a particular sociology that is at the root of this tragedy. That could conceivably be re-engineered. Rather, it is a moral pathology that hated a loving Lawgiver who alone holds the key to our escape from bondage.

David L. Bahnsen

David L. Bahnsen is the chief investment officer of The Bahnsen Group, a $4 billion national wealth management firm, and the author of There’s No Free Lunch: 250 Economic Truths.