Category Archives: Frye on Anarchism

“We Are All Anarchists”: Frye on Anarchism


OWS Declaration of Occupation: “There is no hierarchy.” The declaration was crafted at a general assembly of all those who wished to participate. It is being recited here by means of the “human microphone,” passed through repetition from the front of the crowd to the back.


[W]e are all anarchists, wanting the society that interferes least with individual freedom. (“Herbert Read’s The Innocent Eye,” CW 11, 115)


Democracy is anarchistic in the sense that it is an attempt to destroy the state by replacing it with an expanding federation of communities, a federation which reaches its limit only in a worldwide federation. (“The Analogy of Democracy,” CW 4, 271)


[T]he residual anarchism at the heart of the Romantic movement is still with us, and will be until society stops trying to suppress it. (“Yorick: The Romantic Macabre,” CW 17, 125)


[C]ultural developments are quite different from political or economic ones, which not only centralize but become more uniform as they grow. . . If we try to unite a political or economic with a cultural one, certain pathological developments, such as fascism or terroristic anarchism, are likely to result. (“Myth as the Matrix of Literature,” CW 18, 306)


[T]he art that emerges under the cultural anarchy of democracy may be subtle, obscure, highbrow, and experimental, and if a good deal of art at any time is not so, the cultural achievement of the country is on the Woolworth level. But art under dictatorship seldom dares to be anything but mediocre and obvious. (“War on the Cultural Front,” CW 11, 186)


Through all the confusion and violence of the late 1960s, the thing that anarchism most wants, the decentralizing of power, has been steadily growing. It will continue to grow through the 1970s, I think, in many areas. For example, the possibilities of cable for breaking into the monologue of communications and giving the local community some articulateness and sense of coherence are enormous. And as real decentralization grows and we get nearer to what is called participatory democracy, the false forms of it, separatism, neo-fascism, the jockeying of pressure groups, and all the other things that fragment the social vision instead of diversifying it, will, I hope, begin to break off from it. (“The Quality of Life in the ’70s,” CW 11, 294)


When the Korean war began, I wrote in my diary that just as the first half of the 2oth c. saw the end of fascism, so 2000 would see the end of Communism. I was whistling in the dark then, because the Communists had just taken over China. But now I really begin to feel that I’m living in a post-Marxist age. I think we’re moving into something like an age of anarachism: the kind of violence and unrest going on now in China, in the city riots (which are not really race riots: race hatred is an effect of them but not a cause of them) in America, in Nigeria, in Canadian separatism — none of this can be satisfactorily explained in Marxist terms. Something else is happening. . .

There were always two sides to anarchism: one a pastoral quietism, communal (Anabaptist, Brook Farm) or individual (Chaplinism). Its perfect expression, in an individual form, is Walden, in a communal form, News from Nowhere. The beats & hippies with their be-ins and love-ins, the “Dharma bums,” are the faint beginnings of a new pastoralism. The hysterical panic about organization, full employment, keeping the machines running, & the like, is now waning as it becomes possible to do other things that work. The hippies only seem to be parasitic, but the fact of voluntary unemployment, of a cult of bums, is new. In the depression the statement “these people just don’t want to work” was the incantation of the frivolous, trying not to think seriously. But now there are such people, and the values they challenge are equally bourgeois and Marxist values.

The other side was violence & terror, without aim & without direction, like the rioting sweeping the world from Canton to Detroit, Lagos to Amsterdam. These riots are local & separatist: they have no intelligible point or aim; they simply show the big units of society breaking down. They aren’t poor against rich, young against old, or black against white; they’re just the anxiety of destruction against the anxiety of conservation. (“Notebook 19,” CW 9, 98-9)


Frye: There are other things in the Canadian tradition that are worth thinking about.  Thirty years ago [in the 1930s] the great radical movement was international Communism, which took no hold in Canada at all.  There were no Marxist poets, there were no Marxist painters… The radical movement of our time is anarchist and that means that it’s local and separate and breaks down into small units. That’s our tradition and that’s our genius. Think of Toronto and Montreal (I know Toronto better than Montreal, but I think the same is true of both cities): after the Second World War, we took in displaced persons from Europe to something like one-quarter to one-fifth of the population. In Toronto in 1949, one out of every five people had been there less than a year. We have not had race riots, we have not had ethnic riots, we have not had the tremendous pressures and collisions that they’ve had in American cities. Because Canada is naturally anarchist, these people settle down into their own communities; they work with other communities and the whole pattern of life fits it. I do think we have to keep a very wide open and sympathetic eye towards radical movements in Canada, because they will be of the anarchist kind and they will be of a kind of energy that we could help liberate.

Chiasson: How do you explain materially the fact that there is not a serious breakdown in the country if the base is anarchist?

Frye: Well, I think that the ideal of anarchism is not the shellfish, the carapace, the enclosed, isolated group. It’s rather the self-contained group and feels itself a community and because it’s a community it can enter into relationships with others. At the moment we are getting some mollusk or shellfish type of radical movement — I think certain forms of separatism are of that kind — but I think we’ll get more mature about this as we do on, a more vertebrate structure. (“CRTC Guru,” CW 24, 92-3)


Thirty years ago, during the Depression, the last thing that anyone would have predicted was the rise of anarchism as a revolutionary force. It seemed to have been destroyed by Stalinist Communism once and for all. But we seem to be in an anarchist age, and need to retrace our steps to take another look at our historical situation. One reason why the radical mood of today is so strongly anarchist, in America, is that the American radical tradition just referred to, especially in Jefferson and Thoreau, shows many affinities with the decentralizing and separatist tendencies of anarchism, in striking contrast to orthodox Marxism, which had very little in the American tradition to attach itself to. There are some curious parallels between the present and the nineteenth century American scene, between contemporary turn-on sessions and nineteenth-century ecstatic revivalism, between beatnik and hippie communes and some of the nineteenth-century Utopian projects; and the populist movements of the turn of the century showed some of the revolutionary ambivalence, tending equally to the left or to the right, that one sees today. Again, today’s radical has inherited the heroic gloom of existentialism, with the doctrine that all genuine commitment begins in the revolt of the individual personality against an impersonal or otherwise absurd environment. The conception of the personal as inherently a revolutionary force, which, as we saw, began in a Christian context in Kierkegaard, was developed in a secular one by French writers associated with the resistance against the Nazis, this resistance being the direct ancestor of the more localized revolutionary movements of our day. (An Essay on the Context of Literary Criticism, CW 17, 95-6)


Now we are in a different kind of revolutionary situation, one that in many respects is more like anarchism than the movements of a generation ago. The latter, whether bourgeois or Marxist, were equally attached to a producer’s work ethic and to the conviction that literature was a secondary social project. The unrest of our time is partly directed against the work ethic itself, and against the anxieties and prejudices of an affluent society. In other words, it is a situation in which one kind of of social imagination is pitted against another kind, and hence it is a situation in which those who work with their imaginations, such as poets or artists, ought to have, and doubtless increasingly will have, a central and crucial role. This last situation is also contemporary with the rise of communications media other than writing, which have brought back into society many characteristics of oral cultures, like those out of which the Bible and Greek philosophy developed. As in all revolutionary situations, society is under great pressure to abdicate its moral responsibility and throw away its freedom. Such pressures exist in every aspect of the situation: there is no side devoted to freedom or to suppressing it. The critic, whose role in the last two decades has expanded from studying literature to studying the mythologies of society, has to join with all other men of good will, and keep to the difficult and narrow way between indifference and hysteria. (“Literature and Society,” CW 27, 278-9)


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Frye on Anarchism, An Overview

Jackie Hayes of Binghamton, N.Y., speaks in support of Occupy Wall Street at the state capitol in Albany, N.Y., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. It is difficult not to notice that young women are conspicuously at the forefront of this movement.

With the development of the Occupy movement over the last six weeks, I have become interested to see what Frye has to say about anarchism. A collection of references is going up tomorrow. Here are a few preliminary observations.

Frye not surprisingly makes a distinction between peaceful and violent anarchism. He also reinforces a distinction between anarchism and Marxist socialism.

In a 1967 notebook entry he says that we live in an age of anarchism, and that is his repeated assertion in his published work.

His emphasis is to identify the constructive aspect of anarchism, which he believes deeply informs our social and cultural development since at least the Romantics. Just as culture, rather than economics, is constructively laissez-faire, it is also anarchistic, and that is the right direction for this creative energy to run, otherwise there is always the possibility of violent social disruption. History seems to demonstrate as much. As always with Frye, culture trumps ideology.

Whatever the Conservative Party of Canada and the U.S. Republican Party may think, both countries possess a radically anarchistic element in their national character, and have from the beginning. It is primary and not just incidental.

Finally, Frye recognizes that the beats of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s suggest the “faint beginnings” of a new phase of anarchism. The case can be made that those faint beginnings have steadily matured to become a more effectively activist expression of social concern, perhaps best represented at the moment by the rapid and unexpected emergence of the Occupy movement.

That said, it is always worth adopting Frye’s disciplined long view and not prematurely jump to the conclusion that everything is going to change for the better overnight. There are powerful political and economic forces lined up against it. As Frye says in The Double Vision, “Hope springs eternal. It just tends to do so prematurely.” This apparently revived anarchism, however, may represent a generational shift. It therefore might emerge more powerfully and permanently in the foreseeable future. It would certainly be consistent with the anarchistic element embedded in North American society as a whole. It’s no secret that the greed of the top percentile of those currently in charge is unsustainable, from whatever direction you approach it. The young men and women out in the streets seem to know that better than their elders.

More recent Occupy photos after the jump.

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Video of the Day: Anarchism at Work

Here is video demonstrating debating and voting procedures of an OWS general assembly, right down to the hand gestures used by the crowd to indicate various degrees of consent or lack of it. The statutory prohibition on the public use of megaphones facilitates the participation required for the “human microphone.” The crude filter of mainstream media takes all of this fine detail out.

If you haven’t seen it already, you can read an excellent on-site report from Zucotti Park in the New York Review of Books.

A complete compilation of Frye’s references to anarchism in the Collected Works goes up on Thursday.

Frye on “Pastoral Anarchism”

News report on Marine sergeant and Iraq war veteran Shamar Thomas facing down NYPD officers for assaulting and arresting peaceful demonstrators.

Frye in Notebook 19, c. 1967:

There were always two sides to anarchism: one a pastoral quietism, communal (Anabaptist, Brook Farm) or individual (Chaplinism). Its perfect expression, in an individual form, is Walden, in a communal form, News from Nowhere. The beats & hippies with their be-ins and love-ins, the “Dharma bums,” are the faint beginnings of a new pastoralism. The hysterical panic about organization, full employment, keeping the machines running, & the like, is now waning as it becomes possible to do other things than work. (CW 9, 99)

“V for Vendetta” and “Demonic Modulation”


V for Vendetta: “Words will always retain their power”

“First they came for the rich, and I said nothing. Because, you know, fuck the rich.” — Oral graffiti currently making the rounds.

The clip above is V’s pirate-radio speech to the people of London in V for Vendetta. V’s sardonic Guy Fawkes mask is now a favored icon among the disaffected, hacktivists especially. This movie is a hopeful relic from the Bush years, which, at the time of the film’s release, seemed they would never end.

Regarding V and his Guy Fawkes mask — as well as the repeated refrain of “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” the day of the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605 — the literary principle involved is what Frye called “demonic modulation.” With demonic modulation Frye makes a much needed distinction between “the moral” and “the desirable”:

The moral and the desirable have many important and significant connections, but still morality, which comes to terms with experience and necessity, is one thing, and desire, which tries to escape from necessity, is quite another. Thus literature is as a rule less inflexible than morality, and it owes much of its status as a liberal art to that fact. The qualities that religion and morality call ribald, obscene, subversive, lewd and blasphemous have an essential place in literature but often they can achieve expression only through ingenious techniques of displacement. (AC 156)

Demonic modulation manages this by way of “the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations of archetypes.” For example, in literature, whatever the current status of received moral standards,

a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; [or] by a homosexual passion. . . . (AC 156-7)

In other words, exactly the sorts of things that oppressively “moral” forces in society get most nuts about, usually with a commensurate rise in rhetorical violence, sometimes outright threats of it, and occasionally tragic instances of it.

The traditional Catholic villain Guy Fawkes of seventeenth century England becomes in this film by way of demonic modulation the dark force of wrathful resistance in a somnolent dystopian Britain of the near-future. The movie does seem to possess the power of at least some short-term prophecy; it had picked up on something that was roiling just below the surface of the daily nightmare that was the Bush administration. The silent, simultaneous uprising of the people of London nicely prefigures what seems to have been the spontaneous generation of the Occupy movement; and, more ominously, the death of the tyrant High Chancellor Sutler doesn’t look all that different from the recent death of Muammar Quadafi. To cite another instance of oral graffiti that pops up here and there, “When people on the inside of their glass palaces are mocking the people on the outside, it never ends well for them.”

Naomi Wolf Arrested at OWS; Frye on Police Power

Wolf’s account of her illegal arrest and detention here.

Frye on police power in a free society:

But in an atmosphere of real fear and real suspicion the police must become both more efficient and more tolerant if they are to be of any use in defending democracy. Otherwise, they will be not only unjust to individuals, but dangerous to their own community. (Canadian Forum 29, no. 346 [November 1949]: 170)

Frye on “the tension between concern and freedom”

Former Florida congressman Alan Grayson pushes back against self-described “Republican reptile” P.J. O’Rourke on last week’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

Here is a quote from Frye cited in Bob Denham’s essay, “Frye and Soren Kierkegaard,” in his new collection Essays on Northrop Frye, posted in our library this week. The quote is particularly relevant to the rise in the last few weeks of what is now an international “Occupy” movement.

The basis of all tolerance in society, the condition in which a plurality of concerns can coexist, is the recognition of the tension between concern and freedom. . . . Concern and  freedom both occupy the whole of the same universe: they interpenetrate, and it is no good  trying to set up boundary stones. Some, of course, meet the collision of concern and freedom from the opposite side, with a naive rationalism which expects that before long all myths of concern will be outgrown and only the appeal to reason and evidence and experiment will be  taken seriously. . . . I consider such a view entirely impossible. The growth of non-mythical  knowledge tends to eliminate the incredible from belief, and helps to shape the myth of concern according to the outlines of what experience finds possible and vision desirable. But the growth of knowledge cannot in itself provide us with the social vision which will suggest what we should do with our knowledge. (233)

Frye Quote of the Day: “Those excluded from the benefits of the social contract feel no obligation to it”

Here’s Frye in The Modern Century:

In political thought there is a useful fiction known as the social contract, the sense that man enters into a certain social context by the act of getting born.  In earlier contract theories, like that of Hobbes, the contract was thought of as universal, binding everyone without exception.  From Rousseau on there is more of a tendency to divide people into those accept and defend the existing social contract because they benefit from it, and the people who are excluded from most of the benefits, and so feel no obligation, or much less, of it.  (CW 11, 41)

Occupy Toronto Canada begins today as part of what is now an international Day of Action.

Above are more statistics to remind us what this is all about. Note that these data are four years old and before the crash of 2008. It’s worse now. In what other context can 90% be characterized at the “bottom”?

As a further reminder, here is a link to Citigroup’s “Plutonomy” memo, which was issued to its preferred customers six years ago tomorrow. An excerpt:

➤ The World is dividing into two blocs – the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., UK, and Canada are the key Plutonomies – economies powered by the wealthy. Continental Europe (ex-Italy) and Japan are in the egalitarian bloc.
➤ Equity risk premium embedded in “global imbalances” are unwarranted. In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc. This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “ global imbalances.” We worry less.

Business Insider has produced an extraordinarily comprehensive narrative using charts to illustrate how we got here. I’d strongly recommend you have a look.

Salon, meanwhile, asks “What Do the 1% Actually Do?”

I’d also like to note that the mindlessly repeated meme generated by the corporate media (Fox News in particular) that OWS is vague about its complaints and remedies is unfair. It is true that the movement is still evolving, but from the very beginning at least three identifiable problems and solutions have been repeated.

1. The banks are responsible for the collapse of the market three years ago and were subsequently bailed out with public money. They must therefore be taxed at higher rates, in order to refund the debt they owe (including hundreds of billions in quantitative easing), to make restitution for the tens of trillions of wealth they destroyed, and to decrease the worst income disparity in eighty years.

2. Because banks are responsible for the crash through demonstrably criminal activity, the perpetrators must be charged and tried.

3. Because the underlying cause of the crash is irresponsible government deregulation of the banking system, which was itself the result of relentless and remunerative corporate lobbying, the bond between government and corporate interests must be broken through legislation.

The fact that these kinds of specifics aren’t good enough is yet another symptom of the narrative-driven, fact-deficient pack mentality that has dominated mainstream American “journalism” for decades.

What has this to do with Canada, which has much stricter banking regulations and therefore, unlike Europe, did not find itself crippled as a result of the American banking crisis?

First of all, it is in everybody’s interest that these issues be addressed. The corruption of the American banking system triggered a worldwide economic crisis that is far from being resolved — the euro, in fact, is still threatening to collapse, and with it would go the global economy. Secondly, the underlying issue of widening income inequality is universal, and, at the moment, is advancing in Canada at a rate faster than even the U.S. Canada has a corporate tax rate that is among the lowest of OECD countries, and that lower rate of corporate taxation drives steadily increasing income disparity. Canada is identified in the infamous Citigroup memo cited above as one of three fully developed plutonomies. We are not on the periphery here. We are at the very heart of the problem.

Frye on “the community of love”

Demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street, Saturday October 8, 2011. These are the kids Fox News and the Republicans are calling a “mob.”  

From Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned:

“If we pursue either liberty or equality we lose both. The tertium quid of one thing needful is fraternity, or interpersonal relation, the kingdom of ends, the community of love, relaxing into tolerance and good will at a distance.” [Notes 58-8.71] (45)

Daily photos of the demonstrations here.

Must-see site: We are the 99%.

More photos after the jump.

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Photo of the Day: Jesus on Wall Street

A sign at the Occupy Wall Street protest today (h/t Dish).

Here’s Frye on Jesus, love, and the community in “Substance and Evidence”:

It’s very important to realize that when we profess or articulate a faith of any kind, what we’re really doing is attaching ourselves to a specific community. Christian beliefs attach us to a Christian community; democratic beliefs make us want to believe in a democracy, and so on. What faith should do is to help create a community in which every individual loves those who are closest to him, or what Jesus calls his neighbours. From there his love radiates into good will and tolerance, which might be called love at a distance, love for those we don’t know, or for those in other communities. (CW 4, 324)

And, right on schedule, the right mobilizes for an attack organized, promoted, and led by Fox News.

Update: More signs from Wall Street today here. What’s really striking is how very young most of these protesters are. Really young. It’s horrifying to think how much they’ve already been abused by police: threatened, kettled and kicked around, arrested, pepper-sprayed.

One of the signs is a quote from Kurt Cobain (who was dead before a lot of these kids were out of diapers), “It is the duty of youth to challenge corruption.” Duty.

(Photo: Daniel Shankbone)