A review of It Could Happen Here, a series of Podcasts by Robert Evans.
Originally published by Anathema – Volume 7 Issue 6.
While only charlatans confidently predict what will happen, it’s always interesting to explore what could happen. This is especially true if the coulds being explored are pertinent to the unfolding of struggles against the State and Capital. In the past couple of years, the podcaster Robert Evans has become known for this kind of exploration in his popular podcast It Could Happen Here. Podcasts, especially non-anarchist podcasts, do not normally get much attention in anarchist newspapers like Anathema. A review of Evans’s podcast could seem out of place in these pages.
But It Could Happen Here has gained a lot of popularity for good reason. The series maintains a consistently engaging combination of speculative fiction, investigative journalism, and political analysis. Each episode is filled with sharp storytelling and smart ideas. The first season has also proven to be politically relevant, almost prophetically so. Airing before the start of the pandemic, season 1 explored the possibility that social conflicts and economic pressures could set off a decentralized civil war. When things began to escalate in 2020, I, like many others, returned to this podcast to consider possible trajectories and outcomes.
The second season is currently ongoing and, with daily episodes, there is a lot of new material. For the sake of space, I want to focus on the first five episodes of Season 2. In these initial episodes, Robert Evans (the principle host with an enviable podcast voice) lays out the theme of the season and explains his main ideas. Whereas later episodes have various guests and co-hosts coming from different perspectives, these early episodes act almost like a manifesto, giving Evans a chance to be explicit about his politics. Relevant to our interests, he discloses his anarchist affinities. Specifically, he argues that the coming disasters that the podcast will explore in Season 2 can best be countered through the classic anarchist strategy of mutual aid. The fact that Evan’s reveals his anarchist leanings on a popular podcast is not the only reason for the attention he will receive here. Rather, I will review It Could Happen Here as a starting point to discuss the relationship between mutual aid and insurrection.
Insurrection is not Evans’ main focus. This season is about environmental disaster. Still, we might catch glimpses of potential insurrections within and in response to the cascading effects of broader climate collapse. These cascading effects that Evans, borrowing a term from a friend, calls “the crumbles” will break down supply lines, drive mass migration, and, accordingly, usher in an authoritarian reaction. Evans foresees “crumbles” that combine climate change with authoritarianism and disinformation campaigns, which he believes could break down the current social order.
In Evans’s image of the future, mutual aid groups could step in to somewhat avert this disaster with the promise of an alternative social order. I think we can appreciate that Evans relies on a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian solution like mutual aid, which places an emphasis on caring for one another. A kind of “disaster relief” anarchism has evolved in recent catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing pandemic with relatively positive effects. At the same time, I think it’s important to criticize the limitations of a vision of anarchism that divorces mutual aid from other, more conflictual, tactics.
What follows is a response to Evans’s vision of anarchism in Season 2. To narrow it down further, I specifically have a bone to pick with the final episode of his 5-part introduction, “Refuse Dystopia.” It is in this episode describing how mutual aid programs could produce a general strike that I would expect an insurrection to, likewise, emerge. And it is in that moment that it is most noticeably absent — and intentionally excluded. As a result, Evans bypasses the opportunity to speculate on the relationship between mutual aid and insurrection.
“While that might sound fun, Evans is not down.”
To be clear, Evans is not a pacifist. He also recognizes that mutual aid is not enough and his podcast doesn’t entirely rule out confrontation. He just makes hard lines about what he considers generative conflict. On the one hand, he promotes a conflictual strategy to supplement mutual aid: the mass strike. On the other hand, he denigrates a nihilist tendency that he imagines will appear within the coming disaster only to recklessly “light fires and break things.” While that might sound fun, Evans is not down. The distinction he makes between the positive projects of strikers and nihilists appeals to the contemporary fashion that divides everyone into two camps: good protesters and bad protesters.
It also fits snugly within contemporary sectarian battles in anarchist scenes. It is strange to me that Evans can’t envision a future without splits between a nihilist faction and a social anarchist response. Even in this science fiction scenario, the lines of the fragmented anarchist scene remain unaffected — as if these divisions were permanent and transhistorical. It is conceivable to imagine a future uprising where strikers shut down workplaces and rioters light fires simultaneously. Evans just doesn’t try, even though it seems to be a more likely scenario than a false dilemma between mutual aid and breaking things.
Evans, following the current intellectual trends, wants to isolate mutual aid from other anarchist practices. To do so, the practitioners of mutual aid are juxtaposed to the “nihilists,” broadly understood to include insurrectionaries taking part in destructive actions. We can see this process of purifying mutual aid from its historical ties to insurrection in how he describes the Black Panthers’ Breakfast program. He rehearses the now-popular idea that the FBI saw the Panthers’ free breakfast as so threatening — even more threatening than the Panthers’ infamous armed patrols — that they set out to destroy the organization.
The only problem with this version of events is that, when you actually read the FBI documents, it is clear that the FBI didn’t separate the Breakfast Program from (let alone contrast it with) an insurrectionary strategy. The FBI’s problem with the program was that it gained the Panthers support and, as a result, aided them in their “ultimate aim of insurrection.” Contrary to popular belief, it was the threat of insurrection — not mutual aid —that led the FBI to set out to destroy the Panthers and, along with it, the Breakfast Program. That being said, the Breakfast Program should be understood as part of the Panthers attempt to generate an insurrection. An insurrection requires rebels to share resources, not just lob Molotov cocktails. But the Breakfast Program was only one element in this insurrectionary strategy and not a separate strategy that the FBI found more threatening. The insurrectionaries of the past understood this symbiosis of mutual aid and insurrection and, I would argue, they still do.
Much of the looting during the George Floyd Uprising was mutual aid. The past year has witnessed an explosion of both mutual aid and other insurrectionary actions. Generally, the term “mutual aid” has been almost exclusively used to describe the many DIY disaster relief responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. While anarchistic responses to the pandemic have been encouraging, mutual aid in this form can all-too-easily be contrasted to the reactions to the other momentous event of last year — the burning of the 3rd precinct. In this context, the uprising that followed appeared to be something altogether different from mutual aid. But how is freely handing out sneakers and food through broken windows of stores not mutual aid? As a mass action of free resource sharing, it should be understood as a paradigm of mutual aid. To me, the looting, sharing, and other forms of cooperation that took place in the riots more clearly evoke the vision of mutual aid than many of the projects using the name. Not only does the riot restore mutual aid to its place in the rebellion against authority, mass looting creates the conditions — at least temporarily —where commodities can be shared without cost.
So why doesn’t It Could Happen Here consider this more destructive form of mutual aid in its vision of future uprisings? Is it a failure of imagination? The podcast, if anything, shows Evans to be imaginative and perceptive. He seems to imply that when the tactics of insurrectionaries generalize, as they briefly did in the George Floyd Uprising, they are quickly crushed through State repression. Why the same thing wouldn’t happen to scaled up mutual aid projects–which he admits are sometimes viewed as terrorist threats–is anyone’s guess. I can only speculate as to why he singles out nihilists or wants to exclude destructive tactics from future uprisings.
It sounds to me like he has taken the familiar sectarian debates of today, his scene’s current disputes, and projected them into the future. He might even privately (or in a later episode) imagine breaking things in the name of mutual aid or a mass strike followed by fires. After all, a fire can keep a business closed as well as a picket line. But not every action needs to be funneled into a particular strategy or vision of the future. Nihilists or whoever will want to take action, whether or not anyone else has deemed the time is right. An anarchist vision of the future should be at the very least open to unpredictable and autonomous action. And anyway, not everything needs to be shared through a mutual aid project. Some things just yearn to be lit on fire.