How I was betrayed by liberal democracy

A story of disillusionment and homecoming

I used to be scared of anarchists. I thought anarchism meant chaos: a lack of order or a society wracked by constant violence. Those who espoused it must be pessimists, saboteurs, thugs. Instead, I described myself as a democrat and a liberal: I believed in voting for accountable representatives and ensuring equal rights under the law. Failures of that system, I thought, could be resolved through petitions, law reform, and media exposés – the ‘fourth arm’ of government. That’s how my textbooks taught me the U.S. had won its victories over racism and sexism, in any case. This is a story of what changed my mind.

I first became an activist when I was nine or ten: residents of a wealthy neighbourhood had decided to assert control over public parks that happened to be close by, trying to ban volunteers who had been restoring those same natural areas to health over the years. With friends, family, and fellow volunteers, I wrote letters and attended county board meetings, speaking out against the blatant hijacking of public space by a tiny but vocal minority. We had greater numbers and scientific backing on our side, and we played by the rules. I couldn’t understand why, even so, they won.

Years later, after 9/11, I marched against increasingly ludicrous calls to war from the U.S. government. Neither the international outcry, the editorials pointing out lies about weapons of mass destruction, or our small pacifist vigils made any difference. At larger demonstrations, I feared that the people in black chanting “resistance is justified when people are occupied” would scare off public opinion. If we appealed to common sense and shared values, I believed, opinion polls would show opposition to the war, and surely someone in the Bush administration would realize it was a bad electoral strategy. We all know how that worked out.

On the day the bombing of Iraq began, tens of thousands of us gathered to protest. Outraged, with more of us than could fit in the plaza we typically occupied, we spilled into the streets. The cops held back until the crowd started to disperse and then, badges hidden, surrounded the 500-odd people who were heading back home and arrested them on trumped-up charges. It took over five years of stress, uncertainty, and expense for the marchers to be cleared. I lost a bit of faith in our ‘justice’ system.

I met people working at a safe injection site and needle exchange in Los Angeles, and learned about harm reduction: the idea that it’s better to help people engage in risky behaviours with as little harm as possible to themselves and to others than to ban it outright, push it further underground, and therefore increase the risk.

I had tough conversations about vegetarianism, debating the pros and cons of eating meat that was raised as ethically as possible, versus soy that is shipped halfway around the world and contributes to global warming, the destruction of traditional agriculture, and farmer suicides in India. I realized that violence and destruction are an inextricable part of life, and started making moral decisions based on what would cause the least harm in the end, rather than an arbitrary ban on the most visible forms of violence.

I immigrated to the UK. Struck by the injustice that I – with no real reason to leave home – could cross borders easily, while so many people were treated as criminals for even trying to, I joined migrant justice organizers. I started to realize that all borders are fundamentally based on valuing some people more than others, and as such are inherently unjust.

The financial crisis of 2008 came around, and with it, an entire industry of trying to explain complicated financial practices. But I’ve never understood the underlying principle: the drive for profit. I get that if you’re running a shop, say, you need to make enough to buy your supplies wholesale, and to pay the rent, and to pay your employees or support yourself. But why is it considered a moral virtue to want to make more than that? Why is it considered necessary for the economy to grow faster than the population, except in order to satisfy investors’ greed?

I guess I was ready, when I started hanging out with socialists, to listen to their critiques. And although I didn’t agree with all their solutions, what they had to say about capitalism made a lot of sense. I agreed with the idea we should value sharing rather than the survival of the ‘fittest.’ And their arguments about needing radical change rather than reform were only confirmed when I started working around lobbyists and my last illusions about elected representatives being beholden to their electorate were shattered.

I spent time on feminist and social justice blogs, where I learned theories and terms that confirmed what I’d always known: that life was a heck of a lot harder for some people than others based on their race, their gender, and histories and systems outside their control. Reading people’s stories and reflections taught me that one-size-fits-all answers always privilege some and leave others behind.

But national governments are clearly too far away to take into account the particularities of each individual’s life. At the same time, I was reading climate change literature that pointed toward small, self-reliant communities as the only scale that would be adaptive enough to deal with a future of changeable weather and inevitable conflict. Visiting New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I saw that mutual aid had helped people much more than government assistance, which was at best slow and mired in bureaucracy, at worst, destructive.

So when I met people working to build decentralized, locally-rooted communities of mutual aid, who rejected oppressive hierarchies, believed capitalism to be a major part of the problems in our world, and understood that the relationships between violence and power need more than simple yes/no answers, it felt like coming home. When I found out they were anarchists, I was scared: would they turn out, in fact, to be destructive nihilists? But instead they helped me rediscover values I’d half-forgotten in the rat-race: share, don’t be selfish, listen, speak up when someone’s being hurt, don’t follow rules without knowing why, money can’t buy the important things, being yourself is awesome, and yes, you can build the world you want to live in.

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at