Many could be forgiven for thinking it was a belated April Fool’s Day prank when, earlier this month, Freedom Press released a statement stating that near their premises in Whitechapel and to their knowledge, the colossal Hilton hotel group had opened an upscale cocktail bar called “Freedom Café”. Marketed to ‘independent thinkers and coffee drinkers’, in true anti-consumerist fashion, the bar sells £14 cocktails named after the publishing house’s book titles. Their menu takes the style of an old brochure called “Anarchist Weekly” and refers to the historical foundation of the publishing house. Readers are drawn inside to find “lawlessness, coffee, drinks and comfort food”. Believe it or not, this doesn’t seem like a joke.
While it can be hard to fathom exactly what sort of anarchy might be found in a gleaming 40-story hotel owned by the world’s third-largest hotel chain, a more sinister overhaul emerges on closer inspection. The café’s glossy branding conveniently skims over the anti-capitalist underpinnings of the anarchist movement, relegating it to an eccentric subculture instead. Their menu references critiques of capitalism and public policy, social forces that struggle against organizations like them, but dismisses them as simply “brilliant, quirky writing.” The vintage style suggests a historic bygone era, instead of a still very lively and vibrant social center. No longer just Britain’s oldest anarchist press, Freedom Press now finds itself an unlikely guide to a gentrifying tourist hotspot.
Although far from new, this commodification of social movements has recently become a hot topic. In what the NY Times has called “activi-capitalism,” corporations often piggyback on political movements for social credit, a process that typically involves heavy repackaging of movement demands to make them more palatable to social credit goals. board capitalists. Nike, one of the world’s most prolific exploiters of people of color in its vast network of sweatshops, recently ran ads featuring activist-turned-football star Colin Kaepernick with a vague message of support for the less radical aspects of the fundamentally leftist Black Lives Matter movement. movement: “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. Pepsi sparked outrage with their since-recalled ad where white millionaire Kendall Jenner supposedly addresses systemic racism by strutting around in a protest and handing a can of juice to a police officer. The ad shows smiling faces and attractive young protesters waving happily, a far cry from the near-insurgency that nearly unfolded across the United States.
Anarchism as a brand-building exercise
The anarchist movement has been far from spared from this brandwashing, its slogans and imagery having long been used by marketing snoopers to signify a rejection of the status quo. Decades before frontman John Lydon embarked on his butter-selling career, the Sex Pistols burst onto the charts with ‘Anarchy In The UK’. The same slogan soon found itself plastered on advertisements for Cadbury’s ‘Fuse’ bar, stoking the excitement of bored commuters by offering a ‘mixed bar for a crazy world’ and touting the most common misconception of the anarchism; that far from Proudhon’s assertion that “anarchy is an order without power”, it is rather a movement aimed at chaos and the destruction of society. Fast forward a few years, and this chaotic and dangerous imagery continues. Axe, the parent company of every sweaty teen’s favorite sock filler, Lynx Africa, offers for him and her the scent “Axe Anarchy.” In their television commercial, a number of passing strangers feel each other, stopping to look longingly at each other and setting off a chain of increasingly diabolical disasters. In the final shot, military helicopters fly toward an apocalyptic New York, while a suave voice urges shoppers to “unleash chaos.”
Somewhat closer to the anti-establishment, non-hierarchical reality of the movement, some marketing gurus have sought to capitalize on anarchist ideals in their quest to label customers as rogue outsiders. Aaron Keller, co-author of “The Physics of Brand” and founder of marketing agency Capsule which lists Target and Jack Daniels as clients, spoke of the need to “rebrand anarchy and anarchists.” Writing in Twin Cities Business magazine, he insists that “if anarchy can be rebranded as a safe place to cast off old hierarchies rather than a raging mob seeking to abolish all government, anything is possible.” Bizarrely, in another April Fool’s Day paragraph, he insists that “…the behaviors associated with the current anarchy also need to change…we need fewer burning buildings and more peaceful protests.” These new behaviors can be incentivized by reward programs such as “points for protesting”, with loss of points for, for example, “throwing Molotov cocktails again”. Points get you a free month of Netflix, so you can spend more time on your couch and less time breaking things.” The photo on the article? An anarchist ‘A’ symbol printed on a shopping bag.
Keller might just be another prankster. Yet this ethos seems to have caught on with many modern companies that strive to portray themselves as a bad boy and forward-thinking outlier to corporate scum. Supreme, one of the world’s most lucrative and exclusive brands owned by industry giant VF Corporation, has launched a collaboration with high-end designer Jun Takahashi in the form of a black jacket featuring “Anarchy is the key” on the back. The key to what? Uncertain, but Takahashi has been careful to distance himself from the movement, stating in Love magazine that “I’m not into political thoughts or ‘anti’ anything now”. Pizza Punks, a restaurant chain owned by a Glasgow-based hotel group with ambitious growth plans to 25 stores by 2025, says they “love to challenge the norm with [their] anarchist and anti-establishment perspective”. A statement on their Facebook page shouts “POWER TO THE PEOPLE”. Their vision of anarchy? Unlimited toppings on a £12 pizza. Anarchism, with its many interpretations and iterations, has now found new forms like a catchy sartorial slogan or a pizza price offer encouraging rampant consumerism.
As twisted as this profit is, its effectiveness cannot be denied. Perhaps most famously, beer giants Brew Dog are urging their customers to “roll into anarchy” and “burn the established system”. A steady stream of marketing and publicity stunts pick social movements to repackage them as beer logos, most of which still fall short of the mark. Their claims of being a “community-owned business” are contradicted by increasingly despotic owners James Watt and Martin Dickie sharing nearly all voting rights with private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners. Their campaign against gender stereotypes manifested itself in a new beer launched on Women’s Day 2018, presented in garish pink packaging and named “Pink IPA”. Their “support” for transgender rights raised the ire of the movement when their release of a “gender-changing beer” relegated gender identities to mere marketing fluff. Yet this anarchic branding, outlier image and double-talk politicization has certainly contributed to BrewDog’s meteoric rise, a rise that now places them among the UK’s most controversial employers. They even sued a small indie bar for using the name “Punk” and ultimately accepted MBEs in 2016. Because what could be more anarchist than private equity, lawsuits and the queen?
Go beyond cooptation
The jury seems to have settled on the anarchist brand image: it works. As with almost everything, the people of capital have managed to take what is perhaps industrialized society’s greatest rejection of capitalism and repackage it as one tool among many in the vast repertoire of marketing bullshit. From chaotic images that cut through the routine of middle-class life to corporations that position themselves as bold outliers, the movement constantly finds itself commodified to make money. Perhaps, to avoid a future where anarchists rebrand themselves as marketing gurus and trade protests for long Netflix binges, this could be a reminder that anarchism is more than a brand, more than an aesthetic and more than a subculture. Perhaps this corruption of the movement should be an indication to avoid rigid tropes and diversify communications so that the true message of anarchism, the ideals, hopes and dreams it offers, contrast with what has become imagery that is often overloaded and clichéd. A good starting point might be a reading of some of the titles offered by anarchist publishers. There’s a good one in Whitechapel, London, but make sure you go to the right door. You might accidentally find yourself ordering a book and being served a coffee-infused triple-distilled cocktail.
Murray Biagini Kemp