AS EUROPE slowly asphyxiates in the grip of the financial markets, an old yet familiar figure from the not-so-distant past has re-entered the landscape of crisis - the anarchist as class avenger and agent of violent mayhem.
Anarchists – or groups calling themselves anarchists – have played a sporadic role in street protests and demonstrations in various countries since the crisis began, particularly in Greece and Italy.
But there has always been a more militant strain that disdains permitted forms of protest in favour of more direct action, from sabotage, arson, and parcel bombs and attacks on representative individuals and institutions.
Last month, advocates of such insurrectionist tactics crossed a new threshold, with thekneecappingof Roberto Adinolfi, the executive of an Italian nuclear company owned by the defence and aerospace giant Finnmecanica, by a group calling itself the Olga Nucleus of the Federazione Anarchica Informale (Informal Anarchist Federation).
In a statement on the 325 website, the FAI claimed responsibility for punishing one "of so many sorcerers of the atom with a candid spirit and a clean conscience". Mixing quotations from Bakunin with diatribes against nuclear power and science in general, the authors described the shooting of "a colourless scientist, a technician" as "the logical consequence of an idea of justice, the risk of a choice and at the same time a confluence of enjoyable sensations".
This insouciance cannot be considered representative of the European anarchist movement in general. Indeed, the UK Anarchist Federation explicitly condemned the shooting, claiming that such acts are ineffectual, counter-productive and elitist. The FAI, for its part, condemned this condemnation as a tepid expression of "civil anarchism" – a phenomenon that it described somewhat hyperbolically as "a slathering, craven and despotic monster with eyes in the back of its head".
For the FAI, violence is a form of self-expression and personal liberation that enables activists to "recover volition and dispel the inauthentic". Its technophobic rhetoric is reminiscent of the Unabomber, so much so that the respected Nature magazine has described the kneecapping of Adolfini as a expression of "anti-science".
Maybe so. But neither its tactics nor its ideology are entirely new. In the early seventies, a proliferation of individuals and pop up groups in Italy carried out acts of factory sabotage, and kneecappings and beatings of factory bosses and management officials, which later escalated into the more lethal violence of the Red Brigades.
At the time there was speculation that at least some these groups were directed by obscure forces from within the Italian state as part of a "strategy of tension" intended to destabilise society and generate public support for authoritarian government or a military coup.
Whether directed or not, the actions of small group insurrectionists like the Red Brigades and the FAI have rarely benefited the left – or the working class constituencies they claim to support.
More often than not they have played into the hands of their political enemies, and provided a justification for security crackdowns and antiterrorist emergencies of the type that have become depressingly familiar over the last decade.
Such actions are not limited to the anarchist heartlands of southern Europe. Only last week, the FAI raised its head in Britain, promising to disrupt the London Olympics, on the grounds that "We don't want rich tourists — we want civil war". In a demonstration of intent, militants set fire to signalling cables on railway lines in Bristol, severely disrupting commuter services, in what the FAI called the beginning of "a new generation of urban, low intensity warfare".
Whether the FAI has the capability to escalate this campaign and penetrate theiron securitycordon around the games, remains to be seen. But we can't be entirely surprised that some people are attracted by such tactics.
At a time of massive youth unemployment, when mainstream politicians across the continent increasingly have nothing to offer but ever-more savage cuts and austerity in order to make their electorates pay for a crisis they did not cause, the instant gratification of direct action is always a temptation, and the black flag of anarchy – or at least a certain version of it – is likely to have more appeal than waiting for the next election. ·