Rich people ruin everything. Especially rebellion. None of us need HBO’s The Anarchists to deliver that revelation; We live the truth of it. In this respect, Todd Schramke’s documentary series should feel contemporary.
For those seeking an understanding of the anarchist movement, which requires ignoring the definition espoused by Fox News, Schramke’s investigation offers clarity without necessarily landing on a single crystallized answer. But if you’re looking for a tingly TV hump that’s weirder than fiction, pay attention. Throwing yourself into this story is like snorting a splint, only to discover too late that your fun has been cut with an itchy powder. And once that stuff gets lodged in your membranes, boy hello, it’s impossible to flush out.
The Anarchists looks like perfect, weird-feeling obsession documentary material, certainly. It may not be explicitly about a crazed cult or a con artist out of the ordinary, but you’ll see shades of both in Jeff Berwick. Granted, Berwick lacks the dangerous poignancy of, say, Ma Anand Sheela, and he’s nowhere near as good a con artist on par with Fyre Festival CEO Billy McFarland.
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What Berwick was offering was real: a bootstrap gathering that quickly became a destination for wealthy counterculture tourists interested in cryptocurrencies, including members of the Wu-Tang Clan and former Congressman Ron Paul.
Throwing yourself into this story is like snorting a splint, only to discover too late that your fun has been cut with an itchy powder.
The slick Canadian freedom brother describes himself on one of his websites as an anarcho-capitalist, libertarian and “freedom fighter against mankind’s two greatest enemies, the state and central banks”. He presents himself as the lovable “ideas” guy, one of dozens to pop up on our screens and social media feeds with promises of a life to emulate.
Schramke follows a subgroup of self-proclaimed anarchists who have heeded Berwick’s call, luring them to Acapulco, Mexico, and Anarchapulco, a “freedom conference” he founded in 2015. Conceived as a retreat intended to bring together the anarchist community and explore the practice of philosophy in the real world, it quickly became a cryptocurrency sales thon, inundated with catchphrases such as “the liberty space.”
But the core values of anarchy resonated with a few like-minded souls who flocked to Mexico in search of community. Others experienced nothing but disillusionment, violence, and death, whether as a result of falling into the destructive side of a lifestyle that fed their lower impulses, or as victims of local drug cartels. It doesn’t help that Anarchapulco welcomed some figures who interpreted anarchy as lawlessness and gave them the green light to act out their most dangerous impulses.
Berwick’s image doesn’t benefit from this aggressive mainstreaming of weirdness; In fact, he’s such an ordinary snake oil salesman that his presence quickly turns from a linchpin to a nuisance. From the first episode it’s clear to see that he will be the last man standing when everything implodes; He’s got the generic look of a one percent jock with too much hair product, the kind of guy who definitely shouldn’t be in a rap video. (Take that as a warning. And make sure you have a pillow nearby to stem your screams.)
In the documentary series, he portrays himself as an average millionaire entrepreneur who finds his epiphany in an anti-US Reserve conspiracy theory manual. Digesting his teachings and other anti-central bank writings while fighting his way around the world at “a 100-country party,” he was drawn to Acapulco’s reputation for lawlessness.
He settled there, married an Acapulco native named Kena (who is seen but not heard) and relaunched as a champion of true freedom by founding a conference called Anarchapulco in 2015.
Acapulco, Mexico – “The Anarchists” (Courtesy of HBO)
The Anarchists eventually arranges itself around three major narratives related to Berwick and this event, but before the series finds itself we are introduced to a variety of characters who gather around Berwick, some of whom genuinely believe in anarchy and live their principles. One of the earliest testimonies from Erika Harris, a black woman tired of living nine to five and genuinely looking for a different way of life, makes a convincing argument that it is possible to live in some version of self-governing bliss .
Harris seems genuinely relaxed, like she has it all figured out, and maintains that aura of lightness every time we see her.
But she is treated more as a leveling tool than as a person with a larger story to tell. That may be because she’s one of the few “average,” stable people who remain part of the anarchist community that still exists around Berwick. She seems like a nice person to spend time with. That doesn’t necessarily make her the right character type for such a work.
Nathan Freeman and his wife Lisa fill that bill. The couple left the United States to live as anarchists in Mexico for the sake of their children, along with Lily Forester and John Galton, the adopted names of a young anarchist couple, to flee to Anarchapulco to avoid drug offenses related to cannabis possession.
If you recognize John Galton’s name, it could be because you’ve either read the sacred conservative text from which it is derived or one of the 2019 international headlines about the murder of an American fugitive in Mexico. All documentaries of this stripe involve some sort of crime surrounded by questions of guilt.
The fact that Schramke met and filmed the couple before their shocking tragedy allows those left behind to clear up some misconceptions about what happened. Some of it smacks of shameless victimization to protect the Anarchapulco brand, which it’s essentially become in its third and fourth years.
Untangling and organizing these narratives requires a degree of discipline, even before considering cryptocurrency’s outsized role in this story.
The Anarchists”… reveals the dividing line between utopia and hell [is] effectively the same as the one opening up divisive democracies around the world.
But Schramke’s ability to pull all of these narratives into a coherent form proves sporadic and limited at best. This may be a product of the filmmaker’s proximity to this motley, densely populated community over six years; A few supposedly central actors appear in archive material or are mentioned in stories without anyone explaining why they need to be mentioned.
Perhaps his stylistic aim is to capture the chaos of the times he was chronicling, but such choices add to the slack that besmirches the most important lessons in this cautionary tale, beginning with the community’s failure to settle on a single definition of anarchy some.
Right at the beginning of the series, Schramke shares his definition as “the organization of society on the basis of voluntary cooperation, without political institutions or hierarchical government”.
Berwick explains that Anarchapulco has no leader while positioning himself as the liege lord of the area. The Freemans play administrative support of his vision up to a point. Forester and Galton view it as an extension of agorism, which they reduce to “avoiding taxes and living on your ability”. The common motto “tax is fraud” is pretty much the only part of the concept that everyone is on board with. Everything else is fungible.
Forester and Galton become the soul of this community and this series, and their well-explored stories are the best aspects of later episodes, where the filmmaker gets more involved in the plot. It is primarily through Forester that we gain a better understanding of how the system fails trauma survivors and why a supposedly stateless way of life would appeal to someone like them.
Meanwhile, her friend Jason Henza’s experience shows why such communities often prove to be mirages.
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If “The Anarchists” finds any semblance of rhythm, it shows that the dividing line between utopia and hell was fundamentally the same as that which opened democracies around the world – that is, everything falls apart once the haves have their backs on the haves sweep -nothing.
A few years ago, “The Anarchists” seemed more riveting than it does now, with the babble spewed on Anarchapulco’s stage being badly tarnished by Fox News and others in the far-right ecosystem. This does not mean that our society is leaning more towards anarchy, but rather shows how normalized conspiracy theories are.
But whatever attraction it may muster, it boils down to something far more fundamental, explained in the words of Juan Galt (yup, no relationship): The anarchy dream crashes against the reality of human conflict and drama, and s**t hits that Fan. When that last bit goes down, you can count on the Berwicks to follow the world with their actual truth. “As bad as the world is,” he concludes, “you can just ignore it and work on yourself.”
The Anarchists premieres Sunday, July 10 at 10 p.m. on HBO. Watch a trailer via YouTube.
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