TONIGHT, SONS OF ANARCHY, FX’s popular TV series about a fictional Californian biker gang, enters its sixth and penultimate season. Fans of the show will no doubt be looking forward to more beards, guns, and gasoline, as the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club fights its way tooth and nailbat through ever more sensational and fractious storylines. And it looks like they’ll get their wish: the FX promo released in July shows the central characters amid a violent, slo-mo melee, in a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all — anarchy as usual then.
But it wasn't always like this. The show’s opening season explored a more politically and historically engaged notion of anarchy than the chaotic, prurient representation that’s taken hold in the last four years. Before we’re plunged back into the new season and its characteristic maelstrom of violence and melodrama, it’s worth reflecting on the show’s initial exploration of radical politics, to see how Sons of Anarchy lost its way.
MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the series’ indebtedness to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the Bard does lend some cultural heft to a setup reminiscent of trashy biker movies of the 1960s: the eponymous Sons of Anarchy (SOA), a gang of bikers based in the fictional town of Charming, spend their time drinking, fighting, illegally running guns, and riding obsidian Harleys through the winding wastes of sun-drenched California. The pilot episode, however, impresses Shakespearean coordinates onto the show, and it’s pretty deftly done. Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the vice president of the SOA, is a kind of tortured Hamlet, whose customary suit of black is here a leather kutte (or vest) bearing the club’s patch: a grim reaper holding an M16 rifle-cum-scythe and a crystal ball in which the anarchy “A” appears. Rummaging through a pile of dusty old boxes, Jax unleashes the “ghost” of his dead father, SOA co-founder John Teller, in the form of a book written by him called The Life and Death of Sam Crow: How the Sons of Anarchy Lost Their Way. During the first season, Jax routinely takes time out from the killings and occasional castrations to pore over his father’s words, intoned in a gloomy, ponderous voiceover as the sun sinks over the SOA clubhouse. The SOA president Clay Morrow, played by a mean, grizzled Ron Perlman, is the treacherous Claudius, while Gemma Teller (Katy Segal), widow of John and now wife of Clay, is a powerful and vindictive version of Gertrude.
Everyone remembers Hamlet’s private vengeance theme: the foul and unnatural murder of the father and the procrastination of the son. However, when Jax picked up his father’s mouldering manifesto, the public theme of Shakespeare’s play — that of Hamlet’s responsibility to Denmark, his duty to root out rot in the state and set the divine order to right — became one of the show’s immediate concerns, albeit viewed somewhat askew. Reading his father’s words, seeing what the club once was and could be once more, Jax is convinced the old order must be restored. Its order, however, is not one of kings but of anarchists.
Premiering in the fall of 2008 in the immediate aftermath of the US subprime mortgage crisis and three years before the birth of the Occupy movement, Sons of Anarchy’s initial 13 episodes ran another storyline underneath the Hamlet one. Using John Teller’s book as a diegetic foothold, it sought to locate the origins of the gang within the context of 1960s counterculture and an avowedly anarchist ideology. Referencing the work of anarchist writers like Emma Goldman and gesturing towards anarchist debates about liberty, the law, and so on, Teller’s book allowed the show to juxtapose the original vision of the SOA with the gang’s contemporary incarnation, plainly corrupted by power and paranoia. The first season seemed to lament the passing of a more egalitarian, noncoercive social order, and hinted that future seasons would see the pull towards a pure past in conflict with the drag of a more sullied present. If the Hamlet storyline riffed on the Sons of the show’s title (“I am too much in the sun,” Hamlet spits at Claudius), this one explored its anarchy in a specifically American context, beyond a pejorative definition of mere chaos:
Jax: When you and Dad hooked up — he ever talk to you about his vision? About what he wanted from the club?
Gemma: His vision was — you know … what it is. A brotherhood. Family.
Jax: And running guns? He want that? Seems like his original idea for the MC was something simpler — you know, social rebellion. He called it “a Harley commune.” It wasn’t outlaw; it was real hippie shit.
Gemma: We had a lot of bright ideas back then. We were kids.
Initially, Jax’s study of The Life and Death of Sam Crow features in the final minutes of each episode and works as a kind of weighty reflection on the week’s action. In episode two (“Seeds”) Jax reads his father’s notes on living beyond the reassuring bonds of society: without the social regulation of violence, freedom of the outside has its own problems. “Most of us were not violent by nature,” Teller remarks with foreboding; “We had our problems with authority but none of us were sociopaths. We came to realize that when you move your life off the social grid, you give up the safety that society provides.” These wistful thoughts stand in stark contrast to the various unfettered acts of brutality committed by Jax and the others earlier in the episode (one particularly bloody scene has a victim taking an axe to the head).
Later, in episode four (“The Patch-Over”) the anarchist foundation of Teller’s remarks is made explicit. On the wall of a cave somewhere in the Nevada hills, scrawled in red, Jax finds abridged lines from anarchist Emma Goldman’s 1917 essay “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” and reads them aloud:
Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals.
“When I saw those words,” John Teller’s voiceover tells us, as his son reads his book, “it was like someone ripped them from the inside of my head. […] The concept was pure, simple, true. It inspired me, lit a rebellious fire.” Anarchism is the restless, beating heart of the original Sons of Anarchy. Before being usurped by the ideologically vacuous notion of mayhem and disorder, the word meant social revolution, political dissent, freedom. It was an ethos.
Goldman’s simple anarchist principles form the basis of Teller’s original vision: the rejection of religion, property, and government and the production of a noncoercive collective. However, as he later remarks, “[U]ltimately I learned the lesson that Goldman, [Pierre Joseph] Proudhon and the others learned. […] Most human beings only think they want freedom; in truth they yearn for the bondage of social order, rigid laws, materialism”: the schism between the SOA’s founding principles and their systematic weekly violation by Clay and his boys generates a dramatic tension that falls, finally, on the shoulders of Jax Teller.
Religion is rarely addressed in the show so it’s unclear how much Goldman’s first principle is transgressed; however, not only do the Sons plainly believe in personal property (a notion abhorrent to Proudhon), they cleave to it, orient their lives around it, and seem to derive all satisfaction from ensuring an accumulation of it in the form of illegal firearms. Similarly, though they’re frequently at odds with some kind of federal organization that’s out to get them (usually the ATF), the SOA’s own laws and customs are often shown to be every bit as restrictive and repressive as that of the US government, if not more so. In “The Patch-Over,” avenging an ill-chosen comment about Gemma made by Kip, Clay taunts him and beds his romantic interest, Cherry. This whole scene not only foregrounds the rigid, unjust hierarchy of the club’s structure that finds Clay (the king) at its apex and Kip (a “prospect” or rookie) at the bottom, but illustrates the lowly status of women in this sclerotic macho society. Finally, though the SOA regularly vote on matters pertaining to the club, which would appear to suggest the club’s noncoercive organization, members are frequently abused, threatened, and cajoled into sacrificing their better judgment so that the club (perhaps better named Sons of Bureaucracy) may prevail.
There’s an obvious correlation to be made here between the respective fates of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club and Sons of Anarchy the TV show. On the one hand we find a once anarchistic club, which sees its radical ideas eroded as it progressively capitulates to easy money and a prevailing capitalist culture. On the other, a politically engaged TV program similarly loses its radical timbre by bowing to the demands of a culture of sensationalized televisual violence. In both cases an ephemeral spark of radical thought is quickly smothered by mainstream forces.
Although I’m tempted to lament the disappearance of anarchism as an explicit theme, I think it’s important to note that by making manifest (albeit unwittingly) this very process of ideological erosion, Sons of Anarchy also invokes the historical trajectory of anarchism in the United States. In other words, not merely a representation of radical social forms but also representing the progressive dissolution of these forms, Sons of Anarchy recalls the fortunes of numerous other movements in the history of American anarchism. A recent instance of this might be the coalescence and subsequent dispersal of Occupy Wall Street’s quasi-anarchist collective in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Before that, groups like the Youth International Party’s (“Yippies”) idea of an anarchistic New Nation (“based on cooperation not competition”) also bloomed and withered in the late 1960s. In fact, if we go right back to the beginning of anarchism’s appearance in America we see the same pattern of upsurge and collapse.
In the 19th century, the so-called “golden age” of anarchism dawned in the US, accompanied by massive amounts of dissident tracts and newspapers promoting anarchist ideas. In contrast to their counterparts in Europe (but like the original Sons — men “not violent by nature”), the writers of these works largely supported a nonviolent agenda and concerned themselves more with “propaganda of the word” than “propaganda of the deed.” These ideas then took physical shape in the form of independent anarchist communities that look like John Teller’s “Harley commune,” being similarly horizontal in arrangement and founded on the notion of individual sovereignty. The mid-1800s saw colonies spring up around the United States in places like New York, Ohio, and Washington, offering anarchists liveable alternatives to coercive social forms. Anarchism was palatable to a lot of Americans at this time and in some quarters it was even affirmed as a version of the legendary pioneer spirit, upon which the nation was founded.
The “golden age” was brought to a swift end, however, by the waves of anti-anarchist sentiment and anti-anarchy laws that followed the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago (for which four anarchists were controversially hanged) and the 1901 assassination of President McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Popular support for anarchism dwindled as the movement found itself the focus of Theodore Roosevelt’s “war on anarchists.” Its mouthpieces were censored and its enclaves were scattered to the wind. Individualist anarchist communities folded from internal or external pressures and their residents moved back into the American mainstream and out of history. Nevertheless, though none of these communities lasted more than a decade, as historian James J. Martin remarks in his excellent study Men Against the State (1957), their objective was not longevity but rather temporary livability. In other words, the durability of the community itself was less important than its duration, during which equity and free-will prevailed. I’m inclined to see this as a recurring feature of anarchist social arrangements and, as the fate of the SOA demonstrates, an anarchist ideal is eclipsed when the survival of the community takes precedence over the individual voices of its members.
Viewed negatively, this history of anarchism in the United States seems to suggest that the status quo must always be reconstituted following an anarchist eruption: just as Fortinbras must return at the end of Hamlet to ensure the monarchy is set right, Sons of Anarchy must become the overblown enterprise it is now, and Jax must forsake his anarchist pretensions and become the tyrannical president Gemma wants him to be. The consistency with which we find this waxing and waning, efflorescence and decay, however, also attests to the persistence of anarchist ideas in the American political and cultural imaginary: though anarchist events may not last long, a longing for the duration of livability endures.
Diarmuid Hester is a doctoral researcher in English at the University of Sussex and holds a John W. Kluge Center fellowship at the Library of Congress.