Search View Archive

Nonfiction: Youthful Anarchy

Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt (Autonomedia, 2007)

In Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, Richard Kempton has laid open one of the most intriguing and unthinkable passages in recent European history. Why unthinkable? Imagine this. In 1965, a group of disaffected Dutch youth, fed up with their society’s englobed, smug dedication to consumerism, began weekly performances around the base of an innocuous statue of a child, which they periodically doused with gasoline and wreathed in flames. Aside from a small coterie, nobody but the police paid much attention.

Nonetheless, the Provos, as they were called, persisted, fashioning a philosophy and series of wacky proposals with the goal of forcing Amsterdam to become a utopia. Their basic idea was: Since society was stifling all forms of self-expression, “its members can only become creative, individual people through anti-social conduct.”

Now here’s one surprise. The programs they began had the same whimsical, fantastical qualities as their musings, but they came to a sudden, charged life when the Provos quickly followed espousal with practice. Their most famous proposal was contained in this:

The asphalt terror of the motorized bourgeoisie has lasted long enough. … PROVO’s bicycle plan will liberate us from the car monster. PROVO introduces the WHITE BICYCLE, a piece of public property. The white bicycle is never locked. The white bicycle is the first free communal transport… The white bicycle can be used by anyone who needs it and then must be left for someone else. There will be more and more white bicycles until everyone can use white transport and the car peril is past.

They started distributing bikes in this way, and with great panache, bringing a utopian idea—the elimination of cars through the reinstitution of a gift economy—down to earth. (Personally, I was taken by their unfulfilled proposal “to have plants growing in boxes on top of automobiles and to have the automobiles drive on sunken roadways so that pedestrians would only see a procession of greenery.” Last summer, taxiing into Guangzhou with my wife, we found the tops of the concrete side barriers planted with proliferating eglantine and other hanging plants so that driving up a flower-bedecked entrance ramp we felt on a path into a greenhouse not a super highway.)

Let’s get to the unthinkable part: the riot.

The Situationists, to which the Provos were often compared, were infinitely more theoretically sophisticated and elegant, but no one ever claimed they had anything to do with setting off Paris’s May ’68 explosion. The Provos, in contrast, a small, penniless and powerless group of friends, dismissed by the press as pesky but irrelevant hooligans, launched a massive social protest.

The circumstance was the marriage of the Dutch crown princess to a former Nazi. While the Provos planned to do what little they could to disrupt the pre-ceremony procession, with smoke bombs and a counter-parade, they hardly imagined a turnout in the thousands to back them! “The wave of 5,000 young demonstrators astounded them and everyone else. The Provos’ call had touched off a frenzy of anti-authoritarianism directed against the Dutch bourgeoisie society.” Kempton’s point is a good (and encouraging) one. The media and authorities (including the Communist Party) had been as one in blocking any discouraging words about the wedding. Many in the public were outraged by the royal family’s alliance with this ex-Nazi and would join with any group who would spearhead a resistance. A second invaluable point to be garnered is that while the Provos’ outrageous techniques had little effect when aimed, for example, at furthering protests against the Vietnam war, they had great resonance when targeting a concocted media event, suggesting that, when given half a chance, anarchists prove much more adroit, quick-witted and amusing at opposing a spectacle than the authorities are at staging it.

There’s more to the Provos’ meteoric rise and fall (and Kempton’s book) that can be noted here, but overall it should be said the author has an impressive ability to hint, even while scrupulously portraying a historical unfolding, at the under layers of significance. This—till now—little-known story both shows the way a nearly unthinkable series of events took place and throws in— in describing the Provos’ decrees and stunts—many rib-tickling moments. Of how many historical accounts can you say that?


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

All Issues