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Should The Left Embrace Preparedness Culture?

A few days after a massive power outage in North Carolina in early December, Margaret Killjoy shared a thread on preparedness in response to the outages. Alongside the usual emergency supplies like extra water, batteries, medicine, heat sources, and food, Killjoy noted something not usually included in preparedness toolkits: “organize against the far right so that they are less capable of shooting up power stations.”

Killjoy, an author and musician who lives in the mountains of West Virginia, hosts the anarchist prepping podcast Live Like The World Is Dying. Since its creation just before the pandemic began, it has grown into a valuable and widely-accessed resource for people wondering how to deal with any number of emergencies in their communities. 

The recent sabotages of power stations across the United States, along with increasing rates of climate-related infrastructure devastation, have prompted people to wonder: what do we do if the lights go out in our community? Killjoy says the answer is simple. We need to embrace preparedness culture.

Alleged Right-Wing Attacks On Infrastructure

The reasons behind the North Carolina power outage are still officially unknown, but some locals believe that it was part of a far-right protest against a drag show in nearby Southern Pines. (LGBTQ+ people in the area reported feeling a heightened sense of fear after the blackouts.) The outages are part of an uptick in targeting of energy infrastructure across the United States, responsibility for some of which has been taken by neo-Nazi and far-right groups.

Killjoy says that intentional attacks on utilities infrastructure from fascist groups can be understood as “an accelerationist technique” and part of a far-right strategy of pushing society to a breaking point to encourage social collapse. In the vacuum and chaos, she says, these groups believe they can seize power.

This isn’t the first time the idea has emerged in the United States; it’s practically a national playbook. Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter theory promoted social breakdown leading to a race war. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, author and activist scott crow documented how gangs of white vigilantes were perpetrating racist violence amid the chaos. (Multiracial communities quickly organized to defend against the attacks, and the white supremacists went back underground.) Back in December 2020, a neo-Nazi-led plot to wreck the power grid was foiled in Colorado, and last year, Canadian and American white supremacists planned a mass murder that they hoped would start a race war.

While Killjoy says it’s unlikely these tactics would succeed given how extreme they are and modern America’s tactical preference for systemic disenfranchisement over racist violence, the tenor and visibility of fascism in America via culture war attacks on marginalized communities suggests a need for heightened vigilance. 

The Prepper in Pop Culture

For decades, the pop culture archetype of the prepper has been colorfully right-wing and individualist: a paranoid, libertarian recluse stockpiling weapons, ammunition, and canned beans while waiting for some cataclysmic event. Killjoy says we’ve built up a “mythos of the loner who builds and hides in a bunker and eats camp food until their appendix bursts and they die.” In this scenario, virtually all other people are viewed as a threat because of either malicious intent or desperation for access to resources.

This association has prevented people on the political left from engaging with preparedness culture, says Killjoy. “I think people are way too quick to give up cultural terrain to the right-wing,” she says. “People are way too quick to be like, ‘Oh, a right-wing person is interested in the following thing so I cannot be,’ instead of saying, ‘How is our take on this different?’”

Killjoy says the popular portrayal of prepping has also led people to neglect the real and worsening conditions of emergency around us. “We tend as a society to look at preppers as people who are waiting for nuclear winter or zombies, but by and large preparedness is about responding to disaster, and disaster is happening, even just in the United States, always,” says Killjoy. “More people are starting to realize that they are less insulated from disaster than they grew up thinking that they are.”

Individual and Community Preparedness

Killjoy says that even more than a bug-out bag packed with survival supplies, the single most important thing someone could consider doing is knowing who their neighbors are. That could mean being friends with them, or just being cordial, but it could also mean marking which ones aren’t safe and who to avoid.

“During times of disaster, each other are the main things that we have,” she says. “Knowing that ahead of time is at least as important as knowing where your secondary source of potable water is.”

Similarly, Killjoy notes that halting the advance of the far-right is a communal task, not an individual one. That’s why community defense is as critical as personal defense. Personal defense, says Killjoy, includes those things that an individual does to keep themself safe. For Killjoy, who has been doxxed and threatened by the far-right, that includes a handgun and concealed carry permit. 

Community defense is a larger and more difficult project, but also a potentially more effective one. Fascist movements often move to shut down cultural and social infrastructure, so when far-right mobs crash Pride rallies, Black churches, or abortion clinics, community organization is the only viable protection. Killjoy points to recent community defenses of drag shows, including large crowds of supporters flanked by allies open-carrying long rifles, as an example of community preparedness.

Killjoy says that while the rifles demonstrate to armed far-right crowds that “we can’t be fucked with,” they’re just a small piece of community preparedness. There’s also keeping track of each other and what issues we’re dealing with—for example, threats from bigots or police harassment—alongside monitoring and exposing white supremacist groups organizing in your area.

“Possibly nothing has been more effective at pulling the rug out from underneath far-right organizing in this country than exposing people for not just being a regular right-wing person, but a bonafide Nazi,” says Killjoy. “All of that falls under community defense.”

Most right-wing prepping culture tends to depict the ideal survival situation as rural and isolated from other people, and while Killjoy lives rurally, she says urban and suburban spaces are at least as good for preparedness due to proximity to community and infrastructure.

Prepping For The Worst

Killjoy says that while society encourages a division between these things—the right insisting on the importance of the individual, the left on the importance of the community—they strengthen one another when both are tended to in prepping culture. When the pandemic hit, a friend of Killjoy’s had to caretake for an elderly person but couldn’t find any suitable masks. Killjoy had a supply of P100 masks for her earthquake preparedness kit, and shared them. 

“Having resources available to you means you’re in a better place to help other people,” she says. “By being able to take care of ourselves, we’re able to require less from the mutual aid networks that we might build. By requiring less from those networks, we’re better able to help them.”

It’s these qualities of prepping culture that Killjoy says move people toward engaging more deeply with their own lives and their communities. Acknowledging the stakes and what could happen will, ideally, push people to fight to avoid worst-case scenarios.

“We can all wish things were like they used to be, but they’re not,” says Killjoy. “I think people are used to avoiding taking responsibility for what happens in the world, and assuming that experts will handle whatever the problem is. We’re all waiting for the government to save us, and I don’t believe that’s a rational way to survive any crisis. Any look at history shows that very clearly.”

Attacks on power infrastructure and anti-LGBTQ+ hate both spiked in 2022, and while it’s possible those facts are coincidental, it might pay off in the long run to treat them as correlated. Killjoy says that after decades of comparable stability, people have grown accustomed to things working as they should. Prepping is a long term investment in making sure that when the lights go out, we’re ready to take care of ourselves and each other.

Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario.