Steampunk, with its retro-futuristic technology and Victorian-era aesthetic, has always had a rebellious and anti-establishment streak. Many steampunk works feature strong anti-authoritarian themes that resonate with anarchist philosophy and politics. In this article, we’ll explore the close relationship between anarchism and the steampunk genre.
- What is Anarchism?
- How Steampunk Relates to Anarchism
- Examples of Anarchist Themes in Steampunk Works
- Notable Anarchist Artists and Writers in the Steampunk Community
- Steampunk as Thought Experiment for Anti-Authoritarian Alternatives
- Steampunk Style as Anti-Establishment Aesthetic
- Wrapping Up: Steampunk and Anarchism
What is Anarchism?
Before diving into anarchism and steampunk, let’s review some basics about anarchist philosophy:
“Anarchism is a political philosophy and movement that rejects coercion and hierarchy in favor of self-organized, voluntary cooperation. Anarchists advocate for the abolition of government and other forms of top-down authority, arguing that people should instead organize their social relations and institutions through horizontal networks based on mutual aid and free association.”
Some key principles of anarchism include:
- Opposition to all forms of authoritarian control and coercive hierarchy
- Advocating decentralization, voluntary cooperation, and egalitarian networks
- Emphasis on autonomy, freedom, and human flourishing
- Questioning and skepticism toward power and authority
- Rejecting the legitimacy of the state, capitalism, and social domination
Anarchism has a rich history dating back to the 19th century, with major figures like Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and Peter Kropotkin helping develop and spread anarchist ideas.
There are also different branches and schools of anarchist thought, from individualist anarchism to social anarchism.
But they share a common rejection of coercive authority and a desire for a more accessible, more cooperative society.
Now let’s look at how these anarchist values connect to steampunk.
How Steampunk Relates to Anarchism
Steampunk fiction often promotes political themes that align with anarchist thought:
- Emphasis on individual freedom and voluntary cooperation
- Distrust of corrupt authorities and hierarchical institutions
- Positive portrayal of grassroots networks and mutual aid
- Creativity in designing technology on a human scale
- Imagining alternative futures or histories that break from domination
The scrappy DIY ethos of steampunk, with its vintage hacked machines and emphasis on imagination, fits well with the anarchist desire for autonomy and decentralized, bottom-up solutions.
Many steampunk works also portray the social upheavals and rebellions of the 19th century, when anarchist politics began to emerge and spread.
The tensions between authoritarian regimes and pro-democracy radicals in this era are mirrored in retro-futuristic steampunk settings.
Overall, the overlap between anarchism and steampunk makes sense when you consider their shared values:
- Distrust of domineering authorities
- Desire for freedom and voluntary cooperation
- Creativity, resourcefulness, and community
- Imagining alternatives to the status quo
While not all steampunk fiction is explicitly anarchist, the genre captures the anarchistic spirit of questioning power structures and envisioning more egalitarian possibilities.
Examples of Anarchist Themes in Steampunk Works
Many steampunk books, films, and games feature strong anti-authoritarian elements and anarchist political overtones. Here are some notable examples:
- The Difference Engine – This foundational steampunk novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is set in an alternate 1855 where 17th-century inventor Charles Babbage perfected his Analytical Engine, sparking a computer revolution a century early. The story explores a Britain where the Industrial Revolution accelerated rapidly, widening class divides and social unrest. Anarchist and anti-government themes emerge as the protagonists get caught up in technological upheaval, spying, and political protests.
- Perdido Street Station – China Mieville’s sci-fi/steampunk novel portrays a corrupt city-state ruled by an authoritarian regime, where neglected cyborg-like humans called Remades are forced into brutal servitude. A far-left radical group called the Motley Crew oppose the government through protests and direct action. The story explores themes of political oppression, labor rights, and inter-species cooperation.
- The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia’s fantasy steampunk novel is set in a Clockwork City of mechanical servants owned and controlled by the elite. But an intelligent robot named Mattie begins to gain sentience and autonomy, allowing her to question the slavery-like system she was created for. As she connects with other oppressed mechanica, Mattie sparks an uprising against the ruling Technic League.
Movies & TV
- Steamboy – This 2004 anime film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo follows a young inventor in Victorian England who is caught in a conflict over a powerful steam orb that can be used as an energy source. Anarchist anti-government themes emerge as the protagonist must fight against military factions who want to use the orb for domination and profit.
- Lost Girl – This Canadian TV series features a bisexual succubus named Bo who learns she belongs to an underground society called Fae. The anarchist faction of the Fae oppose the tyrannical leaders and attempt a coup. Bo must navigate the ensuing chaos and shifting loyalties.
- Dishonored – This steampunk-inspired game takes place in the plague-ravaged city of Dunwall, ruled by an oppressive aristocracy. The player takes on the role of Corvo Attano, an assassin out for revenge against the tyrannical rulers who framed him for murder. The anarchist-coded rebels called The Loyalists aid Corvo in his quest to expose the political conspiracy.
- Frostpunk – In this survival city-builder game, players try to manage the steampunk metropolis of Frostpunk after a global ice age. While fighting for survival, decisions must be made about how authoritarian or egalitarian the city should be. More radical choices allow for anarchist-style communal rule and citizen initiatives.
As these examples illustrate, steampunk fiction frequently grapples with political issues like abuse of power, social inequality, slavery, and democratic reform – all key concerns for anarchist philosophy. The emphasis on technology as a tool of liberation rather than oppression also aligns with anarchist ideals.
Notable Anarchist Artists and Writers in the Steampunk Community
The steampunk subculture has attracted many anarchist participants who incorporate political themes into their work. Here are a few influential anarchist voices in steampunk:
Margaret Killjoy – This author, musician and activist started SteamPunk Magazine which emphasizes radical politics in the steampunk community. Killjoy’s fiction mixes steampunk and fantasy with anarchist communist themes.
James Ng – This Malaysian-Chinese artist creates intricate steampunk sculptures and illustrations often dealing with colonialism, racism, and inequality. He aims to add cultural representation within the genre.
Strangers in a Tangled Wildernesses – This anarchist publishing collective has printed steampunk-inspired fiction as well as The Steampunk’s Guide to Anarchist Revolution which mixes DIY technology and speculative fiction.
Steimapunk Emma Goldman – An anonymous punk rock musician who promotes anarchist politics through steampunk music and aesthetics. Goldman was an influential real-life anarchist organizer and writer.
The Catastrophone Orchestra – This anarchist music collective combines punk and steampunk elements while focusing on environmental issues and social critiques in their lyrics.
Steampunk as Thought Experiment for Anti-Authoritarian Alternatives
One reason anarchists are drawn to steampunk is the genre’s ability to act as a thought experiment for imagining anti-authoritarian alternatives to current systems.
Steampunk worlds allow exploration of how technology could develop or political conflicts play out if key historical events had gone differently.
The retro-futurism extrapolates the 19th century in utterly new directions, with rebellions, inventions, diverse cultures using steam tech, and radical political movements rising to the forefront.
This ability to diverge from dominant timelines helps illustrate how the status quo is not inevitable, but contingent. Things could have developed in far more egalitarian and liberating ways under alternative historical conditions.
The “what ifs” steampunk explores allows readers to envision other possibilities outside the authoritarian structures that exist now.
While not all steampunk fiction focuses on anarchist revolution, the genre illustrates how dominant power structures are impermanent and open to change through technological and social progress.
Imagining different steampunk pasts and presents can inspire us to fight for freer futures.
Steampunk Style as Anti-Establishment Aesthetic
Beyond the political themes in steampunk fiction, the style and aesthetics of steampunk also tie into anarchist values.
Steampunk fashion often has a rough, handcrafted DIY look to it, valorizing the work and creativity of individuals rather than mass production and conformity.
Accessorizing with leather, spikes, chains, and combat boots signals a rebellious spirit. And incorporating gadgets and vintage clockwork designs aesthetically symbolizes building technology on a human scale, not domination from above.
This fits with the anarchist view of style and art as means for individual expression, not systems of control. The punk/goth crossover vibe also suits the radical non-conformist streak in anarchist thought.
In this way, the avant-garde costuming and retro-futuristic visuals of steampunk repurpose technology and fashion as tools of liberation.
The imagination and agency of people are highlighted instead of imposing rigid norms.
Wrapping Up: Steampunk and Anarchism
To summarize, anarchism and steampunk overlap in important ways:
- Shared anti-authoritarian values and perspectives
- Distrust of abusive institutions, preference for voluntary cooperation
- Promoting individual autonomy alongside mutual aid networks
- Imagining alternative futures or histories that break hierarchical systems
- Aligning creativity and human-scale technology with egalitarian ideals
Yet while many steampunk works emphasize politics, some aim more for escapist adventure. So an explicit anarchist agenda is not guaranteed. The genre invites radical imaginings but also divergent interpretations.
Overall, the intersection between anarchism and steampunk continues to evolve as authors, artists, and fans engage the political dimensions of this retro-futuristic style.
But the undercurrent of resistance in steampunk, and its vision for more liberating possibilities, will likely continue appealing to anarchists who share that rebellious spirit.