Walking a thin line between anarchist principles and profit

June 16, 2011

A meeting of anarchists, progressives, a self-described “surly feminist” and others on the far left of the political spectrum is underway. They’re young and radical. They’re organizing intently. The matter at hand could be oppression, or the police state, or revolution.

But it’s not. It’s walking dogs.

They sit in a circle in the living room of a Petworth group house and tick off their “route updates,” which mostly consist of details about the new canine clients they’ve signed up.

That’s because business is booming.

The seven people present belong to Brighter Days, a dog walkers’ collective founded on anarchist principles. Last year, the five-year-old business grossed more than $250,000. Its members have equal ownership and make business decisions by reaching consensus during weekly meetings such as this one. Any of them can block any decision. They split their earnings evenly, have a group health insurance plan and cover for each other on days off. They even get paid vacation — seven weeks of it.

Moving from would-be anarchist to successful business owner brings a few quandaries. If you oppose the idea of a state, should you pay taxes? Is it ethically sound to care for the animals of professionals while they are at work at institutions such as the International Monetary Fund? And if you don’t believe in corporations, should you buy health insurance from one?

From the start, Brighter Days has taken a path in the middle, keeping as close to its anarchist ideals as possible while running a legitimate business.

“We made compromises about any number of things,” says Joshua Stephens, who started the collective in 2006 with his friend John Seager, the drummer in his punk band.

Like paying taxes, for starters. “A sure-fire way to get shut down and needlessly go to jail is not paying taxes,” Stephens says. “I admire people who do war-tax resistance, but they don’t do it as a business.”

The health insurance issue has also forced some reluctant interactions with the corporate world. “They’re all evil,” Seager, the co-founder, says of health insurance companies.

The collective’s disdain for the corporate world notwithstanding, its clients — Washingtonians who can afford to pay $16 for a 30-minute walk — are generally establishment types. “They’re definitely all professionals,” Seager says. “I would hesitate to slap any other label on all of them.”

In the beginning, when Stephens fielded the calls from Hill staffers, lawyers and bureaucrats who needed dog walkers, he would always take time to describe the collective’s mission, how it was employee-owned and their generous benefits, he said.

“Nine times out of ten, the answer I got back from people was, ‘Can I come work for you?’ ” Stephens says. “There is no better endorsement of anarchist politics than that.”

These days, not all of the collective members “circle their A’s” — a capital “A” encircled by a capital “O” is an anarchist symbol — but the group still has a strong sense that even through walking dogs, they can make a difference, however small. They give discounts to people who foster dogs. They donate money to social-justice nonprofit groups. Their Web servers run on wind energy.

Dog-walking is a common job for the city’s punk rockers, who are attracted to the flexible nature of the work. It’s one of a handful of occupations that seem to employ a disproportionate share of the counterculture kids who play in the region’s metal bands and attend its radical conferences.

Many of these jobs require a creative reconciliation with core beliefs. Just ask the line sitters who stand for hours so lobbyists can get into congressional hearings, the cooks who feed politicians and the bike messengers who carry documents for agencies.

Pragmatism generally wins out in the end. “An economy is an economy,” says Stephens, who left Brighter Days two years ago to form another anarchist dog-walking collective.

The business comes with few inherent challenges besides the weather — the rain, the cold, but most of all the heat.

“The heat gives me more of a surly attitude,” says Devin Miller, 29. “Last summer was really hard.”

It’s harder still for Seager, because he wears black most of the time.

“I need more white shirts,” Seager says. “I just so despise the concept of fashion.” Worrying about clothing is, at best, “one of the least-interesting human pursuits” and, at worst, “embarrassingly pathetic,” Seager says.

After heat, the dog walker’s biggest bane is boredom. The collective’s members usually walk the same dogs on the same streets at the same time, every day. Miller says he actually prefers the difficult dogs because they keep things interesting.

At one building in Adams Morgan, he walks six dogs almost every day. When he enters the first apartment, Johnny, a rescued basenji-terrier-Chihuahua mix, starts barking immediately. When Miller approaches, Johnny’s at the back of the room growling and shaking, and it takes a little work to get a leash on him.

Johnny shares an apartment with Lloyd, who has droopy eyes and big, floppy ears that are large even for a beagle. As usual, he’s on his owner’s bed, still and silent, and does not want to get up for a walk. “They’re almost a yin and a yang,” Miller says.

He makes the rounds to pick up Haley Barbour the pug and Rascal, a beagle mix who likes to stand on his hind legs. Lloyd waddles along at the back of the pack and flops down whenever he gets the chance. Miller talks to the dogs. “Come on, lovers,” he says as they pass the Planet Pet day-care and grooming center, which some of them frequent.

Lloyd is falling behind, which is no surprise, but he’s also favoring his front right paw. Miller squats to see what’s the matter and sees a spot of blood on one of Lloyd’s pads. He pushes on it and pulls out a shard of glass.

After dropping off the other dogs, he cradles Lloyd next to the kitchen sink in the owner’s apartment, a loft-style condo with designer lighting, high ceilings and baby accouterments everywhere. He washes Lloyd’s front paws with dish soap and a paper towel and calls the owner to let her know what happened.

It’s an unusual piece of drama in his day. “Usually the only reason I have to call people is if the dog is [pooping] slime,” he says.

He says this with the conviction of someone who stoops to pick up poop several times a day.

“I might be one of the grossest ones with it because I don’t really use bags,” Miller says. He prefers to grab a piece of litter from the street for environmental reasons.

“Occasionally, I’ll get it on my hands or under a nail,” he says while hurling just such a package into a street garbage can. “If anything, I think it boosts my immune system.”

Stephens says the concept for Brighter Days came to him nearly five years ago when he was a freelance dog walker working part-time at the Institute for Anarchist Studies in the District. He had visited Argentina shortly after its 2001 economic collapse and became fascinated with the success of worker-run cooperative factories there.

“I could have become a professor or something, but I was a dog walker, so I just started where I was,” he says.

His main focus in organizing the business was eradicating all forms of hierarchy. “Anarchism,” he says, “is about turning all relationships of domination into relationships of cooperation.”

Unfortunately, the classical anarchist texts don’t address the dominance inherent in almost all human relationships with animals, Stephens says. It’s only more recently that many animal-rights activists have started arguing that domestication is a self-serving form of oppression.

“I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong, but I also don’t know that it’s my biggest concern right now,” Stephens said. “I’m going to pick my battles, and that’s just not one of them — and I say that as a 17-year vegan.”

Stephens left Brighter Days after a bitter falling-out with the collective’s other members. “I think these people felt like stripping away the bosses and stripping away the hierarchy was a way of minimizing obligation,” he says. “It became evident that it was becoming a tool for people to have slacker lives, and I didn’t want that.”

Stephens went on to start a second anarchist dog-walking collective that encompasses Washington, Baltimore and New York, where he now lives. Members of the new collective don’t get to participate in decision-making for a year while they take a course in animal behavior and study texts on cooperative business management, the politics of revolution and alternative economics.

He says he’ll probably walk dogs for a very long time.

“I can’t imagine a better job,” he says. “I get paid to ride my bike, be nice to people and hang out with dogs. It’s like every 8-year-old kid’s dream.”

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