Bristol Anarchist Bookfair: Beyond the Fringe?

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September 17, 2008 by cosmoakacitizensmith

Back – caught ya looking for the same thing?

Bristol Anarchist Bookfair managed to see some of the best weather we’ve had over the last few weeks – and in September! Workshops worked out, stallholders pedalled their wares, and outside punters hung out, chatted, hung loose in the cheerful sunshine, and listened to some fine acoustic vibes.

I was dead keen this time round, 4 and a half workshops out of a possible six with a short break for lunch, and still begging for more by the end! Keen or wot?

Sometimes, you just gotta have brain food.

There was some expert analysis of the current global economic woes first up, and one for the best features of this workshop was that it presented the information extremely clearly and without any visual aids. It underlined the fact that at this stage, no-one, not even the banks themselves, know what the future will hold. We’re watching history unfold before our eyes.

Next up, the antidote. Parecon, or Participatory Economics, devised as an anarchist economic theory and practice by Michael Albert and others in the US. Is it the jewel in the crown that strengthens our weakest link, or a complete nightmarish bureaucratic hell for the 21st century? The jury’s still out in that one, I’ll let you know when I’ve read the books. (Check out Beyond Utopia).

The What is Anarchism? presentation confirmed what I’ve suspected for a long time. There are many amongst us who really haven’t a clue what it’s all about. Mind you, I have to include myself in that category sometimes. But I think we’re gonna have to get a bit wiser as to what it is we’re actually demanding of people. A bit more inspiration to go with the theory would also be a help here.

The Transition Town movement to me has incredible potential as a vehicle to realise our goal of a decentralised, non-hierarchical society whilst addressing very practical ideas to combat climate change. However, in my experience it seems lost in a lot of dewy-eyed, drippy niavity. Funny that, seems lot be a lot of peoples’ feelings, judging by the Rocky Road to Transition workshop!!

The Trapese Collective have written another engaging piece about their experiences in the movement, and the conflict it engenders netween those who anticipate conflict from entrenched vested interests in the pursuit of environmental justice, and those who erm…don’t.

Well, far be it from me to piss on fireworks, or look for confrontation when it is neither there nor necessary, but challenging vested interests does tend to throw up a lot of conflict. There seems a sense of inevitability about it, really. Not so, argue some of the voices in Transition Town. Check out the red corner here and the blue corner here, and make your own mind up!

(Picture from Rising Tide)

There’s also a very interesting debate sparked by environmental-agitator-it’s-ok-to-like-according-to-the-Guardian George Monbiot, about the role of anarchism in the quest for climate justice. He writes here. He gets it in the neck from anarchists here:

It’s a fairly ridiculous argument really – Monbiot is typical of the kind of people I think of as the “global civil society” project, people who are attached to the spectacle and capitalism but want to humanise it. They’re obviously counterposed to the people seeking to oppose alienation and create horizontal networked communities. And while they have next to no power, they are exceptionally loud in the media and academia because of their structural positions. Ultimately what Monbiot wants is for the state to solve all the social problems. Of course it would have to be a properly “democratic” state, meaning a state run by the “global civil society” project and not by the capitalists or the right-wing statists. But it’s still basically about a fantasy that alienated forms of social domination can solve the underlying problems of capitalism. Also – Climate Camp has always been primarily a movement of autonomous activists; it is Monbiot who is turning it aside.

He obviously can’t tell the difference between anarchism in its activist form and anarcho- or libertarian-capitalism. This kind of Hobbesian nonsense that absence of the state means war of all against all – “by eliminating the state, both remove such restraints as prevent the strong from crushing the weak” – would have been rejected as the mythology it is centuries ago, were it not for its usefulness for certain political agendas. Since Monbiot has seen directly how societies without the state or capitalism work (in West Papua, writing “Poisoned Arrows”), he should know very well that this mythology is false. As for the risk of the right (Mail readers) using freedom to attack dissidents – it’s a risk but not a big one; in fact the state keeps the right constantly mobilised in its psychology of resentment and passive aggression – it is fairly clear that these kinds of groups are not at all held back by state repression, they are simply unable to turn out any significant numbers for action (look at the measly 100 or so for the “Pro-Test” vivisection demo for example), and they dissolve in a second when the order supporting them is no longer there.

This is actually a variant of the old Stalinist tactic of concentrating on some “immediate” issue as a way to avoid challenging the system, what used to be called the “primary contradiction” – “of course we all want a better world, but right now let’s concentrate on this…” Of course this approach requires reformism, since the apparently “easiest” way to solve any given “immediate” problem is to ask the powers that be to sort it out; in the meantime one has to support or turn a blind eye to the failings of those who are “objectively” on the right side (in relation to the one core issue). I find the general modality pretty insidious. Climate change is just the latest of a series of imminent catastrophes which have served as the foil for this model – thirty years ago it would have been the threat of nuclear war, before that the risk of fascism, and before that, the catastrophic collapse of capitalism and the “choice of socialism or barbarism”.

The reality of the crisis is pretty immaterial to how it’s used. The thing is that nobody really knows exactly how urgent climate change is – it might be that we are already too late to prevent the worst effects, or it might be that we have decades. We also don’t know how, and whether, capitalism will try to solve it without our input. Capitalism is trying to solve climate change through means such as markets of carbon credits, biofuels, nuclear power and hybrid cars. And through attacks on the weakest and poorest as always – bin charges and regulations, rising commodity prices, the food price crunch owing partly to biofuels, the devastation of swathes of rainforest for biofuel production, war against the Tuareg for access to uranium, etc. There are two separate issues here: whether the response will “work” to avert the worst effects of climate change, and whether the response is politically acceptable to environmentalists. The former is a moot point – climate activists will generally say, no it won’t work, because (for example) the carbon credits scheme will just redistribute existing emissions, biofuel production may have little effect on carbon (since one is still burning carbon-producing plants), etc. But supposing it does “work” – it comes at a terrible cost, of starvation of even more of the world’s poor, destruction of rainforests, the risk of nuclear disaster, etc. So it doesn’t so much “solve” as “displace” the crisis.

“Or perhaps she intends to build the installations required to turn the energy economy around – wind farms, wave machines, solar thermal plants in the Sahara, new grid connections and public transport systems – herself?”

– the usual strategy is actually to attempt to reduce energy consumption. For instance, the DIY solution to transport issues is cycling; the problem of road safety is taken up through Critical Mass. Local energy production such as homemade turbines are also part of the DIY ecology scene.

“Governments and corporations, whether we like it or not, currently control both money and power. Unless we manage to mobilise them, we stand a snowball’s chance in climate hell of stopping the collapse of the biosphere. “

– the point here is about whether one wishes to “use” money and power, or to “destroy” or “reduce” money and power. If one believes that money and power are at the root of the crisis, and that these people control money and power precisely because they are doing best out of the crisis, then the point becomes to break down their control, NOT to persuade them to do something different with it (which in any case, structural logics prevent them from doing, and neither the likes of Monbiot nor grassroots activists have much leverage to persuade them). So instead of persuading, one aims to disrupt. This partly has to do with whether power and money are viewed as definite “things” which are possessed, or as “relations” which are created and have to be constantly reproduced. If the latter, then the point is to stop or reduce their production at the point where they are produced.

About the speed at which change is needed: capitalism will try to solve the problems for itself whatever anyone else does. On the other hand, everyday resistance is on a massive scale in much of the world. It is only in the privileged North that it seems unlikely. It may well be that what makes or breaks climate change is the success of the Peruvian and Papuan indigenous peoples in protecting rainforests, or the degree to which the Chinese and Indian peasantry are able to resist being absorbed into mass production, or the extent to which the 90% of people in many African countries who are active in the informal economy are able or willing to reject massification (to take a few examples). If the periphery moves towards rejection of its insertion in the global system, a lot of the ecologically-destructive practices will become impossible due to difficulties in extracting resources.

Ohh… and “identity politics” here is just a boo-word. Anarchism and autonomism are not properly speaking “identity” movements since they are not based on a specific category of identity (some “class struggle” anarchisms aside). As a descriptor, “identity politics” really refers at its broadest to the liberation struggles of specific groups, and more narrowly, to the recuperated “niche-market” versions of these struggles where political resistance is reduced to consumption choices. But it has a long history as a boo-word for people who believe in a “primary contradiction”, as a kind of grab-bag for whatever doesn’t fit. Traditional leftists would often include ecology as a movement of “identity politics” because of the role of lifestyle change (as opposed to class struggle) in its composition (Bookchin’s “lifestyle anarchism” covers similar terrain). It is strange to see this strategy emerging from someone like Monbiot, but it’s a reconfiguration of the same type of use – “identity politics” as a grab-bag for things that aren’t the “main issue” as defined by the author.

The degree of aggression in the rhetorical strategy here is shocking. The clumsy distinction between “facts” and “politics” particularly stands out – as if the views Monbiot derives from the “facts” are not political! – along with the boo-word use of “identity politics”, the very clumsy dismissal of alternative points of view based on straw-man arguments, and the equally clumsy accusation of dividing or diverting the movement.

Responses to this kind of argument:


The view of the state as “protecting the weak from the strong” has been widely attacked within anarchism. I would point especially to Kropotkin’s “The State: Its Historic Role” and Barrett’s “Objections to Anarchism”, and also the various works in anarchist anthropology directed against this view, such as various works of Harold Barclay, not to mention various works on how the state actually functions by Marxist sociologists – Chambliss’s “Whose Law? What Order?” especially comes to mind in terms of the “state vs mafia” distinction which is really a false binary within a wider identity. The anarchist argument is that the state does not protect the weak from the strong; rather, the state is a means by which the strong dominate the weak. Mutual aid, horizontal affiliations, “warding off” of concentrated power, diffuse sanctions, etc, are the means of “protecting the weak from the strong” or of preventing divisions between strong and weak from emerging.


Anarchists generally reject a means-ends separation, and would take this separation as evidence of instrumental/dominatory forms of thought. See especially
and the responses by Jason McQuinn and Cathy Levine to “Tyranny of Structurelessness”.


This is speaking to the issues in Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power”, and more broadly, issues around alienation and reification.


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