The Samovar

Review: Anarchist Bookfair
October 23, 2006, 12:55 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

Yesterday I went to the anarchist bookfair in London. It was quite an interesting event.

General impressions

Although I call myself an anarchist, I had never been to any anarchist event before, so it was interesting to see the sort of people who turned up to it. There was a healthy mix: what you might call lifestyle anarchists in various costumes; political activists, either tightly or loosely affiliated to anarchism; intellectual types; young people, including quite a few children; old people; etc. Dreadlocks and mohicans were the haircut of choice. One thing that was quite noticeable was that almost everyone was white. I think that probably bears thinking about. The contrast with Holloway Road, where it was held, was striking. But then again, the contrast with Waitrose supermarket which was next door was probably even more striking.

I went to two talks. One by Michael Albert of ZNet talking about parecon, which was pretty good. I’d heard pretty much everything he said about this before from reading articles of his online, but the discussion afterwards was quite interesting. I’m glad that he was talking about it because I think it’s a really important idea that deserves to be better known, particularly in the UK. The other was by someone who it turns out is some mainstream psychologist, talking about how politicians use our fear to manipulate us. Potentially interesting topic but she didn’t say anything that wasn’t obvious, and it was very, very slow. I left halfway through.


I went to two discussion groups. The first one was organised by the London Anarchist Forum, and was on the subject of anarchism and environmentalism. There were lots of interesting ideas, but nothing groundbreaking. We talked a little about whether or not anarchists should cooperate with mainstream political parties, or even the Green party, on this issue. The major arguments against were that (a) it isn’t effective because when parties gain power they usually sell out and don’t do all the good things they said they were going to do, and (b) that if you have capitalism you can’t solve environmental problems and so you can’t really work with any group that basically approves of capitalism. We didn’t spend enough time on the topic to deal with it thoroughly. I was going to say that working within a political party can help to achieve modest victories, and was going to raise the question of whether or not it is worth expending a lot of effort to achieve modest environmental victories. I did say that because the problem of the environment is so pressing and so potentially catastrophic we couldn’t afford to be so idealistic about how we approached it. I think that we need to do everything we can to address environmental problems using whatever approach might work, even if it means organising together with people whose views we fundamentally disagree with. After this, we spent some time talking about particular things you might do. To me, most of these seemed like quite small symbolic gestures, but I haven’t really made my mind up about this sort of thing in general.

The second discussion I went to was about ID cards. This discussion actually worried me deeply. Not because of the subject matter which I already knew all about and I’m already very worried about it, but the ignorance of the participants. A lot of people seemed to be concerned about things which were irrelevant or factually inaccurate. For example, one man was worried about what an iris scan might potentially reveal about you. Even if you could tell things about people from an image of their iris (which is dubious), this is not an issue because biometric scans don’t keep a copy of the image of your iris, only an electronic signature of it from which it isn’t possible to recover the original image. There seemed to be very little realisation that the real problem with the UK ID card proposals is not the card itself but the database that goes with it and the fundamental change that entails in the relationship between the individual and the state.

I also thought that the suggestions people were making were strategically very unsound. There was a lot of focus on the card itself, the cost of it, fears about iris scanning technology, etc. It seems obvious to me that if you base your campaign against something on things that are not fundamental to it, you’re bound to be caught out later on. As far as I was concerned, my main conclusion from this discussion was that a lot of effort needs to be made to educate activists about exactly what the problem is with the ID card proposals. Unfortunately, we ran out of time so I didn’t get a chance to make the point that it ought to be linked to protests against other repressive measures such as anti-terrorism legislation because they are both manifestations of the same problem.


As well as the talks and discussions, they also had stalls for selling books or for individual groups to promote themselves. I spent a very short time wandering around these, but I was quite tired after about 5 hours of talks and discussions, and the rooms were incredibly hot and crowded so I left pretty quickly. I think next year they need to allocate more space for this part of the bookfair, and maybe they even need a larger venue.

I also think they could profitably spread it over two days. There were a lot of discussions and talks that I couldn’t go to because they clashed with others. Maybe this is just inevitable but I think this could easily have been a two day event. I missed out on two discussions about terrorism, the state and prisons, and one on immigration and border controls. If I had the energy, I would have gone to the discussion about whether or not the concept of class war was still a useful one.

Overall, the actual ideas of anarchism were not much discussed, but I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing. I think that most things that need to be done don’t actually need the concepts and ideas of anarchism, but that if people drift towards it when organising or discussing things with anarchists then that is fine.



“I think that we need to do everything we can to address environmental problems using whatever approach might work, even if it means organising together with people whose views we fundamentally disagree with.”

Absolutely. One of the things that really bugs me is that the Anarchist movement seems determined to put idealism above pragmatism – I can understand this sometimes, but with an issue as pressing as the environment, it’s just not worth it

Comment by Chris

[…] Tomb has an entry on parecon (which I have previously written about here and here) with an even more interesting discussion in the comments. Marxists and pareconists are usually […]

Pingback by Political miscellany: speed cameras, parecon, slavery « The Samovar

So, I was avoiding some work I really have to get done by reading Tim Gower’s blog entry on “collaborative mathematics.” You might find it amusing that under the “Possibly related posts” lies your entry on anarchism and rabble-rousing.

At any rate, this reminds me that I meant to comment on your entry about vegetarianism a while ago. It seemed to me that someone must have collected actual data correlating the rise in vegetarianism with some “relative” drop in the number of animals raised in factory farms, but I have to admit the data I could find was pretty slim. I guess one always has the categorical imperative — however this can’t be very satisfying for a utilitarian like Peter Singer. For me though, the question is just whether I pay someone to slaughter a sentient being (whether or not paying them has actually contributed to the slaughter). Now that I’m reminded of it though, I will try to look through some of Singer’s books for this. They were all checked out of the libraries when I last tried.

Comment by Brad Rodgers

Hi Brad,

Yeah I noticed on my admin page that I was getting a lot of people visiting from Gowers’ blog! A glitch in the matrix…

It would be interesting to see those data for sure. It’ll be difficult to see any trends because probably vegetarianism increases over time, and as a country gets more wealthy over time the amount of meat people eat also goes up (because it’s expensive).

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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