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Home » ART[icle]S, Independence Issue

Independence Issue: Could Anarchism Work in the Age of Austerity? Anarchist Book Fair 2011 Review

Submitted by on December 30, 2011 – 5:49 pmNo Comment


Tony Wood one of the Anarchist Book Fair organisers in his London home.

The sound of a brass band greeted me as I walked into Queen Mary University’s Library Square for the Anarchist Book Fair. This is the  fifth year running that this event has been held at the campus in Bethnal Green.

The book fair was started in 1983 by a group of organisers who were involved in the Socialist book fair, which no longer exists, and as anarchists they felt that they wanted their own event that represented them. Like all book fairs, this was to be a place where likeminded people could get together to discuss and share ideas, inform and become more informed.

Anarchism is concerned with a massive overhaul of society, based on the belief that people have the power and that the responsibility of how they govern themselves should be in their hands. To give a short introduction into the nature of the ideology, here is a quote from Andrew Vincent’s brilliant book Modern Political Ideologies : “Some of the ideas and schools of anarchy have been categorised as forms of socialism, although equally it should not be forgotten that that some have been classified as liberal. The word anarchy is a compound of two Greek words, an and arkhe, which means, literally, the absence of government or rulers. An ambiguity creeps in here which can be destructive of a clearer understanding of the ideology. The idea of being ‘without a state and government’ can slip into the notion of being ‘without authority or rules’ which can in turn become, by verbal slippage, an equivalent to disorder, chaos or confusion. We can recognise these two senses in ordinary speech, namely where anarchy can refer to a way of life without the state, or more commonly, it can denote complete mayhem.”

Red and black flags hung down on the sides of the entrance to the building.  A man with a big smile on his face was rattling a donation bucket, I put some money into it and  I received a programme which had listings of discussions, events and even a cabaret. A table inside was littered with pamphlets representing an overwhelming amount of struggles and causes from Palestine to the London anti-capitalist movement. I felt as if I was in the centre of the storm for change. Here it seemed was an ideology that seemed to treat all injustices in the same way and that was the fact that they existed at all. A winding staircase led into a packed room, two thousand people attended this year, with anarchist banners lining the walls and chatter all around me about class struggle, change and general politics. There were also, of course, books. On all types of resistance and revolutions, anarchist writers and thinkers as far back as Kropotkin, Orwell and up to and including Chomsky.

Interested to learn as much as possible about the event I spoke to one of the organisers there that day Jane Ferrie an academic who works at University College London (UCL). She put me in touch with another one of the other organisers Tony Wood who I was told would have a good background on the event. The interview with Wood took place at a housing co-op where he lives in Tottenham. Two posters from previous book fairs adorned the wall in the lounge where I sat down to talk with him over a cup of tea. Wood is a middle-aged man who has a shaven head and wears round glasses. He has a very open face which seemed to reflect his down to earth personality.

Wood was born in Tottenham from conservative working class parents. He is a class struggle anarchist, believing that the breaking down of all class labels is the only way to achieve an egalitarian society. He is also anti-capitalist and feels that capitalism works very well for the minority of rich privileged people that it was designed for. But life is not black or white as Wood works as a freelance bookkeeper, a finance worker, and I was interested to know how this might contradict his views on capitalism as it is a system based on capital and finance that he is against. He said smilingly, “I don’t know how the two came together? Obviously as an anarchist I am trying to make my job redundant, which is quite ironic. It’s something I did when I was young [bookkeeping] and I was always fairly good at it. There have been a couple if times that I have thought that I should get out of this line of work with my politics, but there’s loads of community and volunteer groups that need people that know about finance and unfortunately in the present system that we have finance is still a big part of it.”

Wood had his first experience with anarchists when he was 24 years old and enrolled in a Polytechnic, a teaching institution with tertiary education, in Hertfordshire. There was a lot of  confusion at a student union conference and  the audience felt that issues were  not being properly explained to them. So a Manchester anarchist group decided to take over the top table and refused to leave until the audience were satisfied. When this was done the anarchists left saying that this action was done for everyone’s benefit  and that they  would be back if this type of thing happened again. For Wood this show of initiative was how people in a simple way could help make positive changes.

Wood and the other six organisers only got involved in the running of the book fair in 1999. I spoke to him about if it was hard to find a venue and the fact that they possibly had problems booking one. He said: “The majority of the time we were somewhere called Conway hall which is run by Quakers and support, broadly, what we do but we got too big for there. We were trying for about six years to find a venue where we feel comfortable with [eventually ending up at Queen Mary’s] He continued, “We generally have to tell venues if you book us Special Branch will phone you!”

I was more intrigued, because if Special Branch calls ahead and some of the mass media paints anarchism as being all about chaos and violence, how is it that a respected educational establishment like Queen Mary University has come to host the book fair for the last five years in a row? Wood said, “The second year we spoke to some porters [at the university] and they said that the first year they were quite wary of us and that we have some strange ideas but that we are really sorted and have respect for them all…Queen Mary’s always say that we leave the venue tidier than when they gave it to us. Because it’s that anarchist principal, when we borrow something we don’t abuse it …it’s mutual respect but that has to be earned.”

According to Wood there are two aspects for the movement; one concerning the book fair and the other the ideology of anarchism. They are one and part of the same mission that he refers to as “steps”. The desire that eventually there would be a huge organised anarchist movement that would be defined by like-minded people getting together more than just a one year event of a book fair. But when might this happen?

In the present socio-political climate with the occupy London and Wall street movements surely we are coming to a time where people are taking more power into their own hands? All though Wood is glad that there are the Occupy movements that challenge the state on many issues that affect society he does feel that they are not anarchists. This is because he himself is completely anti the idea of capitalism and he feels that some people in these groups might feel that a different brand of capitalism is the answer.

Still when I asked him if he felt that due to these alternative movements opposing the way that the state operates if there was more interest and embracing of the ideals of anarchism, Wood said, “I think a lot of people are now seeing the inequality. Capitalism to me is working more efficiently for capitalists now than at any time in its history and huge amounts of money are being made by the people at the top. The gap between rich and poor is obscene. It’s always been bad but it’s worse now. But I think people are now realising that those in control are just taking the piss basically and they [people] are looking for a different way. It’s definitely moving towards anarchism when you start taking about getting rid of money and collectivising everything.”


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