By charles | March 18, 2009
This is the first in a hopefully multi-part series about the questions raised by anarchist projects that employ and depend upon capitalist business practices. I’ve written this first installment as a sort of personal take on my experiences in several such projects. In the future, I intend to interview other “anarchist businesses.” And I’d also like to include the thoughts of people I haven’t directly sought out, either in the comments sections of each post or through serious, thoughtful, and productive articles (i.e. no rants) submitted to email@example.com.
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From 1987 to 1990, I was a member of the Left Bank Books collective in Seattle, WA. Left Bank is located in one of the most heavily trafficked tourist areas of the city. This is, of course, a very good thing for a bookstore—but for an anarchist bookstore it raises some delicate questions. When I was a part of the collective, we would periodically discuss the issue of how we should relate to the endless stream of tourists that passed our doors. Obviously, they were a potential source of revenue—much bigger than the folks stopping by for anarchist books. But how much were we willing to “compromise” in order to lure them into the store?
I have no idea how the various configurations of the collective have dealt with this dilemma over the last two decades and, admittedly, my beer-fogged memory hasn’t retained too many specific details of our discussions. But I don’t recall there being much debate about whether we should tap the tourist vein: the only question was how? Could we sell books they wanted—placed prominently in the front window and on the display shelves near the front door—without violating our principles? What sorts of books should they be? Where was the line? How should we approach this opportunity to financially support our central project without one day finding ourselves halfway down a slippery mercantile slope? And how should we balance all that with the political benefit of bringing a more mainstream audience into the store and exposing them to radical ideas?
I’m sharing this memory because I think it adds a little concreteness and clarity to the recent discussions I’ve seen in the anarchist press about the deeply problematic idea of “anarchist business.” In most of the public debates I’ve followed, good approaches to these questions are few and far between. Most perplexing is the apparently widespread belief, judging from what people have written, that the people running anarchist businesses aren’t fully aware of, or continually grappling with, the contradictions that their projects involve. Either there’s an assumption of evil intentions on the part of anarchists who sell stuff or they’re portrayed as totally oblivious to the implications of their actions.
As any anarchist with half a brain knows, “anarcho-capitalism” doesn’t exist. It’s a contradiction in terms: anarchism is, and has always been, anti-capitalist. By definition, capitalism is based on exploitation (and a host of corollary horrors), and is thus the antithesis of anarchism. Case closed. In the same sense, one might say that there’s no such thing as an anarchist business. Or, at least, whenever one is “doing business,” one can’t be doing it as an anarchist. Yet, over the last 170 years, anarchists have frequently created and maintained capitalist businesses and, of course, have always been necessarily embroiled in capitalist social and economic relations. Nineteenth-century intentional communities sold their crafts and produce in the town market. Today’s infoshops sell books that, at every step of their production process, from forest to bookshelf, depend on exploited labor and hierarchical social relations. The list could go on, but the point is that it’s hard to imagine any “pure” position outside the oppressive structures of capitalism from which to effectively spread anarchist ideas.
This is, of course, no excuse for anything. Quite rightly, anarchists have always questioned the complex and contradictory practices through which revolutionaries participate in the very system they claim to be undermining…in order to undermine it.
At the same time, I think we should also be careful about how we define and delineate that “system.” As J.K. Gibson-Graham points out in The End of Capitalism (as we knew it), there is often something deeply debilitating about the ways we describe capitalism. Presenting it as a monolithic and totalizing force that infiltrates every aspect of our lives and utterly soils us upon (inevitable) contact, doesn’t leave us much room to maneuver. In reality, “capitalist society” is much more complex: shot through with non-capitalist and anti-capitalist elements at every moment, maintained by contradictory, hybrid practices that can undermine, interface with, and shore up the system—all at the same time. Yet, that complexity doesn’t change the uncomfortable fact that, throughout history, anarchists have produced and/or exchanged commodities in a capitalist market.
I’ve been grappling with these questions for a long time. AK Press is the third collective project I’ve been a part of where I’ve received a wage for promoting anarchism (Left Bank was the second). Wages, however miniscule, require enough profit to pay them. Profit, in turn, requires that someone (usually many someones) along the long transmission belt of production is getting screwed over. Sure, the same can be said for almost anything we do in this society—rent a movie, flick a light switch, publish a zine, cook a meal—but there’s something about running a business that drags into unflattering daylight all those questions of ethics and complicity that even the most holier-than-thou anarchists conveniently sweep under the rug when it comes to their own behavior.
Unfortunately, asking these questions for most of my adult life doesn’t mean that I have any answers. The best I can do is outline the personal reasons I make the compromises that running an anarchist business entails (and I should emphasize that these are personal reasons: I don’t intend to speak for any other members of the various collectives I’ve been or am part of).
I start with questions of strategy. What do I want to achieve? What’s the best way to do it? For me, the answer to the first question is to create a self-sustaining project that:
- Spreads critiques of capitalism and the state to as many people as possible, particularly to non-anarchists, in a way that makes anarchist ideas comprehensible, relevant, and maybe even attractive.
- Moves the general left (i.e. those who already have a somewhat critical attitude to at least some aspects of our society) in an anti-authoritarian direction.
- Supports and strengthens the existing anarchist movement.
- Does all of the above through a democratic and nonhierarchical organization that itself provides a model for the society that it’s struggling to create.
Not all anarchists share those goals—though I imagine we all share the larger desire they imply: to destroy capitalism and the state, and build a new world. And, even if you share the specific goals I’ve listed, there are many ways to work toward them. Publishing or distributing books and other media through the channels of the capitalist marketplace is a particular choice that carries with it certain advantages, and many dangers. I’ll stick to examples I’m most familiar with—propaganda projects—though I think much of what I have to say applies equally to running a collective farm or vegan café or, as some choose, running a “non-anarchist” business (print shop, web design, etc.) to fund anarchist projects.
One of the main advantages, I think, is that businesses help make sure that resources coming back to a project in some way offset the resources put into it. In other words, choosing a “business” approach helps a project to sustain itself, and thus to develop and improve itself over time, propagating anarchist ideas in an ongoing, dependable, and persistent way. To me, this seems true no matter what level of involvement in the marketplace you decide to adopt. It’s true of the folks at Perspectives on Anarchist Theory or Anarchy magazine, who sell every issue in the hopes, I assume, of somewhat covering their costs, and who seek distribution methods to extend the reach of their publication, getting it into bookstores and newsstands where cash registers sing their dark songs. It’s true of AK Press, which has several more layers of involvement, being both a publisher and distributor, and is a much bigger enterprise.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the longest lasting anarchist organizations in North America have sustained themselves by playing the capitalist game. Off the top of my head, a few that have passed the thirty (or forty!)-year mark include Bound Together Books, Fifth Estate, Wooden Shoe Books, Left Bank Books, and Black Rose Books. Anarchy magazine and Social Anarchism are just shy of that mark, and AK Press has been around for about twenty years.
Depending on how you approach it, “doing business” can also make it easier to reach people (known to our capitalist pals as “markets”) who you’d otherwise have a hard time reaching. If you’re actually producing a “product,” by slipping into the well-worn grooves of existing commodity circulation you plant revolutionary seeds in far more places: from the harsh glare of Amazon.com to some small bookshop in Lincoln, Nebraska you’ve never heard of, but that’s on the radar of the bigger fish in the publishing world who are distributing your book or magazine. Of course, every collective I’ve been a part of has also developed its own, alternative distribution channels, but those, however important, often tend to reach only the usual suspects (which is still no small feat).
Another advantage of using a business model is that it can provide some resources, however modest, to support other anarchist efforts. This can mean providing spaces others can use, both literal (a room or storefront or warehouse where groups can hold meetings, fundraisers, etc) and figurative (the pages of a book or magazine where people can speak to a wider world). All of which can be provided through other means…but, again, the sustained and dependable character of many anarchist businesses means people know the option is there, that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel or personally scrape together the resources to get their ideas out there.
Every anarchist business I’ve been a part of also has provided mutual aid to other organizations. At AK this can take the form of donating money to other projects or individuals in need. It can mean sending free books to people starting infoshops and anarchist libraries, providing materials at cost to organizations for their own fund-raising and propaganda efforts, or supporting books-to-prisoners projects. And it means we can provide credit, and some degree of experienced-based advice, to individual tablers and fledgling shops, enabling them to get their efforts off the ground.
That’s the rosy picture. There’s also a dark side of doing business. Aside from the ethical questions that, as I’ve pointed out, anyone who uses a cell phone or, for that matter, buys a book faces, there are several practical and political dangers that any anarchist business must confront.
One is the fact that simply keeping a business afloat can take up a lot of your time and energy. The demands of running a business have nothing to do with your goals as an anarchist, except in the general sense that the business helps you to achieve those goals. Yet, a business can be a big undertaking. The fiscal and technical questions you find yourself discussing at meetings can, if you’re not careful, overshadow the reasons you’re sitting down together in the first place—or, at the very least, leave you less time to focus on your political goals.
Then there’s the danger of letting business decisions influence political ones. For me, this is a somewhat abstract question because, to be honest, I’ve rarely seen it happen. I’ve certainly seen intense differences of political opinion within collectives, but finances almost never enter into them…or, at least, are rarely seen as relevant. At Left Bank, we’d carry (and pay in advance for) anarchist books that we knew might take years to sell, because we thought it was important to make them available. At AK Distribution, we do much the same. As for AK Publishing, the entire collective discusses potential publishing projects, after a lengthy, free-form conversation, using three main criteria: political merit (do we think it’s any good? does it add something valuable to anarchist theory/history/practice, even if some of us don’t agree with it?), finances (how much do we stand to make or lose if we publish it?), and labor (do we have the “human resources” to both produce this book and get it into the hands of the people who should read it?). In all our many hours of meetings, I don’t think I’ve ever seen finances trump political merit (though I have seen labor trump it: it can sometimes be a disservice to the book and its author to publish something we know we can’t do a great job with). We frequently publish books we suspect will loose money—knowing that we’ll have to try to make up the shortfall in other ways. The business/political danger is a complicated juggling act (one that involves, since none of us are psychic, a fair amount of crap-shoot luck), but you hope that, in the end, you’ll wind up publishing a mix of titles: some that will make money, some that will break even, some that will lose money, but all of which provide something valuable to readers.
These financial dangers can be exacerbated when your collective pays wages to its members. If your business is solvent enough to pay people, it means that you’re all able to devote a lot more time to the project, and thus to achieving the political goals you’ve set for yourself—while strengthening an institution that, as current collective members leave, new people will inherit and build upon. Of course, there are also hidden risks, though not the ones people normally think of. Aside from one or two dubious characters I’ve worked with over the last twenty-five years, I’ve never had the sense that anyone prioritized the paycheck over the political project. Everyone knows they can get another job (probably one that pays a lot better), so the angst that running a business entails has revolved, in my experience, around people’s commitment to patching things together for political, rather than personal, reasons. But the process of patching things together is made more difficult when people are getting paid: for the simple reason that wages are another form of overhead, one that leaves you less room to maneuver while trying to pull off your juggling act.
Another wage-related risk is the fact that an anarchist business is rarely going to be able to pay enough to compensate adequately for the labor required to keep it going. This leads to the thorny questions of self-exploitation, burn-out, and a diminished ability to have a productive political or personal life outside the institution you’ve built. The risk here is, of course, relative. To some, the very idea of revolutionary “self-exploitation” makes little sense. What else are we supposed to spend our time doing on this earth, if we’re not putting every resource and ounce of strength into our political work? [I’m reminded here of the passage in Alexander Berkman’s memoirs where he describes coming to blows with his best friend because the latter had extravagantly spent twenty cents on a meal: “He should have known that he had no right to his earnings while the movement stood in such need of funds.”] For others, this sort of self-sacrifice seems profoundly counter-revolutionary—whether from a prefigurative and ludic sense of revolution as unbounded pleasure, or from a more labor-oriented perspective that insists on the dignity of work (“Don’t you know that people died for the eight-hour workday?”).
There will always be differences of opinion about the political costs and benefits of running an oxymoronic anarchist business, and about how any given organization is handling them. A lot depends, as I’ve already mentioned, on the goals and presuppositions you bring to these questions. If you’re someone like me and no longer content preaching to the choir (though happy to do that as well at times), your perspective will be very different than someone more invested in smaller scale, countercultural projects designed to work on a more rhizomatic level. For instance, some will argue that producing and distributing anything but straight-up anarchist texts (or, depending on who’s arguing, some mélange of anarchist, situationist, nihilist, primitivist, syndicalist, activist, etc texts) is unethical. Others might argue that a well-rounded understanding (and critique) of society requires a range of anarchist and non-anarchist material (not to mention that expanding your repertoire allows you to reach a wider audience to whom you can also spread anarchist ideas). Of course, within the latter approach (the one I’ve chosen), there are thousands of micro-decisions and micro-debates about what exactly to provide readers. To list a few genres that I’ve endured long meetings about: Should socialist economics include Marx? Council communists? Quasi-reformist democratic socialism? Should your critical theory list draw the line at Adorno? Benjamin? Habermas? Butler? Should the poetry you offer include Brecht? Di Prima? Bukowski? Breton? Baraka?
I’m not arguing for total relativity here. There are important stakes involved in these questions…and most of them are worthy of serious and broad debate. But what seems to be missing from most appraisals is an understanding that every anarchist organization that has chosen to participate in the capitalist marketplace is already having these debates and making these decisions. Whether you are the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Red Emma’s, Justseeds, Anarchy magazine, Slingshot, or AK Press, you have no choice but to negotiate these treacherous waters. From the printer you use, to the paper you print on, to the material you publish, to the ways you raise the cash to keep doing what you do—these are all political decisions fraught with danger.
But the only way to deal with the danger is, in fact, to deal with it. It takes constant vigilance to decide where your line is, and how to stay on the least fucked-up side of it (since, in this world, “fucked-up” is the state of gracelessness we all start from). It also takes a willingness to make mistakes, sometimes huge ones, and then fumble your way back to something you can live with. It means dancing on the edge of a precipice—but, thankfully, dancing with comrades and friends who, even though you may not agree with them all, or most, of the time, you trust to keep you from taking the big, irrevocable plunge. There’s nothing easy about it. It’s equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. There’s a world to win, and a giant juggernaut of a nasty world standing in the way, with only your paltry and transcendent efforts to make practical and strategic sense of it all.
Good luck. Drink beer. Respect one another. And find the perfect alchemical mix of rage, compassion, humility, and revolution.
5 Responses to “
Dancing with the Devil, Part 1:”
The Semi-Sober Reflections of an Anarchist Businessman
The Semi-Sober Reflections of an Anarchist Businessman
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