The loneliness of the crowd

  • Posted on: 13 November 2017
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

From 325

‘The loneliness of the crowd’ – Another reflection on the events at this year’s London Anarchist Bookfair (UK)

Anarchists are no strangers to conflict or violence. Yet we feel that the way the conflict unfolded at this year’s London Anarchist Bookfair was deeply disturbing and should have nothing to do with anarchism. The organising collective have, as a result of events on the day and subsequent reactions, issued a statement announcing that they will not be doing a Bookfair again next year. What we would like to talk about here though is the worrying climate in which the events took place, and the dangers of dogmas in the anarchist milieu.
The events at the Bookfair
Some individuals attending the Bookfair, one of whom was a Green Party politician, distributed provocative leaflets on the perceived ramifications of changes to the Gender Recognition Act. They were confronted by a group and expelled.
But it didn’t just end there. Having defended those who had distributed the leaflets, Helen Steel (‘HS’), a long-standing agitator and comrade to many, became the group’s next target. HS is known for having fought the infamous ‘McLibel’ trial for over a decade, and was subjected to intrusive state surveillance by an undercover police officer who deceived her into a two-year relationship. HS had not given out the leaflets (contrary to rumour), but had expressed support for those who had, and maintains some positions held by ‘TERFs’ (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). The crowd demanded she leave.
For an hour and a half, HS and a few of her defenders were completely encircled by an aggressive, chanting crowd who attempted to publicly shame and physically expel her from the Bookfair. So fraught was the atmosphere that it was impossible to actually reach HS during this time to hear what she had to say. In the end, someone set off the fire alarm in what we assume was part of the effort to eject her, resulting in the evacuation of half the Bookfair, including the crowd and its target. The fire alarm emptied the workshops, causing major disruption to sessions that some speakers had travelled long distances to attend. It also likely jeopardised the use of the venue in the future, should other people seek to take on the running of the event, and finding a cheap venue willing to host a motley rabble of anarchists has never been an easy task.
The chatter in the days that followed was characterised by a venomous hatred for “the Terfs”, and a disgust levelled at the volunteer organisers of the Bookfair worthy of the Daily Mail comments section. Quick to set the narrative, these commentators re-wrote the afternoon’s events by creating a simple story of trans attendee victims and Terf/Bookfair perpetrators. They deliberately omitted to mention the harassment and public shaming an individual simply because they’d dared deviate from the party line; the line being that there is to be no doubt and certainly no criticism of any of the dominant narratives around identity politics. From the cesspool that is Twitter, identity politicians – 95% of whom clearly had not been at the Bookfair – also emerged Sunday morning to join in the chorus of condemnation against their perennial villains, the Anarchists and the Terfs.
Why we’re angry
We are not in any way surprised that liberal activists would seize on the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon, slag off anarchists, signal virtue with their impeccable ‘Ally’ credentials, and try to sabotage a major anarchist event for good. Neither are we surprised that people we disagree with or whose views are offensive would turn up at the Bookfair; some such groups in fact, sometimes have tables and workshop slots and their own supporters. We also recognise why trans people and other anarchists present would be pissed off with the leaflets, which the authors and distributors must have known were offensive and would provoke a reaction.
What we’re angry at is our fellow anarchists, who we hold to higher standards, and it’s on this that we want to concentrate. We’re disappointed at the abandonment yet again of anarchist principles of independent and critical thought in favour of groupthink. We’re angry at the willingness to sacrifice plurality of ideas for policing and self-censorship. And we’re saddened at the failure to balance our antagonism with a corresponding care and comradeship, so that bullying and public humiliation reigns unchecked. Finally, we’re pissed off that anarchists feel it’s so much more important to target another anarchist with unpopular views, than to attack institutional structures of our oppression.
After the 2015 London Anarchist Bookfair, attendees directed their antagonism towards a state target, with a protest at Eurostar for its role in the border politics in Calais and the imprisonment of migrants who had walked through the Channel Tunnel.
The dogma of the herd
Now, we have nothing against mobs in themselves – on the contrary, the mob has the potential to storm Bastilles and ignite revolutions – a reminder that makes the events at the Bookfair all the more depressing. Yet when we have moments of collective power, in the mob, in the riot, it is perhaps more important than ever to remain free-thinking and true to our personal principles and our ethics. As anarchists, we generally advocate the idea that the absence of the police and state does not bring us down to a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, because we’re capable of thinking for ourselves and acting according to our convictions. That did not come through at all at the Bookfair. A moment of power was abused, by many so-called anarchists, safely in the knowledge that critics would be hounded and fellow anarchists would not call the cops.
One of the most disturbing aspects of all this was the way in which people allowed rumour to spread. The T-Word, once uttered, seemed to diffuse any flicker of concern from onlookers, all independent thought going out the window. “Apparently she was giving out Terf leaflets”, said a few. As mentioned, this transpired to be false information, and when those spreading the rumours were asked whether they had seen the texts for themselves, none of them had actually done so. When challenged, one person brushed it off by saying there was no smoke without fire, as if people were incapable of making mistakes. This sentiment also reveals ignorance of the long history of state agents using divide and rule tactics against dissidents – from COINTELPRO, to Stasi ops – and the fact that HS has herself been a target for state deception and manipulation.
This herd-like behaviour inevitably spilled over to that vacuous fishbowl that is Twitter, where people bully and harass others into accepting their ideas. This is obviously completely at odds with anarchist thought and is more reminiscent of the Trots or a cult. However a single tweet from the Anarchist Bookfair account condemning the bullying, and comments by anyone who expressed support for it or questioned the official narrative, elicited barrages of messages in response from bullies demanding they accept their dictum.
Implicit in some of the rhetoric on the day and after is the dogma that one must get 100% behind an individual or group if they are from an oppressed class. The implication is that we must unquestioningly support a dominant narrative from these groups, despite the fact that liberals comprise the majority of ‘activists’ and shout the loudest on the rights of marginalised groups — and we are anarchists. So no matter whether they spout liberal, Stalinist or otherwise dodgy views, they demand that you shut off all questioning and independent thought and give unequivocal support – that, in short, you stop being an anarchist.
The exercise of power is everywhere. Without a doubt, some groups in society are overwhelmingly targetted, disbelieved, imprisoned and otherwise oppressed and we should therefore work on creating especially welcoming spaces for these people, and make an effort to hear and believe them. But power also resides in those oppressed classes if you put them on a pedestal. Refugees and migrants, trans people, queers, working class people, and people of colour have the capacity for crap politics just like anyone else, and it does no-one any favours to place people beyond reproach purely because they are associated with a particular category or group. To uncritically support the group who mobbed HS is to align with those who openly used misogynist language and aggression against an individual they vastly outnumbered. We are not happy with the leaflets that were handed out, but that does not mean we cannot be equally uncomfortable with the response. To talk about the violence inherent in the language of leaflets then to ignore how that same process is being replicated in the way the word ‘Terf’ is being used is hypocritical.
An open letter was subsequently published with a list of demands directed at and to be met by the Bookfair organisers. This includes what is essentially a common political position that they expect to be enforced, begging the question of who will be the police of the Bookfair. This is patently ridiculous, not least given the many divisions within anarchist thought. The demands for a common position, policing, and self-censorship are clearly not anarchist, and neither is the expectation that ‘the organisers’ be held responsible for failing to resolve the dispute. Tellingly, the majority of the signatories at the time of writing are not anarchist groups, and some are random individuals who judging by their (anti)social media accounts have complete disdain for anarchists, which makes one wonder what they were doing at the Bookfair at all and why they feel entitled to make demands of anarchists who put considerable time and labour for free into making it happen.
Ethics in the mob
For us, identifying as anarchists means always striving to be open-minded and think for ourselves, and to be as critical of norms in movements, subcultures, or scenes as in mainstream society. An anarchist approach to conflict, as we see it, is to treat people wherever possible as individuals, not just a component of a class. Neither a member of the ‘Terfs’ to simply be attacked, nor a member of the trans rights group to be unquestioningly supported. There are very few cases where we use a label as shorthand to identify immediate threats, such as in a crowd situation. Only ‘fascist’ and ‘cop’ come to mind, despite our list of enemies being significantly longer. The reason for using these labels sparingly is because these terms are rightly taken very seriously, allowing us to make split second decisions to protect one another. The consequences of such terms being used against individuals are also very serious, usually resulting in a mobbing or beating and ostracism. The label ‘Terf’ is increasingly being used in a similar way, to discourage doubt and critical thought, and rouse a hostile response.
For these reasons, it is vital we differentiate between anarchists we may feel hold unpopular, dodgy or even heinous views, and actual fascists. Despite being called one, HS is clearly not a fascist. Fascists would have us all killed on the spot. There is no discussion with a fascist trying to spread their authoritarian ideas, for they themselves would tolerate no debate. This is the premise of a ‘no-platform’ approach. Yet HS didn’t claim a platform either, having neither attempted to run a stall nor deliver a workshop on the matter.
If two individuals have a disagreement which results in a fight, then so be it. At an anarchist bookfair, you only need to take your pick of contentious issues and disagreements, though surely this would be the ideal place to actually discuss these issues thoughtfully. It is not that we are opposed to antagonism, it’s that we feel it’s important to pick our tactics and our targets well, and to treat other anarchists – few in number and with many shared experiences, ideas and enemies – with some degree of care and respect. This does not mean we all have to love each other and get along, but that we need to be very careful of the consequences of our actions on individuals who may have to contend with the many hazards of being a thorn in the side of state and capital – from burnout, trauma and state surveillance; to internal conflicts and who knows what personal life struggles. We also have to be cautious of the implications of neglecting this culture of care and respect on the anarchist milieu as a whole. Do we really want the vitrolioc, polemic feuds on social media to set the tone for real-life conflicts in anarchist spaces? If two groups cannot share spaces, then they must go their own separate ways, and maybe those who can need to get better at discussing these difficult issues in person.
Failing to stop the spread of rumour, not questioning or speaking out against herd behaviour, and bullying individuals in the ‘scene’ who express marginal views is the path towards authoritarianism. In this case, our destination seems to be an environment in which those who hold unpopular views must hide them and feign adherence to the dominant position, or be forced out of our tiny and diminishing networks.
We would hope that enough of us have the passion and commitment to anarchist ideas of freedom and plurality of thought to prevent that from happening. If we don’t want to travel down the road of authoritarianism, we must always remember to think for ourselves and question our place in the crowd.

– Some anarchists



There is very real punishment for not falling in line properly. When it doesn't boil over into outright fiascos like this, it's the constant threat of loss of friendship, ostracism, public shaming, and rumor/gossip (which leads to the aforementioned actions). The building blocks of self-censorship, "feign[ing] adherence to the dominant position" as this piece identifies it, at the individual level. The path to stagnation at best and co-optation/hijacking at worst at the level of the milieu or tendency.

There's a lot of dumb anarchists with no rigor to their thought, I hate to say that. But even for those that might have some rigor, who wants to be ostracized and made to feel like you are the most fucked up person? Its easy to feel that way already.

The social reward/punishment apparatus is self reinforcing. It's quite easy to pick up the language and affects and fall in line, get rewarded for being a good ally. It's difficult to try to have thoughts of your own that might run counter to the social orthodoxy. This orthodoxy can't be questioned. I don't think it's much of a leap to say that it runs congruent with lines of social ranking (capital?.....) within a scene. I don't know what has happened that some anarchists think they can shutdown other anarchists' drive or ability to be critical.

Yet in 2017, to some anarchists, Insurrectionary Anarchy = following [insert marginalized identity]-led movements. Sure we can quibble about "leadership" being an ok thing. In this case I think it plays out in authoritarian ways. As if some how [insert marginalized identity] magically knows "what is to be done" just because they have suffered oppression. Yes, men, white people tend to dominate social groupings or struggles. Don't fucking follow them either! Have some self respect and take the piss out of anyone that talks too much or claims to know the way forward for you.

I spent the last few years watching several of my friends go that route, part of a larger effort by the environmental NGOs and some other green radicals to mobilize a support-base for indigenous land defenders, with some success.

Unfortunately there's a very obvious, very cynical group of native folks who are rather candid about hustling all these stupid white kids for money and slave-labour based on their liberal guilt complexes.

It's kind of hilarious and understandable from a very cynical point of view but I say all this to recommend learning to navigate this shit as part of the terrain, rather than dismissing activity because of it.

Folk with liberal guilt complexes deserve to get their self-righteous asses taxed, don't split hairs and label the indigenous as cynical, that word or sentiment doesn't exist in the native trove of emotional values as functional or worthy attributes. Call it rather the balancing of a cosmological ledger which digs far deeper into the racial and cultural debt owed to the indigenous folk and continues to be so,,,,

As usual, it's almost funny what a fucking idiot you are and to add to the punch-line, you're replying to a comment typed by a native kid!

Now here's the part where you douchebags grill me on what being indigenous even means or wax philosophical about how you couldn't possibly be guilty of a noble savage fallacy.

Pics or its not typed by a native kid. Anyway, what does the average native kid know these days about the ancient shamanic cosmology when they are sooo indoctrinated by the liberal idpol humanism and its whining X-tian guilt complexes?

That's exactly what I said you'd say but you just can't help yourself, hmm?

Nooo. I just confirmed the noble savage fallacy, the liberals idpol just reintroduced the old 19th Century version with a genotype upgrade which almost mimics a feelgood version of the Nazi racial purity model, You are sooo naive snowflake,,,

And what do you know about it?

Its not just that you almost always come off as an asshole, but pretty much everything you say is asinine and irrelevant to what anyone is talking about. Le Way = Emile 2.0

Native people are a very diverse crowd with often divergent interests, and the trend of Native groups entrenched in collaborating with colonial powers has continued and went deeper through the centuries. Many have been corrupted or twisted into serving the system that was enforced upon their ancestors, often as the only solution for their nation's survival. Like Black people in the US, who're not as much a homogenous crowd as the IP are depicting them (contact me when you see any historical relationship between Mike Brown and Obama).

I've also seen the vilest and most aggressive forms of reactionary behaviors coming from Native persons when I was in "BC", some of it was staggering, especially through groupthink tactics. The moment you assume the obvious postulate that an ethnic or sexual identity insignificant to make someone trustworthy this is far easier to accept.

It's almost like race is a stupid construct with little scientific basis that hinges upon privilege and power or lack thereof?!
Not that this will stop people from doing harm to you because of it ...

So out of all the cool content that 325 have put up over the last day or two Anews decides only the drama post is worth giving an airing here. This place has become a pathetic soap opera.

...325 posted it here themselves, which is how a lot of the content ends up on this site?

why would 325 post on here when they are part of the international backlash against Anews for posting ITS?

I have no idea how this site is run now, but years ago lots of things would be found and reposted here. Though written by anarchists, they weren't always intended to be read by anarchists, leading to so much shit talking, and lots of comments essentially saying "why did someone think we'd want to read this!" Obviously this piece is intended for anarchists, but I wouldn't assume the authors went out of their way to have it posted here.

The London bookfair folding after 34 years because the organizers are disgusted with idiots using the event for their narrow authoritarian agendas and 325 publishing another analytical angle is dismissed by you as “drama”?! I shudder to think what you might consider more wirthy of internet space...
The increased use of “call outs” to suppress this week’s unpopular idea is indicative of the continued intrusion of identity-based activist conformism. This is a serious problem, as the writers of this statement and plenty of other commentators on this site have pointed out. The “internal” conflicts (between supposed anarchists) that have occurred at bookfairs all over are a big deal to a lot of us. Calling it “drama” as if this tendency were just some silly high school -era interpersonal rivalry masks the very real threat posed by mobbing. If this trend is allowed to continue, how long will it be before someone calls the cops? Then even people who dismiss these conflicts over strategy and tactics as “drama” will suffer real-world consequences.

Yeah it's petty drama. There will be a London Book Fair next year but it will be done by a different crew. All the chicken littles on this site bemoaning 'the end of the book fair era' and so on because of incidents that took place at TWO book fairs. Meanwhile anarchist book fairs continue all over the world. I hate to break it to you chump, but LA and London are hardly the world centres of anarchism.

Activists pushing their ideological conformity agendas with antics at bookfairs have been going on longer than this year’s LA and London events. There was also Seattle this year, and stupid things have happened at the SF bookfair too. And I’m sure there have been other dust-ups internationally; bookfairs, because they attract lots of people — from the curious to the committed — are perfect spots for promoting self-righteousness from activists with their pet projects. Using the event to mob anyone with an unpopular position is a deliberate strategy to draw others into that narrow agenda. It’s only “drama” if you think it doesn’t afrect you. Must be nice not to notice a creeping sub-Maoist identity-based conformism permeating radical spaces...

I don’t give a shit about bookfairs; they are pretty thoroughly small-business trade shows where consumerism trumps all. Still, the visibility of anarchists is important to some of us. I hope you are going to be part of the organizing group for the 2018 London bookfair so you can make sure it happens and so you can make sure it will be a no-drama space.

PS, thanks for the gratuitous insult, but your keating is showing

quote: The London bookfair folding after 34 years because the organizers are disgusted with idiots using the event for their narrow authoritarian agendas and 325 publishing another analytical angle is dismissed by you as “drama”?! I shudder to think what you might consider more wirthy of internet space... /unquote

well if you bothered looking at the tags for this post it's actually filed under 'bookfair drama'. so obviously thecollective figured it was 'wirthy' of a laugh or two.

they, uh, accept submissions

22.54 is very right.

And there's a social context to it. It's not just Twitter. It's not just a few Maoists.

Read this:
There's a new mode of neurosis, distinct from classical authoritarianism, focused on abandonment anxiety and the normalisation of abandonment/exile as a punishment.

Read this:
This type of social control has spread across many social fields, from schools and parenting to prisons, the debt system, welfare, workplaces, etc.

China is turning this into an organised system with Sesame Credit.

This protocol has been running in the mainstream for a long time, and has filtered down into anarchism and other radical scenes, as the generation who've grown up with the “new normal” come of age.

Also relevant: Sartre on fraternity-terror. Anarchism – whether protest-event, affinity-group, loose-knit “scene”, or network – is fused-group type. Solidarity (if it happens) comes from felt connections and real equivalence/interdependency in situ. Idpol is pledged-group type, meaning that there is an attempt to enforce solidarity through a threat by the group against its members (this also happens in Jacobinism and Leninism/Stalinism). Groups of this type seek to enforce loyalty through a pledge (in this case: rejection of “oppressive behavior”) which, if broken, triggers ostracism or even death at the hands of the group.

It's good to see the tide is turning. Anarchists are starting to split with idpol. Perhaps there will be a parting of the ways. Perhaps then we'll have spaces with no “safe space” bullshit and no etiquette policing. Let's make it happen!

Isn't the parenting article speaking against abandonment/exile in parenting?

I think @critic was referring to the negative outcomes of 'abandoning' kids in timeout. but that article is terrible, anyway. So many parents fail to appreciate a very simple insight about behavior--if you expend a ton of energy focusing on and responding to bad behavior you reinforce it. If you instead downplay attention bad behavior and ramp up attention for good behavior then you encourage the behavior you want. So timeouts should be used only for downplaying bad behavior and be over as soon as a child is ready to be reasonable, never as punishment which is worthless.

I think this insight could be extended to some of the loudest idpol evangelists.

I think that there is a lot to this conversation that is being simplified greatly.

One, there is a big difference between saying that POC, queer, trans, and other marginalized groups are one single entity belonging to one of those categories and hold the same mindset and are infallible, and recognizing that there are a lot of problems that come with being in one of those groups of people and the shit that is experienced as a result in not something to be taken lightly nor dismissed.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric that comes with criticizing identity politics all too often seems completely dismissive of those realities and the recent controversy over the bookfair reflects that heavily. When people are presenting those presenting transphobic ideas and those responding to them (disregarding judgment on whether the response was proper or not or that the one person was involved or not) as simply holding different perspectives and different points of view, it's really fucking ridiculous. It seems like this is coming down to some real questions within the anarchist movement of support for marginalized people's and what that means. Does critiquing identity politics and the toxicity that has come with that mean accepting transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc language, thought, and action? Do those things now get a pass? Because it seems like this is also going beyond merely dismissing trans struggles and oppression as real (problematic enough) and is bleeding into other groups as well. At what point does it not become a problem for people who aren't in those groups to tell people who are how they are able to respond and when? It's one thing to critique people's demands but to get pissed off when people respond to someone perpetuating bullshit that harms people in this world is absurd. It's beyond a differing perspective and it's beyond me how people can lighten the situation in that way. You either just don't give a fuck about what people experience or are ignorant of it. It'd be nice to at least see some honesty.

" For us, identifying as anarchists means always striving to be open-minded and think for ourselves, and to be as critical of norms in movements, subcultures, or scenes as in mainstream society. An anarchist approach to conflict, as we see it, is to treat people wherever possible as individuals, not just a component of a class. Neither a member of the ‘Terfs’ to simply be attacked, nor a member of the trans rights group to be unquestioningly supported. "

Ok great but we're still talking about groups of people that are pushing ideas that actually cause harm to people versus people that are dealing with the harm in our daily lives. What about this is lost? If it's apathy for the shit, then fucking say it, don't pass off this bullshit as if both groups are different sides of the same coin, that's shit logic that is as sloppy as it is false.

"Failing to stop the spread of rumour, not questioning or speaking out against herd behaviour, and bullying individuals in the ‘scene’ who express marginal views is the path towards authoritarianism. In this case, our destination seems to be an environment in which those who hold unpopular views must hide them and feign adherence to the dominant position, or be forced out of our tiny and diminishing networks."

Who is holding the unpopular views? And why is this relevant at all? This is such ridiculous logic. Do we defend the white nationalists that showed up in the context of the anti-civilization anarchist movement because they have "unpopular views"? To confront them, would that be bullying? Do we give support for ancap's because they have "unpopular views?" Is that authoritarian to go after them? If that's not different then why?

Responses like these are what outlines why identity politics is such a thing, because the opposite side of the coin is so shit that it creates an extreme response. The critique of identity politics just takes the form of a critique of people being able to respond to oppressive behavior and of people trying to create acceptable targets for people to go after and unacceptable targets. Identity politics is shit, but so is the way people want to respond to it which means treating social oppression lightly. The State, Capitalism, Civilization, those are all things to be opposed to, but so are the mentalities and oppressions that they create which anarchists aren't always immune from.

Also, what is this shit idea of we should all just basically hold hands and get along? This isn't rainbow, and just because two people are anarchists doesn't mean shit in the end, and never has. People who have held the idea of being anarchists in common haven't always seen eye to eye, and still don't and that's beyond just things that can fall under the banner of "identity politics". Is it ok for anarchists to have physical confrontations with each other over differences in anarchist thought as they do in some of Europe but not ok for people to respond when it comes to someone putting out rhetoric that goes after marginalized groups?

Physically attacking people is "responding"? Surrounding a few individuals and threatening them is "responding". Your use of "responding" seems deliberately sloppy/dishonest.
I HATE capitalism, but I would NEVER participate in this kind of behavior towards ancaps ("anarcho-capitalists"). I'd rather free my real life from capitalism.
I've been in love with other guys, but I would NEVER do the same to people with literature claiming homosexuality is inherently capitalist decadence or civilized degeneracy. Maybe because I really don't, even unconsciously, believe any of that, so it doesn't get to me.
NONE of this is "hold hands and get along".
I will be blunt with you. Most "Anti-Oppression Activism"/Identity Politics is a Maoist entry into anarchism. It is totalitarian, not authoritarian, and (appropriately) it is NOT anti-capitalist. They are NOT comrades of mine. But I would NOT advocate threatening or beating up people who put out idpol literature either. That DOESN'T mean they should be allowed to shut down anarchist events.
Do you know who the consummate "Anti-Oppression Activist" was? Jim Jones.

I think looking down on (negation of preference, aesthetic distaste) physical fights is DIFFERENT to moralizing against physical confrontation.
1) I'm not about throwing tools out of the toolbox.
2) If physical confrontation is appropriate, I'd like to win. Therefore,
3) I can appreciate that physical fights WITHIN a group/crew/circle is decent training and even cathartic for individuals.

Are there such things as good-faith brawls? Are they of value to anyone else? Do they necessarily create hierarchy?

Mind you, I fight with words and my plan for enemy confrontation is "hit the balls/cunt and run!" so perhaps I'm just romanticizing something here.

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