The loneliness of the crowd
‘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