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Everyone to the Stacks! Some Contradictions of the Squatted Library

While Rome Burns | 26.09.2012 14:22 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Public sector cuts

Some thoughts occasioned by the occupation of the Friern Barnet library and the ways in which volunteer-run projects could end up supporting the Tories' 'Big Society'.

Friern Barnet Squatted Library
Friern Barnet Squatted Library

North London’s squatted library has made some headlines. An element of novelty helps no doubt – a new take on opposition to the cuts.

It sounds like there has been a fine and determined campaign to save the library from Barnet Council’s axe, including a sit-in on the day of closure and regular pop-up libraries since then on the green next to the old library. Now squatters connected to the Occupy movement have reopened the old Friern Barnet library, running it with donated books and opening six days a week with volunteers. They have also hosted some educational classes, talks and music events.

In many ways this is a fine example of exactly what ought to be happening across the country – tactics, ideas and practices cross-fertilising between local anti-cuts campaigns and the more ‘activist’ anti-cuts groups such as Occupy and UK Uncut. It shows people going beyond their own particular group and linking up to make connections in a wider movement while using direct action to galvanise opposition.

However when I visited, it became obvious that all is not completely at ease among the stacks. The local campaigners who have worked for months to oppose the closure and the squatters who have more recently reopened the library have not all been seeing completely eye-to-eye. Although it seems that the local campaigners and library staff are broadly supportive of the reopened library, there have been concerns and dissenting voices which go beyond the traditional ‘locals’ vs ‘activists’ tensions.

The campaigners’ demands have been for the library to stay open as it was, in the same building, as a properly funded public service. The council have been trying to persuade them to both accept a relocated library and to run the library themselves as volunteers – approaches which have been soundly rejected. Now a bunch of DIY direct action types have come along who have reopened the library and run it entirely with volunteers! Unsurprisingly the council leapt at the chance and instigated meetings with the squatters to discuss a new relocated volunteer-run library.

This is not happening in a vacuum. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is an effort to justify cuts to public services and replace state provision with an ethic of voluntarism and philanthropy – NGOs, charities and community groups will step forward to fill the space left by the retreat of the state. So far we have not seen much evidence of this in action. It remains largely an aspirational goal for the Tories. However, libraries have been specifically targeted as probably the first place where this could be put into action (so much less controversial that trying to have fire stations or clinics staffed by volunteers) and therefore serve as a precedent for the rest of the public sector.

And of course we have seen with the progress and exposure of the workfare scheme what the government’s idea of volunteering is – once the principle has been established that it’s OK for libraries to be run by volunteers then conscripted benefits claimants will soon be stacking the shelves as ‘volunteers’.

Some local councils have already started replacing library staff with volunteers, so much so that CILIP, the librarians association, has taken a stance against this use of volunteers in public libraries, as they are being used to undermine the jobs of professional librarians. The response to these council moves has been mixed, with some groups, as in Friern Barnet, taking a principled stand against new volunteer-run libraries while others, as in Kensal Rise, have been campaigning for the right to reopen closed libraries with volunteers.

So it is in this context that the campaign against the closure and the squatting of the library has taken place. However, there doesn’t seem to be much recognition of this on the part of the squatters – rather than ‘Stop the Cuts’, their predominant line appears to be that they are demonstrating an example of DIY anarchistic living – showing how people can do things for themselves without the need for jobs or money or local government.

Now, under normal circumstances this is a fine message and no doubt I have in the past found myself saying very similar things from the steps of some squatted social centre or other. But taking over a derelict building, opening it as a social centre and declaring you are running it as a living example of how people can do things for themselves without money is a very different thing to doing this in a recently closed library which people have campaigned to save as a proper public service employing paid staff.

An equivalent would be in a campaign against the closure of a hospital, a load of hippy anarchists coming in saying they weren’t going to oppose the closure because everyone should be learning herbalism and DIY healthcare and resisting the patriarchal medical establishment. I wouldn’t disagree per se with those sentiments but there’s a time and a place for them and undermining people’s struggles to defend their local hospital against closure in this way would not be a useful contribution to social struggle.

I think it is unlikely the Tories will overcome their tribal hatred of squatters and Barnet will suddenly sack all its library staff and hand over library services in the borough to the Occupy movement (although the tent library at St Paul’s was very impressive). That is not especially the danger – the danger is more of driving a wedge between local campaigns to defend services and the direct action wing of the movement and of giving inadvertent support to the Tory agenda of cuts justified with a rhetoric of voluntarism. Especially with all the media attention, there’s a danger of muddying the waters if campaigners are not speaking clearly with one voice saying ‘Stop the Cuts’. If half of them actually end up suggesting that it’s preferable to have libraries run by volunteers then you have rather shot yourself in the foot.

Two Worlds Collide

So why is it that we have this phenomenon of clashing ideologies within the anti-cuts movement? British activist culture is strongly wedded to an ethic of voluntarism – that everyone does everything for free because we are trying to create the world we want in the here and now as much as possible. We are trying to show that it is possible to organise without bosses and that people will do things without the lure of money – we are trying to answer people’s familiar objections and show that society doesn’t immediately collapse when you remove bureaucratic control and money incentives. This is an admirable ethos and way of working, but one that can generate problems in certain forms.

This ideal of voluntarism means that politics is largely something you do outside of work in your ‘spare time’. And further it means that politics itself is something you have chosen to do. Much of people’s attitudes and prejudices are explained by this fact. By contrast, in a workplace struggle you do not so much choose to do politics – politics comes and intrudes upon you whether you like it or not. Activist politics tends often to not ‘get’ workplace struggles over wages (activists often think this is workers being greedy and consumerist).

Because politics is something that exists outside of work, the relationship of the political activist to capitalism is as a consumer (or a deliberate non-consumer). The production of capital through work is necessarily collective, but the consumption of commodities is as atomised individuals. And it is largely this world of individual consumer choice that is inhabited by the political activist. Even when people vociferously reject consumerism and consumption, often their politics remain steeped in individualism and lifestyle choice. Because the political activist has chosen to engage in politics, instead of the idea that we are almost without choice within and against the system (which flows quite naturally from workplace struggles), the thought tends to follow that you can choose whether or not to participate in the system.

In its worst incarnations (as evidenced by some of the productions of the Crimethinc stable, and the opinions of some of those influenced by them) this ethic tends to lead people to self-righteous preaching – loudly voicing the opinion that everyone should just drop out and quit their job, steal, shoplift, hitchhike and live off the food from the bins and that if you don’t, then you’re part of the problem – anyone who even has a job is a sellout.

We Don’t Want to be Part of Your Big Society

The love of volunteering, giving your time for free, community organising and co-operatives in the anarchistic activist movement does leave various openings for the movement be partially co-opted by the government’s Big Society agenda.

Unlike the Left who want to defend services run by the state because they believe having things run by the state is A Good Thing and half way to socialism, anarchists want to abolish the state and money and ultimately have a society where everything is done voluntarily and for the love. So it might seem on the face of it as if anarchists share quite a lot in common with the Tories and maybe even should be supporting this idea of the Big Society.

Luckily, almost no-one is this naïve. The Tories are not, of course, interested in getting rid of the state or even reducing its size or scope, they merely want to break the public sector, the stronghold of the unions, attacking everyone’s wages and conditions in the process, and end all welfare state, safety net, ameliorative functions the state has taken on over the last 100 years as a result of generations of class struggle. For example, we can see the ideal of the Big Society at work in Michael Gove’s call during last year’s teachers strike for parents to become volunteer strike-breakers.

Most anarchists correctly see that the best way to move towards the ultimate goal of an anarchistic society is to build the strength of working class self-organisation and resistance against capitalism now. The form this often takes is the defence of state-run services against neo-liberal attack. A small irony for anarchists involved in these struggles, but nevertheless an important step in the right direction.
Co-operatives have also become flavour of the month with the Tories as they search for some untainted political language in which to wrap their attacks on the working class. The ‘John Lewis economy’ is the new rhetorical touchstone of the right.

As with the talk about volunteering, all this lauding of co-operatives remains mainly in the realm of rhetoric. The Tories are still the friends of the banks and the corporations, but some new political language serves to muddle people’s thinking and mask what is really going on.

Those involved in any activist movements which utilise the language of volunteering, community organising and co-operation must resist all these potential avenues of co-optation. There may be little we can do to stop Tories spouting this language but at the very least we can make a clear stand against it and not inadvertently give any extra credence to what they are saying.

You’ve got to have your political head screwed on when the Tories start using the language of community, co-operation and voluntarism in order to launch a war on the poor. We could end up with our political movements lined up on the wrong side of this class war. Something similarly politically strange happened with the ‘riot clean up’ in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. Self-organised spontaneous community organising ended up on the same side as the government and the police, lending ideological support to moves to demonise and round up rioters and give ever more power and weaponry to the cops.

I have used politics around the squatted library as a jumping off point for a wider discussion around activist culture and voluntarism. I don’t want to suggest that all of this is necessarily attributable to the occupiers of the library, who have been doing a fine job and have provided a good example of what can be achieved by direct action in practice. However they need to be very clear that the aim of the squatting and reopening of the library is ultimately to lead to it being properly reopened and restored to what it was. ‘Stop the Cuts’ should be the key slogan and demand. Anything else risks becoming a stooge for the Tories.

May a hundred squatted libraries bloom!

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Display the following 5 comments

  1. good piece — hackney library worker
  2. Agree on the problems of voluntarism and squat scene politics — nerd
  3. Words and deeds. — Shelfer
  4. Cheers for this — Rob
  5. i agree with every word... — caroline molloy