London Anarchist Bookfair 2012 – Anarchist Economics Lecture Review


The London Anarchist bookfair is the biggest event on the UK anarchist calendar and this year was the first time I was able to go. Getting to the Mary's University venue in East London was a bit of an adventure and made more difficult with the underground being partially closed. Although I missed the lifestyle anarchism lecture earlier in the day, I did get to the other main talk that piqued my interest – the two hour Anarchist Economics lecture in the Mason Lecture Theatre with the speakers posted as “David Graeber, Michael Albert and others”.


I have to say I was impressed by the scale of the bookfair and the numbers attending. The steps entering the university were overflowing with people going to and from either the food and drink stall / tent next door or the local Wetherspoons; the university does not allow food to be served during such events on the premises. I found the main hall to be very busy and lacking in space, particularly in the afternoon, but the flow of people traffic was easy to navigate. The overall impression was of a well planned event with an inclusive and inspiring atmosphere. Copies of the latest Irish Anarchist Review (IAR) were going like hotcakes with everyone seemingly juggling one with drinks, burgers, pens etc. Having done my relatively easy duty of handing out said copies of the IAR – and gone to the pub for a coffee – I made the Mason Lecture Theatre just in time, but not in enough time for a seat as it was standing room only at that point. I was too far away to record so I took rough notes on the stairs. There were four speakers lined up for the Anarchist Economics talk; Ian McKay, Michael Albert, David Graeber, and I would later learn the fourth speaker was Joseph Kay from libcom.


The first speaker was McKay (1), and if you were not aware of “the previous” between Michael Albert and Ian McKay (2) you might be forgiven for missing some of the underlining context and verbal digs thrown from either side. McKay’s talk ranged from utopian socialists, such as Fourier “[who] knew best”, onto Adam Smith's justification for capitalism using “irrelevant models”. Then Marx's “poverty of philosophy” led to a brief mention of Proudhon and critiques of “too detailed” visions of the future, and Kropotkin's support for “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (3)

McKay would regularly recant in this manner from the text of long dead anarchists, yet specifics were hard to find. To be honest, I found this a little tiresome in its regularity as saying this person supports an allocative norm X (“from each... etc” ), says very little about what it all means in practice in terms of ensuring moral principle Y and a minimal set of economic institutions to ensure classlessness and solidarity. The talk would improve a little with some brief suggestions of use rights, self-management, a compound of prices taking account of supply and demand, a scarcity index and horizontal links – but nothing really joined together in a theoretically unified way...

I also felt McKay would overly stress the importance of localism and decentralisation. There was then a slip of the tongue in saying a federation would control large scale projects and large scale production. This control, was rapidly corrected to federations deciding on large scale production, but for me, the mistake aptly highlighted the dangers of the “one big meeting” approach to economic planning leading to chaos, authoritarianism and democratic centralism. McKay would then say that a vision is essentially impossible and anarchist economics will just sort itself out after the revolution... McKay finished on the note that anarchism asks the economic question; is it right? While capitalism asks; is it cheap?

While the time did not allow much detail to be given, I think there was an assumption as to what “from each” means. There is a wide interpretation of “from each...”. with some in favour of any “anything goes” approach where everyone could take whatever they like from the social product and with no compulsion at all to work in any form. Others would require that once one is able to work, then some democratically agreed minimum socially necessary labour should be done in order to receive the right to society’s labour. I should point out that my bias is towards the latter. There is nothing new in support for socially valued work effort being a condition of above average consumption entitlement. The latter was also dominant in the Spanish CNT economic program of the 1930s, and is the view of Chomsky, and it appears to have been the view of Malatesta, Makhno and others. I would also argue that "according to needs" does not imply that everyone can take as they want. In fact, unless we assume unlimited production, this would mean some taking more from the social product and others would not be able to get the share they need. This is the situation today and of course contradicts “from each”.

With regard to McKay saying that any such vision is impossible, I feel this is one of the most effective ways to dodge difficult questions about how necessary decisions would be made in a non-market, non-centrally planned economy. How can procedures yield a coherent plan? Will the outcome be efficient (and environmentally efficient), or more importantly, will another class be generated that we have to fight against again? These are all important questions which will, and should, be asked.

I think an experimental approach is the right one to take, but the general population may not be up for fighting against the new class generated by our initial mistakes. A minimal set of viable institutions is required in the same way we work against the “tyranny of structurelessness” (4) within our meetings by “imposing” upon future libertarian meetings rules and roles to ensure everyone will have the opportunity to have a say in decisions that effect them and develop their creative capacities.


Unsurprisingly Albert's talk was a summary of parecon (for an introduction see my article in IAR4 (5) ). Albert is an engaging speaker and being somewhat of a fan of parecon's potential utility to anarchists, I was looking forward to the talk. The familiar presentation was changed with the context of imagining if the lecture was in an anarchist economics university dept (AE dept). What would the AE dept study and what would they find?

The AE dept would find that private ownership is basically a dictatorship. A corporation is more dictatorial than any dictatorship for instance. Albert argued that consumption, allocation and production is a part of any economy so that would certainly be studied. This would then surely lead onto institutions, as all economies need some institutions to function. The AE dept would create alternative institutions to further our values: anarchist values of solidarity, equity, diversity, efficiency (as in not wasting things), and self-management and any others deemed appropriate. Albert would point out that parecon is not a comprehensive blueprint but, instead, a description of the key minimal set of four institutions deemed essential if economics is to be both worthy and desirable.

The AE dept would investigate power and find workers versus owners, but it would not stop there. Power would be found with respect to the division of labour which yields between labour and capital a coordinator class (as Albert terms it) with knowledge, skills and confidence above other workers. Albert would then wrap up with asking how would the AE dept plan? It would need to find a way to either make cars or bicycles, allocate wants versus needs. This can be done in participatory planning's negotiation between workers and consumers. The crazy nature of capitalism could be found in the word sustainability. This means that people have to argue against the nature of the system and in favour of us not committing suicide as a society! Albert would then wrap up with a slight dig at the previous speaker, saying anyone who relies upon the words of anarchists of 100 or 50 years ago, well, simply has a problem!


David Graeber started his talk lamenting in a jovial way how the speakers were a bunch of middle class white guys talking about economics... To be fair, the audience seemed very diverse albeit more male than female. There was certainly less “lifestyle” fashion evident than in the main hall. Graeber would then say he liked the parecon model but he was not at all sure the future would work out like that. Graeber is a signed up member of the IOPS (6): which clearly doesn't mean one has to agree with everything in parecon. Graeber said he finds the model very useful in conversations with people about anarchism in terms of having a well thought out example against TINA (there is no alternative).

Graeber would then go on to question what we mean by an economy. How long have we had this perception of an economy? Many of the debt and moral underpinnings of capitalism points here were from the book “Debt”, in particular chapter 5, so if you had read that book then it was a very brief summary (7). The example of health ministers in Africa ( schooled and beholden under debt to the World Bank) was raised and how they can mention Aids suffering but not in terms of those suffering, but the effect it has on the economy.

Historically large standing armies related to coinage and markets. While power and militarism are linked in the use of gold and silver to control people. Graeber pointed out Sharia markets worked outside the state and Adam Smith plagiarised almost whole extracts from many Islamic texts with respect to this history. Many parts of the world saw labour market exchange and the market institution, not as competition but as mutual aid. This was to change.

Economics and trade in the western world then diverged, (1450 - 1971) and became more about competition/war as opposed to cooperation, with Adam Smith taking the former view. This leads us onto todays hopefully terminal phase of capitalism, neoliberalism, which seems to be designed with TINA as a founding stone. Graeber would finish on the very idea of work itself: “we all need to work more” why?, and the ideology of debt itself. Graeber was entertaining and a little more light-hearted in his delivery that the previous speakers.


The fourth speaker was Joseph Kay from libcom (8). Kay's talk was shorter than the others and focused mainly upon a critique of the existing state of affairs of capitalism. The current economy is the opposite of solidarity and should not be separate from other spheres. There was a lot of repetition about well worn critiques of capitalism leading to something more concrete in saying our struggles will produce the procedures of a “from each” based economy as opposed to abstract economics.


I only got to hear the first round of q&as. The first two questioners addressed their concerns at Albert. Apologies I could not hear the names given from the floor. The first questioner said Albert was wrong in saying working to one's ability could mean working a long time. I think the point was missed here, as it was surely about how we are to know the needed amount of work to do, or not to do? The second questioner explained his vision of an anarchist economy by saying exchange would be based upon love. I think this was meant to mean trust and solidarity would sort out supply and demand, ensuring we did not waste resources etc, but I'm not sure. The third questioner was better and was Paul Bowman from the WSM. Paul felt we would not really create a perfect anarchist economy at this talk...and then interestingly focussed upon how we incorporate environmental externalities into any economy we create? I would learn later that this question would unfortunately go unanswered by any speaker.

Albert was first to respond and answered the the two direct points by grudgingly agreeing to go into what it means to allocate according to need and explain what this means with respect to parecon. Having first pointed out that many things would be provided by need, Albert basically said that remuneration according to effort and sacrifice equates to what the practicality of “from each according to need...” is likely to mean in practice . The summary is that if one parses down what the “from each” norm means, ( see “querying young chomsky” (9) for a longer example of same) and if one wants to allocate, find preferences and ensure solidarity without resorting to authoritarian means (this was a stab at democratic centralism or McKay's federations “deciding”) then you have people giving their preferences of how much work they are willing to do. If people really want X product or service to be made, as opposed to Z, then this can be achieved through remuneration and negotiation within participatory planning.

McKay was the second to respond but unfortunately I only caught the first part which was a repeat of previous points made. My lasting impression of the lecture, was of a talk too heavy on critique and light on actual vision and specifics, but it was enlightening nonetheless.