An Anarchist Guide to… Distribution

We really admire Jon’s contribution to the anarchist cause and thought it would be a great idea to interview him to find out his thoughts on issues such as compromising within the capitalist frameworks aswell as getting an insight into the foundations of the anarcho-punk movement.
distributionIllustration by Ed Tolkien

An Anarchist Guide to… Distribution by Jon Active

When one gets to a certain age it becomes really easy to bore the fuck out of your mates by repeating your latest fave anecdote over and over without realising. I am in danger of this with my decidedly self-congratulatory tale of last month’s excess. “April was mad, I broke my own record: I did a different anarchist bookfair every weekend, each in a different country.” This fact does, though, illustrate various themes I have been asked to pontificate upon, having been described recently as an expert on Anarchist Bookfairs, DIY and not-for-profit.

There was an LP released many years ago by a bunch of ageing radical rockers called Where Do We Draw The Line? The music was not noisey and the lyrics were concerned with the dilemmas and compromises that artist activists trying to be true to their ideals come up against. The DIY scene that I have operated in for the last quarter of a century is nothing to do with flat pack furniture or elementary plumbing, but is the spirit of how and why many punx and revolutionaries try to operate. One early slogan of the anarcho-punk movement says much rather succinctly: DIY NOT EMI! The Buzzcocks famously set up their own record label rather than sign up with an established one in order to have complete control over what they could do. This idea was developed further by anarcho punk labels like CRASS, who added the concept of being actively against the music business, refusing to play the media’s games, releasing their records as cheaply as possible and, along with many other bands, notably Chumbawamba, attacking EMI and other major labels for being part of corporations with investments in the arms trade etc.

Where one draws the line of radical DIY purity versus capitalist compromise is a never-ending argument. Never-ending, one might say, because idealist young bands almost always get old and tired and greedy, and end up seeing the bottom line of financial security as more important than a less remunerative hard core political stance. I remember reading a statement from Chumba’s when they left the independent label Southern for the larger One Little Indian (originally an anarcho punk label), who had recently done deals with major labels to secure ‘better’ distribution. The crux of their argument was that all capitalism is capitalism whether it’s small or large, so they saw no merit in staying with a small label when they wanted to get their message out there. A form of ‘the ends justify the means’ argument, with the unstated side-benefits of wealth and fame.

This concept smacks at the whole problem with an alternative culture that tries to survive and support radicals within capitalism. Can it be done with any sincerity? Is it credible? Does business success mean it is no longer anti-capitalist?

These questions were very live in the punk and H/C (hard core) scene when I started Active back in 1988. There were distros and fanzine writers who would get apoplectic about ‘sell outs’ who charged people for postage costs rather than soaping their stamps. We were pretty dedicated to the concept of non-profit and that is how I have stayed.

The most obvious direct comparison between DIY distribution models within the anarcho-punk scene is AK Press and Active Distribution. Both started with the same concept: to distribute radical, primarily anarchist, literature. The methods were and are similar: we both do stalls at events, produce catalogues, run a mail-order service, supply others at wholesale rates, blah blah.

Ramsay, who started AK, and I would meet at Freedom and Housmans bookshop (back in the day when hippy Malcolm ran its basement like an Aladdin’s cave of anarchy.). But even our chosen transport methods showed the difference between the two distros: Ramsay would take the train down from Stirling and I would hitchhike from Swansea. Where AK sold books at full price, I’d knock them out as cheaply as I could afford. Subsequently, AK became an international book publisher with offices and warehouses in both Edinburgh and California – Active stayed within the scope of my spare bedroom. As a workers co-op, AK employs and pays a bunch of people; it does not seek to make the workers rich, but it does pay them a living wage. Active will cover the cost of food from Veggies food stall when people work at a bookfair and that’s about it.

AK has also succeeded in publishing and distributing many wonderful books and I hope they continue to do so. In order to do enough business to do this and to spread the word as widely as possible, AK has crossed many lines so that many would say it has become another capitalist business.

Active decided it did not want to grow up or do-it-properly, and continued to hitch-hike our way through life, begging and borrowing, stealing and scamming, and ultimately putting in a lot of effort ‘for the sake of it’. We don’t worry about costs or bills as AK and other ‘real’ businesses do: we add a small margin to cover costs but we don’t worry if that doesn’t always happen. Margins and profit lines are what business is all about.

The problem with capitalism is that ultimately businesses are only interested in their profit margins. When a publisher prices a book, it will mark the cover price anything from 3 to 7 times the cost price of producing the book. Distributors of books get between 50 and 60% of the cover price of a book, so they can supply shops who take 30-40% of the cover price. Active ignores these rules and adds the smallest percentage possible to keep us going. We specialise in supplying other distributors and infoshops with stock cheaply. What money we do make goes into our publishing projects (The Bottled Wasp etc), and to cover for the costs of stock that never sold.

I started my radical journey as a pacifist heavily steeped in the ideal that we should act in the manner that we want the revolution be. I think Ghandi put it better – and I like the irony that the anarcho-insurrectionists have a similar view about life and revolution, despite being on the other side of the anarchist milieu to Ghandi.

So last month’s record breaking (and carbon huge-boot-print inducing) bookfair attendance by Active was done not by the larger and more famous distributer/publisher AK Press but by the two-bit, part timer Active. How come? Well, Active didn’t need to judge the bookfairs by their likelihood of being ‘financially viable’, which any profit orientated business needs to do. AK might attend quiet, non-money-making events and consider them good publicity, or even ‘acts of solidarity’ but they can only do this on a limited scale. Active stalls get to bookfairs using ‘punk-post’ and maximizing airline baggage allowances; the travel costs are paid by the individuals who see the events not as work but as an act of support (and maybe a holiday too). This isn’t so difficult when you consider that the first three bookfairs in April were Zagreb, Gent and Prague (and I am a self confessed vegan tourist always happy to try out new cruelty free food outlets). But our book stall probably had the biggest selection of books at all four bookfairs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking AK or PM or any of the other ‘big’ anarchist publishers; Active has a good comradely working relationship with them all. And although we have different priorities, sometimes these differences work to our mutual benefit. For instance, when a new punk squat bookshop suddenly appears asking for books on credit, AK groans inwardly with the weight of a history of unpaid and unrecoverable debts. Active, having being (relatively) unworried about cash up front or 30 days credit limits, is able to supply places that others would find uneconomical (it must be said we are owed a fortune in unpaid book sales.)

At bookfairs abroad, Active specialises in leaving all unsold stock with the local bookshop or anarchist distro with the promise to settle up at next years bookfair. If Active were under pressure to pay the rent or justify the expenditure of leaving books in Barcelona for a year after we have already paid for them, without a guarantee that they we will indeed sell, this attitude would be unfeasible. But this non-commercial attitude is an essential element for me. I don’t want to run a business, I want to propagate anarchist ideas and culture. I don’t want to profit from the words, deeds, writings or ideas of anarchists who have fought in battles far worse than I have ever seen. I don’t want to sully the beauty of the ideas of the likes Emma Goldman or Kropotkin with the percentages of mercantile profit motivations. No, I want to give this stuff away, I want it to be as free as the ideal itself. When I hit the reality of printing costs, postage and fuel costs I make as small an addition to the cost price as I can and hope that the bargain price will inspire people to buy a book rather than just a badge.  Even better, they might get two books and pass one on to someone else. And I have profited over the years by doing Active: it has brought me many friends, some lovers, quite a few books and CD’s, but most of all it has helped keep my belief in an alternative, not profit-based, way of dealing with other people alive.

It was reading the likes of Malatesta, the Freedom Paper, Poison Girls and CRASS lyrics that helped me find my voice and set me free, and that is why I have a passion to continue the work of distributing such ideas. I bought those texts from a long gone radical bookshop; nowadays,  the internet allows us to find such literature wherever we are but I don’t want people to have to compromise themselves by giving profit to the likes of Amazon. So please: support your local radical literature outlet.

Jon Active runs Active Distribution, a DIY, Not for Profit distributor of all things anarchist. Active was born out of the legendary Lee House squat in Hackney circa 1988 though Jon was doing his own distribution before this whilst at Swansea Uni as part of the local Hunt Saboteur and Black Sheep groups.

Anarchist guide to distribution