I engage in a pastime that’s both time-honored and yet somewhat of a relic in the punk world: tabling shows. I pack my panniers full of radical books and zines and bike them across town, setting them up on borrowed card tables in generally smoky venues, and more often than not lug nearly all of them back home with me at the end of the night. I’m not in it for the money— the petty cash all goes back into acquiring more material.
So why do I do it?
It’s a two-part answer. There are books and zines out there with messages that I find important. In addition, there’s a heritage of selling books and zines at shows, which means that there’s already in place an accepted process for getting this literature into people’s hands. I suppose there’s a corollary answer that the act of standing behind a table of books and zines is something with which I’m already familiar and comfortable, having attended so many book fairs and zine fests.
As a result of sharing a distro with a friend who has since left the country as well as my own wishful wholesale purchasing, I have found myself with a number of books on my table that I haven’t read. I am trying to rectify this, even if it means slogging through nearly all of Crimethinc’s titles. It has always surprised people to learn that I’ve never read a Crimethinc book, given the company I have kept over the years.
I once befriended someone who had gotten into anarchism in high school via Crimethinc. When I was in high school, Crimethinc didn’t exist yet. Neither did the internet, per se. It doesn’t make me better or worse, but it means I don’t have a shared experience with many people I know. Reading Evasion as a teen didn’t cause me to leave home and hitchhike across the country. I didn’t start doing that until much later, and it wasn’t because I read about it.
Although I planned to lose my Crimethinc virginity with Evasion, years past its expiration date, I was going out of town for five days and wanted to read something longer. At the last minute I left Evasion at home and brought Fredy Perlman’s 300-page essay Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! I’ve read many other titles by Perlman, but this one had seemed daunting. Many of my friends started it and never finished. I thought out of town would be the best place to focus on it.
The first day of my trip, one of the friends I was visiting handed me the newest Crimethinc book, Work. As I leafed through it, I noticed that it was actually somewhat similar to Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! They both attempt to critique a totality while picking apart the smaller aspects. They also both utilize borrowed illustrations.
As if that wasn’t enough, upon first perusal I felt like the font used in Work had a similarity to the one used in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! although font nerds might put my head on a stick for suggesting that. Having read Letters of Insurgents so many times, I reserve a special place in my heart for what I call Black & Red font, which is also in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! I don’t know what the font is called, nor do I care to substitute my own naming for the historically accurate one. (If I really wanted to know, I would just ask Lorraine.) After careful comparison however I realized that although the Work font— revealed in the colophon as RePublic — does bear some resemblance to Black & Red, they are not the same. The italics for example are quite different, and Black & Red doesn’t contain any ligatures.
During this closer look at fonts and such, I noticed that Work cites Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! as a source. I decided to read the books concurrently rather than in tandem. Many factors led me to have many hours of reading time on this particular trip, both during the day and at night. I traded off reading from each of them, and ended up finishing them both by bedtime on my last night. That’s almost 700 pages of non-fiction in the span of five days, speedy even for me.
Reading them together has fused them in my mind. We all read books within contexts, and reading two books in such proximity puts them in a sort of conversation with each other. Ever since my friend handed me Work, the two books have been together constantly, and I’m finding it hard to imagine separating them physically. They’re definitely not the same book but rather complementary slices of the same pie.
It’s a pie of criticism thrust into the face of that which some call the Spectacle, others Leviathan, and still others the Totality. There are many names for this hydra, including… Hydra.
One of the main differences between these similarly sized polemics are matters of chronology. Perlman wrote Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! nearly thirty years before Work came onto the scene. This is not to say that Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is outdated; rather, it is a narrative told in a different era. The reason that many of my friends can’t get through the book is because of the omnipresent references to ancient history. I think past generations studied ancient history a lot more. For anyone who was out back smoking during high school history class and never caught up on their own time, a criticism of civilization citing numerous examples from Ur to the Pilgrims would seem not unlike a string of nonsense words, things that would have to be looked up or else just not understood. Perlman starts with the Sumerians and gives a survey history of Western Civilization, epoch by epoch, describing how each step that civilization takes is the Leviathan destroying all that is human and replacing it with its own burrowed tentacles. Whether a worm or an octopus, Leviathan goes only one direction, and that is toward destruction.
Maybe because I wasn’t smoking during history class or maybe just dumb luck, I happened to remember enough about the history of Western Civilization to make it through this book without having to look anything up to understand what was going on. I’m no scholar, but I was successfully indoctrinated in high school to the point that I have some idea about the Etruscans, Byzantine Empire, the era of the two Popes, and the Crusades. I don’t believe it’s necessary to be fluent in this knowledge, but some familiarity helps.
Work tells a similar story but in the present. The Leviathan is named as Capitalism, but it’s clear that it’s not just an economic system but force of occupation in all aspects of our lives. The book breaks down capitalism into every category in which it touches us, changing who we are inside and out. I can’t think of any facet that the book doesn’t cover. I’m not saying I agree with everything in it, but the analysis is pretty total.
The question of course is why write a polemic at all. If someone is sympathetic enough to read a book in the first place, wouldn’t they be already one of the converted, so to speak? And does anyone hostile ever change their views based on something they read? My answer would be, eh, sometimes and sometimes. Or maybe eh, often and rarely. Or on some days eh, who cares and fuck ‘em.
As for me, I feel good about having spent the time to read both of them together. They bring me some sorrow about the pervasiveness of the damage already done and its continuance on a daily basis. However, they both remind me of why I’m an anarchist in the first place. This is important because I’ve been losing my way in the past few years. Not because I’ve changed my opinion on the way things are, but because anarchists have been a source of havoc in my life. My question is always why I do anything at all, if my reward is bad friends. Maybe it’s the occasional good friend, but what ended up being a five-day reading retreat for me renewed my passion in not just the things I do but the way I do them, the tense but mindful approach. I won’t be able to tell Fredy Perlman about this experience, but I’ll have the writer(s) of Work know that in true Crimethinc fashion, I read two-thirds of Work while on a farm and the other third while sitting on the roof of an urban punk house.
Back at home, I had a conversation with a couple of friends about my experience with the books that are now cousins in my mind. One friend asked me what Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! was getting at.
“It’s a history of Western Civilization,” I said, “and how it’s fucked! It’s all fucked!”
“Well, what about Work?” he said.
“It’s about how capitalism has invaded all aspects of our lives!” I said, sort of laughing at this point. “and how it’s fucked! It’s all fucked!”
My friend said he’d give Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! another try. A second friend offered to loan him his never-finished copy. “Oh no,” the first friend said, “I have my own never-finished copy.”
Perhaps that’s why we write books. And why we table them at shows still. People still do read them.