Skip to content or view mobile version

Home | Mobile | Editorial | Mission | Privacy | About | Contact | Help | Security | Support

A network of individuals, independent and alternative media activists and organisations, offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of important social and political issues.

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!

Full version with pics and links at:

While Rome Burns
- Homepage:


Hide the following 5 comments

good piece

26.09.2012 18:15

thanks for posting it

hackney library worker

Agree on the problems of voluntarism and squat scene politics

26.09.2012 19:24

Good post. The London squat scene has always mostly tended to be a very internal one even when it tries to be external to it's own concerns (i.e somewhere to live, cheaper way of life, creating a sense of community to break down isolation etc) by setting up social centres or attempting to engage in local struggles. Seems very rare, for example, for the squat scene to encompass other types of housing struggles and play an active part in them. The notion and activity of Homes For All, the attempt by tenants, squatters and others to maintain housing as a political issue in the late 80's was pretty good for a time. Can't say it's not a huge struggle these days as the idea of housing as a site of politics went down the tubes probably since the beginning of the 90's. However, numerous local and significant campaigns are ongoing on estates and sites of regeneration - West Ken estate, Carpenters estate, Convoys Wharf, Heygate and Aylesbury estates etc. This is something of a resurgence.


Words and deeds.

27.09.2012 08:15

Good straightforward article.

People who get a living wage can be forgiven for equating work with entitlement to food, shelter, and comfortable living. The honest association between money and work is understandable in this context, in that people getting on with "the workload" results in the community getting through floods, plagues, and winters. Problems arise when the 'record keeping tokens of help given' can be accumulated by those whom do not 'help' and used in harmful ways.

What money is, and how it can be used, are less often discussed than where to get money from, and what people want to "buy". Mechanisms of money control will continue to hide in language which means one thing to users and another thing to "suppliers", until people have the (verbal or conceptual) tools to unpick the deception. Sometimes that might require that the deceived cease deceiving.


Cheers for this

27.09.2012 11:59

A fine jargon free and clear analysis. Yes Crimethinc were pretty up themselves for a while but eveybody has to start somewhere and at least they started from where they were (rather than so many who get their ideas 'off the shelf', put them on like a coat only to take it off a few years later.) They've 'owned up' to this, and their site these days is full of insightful contemporary analysis the orthodox anarchist scene here (still largely stuck in the 19th century) just can't touch. Check it out for yourself.


i agree with every word...

23.11.2012 20:06

thoughtful article, that reflects much of the internal dilemmas and experience of a group of us trying to save st james st library in walthamstow from closure, a few years back now. The Nu Lab council there was desperate to co-opt us into running the library - an insult to properly skilled librarians in my view.

Also v interesting reading it from the more recent perspective of having been involved in an anti-cuts group fighting the co-opted 'social enterprise/mutual' agenda in relation to the NHS in Gloucestershire, more recently (with some success).

I have a *lot* of time for the 'horizontalists', i'm happy to buy my knickers from John Lewis and my food from the local food co-op, and to 'DIY' in relation to things the state has never provided. And I look forward to the day when we all live in a post-capitalist idyll.... but in the mean time, whilst the private sector vultures circle the public services that the working classes fought so hard for, there are, as you rightly identified, many pitfalls for the activist movement, and I heard some thing that worried me (in amongst the excellent stuff) at Occupy LSX/St Pauls.

Co-ops (and more often, other forms of 'social enterprise' / 3rd sector ventures are being widely used to replace properly funded, unionised services, and also (where there is the potential to make money) to open services up to market laws (as we found in our high court case) & the private sector (see Virgin takeover of Surrey NHS social enterprise). Bevan rightly criticised the 'patch-quilt of mutualisms' that pre-dated the NHS. The sound of top managers invoking the spirit of the Rochdale co-operators to *narrow* ownership, from a service we *all* own to one owned by fewer, is sickening. You are right that using terminology of co-ops that plays well with (various sections of) the left is a deliberate government strategy, see for example

some more background on the succesful Gloucestershire battle to prevent the NHS being outsourced to social enterprises is here and here we were told staff wanted this, that it would be more inclusive, that it was the only alternative to full scale privatisation (rather than a stepping stone to it) an that there was no choice to just stay publicly owned. we proved all these statements false.

caroline molloy
mail e-mail:
- Homepage:

Upcoming Coverage
View and post events
Upcoming Events UK
24th October, London: 2015 London Anarchist Bookfair
2nd - 8th November: Wrexham, Wales, UK & Everywhere: Week of Action Against the North Wales Prison & the Prison Industrial Complex. Cymraeg: Wythnos o Weithredu yn Erbyn Carchar Gogledd Cymru

Ongoing UK
Every Tuesday 6pm-8pm, Yorkshire: Demo/vigil at NSA/NRO Menwith Hill US Spy Base More info: CAAB.

Every Tuesday, UK & worldwide: Counter Terror Tuesdays. Call the US Embassy nearest to you to protest Obama's Terror Tuesdays. More info here

Every day, London: Vigil for Julian Assange outside Ecuadorian Embassy

Parliament Sq Protest: see topic page
Ongoing Global
Rossport, Ireland: see topic page
Israel-Palestine: Israel Indymedia | Palestine Indymedia
Oaxaca: Chiapas Indymedia
All Regions
South Coast
Other Local IMCs
Bristol/South West
Social Media
You can follow @ukindymedia on and Twitter. We are working on a Twitter policy. We do not use Facebook, and advise you not to either.
Support Us
We need help paying the bills for hosting this site, please consider supporting us financially.
Other Media Projects
Dissident Island Radio
Corporate Watch
Media Lens
Earth First! Action Update
Earth First! Action Reports
All Topics
Animal Liberation
Climate Chaos
Energy Crisis
Free Spaces
Ocean Defence
Other Press
Public sector cuts
Social Struggles
Terror War
Workers' Movements
Major Reports
NATO 2014
G8 2013
2011 Census Resistance
Occupy Everywhere
August Riots
Dale Farm
J30 Strike
Flotilla to Gaza
Mayday 2010
Tar Sands
G20 London Summit
University Occupations for Gaza
Indymedia Server Seizure
COP15 Climate Summit 2009
Carmel Agrexco
G8 Japan 2008
Stop Sequani
Stop RWB
Climate Camp 2008
Oaxaca Uprising
Rossport Solidarity
Smash EDO
Past Major Reports
Encrypted Page
You are viewing this page using an encrypted connection. If you bookmark this page or send its address in an email you might want to use the un-encrypted address of this page.
If you recieved a warning about an untrusted root certificate please install the CAcert root certificate, for more information see the security page.

Global IMC Network

satellite tv


estrecho / madiaq
la plana
northern england
nottingham imc
united kingdom

Latin America
chile sur
cmi brasil
cmi sucre
puerto rico


South Asia

United States
hudson mohawk
kansas city
minneapolis/st. paul
new hampshire
new jersey
new mexico
new orleans
north carolina
north texas
rogue valley
saint louis
san diego
san francisco
san francisco bay area
santa barbara
santa cruz, ca
tampa bay
united states
western mass

West Asia


fbi/legal updates
mailing lists
process & imc docs