Talking of Anarchy and Publishing with Ramsey Kanaan of PM Press
By Joan Brunwasse
December 29, 2009
"We're old enough to know what we're doing and young enough to know what's at stake." Welcome to OpEdNews, Ramsey. Please tell our readers a little about PM press.
Thanks for inviting/quizzing me! The really short answer is that PM Press is a publisher (in various formats - including print/paper, audio, video, and electronic) of fine materials! Hopefully thought-provoking, educational, and entertaining materials, too. We're very new, pretty young, and still have a burning desire to change the world. Preferably in our lifetimes!
PM Press is, indeed, "pretty young" but those behind it have a long history in the publishing business. Can you go back a bit and tell us how you got involved in publishing in the first place?
I first got involved in the (often sordid) world of book selling, publishing, and propaganda, back in the late '70s early '80s, in Scotland. In 1979, at age 13, I discovered punk rock, and politics (i.e., anarchism). Through the punk subculture, which strongly encouraged the DIY [do-it-yourself] ethic, and practice, started distributing punk rock fanzines, often those that interviewed the punk rock bands for which I sang.
I was fortunate, early on, to meet more experienced booksellers/publishers/propagandists, at a Crass concert [legendary British anarchist punk band]. Those kind, gentle and brilliant souls worked at a radical bookstore, called Housmans, in London (still there, today, in Kings Cross). They were kind enough to mentor this very annoying kid with his million and one questions in the ways of such literature and ideas, and the production, and dissemination of it. So, quickly, I started publishing too, under the name AK Press, AK being my mother's initials, and it all trundled on from there.
Ah, a kid with a dream! How lovely! So, music actually brought you to publishing. Before we move forward to the publishing world, let's stop a moment at the punk rock. You were in a band/s for how long? Are you still active as a musician?
I wouldn't say that music brought me to publishing, or vice versa, really. I discovered punk rock and politics of the anarchist bent, at the same time. And they were inseparable to me, rather than consequential. I was partly drawn to punk, because of the politics of the lyrics (and practice), rather than to anarchism, because of the sung/shouted words! A veritable chicken/egg situation, if a vegan can use such an analogy, for sure.
I played in various bands from 1980 onwards. The only band that actually recorded (various records) and toured was one called Political Asylum. I guess we were around for a decade, from 1982 to 1992. The band, and our concerts/tours were certainly an early distribution method for the literature. Four or five years ago, I joined a folk band, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, called Folk This! We're not the world's most productive musical ensemble, but we do manage to play a couple of benefits a year, and appear on the occasional picket line to add our voice.
You're political on every level - through your music, your work, and your eating! Let's talk about anarchy and anarchist writing for a moment. I'm a nice, suburban girl, raising my own kids in the suburbs. I don't really know from anarchists. When I looked through your catalog, I just saw a lot of intriguing titles that I wanted to peruse. Can you explain a little about what you as an anarchist believe? It's a concept that carries a lot of emotional freight for us Americans. Should we be afraid of it?
Never fear. There are many nice anarchist suburban girls, raising their kids in the suburbs too. For me, anarchism is at its core, the very simple, common-sense notion that folks are best able to organize their own lives,in concert with others, without the impediments of the state, hierarchy and authority, which just tend to get in the way. It's a form of social, economic and political organization which stresses 'horizontal' forms or organization, as opposed to the typical 'top-down' hierarchical methods. Folks left to their own devices typically tend to do this anyways. Indeed, insofar as society still functions, it's largely because of this application of what the anarchists call 'mutual aid', rather than because we are coerced into doing so by fear, law-enforcement, rules and regulations, etc.
Anarchism is also a practice, as well as a theory. The self-emancipation of the working class. Of course, those in authority, since it's inception, like any radical idea/practice, have spent the last couple of hundred years attacking/ridiculing/distorting anarchism...but that's only to be expected, right?
Naturally. This reminds me of a book I read recently. In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes about how communities experiencing disaster naturally and organically build their own self-help structure. She studied five different catastrophes through history, including 9/11 and Katrina. And what you say is what she reported. People on the ground reached out to one another and built whole helping networks which were promptly dismantled, disrupted and delegitimized by the government agencies when they eventually showed up. Is that sort of what you're talking about?
That is definitely an excellent example. But the very fabric of society is also based on co-operation, not competition, not just in times of crisis. How would those suburban kids ever get raised if it wasn't for parents' groups, and babysitting swaps, and joint kids activities. And how come you can mail a letter anywhere in the world, and it'll arrive,more or less! Because of the Universal Postal Union, a non-hierarchical, co-operative, non-coercive federation of postal systems in the world, who all agree to deliver each other's mail, etc. etc.
So, what you're saying is that "anarchy" might be a scary sounding term but it's actually something that we're quite familiar with and actually appreciate in action. You're from the UK. You had a chance to put your political activism into practice over there. What did you take on and what were you all able to accomplish?
[You're] not only familiar with, but - typically unwittingly - [you] actually practice it all the time! I'm very leery of the 'activist'/'normal person' dichotomy. I have never seen myself as an activist as such. The publishing and distribution, which I've always viewed as part my contribution to building a better world, is just something which I have somewhat of a knack for, even if that 'talent' is largely just perseverance! And I'm all for encouraging folks to do what they feel comfortable with, rather than criticizing and/or castigating them for what they are not doing (whatever that may be).
Outside of the propaganda world, I was active in various anarchist and strike/labor solidarity groups in Scotland, culminating in the anti-poll tax campaign. Briefly, that was a 6-year campaign against a particularly vicious law/tax, which resulted in the biggest mass movement of non-cooperation/breaking the law ever in British history. 50% of adults in the UK never paid the tax/broke the law....i.e., 17 million folks! 'Twas an honor, a thrill, and very exhausting to be a part of that!
I see what you're saying about the unsuitability of the activist/normal person dichotomy. Having said that, are you still involved, beyond your publishing and music, with what would be perceived as more political action?
Over the years, I've lent my body to picket lines, knocked on doors, marched down streets, volunteer as a guest host and producer at KPFA radio, that sort of thing.
That all counts. Speaking about forms of community involvement, what's your take on our new president?
He's not my president! Despite 'no taxation without representation,' us foreigners still can't vote! What surprises me about Obama is not how reactionary/business as usual/bail out the banks/increase foreign wars, etc. that he is, but how/why anyone thought he was in any way progressive. I mean, it's not like he claimed he was ever progressive, let alone radical. He promised hope and change. Pretty much what George Bush Jr. promised, and every other politician.
So, same old, same old. Let's go back to PM. Give our readers a sense of what kinds of books you offer. Maybe some of them are thinking, "Anarchist publishers - it's probably all bomb-making instructions and manifestos."
Firstly, it's probably fair - and accurate! - to say that while myself and several of the folks that work at PM and we publish are anarchists (and proud of it), the majority of folks are not. Which is absolutely fine. The labels - and definitions - don't concern me so much as the practice, the work and the results! To that end, we publish a wide variety of books (and CDs and DVDs). Fiction and non-fiction, history and politics, art and culture, music and film. The common thread that unites them all is that a) they're really good b) they're thought-provoking, stimulating, entertaining, and educational and c) they look really good!
I can vouch for that. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap up, Ramsey?
Thanks for the opportunity. And I would, of course, encourage folks to check out PM Press at www.pmpress.org, and humbly suggest that the Friends Of PM is a rather excellent way to discover a boatload of fantastic new literature. Rock on!
Rock on, indeed! Thanks for talking with me, Ramsey. It's been a pleasure.
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