AK Press is a book publisher and distributor out of Oakland, California, whose stated aim is, “Supplying radical words and images to as many people as possible.” ‘Radical’, in the AK sense, variously includes guides to home-brewing, essays on feminist porn, the translated works of French and Latin American revolutionaries, manifestos for queer liberation, and more than a few books explaining the inner workings of late capitalism. They’re anarchists, you see, and anarchists are prolific publishers.
“I don’t particularly care about some niches,” says collective member Charles Weigl, “but this particular one is an anarchist collective opposing the state and capitalism. That’s important for me. I can’t say I don’t see this as a business, it is a business, but it’s also in a long, 150-year tradition of anarchist propaganda – publishing things, getting them out there, trying to affect the world through the written word.”
Although they make a small profit, the job of speaking truth to power implies some very non-corporate measures. For starters, there is no internal hierarchy in the AK office. No bosses or middle management, just democratic discussion and voting. Outside of normal sales lines, they travel the country hawking at book fairs and selling to rogue traders in an effort to get their books into circulation. They even offer a thirty per cent discount to anyone who buys a book while incarcerated. It’s all done in the name of something they like to call “intellectual self-defence”.
“One of the first individuals I heard use the term, whether it originated with him or not, was Noam Chomsky,” says collective member Zach Blue. “As individuals we are barraged with this myriad of ideas – many good, many bad. It’s a very complex society that we live in and the idea that one can take a book or a political tradition, can use journalism to help sort out the world and make their own decisions about how they want to interact with it is a very powerful thing. When you’re faced with the distortions that come from living in our late capitalist society you really need to hone your skills in being able to understand [how it works].
Many of the books AK sells have an academic angle that often sees them confined to the dusty shelves of university libraries. Weigl and Blue, however, oppose the idea of clear distinctions between ‘popular’ and ‘academic’ publishing. “We look for academic titles that university presses have published but priced way, way out of the reach of anybody that doesn’t have a professor’s salary or is working at an institution with an academic library in it,” says Weigl. “There is really no reason why certain books should be designated academic books; they have just as much to offer to someone outside the academy. Some of us here are reformed academics, some are not, but we are all intellectuals and the same could be said about anyone.
“When you’re faced with the distortions that come from living in our late capitalist society you really need to hone your skills in being able to understand.”
In the age of electronic media it’s not always easy for small presses like AK, but Weigl believes that radical literature will always have a home on paper. As an example, he cites the recent Occupy Movement in the US: “Occupy Oakland was incredibly facilitated and augmented by the internet. If I wanted to know if I could attend a particular protest I would go to Twitter. […] On Facebook people were trading news articles and things. […] So you can’t deny the importance of the virtual effect of all this stuff. But Occupy Oakland would not have been Occupy Oakland without the real, physical world aspect of it. And the other interesting thing about most of the movements was that the first thing that these camps did across the country was set up libraries.”
From the political pamphlet culture of eighteenth century England to the counterculture zines of twentieth century America, small presses have always had a super-hero ethos that ignores power and wealth in favour of speaking directly to the people. This is perhaps their enduring secret. No matter how dire the economy or strong the pull of electronic media, radical literature is still perhaps strongest when you can hold it in your hands. “I really like pamphlets and zines in that – and this is changing some with portable internet – I have a little thing I can hold in my hand,” says Weigl. “It’s one solid concept that packs a single, powerful punch whereas everything on the internet is more like a cloud than a fist.”