Anarchist Book Club
Club meets to discuss literature, contemporary issues, and collectivization on campus
Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser
Photographer Mirei Sugita
The Anarchist Book Club meets Friday evenings just as the sounds on Library Lanai begin to echo and the clouds glow with the pastels of an East Hawaiʻi sunset. Gathered around a table or two, club members take turns discussing current events, sharing excerpts from anarchist literature, and expressing frustrations that students face in contemporary times, meanwhile aiming to dispel anarchism’s stereotypes, galvanize student collectivization, and incite hope for the future.
James Smith created the club at the beginning of the semester as a channel to pursue his own personal curiosity towards the subject and pique the interests of other students. “Based on the conversations I had with peers, I found that a lot of us thought in similar ways with similar questions,” he explains. “We wanted to know if there was more out there that was different than ways we had been exposed to so far.”
The topic of exposure resurfaces frequently in conversations with the club. With the term “anarchism” comes an amalgam of negative associations, bad connotations, and potentially uncomfortable political sidelining. Smith and the other members, while honest about their initial hesitations, hope that by explicitly stating the club’s focus on anarchist thought, they can help reduce any stigmas surrounding its ideology.
“We were talking about changing the name to make people feel a little more comfortable,” says Natasha , “but that goes against what we’ve been talking about and what we believe in. People put the fear or the judgment in the name, and it takes getting comfortable saying it without the connotations.”
“When people hear ‘anarchy,’ they often think of radicalism,” Saphira Goode tells Ke Kalahea. “There are all sorts of radicalists just like how there are all sorts of religious people. I’d say the average anarchist doesn’t want to burn things or smash windows, even though I won’t put on the record that I would never smash a window. But in general, we try to prove that there are multiple facets to these kinds of words.”
Devanshi Bhimjiyani describes how even something as commonplace on campus as free food can be considered aligning with anarchist ideology because it encourages the ideas of equality, egalitarianism, and community. While students are financially required to wrestle not only with tuition but with fees for transcripts, textbooks, access codes, and printing costs, grabbing a bite to eat in Campus Center with no additional cost is an opportunity no one shies away from.
“As a student, you’re being asked to cough up money at every turn you take,” Bhimjiyani says. “I’m not going to use any word stronger than dissatisfaction because people aren’t doing anything about it, but when it comes to basic needs and basic happiness, it doesn’t seem to sit well with capitalism.”
Smith admits how his original impression of anarchism was that it’s essentially centered around chaos, terrorism, fire, and unjustified violence. But after diving further into his own research, he found a huge contradiction between how anarchists are usually portrayed and what they actually stand for.
“An ‘-ism’ just means a set of ideas; it doesn’t necessarily mean a doctrine or religion,” Smith explains. “The anarchist set of ideas basically revolves around the principles of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual aid. How those principles play out in people’s lives and cultures and localities is as diverse as the human population is culturally. Everyone needs different things in different places and in different ways, and that’s pretty much what anarchism is about.”
The fact that anarchism is often described as a state of disorder is, according to Smith, erroneous. “The anarchist experiment has been done many times, if we’re talking about human collectives that organize themselves anarchistically. It’s not very different from how humans have organized themselves all throughout our history.” Simply put, anarchy implies a system without hierarchy.
“No, it doesn’t mean disorder just because it means without rule,” Smith continues. “Anarchy is about order without rule; that’s it. People have negative associations with it because capitalists, private land monopolizers, and states don’t like anarchists, because anarchists ask them the question: why do we need you?”
At their meetings each Friday, the club hosts discussions paired with readings that Smith sends out via email. Work from the early 20th century by Emma Goldman, a Russian-American political activist and writer, seems to be a particular favorite among the group, as well other writings by Peter Kropotkin and David Graeber. “We call it a book club, and we definitely reference a lot of literature, but we’re busy students so we don’t actively read books together yet,” states Goode.
Themes brought up in discussions range anywhere from philosophy to news headlines.“I like when we base our talks on the connection between humans and earth,” Natasha says. “One of the causes of why there’s so much confusion and disruption right now is our separation from the earth. When we connect back to the ʻāina, it’s taking care of ourselves.”
Christopher Reichl , an anthropology professor at UH Hilo, attends the meetings out of personal interest towards the subject and to engage with students who are passionate about activism and intellectual curiosity. He describes the connection between anarchism and anthropology, pointing out like Smith does that humans lived in foraging groups without state authority or coercive powers for about 99 percent of our species’ history. “People just worked things out on their own,” says Reichl. “The goals of anarchists are actually and demonstrably possible when you look at the anthropology of premodern societies.”
Heavier issues that plague the present day, such as climate change, institutionalized racism, international nuclearization, genetic modification, and the state of American politics, are repeatedly deconstructed in the group’s discussion, challenging members to think critically, logically, and holistically. When asked if they ever wish to direct conversation towards happier and more hopeful topics, most agree that they’d rather stay woke. “Even these kinds of things, I don’t find them unhappy,” admits Goode. “They’re too important to me, but I understand it’s hard.”
“There’s blind optimism, and then there’s vigilant realism,” says Smith. “The only thing worse than being realistic is being blindsided. We end up talking about happier things and solutions, but before we get to a realistic solution about anything, we have to understand that this is complicated.”
Combating the tendency to apprehend the future with doom and gloom, aggravated at times by the stress of school, is one of the reasons that club members emphasize being there for each other simply as a source of support. “We talk about what it’s like to operate in a system that’s so finite and how we have to exist inside that system,” Goode describes. “We also talk about strength in numbers and what it’s like to have revolutionary thoughts, now and in history. It’s about opening up and working your way through the journey to make changes.”
“It’s really valuable to connect with other students and have a genuine and authentic conversation that’s really beneficial for academic growth” comments Louis Antonelli. “I enjoy being able to share things that are sometimes not traditional inside a classroom and to have an environment where those concerns can be listened to and supported.”
Looking forward, the Anarchist Book Club has a lot of ideas to promote collectivization on campus, but not much is set in stone yet. “The plan is to eventually have an outlet for students; not to force anarchism down their throats but to breed the attitude of helping into the next generation,” Bhimjiyani tells Ke Kalahea.
At the beginning of May, they will be hosting a talk series on debt for the campus community. The club also hopes to promote forming a student union at UH Hilo as an umbrella organization to help facilitate the needs of students and to incentive the collectivization of the student body in order to advocate for their own interests.