September 13, 2003

This is the third and probably last message from me about the Williamsburg Free Store. The Free Store closed on September 6th with a bang-up party attended at times by firemen and police officers, along with numerous local residents and visitors. The entire contents of the store were moved outside in a sort of final potlach, and what was not taken moved on to the nearest dumpster. Sic transit.

The Free Store existed for about a year and a half. It was founded by Jessica Baldwin, who had some space to spare after setting up a studio in the back of the store, and was inspired to start a free store on the model of the famed hippie free stores of yesteryear. In general, everything in the store not literally chained down was free, and supplies were sustained by donation. These supplies turned out to be mostly clothing, books, kitchen utensils, and toys, although some other sorts of objects sometimes passed through, like a large television set. The store was decorated by Jessica (others were encouraged to participate) and had a communal diary and bulletin board where people could contribute and exchange ideas as well as material goods. A more detailed description of the Free Store, especially its first year, must come from Jessica herself.

I came across the Free Store only in January or February of 2003, when it seemed like a place where I might pursue my free-food political project (of which more below) to its next stage. At that time, Jessica was contemplating closing the store because of inadequate funds, and I was able to alleviate the problem for a few months in order to keep it open. This infusion also enabled Jessica to renovate the interior to make it more storelike and physically independent of her studio (so it could be used whether she was present or not). She reopened it for "business" in March. Subsequently, the Free Store was "staffed" by volunteers: friends, neighbors, and passers-by. Generally, no problems developed with this arrangement, of either a physical or social nature. The immediate neighborhood, which is principally Hispanic, supported the store and discouraged vandal and thug behavior in or near its premises throughout its life.

My interest in giving away free food as a political act goes back a few years. I had been involved in a number of discussions about communistic and socialistic varieties of anarchism and it seemed to me that if these were ever going to be viable they ought to be viable in the here and now, at least in some limited sense, as a praxis for achieving the more complete transformation of human societies they aim at. I have long been aware of many communes and egalitarian work collectives in the area of the arts, media, communications and computation, but these generally do not reach or apply to ordinary people very much and many of the people involved seem to practice them for entertainment rather than politics; the communalism and anarchism may be more of a decorative posture than a commitment to substantial, long-term political action. I had heard of Food Not Bombs but because of the peculiar way in which the bourgeois media see, frame and report things, I thought of them more as a charitable organization -- giving food to the poor and homeless as such -- than the sort of thing I intended. (I have since become more enlightened.) As a sample of my ideas, I'll quote here a sort of overview I wrote in answer to a question about how an anarchist polity could be brought into being:

Under present conditions (liberal bourgeois capitalism), in the West, at least, it is possible for anarchists to form communes and "temporary autonomous zones" based on anarchistic ideas and practices. Presumably the communes could become larger and more numerous, and the temporary autonomous zones less temporary, at least while they are not suppressed by State or private criminals. This is one route for the development of anarchy. Another area or front of effort is direct political action. Most of such action is resistance rather than construction. However, I believe some forms of constructive direct action are possible.


Where are we today? In the societies of the ancient world, organized, institutionalized coercion -- the State -- worked through overt violence and terror to produce classical slavery and empire. In the modern liberal capitalist State, violence and terror have mostly been set aside (except on the borders), replaced by coercion through fraud and economic pressure. Much of this coercion is based on a fiction of scarcity, which is promoted in spite of the fact that humanity's powers of production have long since made the provision of basic needs an objectively trivial problem.

The fiction of scarcity is necessary as a justification for the elites to retain and expand their power. From this position they defraud and exploit working people, squeeze the life out of the poor, spread death and destruction abroad, propertize our common cultural heritage and even our genes, pollute public discourse with propaganda, poison the earth, and in general turn everything into money and power for themselves. They do this not because they are necessarily evil or sadistic, but because it is the nature of the culture that they, as well as we, are caught in. They are doing what they think they have to do.

One of the ways we can untie the knots of aggression and aggrandizement, of money and power, and can advance freedom and equality, is by subverting the fictions of scarcity and elitism in both word and deed. In terms of the word, this work has already begun: the organized frauds of the corporate media are being undercut more and more by new means of publication and communication. However, in physical and social fact, most people are still coerced or tricked into subordination through economic roles, such as employment, Welfare, and consumerism. People interested in freedom and equality need to find ways to break down or subvert this kind of coercion.

In order to prevent people from being coerced through employment and Welfare, it is necessary to establish a situation where they can obtain what they need to live without having to buy it with wage money or engage in some other kind of performance, such as displaying poverty or disability. Employment and its shadow, Welfare, are based on the money system, and the money system belongs to the State: to corporations, the government, and other bourgeois institutions and elite personnel.

The alternative arrangement, where the needs of life are available to all without question, was the general practice of humanity in its tribal stage -- a communism of basic goods. We could call this [ sort of ] communism convivium, a Latin word meaning a banquet -- literally, "alive together." It is an image of the world we desire. One possible beginning of a convivium would be the establishment of free food stores. These stores would carry basic foodstuffs like rice, beans, flour, oil, salt, dry milk, and oatmeal and other cereals, and also some prepared foods for those who had no cooking facilities available. The goods would be available to all comers (although it would probably be necessary to limit the amounts taken per person in the initial stages of the project at the outset). Food is relatively cheap, and a considerable number of people can be fed by a few. Therefore, I believe such stores are well within the reach of even a small anarchist movement, and that they might have a profound affect on people's consciousness as well as teaching those involved how to carry on such projects.

Other kinds of free stores are immediately possible. For instance, a lot of clothing is given away or discarded; if it were collected, cleaned, and sorted, it could be made available in free dry goods stores. It would probably also be possible to collect and distribute some kinds of books, tapes, and records, and other common items like tools and kitchen utensils. Other kinds of goods and services, like housing, education, and medical care, would have to await the development of a stronger, larger anarchist community than presently exists. Hopefully, the experience of working with free food and clothing stores would increase both the expertise and numbers of those involved in the movement, and they could work up to the strength needed for the more difficult tasks.

It should be understood that nothing proposed above is in the nature of charity. No one is expected to be poor or desperate as a condition of getting food or other goods -- the idea is to make them freely available to everyone. I believe that the work of liberating ourselves and our communities needs to be carried forward in a practical and dialectical manner on as many fronts as possible using our ideas to inform our actions and our actions and their outcomes to form our ideas. Therefore, I have started out at a very simple and pragmatic level and with general, although concrete, ideas. It is my hope that people will want to engage them.

As it turned out, in spite of my irrefutable logic, nobody was very interested in my idea. I received one offer of a money contribution, which never in fact materialized. As for the idea as idea, the only discussion I got in response to the above, posted as a message on Usenet, was some genial right-wing mockery.

Since I did not have the resources to move forward with this project personally, and in any case am uninterested in individualistic or charismatic politics, which is what doing everything myself or with disciples would mean, I decided to take a less radical step, and started distributing cookies -- anarchist oatmeal cookies -- with a leaflet describing my ideas. My first "outlets" were New York City Food Not Bombs and Mayday Books, an anarchist bookstore. The cookies seem to have been appreciated and have, I hope, energized anarchists as well as helped assuage the hunger of the poor, but the larger idea did not elicit much interest -- I got one phone call and three or four emails about it over a period of four years. So, when I heard about the Free Store, I decided to go ahead individualistically on a small scale with my free food project in spite of my prejudices, as a sort of propaganda of the deed.

Once I had put the Free Store on my route and made contact with the "proprietor", Jessica, I began bringing cookies there and, as an experiment, also began to bring in a couple of boxes of ordinary supermarket foods once a week, like white rice, various kinds of beans, oil, coffee, salt, corn meal, flour, sugar and so on. These distributed themselves quite successfully. "La comida no se niega a nadie," as a graffitist wrote: "Food doesn't deny itself to anyone." After awhile I began putting a little label on each item advertising the Free Store and giving a web site and phone number by which it could be reached. I set the food up on a small set of shelves and put a sign up which made it clear that the food, like the cookies, was free for everyone. Typically I spent about $50 per week on the food, which took from a few hours to several days to find "customers". I kept this practice up pretty regularly until August, when it became difficult to find anyone interested in opening and closing the store. It was also obvious that the days that the Free Store could remain open were numbered with a small number, due to financial pressures, mainly rent.

This experiment had some interesting results.

1. Most "customers" of the free food, and indeed the Free Store in general, were local working-class and poor people, although many others visited and some partook. In turn, there was a lot of support in the form of donations, especially of clothing, utensils, and books. Most interestingly to me, a number of the Hispanic "customers" donated small amounts of money and food to the project and helped keep the store clean and orderly. (And so, perhaps, this is written in the wrong language.) I am reminded of the supposedly communistic or communitarian traditions of Maya culture (which figure as well in the Zapatista revolution). I note also the acceptance and protection afforded the Free Store by its mostly Hispanic neighbors. In some areas, a free store would incur hostility and perhaps be materially attacked for attracting the "wrong sort" of people (a fact which opponents of gentrification might want to take notice of and consider).

2. On the other hand, the lack of interest, in this particular project, of the mostly White, mostly middle-class people who make up the discursive mainstream of anarchism was nearly absolute. This suggests to me that either my ideas are seriously flawed or that the "propaganda of the deed" is crucially important in the realization of actual social changes which do not involve State coercion, and that words tend to stay in their own world when they are not part of the State's command and control system.

3. Once again, of course, we observe the crucial role high real estate costs play in controlling and confining social, especially political activity, especially that not ordained and consecrated by State power in the manner of officially sanctioned churches and tax-deductible charity organizations -- a problem which some ingenuity will be required to solve or work around, especially if appeals to governments, foundations, and other agencies of the State are to be avoided.

4. Those involved with the Free Store consciously avoided directly confronting and antagonizing the authorities and thus did not run into legal or police trouble, which would have resulted in the store's immediate extinction. (In the present State, nothing is true and everything is violation of several laws, rules, ordinances and regulations.) "There is... a time for war and a time for peace."

On the whole, I think the experiment, although very small-scale, had considerable value, and I look forward to the next opportunity to experiment further with the politics of conviviality. Persons interested in the next shot, wave, or arrival of Spring - to everything there is a season -- can contact me at the any of the koordinati below.

POSTSCRIPT: In the ensuing five years, various other free stores have appeared and disappeared. There are currently a number of "Really Free Free Markets", in effect free-store flea markets, occurring regularly.

Jessica is currently working in the field of solar energy -- see her site at for more information.