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[Adorno] seems to have had more sympathy for the student movement of ths sixties than he was willing to express publicly (a sympathy not a little tarnished by the deathless shame of having called the police into the University.

Jameson, Late Marxism

To speak of constituent power is to speak of democracy… The question becomes even more difficult because… democracy, too, resists being constitutionalized: democracy is in fact a theory of absolute government, while constitutionalism is a theory of limited government and therefore a practice which limits democracy.

Negri, Insurgencies

Defenders of intellectual freedom absolutism (we should never allow Vickery Bowles’ rhetorical shift to “free speech” to set the terms of the debate) like to claim that a) libraries are “cornerstones of democracy” and b) that the state should not be allowed to determine what can and cannot be said. In his blog post for the Centre for Free Expression, Jim Turk put it as follows:

In a democratic society, the state acts in the name of the majority, not the minority. Why would any marginalized minority trust representatives of the majority to determine whose expression is to be allowed and whose is to be censored?

I have dealt with point a) at length in my book. With respect to point b) there are two unspoken assumptions underlying this claim. First, that we live in a democratic society, and second that the library is somehow (simply through claiming IF as a value) immune to state tendencies towards censorship, that despite being institutions of the state, the library’s commitment to absolute intellectual freedom somehow protects it from taking sides on any political or social issue. In this sense, while the state may have tendencies towards authoritarianism, the library upholds the pure values of the liberal state and the social contract: the state, in this view, is an entity that sits above civil society, mediating disputes between worldviews and values, but otherwise staying out of the way. Vickery Bowles put this explictly in one of the statements around the Meghan Murphy room booking event:

While TPL encourages public debate and discussion about differing ideas, we also encourage those with opposing or conflicting viewpoints to respectfully challenge each other’s ideas and not the library’s democratic mandate to provide space for both.

In other words, disagree with each other, but don’t you dare disagree with the library - we are above all disagreement and we know best.

In this model, civil society has debates that the liberal state in the form of the library stands above. The library is a space which allows for the practice of democracy or authoritarianism, but does not do democracy or authoritarianism itself. It’s a nice idea, and it underpins many of the bourgeois conceptions of the state and the library. But as we saw yesterday when hundreds of protesters descended on the Palmerston branch, the veneer of neutrality, of not taking sides, of not protecting one side at the expense of another, is as thin as vellum. Before the protest even happened, Bowles had decided to call the police - the authoritarian, repressive arm of the so-called “democratic” state down to a public library branch. “When they’re on site, they’re in charge,” Bowles told Matt Galloway, in the timeless spirit of state complicity. What happened next was predictable: protesters were kettled and held against their will inside a public library. Adorno’s deathless shame attaches to everyone involved in the decision to bring the police into the library, but it tarnishes even more those who claim that their defense of absolutist intellectual freedom is somehow to protect people from state violence. Intellectual freedom takes a back seat to intellectual dishonesty.

We don’t live in a democratic state: we live in an authoritarian state which manages the affairs of capital to the detriment of people’s lives and the planet. Rather, we live in what Antonio Negri calls a constitutionalized state, in which the unlimited power of the multitude, the community itself, to decide its own values, its own direction, its own fate is strictly limited by the act of constitutionalizing power itself. Such limitations are done to protect capital, patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and a host of other inequalities. What we saw last night, on the other hand, was the spontaneous expression of real democratic power, of a community coming together to act according to its values. They ran face to face with the power of the constituted state, the power of the public library as state agency, the power of the police as state violence. Negri calls such powers “constituted” in that they have been set up above and in opposition to the self-directed power of the multitude, of the commune. The protesters last night were the directly democratic voice and activity of a community, and they exposed the public library for what it really is, simply another form of the constituted state. All the rhetorical myths about democracy and protection against the absolutist state were exposed to the harsh light of day as soon as the library called the cops against a community expressing its will.

The library does not represent a commmunity, it represents only the structures of oppression integral to the maintenance of white, patriarchal, capitalist power itself. This was seen yesterday at its most clear and unambiguous. The defenders of absolutist IF need to take a good hard look at their arguments. Hopefully they will realize that using China or Russia as the bogeyman of an authoritarian state is simply the most calculating misdirection, intended to turn our attention away from the transphobic abuses of our own country. I am not hopeful that they will take such a hard look.

The TPL room-booking issue has exposed a deep and long-standing faultline within librarianship. It has been building for some time (the ALA “hate groups” debacle and the OIF’s defense of it; Meghan Murphy’s talk at Vancouver Public, and CFLA’s defense of that; the Winnipeg Public Library draconian search policy, whose end is not yet in sight), and it’s unsurprising that the lines in the sand have been drawn around this particular issue. TPL is Canada’s largest library system, and there was a test run two years ago with the Kulaszka memorial. There is no indication that the constituted power of librarianship recognizes the divide or sees any validity in any of the critics. The speed and alacrity with which our professional organizations, public library CEOs, and even consultants have closed ranks against having to think about any of this, repeating ad nauseam they same tired old tropes about democracy and free speech, means there is little hope to be found in constituted power, as always. As always, however, the road forward must lie in constituent power, the constituent power that was on display last night as protesters took out books by trans authors, sat on the ground, and began reading to each other. That is the power of the book that we, as librarians, have forgotten in our mad dash for innovation and to placate our purse-string holding overlords. That is power of commmunity that we lose when we think of ourselves as standing above the community rather than being a part of it.

I think the solution for librarianship is to embrace constituent power, setting up forms of dual power in resistence to the state, recognizing that we must be part of our commmunities and with our communities deciding for ourselves “what is to be done”. No more organizations or associations which, as Michels’ noted, have no choice but to become oligarchs. No more self-satisfied complacency on the sacred role of the library in democratic society. There was a lesson to be learned last night as the constituent power of protest met the fist of the constituted power of the public library. It’s up to us to learn the lesson and put it into practice. And we can’t rely on the old guard of librarianship to do this with us; in the best sense of constituent power, we will have to do it for ourselves.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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