Anti-capitalist Books

Banner with quote "Is there hope for an anti-capitalist book?"


In the United States, it is almost impossible to make a living as a writer. This is because our country has divested from the arts in favor of industry. Capitalism demands commodification above all else, and this corruption has stifled American literature for far too long.

Nowadays the "book" is an object that is designed and manufactured by a publisher’s production system. From there, the book is distributed wholesale, to retailers who’ve decided to stock it. The book sits bound and dressed in a decorative sleeve, faced out to catch the interest of the passing customer.

“Essentially, the writer sells them the product,” says Sally Rooney. “Which is culture and existence in the form of a commodity, and the commodity is a book . . . . That is something that I definitely worry about. And feel implicated in.”

Rooney broke this down during an interview with the Louisiana Channel. She is one of the few bestselling novelists speaking about the constrictive economic conditions of contemporary literature and does so in frank, material terms.

The fact is: cash rules everything around us. Money dictates popular, commercial publishing trends, simply because it is necessary for mass production. In many ways, the dissemination of literature in American culture is shaped by the relative success of a series of transactions.

Capitalism tends to strangulate art. Economic conditions make the lives of artists more difficult. The commodification of literature forces books into a competition for maximum possible transactions.

Those with power and money are most concerned with what will sell. Issues of taste, quality, truth, or challenging forms are stymied or outright rejected if they cannot be pitched.

As a consequence, mainstream commercial publishing in the United States is an insular and white space. Many publishing houses, agencies, and organizations do not pay workers for entry level positions, which ices out those with no disposable income. Even though a wider range of non-white authors can now be published and find success, the industry and its means of production are owned by a white corporate class most interested in exploitation for capital.


Is there hope for an anti-capitalist book?

You might add: is there hope, in general? Sure, where there’s action. One way to take action against capitalist constraints is to provide people with literature that defies market-driven ideas, economic norms, and political oppression.

Look no further than Fatimah Nyema Warner, a.k.a rapper Noname. The Noname Book Club is a nationwide reading club focusing on promoting radical Black literature. Each month, the club assigns two books for discussion. These discussions have taken place in book stores all over the country and (in the age of Covid) in monthly online meetings. Noname works to provide free books to imprisoned club members throughout the country.

Noname Book Club’s aim is to build popular education with the aim of abolishing white supremacist power structures in the United States. Its services are free; the organization relies on the support of Patreon subscribers.

This month, Noname opened the organization’s first brick and mortar Book Club Headquarters in Los Angeles. The Headquarters also doubles as the Radical Hood Library, a space where people in black and brown communities can have free access to revolutionary texts.

The Noname Book Club plans on opening Radical Hood Libraries across the country, and is currently fundraising to open a branch in Chicago.

Here we find an example of an artist taking direct action to change the conditions of her community. Noname is making an accountable effort to use artistic expression as a form of mutual aid, community building, and radical organizing.


It’s clear that (like all material systems in US society) for-profit, commercial publishing is an exploitative system. It is unlikely that established, commercial publishing houses will change of their own accord. Those with control over means and tastes will want to retain that power. As long as they do, large-scale print publishing will remain an extremely difficult means for writers to publish their work where people can read it.

New forms of distribution and creation should be formed. Maybe the novel will evolve to suit new mediums like web pages or VR. Its pacing and structure may expand to absorb the potency of digital imaging, AI, and embedded sound. The less reliant writers become on paper production methods, the freer they will be from the whims of executives.

Ownership will remain the central question, regardless of medium. Nowadays artists and their books are both commodified to suit a market-oriented narrative that pairs celebrity with celebrity-product.

A less polarizing and dehumanizing process must exist. We have more tools at our disposal to make this happen than ever before.

Of course, it is easy to make terse sentences about our problems. I find, like Sally Rooney, I am complicit in everything. Myself and other artists, however we may feel about publishing corporations, are forced to make our bargain as best we can.

Noname is closest to the truth: that what matters more than each writer’s readership, ego and book jacket is the health and bodily well-being of human beings (among them, artists) in our communities. First, let’s help people get what they need. Better stories will come from that.