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Wednesday, October 22 2014 @ 09:19 PM CDT

Prefigurative Politics and Self-Management Practices: Saint-Imier and Beyond

Anarchist Movement

We arrived at Saint Imier and followed the crafty ‘circle A’ signs to one of two main fields for camping. Port-a-loos were already set up and were nearly immaculate and seemed to be cleaned every day. Jugs of water appeared the morning following our arrival and were promptly refilled whenever they ran dry. One comrade remarked that the entire accommodation scenario reminded her of a big festival without any stewards. When events began the next day, translations were provided on a volunteer basis – instantaneously via headphones at the huge roundtable discussions and in ad hoc groups at smaller panels.

Prefigurative Politics and Self-Management Practices: Saint-Imier and Beyond

Anarchist Federation (Britain)
Organise! #79

We arrived at Saint Imier and followed the crafty ‘circle A’ signs to one of two main fields for camping. Port-a-loos were already set up and were nearly immaculate and seemed to be cleaned every day. Jugs of water appeared the morning following our arrival and were promptly refilled whenever they ran dry. One comrade remarked that the entire accommodation scenario reminded her of a big festival without any stewards. When events began the next day, translations were provided on a volunteer basis – instantaneously via headphones at the huge roundtable discussions and in ad hoc groups at smaller panels.

Three meals a day were provided by a visiting activist kitchen and only a few volunteers seemed to be needed each afternoon to keep the food flowing.

Perhaps the above description makes Saint-Imier seem like a fan- tasy holiday. We certainly thought so for the first half of our stay in the campground. I can’t remem- ber the last time I went that long without brewing my own cup of tea! But maybe we should have been worried that the hardest thing we had to do all day was climb two hills while this fantastic beast of a conference functioned for and around us.

One night, about two thirds of the way through the conference, a drunk and aggressive comrade arrived after being ejected from another campsite and fell into a fire, badly burning his left leg. In the intervention that ensued, multiple comrades, including his girlfriend, were attacked by him. Few comrades felt capable of intervening, and most expressed a general unwillingness to act. A general assembly was called, but most passers-by would stay to hear a translation of what had occurred and leave before any decisions were made. Eventu- ally guard shifts were established until we could escort him off the mountain and onto a train in the morning.

Once we made it to town, the interventions of many comrades expressed a very different under- standing of the proper response to domestic violence and aggres- sion than many of us could even imagine, much less believe was happening in front of us. Eventu- ally he was put on a train by a group of organisers convened to act as safe space enforcers.

After one of the most exasperat- ing fourteen hours of my life, I sat down with other comrades involved in the intervention and a member of the safe spaces com- mittee sent to help facilitate a de- briefing in order to reflect on how the situation had come about, what we would have done dif- ferently in hindsight, and ways in which the conference organisers and community as a whole could have done more to help. It didn’t take long to begin to ask ques- tions about some of the structural changes that could have helped prevent the situation in the first place or at least have mediated it as it was occurring.

Why hadn’t our campsite started every morning with a general assembly? Why didn’t we all feel more invested in maintaining our space? Why was it that white people so severely outnumbered people of colour, leaving few options of engagement that did not involve several white men restraining a black man? Why were so few women available to help comfort the woman who had been attacked? Why were so few of us well versed in domestic violence intervention tactics, or even general feminist principles? Would the community have responded so nonchalantly if we were threatened as a whole by fascists? (To this last question, the answer came the following night amidst rumours of a fascist attack: no). Of the people who helped complete the interven- tion at the end of the process in an official organising capacity, why were most of them the same overworked volunteers we’d seen helping with most other aspects of the conference?

We do far more work to keep ourselves fed, clean, and happy on a daily basis than we had to do in order to attend a successful, week-long international confer- ence. All of us know that planning and executing such a major event was a constant logistical night- mare, and all things considered, Saint-Imier ran like clockwork (Swiss clockwork, of course). But maybe something that obviously took a huge amount of effort should have required a little bit of effort from us. And the signifi- cant gaps that existed seemed to fall into patterns that might have been avoided if a wider group was involved in the process every step of the way. From limited transla- tions and high prices to major issues with a lack of awareness of an appreciation for ability and gender, the aspects of the con- ference that seemed most over- looked were usually those that involved subordinated groups.

In this way, increased participa- tion would be more likely to have led to a situation in which persons with experience running things like safe spaces or conferences with wheelchair access, or hope- fully people looking to benefit directly from changes like these, prices that reflected the strength of the Swiss Franc, or people who would need translations to languages other than French or English would have been present in the decision-making process long before the first day of the conference, when panic ensued over the lack of a safe space policy, a safe space tent, acces- sible meeting rooms, the ability to camp or purchase food, or a lack of translators, with very little time to craft solutions, especially to all these issues at once. Making comrades feel like afterthoughts should be something we try to avoid at all costs, and including as many people as possible in the planning process for events would have the benefit of helping to prevent many of those incidents from occurring.

But practical benefits like these are only part of the reason anar- chists engage with the politics of prefiguration. Self-management practices make us work to elimi- nate many of the aspects of capi- talist society we see as structur- ally integral to it, independently damaging to us, and inconsistent with anarchist communist princi- ples. Our general alienation from the labour processes involved in the production of the conference caused many of us to see it as something of a commodity simply handed to us on a platter, with no engagement with work we should have done to produce it together instead of leaving it on the backs of a few conference organisers. And while it was obviously easier to have two organisations – The French FAF and Swiss OSL - plan and run the conference for pur- poses of expedience, we have different methods of organising as anarchists that should probably have taken precedence over per- ceived ease in certain decisions.

General assemblies and large group decisions make delibera- tion a long and often frustrating process. But we keep trying to perfect them because we see the reasons behind the anarchist desire to move away from speedy, individualized decision-making and the value in practicing alter- native methods of organising. Things as benign and useless as universal suffrage were seen not only as dangerous but also as damaging to efficiency before they were institutionalised and transformed what we see as a necessary baseline for participa- tion. But this institutionalised memory took time and practice to craft, and so too will the transi- tion to self-managed events and group decision-making be ardu- ous. But every time we decide to forgo it we lose an opportunity to make it easier the next time.

Upon returning from Saint-Imier, we decided to examine self-man- agement in more depth and look for ways that we successfully or unsuccessfully prefigure anarchist communist society in the shell of the old, why we sometimes choose to avoid self-management in anarchist gatherings, and ways in which others have taken on the task of transitioning from small committee-led organisation to more participatory means of organising large-scale events. For example, doing one’s own wash- ing up after a communal meal is commonly understood as a neces- sary step in prefiguring a society without servants. But having 300 hands in the same bucket of water is significantly less sanitary than splitting the duties between five people. Are these people our servants? It’s doubtful. Still, such choices should probably give us more pause than we sometimes allow. Any move that strays from self-management and prefigura- tive practices ought to be scru- tinized for its harms instead of accepted purely for its benefits.

We hope to solicit more discus- sion about examples of times at which comrades have noticed a lack of self-management at anarchist events and solutions we’ve seen and hope to see in the future.

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