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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation, Organise! #79 - Prefigurative Politics and Self-Management Practices: Saint-Imier and Beyond

Date Wed, 28 Nov 2012 09:58:45 +0200

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

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
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