140 years later and we're still talking about the same old stuff
<table><tr><td><strong>Report back from the St. Imier Congress, Switzerland, August 2012</strong>
by Miss Noire (no relation to Espace Noir)
From August 8 to 12, 2012, thousands of anarchists from all over the world gathered at St. Imier, Switzerland, to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the St. Imier Congress at which the Anti-Authoritarian International was founded, which many believe to be the historical beginning of the anarchist movement. Among the fifteen delegates who attended the original meeting was Mikhail Bakunin, who also stayed in St. Imier for a little while.
St. Imier is a small town of less than 5000 inhabitants. The anarchist space Espace Noir, which has been going since the 1980s, can be found on the main road in the middle of town. It hosts a restaurant, bar, infoshop, cinema and concert venue, as well as a gallery. Walking around town, one can see several plaques discussing the anarchist history of St. Imier, some complete with pictures of Bakunin and Kropotkin. It certainly is a very special place and it was already so 140 years ago when the Jura Foundation, made up of watchmakers (highly skilled artisans), had its stronghold there.
The gathering of 2012 is said to have been the biggest anarchist gathering in 20 years. Anarchists from all over the world attended, including some from as far away as Japan, South Africa, South and North America and, of course, from all over Europe. </td><td><img title="19th century meet the 21st. Are you disappointed?" src="http://anarchistnews.org/files/pictures/2012/greenscience.jpg"></td></tr...
I arrived on Thursday evening, by which time the congress had already been going on for over a day, and it seemed like I had already missed the “best” talks. According to many people I spoke to, these were the presentation by a Zimbabwean anarchist (who talked about their exciting projects of a communal radio station and a recording studio for poor people etc) and a discussion about anarchism and sport, facilitated by Gabriel Kuhn. Some presentations had to be cancelled because presenters did not get their visas; for example the Chinese anarchist who wanted to present a talk on anarchism in China.
Upon arrival I thought I had arrived at a punk gathering - the streets were roamed by beer-drinking crusties and punks with big mohawks. This was certainly not what I expected and, to be honest, I was disappointed, but I soon realised that the presentations were packed with people who were neither. In fact, there was a very interesting (but not surprising) division between the punks on the streets and the people who attended the presentations.
Also surprising was that there was no visible police presence, at least no policemen and -women in uniforms. Apparently this is how St. Imier usually is: sleepy and safe and not needing a police force.
The programme given to every new arrival was in French only and very chaotic. The map in it confused everyone and the venues were scattered around town. It took a few days to get used to. The campsite was located on a mountain to which one could only get by funicular [i.e., a tram up a mountain] which cost eight euros for the weekend. Because of this, some people camped wild or stayed in one of the many abandoned buildings in town.
The food, which was all vegan and amazing, was prepared by three different kitchens and cost a suggested donation of eight euros per day (for three meals). It appears that many people ate for free, as on the final day it was made public that the kitchen was down 8000 euros (although I'm sure lots of people then went back to donate more). All the food provided was prepared by groups for free and lots of volunteers always helped in the preparation. The dishes were washed communally too and it really seemed to have worked pretty well.
Many people complained that the event was based on money but upon further examination most of it was based on donations and there was no entrance fee. While events like Burning Man are based on gift economies, there are huge entrance fees. I think the organisers did their best considering their huge costs (apparently 100 000 Euros!) They rented huge venues and even had electronic equipment for simultaneous translations in the main hall, which surprised everyone. As far as I know, the event was partly funded by a call for donations and St. Imier t-shirts were sold for 12 Euros to help more with the costs.
Language, however, was a big issue. The event was heavily dominated by French and many talks were not translated, or informally translated by volunteers who often struggled. Some of them, however, did an amazing job! Some talks stretched into eternity because they were translated into two languages. The Esperanto clique took this as an opportunity to promote their language.
The talks themselves were often crowded and the ones I managed to get into were often boring. Also, the level of discussion seemed very basic and many talks felt like presentations for beginners. There was a debate about anarchism in the modern world which was mainly about the occupy movement and the Arab Spring. Another debate centered around anarchism and modern social movements, which was really just the same. I was disappointed that there was only one talk about the environment (which I missed because I was still confused about the program at that time, but it was given by anarcho-syndicalists, so go figure), nothing around critiques / analyses of civilisation, nothing on animal liberation and nothing about queer struggles. All the talks I attended felt old-fashioned and anarcho-syndicalist in tone. However, and this is what amazed me the most, many people took things into their own hands and organised ad hoc workshops on topics such as civilisation, animal rights and many other topics. There were also many regional connection meetings - probably the most important lasting contribution of this gathering.
There was a daily anarcha-feminist workshop (most of these were "non-mixed", meaning women only) which ended with a statement and "intervention" at the final meeting concluding the same things as are concluded at almost every anarchist event; in essence, angry women shouted about the lack of female speakers. I found the intervention a bit embarrassing. These so-called anarcha-feminists complained about not being given enough space even though they had the entire great hall every day! Anarcha-feminism seems to be dominated by radical feminists and identity politics these days. I wish people would get over it so that I can call myself an anarcha-feminist again without feeling ashamed. At least Europe is not nearly as bad as the US, yet. The statement called for a non-mixed anarcha-feminist international gathering in 2014. The only good thing about it was that it was written in a slightly sarcastic tone. As long as anarcha-feminism is dominated by this self-victimising form of identity politics, it will not contribute towards a gender-equal anarchist movement. It wants women to be victimised instead of empowered, and here the socialist feminists, sadly, have a better analysis. In my view, one of the daily anarcha-feminist meetings could have given way to a space for a critique of civlisation. After all, patriarchy is rooted in civilisation.
Speaking of interventions...as I already mentioned, all the food provided was vegan and there was a long debate about this for months before the congress, at which it was finally concluded that vegan-only food should be served so that everyone could be fed. However, Espace Noir (which hosts a restaurant without a single vegan item on the menu) decided to fry sausages in the evenings. Some animal rights activists (who claimed to be the ALF) took this as an opportunity to smear dog shit on the grill on the third day, and on Saturday evening the grill was surrounded by a human chain. "There's no excuse for animal abuse" was chanted, and water was poured over the fire. Some of the participants were violently dragged away and slapped in the face. They were even asked about who was in charge of the action! The next day they held a workshop of why they took such a drastic action and I heard that a lot of non-vegans who attended were actually pleasantly surprised, and that they also received huge applause at the final meeting when they read out their statement. I also heard that for many French attendees this was the first time they had ever heard about animal rights. Surprisingly, it seems like most people - even non-vegans - saw this action in a positive light.
Another interesting event that happened was that Aristides Pedraza, a long-time member of the Swiss OSL in Lausanne, got pied at a debate and accused of being a cop. A statement was issued by an autonomous Swiss group as to why they had pied him. He denied these allegations with a passionate speech loaded with testosterone, saying he was never a cop, only an adviser to a communist politician in charge of internal affairs in his region. By the way, this wasn't the only testosterone-filled speech on the weekend. Anarchist men, please calm down a bit!
For some reason, the two anarchist "internationals" (IFA and Anarkismo) had separate venues to which they retreated to speak about the working class and draft boring statements that were presented at the final meeting. Luckily these venues were far away from the rest of the gathering, which was welcomed by both the two groups and everyone else.
The icerink at the bottom of town, next to a gorgeous stream, hosted the anarchist bookfair, which was huge and amazing. There were thousands of books in many different languages and it could even be that for once, more books were sold than t-shirts. There were also many pamphlets, posters and leaflets given away for free and the bookfair also became an important gathering point for many people, as well as the location at which the best vegan food was provided.
There were also two cinema venues that showed movies (mostly in French) all day long and hosted (mostly punk) concerts in the evening. The concerts, however, were not free, which also upset many people.
As with all such big events, there were a few incidents. There were some rumours about a man being attacked by three other men who wanted to rape him, but he used martial arts against all of them and defeated them. I don't know how true these stories are. There were also some non-anarchists who tried to intervene in the debates, but they were always shut down immediately.
One incident involved a Jamaican guy who got really drunk and became aggressive towards his girlfriend on the campsite. People tried to intervene but for some reason he stepped into a fire and severly burned his legs. The ambulance wanted to take him to hospital but he refused, so they called the cops. However, the anarchists sent the cops away.
On Sunday a few people noticed the church bells in the main square were ringing for a long time. Apparently some guy ran into the church to ring the bells himself. Maybe it was the same guy who shouted "anarchism is shit" at us.
The final meeting was packed and passionate. No final statement was drafted as was originally intended. Michel Nemitz from the Fédération des Montagnes Libertaire and Espace Noir, one of the main organisers of this congress, mentioned that the people of St. Imier were pleasantly surprised by the anarchists, whom they had originally feared would set the city on fire. The city council even asked him to repeat the event on an annual basis. There was another DIY meeting with the name "what if we stay?" but I'm not sure what came of that. There are lots of empty buildings in St. Imier, including the building at which the original meeting 140 years ago was held.
Conclusions: 140 years later the congress was more inclusive. There were no women present back then. There were more delegates. It seems like the anarchist movement has grown in the last few years even though it's nothing like it used to be and it certainly isn't a working class movement anymore. Some of the traditional anarchists seem to romanticise the working class from the outside, almost like anthropologists who study "noble savages". Yet even though we are more modern, and maybe more inclusive, we are still not modern enough to talk about the pending environmental collapse with the urgency needed. The talks for me were disappointing, but the space to meet old and new friends was amazing.