Initial reflections on Up the Anti

 Simon Hardy offers his thoughts on last Saturday’s Up the Anti event

Up the Anti had something of an experiment-like character. We wanted to build a broad, left wing conference, that appraised the big questions facing radical politics in a fraternal atmosphere of critical debate, where people from different political traditions (and none) could discuss the future of the movement and progressive politics more generally. By those criteria the event was a success. Given that it was co-sponsored by a collection of left wing websites, networks and magazines with a small number of activists amongst them, the event still attracted about 300 people (we had 322 registrations in total but not all advance ticket holders turned up so attendance was below that).

Sessions on debt strikes, trade unions and Greece attracted good numbers of people with lively discussions. The journalism session was informative and good spirited. Radical interpretations of the crisis had mixed, indeed many negative, reviews that were summed it up by one person as “four middle aged white men arguing with each other”. The session on the extradition of Talha Ahsan and Islamophobia saw moving, powerful talks from Victoria Brittain and Talha’s brother Hamja Ahsan that were incredibly composed and balanced given the scale of the injustice discussed. Our session, where we launched Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics, saw a lively interchange with Aaron Peters, followed by lots of hands going up in the audience and a hard hitting but largely fraternal debate with plenty of good humour. In the housing session there was also a debate between squatters’ rights activists and those who wanted to focus on defending and extending council housing. That session should probably have been extended and turned into a potential space to launch a campaign around housing issues, as rent prices go through the roof in cities like London.

Session by Debt Strikes Uk breaks down into workgroups Photo: Michael Richmond (Occupied Times)

We wanted to try to create a space for radical and critical thinking about left wing politics that wasn’t the preserve of one group or party, but encouraged a plurality of voices. Trying to build and develop a movement, always involves a learning curve and the event was far from perfect. Most importantly, however, it was hopefully the beginning of a process of coming together of different elements on the anticapitalist left. Those who want to build a stronger radical movement, who are prepared to rethink how we should organise to make our politics more effective, and develop a more organic link between theory and practice. With such big and ambitious aims, putting it into practice would always be an uncertain experiment.

Firstly, there was a lack of female speakers on the platforms. More women speakers were invited and even confirmed, but sadly we suffered from a series of late cancellations. Last minute replacements were found who mostly turned out to be men that upset the gender composition of the panels. Certainly, in the planning stages we endeavoured to have at least one female speaker on each platform – but on the day we just didn’t manage it.  We had in the early stages planned on having a session on feminism specifically, but abandoned that in favour of just having more women speakers on the platforms, aiming to escape from the usual logic that “women only talk about women’s issues”. But as was pointed out on the day we didn’t have anything on feminism and there were not many women speakers anyway, so the conference fell between two stalls. This was certainly a big problem.

Secondly, we had wanted to organise some of the sessions in a more “un-conference-like” way, including the trade union session and the direct action session, but on the day they ended up just being panel discussions organised along the same lines as other sessions. The only one that managed to break out of that rut was the debt strikes meeting which activists from Occupy helped to break down into workgroups. This was also another lesson for the future.

Ragnhild Freng Dale from Occupied Times talks radical journalism today

There were also some sessions which just needed more thought. Some of the speakers ended up as quite an eclectic mix, not really engaging with each other and just presenting their own arguments – a couple of which came across as very academic. This excluded some people as left wing intellectuals enjoyed the more “abstract” discussions but many others were just left feeling bewildered by talk of “prefigurative transformations”. Lesson learned – we need a clearer demarcation of speakers and topics that appeal to people in more attractive, familiar and everyday language.

Finally, there was nothing on the environment. As the planet hurtles towards an uncertain environmental future, we should be learning from  the diverse ecological struggles across the globe. Of course, we did have to make decisions over what to leave out due to space and cost. The list of topics where we thought we “have to have this” was very long, cutting it down was a process of elimination, partly based on what speakers we could get at the time. But still, to discuss an alternative future without talking about the ecological abyss capitalism is moving towards is an unforgivable lacuna for a radical conference of the left in the 21st century.

Despite these criticisms the great majority of people at the conference seemed positive about what we were trying to do.

A quite eclectic mix of groups and publications across the left succeeded in organising and building a relatively successful conference, one that did succeed in some of its aims. It was very far from being the homogenous top down event organised by one sect or other we are all accustomed to.

If you want that you can go to all kinds of other meetings and conferences. Up the Anti had the flavour of the anticapitalist movement in all its rich debates and differences. Whilst this report is only the product of my own personal views, as an organising collective I think we can speak with one voice when we thank the speakers and chairs for their work and also the people who came to Up the Anti. Most of you probably weren’t sure what to expect, but I hope that by the end of the day you took something positive away with you.

This is the first in a series of reflections on Up the Anti on www.anticapitalists.org Did you go to the conference or watch it on live stream? Tell us what you think email [email protected]

 

 

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10 Comments

  1. Stuart King
    December 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm · Reply

    Simon sums up the event quite well. It is some achievement to get 300 people to an educational event that is not organized by a national party or organization. Having been to the Anarchist Bookfair the month before I was struck by the similarity of the audience, very young, open to ideas, interested in anticapitalist arguments.

    Some of the sessions had too many speakers for meetings that lasted 75 minutes, a constant problem on the left. There is nothing wrong per se with “top-table” speakers and questions/debate from the floor – it can be a very efficient method of gaining information and hearing opposing views for a large group of people. The problem comes with too many speakers (two, or at most three, should be the limit) and too many sessions with the same format. An event needs to be varied with smaller groups, working sessions, slide/video talks etc.

    That said Up the Anti was organised by many different groups who had never worked together before. It did it without any “full timers”, through consensus or majority decisions, myriads of emails, and lots of hard work.

    The session on the trade unions, led off by two women trade unionists, was useful in starting a discussion of problems in the movement – but even here we could have done with more time in discussion. The book launch of Beyond Capitalism was a different format that worked well – the authors interrogated by someone from a different (autonomist) tradition, followed by not a bad discussion. I learned something from the Debt Strikes session – which did try to break into groups in the worst lecture theatre in the building. People I talked to at the event said some sessions/speakers were good others not so good – it happens.

    More important is what comes out of it. The ACI, Plan C, IOPS, New Left Project, Ceasefire worked together – “Leninists and Trotskyists” alongside “libertarians and autonomists”. No one tried to dominate, hijack the event, or use it for “sect building” and that is positive. It will be even more so if we can develop local cooperation between these groups with political meetings and campaigns, working together more.

    We shouldn’t do exactly the same thing again – the ACI the day after discussed having an event in the north around feminism and socialism; a camp in the summer around art and cultural themes. The aim should be to clarify ideas in a variegated and amorphous anticapitalist movement and maybe develop a new type of political campaigning organization that can take the struggle forward.

    Stuart

  2. John Grimshaw
    December 6, 2012 at 10:29 am · Reply

    I agree with Stuart in the sense that Simon’s initial summation, it seems to me, is fairly accurate. I appreciate the fact that he is honest about what went wrong and what could’ve been done better. This is important for the future. For myself the biggest issue I had was with the “Book Launch – Beyond capitalism” session. I feel that the three speakers allowed themselves far too much time to indulge themselves and it was noticeable that after a certain period comrade’s stress levels were rising significantly. This is because they wanted to contribute and felt like they were being excluded, initially. I saw that a young asian women came in slightly late listened attentivenly but then left looking a little bored and confused. So I actually don’t agree with Stuart’s assessment of this particular session. I know that the organisers wanted to do somethiong different that wasn’t like the usual left-wing meeting but I would suggest that that doesn’t get round the need for some structure and a proper (neutral) chair. Otherwise the meeting just looks like three (in this case) white middle aged blokes talking to themselves, launching a book. i felt more floor speakers coul;d’ve been taken and also allowed to debate with each other. In the case of the excellent meeting on Greece I felt that given the emotions that are raised and the limited time available, a stronger chair was needed to have a more organised discussion.

    Overall though well done.

    • Luke Cooper
      December 6, 2012 at 4:42 pm · Reply

      I take the point but none of that panel were “middle aged”! 🙂

      • John Grimshaw
        December 7, 2012 at 8:52 am · Reply

        Fair enough. “Youthful, middle class blokes.”:)

        • Luke Cooper
          December 8, 2012 at 11:04 am · Reply

          lol!

          In terms of ownership structures I am firmly working class – even precarious! – but happy to accept that I definitely fall into what Michael Albert calls the co-ordinator class, the privileged layers in society that undertake socially empowering forms of work with high amounts of responsibility and more direct contact with the products of their labour: teachers, solicitors, lecturers, journalists, lots of public sector, and the uni educated, all fall into this category.

          It’s actually really important for the left to engage more with this idea, because if you look at its social composition its dominated by the co-ordinator class, or what you might just wanna call students and graduates. Up the Anti was a typical left conference in that regard.

          I actually thought the session went well and there was a flood of hands go up for discussion which I think shows the format is useful in generating that kind of interchange. If we had given a presentation it would have lasted for about the same amount of time, i.e. 30 minutes or so, as is normal for these types of things, and there was still a good 45 minutes for debate and contributions from the floor. Maybe the chair could have let the debate flow a bit more once it got going on the floor, which is a fair enough point, but I often find that can encourage a lot of long winded contributions from the floor, usual stuff, a bit hackneyed and tired etc.

          Anyway, I take the criticism on the chin! 🙂

  3. aaron
    December 9, 2012 at 12:50 am · Reply

    i’m mixed race and working class but am fairly used to being called ‘white and middle class’ the middle aged bit is new tho! 🙁

  4. John Grimshaw
    December 10, 2012 at 9:56 am · Reply

    My apologies Aaron. I’m 47 so whether that makes me middle-aged or not? 🙂

  5. Simon Hardy
    December 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm · Reply

    I’m 31 so I suppose I was the closest to middle aged on that panel!

    I do agree that we needed more time for discussion, I suppose the problem is that no one else apart from Aaron had read the book since it was only available for sale that day. Hopefully when we do a proper launch in the new year we can get some more questions and criticisms that go into the ideas a bit more.

  6. Luke Cooper
    December 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm · Reply

    Good article on class here actually, responding to points made at Up the Anti –

    http://libcom.org/blog/when-we-say-class-what-are-we-talking-about-08122012

    • Dan Fisher
      December 13, 2012 at 7:06 am · Reply

      Interesting article.

      I do think the distinction between exploitation and oppression is important, but I disagree with the author’s definition of oppression (it’s not purely about discrimination) and their conclusion that the abolition of the latter is possible in a liberal capitalist society.

      I would define oppression is the propagation of social attitudes which claim one group of people to be inherently less valuable, less ‘people’ than another group.

      Using this definition, we can see that economic exploitation, in the form of capitalism, is impossible without the social oppression of the working class.

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