Up the Anti: Initial Reflections

by Simon Hardy (ACI, U.K) on December 5, 2012

First published by anticapitalists.org.

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.

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]

  • Ben Campbell

    Not a very substantive review, focusing almost entirely on form, rather than content. I suppose it’s because he is coming from some sort of “Leninist” background, and hence is extremely wary of overly rigid/authoritative forms and programs. However, as someone whose introduction to the anti-capitalist left was through Occupy (with all of its successes and shortcomings), I would caution that “working groups” and participatory structures are not the ends, but only the means, and they do not always (or even frequently) work towards effective ends. Form has to be related to content, and there are times and topics best suited for participatory forms, and other times and topics better suited for more authoritative forms. Radical economics is (presently) the latter, and Hardy’s dismissive take on the radical economics panel is disappointing, since grounding our movement in economic reality is so badly needed.

  • admin

    From the ACI thread:
    Stuart King says:
    December 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    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.
    _______________________________
    aaron says:
    December 9, 2012 at 12:50 am

    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! :(
    _______________________________
    John Grimshaw says:
    December 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

    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.

  • Ben Campbell

    Here is a sectarian rant directed at the ACI: http://www.bolshevik.org/statements/ibt_20121209_aci_shortcuts.html

  • admin

    Another report on the conference and some comments:
    http://anticapitalists.org/2012/12/09/anticapitalism-in-the-21st-century/

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