The Anarchist Studies Network, which brings together academics and researchers from all over the world, held its international conference on August 24th to 26th 2022. This year’s gathering featured 38 panels, workshops and plenaries on the subject of “Anarchist Futures”. ASN member Jim Donaghey offers some of his thoughts:
I’ve been tasked with offering some “initial reflections on interesting ideas” that emerged from the conference that took place (online) last week. It’s no small job because there were a lot of interesting ideas – it was a really stimulating experience, even if it was mediated through the screen of my laptop while I sat at the kitchen table. The diversity of topics was hugely impressive, everything from archaeology to abolitionism, animal liberation to anti-colonialism, and art theory to architecture – and that’s just the ones starting with ‘A’. Three panels ran concurrently throughout the conference, so my reflections are necessarily partial – you can take that as a disclaimer.
The online experience
This probably goes for a lot of you, but I’m fed up to the back teeth with online events – my favourite memories of previous ASN conferences are all those happenstance conversations over coffee or fulsome arguments in the pub in the evening. Admittedly, the online format did significantly boost the international contingent – of the 300+ people who registered, more than 75% were from outside Britain. This was reflected in the breadth of the locales featured in the presentations, spanning five continents, including places such as Ukraine, Mexico, China, Chile, the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, and even the planet Annares. Actual attendance across the three days fluctuated from about 50 to 130 at any one time, no doubt affected by the huge range of time zones people were tuning-in from, but the ‘HopIn’ platform also recorded all the panels, allowing them to be “replayed” for up to a month after the end of the conference.
There were a lot of technical hitches – largely this boiled down to lack of preparation where presenters and panel chairs hadn’t tested out their equipment and connections in advance. The conference organisers had sent out useful instructions ahead of time, and even had money available to help people buy any gear they might have needed, but sessions were repeatedly plagued by audio problems and frozen PowerPoint slides. The organising team did their best to go around the panels and try to troubleshoot, but it was at times toe-curlingly frustrating to watch people floundering with time-consuming issues that simply needn’t have been a problem.
Those attending the panels were able to comment and ask questions via a text-based chat bar at the side of the screen. Arguably this has the advantage of allowing people the time to clearly formulate and even edit their questions, but it meant that the interaction between presenters and audience was really stilted, especially when panel chairs weren’t paying close enough attention. The experience of presenting, in and of itself, was just talking at a computer screen, which is totally alienating, even if it is a bit less nerve-wracking than being in a room with actual real live people.
There were two chat channels operating simultaneously, once for the particular session that attendees were in and another for the event as a whole. There arose some inevitable confusion with that, and there were some mirthful non sequiturs as a result. At one point, a newly joining attendee messaged the event-wide chat to say “Hi, I’m signing in from Washington DC” which was immediately followed by another attendee writing ‘“Congratulations!!!!”. It looked incredibly sarcastic, but of course they were just responding to something the presenter had said in their session, and they’d typed it in the wrong chat channel. Well … I thought it was hilarious anyway.
Some of the other features of the online platform tried to emulate “real life”, with virtual stalls for book sellers and publishing initiatives, and a kind of chat roulette which paired you up with another conference attendee for a 15-minute time-limited natter. They’re nice ideas, but hardly anyone used them, and they just reminded me of the genuine social interaction that we were missing out on. It was a strange feeling of disconnection to shut down the computer at the end of the day’s panels and return to life-as-normal.
A non-anarchist interloper
When I use the term “interloper” I’m joking, of course … or half-joking anyway. The ASN conference is a conference about anarchism and anyone who is interested in that is welcome, it’s not just for anarchists. But, at the same time, it is in many ways an anarchist space, and the casually anarcho-curious might feel a bit wary stepping onto “our turf”. So it was testament to the proliferation of anarchist ideas beyond the usual inward-looking silos, and a mark of successful outreach by the conference organisers, to find people participating in this year’s ASN conference who had little-to-no prior connection to anarchism. The only problem was that some of them had little-to-no meaningful knowledge about anarchism either.
It was a strange experience actually. As a bunch of (mostly) anarchists, we were steeled to the threat that some fasho knobheads might try to sneak in and cause some mischief – there was even a policy about that. A policy! But we were completely unprepared for being patronised in a ham-fisted, but probably sort of well-meaning way by a mainstream academic. In they breezed, logging on via their phone from the faculty kitchen by the looks of it, and proceeded to characterise people who sought to politicise the concept of mutual aid (which included two of their co-presenters for the session, though I don’t think they really clocked that) as “the hard left” – no one appreciates being cast into the mould of a 1980s Trotskyite!
They were right to assert that “pandemics are interesting times for politics”, but then told us that it was clearly more useful to “help the government to do their best” than indulge in “fist-waving”. That makes it sound like a pointed critique of anti-Statism or something, but they really were just clueless – they told us that if we hoped to win power as a parliamentary “Anarchist Party” and to influence “politicians to think differently” that we would need to be able to demonstrate how local-level mutual aid initiatives would be “scaled up” to achieve “national anarchism”.
I mean, where to start? The co-panellists seemed a bit shell-shocked. They managed to remain very polite and courteous, but what were they supposed to do? I don’t think anyone felt threatened, and this clearly wasn’t meant as an attack, but that’s also why our preparedness in terms of protecting a “safer space” was inapplicable in this context. We were all left a bit bewildered, I think, and our little anarchist bubble had been well and truly popped! Of course we don’t want to put off non-anarchists from participating in conferences like this, but maybe it’s fair enough to expect them to at least “do their homework”, as one attendee put it to me.
After the Anarchist Future – ASN plans
The conference ended with a meeting of the Anarchist Studies Network, reflecting on the three days of “Anarchist Futures” and making some tentative plans for ASN8 in 2024. The meeting brought together a small fraction of the (very loosely defined) membership of ASN, so it was only a starting point for the discussions and plans that will unfurl over the next weeks and months. Some overarching themes were suggested, including conflict, cross-pollination and inclusion, to name a few, and I offered the possibility of hosting the next iteration of the conference in Belfast at Ulster University.
With the prospect of a return to an in-person format, several attendees immediately noted that they would simply be unable to travel to take part, for reasons of cost, racist border regimes, and environmental considerations. These concerns are absolutely valid and they raise some important wider questions. In my experience, attempts at hybrid online/in person events are less successful than single-format approaches – you end up falling between two stools, so to speak. I think a lot of us would relish an in person ASN8.
Maybe that’s partly nostalgia for the “before times”, but the online experience is a pale imitation at best – it just can’t recreate the intangible qualities of real life social interaction, all those small moments that carry such huge significance at a personal and intellectual level. But, if the next ASN conference is to be an in person event, what does that mean for the participation of the 200+ people from this year’s conference that were enabled to attend by the online format? Perhaps localised face-to-face colloquiums could take place simultaneously in numerous places around the world under the umbrella of the Anarchist Studies Network conference, sharing resources where we can, maybe even linking up at particular moments, or delegating a selection of the local presentations from each place to participate in a separate online portion of the event? But, as I say, that’s just my thinking and I don’t claim to speak on behalf of the wider ASN membership. If you want to know how our plans develop, keep an eye out for updates at anarchiststudiesnetwork.org.
I’ll finish with a heartfelt thanks to this year’s organisers – Elizabeth, Sam G, Adeline and Lucia. Even despite my misgivings about online events like this, and the tortuous technical issues, they did a great job of maintaining the spirit of previous ASN conferences as far as possible. It was a hugely rewarding experience, with some moments of genuine inspiration. See you at ASN8!
~ Jim Donaghey