Report on the Chicago A-Zone Meeting about a Possible Federation
November 5, 2000
Here finally are a few remarks about the conference I attended in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 23. I only managed to attend for one day, Saturday. The conference continued on the next day (minus at least a third of the people who were there on Saturday), so I have no idea what happened on Sunday, and therefore what the final outcome of the conference was. The conference was called and organized by several members of Chicago’s A-Zone infoshop and collective, with an eye to setting up some sort of Midwest Anarchist Federation.
About twenty-five people attended, I would say, mostly from Chicago and nearby towns, but also from Detroit, and Madison (I think). I may have been the one coming from the furthest away (Kansas City). (I didn’t take notes so this report will be mostly general impressions; it will be somewhat weak on concrete details). I only knew one person there, Cindy Milstein, who is just by chance living in Chicago for several months. She normally lives in Vermont, and teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology there, and is also on the Board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. I also knew about Mike Hargis, who is on the editorial board of the Anarcho Syndicalist Review. I knew about him through my friend Jon Bekken, also of ASR and the Lucy Parsons Center in Boston. As expected, those attending were predominantly young people in their twenties, with a few in their thirties and forties, and then me. Food Not Bombs provided us with lunch Saturday. The two long discussions, Saturday morning and afternoon, were well moderated. We used the device of going around the room and hearing from everyone in both sessions, but it was mostly a general discussion, since the group was small. If I had made it back on Sunday, some of the other people there might have become real for me, but as it was there was not time enough to establish new acquaintances.
The question immediately emerged as to why we had assembled, and what we hoped to accomplish. There were no concrete proposals on the table. In retrospect, this was the biggest single oversight by the organizers of the meeting. To have had any chance of nailing down anything specific or concrete in a short weekend conference, some proposals would have to have been circulated in advance. I had with me a copy of the founding documents of the just established Northeast Federation of Anarcho Communists, but I had neglected to make copies, thinking that others would already have them or that I would be able to copy them there if necessary (both assumptions proved wrong). But I was able to describe the documents for them. There were two: a two-page statement of beliefs and principles, and a detailed constitution (organizational structure, operating procedures, etc.). Nefac had emerged out of a fairly long process among friends and acquaintances on the East Coast. It was immediately clear that we (i.e., this weekend gathering of strangers in Chicago) could not hope to duplicate that model.
I floated the idea of establishing an anarchist "Circle" instead. Cindy Milstein was able to give details about such a structure, as she was acquainted with what had been the New England Anarchist Circle, which had been a much looser arrangement, and mostly used for sharing information and resources. After discussing these two approaches for awhile, my impression is that it was near unanimous that a looser "circle" type arrangement was about all we could hope for at that time, but that perhaps it would evolve into something more structured later on. But that idea ran into difficulty right away because a number of people did not want to put their names and addresses on a mailing list, so I think it was arranged for items to be sent to one address and distributed from there (but I don’t have the details on this; I don’t think it was really nailed down by the end of Saturday afternoon’s session, or if it was I missed it; we’ll need to contact them about this, and about what happened at the conference on Sunday).
Except for the three people from A-zone and Mike and Fred from "Some Chicago Anarchists" and perhaps one or two other groups, I think most people at the meeting came as individuals, and not as representatives of organized groups. This is another difference between the Midwest and the Northeast. The Northeast has more established groups, which are therefore in a position to form an association on a regional basis. The Midwest has mostly individual anarchists living in scattered cities around the region. So perhaps some kind of individual ‘membership’ organization would be more appropriate to this region. It’s pretty clear that there is neither the energy nor resources to attempt the kind of complex constitutional structure that Nefac has put into place.
What about a tiny newsletter (one-two pages) for anarchists in the region? I had thought of volunteering to do this. But is this really the way to go? Newsletters, even brief ones, take a lot of work. You have to collect the materials, scan or type them into the computer, get them made up into pages, get them printed out and photocopied, and then mailed. Even a small newsletter to a short mailing list would be a lot of work for one person. Is it really worth it? The internet is simply loaded with anarchist material. There are hundreds of web sites with resources and contacts listed. I realize that many activists don’t have access to the internet, but surely usually at least one person in a project or circle of friends does. Perhaps a web site, patterned after the indymedia sites, for midwest anarchists, would be the way to go. It could be set up so that anyone could post to it, and thus become a way to announce events, share resources, distribute materials, and so forth. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I cannot volunteer for this because I have never learned html or how to set up web sites.
There were undercurrents at the meeting which I could not possibly unravel from one brief exposure. So the remarks that follow are extremely impressionistic, and may be wrong. It seemed however that the A-Zone group and ‘Some Chicago Anarchists’ can’t get along. Even though both sides constantly said that they ought to find ways to cooperate, this didn’t seem to be happening. At one point I asked them what seemed to be the trouble. They said it was a long story. Apparently there are a couple of severe personality conflicts, one person in particular coming across as dogmatic and sectarian. But beyond that, ‘Some Chicago Anarchists’ are apparently fairly strict anarcho-syndicalists, with a more fixed and established set of beliefs, while the a-zone people are rather more general and vague (inclusive, pluralistic) theoretically, and are mainly into street actions and organizing rallies. It was my impression that it was primarily the rigidity of the anarcho-syndicalists that prevented cooperation rather than any reluctance on the part of the a-zone crowd. But I may be wrong.
When we each explained what we meant by anarchism, it did not seem to me that there were any insuperable splits. Mike Hargis insisted several times that labor had to be a central focus of organizing, but no one disagreed with this, and a couple of the a-zone people explicitly agreed that labor was key. In practice however, I think this may be a pretty serious split, with the a-zone militants primarily focusing on rallies and street actions and the syndicalists on workplace organizing. The a-zone activists were also more interested in community organizing I think than workplace organizing, even though they didn’t reject workplace organizing. I argued against a strict, sole focus on workplace organizing, saying that workplaces, neighborhoods, and households were all strategic sites for confronting ruling class power. There are other ways to confront the powers that be, as for example in single issue campaigns, and direct actions of various kinds, but these three sites have the advantage of actually being situated to take real power away from the rulers while simultaneously allowing us to build an anarchist society.
I think a disagreement about ‘primitivism’ was mentioned once or twice but did not receive extended discussion. I could not see any reason off hand why an umbrella organization, with very broad anarchistic principles, wouldn’t work for this group. But is it needed? Would it be worth the effort? Perhaps if all the anarchists in the Chicago area could come up with a formula and mechanism for cooperation, then scattered individuals and groups throughout out the rest of the midwest could join.
We anarchists face a dilemma when it comes to organizing among ourselves. The more time we spend on organizing ourselves the less time we have to try to actually establish anarchist social relations and defend them. We need to be better organized among ourselves in order to get the word out about anarchism. But organizing among ourselves is still one step removed from actually making a revolution. If this is all we ever do, the revolution will continue to be put off. On the other hand, we live in an intensely conservative country, and have just made it through thirty years of counterrevolution. Perhaps all we can do at present is continue with our anarchist propaganda. But wouldn’t it be better to actually be trying to set up neighborhood assemblies, household assemblies, and workplace assemblies, and thus start taking the first steps toward gutting capitalism and establishing a free society?
Thanks to all those who helped organize the conference and for getting us started down the road toward greater cooperation.