SAINT-IMIER, Switzerland – It was a well-organized affair, particularly for a bunch of people who bristle at the thought of rigid organization. And in an era of discontent with debt-riddled government, they offered a striking solution: no government at all.
The International Anarchism Gathering got underway Wednesday at the movement's spiritual birthplace in Switzerland's western Jura mountains, its many loose parts moving like Swiss clockwork. Which seemed fitting, given the host city's pride at its historical role both in the development of the anarchist movement and of luxury watchmaking.
They flocked by the hundreds, a well-mannered band of fringe thinkers and casually dressed youth aiming to create a world without rulers. The welcome in the lush mountain setting was a model of orderly and efficient hospitality, setting the stage for five days of alternative music, cinema and earnest discussions on topics such as utopia, revolution, militancy, sexuality and authority.
At a time when many face harsh austerity programs, job losses and cutbacks in social safety nets in Europe, the congress drew people from anarchist movements around the world to celebrate a radically different vision for the future.
Organizers opened the meeting with a call for demonstrations, worker strikes and other acts of defiance. They rejected the idea that workers should have to shoulder any of the debt or losses amassed by governments, banks and other capitalist enterprises.
One thing they all agreed on: an emphatic rejection of the use of violence. That contrasted with the tactics of Italian anarchists who in the past couple of years have claimed responsibility for shooting an official with a nuclear energy company and sending letter bombs to embassies and a tax collection agency.
"Capitalism goes from crisis to crisis, so this is an opportunity for us," said Aristides Pedraza, part of a Lausanne-based movement and one of the main organizers.
"We think that we are in a period of continental crisis, and we think that there is no government solution to this crisis. There is no solution within institutional policy," he said. "We want to build in Europe a public space of resistance and solidarity."
Anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 people were expected to attend the gathering, which marked the 140th anniversary of the first anarchist worker congress in Saint-Imier in 1872.
The Saint-Imier Anarchist International was created by anti-authoritarian members expelled from Karl Marx's movement and local workers — mostly watchmakers — from French speaking areas of the Swiss Jura mountains. One of its champions was the well-known Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, considered the father of anarchist theory.
There's irony in the proletarian themes.
The rolling pastures and green cliff-speckled hills of Saint-Imier gave rise to the Longines and Breitling luxury watch brands. The Swiss valley boasts skiing, alternative energy and an astronomical observatory.
One street of Saint-Imier bears a plaque explaining that it is named for a French engineer who helped create Longines watches and was "a true industrial spy" at the 1876 World's Fair in Philadelphia, returning with the shocking news of American competitors with cost-efficient production methods.
As the morning shops along the main street opened, it was not too difficult to pick out some of the scruffy out-of-town anarchists from the local residents who cheerfully greeted everyone in their path.
"From the beginning, the international anarchists' organization struggled to abolish all forms of authority — political, economic and social, religious, cultural or sexual," said Frederic Gautheron of Bescancon, France, close to the western Swiss border. "As long as it eliminates the exploitation of man by man."