The Economics Core, as it was usually called, ran a five-day schedule with topical large-group presentations and sub-groups that further discussed the topics (housing, health care, land, worker co-operatives, community focal points). Michael Albert gave an opening talk on Community Economics.
I bailed after two days, so I cannot give a fully informed account of how it all went. But I will try to explain why I left.
Basically, my experience with it did not accord with the expectations I have of a social movement. The groundswell of interest in the sub-group I briefly attended went along the lines of forming "radical" rural collectives, and seemed to gravitate toward a how-to discussion. I did not see any real examination of how, or whether, projects like this advance either anarchism specifically or the social liberatory project in general. I did not find that it addressed a revolutionary need. To be perfectly crass, it seemed like a discussion of how to liberate small groups of anarchists.
This was hinted at in the program- the Economics Core was subtitled "How We Live." Its announced goals were "Formation of Cooperatives" and "Formation of Worker Collectives." Having said that, I do not think I can particularly fault the planning. It simply reflected the interests and concerns of the anarchist scene as I know it. As a matter of fact I was one of the planners for my section. In our preparations, we had made time for a discussion about the accountability of projects to a larger revolutionary politics. In practice, this did not draw the group's interest. The groundswell, as I said, was toward project issues, and I saw no real opportunity to deflect it. In the topical presenstation I gave on Community Supported Agriculture, I mentioned I had chosen my particular subject matter because it does not lend itself to isolationism. I think the group was not impressed.
I understand that AR was put together in part by people who wanted to see an anarchist gathering have some tangible results. I am sympathetic to this, but I think "results" could have been conceived more realistically. The idea that people should come possibly hundreds of miles to "form collectives and cooperatives" was impractical and impoverished. A much better result would have been to develop a greater sense of what is possible, what is necessary, and what is desirable, and return home better prepared to take initiative and seek opportunities.
The frustration I felt with the Economics Core has much more to do with my feelings toward the scene itself than with the actual planning of the Core. Still, I have some ideas of what a radical social movement should be talking about when it meets to discuss economics.
There is a longstanding tradition on the left that we take as our starting point people's presently existing struggles against oppressive circumstances. Also, it is virtually definitive of the left that we make our struggle for the good of society and not just of various self-ghettoized fragments.
A conference dealing with issues of economic struggle should at least draw the contours of existing activism or organizing around the given topics- housing, healthcare, etc. In order to realistically strategize anarchists' role in these areas we need to be able to talk about the strengths and deficiencies of what is going on already. From this understanding, we could then determine how to apply ourselves.
Harry Cleaver states that we must learn to use economic knowledge to spy on the battle plans of the bourgeoisie. If we can see and plan further, we can do better organizing and project work.
Before anarchists can "get theoretical", the general level of economics education among us has to improve. Mostly we do not even know the bounds of our collective ignorance. I would suggest beginning with individual or small-group study and developing a broader network through mailing-list or journal media. I doubt continent-wide gatherings have real value for this. Maybe a true purpose for one would work itself out in network discussion.
We should develop familiarity with existing theories, critique them from various possible perspectives, and work toward statements about some modifed economic theory compatible with anarchism, or at least with a generally liberatory politics. Talking about an "anarchist model" at the outset is the wrong answer.