Saturday, May 22, 2010

One thing has to be said for sure. The anarchist concept of "direct action" has been corrupted- mostly by those who claim the anarchist label- beyond all recognition in recent years, especially in North America, and, of course, beyond all measure in the USA. In its original formulation in the anarcho-syndicalist movements of Europe and Latin America and in the IWW of the 'anglosphere' it had a totally different meaning than the one it has come to assume today. In its original formation it meant action on the part of the oppressed without political mediation that would immediately correct a grievance. This meant that it was definitely not "symbolic" ie a propaganda gesture- voting with bricks rather than ballots. Neither was it "terrorist" in that it committed one act unconnected to the grievance in order to "terrorize" the ruling class into caving in on another matter. The classic such act would have been IWW walkouts at a certain hour to enforce a certain working time.
What does this mean ? It means that direct action is something that has an immediate effect, or at least the possibility of same. That it corrects an injustice or advances the interests of the oppressed not in some American psychobabble way but in a real material result. Such actions are totally disconnected from how "militant" or "violent" such actions are. They may be "militant". They may be violent". In most cases, however, they are neither. The foundation of an "infoshop" for instance is "direct action". Bombing a newspaper station because you think they 'support capitalism" is not. The former actually accomplishes something and is a direct response to correct a problem. The latter is (an invariably juvenile) expression of personal frustration that accomplishes nothing.
Then, of course, there are actions that do not result in immediate correction of a problem but gradually build towards it. Suppose, for instance, you hate the Royal Bank and its various corporate actions. You can take one approach, that of long term organizing and trying to present the evil actions of the bank to the general population. At a certain point one might hope that real direct actions (whether inhibiting the actions of the bank or building alternatives to its power) would begin to develop. Real direct actions supported by large numbers of ordinary people. On the other hand you can be lost in the incestuous world of a subculture where you cannot "read the political pulse" of ordinary people and imagine because most of the people in your friendship group hate the Royal Bank in a half-educated leftist way that the general population feels the same. Then all you have to do is plant a bomb to stimulate general rebellion. This whole scenario was played out over 100 years ago amongst anarchists when the general population was 1000 times more likely to be sympathetic. They weren't then, and they cannot be now.
Whoever did the firebombing in Ottawa may claim the "anarchist" label (assuming it wasn't a police action- if they are caught it wasn't; if they are not leave that option open) in a vague rhetorical way, but it has to be said that they don't have the foggiest clue as to what anarchism is beyond another "ism" to add to a leftist laundry list. Unfortunately it is still a minority position amongst North American anarchists in terms of understanding what "direct action" really means. Platformists and mutualists generally understand it, and the majority of educated syndicalists do as well. To others, however, it has become a synonym for either violence or militance. These things have nothing whatsoever to do with the real meaning of the term.


Nicolas said...

Just one short nuance. In the original sense, at least in the french context, Direct Action could be kind of indirect in a way. The idea arouse out of a debate about wether it would be faster and better for labor to get legislative change or to get collective bargaining. The debate was specificaly around the 8h day. So the debate was wether it would be faster to get a law or to get a deal with the boss. The law was called indirect action, the deal with the boss direct action. So, this mean you could have a demonstration or rally that was not direct at all but that would have been biled 'direct action' if it was directed at the boss or 'indirect action' if it was directed at politicians. So, in this way you get the weird situation where the first european general strikes where called political general strikes and indirect actions by syndicalists because they where directed at the parliement [the universal suffrage in Belgium, for instance, was one tru general strike].

Anonymous said...

Awesome article. I would like to read more of your thoughts on how not only "direct action" has lost its meaning, but the anarchist movement in general.

In solidarity,
-John, the TBF

mollymew said...

Just search labels under "anarchism" , "tactics", or "anarchist theory" in this blog.
Very true. The "immediacy" of direct action was one of the things that defined it at the time the concept first came to be formed. I briefly referred to this in the post, with what I must admit is leftist private language ie "without mediation".
What I wanted to concentrate on, however, was the idea of "practicality" ie that "direct action" is actually action that accomplishes the goal desired directly ! without having to go through any subsequent series of representation. This IMPLIES the idea that it is directed at an immediate situation and acts to correct a problem without going through the mediation of the state.
It ALSO implies that the goal is well defined and limited enough so that it can actually be achieved. The "laundry list" of complaints that people such as the Ottawa firebombers present is obviously no such thing. To say the least the idea of actually changing anything at all by the action is the furthest thing from their minds. Unless, of course, they are completely !!! deluded which is a slight possibility. What they wanted to do is make a symbolic statement which, in their isolation from the general population, they imagined would spark further rebellion. As I've quipped before...protesting with bricks not placards. What they did was very much "symbolic" rather than practical, and that was the main point I was driving at.