Taking back our power
Posted by Left Luggage on May 8, 2009
A reader sent us a link to an event in London next week organised by Climate Camp and titled “Take Back the Power! The Importance of Direct Action Today”. He wondered what we thought about the strategies suggested in the promo material for the meeting. The group say:
Throughout history ordinary people have been responsible for all major social changes – women’s rights, civic rights and even democracy itself in many places can be said to be result of direct action. Taking action is the very first step in making big changes happen. Direct action is taken by people who feel that the political process is not working to address profoundly important issues.
Climate change is the most urgent challenge we’ve ever faced – and politicians are not showing the strength of character needed to actually address this problem. […] Climate Camp believes that people everywhere need to work out what they can do – and then do it. Taking action yourself to make the world you want to see is a logical response to a very serious situation.
Of course we agree climate challenge is the greatest threat to long-term human survival ever faced. Equally, we would take issue with the idea that politicians’ inaction is due to their lack of “strength of character”. But what of direct action?
Obviously it is true that “Taking action is the very first step in making big changes happen”, but is taking direct action also “the very first step”? It is true that direct action has been used by social movements throughout history, but it has been the initial or primary tactic of very few (successful) ones. (In this discussion, “direct action” excludes strikes and workplace occupations, which are in any case not on the agenda of Climate Camp or other anti-capitalist/environmental groups.)
One of the biggest problems with direct action in this context, and in most contexts in which it is currently used, is that is has little connection with any wider movement political movement. In such a context the action is likely to prove more alienating to ordinary people than inspiring. The profound gulf that separates committed direct action activists from the overwhelming majority of working class people can’t be bridged by the propaganda of the deed. Whether this is an aim of such groups is questionable. As in the case above, the focus is often on individuals taking action for themselves rather than relating to others collectively. This often goes together with a self-sacrificial approach to politics that is highly moralistic. A couple of examples:
1. I heard a talk by a veteran direct action activist who had been at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and latterly at Menwith Hill spybase in North Yorkshire. She had been in court a number of times relating to her activities. Someone in the audience asked her what purpose was served by her getting arrested and charged with criminal offences. Her reply was that she engaged in these actions because she wanted there to be a historic record (in the court records) of opposition to these bases.
2. An acquaintance was arrested a couple of years ago at Faslane Nuclear Base in Scotland as part of a CND protest that ran throughout the year. The only effect of the protest on that day was disruption to the road outside the base for a couple of hours and the blocking of the base entrance for 30 minutes. The arrest didn’t make the papers, because it was a regular occurence. And the base is in the middle of nowhere in any case, so few would have seen the protest.
Thus activists demonstrate their commitment to the cause by engaging in acts that put themselves at risk (either physically or legally) and therefore show the depth of their feeling, and leave a historical record. Obviously such actions are inherently elitist and isolating. But they also demonstrate a degree of defeatism because the focus is not on recruiting more people or organising, trying to build their forces; the focus is on individual activity and people are expected to become involved (if at all) because of the moral power of the arguments.
Clearly direct action can sometimes be an appropriate tactic, but it is only a tactic, not a strategy and it cannot substitute for the long-term work of organising in communities and workplaces. Furthermore, divorced from the context of a political movement, it is stripped of its symbolic meaning and becomes simply an individual act of moral indignation that perpetuates a separation between activists and working class people.