Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

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.

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2 Responses to “Taking back our power”

  1. Jon said

    Having been in the past somewhat involved in anti-nuke protests, and climate camp, perhaps i could add some useful information to the things you talk about.

    Most people i have encountered in the anti-militarist movement do not do ‘direct action’ to get on the ‘historical record’ – but to (ideally) cause economic damage to the profits of an arms company, or significantly disrupt the activities of a military base. While some people continue to do these sorts of direct action to show the strength of their feeling, most recognise that only a mass campaign of civil disobedience against targets like the military would work.

    The Faslane 365 campaign which you refer to in your article attempted to create such a campaign of mass civil disobedience against the trident nuclear missiles. The aim was to have the base blockaded every day, and to have people cutting or climbing the fence, so that the base could not function properly. Blockading the entrances to the base does prevent some work from occuring in the base, and people gaining entrance to the base results in a ‘lock down’ which also disrupts the base. So it would have been theoretically possible, if there had been enough of these sorts of activity, to significantly disrupt the activities of the base.

    The Faslane 365 campaign members had in the year before the year long event went round the UK, giving talks in cities, churches and universities to recruit groups to come and do a blockade at the Faslane base. In the end dozens of groups and hundreds of people went to Faslane to blockade the base, and for most, they had not done any ‘direct action’ of this sort before, and were trained by Faslane 365. But in the end there were not enough people taking action to significantly block the base. But it did create a big media spectacle, (at least in scotland) and was well received by the press.

    I would say that almost everyone in Scotland doesn’t want English nukes in their country, but clearly not so bothered about them to take the kind of action the Faslane 365 campaign advocated.

    Such campaigns do form part of a wider political movement involving networks of people and groups opposed to militarism, who hope to use small acts of civil disobedience, sabotage and vandalism, with the hope of encouraging larger,and more frequent actions with the theoretical potential of having larger effects.

    But clearly, if there were tens of thousands of people, engaging in civil disobedience, then such specialised tactics, including ‘lock-ons’ and ‘tripods’ would be unnecessary.

    Climate camp, which you mention, is another interesting campaign. It is mostly made up of culturally middle class people: lots of students, anarchists, radical and liberal greens. You are right to say that it doesn’t contain any culturally working class people, and the organisation does not contain much class consciousness, and is usually out of touch with working class.

    However, within Climate Camp there is an increasing recognition that a mass movement to prevent a climate catastrophe must involve community and workplace organisations. The problem they are having is that they are largely ignorant of working class struggles, so while many of them want to do this, they struggle with a lack of knowledge and contacts in workplace and community struggles.

    There is the Workers Climate Action group – which is a faction/tendency within climate camp – arguing for more inclusion and liaison with workers. WCA was initiated by a trotskyite group called Workers Liberty. They aim to draw attention to common ground between workers and environmentalists, and hope to encourage cooperation. They are involved in educating the climate campers with a class consciousness that is often lacking, and do film screenings and talks about the Green Bans of the Builders Labourers Federation in the 70’s, and the Lucas Aerospace Plan.

    So, when i talk to anti-militarists, or climate campers, I tell them how their tactics and experiences would be useful for school occupations, or for a community against a development being built on a community park, or to prevent a motorway being built through a council housing scheme. And I encourage them to support workers involved in industrial action. Obviously they shouldn’t just parachute in to attempt to ‘save the day’ but to do solidarity work with such campaigns, but they would be useful in such campaigns.

    The Scottish climate camp this year aims to link up with Save Pollok Park, a community campaign in Glasgow to prevent a park being fenced in and made into a ‘Go Ape!’ theme park. It also aims to link up with the community campaign against the M74, a motorway to be built through working class neighbourhoods.

    In Edinburgh a campaign against the demolition of council flats and listed buildings, to make way for yuppie shops and a 5* hotel was supported by anarchists involved in a local road protest site. If the company wanting to gentrify the area hadn’t lost all its investment during the credit crunch, we would have seen unwashed dread-locked hippies along-side community activists occupying council flats.

    Interestingly, when it comes to occupying or barricading buildings, and confrontations with bailiffs and riot police (Visteon workers were told by Unite they might encounter riot police, if they didnt end their occupation), these middle class activists sometimes have more experience than workers occupying a factory. I think we would do well to find and strengthen links between the middle class activism you criticise, and encourage those activists to become involved in (more useful) community and workplace struggles.

    I should probably stop there, although I could go on!

  2. Thanks for your response, Jon. You make some interesting points and add some important qualifications and shades of grey to our article.

    Regarding the Faslane 365 campaign, we know it did not have any significant impact on the functioning of the base, and you indicate that most activists recognise that only a mass campaign of civil disobedience would change government policy over this issue. Naturally this leads to the question of why the strategy was pursued for a full year despite the recognition that they could not achieve their primary goal because of their failure to achieve such a mass campaign. Furthermore, because of the small numbers their secondary aim of disrupting the base was largely foiled.

    So why pour resources of time, energy and money into this action for 52 weeks, bringing activists up there from all over the UK, when the action was clearly unable to achieve its goals despite the best efforts of the organisers? Ok, it achieved some coverage in the media, though even this was limited: I did a database search just now of UK newspapers from October 1, 2006, to October 1, 2007 (the duration of the protest) and “Faslane 365” appeared only 17 times in national newspapers and 84 times in regional newspapers (which includes the Scottish nationals) and many of these were tiny articles in “national round-ups” etc.

    Of course the lack of numbers is not down to a lack of agreement with the issue. However, what is the strategy of such direct action groups to build their numbers (and ultimately achieve their aims) in the future? From Faslane 365’s persistence with a protest that was structurally unable to achieve its aims, it would seem the strategy is simply to continue with direct action and hope more people will somehow join in future. I think this demonstrates the self-sacrificial view I mentioned in the article, and also the elevation of direct action to a total strategy, rather than a tactic to be employed in a particular time and place.

    I think the recommendations you describe that you offer to direct action activists are sound. This kind of linkage can only be a good thing and I was not attempting to write these people off entirely. However, their strategy as it stands can largely be written off. Further engagement with community and workplace struggles is key, as you suggest, and the work that is taking place in Scotland sounds positive and productive. We would be interested to hear about the result of these actions.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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