Book of the Week (2): Direct action and direct democracy

Book: David Graeber. Direct Action, an Ethnography. AK Press, 2009

In this second excerpt of David Graeber’s new book and analysis of the alterglobalization movement, he focuses, in chapter 5, on the linkage between direct action and direct democracy.

The excerpt focuses on the evolution between the feminist moment to the emergence, ‘seemingly out of nowhere’, of the global network that appeared on the streets of Seattle.

David Graeber:

“When the feminist movement began, it was organizationally very simple. Its basic units were small consciousness-raising circles; the approach was informal, intimate, and anti-ideological. Most of the first groups emerged directly from New Left circles. Insofar as they placed themselves in relation to a previous radical tradition, it was usually anarchism. While the informal organization proved extremely well suited for consciousness-raising, as groups turned to planning actions, and particularly as they grew larger, problems tended to develop. Almost invariably, such groups came to be dominated by an “inner circle” of women who were, or had become, close friends. The nature of the inner circle would vary, but somehow one would always emerge. As a result, in some groups lesbians would end up feeling excluded, in others the same thing would happen to straight women. Other groups would grow rapidly in size and then see most of the newcomers quickly drop out again as there was no way to integrate them. Endless debates ensued. One result was an essay called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” written by Mary Jo Freeman in 1970 and first published in 1972—a text still avidly read by organizers of all sorts in the present day. Freeman’s argument is fairly simple. No matter how sincere one’s dedication to egalitarian principles, the fact is that in any activist group, different members will have different skills, abilities, experience, personal qualities, and levels of dedication. As a result, some sort of elite or leadership structure will inevitably develop. In a lot of ways, having an unacknowledged leadership structure, she argued, can be a lot more damaging than having a formal one: at least with a formal structure it’s possible to establish precisely what’s expected of those who are doing the most important, coordinative tasks and hold them accountable.

One reason for the essay’s ongoing popularity is that it can be used to support such a wide variety of positions. Liberals and socialists regularly cite “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” as a justification for why any sort of anarchist organization is bound to fail, as a charter for a return to older, top-down styles of organization, replete with executive offices, steering committees, and the like. Egalitarians object that even to the extent this is true, it is far worse to have a leadership that feels fully entitled to its power than one that has to take accusations of hypocrisy seriously. Anarchists, therefore, have usually read Freeman’s argument as a call to formalize group process to ensure greater equality, and, in fact, most of her concrete suggestions—clarifying what tasks are assigned to what individuals, finding a way for the group to review those individuals’ performance, distributing responsibilities as widely as possible (perhaps by rotation), ensuring all have equal access to information and resources—were clearly meant to precisely that end.

Within the larger feminist movement itself, most of these arguments eventually became moot, because the anarchist moment was brief. Especially after Roe v. Wade made it seem strategically wise to rely on government power, the women’s movement was to take off in a decisively liberal direction, and to rely increasingly on organizational forms that were anything but egalitarian. But, for those still working in egalitarian collectives, or trying to create them, feminism had effectively framed the terms of debate. If you want to keep decision making to the smallest groups possible, how do those groups coordinate? Within those groups, how to prevent a clique of friends from taking over? How to prevent certain categories of participants (straight women, gay women, older women, students—in mixed groups it soon became, simply, women) from being marginalized? What’s more, even if mainstream feminists had abandoned the politics of direct action, there were plenty of radical feminists, not to mention anarchafeminists, around to try to keep such groups honest.

The origins of the current direct-action movement go back precisely to attempts to resolve those dilemmas. The pieces really started coming together in the antinuclear movement of the late 1970s, first with the founding of the Clamshell Alliance and the occupation of the Shoreham nuclear power plant in Massachusetts in 1977, then followed by the Abalone Alliance and struggles over the Diablo Canyon plant in California a few years later. The main inspiration for antinuclear activists—at least on questions of organization—were ideas propounded by a group called the Movement for a New Society (MNS), based in Philadelphia. MNS was spearheaded by a gay rights activist named George Lakey, who—like several other members of the group—was also an anarchist Quaker.

Lakey and his friends proposed a vision of nonviolent revolution. Rather than a cataclysmic seizure of power, they proposed the continual creation and elaboration of new institutions, based on new, non-alienating modes of interaction— institutions that could be considered “prefigurative” insofar as they provided a foretaste of what a truly democratic society might be like. Such prefigurative institutions could gradually replace the existing social order (Lakey 1973). The vision in itself was hardly new. It was a nonviolent version of the standard anarchist idea of building a new society within the shell of the old. What was new was that men like Lakey, having been brought up Quakers, and acquired a great deal of experience with Quaker decision-making processes, had a practical vision of how some of these alternatives might actually work. Many of what have now become standard features of formal consensus process—the principle that the facilitator should never act as an interested party in the debate, the idea of the “block”— were first disseminated by MNS trainings in Philadelphia and Boston.

The antinuclear movement was also the first to make its basic organizational unit the affinity group—a kind of minimal unit of organization first developed by anarchists in early twentieth-century Spain and Latin America—and spokescouncils. As Starhawk pointed out in Chapter 1, all this was very much a learning process, a kind of blind experiment, and things were often extremely rocky. At first, organizers were such consensus purists that they insisted that any one individual had the right to block proposals even on a nationwide level, which proved entirely unworkable. Still, direct action proved spectacularly successful in putting the issue of nuclear power on the map. If anything, the movement fell victim to its own success. Though it rarely won a battle—that is, for a blockade to prevent the construction of any particular new plant—it very quickly won the war. US government plans to build a hundred new generators were scotched after a couple years and no new plans to build nuclear plants have been announced since. Attempts to move from nuclear plants to nuclear missiles and, from there, to a social revolution, however, proved more of a challenge, and the movement itself was never able to jump from the nuclear issue to become the basis of a broader revolutionary campaign. After the early 1980s, it largely disappeared.

This is not to say nothing was going on in the late 1980s and 1990s. Radical AIDS activists working with ACT UP, and radical environmentalists with groups like Earth First!, kept these techniques alive and developed them. In the 1990s, there was an effort to create a North American anarchist federation around a newspaper called Love & Rage that, at its peak, involved hundreds of activists in different cities. Still, it’s probably accurate to see this period less as an era of grand mobilizations than as one of molecular dissemination. A typical example is the story of Food Not Bombs, a group originally founded by a few friends from Boston who had been part of an affinity group providing food during the actions at Shoreham. In the early 1980s veterans of the affinity group set up shop in a squatted house in Boston and began dumpster-diving fresh produce cast off by supermarkets and restaurants, and preparing free vegetarian meals to distribute in public places. After a few years, one of the founding members moved to San Francisco and set up a similar operation there. Word spread (in part because of some dramatic, televised arrests) and, by the mid-1990s autonomous chapters of FNB were appearing all over America, and Canada as well. By the turn of the millennium, there were literally hundreds. But Food Not Bombs is not an organization. There is no overarching structure, no membership or annual meetings.

It’s just an idea—that food should go to those that need it, and in a way that those fed can themselves become part of the process if they want to—plus some basic how-to information (now easily available on the Internet), and a shared commitment to egalitarian decision-making and a do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit. Gradually, cooperatives, anarchist infoshops, clinic defense groups, Anarchist Black Cross prisoner collectives, pirate radio collectives, squats, and chapters of Anti-Racist Action began springing up on a similar molecular basis across the continent. All became workshops for the creation of direct democracy. But, especially since so much of it developed not on campuses, but within countercultural milieus like the punk scene, it remained well below the radar of not only the corporate media, but even of standard progressive journals like Mother Jones or the Nation. This, in turn, explains how, when such groups suddenly began to coalesce and coordinate in Seattle, it seemed, for the rest of the country, as if a movement had suddenly appeared from nowhere.

By the time we get to Seattle, though, it’s impossible to even pretend such matters can be discussed within a national framework. What the press insists on calling the “anti-globalization movement” was, from the very beginning, a self-consciously global movement. The actions against the WTO Ministerial in Seattle were first proposed by PGA, a planetary network that came into being by the initiative of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. The emphasis on the WTO reflected the concerns of farmer’s groups in India and the tactics employed could equally well be seen as an amalgam of ideas drawn mainly from the Global South than as an indigenous American development. It was the Internet, above all, that made this possible. If nothing else, the Internet has allowed for a qualitative leap in the range and speed of molecular dissemination: there are now Food Not Bombs chapters, for instance, in Caracas and Bandung. The year or two directly after Seattle also saw the emergence of the network of Independent Media Centers, radical web journalism that has completely transformed the possibilities of information flow about actions and events. Activists who used to struggle for months and years to put on actions that were then entirely ignored by the media now know that anything they do will be picked up and reported instantly in photos, stories, and videos, across the planet—if only in a form accessed largely by other activists. The great problem has been how to translate the flow of information into structures of collective decision making—since decision making is the one thing that is almost impossible to do on the Internet. Or, more precisely, the question is: when and on what level are structures of collective decision making required? The Direct Action Network, and the Continental DAN structure that began to be set up in the months following Seattle, was a first effort to address this problem. Ultimately it foundered. In doing so, however, it also played a key role in disseminating certain models of direct democracy, and making their practice pretty much inextricable from the idea of direct action. It’s the conjunction between these two phenomenon, now pretty much irreversibly established in the most radical social movements in America and, increasingly, elsewhere, that’s the real subject of this book.”