Book of the Week (3): Activist lifestyles

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

In this third and last series of excerpts from David Graeber’s book, we turn to chapter 6, which is a review, critique, and defense, of activist lifestyles and cultures.

We choose some not necessarily connected paragraphs, to give an idea of the richness of the various comments made in this chapter.

David Graeber:

“If one sees capitalism as a gigantic meaningless engine of endless expansion that reduces the majority of the planet’s inhabitants to hopeless poverty, that reduces even its beneficiaries to lonely isolated atoms doomed by fear and insecurity to lives of mind-numbing work and meaningless consumerism, even as it threatens the destruction of the planet—but if at the same time, one does not wish to, or does not believe it possible to simply flee the system, but rather wishes to stay and fight—then what precisely can one do? What sort of social relations is it possible to create among those who wish to make their lives a refusal of the very logic of capitalism, even as they necessarily remain inside it?

The logic of bohemian life has always been an attempt to answer this. It has always tended towards both the cultivation of adventure, danger, and extreme forms of experience, but at the same time, of relations of mutual aid and trust between those pursuing it—even, often, those who might otherwise be strangers. This is precisely the sensibility one encounters in direct actions too.

Consider again the idea of a mosh pit, in which dancers hurl themselves into one another, or stage-dive into the crowd. It’s a matter of both creating dangerous, even violent situations, but at the same time, placing an almost blind faith in surrounding strangers—for help and support—since, after all, if they did not catch or buffer you, you might well end up with a broken neck. In principle, the logic of play aggression and ultimate trust has much in common with the sadomasochism that is constantly alluded to (though rarely practiced) in the punk aesthetic. It’s the kind of pleasure that arises from adventure: excitement, unpredictability, faith, and reliance on one’s companions—which can only be real with the endless possibility of betrayal. At the same time, though, it is anything but an ethos of machismo.

Obviously, all of this varies from one subculture to another. For many years at ABC No Rio, an anarchist social center in the Lower East Side, there was—aside from the usual zine magazine, computers, and the like— a weight room used by members of a group called RASH, the “Red Anarchist Skinheads.” But subcultural groups are always defining themselves against one another. The play of desire and mutual dependence reappears on all sorts of subtle levels.

The one theme that recurs endlessly in all of this is “autonomy”: simultaneously the greatest anarchist value, and the greatest dilemma. Certain forms of autonomy—the isolated individualism of mainstream American society, with its solitary pleasures—are precisely that against which one is rebelling. Or, perhaps, one might say, the question is how to balance autonomy, solidarity, and freedom. Cornelius Castoriadis (1987, 1991), for example, defined “autonomy” as the ability of a community to live only under rules they had themselves collectively created, and had the right to reexamine constantly. For many anarchists, freedom appears to mean the ability to create new communities, and ties of mutual dependence, more or less on the spot, and to move back and forth between them as one wishes. An action, a party, a picnic, a dance, can all be temporary autonomous zones where desires coalesce and the leap of faith involved in trusting strangers itself becomes a large part of the adventure—even when police are not present, which, as we shall see, is rarely, since police have a notable tendency to show up whenever anarchists get together. The dilemmas, though, become much more acute when attempts are made—as they regularly are—to turn TAZs into PAZs, to move from temporary to more permanent zones of autonomy.

In the next section then let me talk a little about more permanent activist spaces. As we’ll see, these are almost never quite, entirely, permanent. Every space has to be, to some degree, conquered, and most are almost instantly besieged.

Activist Landscapes: Community Gardens

The community gardens were a prime example. The Guiliani administration, on coming to office in 1994, almost immediately launched a broad offensive against the whole network of community gardens, redefining them as vacant lots and introducing a plan to auction off 741 of them throughout the city for the development of “affordable housing.” (In one weekly radio address, Guiliani made it clear this was an attack on the very principle of common property: “This is a free-market economy,” he said. “The age of Communism is over.”) A prolonged struggle ensued, peaking in 1998 and 1999 with numerous direct actions in which More Gardens! activists locked down in front of bulldozers, as well as one Reclaim the Streets action that closed down Avenue A for several hours and another that led to the arrest of sixty-two people at a lockdown on the West Side Highway. Several gardens were destroyed, but in the end, Guiliani suffered one of his administration’s few major defeats when a coalition of wealthy patrons intervened to buy up several of the targeted gardens in order to preserve them—and the state attorney general shortly thereafter sued the city to prevent any more auctions, on the grounds that doing so violated the city’s own regulations that there should be at least two acres of green space for every thousand inhabitants. This was a great victory, but an activist soon learns that no victory is irreversible. Also, that every victory tends to be accompanied by terrible, tragic losses.

Another Guiliani target was Charas itself. In fact, destroying it soon seemed to have become a kind of obsession of his administration. At least, that was how it seemed to local housing activists. During the entire period of DAN’s existence, the building was under legal siege. Since its status rested on what was, effectively, a gentlemen’s agreement with the government—the building being leased from the government for a dollar a year—it was perfectly legal for Guiliani’s administration to break the deal and auction it off which it did—at the same auction, on July 20, 1998, as several of the largest community gardens. The auction itself has become something of a legend among Lower East Side activists, who used every means possible to disrupt it, ranging from protests outside, to phony buyers trying to bid up the price inside, to the release of ten thousand crickets on the auction house floor—which did manage to clear the house, but only temporarily.

Eventually the title was passed to an anonymous purchaser who—despite the city’s efforts to protect his identity—was soon revealed to be one Gregg Singer, a small-time property developer from the Upper West Side. Singer was now technically the owner of the building (El Bohio), and Charas merely his tenant. He immediately moved to evict, but this was difficult: his hands were tied by a restricted- use covenant that allowed the building only to be used for “community facility use.” As a result, in order to expel Charas, he had to demonstrate that he had lined up new tenants who were also going to use the building for cultural or public-service related purposes. The legal problem from his perspective, then—at least, until a prolonged process of appeals and legal skirmishes was finished—was to find a legitimate cultural institution willing to lease the building, even if they knew that doing so would mean evicting a neighborhood community center.

This was almost impossible, but it meant that the entire activist community that used Charas was subject to instantaneous “Singer alerts”: the new landlord was obliged to announce visits with prospective tenants three hours in advance, so Charas would then send a message immediately over activist listservs, as well as their own phone trees, calling everyone available to dash down to the yard in front of Charas for an instant demo, grabbing signs left for the purpose in the Charas lobby, explaining to the visitors—say, the pastor of some Harlem church needing a space for choir practice, or some charitable group looking for office space—what was actually going on.

This approach was certainly effective. Singer never did find a legitimate tenant willing to displace Charas. But eventually he succeeded in driving Charas out by other means. After a trial in which a jury ruled unanimously in favor of Charas and against Singer, another judge (who we all assumed must have been bribed, though, of course, we cannot prove it) voided the results on the grounds that the matter should never have been brought before a jury to begin with, and simply handed the property over to Singer. Local squatters were prepared to launch a major occupation and defense—arguing that every building given up without a fight emboldens the city to move on another one—but the Charas people ended up vetoing the plan, on the grounds that, as a community organization, their only chance of acquiring another space depended on maintaining some kind of relations with the city, and that a pitched battle would certainly make this impossible. Therefore, after a (largely ceremonial) lockdown, the building was boarded up, and—at time of writing five years later—remains empty, since its new landlord has still been unable to find anyone willing to rent it, and has not yet acquired legal authorization to tear it down. Charas, the organization, remains homeless.

That same precariousness, incidentally, is felt around other activist institutions as well. Pirate radio stations are spaces won from the FCC; they tend to be shut down. Even Pacifica, the most friendly media outlet, was under continual peril after the “Christmas coup” at the very end of 2000, when it was effectively taken over by a pro-corporate faction. Many members were purged and banned, and the remaining radicals mostly marginalized. It took two years of continual mobilization, direct action, lobbying, and propaganda to finally restore it to its original board. All free or even semi-free territory has to be defended. One result is to reinforce the somewhat untidy, impromptu feel of all the spaces. Everything is slightly unfinished, or in process of construction. It’s partly an aesthetic, as we’ll see; but it’s partly also because almost everything in such spaces is in the process of either being captured or taken away.

Colin Campbell (1987) once suggested that one reason bohemians have always hated the bourgeoisie is that the former see themselves as people who have abandoned comforts for the pursuit of pleasure, whereas the bourgeoisie are people who have done exactly the opposite. However glib, there is a kind of truth here. Campbell also argues that bohemians are, effectively, the avant-garde of consumerism, exploring new forms of pleasure that can be commodified in the next generation, and here I think he misses the point. The point is that this pleasure is, specifically, at the point of creation: the pleasure of destroying the very boundaries that categories like production and consumption create. Pleasure in production is never comfortable. But it often can feel all the more thrilling for that fact.

Government regulations essentially enforce a certain model of society, in which individual actors or hierarchically organized companies seek profits, and anyone who wishes to organize themselves differently—around any sort of conception of common good—needs to either be part of the state apparatus, or to register with it as a nonprofit corporation. In theory, every aspect of “civil society” is so regulated. Basically, the only areas that are entirely off-limits to this sort of regulation backed by force are communicative ones: speech, discussion in meetings, exchanges on the Internet, etc.22 As soon as one enters the world of material objects, regulations abound. And the larger, heavier, and more visible the objects, the more those regulations tend to be enforced. The obvious result is to leave people with the feeling that radical politics is unrealistic. It’s all an ephemeral dreamworld that melts away the moment it hits material reality. As soon as it enters the “real world,” the world of large heavy things like buildings and machinery and so on, it all seems to be proved unrealistic. In fact, this is really just because heavy physical objects are so much easier to regulate. As a result, large, heavy, valuable objects tend to be surrounded by threats of physical force that back up a certain ideology of how people are expected to interact, and if they don’t, they tend to be taken away from you. The objects that seem the most self-evidently real are in fact those most surrounded by forces and abstractions.

To anticipate an argument I will make in the conclusion: consider for a moment some of the uses of the word “real.” One can speak of the forms of property that are easiest to regulate—the largest, the hardest to hide, therefore, the most effectively surrounded by the threat of violence—as “real estate,” “real property” as opposed to movables. Note that “real” property is in no sense more empirically real than movables: in fact, insofar as it involves complex abstractions like air rights, one might say that compared with, say, a tomato, it is decided less so.23 But one can also talk about “realpolitik,” or political “realism.” In international relations, for instance, to be “Realist” (as opposed to an “Institutionalist”) means proceeding from the assumption that nations will not hesitate to use force in pursuit of their own national interests. Once again, this has nothing to do with recognizing what we like to think of as empirical reality: “nations” with collective “interests” are purely imaginary constructs. They become “real” when they threaten to send in the army. The “reality” one recognizes when one is being a “realist” is purely that of violence. Yet it’s precisely that collapse of the effects of violence into the very apparent solidity of the object that produces the reality effect I’m talking about, and makes social alternatives seem so unrealistic. Abstractions like law and the state attach themselves, by threat of force, particularly to the largest, heaviest objects—the things that seem most empirically “real.”

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