Is Direct Action Transformative?

To be a radical is often to feel hunted and vulnerable, but it can also be the pinnacle of what it means to be held in a beautiful way that the world represses. Much of how our radicalism feels is a question of with what we are engaging in our search for freedom, empathy, and truth.  Direct action is often posited as the apex of anarchist radicalism. It is seen as the font through which alternative worlds are glimpsed and from which they spring– the soil where theory is tested and seeds are planted. Much as there is a fetishization of theory in academia, there can be a fetishization of action in organizing. In many ways the impact of action, particularly the category considered ‘direct,’ is much more tangible and immediate than that of the stodgy parsing of ethical dilemmas and meta-cognitive strategies. It’s difficult to map the butterfly effect of an idea (such as economic theory for instance) except through its trail of action, even though, in reality, it is a constant interchange.

Direct action tends to stray from the purely symbolic or ideological and into the realm of services delivered without the consent of authority. These services can generally be parsed into two categories, that of the ‘smashy-smashy’— that which is destructive or blocking of harmful mechanisms, and that of the ‘buildy-buildy’— that which is constructive of alternative ways of doing or being. Direct action is generally seen as ranging from a brick through the window of a monopolistic big-bank and sit-ins, to benevolent mutual aid societies such as the collective healthcare system built by the Common Ground Collective in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Direct action is generally a part of a much longer strategy, even though it can at times just be the sudden bubbling over of rage or creativity.

As regards the provision of services that the state fails or refuses to, there is much internal debate amongst anarchists about what constitutes a band-aid, or worse, a course of actions that are branded reformist and therefore a de-facto justification of state violence. On the other side is a question of  what constitutes a pure form of positive impact. Within this debate there is an ever-present desire for greater positive impact with less negative corollaries. That debate is of course garbled by feckless jockeying for social capital and power in the race to be the rightest anarchist of them all. The battle for purity is a toxin while the struggle for accountability is a necessity.

Some time ago, leftbook laughed as many anarchists took the turrets to attack the Portland black-bloc anarchists who were filling potholes. “You’re doing the job of the state!” “You’re legitimizing the state!” “You’re stealing work from low-wage laborers!” “You’re just making whiteness easier.” They hoarsely screamed into their monitors and keyboards. Meanwhile, a few less flat-tires and bent rims were to be had by Portlanders and some quantum of good-will was dispersed into the ether. These actions were quite low-risk and of reasonably pure impact by way of our impossible standards. However, they still met the moloch of utopian perfectionism.

Amongst radicals who have engaged in higher impact and deeper investment struggles, there is the humbled realization that all action is tainted. There is no pure strategy, so we learn and try not to make ‘praxis’ an ineffectual buzzword. We are “walking while questioning” as the Zapatistas say.  Those in the peanut gallery are quick to critique anyone in the messy grit of “actually doing stuff” while at the same time many groups are wont to minimize the importance of hard theory and external perspective in developing coherent and impactful strategy. There is, of course, also the un-sexy but incredibly necessary background work that makes all sustained efforts possible.

It is possible for direct action to become simple harm reduction with an intense associated sunk cost fallacy. After providing a high-stakes service, often for many years and at an intense personal cost and risk, many activists are reluctant to question whether their action is truly “transformative” because this could lead to the more terrifying question of “Was it worth it?” Many projects run the risk of being actually detrimental to our goals, but they’re steeped in our tradition so we maintain them. The reality of radical struggle is that it is mostly a losing battle, and it is hard to perceive the second and third degree connections and inspirations rendered by those in the thick of it. Some things must be done, just because they must be done. For example, we could dig a hole through the earth debating whether providing life-saving aid in the borderlands is transformative or just a much needed ongoing bandaid, but the fact is that without this action, innocent people will face increased harm, even as the state and militias may use the existence of such aid as a sick justification for amplification of their death-project. So, while we need people who understand the larger landscape and context within which the micro-violences occur, without those committed to the dirty work that theory implies is needed, nothing changes. Reformists are quick to say that policy change is the only level at which true transformative change happens, while an anarchist will retort that the level of change needed demands complete overhaul.

As a movement, there are countless, isolated direct action collectives and single instance affinity groups that associate to do the work of smashing what need to be smashed and testing what needs to be built. Diversity is our strength, and isolation our weakness. Unfortunately, because we are often hunted beasts, a throttling of coordination is demanded as a homage to security culture. At best we can see each others travails on It’s Going Down and take risks of intimating confessions through channels with a range of communication security. The organizationalists among us strive to create the one big movement by ever linking these disparate nodes or unifying and standardizing their aims to leverage mass people power. The individualists and network-anarchists among us focus instead on horizontal relationship building over static infrastructure as this can create stronger and more defensible decentralized infrastructure and communities of practice.

However it is that we choose to act, diversity is our strength. While we may disagree and debate about consequence or strategy in tactics of direct action, what we really need is a dynamic testing environment where many approaches are competing for viability in both the short and long-term. Whether direct action is transformative or not depends on our aims and definitions as well as our context, including the unintended or unforeseen consequences of our actions. What makes us anarchists is, in part, our insatiability, and as such, our thirst for freedom will never be quenched. This is our vitality but it can also be our poison. While a commune in the woods that fails to impact broader society at all may yet provide to its members a radically different mode of living, a group of vibrant youth who accurately assess the needs of their community may change the entire world. It’s a game of dice but where analysis assists the leverage we are able to harness. Is direct action transformative? Maybe; and the ongoing asking of that question matters almost more than the answer.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory