Review of Direct Action: An Ethnography

The association of black-clad anarchist protesters was so associated with youth counter-cultural rebellion that – to their chagrin I’m sure – the Gap was inspired to display faded black jeans in its storefronts across the United States, with the words “independence”, “freedom” and “we the people” spray-painted in black. In addition to the Gap’s reliance on sweatshop labour, this marketing decision inadvertently created yet one more compelling reason to smash Gap windows.

But there was much more going on than smashing windows, as David Graeber’s new book makes clear. Graeber is an anthropologist and activist who teaches at the University of London. Direct Action: An Ethnography emerges from his fieldnotes and observations made while participating in a number of anarchist organizations in New York City between 1999 and 2001. The book documents the fundamental features of the organizations of the “direct action anarchists” who played such an influential role in the global justice movement.

Of particular interest to Canadian readers, the first half of the book is a detailed description of the marathon meetings (mostly in New York City) in the month prior to the demonstrations in Awkesasne and Quebec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as well as the demonstrations themselves in April 2001. The second half of the book is intended to be more analytical, including chapters on the social make-up of the movement, the conduct of meetings, a typology of demonstrations, and the politics of representation. He concludes with a highly theoretical chapter on violence and the imagination. This second half of the book relies heavily on Graeber’s experiences with the Direct Action Network (DAN) in New York.

Through this book we learn that to equate the direct action anarchist movement with smashing windows is to profoundly misunderstand what was going on. There is much to be learned from the ways – both serious and joyful – that activists in this young movement sought to live their politics and build organizations and campaigns that prefigured the kind of world they wanted to create.

Creating the world we want in the shell of the old

Direct action anarchists played key roles in the global justice movement. These activists influenced everything from the way meetings were conducted, the types of demonstrations that were organized, and even the language of the movement (remember “twinkling”?). One of the most important contributions was the development of practices infused with principles of direct democracy and equality. Graeber’s documentation of the experimentation with non-hierarchical and radically democratic activism is the greatest strength of this book.

A central feature of direct action organizing of the time was an emphasis on consensus decision making. As many of the activists quoted in the book emphasized, consensus is not just a way of coming to a decision, it is a process. In some ways DAN members saw the process of reaching a decision as even more important than the decision itself. The consensus process emphasized mutual respect and creativity, tried to ensure that no one was able to impose their will on others and that all voices were heard. The object was to come up with a synthesis of ideas and perspectives. While perhaps not the most efficient way to reach decisions, DAN members argued that it produced the wisest decisions.

DAN employed a formal consensus process with rotating facilitators and an elaborate system of “stacking” the speakers list in order to ensure that no small group of voices dominated the conversation. Generally there were two facilitators, one male and one female, who took turns leading the discussion and managing the stack of speakers. When proposals were being discussed, the facilitators were to begin by seeking clarifying questions to ensure that everyone was clear on what was being proposed. Then facilitators asked if there were any concerns about the proposal and looked for friendly amendments to address the concerns.

It was only after this process had been followed that a proposal would go to a formal decision-making process. The most controversial aspect of the consensus process, at least amongst activists from other traditions, was the provision for blocking. By indicating a “block,” any one participant could stop a proposal dead in its tracks. However, blocks were supposed to be “principled.” That is, a block was to be based on the “founding principles or reasons for being of the group”. However, if a proposal reached a stage where there was a block, generally it was thought that the consensus process had broken down at some point in the discussion.

Graeber does not shy away from the limitations of consensus decision-making. He observes that while those new to the process often found the experience “amazing, liberating, transformative,” some would quit six months later in disgust. There were other anarchists – the “hardcores” who typified the NYC squatters movement – who saw DAN’s formal structure as itself stifling and oppressive. On occasion, efficiency is of greater importance than taking the time to reach a consensus decision, for example if the police are descending and immediate decisions are needed. A commitment to consensus decision-making is also incredibly difficult when working with allies from very different traditions or in large groups. Consensus decision-making proved entirely unworkable when DAN sought to develop a nation-wide network called DAN Continental.

As Jo Freeman observed in her well-known 1970 essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” one of the key challenges faced by groups organized on an egalitarian basis with no formalized leadership is the development of an informal – and thereby unaccountable – quasi-leadership consisting of a core clique of activists. In any activist group, no matter how dedicated to egalitarian principles, informal leaderships tend to develop, often along lines of friendship, activist experience, the amount of time one has to devote to the group’s work, and privilege. These informal leaders can hold enormous sway over a group, with decisions being made behind the scenes or being imposed (even unconsciously) upon the rest of the group. Without acknowledging these dynamics, structurelessness can become a way of masking power.

Surprisingly there is little discussion – by either Graeber himself, or through the voices of the anarchists captured in the book – of this phenomenon. Graeber acknowledges Freeman with a passing reference, but he fails to discuss this dynamic in the context of DAN. This is all the more surprising as it is apparent, just drawing from the excerpts from his fieldnotes, that such dynamics were present in the organization. Whether or not they called themselves leaders, there clearly were leading members of DAN who influenced decisions behind the scenes. Unpopular proposals were shuffled to non-existent “working groups.” Informal methods were used to exclude, and occasionally drive out, activists who were seen as difficult or “not fitting in.” In a coalition formed by DAN to organize for Quebec City, a separate working group where the real decisions about actions would be made was created as a strategy to exclude activists they did not want to work with.

Did DAN activists recognize this as a problematic dynamic? If so, were steps taken to overcome the problem? These are questions that are neither asked nor answered, and an opportunity is lost for other activists to learn from a forthright and honest appraisal of this reoccurring problem for activists seeking to create genuinely non-hierarchical and egalitarian organizations.

Nonetheless, there is much of value in DAN’s important work in developing principles and practices for egalitarian organizing. Graeber accurately captures the sincere efforts made by DAN activists to use their meetings as “pure zones of social experiment, spaces in which activists can treat one another as they felt people ought to treat each other, and to begin to create something of the social world they wish to bring out.” DAN’s experiments with consensus serve as a reminder that process is political, an important lesson even for groups that do not employ consensus decision making.

Faultlines of Inequality

Some of the most difficult challenges for direct action anarchist groups like DAN arose around internal issues of racism and sexism. DAN itself was in an “almost continual crisis over gender issues.” In one of the most fascinating passages of the book, Graeber quotes extensively from notes he made at a meeting in which the DAN women’s caucus brought forward a proposal for a “vibes watcher” who would monitor racial and gender dynamics at meetings and intervene if there were problems. This was one of the wildest DAN meetings of its brief history, and one of the few in which a proposal was actually the subject of a block. Faultlines of gender and class were painfully apparent in the hostile response by some men in the group to an apparently fairly innocuous proposal. As Graeber notes, “even for dedicated activists it requires extensive work – frequent trainings, consciousness-raising techniques, daily reminders by friends and facilitators – to ensure they remain conscious of having [white, or male, privilege] to begin with.”

DAN is far from the only radical organization that has had to deal with such issues, and the “vibes watcher” meeting provides an interesting example of how even people utterly committed to equality can respond to demands from oppressed groups with hostility. Unfortunately, many activist groups will find the dynamics described all too familiar.

One of the recurring problems facing DAN and other direct action anarchist groups was that they were overwhelmingly made up of white activists. As a self-consciously anti-racist group, DAN was well aware that they were the subject of intense external criticism of their race politics. Graeber quotes Ranjanit, an activist from the New York-based South Asian group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) who aptly summed up the problem. Ranjanit pointed out that for all their talk of the need to end “summit hopping” and focus on working closely with communities in struggle, in many ways direct action anarchist groups were singularly ill-prepared for the task. These groups had developed their own styles of dress, mannerisms, ways of talking and tastes in music and that made it almost impossible for them to communicate with anyone outside their own milieu. Some elements of their culture – the rejection of personal hygiene standards, for instance – were considered downright offensive by most of those with whom they wished to form alliances. Others, like the vegan diets, made it impossible to sit down at the table with almost anyone who was not already an activist. Many people of colour saw anarchist culture as itself as a badge of white privilege being waved in their faces, as only white middle-class kids could safely engage in direct action tactics.

Unfortunately, groups like DAN, who were very concerned about these issues, could come up with little in the way of solutions apart from reasserting their commitment to working with allies, unwilling to question or change. Graeber comments, “it seems unreasonable to ask anarchists to abandon all attempts to build an alternative culture, to fall back on a way of life they hate, just so as not to put others off.” The self-righteousness and implicit criticism of other activists embedded in such a response places limits on the movement’s ability to grow, and ensures its isolation from potential allies. Many groups simply dissolved in the face of what seemed an intractable problem.

Missing politics

Graeber acknowledges upfront some of the limitations of this book. First, it provides a very North American perspective on the global justice movement. Second, dealing as it does with the period of 1999-2001, the book addresses the decline of the global justice movement after 9/11 only in passing. These limitations are an understandable consequence of writing the book as ethnography, which requires some definition of time and space.

However, some of the other limitations of the book are less easy to explain. Rather surprising for a book written by an anarchist, one of the key shortcomings is Graeber’s shallow treatment of the politics of anarchism. Graeber describes a movement of activists with a commitment to social change that emerges from a deeply-felt alienation and a sense that the world is just not right. According to Graeber, anarchism is a “moral project” rather than an “ideological” project of analysis. Anarchism is “a movement, a relationship, a process of purification, inspiration and experiment.” An anarchist is someone who is “anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, opposed to all forms of racial and gender oppression, unwilling to negotiate with inherently undemocratic organizations”. Direct action as a strategy is consistent with the rejection of the oppression of the state, because rather than soliciting the state, one acts “as if one is already free.” All this seems a deliberately vague rejection of political analysis. In fact, Graeber claims that the anarchist direct action movement “does not emerge from theory, or intellectual debate, from a prior analysis of the world situation.”

For all of Graeber’s protests to the contrary, there were political beliefs underlying this particular anti-capitalist current. Anarchist activists of the day were developing political critiques of global capitalism and its institutions, such as the World Bank. But even if anarchist objections to capitalism could be simply labelled as “moral”, there must be (and is) an underlying criticism of capitalism to justify the moral revulsion. Besides, what is not political about morality? It is passing strange for an anthropologist to ascribe beliefs to “morality” with little analysis of the underlying premises of that morality or acknowledgment that morality is, in fact, ideological.

Graeber’s reluctance to spell out the underlying political beliefs motivating the movement seems a reflection of his suspicion of socialists, whom he stereotypes as either mere theoretical academics or as “sectarian Marxists” destructively infiltrating activist organizations as a recruiting strategy. Anarchism is meant to stand in stark contrast to Marxism, almost to the extent of being without any theory. In doing so, Graeber does a disservice to the sophisticated political and analytical work that direct action anarchists contributed to the global justice movement.

Perhaps as a reflection of his view that anarchists avoid overarching theoretical analysis, Graeber’s treatment of the ultimate goals of the movement he documents is similarly shallow. Accepting that the movement was seeking to “create a new world in the shell of the old”, what revolutionary strategies were proposed? How will direct action and mostly white middle-class egalitarian organizations get us there?

Graeber notes that for a revolutionary strategy based on direct action to succeed, it must have some way to engage with larger economic, social or political systems: “This is the trickiest question because it has proved extremely difficult for those organized on radically democratic lines to so integrate themselves in any meaningful way in larger structures without having to make endless compromises in their founding principles.” A tricky question, indeed. The solution, apparently, is to set an example others can imitate. According to Graeber, DAN succeeded because, although DAN ultimately foundered, “in another sense, it was everywhere, since at least among direct action-oriented groups, some version of its model of organization had become pretty much universal.” The fact that DAN was only able to influence “direct action-oriented groups” (in other words, people just like them) hardly seems a successful model for the creation of a mass-based revolutionary movement that can really change the world. These limitations deserve consideration and debate.

Experiments in Autonomy

Nonetheless, there is much that is inspiring about the activism captured by Graeber’s ethnography. With this book, we can experience the utter joy that infused activists as they created spaces of autonomy – however brief – in meetings, in the streets and across the city. For example, he describes a Reclaim the Streets action that took place in the East Village on September 28, 2000 organized around the demand for a car-free New York City. In this excerpt from his fieldnotes, he describes a scene in which hundreds of activists had just managed to outwit the police and take over the street:

“Apparently, this is the spot….Cyclists start blowing whistles again: there’s a huge swell of noise of every sort. Soap bubbles floating above us. People inflate balloons and everyone starts bouncing them back and forth over each other’s heads. Finally, they get the thing working and music – some sort of cheerful electronica – begins to a huge, welling feeling of triumph and accomplishment. Bikers greet friends on foot with embraces and high-fives. A number of activists with video cameras are focusing on the system: a couple dozen others are already starting to dance around it. All over, people start bouncing up and down.

So, for roughly twenty minutes, from about 8:35 to about 8:55 PM, some three hundred activists occupy the middle of Seventh Street, unmolested. Everybody dances.”

The movement was imperfect and successes in creating these spaces of autonomy were temporary, but this description of the Reclaim the Streets action is a reminder that this is why we do it – so that one day we will be able to feel that freedom all of the time.

And as for the much-maligned Black Bloc, the insight provided by Graeber’s work is that they too were motivated by this joy and this desire to create brief moments of freedom. After marching with a Black Bloc group at Republican Convention protests in Philadelphia on August 1, 2000, Graeber wrote in his notes of the powerful feelings of “autonomy, the opportunity, even if only for a moment, to occupy a space not under Their control, in which the only rules are those generated collectively, by the group – and in which there is equally, the certainty of trust, the knowledge that anyone who happens to be standing behind you has your back.”

A part of the movement of direct action anarchists, the Black Bloc was not a group or an organization. It was a tactic engaged in by activists who, in fact, adhered to strict principles of non-violence based on a commitment to never physically harm another living being except in self-defense. Damage of corporate property such as the odd Gap window was not seen as violence, particularly in comparison to the violence wreaked upon the world in the name of private property. Although associated with window-breaking, that is not the main purpose of the Black Bloc: “the real point is to radicalize tactics and messages, and, increasingly, to provide support for less experienced and more vulnerable protesters.”

While there is definitely much to criticize in the Black Bloc tactics – not the least of which is the guarantee that the significant police repression that will accompany their presence is likely to render the message of the demonstration invisible (the Black Bloc becomes the story) – knowing something of their motivations and beliefs provides a basis for constructive debate between activists who want many of the same things.

At over 500 pages, Direct Action is at times a daunting and disorganized read. But overall, Graeber has produced an important social history of some of the direct action anarchists who played such a decisive role in the global justice movement. Graeber has captured significant experiments in radical organizing that might otherwise be lost.

Jackie Esmonde is a member of the Toronto New Socialists who was active in the global justice movement from 2000 until its untimely demise in 2001.