Paper for presentation at the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest Conference, 15-17th April 2009, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Direct action (DA) is often considered to be a tactical approach to protest, utilised in the service of a wide range of causes. More recently, the notion that DA forms the basis of a radical social movement of itself has gained some currency (e.g. Doherty, Plows and Wall 2003). This paper argues that we should rather understand DA as an orientational frame: a structure of normative beliefs that can form a guide to understanding and action in a variety of contexts (Gillan 2008).
Examining documentary sources on the British DA tradition and ethnographic data from recent instances of DA protest against globalisation and war, I identify the core beliefs that hold the DA frame together. Three elements in particular are identified. First, DA is based on a fundamental belief in individual freedom that motivates an evaluation of the individual moral culpability of both protest participants and their opponents. Second, DA groups have an attitude to decentralised, non-representative decision making that offers a particular understanding of democracy. Third, DA involves the re-imagining of political space as grassroots collective constructs free from systems of domination, that are consciously sought or created by DA groups.
Exploration of these key ideational elements will offer two benefits. First, we will see how the interaction and translation of ideas within particular contexts shapes the possibilities and constraints that movement participants encounter. Second, this analysis opens up possibilities for comparison with (and critique from) more obviously ideological structures of belief.
You can download a pdf version of this paper from: Direct Action, Democracy and Individualism (PDF).
The direct action frame draws much of its character from it connection with a particular approach to creating social change, rather than any more theoretical ideology. Nonetheless beliefs concerning the tactics for action demonstrate a particular value set that shares much in common with anarchism.
The chapter examines the development of direct action in the UK by briefly examining periods of protest for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s, for environmental protection in the 1970s and against road building during the 1990s. It becomes possible to see a growing militancy over those years, as well as the development of increasingly sophisticated action practices and a deepening of the political and philosophical messages of direct action.
By offering greater detail about contemporary direct action it becomes possible to specify that political content. Briefly, these ideas include:
- a high value on individual freedom with, as a flip side, a high stress on responsibility for one’s actions;
- a distrust of authority, seen as self-serving;
- a stress on taking forms of action that do not depend on mediation by a third party to be effective;
- a value on the creation of open political spaces for learning, empowerment, and governed by the respect for others’ liberty;
- a developing critique of capitalism that sees the current structures of political economy as responsible for a great variety of social, political and environmental ills; and
- an understanding of democracy as requiring in-depth, free and unmediated participation by all effected by the relevant decisions.
Download C4: Anarchy and Ecology Confront Authority
Despite their different political flavours, the three frames set out above deal with a number of very similar issues. This is hardly surprising given that each worldview developed over the same period, within the same political and social context and in relation to the same emerging problems and opportunities. So, we find that each frame addresses themes such as democracy, power, economic and political institutions and the appropriate methods for social change.
This chapter outlines some of the points at which each frame, or a particular combination of them, find agreement on certain points. However, I stress more explicitly those places where sharp divergence in understanding is evident, since these points help to draw the boundaries around each frame, aiding understanding of their contents and extents. The chapter also stresses the tactical and strategic differences, more often than the philosophical. The strategic and the philosophic aspects are completely intertwined, since to provide a plausible strategy for social change one must base it on a plausible understanding of the social structure that is the target of that change. However, since proponents of the different frames mostly come into contact in the planning and carrying out of political action – it is in the realm of strategy that their divisions are most easily perceived.
In exploring the points of agreement and disagreement we find out, among other things, what exactly is meant by radicalism or reformism (depending on who is using the word), why the united front tactic of trotskyist organisations is so divisive, and how the notion of direct action has come to be applied in apprently inappropriate situations.
Download C6: Conflict and Convergence
…that the police do, in fact, infiltrate small activist groups, here’s a selection of quotations from a well-informed paper from Studies in Conflict and Terrorism
“The security concerns [about infiltration] were openly discussed [by activists] and many critical analyses were offered locally and via the Internet. A particular effort was made to learn techniques for identifying law enforcement officers working in undercover capacities. This posed a serious concern for undercover officers, especially given the level of hatred many anarchists express toward the police.”
“Many law enforcement professionals view modern anarchists simply as a protest group. As long as the activity at large-scale protests is relatively contained and the protests do not devolve into riots, law enforcement may be tempted to ignore the movement. Violent revolutionary actions—including guerilla warfare—however, pose a threat to the communities and people that law enforcement officers are sworn to protect. To monitor that activity seems prudent”
“Infiltration into large affinity group meetings is relatively simple. However, infiltration into radical revolutionary ‘cells’ is not. The very nature of the movement’s suspicion and operational security enhancements makes infiltration difficult and time consuming. Few agencies are able to commit to operations that require years of up-front work just getting into a ‘cell’ especially given shrinking budgets and increased demands for attention to other issues. Infiltration is made more difficult by the communal nature of the lifestyle (under constant observation and scrutiny) and the extensive knowledge held by many anarchists, which require a considerable amount of study and time to acquire. Other strategies for infiltration have been explored, but so far have not been successful. Discussion of these theories in an open paper is not advisable.”
Notice, “few agencies are able … years of up-front work”. The implication of course, being that some are. Years of work? To infiltrate some anarchist commune with no telly or vacuum cleaner? Spend the days gardening and the nights getting drunk on homebrew and talking about revolution. Wonder how many go native?
Source: R. Borum & C. Tilby, 2005, “Anarchist Direct Actions: A Challenge for Law Enforcement” in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28:201–223, Routledge, London.
Nice one to Another Blog is Possible for putting the reference on Infoshop.