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Direct Action
Edited article from An Anarchist Cookbook, Recipes for Disaster
November 11, 2005

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What is it . . .
As the Senate debate builds up steam in Zimbabwe perhaps its time to consider the various and different ways to be engaged, responsible and participatory citizens. It's important to remember that voting isn't the only way to be involved.

Below are some guidelines for direct action. But there are thousands more: consider, every gardener's guide is a direct action handbook, as is every cookbook. Any action that side-steps regulations, representatives, and authorities to accomplish goals directly is direct action. In a society in which political power, economic capital, and social control are centralised in the hands of an elite, certain forms of direct action are discouraged.

But for the civilian born in captivity and raised on spectatorship and submission, direct action changes everything.

Direct Action versus Representation
Practising direct action means acting directly to meet needs, rather than relying on representatives or choosing from prescribed options. Need some examples? You can give money to a charity organisation, or you can start your own community library. You can write an angry letter to the editor of a newspaper that doesn't provide good coverage of the subjects you consider important, or you can start to distribute your own leaflets in your community.

The opposite of direct action is representation. The most well known example today can be found in the electoral system. In this society, we're encouraged to think of voting as our primary means of exercising power and participating socially. Yet whether one votes with a ballot for a politician's representation, with dollars for a corporate product or with one's wardrobe for a youth culture, voting is an act of deferral, in which the voter picks a person or system or concept to represent her interests. This is an unreliable way to exercise power, to say the least.

Let's compare voting with direct action, to bring out the differences between mediated and unmediated activity in general. Voting is a lottery: if a candidate doesn't get elected, then the energy his constituency put into supporting him is wasted, as the power they were hoping he would exercise for them goes to someone else. With direct action, one can be certain that one's work will offer results.

Voting consolidates the power of a whole society in the hands of a few individuals and everyone else is kept in a position of dependence. In direct action, people utilise their own resources and capabilities, discovering in the process what these are and how much they can accomplish.

Voting forces everyone in a movement to try to agree on one platform: coalitions fight over what compromises to make, each faction insisting that its way is the best and that the others are messing everything up by not going along with its program. A lot of energy is wasted in these disputes and recriminations. In direct action, no vast consensus is necessary: different groups apply different tactics according to what they believe in and feel comfortable doing, with an eye to complimenting one another's efforts.

Conflicts over voting often distract from the real issues at hand, as people get caught up in the drama of one party against another, one candidate against another, one agenda against another. With direct action, the issues themselves are raised, addressed specifically, and often resolved.

Voting is only possible when election time comes around. Direct action can be applied whenever one sees fit. Voting is only useful for addressing topics that are currently on the political agendas of candidates, while direct action can be applied in every aspect of your life, in every part of the world you live in.

Ultimately, there's no reason the strategies of voting and direct action can't both be applied together. One does not cancel the other out. The problem is that so many people think of voting as their primary way of exerting political and social power that a disproportionate amount of time and energy is focussed on electoral affairs while other opportunities to make change go to waste. For months and months preceding every election, everyone argues about the voting issue, which candidates to vote for or whether to vote at all - when voting itself takes less than an hour.

Direct action need not be popular to be effective. The point of a direct action is the action itself, not pandering to supposed public opinion or anticipated media coverage. Those raised in Democracy Monoculture on the assumption that voting is the alpha and omega of social participation often presume that the only possible purpose of any political activity is to convert others to a position in order to build a constituency; consequently, they fail to recognise the broad diversity of roles direct action can serve. These are the people who are always quick to pontificate about how graffiti hurts the public image of "the" movement, or how individual artistic projects are irrelevant to the needs of "the" people. But helping "convert the masses" is only one of many roles a direct action can play. Let's go over some of the others.

Direct action may simply solve an individual problem: a household needs to eat, so food is grown; an advertisement is offensive, so it is torn down or adjusted; a circle of friends wants to learn more about social activism, so a reading group is established. Direct action can be a means for a small group to contribute to a community: People need to know that a rapist has been active in the neighbourhood, so fliers are made and posted; police are out of hand, so a cop-watching program is initiated. Direct action can be an opportunity for small groups to get used to working together in larger networks.

Direct action can be applied to sway the opinion of a whole nation, but it can also be addressed to a small, specific group that can more easily be influenced: street graffiti may not be taken seriously by middle-class adults, but some of their children experience it as a revelation. Direct action can make life less predictable, more magical and exciting or at least humorous. When business as usual is oppressive and depressing, simply interrupting it is a service to all.

Direct action can be the best form of therapy, helping those who act to cure feelings of boredom, hopelessness, and impotence. When one is doing nothing, everything seems impossible; once one has begun doing something, it is easier to imagine what else is possible and recognise opportunities as they arise.

Direct action offers the chance to cash in one's convictions and desires as the life experiences they rightfully should be. Don't just think about it; don't just talk about it, for heaven's sake. Don't just bicker about it - do it! Direct action is a means for getting in the healthy habit of acting rather than looking on. In this passive, paralysed society, we desperately need to nourish in ourselves the habits of engagement and participation. As they say, direct action gets the goods.

Mutual Aid and Outreach
Anyone with direct action skills stands to gain from sharing them with others. This is the opposite of "converting" people: it means empowering people to be themselves, not attempting to turn them into copies of oneself. The more capable each individual and group is, the more all can offer each other, and the more all are able to enforce their equality. The dissemination of direct action skills fosters relationships of coexistence and mutual aid, as well as undermining hierarchy and oppression: when people are similarly informed, equipped, and versed in taking initiative, they have more at stake in learning to get along, and freedom and equality necessarily proceed.

Accordingly, anarchists and other partisans of direct action do not give orders or offer leadership: direct action is an adjective followed by a noun, not a verb followed by an object! Instead, they demonstrate options by acting autonomously, being careful to extend to others whatever knowledge and resources experience provides - these guidelines being a case in point.

Many who set out to educate others about injustice make the mistake of providing them with a great deal of data without offering any ideas about what to do. Overwhelmed with facts, figures, and bad news, most people find it harder to take action, not easier; thus, such attempts to raise awareness for the sake of provoking change often sabotage themselves. When informing people, it is wise to apply this rule of thumb: for every issue you introduce, spend as much time and energy presenting skills, suggestions, and opportunities for action as you do presenting information and background. A similar rule of thumb is that the more comparable a person's circumstances are to yours, then he or she might gain from hearing your suggestions and perspectives; the more your life stories diverge, the more you will benefit from listening, rather than prescribing outside the context you know.

In the long run, the most powerful tactics are the ones that inspire and equip others to join the fight. It is important to pace the escalation of a struggle so that new people get involved at a faster rate than participants are immobilised by repression: this is how the momentum that generates revolutions is created. Your enemies on high want nothing more than to isolate you from everyone else who is angry for the same reasons. Make a point of staying accessible and connected to others so they can come with you if they like when you set out on your journey to a new world.

Diversity of Tactics
Accepting a diversity of tactics provides for the broad diversity of real human beings. Every individual has a different life history, and consequently finds different activities meaningful and liberating. Insisting that everyone should adopt the same approach is arrogant and short sighted - it presumes that you are entitled to make judgements on others' behalf - and also unrealistic: any strategy that demands that everyone think and act the same way is doomed to failure, for human beings are not that simple or submissive. The more diverse the tactics employed by a movement, the wider the range of people who can recognise among those tactics approaches that appeal to them. It may be necessary for factions applying different tactics to distance themselves from one another in the public eye, but this need not to be done in an antagonistic spirit.

A movement that employs a diversity of tactics is able to adapt to changing contexts. Such a movement is a laboratory in which various methods can be tested; the ones that work will be easy to identify, and will naturally become popular. In this sense those who employ tactics other than the ones you favour are doing you a service by saving you the trouble of having to test them for yourself.

Honouring a diversity of tactics means refraining from attacking those whose chosen approaches seem to you to be ineffective, and instead focusing on what missing elements you can add to make their efforts effective. Thus, it re-frames the question of strategy in terms of personal responsibility: at every juncture, the question is not what somebody else should be doing, but what you can do.

Accepting the legitimacy of a diversity of tactics means moving from a competitive mindset in which there is only one right way of doing things to a more inclusive and nuanced way of thinking. This contests hierarchies of value as well as of power, and undermines rigid abstractions such as "violence" and "morality".

Finally, respect for diverse tactics enables disparate groups to build durable solidarity. Such solidarity must be founded on a commitment to coexisting and collaborating in harmony, rather than on limiting demands for unity.

Just as some short-sightedly reject tactics other than their own as ineffective, others feel the need to compete to determine whose tactics are the most committed or the most impressive. But the most dramatic triumphs of militant direct action are only possible thanks to the people applying more conventional approaches, and vice versa. It is important that we not see tactics as existing in a hierarchy of value, from risk-free and insignificant to dangerous and glorious, but rather in an ecosystem in which all play an irreplaceable role. As revolutionaries, our role in such an ecosystem is to create a mutually enhancing harmony between our efforts and those of others, even if some of them want to waste time competing with us for the currency of "being right" or "being bravest". No tactic can be effective alone; all can be effective together.

Nurturing a Direct Action Community
The power of direct action must be demonstrated in exciting, accessible and participatory ways. Rather than letting direct action become the speciality of a subculture or expert class, those who appreciate its value should arrange opportunities for people of all walks of life to take part in it, starting with the communities with which they are most familiar. Everyone who is involved in such demonstrations should have empowering experiences that indicate the possibility of an entirely different way of life. All events and contexts are ripe for conversion into participatory direct action, however hopelessly repressive they may seem: a speech at a stuffy ceremony can swiftly be transformed into a hurricane of creative heckling, just as a crowd of docile consumers in TM can take to the streets in an un-permitted march - all it takes is for a few individuals to seize a previously unthinkable but longed-for possibility in a way that is contagious. These demonstrations should not simply be isolated events: it should be easy for those they inspire to become connected to ongoing projects and communities in which they can give substance to their new visions.

An atmosphere must be created that provokes curiosity, builds momentum and maintains morale. Everywhere people go there should be evidence that something is afoot, that big changes are in store. The subject of direct action, however controversial, should be on the tip of every tongue, and the substance of it scrawled on every wall and employed in every workplace. Wild speculations, whispered rumours, secret invitations, passionate crusades, epic triumphs, surprises, suspense, drama, adventure: these are the stuff of revolutions, and without them it is not possible to break the deadlock between fear and desire.

Despite your best attempts, there will be periods when momentum dies down and it seems you are losing the ground you gained. During a waning phase of activity, don't panic or give up hope. Pace yourself, take it in stride as part of the cycle of life; it will pass. Weather it with the others that stick around, focusing on the worthwhile projects you can undertake without a crowd around you. Use this period to consolidate what you've learned and built, and to develop new relationships and proficiencies so you will be ready to take things even farther when the action starts to heat up again - as it will.

Don't let anyone tell you nothing ever changes. Revolutions always happen; as sure as the earth goes on turning. The only question is whether we participate in them unconsciously, washing our hands of responsibility for the choices we make, or deliberately, bringing our dreams into being with every step.

The authors' state:
The publishers, the notorious CrimethInc. Ex-Workers' Collective, humbly put this book and all its contents at the disposal of those who, in good faith, might read, circulate, plagiarise, revise, and otherwise make use of in the course of making the world a better place.

NO! Copyright, 2004

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