Tinea's Reviews > Direct Action: An Ethnography

Direct Action by David Graeber
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's review
Oct 02, 10

bookshelves: anarchism-and-activism
Read from September 01 to October 01, 2010

I'm gonna go ahead and call this a great book. Graeber set out to do something huge and he totally did it. So like, first of all, mad props. There is craft, care, and handiwork evident throughout the book; Graeber really attempted to fashion an anarchist ethnography, a story and interpretation for outsiders of a culture to which he belongs, positing theory and conclusions without ever resorting to sweeping generalizations, simplification, or dismissals of diversity. The book itself can be viewed as a direct action, a conscious process of redefining ethnography from patronizing colonial narratives and empty post-colonial relativism to an example of a people's ability to critically define their culture for themselves.

The first 200 pages of Direct Action are a case study in story form of the organizing and action of the Quebec City FTAA protests (a similar narrative can be found in You Are G8, We Are 6 Billion: The Truth Behind the Genoa Protests). A stunning amount of time is devoted to meetings, both in the case study and in the later 70+ page chapter titled "Meetings." I was getting pretty skeptical of Graber's artistic vision as the book began to reflect the exhausting qualities of my own life seemingly trapped in endless collective and organizing meetings-- but that was the point. Graber makes the case that the real magic of direct democracy occurs in meetings when people take the time and energy to enact consensus process. What happens on the street is simply the end result of a much greater and more important direct action project-- meetings are the new world being enacted in the shell of the old, where freedom from hierarchy is consciously brought to life. Graeber's definition of direct action is "insisting on acting as if one is already free" (207). This is something anarchists do a bad job of communicating to the public. Our visibility comes in the form of giant puppets and smashed windows, two images Graeber explores at length, but images that do not convey the practical vision of what a new world could look like, inherent in intentional, mindful meeting process.

Other highlights from this book include the fairly minimal theorizing that Graeber undertakes, always with much hesitation and care to specify his own ideas from that of a more general "anarchist milieu." Graeber posits that anarchist theory derives from its practice, instead of the other way around (for example, Marxists, Leninists, etc base their strategy on realizing the theorizing of some dude). Like his ethnography itself, something cannot be anarchist if it isn't performed using anarchist (non-hierarchical, decentralized, direct) process. The global justice movement's anarchist backbone meant that while the uprising was meant to resist "an unaccountable world neoliberal government that sought to suppress existing democratic rights in the name of corporate power," the movement's participants "were determined to organize the whole action according to directly democratic principles and thus provide a living example of how genuine egalitarian decision making might work" (210).

The chapter on "Direct Action, Anarchism, and Direct Democracy" was a joy to read, because it was obvious how much pleasure Graber finds in the philosophical underpinnings of direct action praxis. I do too. He defines anarchism as a process: "a constant mutual exchange between inspirational visions, anti-authoritarian attitudes, and egalitarian practices" (222). True consensus building is kind of a sacred act... there's a part about the evolution of N. American consensus practice from Quakers, for whom that form of decision making is sacred (cant find the quote). Anarchism is a kind of revolutionary ethics, a moral structure through which to interpret the world.

Graeber pulls a lot from feminist theorists like Patricia Hill Collins, demonstrating that feminism is inseparable from anarchism. He credits the women's liberation movement in the 70s as offering the critique of 60s/70s centralized, hierarchical revolutionary practice that resulted in searching out new forms of decision making and the embracing of Quaker-style consensus, affinity groups, spokescouncils, and facilitation. Moreover, it was feminism that made the crucial leap beyond passive '68 situationism, waiting for the revolutionary moment to happen, to today's continual insurrection, the understanding that revolutionary moments much be actively created by the participants: "action is only genuinely revolutionary when the process of production of situations is just as liberating as the situations themselves" (533). The "domestic" labor of creation, cleaning up, and caring for people must be embraced and understood as an inseparable part of revolution.

The book ends with a chapter devoted to "Imagination," a last part of life that capitalism has separated out into specific roles (the elites imagine new products, the oppressed imagine the needs and desires of the elites so to best cater to them and avoid violence). "Direct action" calls for the embodiment of all forms of labor-- productive, domestic, and imaginative in each person. I couldn't help thinking of
Margaret Killjoy's book on anarchist fiction, Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction, as an example of Graeber's claims to the power of anarchist imagination in opposition to the mindnumbing, stupid random violence of capitalist policing.

This book was not a final, defining history of a time period, but instead reads like a whirlwind of ideas first gathered and offered out to readers. It's fascinating and inspired a lot of conversations with friends as it inevitably became a huge part of my life for a few weeks, generating questions, disagreements, insights. I've spent a lot of time narrowing down what this book is and isn't about. "Direct action" is a huge name, but this book is specifically about the anarchist, direct action element of the North American global justice movement, centering around the NYC Direct Action Network, DAN. Graeber barely touches on other forms of direct action-- there's nothing on collective living, worker-owned cooperatives, ALF/ELF actions, agriculture, or much of anything outside of East Coast North America summit resistance, diy punks and mostly white urban youth culture. Which is fine; Graeber amply demonstrates that this limited story needed to be told, and he tells it humbly, though with considerable excitement. I believe in this project, and its clear Graeber does too.
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