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Direct Action: An Ethnography

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  470 ratings  ·  37 reviews
Anthropologist David Graeber undertakes the first detailed ethnographic study of the global justice movement. The case study at the center of Direct Action is the organizing and events that led to the one of the most dramatic and militant mass protests in recent years—against the Summit of the Americas in Québec City. Written in a clear, accessible style (with a minimum of ...more
Paperback, 568 pages
Published September 1st 2009 by AK Press
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Jan 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I was thinking of doing an abridged edition of this book for a university press - that way it could be assigned for classes. (I felt it was important to publish the long version first, if only for documentary purposes, because so much history would otherwise be lost. But obviously it cuts down on the book's appeal, even though it was designed so you can skip around in it and don't have to read the whole thing.)

So what do people think: which parts would definitely have to stay, and which are disp
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 ...more
Stevphen Shukaitis
Aug 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
With "Direct Action" David Graeber has written an important and timely book. If, as he argues, the ideology of the global justice movement, is embodied in its practices, then it really doesn't make sense to try and understand it by some generic or superficial description of its stated ideologies. Rather, it would have to begin from an analysis of movement building practices and organizing, and what kinds of collective compositions they create and sustain. In other words, it would necessarily inv ...more
Dan Prisk
Feb 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This was one of the books I was least excited about in my to read pile, but ended up being one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time.

It's a physically daunting book to pick up, perhaps more so than many similar length books I've read lately. Yet that is full dispelled within the first few pages. The first section is highly conversational, and easy to follow. Dropping the reader straight into an activist group, Graeber does a great job of immersing you in the world of the acti
Michael Kilman
Dec 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a seriously profound book for understanding the relationships between activism and culture. Graeber's ability to shed light on the power dynamics involved in various elements of civil disobedience and in things like "why do police hate puppets" is absolutely brilliant. This may be one of my favorite anthropology books of the last decade. I very much recommend this book. And I will read it several more times. ...more
Aug 20, 2009 added it
I'm currently judging this book by it's f__king beautiful cover... ...more
Mar 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
If I didn't read this book, I probably would have dropped out of my master's program, completely disillusioned with anthropology and the state of many current ethnographies which reinforce oppressive hegemonic, racist and oppressive structures. Graeber sets out to achieve a super lofty goal, and I think for the most part he achieved it! which in itself is pretty incredible. The book was captivating and I learned a lot, particularly stylistically how to write a successful auto-ethnography. From m ...more
Dec 22, 2020 rated it liked it
Not gonna finish this one... i liked the idea of this book initially but mentally I was done on page 245 when Graeber said: “Mannheim does have something of a point. Revolutionary movements have always tended to take on much of their temper and direction from those very ‘middle strata.’ At the very least, there has always been something of a gap in this respect between those who suffered the most in an unequal society and those most able to organize effective sustained opposition. In other words ...more
Benjamin Fasching-Gray
Dec 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: resistance
Having borrowed this door-stopper from a public library, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to finish it before the last allowed renewal but then I got into it. The first half of the book is the "ethnography," which I put in quotes because it didn't feel like the ethnographies I normally read, you know, about indigenous cultures. There is obviously going to be a lot more understanding between Graeber and the members of the direct action tribe than there would be between the anthropologist and the c ...more
Feb 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
First of all, I read this book with theory in mind, despite the fact that Graeber sees theory in ethnography as largely irrelevant. Nevertheless, Graeber's main theoretical objective seems to be to reintroduce the idea of alienation, an important idea associated with Marxism that was seemingly banished from social discourse in the wake of the widely ramifying disillusionments of 1968. His argument hinges on what he calls the "politics of imagination" to which he juxtaposes the modern hegemony of ...more
Jul 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
(8/10) In Direct Action, David Graeber sets out on what is ostensibly an anthropological ethnography of anarchist politics and the anti-globalization movement. As an active participant in these movements, Graeber offers a lot of insight into both the nuts-and-bolts preparation for major protests and the larger understanding of the world that shapes anarchist praxis. For those interested in the movement, this is almost too much detail -- but, as Graeber argues, meaningful action and understanding ...more
Oct 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Very readable account of Black Bloc / anarchist protest actions in the early 2000s, primarily leading to the Quebec G20 summit of 2000. Consists of Graeber's personal involvement, notes, minutes, and summaries of many public meetings in preparing for the summit; analysis of the nature of non-violence and civil disobedience in America post-1990s (in light of the Zapatistas, Earth First!, and Seattle WTO 1999); detailed thoughts on the consensus decision process as exercised particularly by the Di ...more
Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea
Jesus Fucking Christ! This was a marathon book for me. Took over a year to read with a 6 month break. BUT what wonder--what treasures--what gold!! I love graeber's writing--detailed, to the point, great analysis, interesting perspectives...gah. And here--direct action and anarchism! With his own experiences to highlight both. AND there's some theory at the end! I liked the end and the beginning. The middle gets mushy but that might be because i took a 6 month break and because I recall him talki ...more
Update: This was one of the main books we recommended at Skylight for folks coming looking for a way to think about and understand the Occupy movement. How awesome was it to be able to hand people something with a blow-by-blow account of consensus process in a direct action context? So awesome that I guess the publisher's out of stock and now we're waiting for a reprint.

[From 2008] It's actually finally out! For real! (year and a half late, I think?) Now I just need to find a copy.
Feb 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
An insightful and invigorating glance at activist culture. I read it before it was even done and I couldn't wait for it to come out. I recommended it to many people before it was even published!!!! ...more
Dec 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Extremely dense but great to have such a detailed description of the inner workings of direct action an radical organizing.
Dec 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
One of my favourites, it's not short, but for me at least it had quite an impact on my life. ...more
Sep 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
See other's reviews for a more accurate takeaway.

This book is important for me. I have been considering myself as a passive anarchist for a time now. I am more of a bottom-feeder, content to live underground and feast on the scraps than a come above ground to stir up the Spectacle that drove us underground type. I cannot involve myself in any sort of direct action. Though, through this thorough and thoughtful tome, I better understand the movement.

Graeber's book encapsulates the genius, tedium,
Koen Crolla
Aug 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Graeber gives a good sense of what day-to-day anarchist activism in North America looks like, what direct action is, and—probably unintentionally—how anarchist activists reason themselves out of ever doing it. Despite being sympathetic to it, being an anarchist himself, he paints the North American anarchist activist community as an inward-looking circle-jerk that's about as likely to accomplish immediate tiny goals as liberal protesters (whose tactics, big talk on the part of anarchists aside, ...more
Jun 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
I have to admit that I have to skip some of the ethnographic reports. Although it's important and rigorous, besides the build-up to Quebec and information regarding activist's gestures and lingo in direct action and horizontal consensus meeting, the rest of the ethnographic notes are not engaging enough for me (I really like the exposition of tactics in The Democracy Project though). Anyway, the theoretical analysis of practice, organisation, violence, and imagination is superb, especially the a ...more
Rohan Katpally
Feb 22, 2022 rated it really liked it
Another fantastic book by Graeber, this one focusing on the on-the-ground reality of anarchist and so-called "anti-globalization" movements such as the Zapatistas and other members of People's Global Action (PGA). It's a very long and detailed book, but the narratives are absolutely fascinating.

I would skip Chapter 10 because The Dawn of Everything does a better job of explaining modes of domination and letting our imagination once again become an active force in human history.
May 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Indeed vivid and engaging. I was just taking a look and then couldn't help skimming through the whole book. It gives a very good snapshot of the vitality of Graeber's works. He doesn't just debate with dead voices. He's an event-planner for ongoing social movements- talking to, hearing from, and working with so many many people involved in the movements here and there. ...more
Nov 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Not my favorite Graeber book but still worth the time to read.
Oct 12, 2020 added it
Just read Ch 5: Direct Action, Anarchism, Direct Democracy.

Graeber is infinitely engaging. Hope to come back and read the whole book.



Posted On: December 2, 2020 Posted By: Ed King

Ed King describes how he and his coworkers at a diner have kept each other and customers safe during the pandemic. Servers at this restaurant have been organized with the IWW since 2016. They have refused to file for formal recognition. Instead, workers bargain directly with management on an ongoing basis, addressing issues on the job through direct action.

For a while, it seemed like

To many anarchists, the idea of an “ethnographic study of the global justice movement” may seem problematic. Whether it be matters of security culture or the question of an outsider coming into a culture and telling the rest of the world about them, people I’ve talked to, without knowing Graeber’s work, often seemed skeptical. In Direct Action: an Ethnography, however, David Graeber blurs the false dichotomy between theory and practice by writing both as a
Aug 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist, attempts to create an ethnographic study of the global justice movement. He details the participatory democratic process used by anarchists and radicals in the organization of protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in 2001, and then describes radical culture, examining its arguments, ideas, symbolism, and meeting structure.

While a fascinating read, keep in mind that Graeber's intended audience are people who are relatively new to the movement.
Nov 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
A massive book at 550+ pages. It is a very worthwhile ethnography of 21st century anarchist movements, direct action, and consensus democracy. Fascinating reading full of insights on how these practices of democracy come about in everyday practice rather than through some grand theoretical vision.

My only gripe with the book is that it is too long. It could have been edited a lot tighter, losing perhaps a 100 pages in the process and making the argument a little less repetitive and a little more
Josiah Miller
Feb 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book is a timeless and relevant piece with detailed looks inside meetings and communications that all lead up to and include direct actions. Not only is this informative, but it builds a desire to want to start, support and/or be a part of activist actions. A reaffirmation of the police state and power built on fear. The last chapter on Imagination divulges less from encounters and wages heavily on social theory which really rounds of this engaging book that is open for those interested for ...more
Apr 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
"What is it like being an (anarchist) activist today?"

it all might look a bit (no very) silly to some, but the fun and clumziness testify to the hope and real potential of what these people are doing. In my (very limited) experience, now in Europe, his description is spot on.

A bit of theory here and there (problematic structure for this though), including many things refreshing and with remarkable simplicity/clarity, although it can get a bit tedious at times. Perfect inbetweener when you're rea
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David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist.

On June 15, 2007, Graeber accepted the offer of a lectureship in the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he currently holds the title of Reader in Social Anthropology.

He was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him, and his t

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