This article first appeared in The Anvil Vol 8 No 2, published 14 March 2019.
As more people realise that climate change is happening, and there’s no mainstream political call to stop it, they are starting to look beyond conventional political tactics. Writing to politicians, canvassing for votes and having a protest march from A to B won’t cut it. The peace and environment movements have a long tradition of adopting Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) when other tactics fail, without clarifying just what this means.
It is generally agreed that NVDA attempts to achieve aims by peacefully taking action that either directly reaches the goals or blocks the government or corporation from conducting business-as-usual (BAU). These are very effective tactics. Indeed, it can be seen that a strike is a primary example. Workers withdraw their labour and refuse to conduct BAU until the boss makes an adequate offer. Direct action gets the goods.
In practice, though, there is more to NVDA than meets the eye. While the peace and environment movements in Australia are almost totally united in supporting this approach, there has been much debate around how to go about it. Big campaigns over the Franklin Dam in the 1980s and Jabiluka in the 1990s were riven by conflicts over this issue. With the climate movement gearing up to wage an NVDA campaign to #StopAdani, the MACG believes it’s important to understand NVDA a little better.
Sometimes NVDA really is what it says on the tin. People come together to take action that achieves their goals directly. On other occasions, however, what occurs is Non-Violent “Direct” Action. The participants go through the forms of Direct Action, without the substance. The action is symbolic and the intent is to achieve its aims indirectly, through traditional channels.
Though many examples of such “Direct” Action have occurred in Australia, it is best illustrated by a particularly egregious case in the United States. Democracy Spring is a progressive organisation in the US trying to improve voting rights and limit the ability of rich people to use their money to influence elections – worthy objectives, but very limited ones. In April 2016, this organisation conducted a march from Philadelphia to Washington DC, culminating in a blockade of the Capitol Building, the Parliament House in the US. Over the course of a week, more than 900 people were arrested. An impressive display of Direct Action, it appeared.
Appearances, though, were deceiving. The “blockade” of the Capitol was a highly choreographed affair, conducted in close co-operation with the police. There was no serious attempt to impede access to the building. The arrestees were not even charged, something which would have clogged up the courts. Instead, they were released after paying $50 each to a fund that goes to the Washington DC police. This was “Direct” Action as a mere ritual, a symbol of determination, with the real objective of getting TV coverage that mentioned “a record number of arrests”. It was a media strategy based upon deception.
The difference between NVDA and NV“D”A is usually apparent in the media strategy. In Direct Action, the primary function of the media strategy is to draw more people into the action and to deter State violence. In “Direct” Action, its primary function is to generate mass media attention that affects the mainstream political process. Direct Action empowers the participants, while “Direct” Action treats them as a stage army, to be wheeled on and off according to the judgment of the leadership.
The difference between Direct Action and “Direct” Action can also be seen in their very different treatment by the police. Police in liberal democracies are often quite willing to collaborate with “Direct” Action as a symbolic spectacle, provided everything is negotiated properly beforehand and it is understood that there is no actual attempt to prevent BAU. The police are almost always very hostile to Direct Action. They are the armed thugs of the State and their job is to uphold an unjust social order. Direct Action puts the State in the position of either being forced to concede, or to use police violence to defeat the movement. The larger the Direct Action is, the more violence the State would require and the more it would be discredited by its response, sparking wider resistance. It is thus a challenge to the State, something no police force can tolerate.
Now that Adani have announced they intend to build their coal mine and railway line without borrowing from the banks, the probability of it actually starting work has increased. If the climate movement wants to #StopAdani, it will have to defeat the opposition of the Queensland Government. NVDA will be called for. The movement needs to be clear, though, that “Direct” Action is different from Direct Action.
When a government is firmly in the pocket of the mining companies, it will not be swayed by a few weeks of TV stories showing pictures of people passively sitting and waiting to be taken away by the cops. What is required is a movement that knows the police are the attack dogs of the enemy and they are to be resisted with all the strength and intelligence we can muster. We need a movement that wants to #StopAdani directly, a movement that will create facts on the ground that the Government cannot ignore. And this movement, in challenging the State, will inevitably look beyond it, to a new society with no State and no cops, and where capitalism is no more.
Ablokeimet, given that I’m located at the extreme of the deadbeat end of the anarchist spectrum my unequivocal preference is for Inaction, whether Direct, Indirect or otherwise. Inaction carries with it the definite advantage that one doesn’t stupidly blunder into a confrontation with cops or other violence-prone types — one thus avoids the inconveniences that might result from such an unfortunate encounter. I much rather spend my time in cafes sipping flat whites and reading symbolist poets and existentialist philosophers. Participating in the prosecution of the glorious class struggle just doesn’t float my boat, and I’m supremely aware that this is an abject moral failing on my part. When the revolution erupts, under the leadership of the MACG, I hope that I will be required, as a malingerer and unproductive type, to appear before a tribunal of wise proletarian comrades to have my moral failings enumerated and corrective action recommended.
The MACG will not be leading the Revolution. If we did, we will have failed. The point of an Anarchist Communist group is not to be the Anarchist version of Lenin’s vanguard party, but a vehicle for revolutionaries in the working class struggle to come together, clarify their ideas and return to the struggle with new proposals and arguments.
We believe the contribution of Anarchist Communists is essential, and can only be done properly in an organised manner, but we do not put ourselves forward as leaders. When the Revolution happens (something we consider probable but not certain), organised Anarchist Communists will be a relatively small minority in the mass organs of workers’ democracy and be in no position to direct events. We expect, though, that the contribution of organisations like ours will be vital.
People like Futilitarian will most probably be woken from their cynicism by the mass movement of the workers and the events which bring that about. If not, they will continue to drink coffee & read philosophy in obscurity – though service at their cafe might be interrupted when the baristas go on strike.
Ablokeimet, I can report that there wasn’t a baristas’ strike today. I put this down to the likelihood that baristas, and indeed other cafe staff, haven’t as yet encountered the MACG’s pithy commentaries and recommendations — and I’m certainly not going to introduce them to any. I want my table service to proceed unimpeded.
On another matter entirely — that of the name of the MACG’s newsletter, The Anvil. While it may have been a fairly catchy title back in 1840, when anvils and smithies were everywhere to be seen, these days the name is but an anachronism that is unlikely to attract the attention of proletarians who might otherwise be hungry for meaning in their miserable, exploited lives. For this reason I’d like to suggest a name change that will take account of developments in the means of production since 1840 and thus make the newsletter appear more relevant to today’s modern proletarian. My suggestion is that you rename it The Robot. It’s up-to-date in terms of technical change and it gives a good clue as to the existential condition of people under a future anarchist communist society.
We don’t expect a mass strike of baristas in the near future (it’s something much more likely in the immediate run-up to the Revolution), but more surprising things have happened. On the question of the name of our newsletter, there is a political point to it.
The name is meant to convey two things. Firstly, that our basic theoretical perspective is class struggle Anarchism, as distinct from the militant liberalism that is so prevalent masquerading as Anarchism in English speaking countries today. Secondly, that our orientation is to the working class and not to the peasantry. The land question has been resolved in advanced capitalist countries through the abolition of the peasantry and thus absorbed into the general question of capitalism.
Is the image anachronistic? To an extent, yes, but not so much as to render it unintelligible in the same sense as the hammer & sickle have been. In the event our group grows to the size that allows us to publish something more frequent & a little larger, we will consider replacing The Anvil with something of a more contemporary name.
I agree, Ablokeimet, that it’s important to point out that the MACG orients towards the working class and not the peasantry, even though Australia has never had a peasantry, and the peasantry in Europe, with the exception of Russia, ceased to exist by 1848. Many utopian anarchists, as we know, walk around with their heads stuck in the 1840s so it’s important to set them straight.
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