Changing the way we think of Direct Action

The following essay is a subjective consideration of where the anarchist/direct action movement is and where, I feel, it might go.

From Black Flag #222 (2002).

Submitted by Fozzie on February 6, 2021

Nothing here is meant to be seen as a concrete text but rather one person's reflections on the movement. It is essentially broken into two parts. The first is a consideration of class, looking at working-class dual power and the (perceived) failures of current direct action tactics and the second is a 'proposal' for how we could move forward. I don't expect people to necessarily agree with what I've written but I do hope it might provide 'food for thought' for others in the activist community and perhaps trigger some debate about the future.

Despite the post-modernist arguments against an historical 'grand narrative', Foucault's atomisation of 'power' and individualist/subjectivist arguments, which seem to be at the forefront of much of the direct action movement, I would argue that class is our primary site of subjugation and therefore should be the main focus for struggle. Although class has traditionally been a dominant thread running through the anarchist movement it has in recent times been hijacked by direct action fetishists. Apparently activism and revolutionary struggle are now defined through identity politics: 'We 'do' direct action and are therefore revolutionary anarchists'.

Anarchism and activism have been reduced to pure spectacle; we have our annual Mayday gala for the masses and we engage with general consciousness only when a brick engages with glass or police engage with demonstrators.

Although class is the key narrative I would argue that we need to re-think class dynamics and to move away from seeing the working class as a universal entity. We have essentially seen the death of the 19th century concept of the middle-class. Rather, globally, we have a ruling class, a working class, and a 'consumer-working' class. The distinction between the working class and the consumer-working class is essentially the distinction between the working class in the south for whom the factory is still the key site of oppression and the 'bought-off' working classes of the first world countries.

Obviously, there are managerial roles, distinct from the working class, that can be defined as 'middle-class'. However, we must acknowledge the contradiction that although this group clearly does not produce surplus value (Marx's definition of the working class) it is not in control of capital and is clearly an alienated class (whilst also being an alienating class). So how should we define this group; by the reality of their exploitation or as another form of social controllers along with the police and army etc.? At the end of the day, as class antagonisms reach crisis point the middle class, like members of all classes, will be forced to declare allegiance to one or the other side of the class divide; there can be no 'third way' in a revolutionary situation.

I will now return to the 'consumer-working-class'. With the expansion of industrialisation and the increasing need of capital to encourage consumption a new 'ideologically oppressed' class was created; a class that is alienated by the "conditioning that leads [them] to choose [commodities] and the ideology in which they are wrapped"1 . The distinction between the two classes is simply the distinction between their primary modes of alienation. The third world worker is primarily alienated from the mode of production whilst the consumer-worker is primarily alienated from the mode of consumption.

This is in no way to suggest that the consumer-worker is not alienated as a worker, but simply to distinguish what I see as the primary forms of alienation. Clearly the first world worker is alienated at the point of production; meaningless work and the atomisation of the individual from 'community' are of huge importance. However, I am arguing a distinction between primary and secondary modes of alienation; the bombardment of images and the alienation of some unattainable 'perfect' consumer life are at the forefront of people's sense of alienation. As Marx states in the Grundrisse:

"what precisely distinguishes capital from the master-servant relation is that the worker confronts [capital] as consumer and possessor of exchange values, and that in the form of the possessor of money, in the form of money he becomes a simple center of circulation – one of its infinitely many centers, in which his specificity as worker is extinguished."2

This point is further reinforced by Camatte, who states that: "One of the modalities of the re-absorption of the revolutionary power of the proletariat has been to perfect its character as consumer, thus catching it in the mesh of capital. The proletariat ceases to be the class that negates; after the formation of the working class it dissolves into the social body...."3

This 'extinguishment' of the worker is much sharper in the west and it was upon this consumerism and 'spectacle' that the Situationists quite rightly focused their attention. Where I disagree with the Situationists is that they focus their analysis on this 'consumer class' at the cost of the global south. Their 'Revolution of Everyday Life', the liberation of self, would, if achieved in isolation, be bought on the backs of the rest of the global working-class. The reality is that no revolution is going to take hold until the means of production are in the hands of the masses.

The question is how we unite these two components of the working class. We need to realise the conjunction of consumer/worker; understand that they are one and the same. My key argument is that the battle to transform society will have two fronts. Firstly, the struggle of the workers in the global south will be driven primarily by the material necessities of their exploitation. Although I am primarily talking about the factory workers of the south, I do include the struggle for land (such as the Zapatistas, Indian farmers etc.) as I would argue that the Marxist distinction between peasant and working class is now, if not before, a false distinction. The fights for both the factory and the farm are a fight to control the means of production.

For those of us in the west the 'vacuity of everyday life' will be the main battleground. It will be an ideological battle in which we must primarily fight the fragmentation of social relations (family, community etc.) and the paucity of a co-modified life.

For the global north, the focus must be the emancipation of community life, the development of civil dual power structures and the coupling of this with workplace struggles.

We have now touched on the key element of this article, Dual Power. The 'Dual Power Strategy' is based on the idea of not waiting until a post-revolutionary period to develop post-revolutionary social forms.

We should aim to create an infrastructure that undermines and eventually leads to the erosion of the dominant power structure.

The key premise is that "a successful revolution can only be made by actively empowered and prepared people, dynamic in their commitment to radical change (not just supporting it), and acting within a pre-established structure for making a new society in the ruins of the old."4 Dual power is perhaps one of the only ways to counter vanguardism as it is about the development of horizontal structures NOW, and thus empowering people in a pre-revolutionary society to build a revolution. However, beyond being purely a revolutionary strategy it is also a practical alternative in the here and now. As Dominick says, whether the insurrection happens in the next decade or takes three more generations to occur, we can create revolutionary circumstances now, and we can exercise power to the greatest possible extent. Dual power recognises that waiting until after the insurrection to participate in liberatory political and economic relationships means postponing our liberation; it is as senseless as waiting until after the insurrection to begin reorganising society. We do not require that the state and capitalism collapse before we can begin living relatively free lives....

The great task of grassroots dual power is to seek out and create social spaces and fill them with liberatory institutions and relationships. Where there is room for us to act for ourselves, we form institutions conducive not only to catalysing revolution, but also to the present conditions of a fulfilling life, including economic and political self-management to the greatest degree achievable. We seek not to seize power, but to seize opportunity viz a viz the exercise of our power.

"Finally,...while a post-insurrectionary society which has generally surpassed the contradictions indicated by the term 'dual power' is the eventual goal of this strategy, the creation of alternative social infrastructure is a desirable end in itself. Since we have no way of predicting the insurrection.... [w]e should liberate space, for us and future generations, in the shadow of the dominant system, not only from which to build a new society, but within which to live freer and more peaceful lives today."5

The question is how do we achieve a dual power structure? I would argue that there are essentially four key areas that we need to focus on to achieve the goal of a dual power structure and ultimately the potential for revolution. Social centres, Community activism, Workplace and Social forums (regional, national, international). I will be looking at all of these in more detail below. Before doing so however, I should expand on why I feel that these goals can't be achieved through the current forms of direct action i.e. those acts done by what has become a professional activist elite. 'Anarchist' groups are essentially cliques, an activist caste with no real connection to a wider community. Although, the desire to act is completely understandable, I have two main concerns with these small 'activist gangs'.

Where small actions once succeeded, especially in the 80's and 90's, this was, unfortunately, through media impact. Direct action was an exciting way of communicating an issue to a wider range of people. Now we are in a period in which we essentially have a media blackout on protest and dissent, therefore the impact of these smaller actions is greatly limited. So my first problem is simply this, without visibility these go no way towards building a larger movement as they have now become almost invisible.

Secondly, although these actions can and do successfully stop the machine for a limited time, often causing legitimate economic damage; without mass support they don't bring the machine to a complete halt. Activism has become almost nothing more than a fetish for 'action' and as such will never supersede the capitalist mode of production.

This is not to say that I argue for inaction. In the following I hope to show where I think the tactics developed and built on by this movement can be used to greater effect in a wider social context. Also, I am not arguing that such actions should stop. The fact that they can and often do slow down the machine of capitalism, if only for a short time, validates them. Anything that throws a spanner in the works is a good thing. I am however, arguing for a change of emphasis.

Social Centres

Social centres are developing throughout the UK at the moment. Social centres such as the Radical Dairy and the embryonic Social Centres Network offer an insight into the potential of using social centres as a physical base for Dual Power Strategies.

The social centres are the physical manifestation of a living social network. They are also a return to localism, with an internationalist perspective, as opposed to the internationalist approach that constantly talks up localism, as we seem to have lived through in the last couple of years.

Social centres can act as individual 'community nodes' linked to other nodes regionally, nationally and eventually globally. A strong social network should aim to undermine community reliance and deference to state infrastructure and encourage greater self, and community, reliance. Once people have confidence in their own potential, revolutionary change becomes a real possibility.

How does a social centre try to achieve this? I think it is a two- tiered process. Firstly, it is about the creation of a social base built around general community identity. Providing child-care, free English lessons and yoga do bring people to a social centre, however these should not become primary aims of the centre. Filling a space with a week of handicraft or 'self-help' workshops is not revolutionary.

Social centres must focus on all aspects of life. We must try and engage in everything in a non-hierarchical way, developing a sense of working class autonomy. A social centre should be built around the uniting factors of the community both positive and negative. By negative I mean the community-wide struggle to get your kids a teacher, to defend asylum seekers, get decent housing etc.

Positive community attributes might be supporting local writers and positive social, cultural forums. The social life of the centres shouldn't be all activism based; it should be both celebratory and confrontational. My main criticism of the Dairy, for example, is that in the first 6-months it focused on DJ workshops, yoga and the like. Although much was done regarding 'Hackney not for sale' it always seemed secondary to the 'café nights'.

Some have argued that simply squatting a space is a political act and yes reclaiming space for people and highlighting the lack of community space is political, but only in a liberal, reformist capacity. For a social centre to be revolutionary it must offer revolutionary potential, not just through an anarchist library but also through anarchist-inspired action.

Some have criticised both Carnivalistas and Emmaz for attempting to purchase a space for social centres, and it can be argued that this is a liberal response to community activism. Purchasing property clearly maintains capitalist social relations and does not supersede rent.

However, this should also be weighed against the fact that the vast majority of the community will not be as comfortable entering a squat as their first foray into Social Centres. We are bought up with images of 'squats' as essentially the last refuge of the down and out. There is also the issue of the security of the space and the fact that it should prove much more difficult for the police to oust people from an owned location compared with the vagaries of squatting a space.

Although the ultimate goal is clearly to refute the capitalist system we need to engage with as many people as we possibly can and argue for social change, by isolating ourselves in our own community (i.e. the activist community), which is often what a squatted space does, we are not building a movement, we are building a sect.

Social centres should also be a space for 'education' a possibly contentious issue, which I will address below.

Social Centre Network

We must also try to build a network of social centres. A strong network would allow us to act in a local, national and international capacity and would prevent the social centres from becoming isolated phenomena.

A hundred individual social centres are not as strong as a hundred- strong social network so a lot of emphasis needs to be put on forming links with similar social networks.

Again, this shouldn't be about simply linking the social centres created by anarchists or designed with some purist anarchist vision. We should try and encourage grass roots community spaces to become part of this network. The goal is to encourage horizontal organising and the creation of participatory community structures. This won't be achieved by simply creating new spaces and encouraging people to get involved in the centre, it will however (in conjunction with creating new spaces) happen when we engage with already existing spaces.

But, what is the role of the social centre network? Firstly as the name implies it should be a network allowing all social centres to engage in planning and put forward new initiatives etc. The sharing of limited resources, solidarity through periods when things aren't looking very good etc.

However, I feel that it should go much further than this. I feel that it needs to become a focal point for Community Social Forums, something grander than Mayday 2002's flawed Festival of Alternatives, which did little more than offer lifestyle tips to activists.

What we need to do is take the lessons learnt from PGA and GSF (and ESF) forums and localise them using the social centres as physical locations for social engagement. Encouraging the diverse community groups to come together to map out a vision for the community. In a sense such networking should almost be a daily occurrence in the social centre however I would also envisage quarterly formal weekends as specified 'Community Social Forums' for planning projects across a region and finding ways to improve and consolidate gains already made.

These local PGA/SF's should become the building blocks for larger national and international forums.

Community Activism

Activist groups have achieved a number of exciting things, from cutting down GM crops, to street parties to shutting down corporate institutions to the good old pie in the face.

However, I believe that there is something missing from many of these events - i.e. a social base to build, strengthen and expand. Over the years these activist groups have become essentially professionalised activist bodies. These are the people that 'do' activism.

The tactics are often brilliantly executed; however, they often fall down through their lack of community support.

Activists would be much better served, rather than forming more 'action' groups, by joining community groups that already exist and arguing for the use of direct action tactics as opposed to the usual lobbying of government. Activists should be arguing for horizontal structures in all groups. The way to an anarchist society is not by getting everyone to join the local anarchist cell but by encouraging lived anarchism, 'anarchy through the deed'. If a number of anarchists in an area where each working in a different community group highlighting different issues there would be a much wider expansion of anarchist ideas than by waiting for people to join your group.

This is not about leading these groups, co-opting or stampeding ideas through, in fact it is the opposite. The small professional anarchist direct action groups are much more vanguardist in approach than this, which aims to broaden and encourage anarchist ideas.

We need to broaden the movement out, tackle unique issues in unique ways and not selling a party line. We shouldn't offer solutions to these community groups but we can suggest operating methods and practices that may lead to dual power structures.

Of course, one criticism of this is that we would lose the networking of direct action skills that were gained through numerous activist networks. However, as I hope to discuss in the following section a network of educational projects for anarchists would hopefully counter such problems.

The London Underground could for example become a skill-sharing event and a way to see how other activists are working in different groups as well. It could be used as a forum to try and link community struggles.

We must also remember that 'activists' too are a community and therefore, as a group, we need out own spaces for interacting and networking. London Underground, coupled with the social centre network and with the 'educational' element I put forward later, would be a strong challenging move forward for the anarchist movement and anarchism itself.

As Dominick argues:

"it is not only important to build the foundation of the new society, but also to diminish the strength and capacity of the old system. We must first make space within the dominant system in order to have room in which to build society anew. Therefore, not only must we form alternative institutions, but also counter institutions... to resist and assault the status quo."6

"The vital element of this is that these not be ghettoised activist groups but activist inspired community groups. The social can be a location for the development of both the foundations of a new society and the destruction (or at least educate people on the paucity of
capitalist structures) of the old"7 Education

The discussion of 'education' can be broken into two separate sections. Firstly, we need to consider internal 'anarchist' education and secondly, the broadening out of anarchist and social issues.

Whether we like it or not, we must acknowledge that activists are a professional community with specialised skills. As a community we aspire to have the broadest understanding of the society in which we live and to find ways to change the system under which we live. Leninist groups discuss the 'party' in terms of being the 'memory of the working class'. For groups such as Militant Tendency the party "will be scientifically conscious and permanently organised for the proletarian class struggle, the regular army of the class, which en masse can only approach revolutionary consciousness in sharp periods of crisis, and even then not permanently, not scientifically."8 This contempt for the capacity of the working class to engage with political ideas is, for Leninists, a justification of top-down 'socialism'. In a sense we as activists are the 'memory' for we specialise in analysing and understanding oppression. The key distinction is that, far from wishing to maintain a monopoly of information, anarchists aim to push this information out as far as possible.

Firstly, we as a community need to continue to learn. I suggest that we need to spend more time developing analysis. Not only of contemporary political issues but aiming for an historical perspective we also need to learn of old tactics and develop tactics for now.

Beyond simply consuming information we should aim to develop the skills to write propaganda and texts that reflect the political situation in our locale. Reading/Discussion groups should be seen as an important part of developing a social movement.

The skills gained in such group are clearly transferable to our engagement with community groups. This is the second part of the educational aims.

Of course, 'activists' as a clique will never have all the information. Apparent expertise does not in any way override the immediacy of alienation that people feel (rather than read). Unlike the orthodox Marxist approach we must realise that our (activist) community has got a lot to offer the wider community however, all of the numerous 'communities' that make up the wider community have something to offer to the struggle.

What our community can offer is to develop dual power structures - reaching out to the largest number of people in the community in both a practical physical way and in an ideological way. Arguing for practical solutions is a key to developing.

We should aim to develop anarchist forums, similar in concept to Marxist Forums, Marxism and the Globalise Resistance events. At the moment, the Anarchist Bookfair is perhaps our closest equivalent to Marxism; it is one of the largest events on the anarchist calendar.

There is also the Earth First gathering and other conferences. What we are lacking however is regionalized, regular events well publicised (fly-posting, leaflets, internet etc.). Not the large spectaculars but something much more low-key.


Although I argued in my introduction that the primary site of struggle for workers in the global north is community based, this is in no way to suggest we should ignore workers struggle. We should aim to build links between work-place struggles and community struggle. To highlight the commonality of issues faced at home and at work and to emphasise the need for horizontal organisational structures in the workplace. Anarcho-syndicalism is the obvious place to start when considering workplace organising.

I won't pursue this to any great extent, if only because the reality of the 'direct action' movement is that is has no strong connection with the workplace in this country and is therefore much better placed to focus on community based issues.

International Perspective

Another potential problem of the above suggestions is that it could be seen as a step backwards to the single-issue-ism of the 1980's and early 1990's. It was, of course, with the realisation that the single- issue campaigns had a common enemy in capitalism that the anti- capitalist movement was born. However, through numerous activists deciding to focus on the abstract concept of 'capitalism' as an issue in itself many of the smaller victories of the single-issue campaigns were lost.

Clearly, focusing on single issues and gaining small victories can be seen as reformist, liberal or somehow not enough. It is the anarchist fear of being seen as reformist that often prevents us as a movement making any victories at all. The gains of higher wages, better working conditions, environmental victories, the asylum seeker that is entitled to stay in the country etc. are 'reforms' worth fighting for.

If we aren't willing to make the world as good as possible today we will never have the courage as a movement to really transform society. I for one am happy to live with the label of reformist if it means I, and others like me, have a higher standard of living. An abstract 'revolutionary vision' is no less an opiate than religion.

Whilst focusing on local issues, single-issue campaigns etc., we must ensure that we don't lose the larger perspective. We must ensure that the international perspective is kept alive. This can be done in a number of ways. Firstly, I think it is important to start with the concrete things in people’s lives and make the abstract leaps to the nature of capitalism rather than the other way around. Mobilising people to shut down a G8 summit should be based firstly on the lived experiences of people and then on the broader international perspective.

Personally, I feel that the activist community has in recent times focused on these things in the opposite way. We expect people to first come to a large confrontational demonstration and then go back to their communities somehow radicalised. The real answer is to radicalise people in their communities. Then, when they go to a mass action they are already strong, confident and aware and not able to be led.

Another way of keeping an international perspective at the forefront is to possibly try 'partnering' campaigns. For example, it is possible that a campaign against the closure of a hospital in London could be 'partnered' with a campaign to prevent a hospital closure in Ghana. This would have the dual effect of allowing both communities to appreciate that these issues are international that 'the working class have no country' and that the same institutions (IMF, World Bank etc.) that are responsible for the misery of the global South are equally eroding the gains made in the 'rich' North. It also has the practical advantage of allowing groups to learn from the experiences of others to develop more effective strategies.

At all times we need to break down barriers between disparate communities, show people that they are not alone - that their fight is our fight - that together we can make positive inroads against capitalism. 'Partnering' campaigns are also about internationalising mutual aid and finding ways around corporate/governmental programmes to achieve real gains.


Although many activists are already working in the way I've outlined above, and nothing I've written may be particularly new or innovative, I feel it is important to at least engage in debate about these things, to ensure that we don't get lost in our own backwaters, isolated as a non-movement that only engages with other activists and is alienated from grass roots campaigns and more importantly from our class, which is how I've often felt as an activist.

We need to constantly challenge ourselves and re-evaluate both ourselves as individuals and as a movement. Hopefully this is seen not as a prescriptive text but more of a questioning of direction.

Clayton E

  • 1Vaneigem, R. 2001. 'The Revolution of Everyday Life'. Rebel Press, London. p. 85
  • 2Marx, K. quoted in Camatte, J. 'Decline of the Capitalist Mode of Production or Decline of Humanity?'.
  • 3Camatte, J. 'Decline of the Capitalist Mode of Production or Decline of Humanity?'.
  • 4Dominick, BA. 'An Introduction to Dual Power Strategy'.
  • 5op. cit
  • 6op. cit
  • 7op. cit
  • 8Lever, R., Semp, P. and Matgamna, S. 1966. 'What we are and what we must become: A critique of the politics and perspectives of the Militant Tendency' Section 2.