Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: Direct Action by David Graeber

Usually when someone asks me to recommend them some literature to explain contemporary anarchist actions I recommend David Graeber's idiosyncratically-titled "On The Phenomenology Of Giant Puppets: broken windows, imaginary jars of urine, and the cosmological role of the police in American culture".  But for a reader who wants a more complete picture, I will henceforth advise him or her to read a work I just completed, Graeber's Direct Action: An Ethnography, which is far more exhaustive (and, indeed, includes the "Puppets" piece, more or less, as part of the Representation chapter).

In Direct Action, David Graeber immerses the reader in the world of anarchist political practice.  Part of the book is analysis of the phenomenon and part is a personal diary of consensus meetings, events leading up to actions and the actions themselves.  As someone who has been in plenty of long consensus meetings, etc., I found the personal narrative tedious -- I was almost ready to put the book down after the first four chapters of storytelling.  The only thing worse than boring meetings is having to read, in exacting detail, about others' boring meetings!  However, the subsequent chapters pick up, even if Graeber relapses into a first-person history on occasion.  On the other hand, I can see how this painstaking diary might be useful to someone completely unfamiliar with contemporary anarchism.

Chapter five begins Graeber's analysis with discussions of direct action, anarchist principles, Primitivism, violence and nonviolence and ends with a brief history of the American Left since 1960.  Graeber notes, as he has elsewhere, that "Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy; anarchism, an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice." (211)

Chapter six is probably the most interesting section of the book, where Graeber focuses a microscope on "activist culture."  He opens with a critique by an organizer named Ranjanit that anarchism's charmed culture (veganism, dumpster diving, punk/hippie aesthetic, etc.) is preventing anarchists from establishing connections with a more diverse population.  Graeber counters by asking whether it is unreasonable for an anti-capitalist movement to build an anti-capitalist culture that may be somewhat inscrutable to outsiders.  Graeber develops Ranjanit's argument by noting many consider direct action and direct democracy, for various reasons, forms of white privilege.  Graber comments that racial issues are the "bane of all radical politics in North America," but the essential, not necessarily racial, dilemma remains that "Always, those on the bottom, who have the most reason to want to challenge such inequalities, will also tend to have the most restricted range of weapons at their disposal with which to do so." (245)  Stated another way: "In any revolutionary movement, there will tend to be a tension between those who have the most resources with which to carry out acts of rebellion, and those who have the most reason to rebel." (280)

Graeber continues in chapter six to address who the "typical activist" is.  Amidst noting the more minor elements -- crusty-punks as an object of hatred/romanticization, etc. -- Graeber classifies the "activist core" as "post-students" (247): those who may still be students, but who have not entered professional / child-caring life yet.  In regards to class: "Speaking broadly, it seems to me activist milieus can best be seen as a juncture, a kind of meeting place, between downwardly mobile elements of the professional classes and upwardly mobile children of the working class." (252-253)  In the chapter he also muses on the difference between punks and hippies; communist freedom as, in contemporary terms, being a "perpetual adolescent" (256); the activist emphasis on touching, cigarettes and drugs; a culture of weakness attracting those with ailments real or imagined; etc.  The last bit of the chapter is largely guided by conceptualizing the problem of how to synthesize the revolt against alienation and the revolt against oppression as a "dilemma... that leads to the endless tensions and recriminations that haunt activist life." (262)

Chapter seven deals with the topic of consensus meetings which, Graeber writes, "unlike voting, is not just a way of making decisions.  It's a process." (318)  Consensus means, in part, "not acting like one does at work, not acting like a member of a sectarian Marxist group, and not engaging in the sort of debate that dominates the Internet." (321)  However, it has its weaknesses: "Where it falls short is precisely where it encounters what activists would call deeply internalized forms of oppression.  Racism, sexism, class bias, homophobia." (287)  Graeber provides a helpful framing for thinking about this problem:
There are other techniques for getting around [the problem of internalized oppression in meetings], even if none are entirely reliable.  One is to encourage constant introspection.  Hence, the insistence in the meeting that we should all be doing vibes work all the time.  The danger of dealing with deeply internalized forms of privilege is that one can fall into endless psychologism -- "touchy-feely race discourse," some activists would call it -- that everything becomes profoundly personalized.  In the absence of any authoritative, overarching ideology, one ends up with a kind of endless encounter group of personal narratives and subjectivities.  To avoid this, some anarchists insisted on constantly bringing matters back to practical, action terms.  Some for example, preferred not to use the terms "racism or "sexism" at all.  Rather than trying to combat abstractions like racism, they reframed the problem as one of "white supremacy," as an immediate practical problem: how do we ensure that white people don't dominate this group?  Like male dominance, white supremacy was not an ideology that comes to shape consciousness, but an outcome.  The assumption is that by working in groups that do not operate on principles of white supremacy, racism itself can be unlearned.  This seems the solution most in keeping with the overall principles of the movement, but it does sometimes seem to present one with the problem of the chicken and the egg. (353-354)
The next chapter, "Actions," provides the "rules of the game" for various actions that anarchists are wont to undertake.  Graeber covers protest marches, picket lines, street parties, classic civil disobedience, and black bloc actions.  He concludes with noting how state power is likely to, and does, react to these events.  The following chapter, "Representation," focuses on the corporate media, how unfair it is to protesters and anarchists, and efforts to set up independent media to provide an alternative media voice.

In the final chapter, Graeber declares "We are, effectively, already in a situation of permanent revolution.  Freedom becomes the struggle itself." (527)  In one of the terminal passages, he opines: "The anarchist problem remains how to bring [a liberated] experience, and the imaginative power that lies behind it, into the daily lives of those outside the small autonomous bubbles they have already been able to create." (537)  The last chapter is the one (aside from the personal-narrative chapters) I enjoyed the least, as Jodi Dean's critiques of anarchism kept ringing in my head throughout it.

Graeber's work is an excellent freeze-frame of activism and anarchism as it exists today.  Even if it is redundant and even taxing at times, it does so in order to ensure comprehensiveness.  Unfortunately, there is little in the book to suggest how to transcend the quagmires that plague anarchist practice.  But Graeber might be forgiven here as his primary intention is description, not prescription.

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