Direct Action: A Reminder

I have been research and reading and learning about anarchism for four years. I have a sociology and philosophy degree where we barely touched on Marx but never anarchist thinkers: Proudhon, Bakunin, Goldman, Kropotkin… These are all profound sociological and philosophical juggernauts that I never met in my 5-year undergrad. I am not surprised. As they say, the masters will never teach you the tools to overthrow them.

In my time learning about anarchist theory and practice, a common thread that comes up time and again is that of “direct action”,  a term that is used in different social and political movements describing “a form of protest in which those taking part seek to achieve their goals through direct, often physical, action, rather than through negotiation or discussion”. (source)

You want shit done? You do it yourself.

Although, in some ways, that statement isn’t entirely true.

Direct action isn’t just about immediate action. Immediate action is about getting to the source of the problem and implementing a solution yourself. Building homes, feeding the hungry, sourcing clean water—these are all examples of immediate direct action.

But there are other types of direct action that still put the onus on other people (normally those in power) to make the changes required because most of us don’t have the authority or means to make change under electoral democracy. Blockades, sit-ins, protests, boycotts—these are all considered direct action because it’s still you taking the action to disrupt systems, ideally enough for politicians to be forced into meeting your demands.

Different types of direct action have been used throughout history, including labor movements, civil rights movements, environmental movements, anti-war movements, and anarchist movements, among others. Direct action is an important strategy for grassroots organizing and social movement efforts because it empowers people to make change.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this difference between the types of direct action. I’ve been thinking about all the protests and boycotts and wondering if they’ve provided an easy out for those of us who exist comfortably in colonial capitalist culture. Hear me out…

(For the sake of clarity, I will refer to direct action of this type as (in)direct action, in contrast with immediate action.)

There are a few problems with (in)direct action:

It still relies on politicians and people with political power to make the changes that are demanded.

I was recently listening to Ross Reid speak about the Fairy Creek Blockade on the For the Wild podcast, and as he explores the government’s reaction to Canada’s largest act of civil disobedience in recent years, the solutions are a bit wanting.

“And they are doing things in the realm of, like, supporting Indigenous nations and taking control of their land back their land and resources and working with those who have chosen to defer logging on their territories to create sustainable ways to protect those forests into the future. It’s amazing, but it’s still just like a sliver.

Like, for example, in October, the province of British Columbia announced that they would give 300 million to sustaining these nations who chose to defer logging on their territory for the next—I think it’s a 10 year thing, so $300 million for 10 years. Meanwhile, the province still subsidizes [the] companies, private and public companies, that do clear cut logging on these lands $365 million every year.

So it’s like, yes, it’s great that you’re supporting Indigenous, like, landback and sovereignty and giving them access again to the resources that you stole from them 150 years ago, but you’re still, also, still allowing the system to continue as it is.”

Ross Reid, full transcript here

As he explains, there’s no accountability. We’ve seen it time and again with governments. They make statements and promises so that people will go back to business as usual and there’s no follow-through. Plans change or the target is too far out for anyone to experience any real change. Asking a politician to do something for you is kind of like asking a toddler. They’re going to say yes to your face, but the likelihood of it actually getting done in the way that it should get done is slim to none.

It fails to address the root causes.

In most cases of civil disobedience, people are fighting against something—some injustice or corruption. But rarely are they fighting for a solution. In most of these cases of (in)direct action, the change that people are calling for has nothing to do with the root of the issue itself.

In the case of Fairy Creek, the demand was to stop the logging of old-growth forests—an important and worthy action, to be sure! But as Ross Reid and host Ayana Young identify in the aforementioned podcast, there’s more complexity to the situation that needs to be addressed. We all use wood every day. It builds our homes and our furniture. It provides heat for us in the cold weather. We use the wood from those trees for thousands of commodities that we consume every day.

Unless we talk about the consumption of those commodities, how we build and heat our homes, and the massive throw-away culture in which we live, we will need to keep cutting down trees indefinitely. This isn’t to say that saving the old growth isn’t immensely important; it is saying that we need both: saving the old growth and curbing our consumption. It’s relatively easy to condemn cutting down beautiful, life-giving forests. It’s much harder to reject a culture built on consumption when we are all struggling to get by.

It distracts us from making real, tangible change.

You know what’s better than (in)direct action? Immediate action! I know that there are some issues (like Fairy Creek, like Palestine) where people like you and I have very little direct action available to us that will result in actual change. Boycotts and protests, community art installations, and sharing on social media—these are all still important actions in this instance.

But did you know that many of these huge injustices are similar to local problems that desperately need people like you to take immediate action? There are people in your community who are living in poverty, single parents who need support, and probably development happening that is cutting down forests in your backyard. There are actions that you can take to support those people. Your time and energy are invaluable in solving these problems.

And while they may not feel connected, in many ways they have the same source.

Participating in (in)direct action is important, valuable, and empowering. But after sharing the posts on socials or going to that protest, don’t forget that you can also do a coat drive for your local shelter, raise money for a family that just lost their job, host a clothing swap in an underserved neighbourhood, or install a community fridge at a local store. These types of actions can have a direct impact on the people in your community, as well as help build the type of community in which you want to live. Immediate action can also have a much more direct line of success because there’s no gatekeeping by politicians (although sometimes you do have to watch out for the police…).

The moral of the story here isn’t to dissuade you from taking any type of direct action; it’s all important! But it is a reminder that (in)direct action isn’t enough. Time and again, politicians have shown us that their job is to uphold the system, not improve it.

That responsibility, friends, is left squarely on us.


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