What is Power? pt. 3: Direct Action as Grounds For Thought

Published online 29 July 2009.

The writing of this diary was inspired in part by mwmwm’s jeremiad of Monday.  The point is this: the future is cathected negatively because our institutions have failed to catch up with the real future unfolding before our eyes.

Thus institution-based actions are often ineffective.  Direct action approaches to social problems, however, offer the immediate replacement of power lost through institution-based strategies of “triangulation.”  In relying upon bourgeois, capitalist government in a neoliberal era, we sell out our ideals to that government’s raison d’etre.  Thus anarchist direct action (in such a context) suggests grounds for further thought about methods of political problem-solving (and redress for lost human rights), even for progressives.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Two more recent diaries suggest my narrative here.  There was OPOL’s return to Orange, in which he suggests that there really isn’t a lot here to count as a “victory for progressives.”  Oh, sure, we may yet pull one out of the fire on health care, but don’t hold your breath.  And then there was Budhydharma’s thing on “Republican/ Blue Dog America,” in which he details the Republican ethos:

In Republican/Blue Dog America, only one thing matters, power.

This is the thing, though.  Power is what matters in politics.  I’ve said this before.  If we hope to triumph against the Republican and Blue Dog machines, we’ve got to have power, or at least some sort of power of our own with which to fight their power.  Pleading before the Emperor (“Keep those calls and letters coming!”) may acquire a bit of traction (I honestly don’t know if it does or doesn’t), but it won’t substitute for power of our own.

The question, though, is one of how we can get power.  Now, in pt. 2 I suggested three strategies for having some power of our own:

  1.  Get educated.  And by education, here, I meant education in resistance — education that tells us to stop disempowering ourselves.
  1.  Minimize your community’s reliance upon the money economy.  The problem with money is that the people who print it (the government, the banks) are not our friends, and that the former has already set in motion plans to print $12.8 trillion in money to satisfy the lust for power of the latter.  Money is at core a claim upon wage labor, and we want to free wage labor for other purposes than to merely follow the orders of those who print the money.
  1.  Create a society for yourselves.  What I was pointing to, here, was the idea of autonomy — of creating a place for yourself in the world so that enormous corporate powers can’t mess with you in the ways in which they’d like to do so.  This can start with real, communal institutions, but it also starts with real friendships, the type of friendships in which we support each other even when times are tough.

Now, I know and respect the fact that this site attracts visitors who are familiar with the ways of traditional political organizing (canvassing, phone banking, and so on).  If I didn’t respect that, I wouldn’t have been here since ’06.  And I’m sure that all of those skills will be necessary in opposing the “Baucus Bill” once it becomes apparent to all that Baucus will be handing the store to his insurance industry buddies while stiffing the rest of us with an onerous head tax.  But here I would like to broaden the idea of activism by describing a number of forms of taking power which other people have tried.  Much of this activity (and other creative ideas) can be discovered through contact with anarchist presses or through one’s local Indymedia cooperative.  These activities, in general, promote the “create a society for yourselves” imperative described above.  Each of you, dear readers, is endowed with free will — you may interpret what you read below, any way you want, come to your own conclusions, and act in the way which suits you best.

Now, I’m not going to endorse anarchist philosophy here.  I do not take any position on the standard anarchist complaint on “authoritarian Marxism” — if we really were to have a revolution here in the US, or (better yet) in the world as a whole, such a revolution would probably follow its own course, without consulting beforehand with Marxists or anarchists or progressives or your local cop or any other particular group of people.  And I don’t see how one is going to get rid of government in this day and age, although I can see how it would be possible to do so.

Moreover, I do not advocate that anyone actually do any of the things suggested here.  Since the FBI is watching us already, (as Homeland Security watches those of us with the wrong ethnicities) we do not wish to arouse their further suspicion of our ability to think freely.  What I am suggesting, however, is that ideas of direct action ought to be understood by people who otherwise claim to be of a wide variety of different political stripes.

Moreover, the conversation started here will only be preliminary — if there are future things to be added to it by me, I will do so with a What Is Power? Pt. 4 diary at some future point.  I want to start with simple things, things which illustrate the general principle of direct action: people will take matters into their own hands when fundamental human rights are at stake.

I want to start with a discussion of Food Not Bombs, as this is the form of direct action with which I am most familiar.  The idea of Food Not Bombs is simple — you find the food which can no longer be sold, and you give it away to those who can no longer pay.  The most stripped-down versions of this involve merely giving away the food.  You start with your local Farmer’s Market:

The farmers at the farmer’s markets will regularly be loaded down with food which is too perishable to sell, but still edible.  (If its not edible, you can compost it of course.)  Perhaps the farmers will give you their excess fruit/ vegetables if you ask for them.  If you get the food, you might be able to store it in someone’s pick-up truck, or other such vehicle:

From there, you can usually feed people any way you choose, although some of the easy-to store food can go to your local food bank.  You may wish to give your perishables away directly, though — tomatoes won’t last long unless your local food bank has a good refrigerator.

You can, of course, petition your local grocery store or specialty shop to give food — if you do so, however, many of those institutions will demand an IRS number first, which will require that you become a 501 (c) 3 charitable institution.  Remember, once the government attracts notice that you are serving up food, or that you are selling it in any way, you will be an official “restaurant,” and they will regulate you like one.  So you may wish to dumpster-dive:

Dumpster-diving at specialty food stores will increase the likelihood that you will find specially-wrapped, fully-edible food in the dumpster.  You are, however, more likely to be caught by the manager or the local police if you dumpster-dive when they can see you do it.  This is less likely after watchful authority-figures have gone home.  Dumpster-diving may be a crime in some areas, but it is not always an important one.

A real Food Not Bombs is, of course, a cook-and-serve operation.  People bring out food in public, set up a table, lay out dishware and pots full of food, and start serving the general public.  For free.  For that, one needs to have access to a kitchen capable of use for preparing food for however-many people show up.  One will also have to have a place to serve (preferably a park or other public space), and a clientele (I’m sure the local homeless population will enthusiastically join in, if they’re not already being well-served by the local religious charities).  The point of a Food Not Bombs, however, is not the point of a religious charity — we don’t typically do this out of guilt for the poor.  Rather, this is public food conservation.

There are three concepts behind a Food Not Bombs local: Consensus, nonviolence, and vegetarianism.  The whole point of providing food to the people every day, however, is to establish through direct action the “right to a bite,” or freedom from hunger (a freedom respected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but disrespected by nations everywhere, who continue to treat food as a commodity).

Also important in this vein is the Really Really Free Market — the basic principle is that of groups of people coming together with stuff, and everyone takes what they need.  The really subversive thing about this is that it defies the principle of possessive individualism, in which paranoia about possessions maintains a world society of 794 billionaires living amidst a bottom half of humanity which lives on less than $2.50/ day.

Critical Mass is a great congregation of bicyclists, which has the effect of taking back the roads from carbon-polluting internal combustion engines.  Now “critical mass” operations are merely “celebrations” — or at least that’s what the cops know — but they do raise issues of who controls the streets at any particular place and time.  Thus Critical Mass is sometimes associated with “Reclaim the Streets,” in books such as Constituent Imagination.  Reclaim the Streets is an “idea” behind spontaneous block parties.

Free (or “pirate”) Radio is, of course, illegal, so I would never encourage anyone here set up a radio station without obtaining an FCC permit; yet the folks at Free Radio Berkeley have posted instructions on how to build your own transmitter.  (Those who are interested, merely intellectually of course, may also wish to see Mycal’s Micro Radio Page.)  The Wikipedia page (being conveniently authorless) suggests the sticking point:

In the US, the FCC requires AM/FM radio and TV stations without a Low Power FM (LPFM) license to transmit with at least 6000 Watts of power. The FCC is not currently offering any LPFM licenses. This makes the cost of setting up a radio station prohibitive for individuals and small communities.

So this is the sticking point — a significant category of free speech is de facto prohibited by the FCC, the same folks who tell you that the media are to operate “in the public interest” while allowing dominant large media corporations to filterthe news you receive.  A list of pirate radio stations is given on this page.

*****

SOCIOLOGICAL OVERVIEW

Now this is only a partial listing of direct action tactics: I suppose there’s also the sort of protest training stuff one can get from the Ruckus Society or some such organization.  I wanted to limit the purview of this particular diary to some rather basic direct action tactics.  This is the general point: what we can discern from OPOL’s and Budhy’s diaries is that, while society may be fluid and changing in its needs, government has not really changed — instead, its “mandate” (since, more or less, 1973) to preserve the corporate rate of profit, the military-industrial complex, and the banking system at the expense of everything else has not.  The Cold War may have ended; the “War on Terrorism” was and is the substitute, brought in so that the militarization of society could protect all of the regular entrenched interests.  After all, if a society of 794 billionaires (more or less) is to exist for the indefinite future amidst a bottom half of humanity which lives on less than $2.50, the people must be kept “in line” somehow.

Government may not be able to change — we can, however, be more fluid in our understanding of what counts as “power” beyond those exercised by governments (or by the partisans of mainstream politics who keep their covert agencies in power), and include in this understanding of “power” the potential in each of us to make things happen through direct action.

Please do keep in mind, if you re-read this diary, that free thinking is not yet illegal; however, should the FBI/ cops/ Homeland Security arrest you for thinking freely, the first thing you should do is to demand to see a lawyer.

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