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You begin with rage, you move on to silly fantasies … David Graeber’s Direct Action Now Available

Posted on August 14th, 2009 in AK Book Excerpts

Long awaited, much anticipated, damn late, and therefore the subject of many impatient phone and email inquiries to AK Press, David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography is now available!

As project-coordinator and copyeditor for David’s book, I’ve probably read it three times already. And I can honestly say it’s been a great read every time. This made it much more difficult for me to choose an excerpt to post here. David covers so much material and moves through so many great registers and tones, that no single excerpt could capture what he’s done with this project. Should I share one of his funnier moments? A more theoretical section about anarchism, race, the state, or direct action? A page-turning, blow-by-blow demo description?

I decided to take the easy route and post the first few pages of the Introduction. It doesn’t do total justice to the range of this 600-page symphony, but it does hit some of David’s many great notes. And, hey, it’s the door he decided to use to introduce readers to their fantastic voyage.




you begin with rage, you move on to silly fantasies…

“So,” Jaggi says. “I have an idea for what Ya Basta! might contribute to the actions in Québec City. The Canadian press keeps framing this as some kind of alien invasion. Thousands of American anarchists are going to be invading Canada to disrupt the Summit. The Québécois press is doing the same thing: it’s the English invasion all over again. So my idea is we play with that. We reenact the battle of Québec.”

Puzzled stares from the Americans at the table.

“That was the battle in 1759 in which the British conquered the city in the first place. They surprised the French garrison by climbing up these cliffs just to the west of the Plains of Abraham, near the old fort. So here’s my idea. You guys can suit up in your Ya Basta! outfits, and climb the exact same cliff, except—no, wait, listen! This part is important—over all the padding and the chemical jumpsuits, you’ll all be wearing Québec Nordiques hockey jerseys.”

“You want us to climb a cliff?” asked Moose.

“Uh huh.”

“And how high exactly is this cliff?”

“Oh, I don’t know, 60 meters. What’s that, about 180 feet?”

“So you want us to climb a 180-foot cliff geared up in gloves and helmets and gas masks and foam rubber padding?”—Moose acting as if Jaggi might actually be serious about this.

“Think of it this way: the helmets and padding would be very helpful if you fall down at all. Which is likely because you have to figure the cliffs will be defended.”

Moose: “Oh, great. So now we’re climbing a 180-foot cliff with riot cops all over the top.”

“Oh come on, you’re probably all going to get arrested immediately just for wearing those suits. You might as well actually do something with them first. And the symbolism would be perfect.”

“I refuse to be so pessimistic,” I say. “Let’s imagine some of us get through. We scale the cliffs. Suddenly we’re inside the security perimeter…”

“Well, actually, no,” says Jaggi, looking down at the map of the city. The map of the city is drawn in felt tip on a large unfolded napkin, on the table of a pastry shop in New York City’s Little Italy, surrounded by various salt shakers and sugar bowls being used to represent imaginary activist and police units, all flanked by empty bottles of beer and a former chocolate cake. Six activists are crowded around the table, three Canadians, three representatives of the New York Ya Basta! Collective—all that are left of what had started as a much larger group. “We’re kind of assuming the fence will actually run around the edge of the cliff as well.”

Jaggi confers briefly with his two Québécois friends, who nod agreement. One, Nicole, adds another line to the map to make this more explicit.

“You mean we get over the cliffs and we still have to go over the wall?” someone asks.

“Oh come on,” says Jaggi. “If you can get up a 180-foot cliff, a 15-foot chainlink fence is going to be a problem?”

“Fine, we’re inside.” I’m insisting on my scenario. “Fifty activists in yellow chemical jumpsuits and—what was it, some Québec team’s hockey jerseys?— make it over the wall. We are inside the security perimeter. We have reversed the British invasion. Now what do we do? Occupy the citadel? Present a petition?”

“Actually, that would be really funny,” says one of the Yabbas. “We fight our way up the cliffs past two thousand riot cops, we go over the wall, and then, when we get there, we just present a petition.”

“To who?”

“Well to Bush, obviously.”

“How do we know where Bush is going to be?” asks someone else.

“He will be staying in the Concord hotel,” says one of the Québécois anarchists.

“It will be easy to find; you can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Especially easy now,” he smiles. “Just look for the building with the surface-to-air missiles on top.”

“Plus about ten thousand snipers and secret service men, presumably, with endless high tech surveillance equipment…”

“…which will, in turn, be disrupted by our vast fleet of remote-controlled model airplanes…”

Conversation had, in fact, been seriously degenerating for at least half an hour.

It had started out seriously enough, as one of those three-hour marathon conversations about everything. The Canadians were in town as part of a traveling activist tour, put together by the CLAC, a Montréal-based anarchist group whose French acronym stood for Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes, or “Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Struggles.” It was early March 2001. They were touring to mobilize against the Summit of the Americas due to be held in Québec City on April 20, to be attended by every head of state in the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba). This event was to see the signing of a preliminary draft of something called the Free Trade Area of the Americas Act, an attempt, essentially, to extend NAFTA to the entire hemisphere. These efforts, spearheaded by the United States, were, in fact, ultimately foiled, and the people in that pastry shop, unlikely though it may seem, played a significant role in foiling them. But this is a bit of a different story and anyway I’m jumping ahead. At any rate, the conversation started out in a Lower East Side Mexican restaurant called Tres Aztecas, where several activists from the New York City Direct Action Network took the visitors—Jaggi from Montréal and a quieter, francophone couple from Québec City itself—out to dinner. Actually, two of the NYC DAN people were themselves Canadians: a couple named Mac and Lesley, originally from Toronto, currently living in New York. She was a sociology student at Columbia, he currently employed as a house painter and volunteer for the National Lawyers Guild. Most of the others were also part of the NYC Ya Basta! collective. This was a newly created group inspired by a group of the same name in Italy, whose name, however was derived from a slogan (it means “Enough Already!”) made famous by the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, who had, in turn, begun their insurrection on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA first went into effect.

In activist circles that year, Ya Basta! had something of the quality of a Next Big Thing. Probably, this was most of all for their spectacularly innovative tactics: members of the group were famous for covering themselves in all sorts of elaborate padding, made from everything from foam rubber sheeting to rubber ducky flotation devices, combining it with helmets and plastic shields, so one looked like some kind of futuristic Greek hoplite, then topping the whole thing with gas masks and white chemical protective suits. The idea is that, so suited up, there’s relatively little the cops can do that will actually hurt you. Of course, you are rendered so clumsy there’s probably not that much you could do to hurt anyone else; but that’s kind of the point. Its exponents claim the tactic is rooted in a new philosophy of civil disobedience. Where the old-fashioned, masochistic, Gandhian approach encourages activists to hold out their willingness to let the police beat them up as a sign of moral superiority, the “white overalls” proposed an ethos of protection: as long as you refuse to harm others, it is completely legitimate to take whatever measures necessary to avoid harm to yourself. The costume also makes one look rather ridiculous, but that’s kind of the point too. Ya Basta! columns would often play on it by, for instance, attacking police lines with balloons or water pistols. What really impressed a lot of activists in America, though, was that such groups had a real social base. Ya Basta! emerged from Italy’s extremely extensive network of squats and occupied social centers (the “white overalls” began, in effect, as the army of the squats). They also had their own intellectuals: around that time the works of Italian Autonomist thinkers like Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, and Bifo Berardi were just beginning to be translated and disseminated over the Internet and were being picked up by activists across America.

I shouldn’t exaggerate. In the spring of 2001, the vast majority of American anarchists knew next to nothing of Italian theory. Still, there were certain very enthusiastic exceptions. In New York, the most significant among them was a man who went by the name of Moose. A tall, gangly young man who almost always wore a fisherman’s cap, Moose was, by profession, a retoucher of fashion photos. He was also active in NYC DAN. Inspired by what he had read about the movement in Italy after Ya Basta!’s dramatic appearance at the IMF protests in Prague, Moose did a little research and figured out where you could actually buy cheap chemical jumpsuits. He mail-ordered several and started occasionally wearing them to marches. One day, during a police-brutality march, a student from Italy who had actually done some work with Ya Basta! walked up to him and asked what was going on. And, so, New York Ya Basta! was born.

It was, in his conception, simultaneously an embrace of Italian tactics and of some of the broader principles developed by Italian Autonomist Marxism, which emphasized the refusal of work, “exodus” or engaged withdrawal from mainstream institutions, and, critically, freedom of movement across borders. In Italy, “white overalls” had made a series of dramatic actions against immigration detention camps, to highlight the fact much of what was touted as “globalization” actually meant, in practice, opening borders to the movement of money, manufactures, and certain forms of information, while radically increasing the barriers and controls over the movement of human beings. This idea had already struck a chord in North America, where activists were fond of pointing out that the US Border Patrol had actually tripled in size in the years since the signing of NAFTA. A lot of us were already arguing that the whole point of “free trade” was in fact to confine most of the world’s population in impoverished global ghettoes with heavily militarized borders, in which existing social protections could be removed and the resulting terror and desperation fully exploited by global capital. The question was how to bring the two—ideas and tactics—together.

If nothing else, the prospect excited people. The NYC Ya Basta! collective grew rapidly, just as similar collectives (the Wombles in England, the Wombats in Australia) were growing all over the Anglophone world. Much of the first part of the conversation at Tres Aztecas had consisted of Moose talking about Ya Basta!. Later, at the pastry shop (Jaggi’s friend insisted we find one, as he was something of a chocolate addict), the discussion moved on to potential border actions, the state of anarchy in Canada, Ontario’s asshole governor, movement celebrities and why they are annoying, philosophy, anthropology, music—A typical endless activist conversation about everything. Jaggi explained that, as in much of Canada, Québécois anarchists were divided largely between hardcore squatter types and grad students (“like these two—they’ll probably quit the moment the dissertation is finished”)—though there was also a smattering of old-fashioned syndicalist types. No anarchist labor unions per se, but they work within existing unions. The real dramatic growth had been within the globalization movement, where, as in so many places, there was an emerging division of labor between NGOs and big labor groups, which dominated policy discussions, and anarchists, who were quickly coming to dominate the direct action end of things. In Montréal, there were basically two groups organizing actions: CLAC, and something called Operation SalAMI. CLAC isn’t officially anarchist, of course. Officially, it’s just “anti-authoritarian” (well, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, opposed to all forms of racial and gender oppression, dedicated to direct action, and unwilling to negotiate with inherently undemocratic organizations, which in practice means, basically, “anarchist”).

“So, what about SalAMI? They aren’t anarchists?”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s some people in it who consider themselves anarchists of some sort or another.”

“So, what are they then?

Mac interjected, “Oh, you know. The usual anti-corporate types. Not anticapitalists. They originally came out of the campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998. At the time, they organized a really good action in Ottawa. But… well, they’re pacifists. I guess that would be the best way to sum it up.”

“Did you see the guidelines they first proposed for the Québec City actions?” asked Jaggi. “Absolute nonviolence. Part of their principles of conduct were no “verbal violence,” no one is allowed to use bad language. No, literally, I’m not making this up. Spray-painting slogans is a form of violence. No wearing of masks or other items of clothing that cover your face…”

The other Canadians were joining in. “Which then gives them the right to micro-manage everything.”

“They’re total control freaks. Marshals, everything.”

“So, I don’t get it,” says one of the Americans. “What kind of process do these guys use?”

“Yeah,” another American asked. “Are they democratic, or do they have a formal leadership structure? Before an action, do they hold spokescouncils?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, they do all that. Or at least, they do now. When they started out it was totally top-down, with a charismatic leadership, orders from above. Ostensibly, that’s all changed now. But all the key decisions, like the code of conduct, are always already made in the call to action before you even show up to the spokescouncil. So, it’s basically a sham because with marshals to control everything, any kind of self-organization becomes meaningless.”

“Plus,” says Jaggi, “they still do have a sort of charismatic leadership. Which… well, okay. Have you noticed how pacifists always seem to develop a charismatic leadership? Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama. Something about the pacifist ethos seems to just produce them. When I was at A16 I saw these idiots carrying signs with huge pictures of Gandhi on them, and below it there was some kind of quote from him saying ‘what’s important is not me, but my message.’ So I had to go up to them and ask them, ‘don’t you think there’s a bit of a contradiction here?’”

Discussion ensues on the merits of Gandhi, as opposed to other figures in the Indian Independence movement. The consensus seems to be that he was a highly ambivalent figure. On the one hand, he had a lot of very anarchistic ideals. On the other, he was a weird, sexually twisted patriarch who collaborated with the far-from-revolutionary Congress party and openly fostered a cult of personality around himself. One of the Canadians insisted Gandhi’s pacifism actually delayed independence by a generation. One of the Americans emphasizes that Gandhi did also say that, while nonviolence was an ideal, those who resist oppression violently are morally superior to those who don’t resist at all—a sentiment his more self-righteous Western acolytes always seem to forget.

“What bothers me about the whole concept of pacifism,” says Mac, “is that it’s fundamentally elitist. Poor people—people who have to live every day with violence by police, who are used to it, who expect it… they’re not going to see anything admirable, let alone heroic, in inviting police violence, and then facing it passively.”

I always find such opinions slightly disconcerting, coming from who they are. Mac is one of the most likeable, easygoing, rather self-effacingly silly people I know. I often wonder if he’s even capable of anger. His wife is much the same.

“What do you think?” I ask Lesley.

“Oh, I totally agree. First of all, the whole idea that you’re going to reveal the true coercive nature of the state by showing how they’ll attack you even when you are posing them no physical threat—well, come on. You’re telling poor people something they don’t already know?”

“I worked with OCAP—that’s the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty—for three years in Toronto,” said Mac, “and one thing we found is that if, say, you’re working with homeless people or genuinely oppressed communities, either they’re not going to do anything, or they’re going to want to directly confront the people who’ve been fucking them over. Which is how you get those ‘riots’ like the one last spring in Toronto.” Lesley explains Mac is referring to a march on June 15, 2000, organized by OCAP, in which over a thousand homeless people, along with housing activists, were attacked by riot police when they insisted on the right to address parliament, and ended up in a pitched battle that lasted hours. “After the third cavalry charge against peaceful protesters, everyone just exploded. They started throwing everything in sight, ripping up the sidewalks, street signs, throwing trash cans.”

“Now, wait a minute,” I protest. “Gandhi himself worked with a lot of poor people.”

“True,” Jaggi interjects, “but that’s within a very specific religious tradition. If you’re a Hindu, being able to endure your lowly position within the caste hierarchy, making that a sign of virtue—that’s what it’s all about.”

And so on. The whole conversation seems to me a little pat and one-sided. I point out that, since Seattle, unions had been panicking about the possibility of “violence,” or even just property destruction. Others countered that I was talking about union bureaucrats, not the rank and file. Well, what about the poor people’s groups that critique militant tactics as a product of middle-class white privilege, that real oppressed groups would never be allowed to get away with? Someone changes the subject.

“And have you noticed how the SalAMI types are always carefully keeping track of which politicians or celebrities or rich people approve of them. The whole mind-set is completely elitist.”

Anyway, SalAMI put out their pacifist call to action, and then CLAC put out their own, calling for a “diversity of tactics.” By this they meant, space should be made for art and puppets, space should be made for traditional Gandhian “come-take-me-away” civil disobedience, and space should be made for more militant tactics too. The critical thing is to ensure that, in the end, everyone will stand in solidarity with one another. As it turned out, very few people registered for the SalAMI spokescouncil, so they cancelled it and now were concentrating on doing something in Montréal. CLAC’s spokescouncil on the other hand went well enough that it lead to the creation of a new local group—called CASA, the Summit of the Americas Welcoming Committee. CASA was now doing frenetic local organizing. Teams were going to door to door in working-class neighborhoods near the old fortress. It was a unique opportunity because the Canadian police had recently announced that, come the summit, the old town and the area surrounding the Convention Center where the meetings were to be held was going to be surrounded by a four kilometer-long security fence. Only those with ID cards certifying that they lived within the perimeter would be allowed inside. They kept issuing contradictory statements as to where, exactly, the fence would run, but it would definitely be cutting many neighborhoods in half. Children would have to pass heavily militarized police checkpoints to return home from school. Local people were already referring to it as “the wall.”

One should bear in mind, Jaggi noted, that this is a population that’s, because of its history, already extremely suspicious of the central government. Even Québecois nationalism is a very weird, proletarian kind of nationalism: Frenchspeakers see themselves as the white working class of Eastern Canada, which to some extent, is true. It was at this point—right around the time Mac and Lesley had to leave—that we got into the politics of the wall; about the promised militarization of the Canadian border (during trade talks in Windsor the year before, for instance, two-thirds of the Americans who tried to cross the border were turned away, and a fair number were arrested). The question was how to plan a border action that would draw attention to the hypocrisy of militarizing the border and building walls inside a city in order to be able to shield the political leaders from any danger of contact with their constituents—not to mention the rhetoric of “free trade” knocking down walls and unifying the planet, when, in order to even be able to sign them, one has to do the exact opposite. The rest of us started bouncing around ideas. Possible border actions. Eventually, this started leading to scenario questions, and then, to the cliffs of Québec City. That was toward the end of the conversation, actually—by that point we were all a bit worse for wear, and not long after we broke, went home, and went to sleep.