A century ago, Voltairine de Cleyre asked her reading audience to consider the true meaning of “direct action.” The words, skewed by journalistic propaganda following the Los Angeles Times bombing, had become synonymous with “forcible attacks on life and property.” The contortion of words was and is nothing new in the struggle for liberty against the power structure that seeks to contort them. Binding words is an effective snare for binding people. And so, it is high time we reassess the meaning of ‘direct action’, as it has once again fallen into misuse. Shoved into the cubbyhole ‘protest’, the scope of direct action diminishes with every slight.
Direct Action. Emma Goldman declared it the ‘logical, consistent method of anarchism.” A reasonable starting point. Direct action is a logical approach to solving any problem. The light bulb in the lamp at my bedside goes out; I get up, find a new bulb and replace it. Eureka! The beauty in Goldman’s phrase lies in ‘consistent’. As anarchists we hold principles, ideals in our minds about how life should be lived, and (ideally)we put them into practice daily. We set patterns of behavior for ourselves that parlay into a consistent method of anarchism. We practice anarchy.
“Direct action is always the clamorer, the initiator, through which the great sum of indifferentists become aware that oppression is getting intolerable.”
de Cleyre enumerated the paths of direct action in her famous essay, reminding her ‘fellow thinkers’ that anyone who ever asserted herself, shared her convictions or settled a dispute was a direct actionist. From the Quakers who refused to swear allegiance to non-importation leagues that advocated homespun clothing to ‘all co-operative experiments’, examples can be found at every turn in American history. The desperate call to action that John Brown answered with violence is action in the extreme, and de Cleyre acknowledged that while direct action ‘may be the extreme of violence’, violence does not span the breadth of it. There are vast other means. Most of us may find activism on the level of joining the Tar Sands Blockade not possible in our particular circumstances. So what is possible? How can we convert our principles in practice?
Perhaps you have a skill that can be honed into an artisan enterprise. From IT expertise to jewelry making, networking via media and the modern bazaar (ie farmer’s markets, festivals and fairs) has greatly improved the possibility for success and can bring with it a measure of control of your labor: freedom to use and dispense it as you see fit! Any stride toward self-reliance is an excellent example of direct action.
Starting a worker cooperative is another way to free yourself from the hierarchical shell game! There are many excellent examples out there to inspire and some require very little overhead. There are also many free online resources that offer perspective and instruction on starting a worker’s coop. Check these out! Any move away from the wage labor compromise so many of us find ourselves in is a step closer to anarchy.
And cooperatives, of course, are not restricted to the workplace. Food cooperatives are another way to gain control of your life and labor. Check your local directories, there may already be a food coop in your area. Check out producer’s cooperatives, too!
Making your own food (or beverages) can be a fun and informal experiment in cooperative living. Have you and your friends ever considered pooling your resources for bread- or beer-making? Gathering for communal meal preparation can also get the cooperative spirit going. Make a big-ass spaghetti and have everyone bring jars to fill for the freezer! Any path requires the pounding of feet, over and over, until the ground is smooth and familiar. Cooperative living and mutual exchange will feel natural with practice. Embrace new ideas and make them second nature!
Food independence is a burgeoning movement that includes not only the growing trend in DIY and food coops, but home gardening and homesteading. Look around your community for gardening opportunities..perhaps a neighbor has expertise he is willing to share, or there may be a master gardener program starting soon. Many university AG centers offer these programs for free. Learn and share!
One of the most powerful instruments of direct action is your pocketbook. Images of unrest and vandalism are projected upon the collective screen and labeled ‘direct action’ by media narrative writers. That is, by no means, the full picture, and it is time we wrest the meaning of direct action back from those who would see it diminished, those who want nothing more than to extinguish that light on the path toward anarchy.
Withdraw your financial support from unethical corporate interests as best you can. It is not necessary to rouse the slumbering collective in boycott. That may only lead to frustrated feelings of powerlessness. Understand what boycott truly means: it is the power of the individual over the power of the corporation, be it the state or otherwise! Practice frugal living and buy products that are in line with your personally-held principles. Corporate branding begins at birth; recognize it and shun it. Withdrawing your consent is not only empowering, it brings with it a true freedom that no one can take from you.
Voltairine de Cleyre’s call for a consideration of direct action’s full spectrum is still heard today. As anarchists, our principles guide us in our attitudes on life and living. It is time we convert our attitudes into action: every day and in every way our own light discovers it.