A Review of David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography
2009, AK Press
What strikes one first about this book is its structure. Rather than have multiple chapters steadily build towards a point about direct action, Graeber chooses to start the book with an account of his experiences surrounding the protests against the Free Trade of the Americas proposal in Québéc City in 2001 and then explores various aspects and issues surrounding the concept of direct action, relating it to those experiences. Graeber uses this structure because he considers this work to be an ethnography, which is to say he “aims to describe the contours of a social and conceptual universe in a way that is at once theoretically informed, but not, in itself, simply designed to advocate a single argument or theory (vii).” Although this approach is refreshing for its novelty, it can be frustrating for the reader who attempts to draw conclusions, which is precisely Graeber’s aim: to provoke critical thought rather than force the reader to come about to his perspective.
What, then, is this direct action that Graeber is making an ethnography for? He defines it as:
…a form of action in which means and ends become, effectively, indistinguishable; a way of actively engaging with the world to bring about change, in which the form of the action-or at least, the organization of the action is itself a model for the change one wishes to bring about […] A revolutionary strategy based on direct action can only succeed if the principles of direct action become institutionalized. Temporary bubbles of autonomy must gradually turn into permanent, free communities (210).
This seems a useful definition. However, in this ethnography of direct action Graeber is entirely focused on the direct actions practiced by the activist left during the period when the so-called anti-globalization movement was at its zenith (1999-2001). For example, in his chapter on actions, Graeber sketches five basic examples: protest marches and rallies, picket lines, street parties, civil disobedience, and the black bloc. While it makes sense for him to focus on types of actions that he was himself directly involved in, I am left wondering about direct action that would take place at the point of production (that is to say, on the job), which is entirely absent from this book. This is unfortunate because it would seem that such actions have much more potential to be effective, and are more likely to directly impact the lives of those involved for the better. Although the vast majority of working people in the U.S.A. do not engage in strikes, at some point or another most do partake in more subtle forms of subversive action to make their lives better on the job, whether it’s covertly reading or stretching their ten minute break to sixteen minutes. Thus it would seem that a far greater percentage of the population engages in direct action than just those explicitly involved in the activist left. While Graeber would certainly not reject methods of direct action like the strike or workplace sabotage, it is a sign of the weakness of the activist left that someone trying to chronicle direct action does not give any such examples. The fact that it has been so difficult for anarchists to institutionalize the principles of direct action is intimately connected to this divorce from workplace organizing.
Another weakness of the book is its extensive documentation of activist meetings. If you thought activist meetings were tedious to attend, try reading about them for hundreds of pages! Such careful chronicling certainly has value and may be of interest to those with little experience in such types of meetings, but for anyone that has had to endure such processes reading about them gets old pretty fast. This points to a greater problem with the intense focus on process on the part of anarchists and activists in general: in spite of the obsession over the most democratic or least authoritarian/hierarchical means of decision-making, when it comes to actual moments of intense and extensive activity (such as the events in Québéc City that Graeber chronicles in the book), many of these processes are cast aside and ignored. Events have a way of compelling people to act in a variety of unexpected ways. This is not to say that anarchists suddenly become authoritarian, but actions tend to occur without many of the formal processes that anarchists emphasize, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
This is not to say Direct Action is a bad book. On the contrary it is thought provoking and well worth reading. It is, however, a frustrating read: there will be hundreds of pages that seem tedious and then Graeber will toss in a fascinating half-formed thought that you would like to see explored further. There are probably many ideas that this book caused me to consider other than what was laid out above, but my thoughts on this book are scattered because the ideas that provoked them are scattered throughout the book and not necessarily developed.