Your feedback is solicited before I publish this as part of my pamphlet,
"What Is Direct Action?" Feel free to add to the list of
"opportunities" herein. Thanx.
Introduction to the 2011
We are the 99 percent!
Another World Is
Direct actions involving ordinary people targeting the apparatus of
capitalism and globalization are sweeping the globe. The Wall Street
Occupation is a hopeful and necessary form of direct action.
Until now, we’ve boxed ourselves in. We’d allowed our own movements to be
sidetracked into the electoral arena, on the one hand, and, on the other,
into meaningless protests over this or that injustice that neither gets
to the root of the issue nor exacts a price from the capitalist system in
which we live. We become complicit in our own impotence.
We break out of that by participating in Direct Actions.
For the first time in recent memory, challenges to capitalism itself has
been placed onto the historical agenda. Think of the opportunities:
- Wall Street bankers receive bailouts to the tune of trillions of
dollars while homeowners and renters receive no bailouts and are evicted
from their housing.
- Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to destroy the lives of hundreds
of thousands of people, while those profiting from those wars go
- Politicians are afforded the finest health care and retirement
packages, while they vote to cut health care and social security for the
rest of us.
- The government cuts taxes for the rich, and increases taxes and the
cost of social services (hidden taxes) while reducing services for lower
and middle-income people.
- Students are up to their ears in debt, which has been part of a
strategy by those running the capitalist system for the past 20 yeas as a
means of avoiding raising wages by extending access to credit (at
exhorbitant interest, that sends the entire working class into enormous
debt) to most working class people to fill in the difference.
- Oil companies create the greatest environmental catastrophes in modern
times and the government subsidizes them and provides huge tax
abatements to other corporations while thousands of working class people
lose their jobs and homes.
- The earth itself is being ravaged in a vast orgy of accumulation of
wealth by a few, while the rest of us have no say over economic policies.
Appeals to the morality or consciousness of those in power are futile.
They know exactly what they are doing and in whose interests they are
doing it. All of these are life-changing issues. And all are ripe for
So, what is "Direct Action"? Direct Action is not simply an
aggressive street tactic; it's a way of organizing ourselves and our
relationships that prefigures the new society we hope to create. At
the same time, the direct action movement strives to win real victories
in the here-and-now. So, Direct Action is both a tactic for winning
immediate goals as well as a strategy for societal transformation, which
means that we must take a much more "future focused" view of
how things change and our role in bringing change about. These different
aspects of Direct Action often conflict with each other and play havoc
with our movements.
How are we to resolve the contradictory pulls between direct action as a
militant street tactic and direct action as strategy that prefigures a
future worth living in?
We are not free to pick and choose the one or the other like hot and cold
sausages from the supermarket counter of history, in Rosa Luxemburg’s
salient phrase (no offense intended to vegetarians in using the meat
metaphor). Not ANY new world is possible. The "realm of
freedom" is delimited by what we are trying to accomplish; if we are
trying to accomplish contradictory goals our movement pays the chaotic
price. The kinds of structures we build are driven by how we view our
"mission." That "mission" in turn narrows and shapes
the kinds of organizations we need as well as our ability to create
I published an early draft of this essay in 1981, then called
"Turning Motion Into Movement." Though it has gone through many
revisions its basic thrust remains unchanged. Upsweeps in mass resistance
to the structural adjustment programs of neo-Liberalism (which have
nothing to do, actually, with "liberal" views, per se),
the successful anti-apartheid struggles of the mid-1980s, the women's
liberation, ACT UP and ecology movements each provided new tactics, new
possibilities. ("What Is Direct Action?" spawned a separate
pamphlet focusing on logistical tips for activists in those movements,
which I am updating for today’s Occupy Wall Street movement. It should be
Then, in 1987, the Network of Alternative Student press convened a
gathering at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I was asked
to deliver "What Is Direct Action?" as the keynote address,
along with Jeff Cohen of FAIR and Robert Knight of WBAI, and copies of
that speech began finding their way through the Alternative Student Press
network to campuses across the country.
In more recent years, mass direct actions have followed the
"leaders" of the world capitalist economy wherever they met:
Seattle (November 1999), Davos Switzerland (Feb. 2000 and again in 2003),
Boston (anti-genetic engineering mass uprising in March, 2000),
Washington DC (April 16, 2000), Prague, Czechoslovakia (September, 2000),
the Republican and Democratic Party national conventions in Philadelphia
and Los Angeles (Summer, 2000), Gotenberg (Sweden), and Canada at the
Organization of American States meeting, the Oil Congress in Calgary,
against the G-8 meeting in Quebec City, and in Victoria, where activists
forced NATO to find a different venue for their big meeting in October
But the “anti-globalization” movement (and when I use the word
“globalization,” I mean “globalization of capital,” also known as
“Neo-liberalism”) did not start in Seattle. The fights against the IMF
and World Bank’s structural adjustment policies took their earliest and
most consistent shapes in the form of mass rebellions in Africa, Latin
America and Southern Asia beginning in the late 1970s. Seattle was, in a
sense, a continuation of that movement, a bringing of that war into the
urban centers of the empire.
Our movements are crucially important for creating a living alternative
to the globalization of capital and the exploitation and expropriation
that comes in its wake. But they also provide the State apparatus with a
giant laboratory of activists in which to test its latest weapons of war,
police configurations, nerve gases and more effective methods of
During the Seattle protests, I saw new weapons utilizing light beams
(lasers?) to destabilize people and knock them off balance. (Would
carrying small mirrors or giant mylar sheets protect us from those beams,
and reflect the new weapons back on the forces using them?) Neurotoxins
were mixed into teargas and mace -- the same neurological gases sprayed
indiscriminately over New York and, indeed, the entire Eastern seaboard
to combat the non-existent West Nile viral “epidemic” a few months
earlier. Social protest movements are met with increasingly updated
mechanisms of repression. We are trapped in a death tango with the police
state – our increasing numbers, their increasing technology.
How can we minimize their power and provide our movements with the
greatest advantage? This essay wrestles with such questions. It asks
“What is Direct Action?” and “How do we structure our actions, and our
organizations, to bring about basic social and economic transformation
despite the State's bent on repressing such movements – and to do so
without betraying our moral principles?” As this is a living,
ever-changing document, your feedback is requested.