Direct action and dire ideas
'The question should not be, are you for or against direct action in general, but what does this direct action represent here and now?'
‘So do you support direct action?’ people are asking in the run-up to the May Day anti-capitalist protests planned for cities around the world. To which the answer is, yes and no. And in this case, no.
Direct or extra-parliamentary action has a long and honourable tradition. It has played a key part in the most important struggles of the past two centuries. Votes for women in Britain, civil rights for blacks in the USA, an end to apartheid in South Africa – none of these or many other causes could have been successful without the intervention of direct action.
The question should not be, are you for or against direct action in general, but what does this direct action represent here and now? Nobody supports direct action all of the time. An organisation like Greenpeace, for example, is known worldwide for its involvement in militant protests. Yet when some lorry drivers and others took direct action against UK fuel prices last year, Greenpeace supporters picketed the pickets demanding that they go home. After all, we can’t have unaccountable cliques of activists disrupting the fuel and food industries in the name of ‘the people’, can we Lord Melchett?
Let us make a distinction between types of direct action. There is direct action which becomes the focus for popular aspirations to change society for the better. For example, last week was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the British General Strike, when millions took action to defend living standards and working conditions.
And then there is direct action that becomes a substitutionist tactic, where a relatively small number of people protest ‘in the name of’ the people, or the poor, or laboratory animals. This is a moralistic minority that effectively assumes the authority to act on behalf of everybody else. The kind of direct action we are dealing with today largely falls into this category, whether you are talking about protests against animal research outside Huntingdon Life Sciences, or anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec or London.
At the Royal Society last week, I debated the Green guru George Monbiot and the internet activist Mike Slocombe on the pros and cons of direct action. Monbiot insisted that environmentalists had the right to take action on behalf of, among many others, ‘the unborn’. As I pointed out to him, that kind of thing amounts to a blank cheque for protestors to pursue whatever policies they see fit. After all, nobody can ask the unborn what they think about their name being used in this way.
The kind of direct action we see today has no real anchor in society, no connection with any wider sense of forward political movement. As such, it can easily become an exercise in moral self-flattery by relatively few individuals – a case of ‘I am a better person because I don’t eat in McDonalds/wear Nike trainers/support animal research, etc’.
From this starting point, one can end up taking direct action in pursuit of all sorts of aims. Some may be worthwhile – but others can just as easily turn out to be anti-democratic and dangerous.
Last week many protest groups were celebrating the role of direct action in forcing the big pharmaceutical corporations to climb down and allow South Africans access to cheaper anti-AIDS drugs. We will have to wait and see the details of how this works out in practice, but at first sight it does indeed look like a positive breakthrough, and a big success for the ‘people before profits’ campaign.
Yet many of the same groups involved in those protests on behalf of AIDS sufferers are also taking direct action against animal experiments – research that is crucial to the search for a cure for AIDS. And they are also campaigning for a UN ban on the use of the pesticide DDT – the best available defence that Africa and the developing world has against malaria, which killed more than a million people last year.
They might have ethical objections to the drug companies putting profit before people, but from the same moralistic standpoint many seem quite willing to put animals before people, or the environment before people. And for all their talk of ‘the people’, they appear to feel no need to ask the people on the wrong end of these problems what they want to see done.
At a time when mainstream politics seems so lifeless and irrelevant, some will object on the activists’ behalf that ‘at least these young people are doing something’. Leaving aside the issue of exactly how young many of the overgrown adolescents indulging in childish antics on the May Day protests might be, this misses the point. It is not just that such a day of direct action offers the most token of alternatives. It is that, based on the kind of incoherent and backward-looking ideas many of the groups involved espouse, ‘doing something’ is often worse than useless (1).
Having said all that, the last thing we need in Britain is yet more laws against direct action and political protests. Of course, there have been reprehensible attacks on people who work at places like Huntingdon Life Sciences. But the last time I looked, it was already illegal to hit somebody over the head with a baseball bat outside their own home. In the hands of home secretary Jack Straw, new laws can only act to stifle legitimate protest and argument. His new anti-terrorist laws look like a step towards changing the legal definition of terrorism from the use of violence for political ends to the use of politics for political ends.
Instead of demands for bans focused on the activists’ tactics, we need some more open and critical discussion of the dangerous ideas behind today’s version of direct action.
G8 expectations by Brendan O’Neill
(1) See May Day in cyberspace, by Josie Appleton
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