“We’re fired up, can’t take it no more!”
To meaningfully reclaim and transform our university, we have to organize and mobilize our communities to take political action (usually direct action) that challenges the powers that be. Every organizing meeting is an engagement with and evaluation of different theories of social change, because we discuss what actions to take to advance our political goals. This information is intended to help you anticipate and navigate difficult conversations about direct action.
What is Direct Action (DA)?
Every sociopolitical system has built in mechanisms for change, and evolves over time. DA means taking actions “outside” of these mechanisms, so that we can achieve what we want in a way that doesn’t require us to rely on “established authorities” or their processes. Direct Action means “immediately effective political acts, such as strikes, demonstrations, or sabotage.” Sometimes this means doing things for ourselves without waiting for the powers that be. Sometimes it involves pressuring authorities to move faster. Sometimes it involves interference to prevent something from happening. Most of the time, DA raises the stakes, is disruptive, gets attention, and carries risks to the participants. DA is especially useful in situations where the “usual channels” are the problem, where the system has been designed to prevent real change. DA has been part of every major progressive social movement that struggled to change an entrenched status quo (e.g. labor movement, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc).
Why is it controversial?
From a very young age, most of us were taught a fundamentally “liberal” theory of social change. We are socialized to believe that changes are made from within the institutions of the system, and according to its rules (e.g. elections, petitions, debates, etc). But like most dominant paradigm conditioning we weren’t taught that this theory is just one possibility, just “one way of doing things”. We were taught to see it as “the way things are”, as an objective reality. So when we get together to start debating strategy, many of us present our theories of social change as established truth, and resist challenging them. This makes it hard to truly discuss and consider alternative hypotheses or strategies for social change.
Another idea that makes it hard to talk about direct action is the attitude that conflict and tension is bad. After all, a lot of what we are trying to change in the world feels violent and oppressive. Theres always someone who will say that we need to embody the peace that we seek to establish. And often times, established authorities will make exactly the same appeal, telling us that they want to discuss our concerns, but that direct actions are too confrontational, and not the way to establish negotiations and reach compromise. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is worth reading in full, as it very eloquently points out that tension and negotiation are complementary: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored….The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation.“
Liberal vs Radical
Radicals believe society is structurally flawed… that injustice is not an accident or a moral failure, but rather that our system has been designed to produce injustice. Liberals believe that the structures of the system allow for meaningful social change. Thus, liberals tend to perceive politics as a contest between ideas: that when enough people have been convinced to support a cause, the new attitudes will be expressed through the existing structures and institutions of the system. Radicals tend to perceive politics as a power struggle between privileged and oppressed classes. The function of the system’s institutions is to ensure the reproduction of these inequalities, to preserve the privilege of those in power. Direct action is a radical theory of social change.
Direct action gets the goods!
To radicals, the function of the institutions of society is to reproduce the status quo, which means to reproduce the problems we are trying to address. In order to effect change, radicals intervene to disrupt the normal functioning of these institutions, and in turn the authorities must adapt, evolve, or abandon these institutions to restore their ability to carry out their role – the reproduction of a new status quo. In this view the status quo is not a static physical reality, but rather a set of relations and functions, and without people working hard everyday to make sure that the status quo continues to reproduce itself, things will change.
Almost all student mobilizations, or grassroots campaigns implement direct action in some way. It is hard to think of a large scale social movement that has been successful without it. This history should encourage all of us, radical and liberal, to appreciate the importance of the radical perspective. In fact, most people, regardless of what they call themselves, express some mix of radical and liberal perspectives. For example, people who consider themselves liberals will often advocate and engage direct action strategies to raise awareness of an issue and pressure authorities to enter into negotiations.
Recuperation is that process by which authorities take control of the story of a social movement, even while making concessions to the power its built by challenging their authority. Social movements of the past were full of direct action, tension, militance, conflict, and since they won great changes that are now institutionalized and part of the status quo that the authorities are charged with reproducing, their stories must be told so that people understand why the current status quo is what it is. Recuperation involves erasing militance (e.g. by mischaracterizing nonviolent direct action as free of tension and conflict), and attributing gains made by social movements to less volatile and controversial actors (e.g. by ignoring Malcolm X while teaching the ‘early’ MLK, or by focusing on the civil rights act which codified the gains of the social movement, rather than on the tactics it took to push the government to pass it. Recuperation also makes the past seem unique and iconic, severing our sense of connection to our history so that we don’t see that we are, in fact, just carrying on the same struggle.
Two great reads on the topic of recuperation are “Why We Are Militant,” Emmeline Pankhurst (1913), and Bernardine Dohrn’s “Letter to Young Activists: Beware 60’s Nostalgia”. When the UC holds its official events commemorating the Free Speech Movement this semester, we will be experiencing a recuperated version of history.