Political action is where those with an issue and their allies attempt a remedy to the situation that relies on an outside group (usually those causing the problem) undertaking some further change on their behalf. This can be anything from asking a bigwig to be a little less cruel and a tiny bit less exploitative in person, lobbying a court or parliament, creating a bajillion-signature petition and a media circus to shame the baddies into acting good, or by standing near the source of the problem and shouting quite loudly.
UK Uncut often claimed to be taking “Direct Action” when protesting the closure of hospitals, schools and library’s by occupying businesses such at Topshop, Vodaphone and Fortnham & Mason. The thinking was to highlight that these businesses do not pay a “fair amount” of tax that in turn might be spent by the government to keep services open. I would argue that this type of action, while it is indeed militant, is not direct action as it in no way caused the targets to pay up a “fair share” in taxes. Even if they do choose to pay more there is no guarantee that the government will use this money as the protesters intended.
The politicians making the closures and running the tax system, and the businesses exploiting these “loopholes”, have completely different interests to the communities suffering due to closures. It is very hard for government and businesses to change their behaviour as it would harm their interest (as in their profits) far far more than it seemed the protesters could ever hope to given their understanding of power and use of tactics.
So despite the spectacle and militancy of UK Uncut they were still taking political action as they were relying on outside groups who have different interests to choose to take action.
So what is Direct Action then?
Direct action means those effected (and perhaps their allies) going directly to the problem and removing it without the need to ask someone else for action or hoping someone else changes some rule or another. Direct action is often militant, but it need not be. It just needs to take the problem out by the root using methods that somehow embody what you want to see as the end result.
A great example of direct action could be seen last week when the UK Border Agency set up check-points at train stations so as to harass people of colour for identification. In response the Southall Black Sisters, part of the community being targeted by UKBA officers, took to the streets and made sure that the job of harassing and intimidating people became impossible.
Does this mean political action is bad action? No, It is simply a question of tactics. Sometimes true direct action is not possible as the means of taking care of a problem either because of a lack of physical resources (people, access to a place, equipment, etc), due to a lack of confidence in acting, because those effected lack the skills required skills to pull something off, or because it is felt the backlash would cause a worse situation to erupt. Political action can be used as a way to win the necessary breathing space in order to be able to take direct action further down the line.
Those “Three C’s” again…
Weighing up all these tactical decision over what type of action to undertake is a difficult prospect in a lot of campaigns. Often direct action is not appropriate and some form of political action (militant or otherwise) is the way to go. However there are some consideration that should be taken in light of those old chestnuts the three c’s.
We must be wary of taking militant political action and convincing ourselves we have taken direct action. This substitution doesn’t aid us in our understanding of how power works and can cloud our vision of how the state and capitalism function to exploit us on the ground. As an anarchist and a wobblie I personally see it as the place of the libertarian left to ensure that when we participate in militant political action – especially those actions called by the TUC unions or the hierarchal political groups to show how they are calling the shots as a committee or vanguard – that we ensure that everyone involved understands the power dynamics at play.
The key to this is understanding that when we get someone else to do something that works in our favour we are winning a concession, something that is VERY important as it provides a material change in our lives, but something that will always rely on the good will of others and that may be removed or ignored further down the line. This can best be seen when people campaign for changes in the law only for the new laws to be worthless on the ground. Lasting victory comes when we make social changes that become the framework by which power is handled regardless of external laws or or the will of a those not directly affected.
Militant political action can be a great place to make or break our confidence to act. Many of the people taking to the streets with UK Uncut were energized by the experience thought because they were taking direct action many were ultimately disheartened when despite some people being sacked the expected victory didn’t materialise (in much the same way in which Leninist/Trot groups often march people about to build the party but never win anything). Conversely, the militant political action called by Boycott Workfare (involving members from the IWW, SolFed and the Anarchist Federation amongst more authoritarian leftists and unaligned types) can be seen to have achievable goals and escalating victories that are building up confidence to act, competence in the action we are taking and, if we keep honest about the type of action we are taking and the victories involved, a greater conciousness of how the system currently works.
A Call to Anarchists
While we should be wary of lending our support to just any old campaign or activity I would also say that too many anarchists today sit in isolation. I argue that we should be organising with those who share our political outlook and with those taking self-led action in our communities to tackle workfare, Atos, the bedroom tax, and the host of ills created by the bosses and landlords. We need to go into these campaigns openly explaining our analysis of the how power works so as to gain support for directly democratic modes of organising and build to a point where direct action is possible against the problem at hand.
Liberation can never be granted by another. Social change can only come about when those affected have an equal voice and choose to take direct action for themselves.