Direct Action at the Points of Assumption
office at tlio.demon.co.uk
office at tlio.demon.co.uk
Tue Nov 19 15:00:55 GMT 2002
Direct Action at the Points of Assumption
By James John Bell, J. Cookson, Ilyse Hogue and Patrick Reinsborough
At the 2002 Round River Rendezvous in Washington, we, as an organizer trainer
collective, participated in an experiment with many other EarthFirst!ersthe
multi-day track schedule on movement building.
We spent six sessions throughout the course of three days exploring different
components of and reasons to build movements. From grassroots organizing,
coalition building and media work to analysis, information warfare and the
future of the ecology movementthe trainings expanded into a vibrant and participatory dialogue.
As organizers within a transformative subculture, we cannot accept the terms of
struggle that have defined protest movements in the past. We must escape the
self-marginalization of our protests and strive for some synthesis of
possibility beyond the current limited options. Lets pay attention; lets
communicate, and while we strive to save the wild places we have left, lets
act on a number of different planeswith the consistent goal of shifting the
assumptions of global society itself.
Step 1: Devoke the Apocalypse
Current consumer culture is seeding the ground for a familiarity of an
impending ecological apocalypse. We see this mass event played out on
television, in print and at the movies. No longer do people even question the
inevitability of the apocalypse in their mind; rather they seem to be sifting
through the possible characters that they might play: Will I be the hero who
escapes death or the whiny person who gets it in the end? So embedded in our
minds are the scenarios, so many times have they been played out on screen for
us, that it takes more than rational thought to reprogram these future
memories. It takes what we have come to call the psychic break.
The psychic break is the answer to the common activist campfire question: How
did you get radicalized? It is what happens when the reality we are spoon-fed
no longer feels good. It has been likened to blinders being lifted. At
different times, mass segments of society can experience a psychic break
When this happens, a tipping point has been reached. Originating in
epidemiology, the tipping point describes the exact moment when a disease
becomes an epidemic. A broader definition explains that small changes will have
little or no effect on a system until a critical mass is reached. Then, one more
small change will tip the system and a large effect is observed.
The tipping point is a term that has been popularized through a best-selling
book of the same name by New York Times science writer Malcolm Gladwell. In his
book, Gladwell explores the dynamic nature of cultural fads and value systems
by applying the epidemiological lens. We must organize toward the tipping point of the psychic break with the status quo. For at the moment when this happens, potential exists for a fundamental reordering to take place - of economies, communities and our cultural stories that peoples values are based upon. In order to be able to facilitate these opportunities, we must have a comprehensive and incisive analysis of where we should be directing our
energies into action.
Step 2: Interconnect Multiple Direct Action Strategies and Tactics
Direct actionaction that either symbolically or directly shifts power
relationsis an essential transformative tool. Direct action can be both a
tactic within a broader strategy or a political ethic calling to fundamentally
change power relations at the deepest level. As we endeavor to link systemic
change with tangible short-term goals, we must seek out the points of
intervention in the
system. These are the places that when we apply our powerusually through
revoking our obediencewe are able to leverage change.
Traditionally, strategies of direct action have been conceived and enacted
within the confines of a specific campaign. Thus we tend to engage in actions
tree by tree, mill by mill, store by store, global meeting by global meetinga
series of strong threads but not woven together across campaigns or across
The power of direct action exists in its ability to seize a cultures
predominant influenceto challenge its hegemony. This word, from the Greek
hegemonia meaning leadership, is defined as the ruling influence of an empire, state, region or group. Direct action, if only for a moment, seizes
leadership and thus injects into then public sphere a competing discoursea
strand of a new reality that has the ability to ripple outward.
The illusion of global progresscorporate globalization and consumer capitalism now penetrates all arenas of life. It has in the truest sense taken on a life of its own by invading the thought space of the individuals that make up US consumer culture. These stories of global progress permeate our daily existence and tell us that nature is a commodity, consumption is expression and monoculture is normal. This discourse of unlimited global progress is not being
directed from a centralized seat of power. Rather, it is living in and being
reflected from business, politics and culture. In practical terms, this means
that it becomes increasingly difficult to accomplish the type of sweeping
changes necessary to face the ecological crisis by targeting an individual person, government or corporate entity.
These cultural stories also make it so that no amount of data, no matter how
true, can change a persons values. As activists we need to spend less time
compiling reams of data and more time rewriting our cultural storiesthe very
mythology that society gets its values from and do it quick.
Part of the cultural reinforcement of the current system lies in mass
communications. State propaganda, the corporate media, consumer advertising and
other narratives dont control how people think. They control what people think
about. The challenge of future direct action is thus not to change peoples
minds but rather the conditions that make thinking possible. French critic and
philosopher Michel Focault puts it thus, The problem is not changing peoples
consciousness but the political, economic, institutional regime of the
production of truth.
Since there is no single controlling centre within modern capitalist societies,
the strategic goal of direct action becomes one of locating the points of
influence within the system that can re-pattern reality. We discuss five such
points in this essay: destruction, consumption, decision, assumption and
Intervention at all these points through direct action will inject into
societal discourse the threads of a new reality and weave a new pattern of
thought. The poet-philosopher Goethe compares the coalesence of our mental
conceptions to many threads subtly woven together into patterns that gradually
display themselves. Direct action, when contextualized within this framework,
succeeds in uniting the myriad of strands in our movement into the thought
pattern of a new cultural, economic and political reality.
Direct Action at the Point of Destruction
Some of our most successful actions have brought attention to the systems most
blatant and gross injusticesthe points of destruction/production. We become
the frontline resistance by placing our bodies in the way of the harm that is
happeninglike treesits that stop clearcutting. This polarizes the debate in an
effort to attract the spotlight of public attention to a clear injustice.
Direct action at the point of destruction is critical to confront the worlds
grave injustices and immediately alleviate desperate suffering. It has also
served to organize and mobilize many communities by providing a point of common
interestsurvival. However, this form is inherently limited in its ability to
tackle systemic issues.
Direct Action at the Point of Consumption
Point of consumption campaigns have provided inspirational opportunities to
stand in solidarity with communities fighting at the point of destruction and
to reframe ones own individual identity away from the consumer culture prevalent in the global North. These campaigns have included consumer boycotts, attacks on corporate brand names and targeting the retail sector as a way to shut down the markets for destructive products. Activists have forced universities to cancel clothing contracts from sweatshop retailers. Likewise,
forest activists have forced major outlets to stop selling old-growth forest
products by engaging in direct actions aimed at tarnishing companies media
profiles and marketnshares. Attacking the point of consumption expands the arena of struggle to mobilize individuals by showing them that their consumer choices and actions do matter.
Direct Action at the Point of Decision
The point of decision has always been a common and strategic venue for direct
action. Whether its taking over a slumlords office, a corporate boardroom or
the state capital, many successful campaigns have used direct action to put
pressure on the key decisionmakers in destructive projects. In the past few years, mass actions have been organized at the points of decision such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Bank meetings, G8 summits and free trade negotiating sessions. These demonstrations have re-defined popular perceptions of globalization and free trade by showing that institutions like the WTO are ruled by corporations that have usurped decision-making power from people.
Direct Action at the Point of Assumption
All successful direct actions ultimately challenge assumptions. Targeting
assumptions themselves is the act of taking on the framework of myths, lies,
loyalties and flawed logic that normalize injustice. Successful direct actions
at this point identify, isolate and confront the big lies that maintain the
status-quo. A worthy goal for these types of actions is to encourage the most
important act that a concerned individual can take in an era defined by
systematic propagandato question!
We must become skilled at using this tactic to de-colonize peoples revolutionary imaginations by linking analysis and action in ways that re-frame
issues and create new political space. One example was the 1981 Earth First!
action at Glen Canyon Dam. At a time when most wilderness preservation
groups were limiting their actions to fighting new dam construction, Earth
First! Symbolically cracked the dam by unfurling a 300-foot-long plastic
banner from the top of the structure, creating an image of a fissure down the
concrete face. This simple symbol sent a powerful message that advocates could
and should be calling for the removal of big dams and the re-wilding of those
rivers. Until then, the corporate paradigm of dominating nature had rendered
the question of removing a mega-dam unthinkable it was beyond the realm of imagination. The cracking action challenged that assumption and created a new political space to forward that agenda.
Direct action at the point of assumption has taken many formscreating new
symbols, embodying alternatives or sounding the alarm. In 1994, when the
Zapatista ski mask gained international notoriety, Subcomandante Marcos wrote of the irony that this symbol of anonymity had made visible to the government the indigenous people it had ignored for so long.
Acting to subvert basic belief systems provides new opportunities to expand the
traditional arenas of political discourse because it allows us to choose the
terms and locations of engagement. Effective point of assumption actions can
transform the mundane into a radical conversation starter. For instance, putting a piece of duct tape across a prominent logo on your clothing
can invite a conversation about corporate commodification. Such actions can be easily incorporated into everyday life.
Direct Action at the Point of Potential
Every time we successfully change assumptions, we open up the potential for the
replacement of societys destructive institutions. By playfully constructing futures in the present, we nurture visions that refuse conventional notions of politics. These stories portray images of the future, as well as pathways that could lead us from where we are now to that future world.
A classic example of direct action at the point of potential took place during
Cascadia Forest Defenders defense of Warner Creek in Oregons Willamette
National Forest. Earth First!ers fought this fire salvage sale behind blockades
and also by constructing an alternative future when they wrote a recovery plan
titled Alternative EF: Ecology of Fire. In their future scenario, activists
proposed permanent protection of Warner Creek as a Fire Ecology Research
Natural Area. This visionary educational-agitational tool won the endorsement of the local community, scientists and national environmental groups. This vision remains, even now, to help establish permanent protection of Warner Creek.
We need to constantly create possible scenarios within our movements for future
social and environmental transformation. These actions function as memories of
the future, rehearsing tomorrow in peoples minds and reclaiming our ability
to shape the future. The best scenarios arent necessarily those that come
true; they are the ones that subvert expectations, providing deep insights into the changes happening all around us. The better the scenarios are, the more
they penetrate to the deepest understanding of the present.
Step 3: Strategically Frame Your Targets
Image events are actions, visuals or stories that simultaneously destroy and
construct new meaningthey are raids on human consciousness. Image events
either replace existing sets of symbols or re-define their meanings through
humour or shock. Applications of this concept can be seen in what Adbusters founder, Kalle Lasn, has dubbed culture jammingmethods of subverting corporate propaganda by juxtaposing new images or co-opting slogans. For instance, when we re-write Chevrons advertising slogan to say Do people kill for oil?, we use the power of corporate images against the corporations themselves.
Tragically, culture jamming often remains in the limited media realm of
consumer messages. Our next task is to expand guerrilla meme tactics into other
areas of culture and to connect them with long-term strategies to build grassroots power.
We must not let go of the fact that there are many powerful industries that do
not depend on consumer approval. Perhaps more importantly, going after the
corporations one at a time limits the scope of possible change. Our movements need to contest the corporate monopoly on meaning and jam the controlling mythologies of consumer culture, the corporate empire and pathological capitalism. The corporate take over has gotten so blatant that we need to openly attack the symbols used to perpetrate anti-life values, greed and consumer capitalism.
Step 4: Weave a TapestryBuild a Movement
All of these points of intervention in the system are critical; the best
strategies unite efforts across them. Potential targets to consider: the idea
of corporate rule, notions forming our separation from nature, the concepts
of unlimited growth, technological progress and consumer identities. This
is uncertain work. Remember, these are fluid distinctions. One activists point
of destruction is another persons point of potential.
There is no way to know what will cause the psychic break. Tipping points are
hardly a science. Rather than being disempowering, this uncertainty should
appeal to the activists innate sense of adventure and creativity. This is truly uncharted territory of social actionthe realm of the collective imagination.
When asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow, Martin
Luther said, I would plant a tree. This action represents the height of
potential! At the same time, though, it inherently subverts the assumption that
the world is going to end. It functions at a multiplicity of points. If
Luther planted his tree in a clearcut, it would be at the point of destruction
as well. It is these crystallizations of actions at multiple points that allows
us to challenge assumptions.
Living at such a critical time compels us to search for those convergence
points and exploit them. With this effort, we hope to expand the current
debates and push our movements to explore new frontiers of struggle. We hope to
provoke further and deeper action, as well as to challenge all of us to weave
these actions together and provide a tapestry of reality more vibrant and
compelling than the one that is currently unraveling.
This essay represents the collective evolution of thinking and writing by James
John Bell, J. Cookson, Ilyse Hogue and Patrick Reinsboroughthe SmartMeme
Project. To participate in strategizing and discussing these ideas, contact
patrickr at riseup.net; www.smartmeme.com. Future issues of the Earth First!
Journal will feature new essays, and look for this workshop to be expanded upon
at the upcoming 2003 Organizers Conference.
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