Studying direct action at the university of life…

I find myself in two minds about the student protest.

On the one hand I’m relieved that there’s some resistance and that it’s (at least for now) sizeable. In recent months and years we’ve missed so many opportunities for making change as a nation, and as a species. The immediacy of climate change should have spurred a rethink of the way we structure our society, the way we trade internationally and so much more. The banking crisis should have catalysed a change to a more human-centred and sustainable economic analysis. It would be devastating if the current round of cuts went through without significant resistance.

But on the other hand I’m left wondering about the efficacy of what’s happening. Student protest? Another march, another occupation. Tried and tested or lacking imagination and effectiveness? These tools are succeeding in making the student voice heard. But that’s only effective if the powerholders are listening.

A massive majority of people opposed GM food, but the government and their corporate pals went right ahead anyway. It took a persistent campaign of direct action to set them back 10 years. Over a million marched through London against war and their voices were ignored. The government may listen, but the voice of the people is often a whisper compared to the roar of the voice that really calls the tune – the voice of the $, £ and €.

For me it’s the difference between resistance that’s essentially an act of lobbying – that is pressuring someone else to make change, and direct action. Direct action is about making the change regardless, with or without permission and co-operation from our “lords and masters”. At the very least direct action amplifies the voice of the people. At it’s best it also makes change along the way. I’d urge students to look wider than their own movement for ideas for action. And to those that condemn direct action so freely to the media, read your history. Think civil rights movement, think the roads movement of the 1990s…

Are the sit-ins, marches and occupations making real change? Would we be better placed organising to withhold fees or student loan repayments? Organising cheap, co-operative or squatted accommodation for students? Organising food co-ops? Setting up a free university (ideally ‘teaching’ in more empowering ways, and having a more enlightened political analysis). We’d certainly be better taking the time to ensure all action was focused at the real heart of the issue. Who is driving these cuts? If in doubt, follow the money trail and ask who stands to profit most. That’s where to focus the action.

Of course it’s easy to sit here and commentate from the sidelines. Rhizome will be making a small contribution, by facilitating some of the So We Stand nonviolent direct action trainings. The first is at Leeds Uni tonight. We’ll take a whistle-stop tour of some of the ideas behind direct action and nonviolence, practice a few techniques for making action more effective, and for dealing with confrontational situations. We’ll also cover the all important legal rights. And, if we have time, we’ll do an introduction to action planning. We’ll let you know how it goes.


4 thoughts on “Studying direct action at the university of life…

  1. Spot on, and brings to mind the protest/demonstration distinction Dwight posted a while back. I too am cautious of commenting from the sidelines, but as spectacular as the scenes from the past couple days are there is a big gulf between large protests and long-term change. Your suggestions are great, and I suspect (though hope to be proven wrong) that yet again they won’t materialise.

    PS – Apologies for not replying yet to any of your excellent comments on meetings, I’m keen to but want to give them the thought they deserve first. Also – gutted to miss you in Leeds tonight, we’ve got a meeting on that clashes.

  2. Good luck, and I look forward to reading how the training went.

    It’s the difference between a protest and a demonstration, IMHO. The words get used interchangeably (and usually as synonyms for another march).

    A protest doesn’t build capacity (though it might build numbers, but that’s only a short term boost). A demonstration does build capacity, makes new links.

    Someone said it really well in a short article in an Adbusters, and I reprinted it here-

  3. Good stuff for getting out and doing some training. Is there anything I could post up on Political Dynamite to be of help?

    The question of whether the militant elements represent ‘direct action lobbying’ or direct action is legitimate. But you miss out another crucial dimension.

    Civil Disobedience (as opposed to direct action) can have the ability to undermine the power of an illegitimate government. See this post –

    Given that it is unlikely that the current government is unlikely to reverse the cuts, this is a logical and sensible tactic, see this post –

    Having said that – non payment of fees campaigns could be useful methods of direct action lobbying, as could be a leafleting boycott of pro fees candidates – see this post

    Really liking this blg and the community of activism method bloggers that is emerging (see commenters above). Will blog about how much I like you soon 🙂

  4. You rightly distinguish between civil disobedience and direct action, a distinction I glossed over for the sake of brevity. So here’s my personal take…

    Civil disobedience is undoubtedly powerful. I’m not arguing with that. You only need to look at history for a clear demonstration of that – The suffragettes and the strikes of the labour movement to give just a couple of examples. I imagine most of the struggles against cuts (student and otherwise) will fall into this realm – people temporarily removing their co-operation with government (or an aspect of government) until their grievances are met.

    For me though, nonviolent direct action has more power. My experience of it is in anarchic movements such as Earth First! Here direct action is seen as an alternative to government – people organising for themselves in their own interests and, crucially, in the interests of the planet, the non-human animals with which we share it, and the poor and dispossessed. This stems from the understanding that all governments of whatever shade ultimately serve a ‘higher master’, i.e capitalism, and not the people they were elected to serve. Of course we could debate whether capitalism can be transformed into a humane and green economic system…. but that’s for another time!

    So direct action is an attempt to model a different form of society with values that capitalism (inherently?) fails to hold. Many people, myself included, would argue that by organising our actions as we want society to be organised (non-hierarchically, by consensus, welcoming diversity, as accessibly as possible, and so on) we don’t just model a different future, we make the future happen right here and now.

    I hope action against the cuts moves people, through civil disobedience, closer to a direct action perspective.

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