Direct action – on a positive note….

I saw a tweet from Holly at Plan To Win (@HollyPTW) about taking nonviolent direct action (NVDA) for something positive. Is the implication that our actions are usually negative ( “No!”… ” Down with….!” … “Stop….!”). Plenty of folk would say so. It may not be exactly what Holly was pondering, but it made me think of one of the classic NVDA arguments, and an important one.

The argument often runs that NVDA is all about stopping bad stuff happening. That makes it an essentially negative force (however necessary). I think it’s an argument we need to challenge because it leads to a number of problems that weaken us as a movement.

Disconnection – if we get into a mindset of NVDA as only about stopping stuff, of it as a negative, we risk losing our connection with the aspects of our psyche that help keep us balanced, sane and happy – the positive forces in our lives – the natural world, the sun on our faces, friends, family. And that way burnout lies

Burnout – if we internalise the argument that NVDA is negative it becomes hard to maintain our activism. In short it contributes to burnout. Even the most ‘hardcore’ of us requires some positivity, something life-affirming in our lives. Running round trying to ‘stop’ stuff, especially when you can’t succeed every time, isn’t sustainable. No wonder people move on from NVDA to spend more time with family, children, growing veg, getting more involved in community arts and so on.

Splitting the movement – once internalised the argument also opens a rift within the movement. I saw this very clearly a recent Transition Town debate over transition and activism in which several contributors dissociated Transition from activism. Their choice of Transition over activism was about exactly this, it seems – wanting to be making a positive difference which they perceive activism as failing to do.

So it’s not surprising that the forces of darkness like to paint NVDA in this negative light, and prey on our own doubts about it. When a large corporation rolls into town kindly offering to tarmac the latest the last green space to provide us with a wonderful retail experience (cue Joni Mitchell), they accuse activists of saying “no” to jobs, “no” to progress, “no” to choice. Doesn’t really matter what the argument is, as long as they can portray us as the ones saying “no”.

But can we really counter that argument? Am I being disingenuous when I say that I see NVDA as a positive force for social change, one that says “yes” to life, to real choices, to our basic humanity, to liberation? You decide.


The core argument to me is all about intention. What is our motivation when we find ourselves sat on the bulldozer with our “Down with all this sort of thing!” placard? To me it’ firmly about preservation –

  • preserving the integrity of the natural world (and recognising our small part in that web),
  • preserving meaningful human interaction – local jobs, meaningful jobs, not factory farm jobs
  • preserving the possibility of a better future – putting a foot in the door to ensure some light still gets in

The Man may argue a good case, put a wind turbine on the roof of the new shopping centre, and call it something meaningful like ‘Oaklands’ (in honour of the acres of Oaks they felled to build it) but his intention is clear: profit before people, profit before planet.

Method in our madness

Good NVDA walks its talk – it doesn’t wait for some utopian future, it tries to work in utopian ways here and now. For me that’s the main rationale for affinity groups – building small utopian communities now, so that when we take action we’re doing so in a way that speaks to our values, that models the possibilities of future human relationships.

Scale that up and you have mobilisations such as Climate Camp. Now, I’m not an uncritical fan of Climate Camp, but it did try, did intend, to create a temporary, autonomous utopian space. Run by consensus (however flawed), powered by the sun and the wind, grey water systems, organic vegan food, creativity, art, music and of course action (again, however flawed).

The joy of resistance

Personally I’ve found NVDA is the only thing to sustain me in moments when the world really does seem to be going to hell in a handcart. It’s not the winning, nor coming close to winning. It’s the vision of something better, of standing up for that in the face of destructive power. Resistance in that light isn’t wearing or negative, but as vital as the air we breathe.

Action taken from this base is not negative, but an expression of a wildly optimistic view that humans can build a better future, at least for ourselves, and possibly for the non-human species we share the planet with. It’s an affirmation of life and liberty, and frankly there needs to be more of it

It’s no surprise that many direct activists also regard many overtly ‘positive’ activities as NVDA – community gardens, community co-ops, housing co-ops, social centres and much, much more – these are all part of the holistic view of NVDA. All part of the same positive picture. So, can we do positive NVDA ? I think many out there would say they already do.


5 thoughts on “Direct action – on a positive note….

  1. Hello – thanks heaps for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I like that we’re connected like this, and the fact that a question at a forum in Melbourne can spark my thinking on a topic, I share that through a tweet, which you read, and then put a lot of good thinking into a blog post I get to read, and share with the folks who attended the initial forum! By the way, the forum included a screening of UK film Just Do It.
    I think in part we’re dealing with the limitations of language. I wouldn’t characterise NVDA which aims to stop something as ‘negative’. I do think that NVDA is mostly used to try to stop something, and that NVDA doesn’t seem accessible to folks who have a more ‘proactive’ (hate that word, but again limitations of language) agenda. So we don’t currently see sit-ins, lock-ons, banner drops etc for investment in renewable energy – but that doesn’t mean those couldn’t be effective tactics to utilise. Perhaps one of the challenges is finding the right place or target to use NVDA interventions. NVDA fits well at the point of destruction or production around fossil fuels. Perhaps for renewable energy campaigns action is needed at the point of consumption (eg power bills), point of decision (parliament), and the point of assumption. (Thanks to smartMeme’s book Re:Imagining Change) It would be great to learn more from the Vestas campaign, as a great eg of NVDA focused on renewables.
    Another question you raise here is around winning. At the forum this came up – not being sure whether NVDA makes a difference, what part of a campaign creates the tipping point. I must say I have less tolerance these days for any actions that aren’t clearly aimed at producing an outcome, pressuring a power holder, furthering a strategy. Some folks become so enamoured with NVDA that it’s almost as though the action itself is the outcome, the success. Similarly, the autonomous spaces created at climate camps, Occupations, forest blockades etc become defended for their symbolic power, rather than the role they play in creating specific social changes. That’s not where I’m at – which I guess comes through in the title of my project, Plan to Win, which a lot of activists seem to find provocative! I’ll write some more on winning soon, I feel an article emerging.
    Thanks again for this post, I’ll think on it some more.

    • So much good thinking – so little time to reply.

      Yes it would be wonderful to see more NVDA that actively promotes the positive alternatives in a clearly connected way. I know that I took your initial thoughts off into a different dimension.

      I’m minded of some actions back in the 90s where Greenpeace UK scaled the Aberdeen HQ of oil giant BP and put solar panels on their roof. It was a symbolic action aimed at getting BP top shift their focus onto renewables (but there was an offer to return and connect up the photovoltaics – sadly not taken up by BP if memory serves.

      As for winning – I’m ambivalent. I definitely agree with you that we need actions to be thought through and best place to make a difference. Where I struggle is where action groups and NGOs won’t engage with a campaign because they don’t think they can win. Lots of politics tied up there – needing to be seen to win to maintain membership and funding streams etc etc. If there’s bad stuff happening we must resist, even if it seems futile at times. And the odd thing is, we often surprise ourselves and win even hopeless looking campaigns. When UK activists first walked into a field of GM oil seed rape in the mid 90s, taking on the might of the US and UK government backed Monsanto and the whole ‘progress’ bandwagon, I don’t think it was with winning in mind, and yet we forced them out of the country for a decade (and will do so again this time around). Maybe I’m just a little warped, but the power of the campaign was in offering resistance, maintaining our integrity, standing up for our values in the face of overwhelming odds not in winning. However that’s not an excuse for doing any old action with no strategic thought behind it!

  2. concrete…managed gardens…wild gardens…open spaces. some feel the need to plan, others don’t. we marginalise the wild, the improvised and the symbolic at our peril. Carl

  3. Hi, I agree that NVDA can be done either postively (pro-actively) and also that we should not be too worried about the fact that it is more often done in protest against something. Either way its power comes from the fact that it is a direct response to a situation and so connects in a way that is more likely to be immediately obvious to onlookers and also empowering for particpants. We need to focus on the meaning of the word ‘direct’ and contrast that to ‘indirect’ action such as lobbying politicans, campaigning in elections, forming new political parties etc.

    The powerful potential of NVDA lies in its direct connection to the subject matter. Its true that it does not work well in isolation from a well planned campaign strategy, but its also apparent that it can be a powerful tool for magnifying an issue.

    At a deeper conceptual level many direct action protests include an element of ‘paradigmatic theatre’ in which the particpants envision a different outcoem to the cuirrent state of the world and then proceed ‘directly’ to aim to bring it into reality. i think it is this paradigmatic theatre that is often the powerful psychological factor, in that it wrongfoots our opponents in ways that indirect action often doesnt.

    i know this sounds a bit arcane but as a comaprison a rally where we wave placards for or against soemthing does not actually physically speak for itself, its just another group of poeple gathering or marching and its message is neutral until you bother to read the banners. By contrast a strong theatrical direct action can deliver its message in its very medium. For example when we install solar panels on a roof of a government building or return McDonalds trash to the steps of mcDonalds. The action speaks for itself , is direct in that it goes one of the physical sites of the problem, and it is empowering for particpants usually becuase its is so closely connected to the issue. At times, such theatre even goes so far as allowing protesters to assert however briefly some authority in the situation. Not wishing to spuik here but i wrote an article about this aspect of direct action and its available free online at

    I think the value of looking at deeper issues like empowerment, directness of message and the idea of paradigmatic theatre is that it takes the idea of the ‘positive’ nature of NVDA to a new more subtle level.

    • i know this sounds a bit arcane but as a comaprison a rally where we wave placards for or against soemthing does not actually physically speak for itself, its just another group of poeple gathering or marching and its message is neutral until you bother to read the banners. By contrast a strong theatrical direct action can deliver its message in its very medium.

      Thanks for the comment. Nothing arcane about it at all. I think plenty of activists have that experience. Direct action dramatises an injustice so that it can no longer be ignored whilst simultaneously enacting an alternative. I really appreciate the “paradigmatic theatre” idea – not one I’ve come across, at least not in those words.

      And thanks for the link – look forward to exploring that.

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