Direct Action: An Ethnography

David Graeber
AK Press (2009)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Panettiere




To many anarchists, the idea of an “ethnographic study of the global justice movement” may seem problematic. Whether it be matters of security culture or the question of an outsider coming into a culture and telling the rest of the world about them, people I’ve talked to, without knowing Graeber’s work, often seemed skeptical. In Direct Action: an Ethnography, however, David Graeber blurs the false dichotomy between theory and practice by writing both as a sincere participant in the global justice movement as well as an observer and theorist of it during the protests against the FTAA’s 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, 2001.

A furtherance of this theme, his book is not only intellectually stimulating and compelling, but activists get a lot of practical material from it too. His detailed reconstructions of consensus-based meetings, meeting structures, street actions, mini histories, revealing conversations and police tactics are of tremendous use to activists who wish to reassess and better their democratic processes, as well as their tactics for direct actions. Describing the platform of egalitarian decision making processes as a springboard for developing anarchist theory, he highlights the “theory-derived-from-practice” theme that anarchists have always had affinity with and the complications of organizing with undemocratic, hierarchically organized groups.

Having participated in similar actions and meetings, many of the issues of privilege, acceptable tactics and police repression ring true to my, and many other’s experiences during large direct action demonstrations against “Globalization” summits, and during the meetings up to and following them. Seeing how, in great detail and context, one particular action unfolds is something that activists would do well to pay attention to, especially because nothing as extensive and specific to one action, to my knowledge, exists. The entirety of the book, however, is not just about one particular action; it is the very idea of direct action, so central to anarchist practice, that is at the center of this study.

Whether it is the hostilities between primitivists, class-struggle anarchists and “small-a” anarchists, the revolutionary implications of blocking a street and throwing a party, or a history of radical community spaces and direct action in new york city, much insider information about this movement gives light to aspects many of its participants may not even be fully aware of.

Although it is touched upon briefly, what could be useful would be a history of direct action that theorizes the transition from direct action and sabotage as tools used by working people (working class, in the narrow sense) to tools used by generally college-educated middle class activists. Graeber does discuss the possibility that actions like the one detailed in this book might not even be classical definitions of direct action. An interesting, and much needed discussion, however, is a refutation of the idea that participants in the global justice movement are mostly angry, privileged white kids with too much time on their hands.

Graber suggests that revolutionary movements have always taken place at the intersection between upward and downward class and social mobility- as alliances form, both physical (in terms of resources, funding) and theoretical (dissemination, ideas, art) between artists, writers, theorists, and workers.

This case study, as much as the actions he describes, itself has radical implications- that one can be both an ethnographer and a participant who is not a faceless, subjective figure. Graeber has found a crucial intersection between radical politics and scholarship where neither are sacrificed for the sake of the other.

For further reading:

The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle” by David Solnit (Editor), and Rebecca Solnit (Editor). AK Press

Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910’s. By Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, Walker C. Smith, & William E. Trautman. Charles H. Kerr labor classics

The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life by George Katsiaficas. AK Press

Fragments Of An Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber. Prickly Paradigm Press