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An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 139-144.

Review: Gathering Force

Gathering Force: DIY Culture - Radical action for those tired of waiting
by Elaine Brass and Sophie Poklewski Koziell. Edited by Denise Searle.
The Big Issue: London, 1997

PictureIn the last year or so there has been a number of books published that refer to, and purport to cover, the direct action movement. This truly atrocious coffee table book is merely the latest addition to what is now a growing genre. [1] No doubt there will be many more to come if this niche in the market proves profitable. This review only deals with Gathering Force, but moving beyond that, the criticisms that are levelled here can be extrapolated and applied to many, if not all, of the mainstream representations of us that are currently flooding on to the market.

But why bother with books like Gathering Force? For anyone who has actually been involved in any of the events written about in this book the reportage and analysis it presents are often laughably ill-informed and inadequate. However it is important to understand what function this whole genre of books, TV programmes, plays etc. fulfils as part of a general attack on the radical direct action movement and not just to casually dismiss the real threat that it presents.

The book takes the form of themed chapters on: 'Animal Rights', 'Roads and Transport', 'Land and Housing', 'Our Basic Rights and Liberties', 'Raves and Festivals', 'Alternative Media' and 'Community-based Economics'. Taken in isolation these aren't too bad as they largely stick to the facts and let activists speak for themselves (although they are marked by omissions, inaccuracies and a biased selection, of which more later). Neither, however, are they spectacularly novel or informative; nothing here will be unfamiliar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with 'DIY Culture'.

These topic-based chapters provide no analysis of the phenomena they record. This task is kept for the framing chapters that sandwich the main text of the book as 'Introduction' and 'The Future'. Here pages are given to the precious thoughts of such well known 'DIYers' as Cabinet Minister Chris Smith, editor of The Independent Andrew Marr and lefty think tank wanker Geoff Mulgan. Thus the words of the activists themselves are presented, encapsulated and offered up within a liberal political framework. Our actions are packaged; wrapped up in a sugar coating to make them more palatable for the middle classes to swallow. It is almost like people can't be trusted to speak for themselves but their actions have to be explained by an array of 'respectable' experts; interpreted and made safe for the readers of the book. In case you were going to be scared off by the radicalism of all those nasty protester types this book says they're not really anarchists, they're just lobbying using light-hearted and imaginative stunts. Oh, well - that's alright then.

"The channels of democracy seemed to have silted up"

The writers of Gathering Force bang away at their pet subjects throughout the book. According to them the main problem with Britain today, and the one which 'DIY Culture' exists to rectify, is a lack of communication between those in power and those they rule. "The channels of democracy seemed to have silted up" they winge (GF: p37), [2] and this theme is harped on incessantly throughout the book. [3] 'DIY culture' is thus presented as an effort at unblocking these channels, at making ourselves heard in the corridors of power - a sort of pep-me-up tonic to rejuvenate British democracy. The authors quote Heritage Secretary Chris Smith: "Parliament and Government tend to be a bit out of touch with a lot of thinking and modes of speech that particularly young people are using… There are certain problems with communication where there is no shared language, no shared assumptions and no culture" (GF: p11). This utterly naïve expectation that the state has any interest in listening to us (or that it would do anything about it even if it did [4]) demonstrates that the authors have no understanding of the state as having radically different interests to ourselves. For them it is simply a question of our voice not being heard. It is left unsaid but assumed that as soon as we are heard our concerns will be met. It is also assumed that our concerns are limited enough to be capable of being met by the government. Personally I am not really interested in any demand that the government could easily agree to.

The problem is not one of the government being unaware of our existence; while the authors of Gathering Force witter on about how we are being ignored the state is only too well aware of our existence. They ought to be - they have enough MI5 and special branch people monitoring us. [5] Not only that, but the state routinely has to deal with the effects of our actions; for example Thames Valley Police's request for more money from the Home Office to police the Newbury Bypass protests, and a similar request from Sussex cops during the Shoreham demonstrations. The problem is not that they are unaware of us but that they hate us, for our aim is the destruction of the system that gives them their power. And if we have any sense we should hate them too, as they will stop at nothing to defend their privileges.

Recuperation

Gathering Force is not designed for consumption by anyone involved in the movement(s) it describes and is parasitical upon, but by passive spectators. Equally it is obviously not written by anyone with a personal involvement in what they're talking about but by professional journalists coming to their subject matter from outside. It is almost a 'textbook' example of what is called 'recuperation'. In situationist jargon, recuperation is the process whereby a radical phenomenon potentially threatening to the existing order is transformed or integrated into a commodity. Capitalism assimilates our ideas and actions, dilutes the passion and anger behind them, and then repackages them as something harmless or even beneficial to itself, to sell back to us for our own consumption. Gathering Force is an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to recuperate the direct action movement by manipulating it into a liberal, reformist agenda. This attempt operates in many complex ways. Some of them are discussed below.

'DIY Culture' or 'Direct Action'? - Struggles over the definition of the movement

PictureWhat we call ourselves decides how we define ourselves and which people we see as sharing a common cause with us and which people we do not. Thus, for example, whether road protests are part of the 'direct action movement' or 'DIY culture' (at least as defined by Gathering Force) is an important matter. These are not just two different words for the same thing: they have a substantially different content. The label helps to create the reality it describes. If we become known by the label 'DIY culture' and if we adopt this description of ourselves then this will to an extent determine our theory and practice. The use of the word 'culture' is also telling; is that really what we have in common? Is that all we are - a 'culture'? To the contrary; what we have in common is a common set of interests bound together by practical struggle.

There is a constant struggle in progress over the definition and composition of the movement. Compare contacts lists: both Gathering Force and Do or Die include Reclaim The Streets as a contact, but they include the Institute of Race Relations and Liberty as being part of the same movement as RTS whereas we include the Anarchist Black Cross and Anti-Fascist Action. Maybe this is reading too much into a contacts list, but it is at least indicative of where we are respectively coming from: are we a civil liberties lobbying force or are we about autonomous anti-capitalist struggle? Who do we make links with - Charter 88 or the Anarchist Black Cross?

Their sort of people

Gathering Force is thus about presenting a certain image of the movement(s) it describes - as being something called 'DIY Culture'. This representation is aimed at an audience of liberal reformist middle class types to present us to them as people who are essentially engaged in the same project they are. We are presented as their sort of people and as being alright really because we haven't actually got anything much in common with the ALF or Green Anarchist, but much more with the Green Party, Charter 88 or the think tank Demos. This image will then serve to attract that sort of person into the movement and thus amplify the tendencies dragging it in that direction.

The book is also a baited hook for direct activists to bring them back into the mainstream. The initial chapters aren't too offensive - we follow their argument along (much of it presented in the words of activists themselves!) and are eventually led to the total capitulation expressed by Des Kaye, organiser of the annual Kingston Green Fair: "Instead of looking at an enemy, we need to find the areas of similarity where we can work together… This has to be the way forward, instead of this Socialist Workers Party mentality of destroy the state… We have a system, we have an establishment and we can utilise them" (GF: p123).

The aim of all this is to reconnect the mainstream and those outside of, and potentially threatening to it. This is effected by trying to make links between the most radical edge of the mainstream and the most mainstream edge of the radical faction. Thus the authors have chosen to talk to those within the direct action movement who advocate working within the system (such as "award-winning Emma Must" [6]) and then are attempting to link them with those outside the direct action movement (Chris Smith, Geoff Mulgan, Andrew Marr etc.) who want to draw 'DIYers' into the mainstream.

Omissions

In order to define this thing they have labelled 'DIY Culture' the authors have had to make arbitrary choices about content. Or almost arbitrary, for the selection runs to a liberal agenda. I realise that no book can ever hope to cover every aspect of what is a very diverse and broad movement, but in noting what this book has left out it betrays its true colours. Apart from the startlingly obvious omissions (peace and anti-nuclear movements anyone?) there is also very little mention of what is arguably the most important direct action struggle in our life times: the resistance to the Poll Tax.

In addition, in one of the most irritating pieces of writing in the book (and believe me, there is some stiff competition!) which could have been taken directly from an right-wing authoritarian organ such as The Daily Telegraph, the authors state: "At the other end of the spectrum are the exploits of the more radical animal rights groups such as hunt saboteurs or the Animal Liberation Front storm troopers [!] who set fire to abattoirs and attack laboratories that use animals for testing. These people are still seen by some as the lunatic fringe and their concerns go unheeded by those in power" (GF: p28). A police press release could not have said it better! To give barely more than a paragraph to the anti-Poll Tax struggle and to dismiss in two sentences a whole section of the animal liberation movement, clearly shows the intention of Gathering Force to exclude the more radical elements of the direct action movement from 'DIY culture'; their self-defined area of study.

The good cop/bad cop game of ideology

At the same time as the connections between the more liberal fringe of the direct action movement and the more radical edge of the liberal mainstream are emphasised and played-up, the more radical edge of the faction outside the mainstream is totally marginalised or ignored. This book carries out in the realm of ideology the same tactics often used by the police to destroy radical movements in practice: split the movement by integrating half of them back into the mainstream - into non-threatening activity (e.g.: Agenda 21); start talking about 'dialogue' and 'communication' and then marginalise, ignore and suppress the ones who won't be co-opted. In the good cop/ bad cop game of ideology this book is the nice cop. Green Anarchist have felt the hand of the bad cop. [7] The attempt to manipulate the direct action movement in a liberal, reformist stance and the persecution of those advocating a more radical position are really two halves of the same process. Our choice is either to be incorporated thus or to be forced to define ourselves against the positions presented in this book and to potentially suffer the same treatment meted out to GA and those who won't be assimilated.

Liberalism [8]

I may have made all these tactics of recuperation sound like some sort of deliberate plot, but that is not necessarily the case. The authors probably have the best intentions in the world and a genuine enthusiasm for what they think of as 'DIY Culture', but given their liberal perspective the harmful effect of the book is almost inevitable. Therefore the root of what is wrong with Gathering Force is its liberal politics.

Although 'liberal' is often used as a sort of insult or to mean 'not hardcore enough', it has a specific meaning. Liberalism is the political ideology of the bourgeoisie - it is the set of ideas, the theoretical framework, that goes hand-in-hand with capitalist social relations. Liberals see society as being an aggregate of fundamentally separate and atomised individuals. This is the view of society expressed when we are told that "we are all just individuals aren't we?". You typically hear this comment in relation to the idea that underneath their uniforms the police, the bailiffs and even the chief executives of multinationals are just individuals like us and if only we would communicate with them on a human level and showed them what nice people we are, then there would be no need for conflict. Underlying this (to say the least) rather naïve idea is the fundamental liberal view of the world as simply composed of individual human beings that ultimately have the same common interest. Liberals are fundamentally blind to the existence of social classes with inherently antagonistic interests, as the authors of Gathering Force quite freely say: "DIY Culture isn't confined to any class" (GF: p8). To them Britain is essentially one big happy family; there may be some problems that need ironing out but these can only be caused by ignorance or misunderstanding because basically everyone's interests are the same.

The liberal idea that we are all equal citizens because we are all 'equal before the law' obscures essential differences. For example - Rupert Murdoch and I both have an equal 'right' to free speech. But this 'right' that liberals endlessly bleat on about is meaningless when we do not have an equal ability to freely speak. There is an essential class difference; he's a rich wanker who controls half the media in this country and I have little or no access to that whatsoever. Therefore we cannot agree with Margaret Thatcher when she said "there is no such thing as society. Only individuals and their families", because it is individuals like her and her family who have power, and individuals like us who have fuck all.

"It is about people wanting to take responsibility for their own lifestyles and realising that how they live - in terms of their own health or what they consume - is actually a political action. It's a realisation that individual actions influence the overall fabric of society and how it works" (GF: p9). Here Geoff Mulgan of the think tank Demos neatly expresses the liberal worldview. Liberalism pretends that we are all just individuals, the bearers of various 'rights', i.e.: we are all free to buy and sell as equals, relating to each other through the market. The 'liberty' of liberalism is the 'right' to private property - the fundamental freedom to buy and sell unhindered. Because of this, for liberals the primary way that we have an influence or exert control over our lives is through individual consumer choices. Green consumerism is a fine example of liberal recuperation - a potentially dangerous green movement was transformed into a matter of which commodity to choose - thus propping up the whole business of commodity production that caused the environmental crisis in the first place. Contrary to what Geoff Mulgan says, our influence as individuals is minimal - especially when it is channelled into choosing one brand over another. It is only when we begin to act collectively that we stand any chance of effecting real change.

The Future?

The authors use the final chapter 'The Future', to share with us their wisdom as to the direction the 'DIY movement' should take. The focus for this chapter is the events in September 1996 and after, where links were made with the sacked Liverpool Dockers. The most amazing thing that this book manages to do in writing and commenting on these issues is the quite impressive task of glossing over any form of action taken with the dockers. This betrays the writers as spectators rather than the people who participated in the events. Any of the hundreds of people who were there will tell you that the links were forged not in the meetings or discussions leading up to the events, although the groundwork was laid there, but in the actions on the Monday where together we invaded the port, resisted the police attacks on the picket lines and laughed, danced, sung and then got drunk together. Put simply, this is the real reason why the book is such a woefully inadequate document trying to catalogue and comment on us all. It has been written by people who have experienced very little, or possibly even none, of the passion, anger and joy that we have all felt on numerous occasions on evictions, actions or even simply sitting around the fire with our friends.

So with this wealth of personal experience to back up their opinions, they proceed to lecture us: "the challenge now is to… open channels of communication to the new Labour Government so that those who hold political, economic and social power will listen to those who have justified grievances" (GF: p117). To press this point even further, George Monbiot, quoted more than anyone else throughout the book, then says: "We can save ourselves an awful lot of headaches if we can get our concerns onto the Government's agenda." (GF: p122). Well excuse me, but I was under the impression that these are the same people that we are trying to bypass and take authority and power away from when we take direct action. Trying to "open channels of communication" with them, as the writer so quaintly puts it, is nothing more than a negation of direct action and all the acts of resistance that we have taken in the past. But it gets worse: "DIYers need to participate in the mainstream to change that which they complain about - even voting and being elected" (GF: p123). The disgust felt when I read these quotes is deep and heartfelt. To say that this is what we now need is nothing more than an insult to all those who have risked all on actions; been arrested, fined, imprisoned or worse, and is abhorrent - especially coming from somebody who has done none of these things.

Direct Action as militant lobbying

We can see here that there are clearly emerging two entirely separate ideas of what direct action is about. Is taking direct action our way of being heard by, and asking favours from, the policy makers because we are not represented properly in parliament? As Spectator journalist Alisdair Palmer says: "People are no longer lobbying by letter, they are lobbying by protesting and capturing media attention" (GF: p42). Is this what we're doing? Or is direct action an attempt to form communities of resistance in a global anti-capitalist struggle: to create a world fit for our desires - one free of hierarchy, exploitation and oppression?

Well, I guess you know where I stand. Direct action is not an elaborate form of political lobbying and Earth First! is not, as someone once said, "The Green Party with bolt cutters". If direct action is about anything at all, it is about taking power away from the politicians and bureaucrats and seizing control over our own lives. As the graffiti said: "We are not going to demand anything. We are not going to ask for anything. We are going to take. We are going to occupy."[9]

The two positions are contradictory, and ultimately you can, of course, only be on one side. Eventually all people will have to make a decision as to which side they are on. In reading Gathering Force it seems clear that the writers, editors and publishers of this book have chosen their side already. After reading the book you must decide on which side they have chosen to stand - and then treat them accordingly.

What are we gonna do about it?

PictureIf this review has been overly negative let me offer as a sort of excuse the fact that as a movement we are often so over-awed by the fact that anyone has taken any interest in us, that we totally lose control of all our critical faculties and become far too tolerant of this kind of shit - only seeing the positive and never the negative. For example, the most frequently used argument to try and validate books like Gathering Force is, to quote a review of a similar book: "If [it] inspires one 16 year old to go out and lock on, set up a sound system or live in a bus, then it has done a good job". [10] It must, however, be borne in mind that many people may be put off getting involved in direct action due to such stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals of us.

Therefore, as a conclusion (of sorts) I would suggest a couple of things to enable us to try and counteract the flood of poorly researched, inaccurately written and expensively sold books about us that are oozing onto the bookshelves. Firstly, we must get more clued up - as we become more successful we invite more attacks from the state and its hangers-on. People seem to be much more prepared for physical attacks (offices being raided, conspiracy charges etc.) than they are for attack through recuperation, yet this can be just as deadly in its effect on our actions. Unfortunately, we are not totally innocent parties in the watering down of our ideas and the reasons behind our struggles. When was the last time you saw a campaign leaflet (apart from a very few notable exceptions) that declared its aim as the halting of the road/airport/quarry construction and the destruction of capitalism? Maybe after the agreement at the 1997 EF! Summer Gathering that we are an anti-capitalist movement we may see this change over the coming months.

To combat recuperation, radical action must find its counterpart in radical theory and the direct action movement must lose its 'deeds not words' antipathy to ideas. Gathering Force may end up doing us a service after all, by forcing us to think more deeply about who we are and what we do. If it results in the direct action movement getting more theoretically clued up and specifically defining itself against the positions represented in this book then perhaps it will have been no bad thing after all.

Most importantly however, we must get our version of events out there and - this cannot be emphasised enough - write our own history. We are notoriously terrible at this, and rather than just moan at every book that we feel has betrayed our ideals and misrepresented us, we must start to actively counter it. The proliferation of computers and Desk Top Publishing (or even, for you real luddites, cut and paste and then photocopying - potato prints anyone?) means the ability to produce a few hundred cheap copies of a pamphlet are within the realms of possibility for most campaigns - and even individuals. [11]

The writers, editors and publishers of this book, if they are reading this, should really sit down and think about their motives for bothering to do this at all. What are the real reasons for their writing and publishing a book on us? Are they purely trying to get the 'message' out to a wider audience, or are they, as some suggest, just trying to create a name for themselves in the media world?

I am sure they would say that they really believe in the movement, but the question should then be asked: 'Why are you not involved in it?' As our autonomist friends correctly point out, "…journalists delude themselves that they serve 'the people' despite the fact that they work for media whose very existence presupposes that 'the people' are kept atomised as wage-slaves". [12]

I would hope that no one who has actually been involved in any amount of direct action could be as naïve as the authors of Gathering Force. The experience of disobedience can sometimes change people's ideas very quickly. One of the more inspiring quotes in the book comes from somebody involved in the live exports protests: "I've been kept in a box for 58 years and had never dared to question things… but when you step out of your box you suddenly realise that you don't live in a democracy, it is just a word" (GF: p33). I would humbly suggest that perhaps the authors actually need to get out there and have their faith in democracy shattered.

Notes

  1. For example Judge Dredd takes on the eco-protestors in recent issues of 2000AD, a play called Road Rage was recently performed in Edinburgh and set on a protest site, Ruth Rendell's most recent Inspector Wexford mystery, also called Road Rage, at least two recent academic conferences on the direct action movement, academic books etc. etc.
  2. Henceforward all page references and quotations from Gathering Force will be presented in this fashion; "GF: p37" denotes Gathering Force page 37.
  3. see GF: pp. 10,11,71, 117, 123, 124. And probably elsewhere too.
  4. "The system allowed us to spend decades in argument, and huge sums of money, making an intellectually unshakeable case, only for the system to brush it all aside" - Chris Gillham of the Twyford Down Association (GF: p37). Listened to and then ignored; that's democracy!
  5. see 'The Empire Strikes Back' Do or Die No.6 (1997) p.136 for a good account of this.
  6. This appelation appears to have become part of her name for the two are never mentioned separately.
  7. see article in this issue of Do or Die.
  8. In writing this section I have drawn heavily on a discussion document prepared by Brighton Autonomists for the Brighton anti-Criminal Justice Act group Justice? probably some time in 1995. I have been lamentably unable to phrase it any better than the author of this document and so have borrowed heavily. Many of the same arguments can be found in Aufheben issue 4 (see recommended reading section in this issue of Do or Die).
  9. A piece of graffiti from the 1968 uprisings in France. See Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement, France, May '68 by René Viénet (Autonomedia/Rebel Press, 1992) p. 54. In 'Reclaim the Streets!', Do or Die No.6 (1997) p. 1
  10. review of Senseless Acts of Beauty by George McKat, in Do or Die No. 6 (1997), p. 145
  11. See The Battle for The Trees by Merrick (Godhaven Press, 1997) for an excellent example of this in action - or indeed Road Raging, Do or Die or any of the wealth of fanzines, books and pamphlets that are self-published (see recommended reading section in this issue)
  12. Aufheben No. 4 (Summer 1995), p. 27

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