August 2003
volume 1, issue 2



vii. direct action at the point of assumption

Direct action— actions that either symbolically or directly shift power relations— is an essential transformative tool. Direct action can be both a tactic within a broader strategy or a political ethic of fundamental change at the deepest level of power relations. Every direct action is part of the larger story we are re-telling ourselves about the ability of collaborative power to overcome coercive power.

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 where when we apply our power— usually through revoking our obedience — we are able to leverage change.

Direct action at the point of production was one of the original insights of the working people’s labor union movement. Labor radicals targeted the system where it was directly effecting them and where the system was most fetishisticly concerned to make its profits at the expense of the dignity and rights of working people.

Modern resistance movements have continued to target the system at its most blatant— the “point of destruction”. We become the frontline resistance by placing our bodies in the way of the harm that is happening. Whether its plugging the effluent pipes that dump poison on a neighborhood, forest defenders sitting in trees marked for cutting or indigenous peoples defending their ancestral homelands, direct action at the point of destruction embodies values crisis. It polarizes the debate in an effort to attract the spotlight of public attention to a clear injustice. But tragically the point of destruction is often times far out of the public eye and the values confrontation is made invisible by distance, imbedded patterns of bias or popular ignorance. Frequently the impacted communities have little political voice so in order to provide support we must find other points of intervention.

Inspiring “point of consumption” campaigns have been used by many movements as ways to stand in solidarity with communities fighting at the point of destruction. This is the realm of consumer boycotts, attacks on corporate brand names and other campaigns which target the commercial sector as a way to shut down the markets for destructive products. Activists have confronted retailers selling sweatshop products and forced universities to cancel clothing contracts. Likewise forest activists have forced major chains to stop selling old growth forest products by doing direct actions aimed at companies media profiles and market share. Attacking the point of consumption expands the arena of struggle to mobilize consumers made complicit in the injustice of the globalized economy by their own purchasing decisions. These strategies can be based on a very shallow analysis of “ethical shopping” or a more profound rejection of the consumer identity altogether.

The “point of decision” has always been a common and strategic venue for direct action. Whether its taking over a slumlord’s office, a corporate boardroom or the state capital many successful campaigns have used direct action to put pressure on the decision makers they are targeting. Much of the mass action organizing of the past few years has been largely aimed at re-defining popular perceptions of the “point of decision”. The actions at WTO and World Bank meetings, G8 summits and Free Trade negotiating sessions have helped reveal the corporate take-over by showing that it is these new institutions of corporate rule that have usurped decision making power.

All of these points of intervention in the system are important and the best strategies unite efforts across them. Increasingly as the global financial sector has becoming the “operating system” for the planet the pathological logic of doomsday economics has replaced specific points of decision in driving the corporate take over. We aren’t just fighting acts of injustice or destruction but rather we are fighting a system of injustice and destruction. In recognizing this we must expand our efforts to intervene in physical space with similar initiatives in cultural and intellectual space. How can we side step the machine and challenge the mentality behind the machine? In other words we need to figure out how to take direct action at the “point of assumption”.

Targeting assumptions— the framework of myths, lies, and flawed rationale that normalize the corporate take over— requires some different approaches from actions at the other points of intervention. “Point of assumption” actions operate in the realm of ideas to expose pathological logic, cast doubt and undermine existing loyalties. Successful direct action at the point of assumption identifies, isolates and confronts 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 citizen can take in an era defined by systematic propaganda – QUESTIONING!

Direct action at the point of assumption is a tool to de-colonize people’s revolutionary imaginations by linking analysis and action in ways that re-frame issues and create new political space. Whether we’re radically deconstructing consumer spectacles, exposing the system’s propaganda or birthing new rhetoric we need actions that reveal the awful truth— that the intellectual underpinnings of the modern system are largely flawed assumptions. Direct action at the point of assumption is an effort to find the rumors that start revolutions and ask the questions that topple empires.

The first action of the radical ecology group Earth First! is a great example of direct action at the point of assumption. In 1981, at a time when many wilderness preservation groups were fighting new dam construction, Earth First! did a symbolic “cracking” of Glen Canyon Dam by unfurling a 300 ft long plastic wedge from the top of the dam. This created an image of a fissure down the dam’s face. This simple symbol sent a powerful message that rather than just stopping new dams wilderness advocates should be calling for the removal of big dams and the re-wilding of dammed rivers. Within the industrial paradigm of dominating nature the question of removing a mega-dam was an unthinkable thought— it was beyond the realm of imagination. The “cracking” action however challenged that assumption and created a new political space and a powerful image to forward that agenda.

Likewise as the anti-car movement has grown groups like Reclaim the Streets have taken effective direct actions at the point of assumption to make the idea of car free cities imaginable. Reclaim the Streets groups showed what a better world could look like with actions that occupy car clogged streets and transform them into people friendly space with music, festivity, comfy furniture and in some cases even grass and plants. Similarly activists around the world have taken creative “Buy Nothing Day” actions to attack the assumptions of consumerism by calling for a 24 hour moratorium on consumer spending on the busiest shopping day of the year. This simple idea, often popularized with ridicule and humorous spectacle has led to many successful effort to define consumerism itself as an issue.

Direct action at the point of assumption has taken many forms— creating new symbols, embodying alternatives or sounding the alarm. The Zapatista ski mask is a well known example of a symbol which functioned as direct action at the point of assumption . The ski masks, repeatedly worn by the Zapatista insurgents and particularly their spokesman Sub-commandante Marcos, created a symbol for the invisibility of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Marcos’s has eloquently written of the irony that only with the ski masks on— the symbol of militant confrontation— was the government able to see the indigenous peoples it had ignored for so long.

In Argentina the “cacerolazos”— the spontaneous mass banging on cacerolas (saucepans) - has become a tactic which has helped topple several governments since the popular uprising began in December of 2001. The simple inclusive direct action of banging a saucepan has created a dramatic new space for people from many different backgrounds to unite in resisting neoliberalism and structural adjustment. It broke the assumption that people will simply accept the actions of a government that ignores them.

Direct action at the point of assumption provides us with many new opportunities to expand the traditional political arenas because it is less reliant on specific physical space than other points of intervention. This gives us the opportunity to choose the terms and location 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.

Media activist James Bell writes about “Image Events”, events whether actions, images or stories that “simultaneously destroy and construct [new] meaning”. Image events either replace existing sets of symbols or re-define their meaning through the “dis-identification” of humor or shock. A simple application of this concept can be seen in what Adbuster’s magazine founder Kalle Lasn has dubbed “culture jamming” to describe methods of subverting corporate propaganda by juxtaposing new images or co-opting slogans. For instance when McDonald’s hyper-familiar golden arches are over layed with images of starving children or Chevron’s advertising slogan is rewritten to say “Do people kill for oil?” the power of corporate images are turned back upon themselves. This type of semiotic aikido exploits the omni-prescence of corporate advertising to re-write the meaning of familiar symbols and tell stories that challenge corporate power. These skills have been artfully applied in billboard liberations, guerilla media campaigns and creative actions but tragically they often remain in a limited media realm. We need to expand guerilla meme tactics to connect with long-term strategies to build grassroots power.

The reliance of many mega-corporations on their branding has been widely acknowledged as an Achilles heel of corporate power. Indeed effective grassroots attacks on corporate logos and brand image have forced corporations to dump multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and sometimes even concede to activist’s demands. However not only are there many powerful industries that do not depend on consumer approval but we no longer have time to go after the corporations one at a time. Our movements need to contest the corporate monopoly on meaning. We must create point of assumption actions seek to jam the controlling mythologies of consumer culture, the American empire and pathological capitalism.

Concerted direct action at the point of assumption in our society could be an effort to draw attention to the design errors of the modern era and encourage wide spread dis-obedience to oppressive cultural norms. We need to openly plot attacks on the symbolic order of anti-life values. This could take the form of challenging the idea of corporate rule, our separation from nature, the concepts of unlimited growth, unchecked industrialism and consumer identities.

What would this look like? Where are the points of assumption? What are the big lies and controlling myths that hold corporate rule in place? How can we exploit the hypocrisy between the way we’re told the world works and the way its actually works to name the system, articulate values crisis and begin de-colonizing the collective imagination? We need easily replicatable actions, new symbols and contagious memes that we can combine with grassroots organizing and alternative institution building to expand the transformative arena of struggle.


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