Civil Disobedience vs Direct Action
They’re two of the most common terms in the activist vocabulary. Some see them as being one and the same thing, others see Civil Disobedience as a preferable term. But in terms of the mind-set attached to them, they are hugely different, even if they look exactly the same; a group of people sitting in a road, someone smashing up a fighter jet, etc. I find it frustrating how Direct Action has been made into the negative of the two phrases, and of the two mindsets.
Civil Disobedience is a negative term, and while it refers to disobeying the state, it implies a negative action. While it has been used in many working class campaigns, it is, in many ways, part of the middle class mindset, of stability and wealth through compliance. Political action by ordinary people that breaks the law is seen as extraordinary, a temporary breaking of a normality to be returned to, which is to be measured and assessed by the courts and which has to be justified by saying “it was the lesser of two evils”.
It implies legitimacy for the State’s claims that what you have done is wrong, i.e. it places the role of arbiter in the hands of the courts, which are an intrinsic part of the State, even if they sometimes favour citizens over other parts of the state with individual judgements. It may in part be responsible for the obsession with getting arrested, and it takes the emphasis off of what is done and places it on lengthy and costly court-action, seeing that as the ultimate point of pressure.
Direct Action, on the other hand, is all about the action itself, and rejects any notion of validation proffered by an outside body. It is positive: we are taking responsibility, taking action, directly affecting the processes and status of the world around us. It challenges norms, rather relying on the relative difference of the action to highlight its importance, and seeks to move back the boundaries it has stepped beyond; indeed, it often seeks to dissolve them.
I find Direct Action more inspiring because it in no way appeals to legitimacy, especially not to the legitimacy of certain stereotypes. It is clear that judges are often inclined to be more lenient to better off members of society, and Civil Disobedience plays on this; those who with wealthy backgrounds, already politically enfranchised, get away with ‘crimes’ that someone wearing a hoody and a baseball cap would be punished severely for. In short, those most disenfranchised by the state are disenfranchised from Civil Disobedience, but much less so from actions inspired by the ‘Direct Action’ mindset.
How the negative concept of acceptable Disobedience (which is, after all, what Civil Disobedience is) and the positive concept of Directly changing the world around us came to be switched in terms of polarity, is something of a mystery to me, but it seems clear that it has only served the status quo, or more specifically, the state, and has hindered the activists who have tied themselves to the sense that those boundaries are legitimate and should remain.
So I’ve taken to disliking the idea of Civil Disobedience, and to wanting to see my actions purely as Direct Action, challenging the boundaries, rather than making a spectacle from crossing them temporarily, thus reinforcing them. I’m afraid to say that a single blog-post does this topic no credit whatsoever, and perhaps a PhD thesis would be required to cover the whole array of issues between these two mind sets.