Ethnography of Direct Action
Book: David Graeber. Direct Action, an Ethnography. AK Press, 2009
“In the best tradition of participant-observation, anthropologist David Graeber undertakes the first detailed ethnographic study of the global justice movement. Starting from the assumption that, when dealing with possibilities of global transformation and emerging political forms, a disinterested, “objective” perspective is impossible, he writes as both scholar and activist. At the same time, his experiment in the application of ethnographic methods to important ongoing political events is a serious and unique contribution to the field of anthropology, as well as an inquiry into anthropology’s political implications.
The case study at the center of Direct Action is the organizing and events that led to the dramatic protest against the Summit of the Americas in Québec City in 2001. Written in a clear, accessible style (with a minimum of academic jargon), this study brings readers behind the scenes of a movement that has changed the terms of debate about world power relations. From informal conversations in coffee shops to large “spokescouncil” planning meetings and teargas-drenched street actions, Graeber paints a vivid and fascinating picture. Along the way, he addresses matters of deep interest to anthropologists: meeting structure and process, language, symbolism, representation, the specific rituals of activist culture, and much more.”
"I am making no pretense of objectivity here. I did not become involved in this movement in order to write an ethnography. I became involved as a participant. I come from an old leftist family, and for most of my life have considered myself an anarchist. If for most of my life, I also rarely got involved in anarchist politics, it was mainly because, in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the anarchist politics I was exposed to struck me as petty, atomized, and pointlessly contentious — full of would-be sectarians whose sects consisted only of themselves. To suddenly discover the existence of a movement with a radically different sensibility, which placed enormous emphasis on mutual respect, cooperation, and egalitarian decision-making, was profoundly exhilarating. It was as if the movement I’d always wanted to be part of had suddenly come into existence. Even when I’m critical of the movement, I’m critical as an insider, someone whose ultimate purpose is to further its goals. My eventual decision to write an ethnography emerged from the same impulse. To some degree, of course, as a trained ethnographer you can’t really help yourself. Almost as soon as I got involved, I found that the notes I was taking at meetings were growing more and more detailed. They started containing little observations about hair and shoe styles, posture, habits, parenthetical reflections on little activist rituals. Still, my decision to write all this up in ethnographic form came largely because, as a participant, it struck me as an important way of furthering one of the movement’s goals: the dissemination of a certain vision of democratic possibility. In my anthropological training, I had acquired a skill that seemed perfectly suited for conveying much of what was missing from existing accounts of the movement. Though it did also occur to me that doing so would also make an extremely interesting ethnography."
"It is sometimes hard to remember, nowadays, just what the days of the Washington Consensus were like. Perhaps it might be best to start then with a word of context, to help understand why it was that the Zapatista rebellion in 1994 served as such a catalyst for the global movement against neoliberalism that followed, and why that movement came to take the form it did.
The years just before the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas announced itself to the world were probably the most depressing time to be a revolutionary—or even, dedicated to the ideals of the Left—in living memory. It wasn’t the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe that was depressing; most radicals were glad to see them go. What was depressing was what happened afterwards. With Stalinism dead, most Marxists expected to see a renaissance of more humane forms of Marxism. Social democrats believed that they had finally won the argument with the revolutionary Left and expected to shepherd the former subjects of the Soviet bloc into their fold; a reasonable expectation, since when polled, most of the population of Central and Eastern Europe said they wanted to model their new economies on Sweden. Instead, they got shock therapy and the most savage form of unrestricted capitalism. In almost every way, the world seemed to be heading for a nightmare scenario. The romantic image of the guerilla insurrectionary, which captured so many imaginations in the 1960s, was cascading into a kind of obscene self-parody. Already in the 1980s, the Right, which had been arguing for years that guerilla insurgencies in places like Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, or El Salvador were not spontaneous but fiendish schemes created by foreign ideologues, began to put their own theories into practice, with the US and South African intelligence agencies creating guerilla armies like the contras or RENAMO to sic on leftist regimes. At the same time, existing Marxist guerilla movements from Columbia to Angola that had begun full of high-minded rhetoric were increasingly prone to become pure bandit kings, or nihilistic armies without any cause beyond their own rebellion (those which held to the old ideal of social transformation, like the Shining Path in Peru, seemed if anything even worse). Liberation movements everywhere were transforming into vicious ethnic wars. Then came the wave of genocide, of which Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were only the most dramatic and visible.
On a dozen interlocking registers simultaneously, the emerging pattern seemed catastrophic. It seemed like it would go something like this: On an international level, capitalism was transforming itself into a revolutionary force. Abandoning the welfare-state version of capitalism that had actually won the Cold War, the old Cold Warriors and their corporate sponsors were demanding a pure, no-holdsbarred, free-market version that had never actually existed, and were willing to wreak havoc on all existing institutional social arrangements in order to achieve it. All this involved a kind of weird inversion. The standard right-wing line, since at least the 1790s, had always been that revolutionary dreams were dangerous precisely because they were utopian: they ignored the real complexity of social life, tradition, authority, and human nature, and dreamed of reshaping the world according to some abstract ideal. By the 1990s, the places had been completely reversed. The Left had largely abandoned utopianism (and the more it did so, the more it shriveled and collapsed), and even as they did so, the Right picked it up. Free-market “reformers” overnight began declaring themselves revolutionaries— the problem was, they did so as the worst sorts of Stalinists, essentially telling the world’s poor that science had proved there was only one way to go forward in history, that this was understood by a scientifically trained elite, and that, therefore, they had to shut up and do as they were told because, even though their prescriptions might cause enormous suffering, death, and dislocation in the present, at some point in the future (they were not sure quite when) it would all lead to a paradise of peace and prosperity. The fact that the “science” itself had shifted from historical materialism to free-market economics was a fairly minor detail; anyway, it makes it easier to explain how former Stalinists from Romania to Vietnam found it so easy to simply switch hats and declare themselves neoliberals. Meanwhile, as structural adjustment policies stripped away what small social protections had existed for the poorest inhabitants of the planet, propaganda and statistical manipulation had become so effective that most mainstream Americans who paid attention to such matters were convinced that conditions for the world’s poorest were actually improving, and not just in areas like East Asia that had mostly refused to adopt neoliberal policies.
Every progressive victory seemed to have been threatened or reversed. In South Africa, generations of struggle had finally eliminated racial apartheid; a moment of happiness, certainly, but an almost identical system was being created on a global scale, based on increasingly militarized borders, and on a labor migration regime where, for those trapped in poor countries, residence in rich, largely white countries was dependent on possession of identity papers and willingness to work in jobs the residents themselves weren’t willing to do. Feminism was being retrenched. Former victories over sweatshop labor, child labor, even chattel slavery, were all being eroded or downright eradicated.
Much of the problem stemmed precisely from the rout of the dream of social revolution, and those utopian fantasies that had always been necessary to inspire people to the passion and self-sacrifice required to actually work to transform the world in the direction of greater freedom and greater equality. I am referring here to genuine, living utopianism—the idea that radical alternatives are possible and that one can begin to create them in the present—as opposed to what might be called “scientific utopianism”: the idea that the revolutionary is the agent of the inevitable march of history, which was so easily, and catastrophically, appropriated by the Right. The murder of dreams could only lead to nightmares. It made it almost impossible to form a center from which to fight the incursions of the (now super-charged, revolutionary) Right. Social Democratic parties in Europe, for example, which were born from a reformist strain of Marxism, first seemed rather pleased with the collapse of their revolutionary cousins—they had finally won the argument—until they realized that their own appeal, and the willingness of capitalists to engage with them, was almost entirely based on their ability to position themselves as the less threatening alternative. Before long, the social democratic regimes had experienced such a moral and political collapse that the few still in power were reduced to becoming the agents for the dismantling of the welfare states they had originally created. The activist Left in industrialized countries was becoming increasingly reactionary, capable of mobilizing passions only to defend things that already existed—the ozone layer, affirmative action programs, trees—and increasingly ineffectively. Elsewhere, it seemed in neartotal collapse.
Then, finally, there was “globalization.”
As Anna Tsing (2002) has recently reminded us, there’s a curious history here. The notion really began as a progressive one. It was a stronger version of internationalism: the sense not only that all men are brothers but that we are the common custodians of a single, fragile planet—an idea encapsulated by photographs of the earth taken from outer space by astronauts in the 1960s. The 1990s rhetoric of globalization had none of this. Essentially, it had two legs: one was that telecommunications—and particularly the Internet—were annihilating distance and making instant contact possible between any part of the planet; the other was that the fall of the Iron Curtain and other barriers to trade were, at the same time, creating a single, unified global market, whose financial mechanisms could then operate through these same instantaneous electronic means. Mainly, it was just about the power of finance capital. But the rhetoric was usually accompanied by a series of very broad generalizations: that not only money but products, ideas, and people were “flowing” about as never before, national economies could no longer dream of being autonomous; old nationalist ideologies, indeed, national borders, were becoming increasingly irrelevant, and so on. All of this was presented as happening all of its own accord. Technologies advanced, people were increasingly in contact with one another: the only possible language for them to deal with one another was trade—since capitalism was, after all, rooted in human nature.
For anyone who was really paying attention, of course, the reality was very different. Borders were not being effaced, but reinforced. Poor populations were still penned into their countries of origin (in which existing social benefits were being rapidly withdrawn). “Globalization” merely referred to the ability of finance capital to skip around as it wished and take advantage of that fact. Most of all, however, the period of “globalization”—or neoliberalism, as it came to be known just about everywhere except America—saw the creation of the first genuinely planetary bureaucratic system in human history. In retrospect, I very much imagine that this is how the last years of the twentieth century will be seen. The UN had of course existed since mid-century, but the UN had never had more than moral authority. What was being patched together now was a system with teeth. At the top were the financiers—bankers, currency traders, hedge-fund operators, and the like—all connected electronically.
There were the gigantic bureaucratically-organized transnationals that during this period were absorbing and consolidating literally millions of formerly independent enterprises. There were the global trade bureaucrats—International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and so on, but also including institutions like the US Federal Reserve, treaty organizations like the European Union (EU) or North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—whose chief role seemed to be to protect the interests of the first two.
And, finally, there were the various tiers of NGOs, whose role, from providing farm credits to inoculating infants or providing food during famines, increasingly came to be to provide services that states had once been expected to supply, but had effectively now been forbidden from doing by the IMF. The remarkable thing was that this was achieved through an ideology of radical individualism: above all, a broad rejection of the claims of common community—and political community in particular. We were all to be rational individuals on the market, aiming to acquire goods. Insofar as we were different, it was to be a matter of personal self-realization through consumption, since consumption, in turn, was assumed to be largely about the creation and expression of identities. Then, of course, identity could be said to circle back: since all political and economic questions were assumed to be effectively settled (history, in this respect, was over) identity politics became about the only politics that could be considered legitimate."
Some Organizational History
From Feminism to Seattle, David Graeber (Chapter 5):
"When the feminist movement began, it was organizationally very simple. Its basic units were small consciousness-raising circles; the approach was informal, intimate, and anti-ideological. Most of the first groups emerged directly from New Left circles. Insofar as they placed themselves in relation to a previous radical tradition, it was usually anarchism. While the informal organization proved extremely well suited for consciousness-raising, as groups turned to planning actions, and particularly as they grew larger, problems tended to develop. Almost invariably, such groups came to be dominated by an “inner circle” of women who were, or had become, close friends. The nature of the inner circle would vary, but somehow one would always emerge. As a result, in some groups lesbians would end up feeling excluded, in others the same thing would happen to straight women. Other groups would grow rapidly in size and then see most of the newcomers quickly drop out again as there was no way to integrate them. Endless debates ensued. One result was an essay called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” written by Mary Jo Freeman in 1970 and first published in 1972—a text still avidly read by organizers of all sorts in the present day. Freeman’s argument is fairly simple. No matter how sincere one’s dedication to egalitarian principles, the fact is that in any activist group, different members will have different skills, abilities, experience, personal qualities, and levels of dedication. As a result, some sort of elite or leadership structure will inevitably develop. In a lot of ways, having an unacknowledged leadership structure, she argued, can be a lot more damaging than having a formal one: at least with a formal structure it’s possible to establish precisely what’s expected of those who are doing the most important, coordinative tasks and hold them accountable.
One reason for the essay’s ongoing popularity is that it can be used to support such a wide variety of positions. Liberals and socialists regularly cite “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” as a justification for why any sort of anarchist organization is bound to fail, as a charter for a return to older, top-down styles of organization, replete with executive offices, steering committees, and the like. Egalitarians object that even to the extent this is true, it is far worse to have a leadership that feels fully entitled to its power than one that has to take accusations of hypocrisy seriously. Anarchists, therefore, have usually read Freeman’s argument as a call to formalize group process to ensure greater equality, and, in fact, most of her concrete suggestions—clarifying what tasks are assigned to what individuals, finding a way for the group to review those individuals’ performance, distributing responsibilities as widely as possible (perhaps by rotation), ensuring all have equal access to information and resources—were clearly meant to precisely that end.
Within the larger feminist movement itself, most of these arguments eventually became moot, because the anarchist moment was brief. Especially after Roe v. Wade made it seem strategically wise to rely on government power, the women’s movement was to take off in a decisively liberal direction, and to rely increasingly on organizational forms that were anything but egalitarian. But, for those still working in egalitarian collectives, or trying to create them, feminism had effectively framed the terms of debate. If you want to keep decision making to the smallest groups possible, how do those groups coordinate? Within those groups, how to prevent a clique of friends from taking over? How to prevent certain categories of participants (straight women, gay women, older women, students—in mixed groups it soon became, simply, women) from being marginalized? What’s more, even if mainstream feminists had abandoned the politics of direct action, there were plenty of radical feminists, not to mention anarchafeminists, around to try to keep such groups honest.
The origins of the current direct-action movement go back precisely to attempts to resolve those dilemmas. The pieces really started coming together in the antinuclear movement of the late 1970s, first with the founding of the Clamshell Alliance and the occupation of the Shoreham nuclear power plant in Massachusetts in 1977, then followed by the Abalone Alliance and struggles over the Diablo Canyon plant in California a few years later. The main inspiration for antinuclear activists—at least on questions of organization—were ideas propounded by a group called the Movement for a New Society (MNS), based in Philadelphia. MNS was spearheaded by a gay rights activist named George Lakey, who—like several other members of the group—was also an anarchist Quaker.
Lakey and his friends proposed a vision of nonviolent revolution. Rather than a cataclysmic seizure of power, they proposed the continual creation and elaboration of new institutions, based on new, non-alienating modes of interaction— institutions that could be considered “prefigurative” insofar as they provided a foretaste of what a truly democratic society might be like. Such prefigurative institutions could gradually replace the existing social order (Lakey 1973). The vision in itself was hardly new. It was a nonviolent version of the standard anarchist idea of building a new society within the shell of the old. What was new was that men like Lakey, having been brought up Quakers, and acquired a great deal of experience with Quaker decision-making processes, had a practical vision of how some of these alternatives might actually work. Many of what have now become standard features of formal consensus process—the principle that the facilitator should never act as an interested party in the debate, the idea of the “block”— were first disseminated by MNS trainings in Philadelphia and Boston.
The antinuclear movement was also the first to make its basic organizational unit the affinity group—a kind of minimal unit of organization first developed by anarchists in early twentieth-century Spain and Latin America—and spokescouncils. As Starhawk pointed out in Chapter 1, all this was very much a learning process, a kind of blind experiment, and things were often extremely rocky. At first, organizers were such consensus purists that they insisted that any one individual had the right to block proposals even on a nationwide level, which proved entirely unworkable. Still, direct action proved spectacularly successful in putting the issue of nuclear power on the map. If anything, the movement fell victim to its own success. Though it rarely won a battle—that is, for a blockade to prevent the construction of any particular new plant—it very quickly won the war. US government plans to build a hundred new generators were scotched after a couple years and no new plans to build nuclear plants have been announced since. Attempts to move from nuclear plants to nuclear missiles and, from there, to a social revolution, however, proved more of a challenge, and the movement itself was never able to jump from the nuclear issue to become the basis of a broader revolutionary campaign. After the early 1980s, it largely disappeared.
This is not to say nothing was going on in the late 1980s and 1990s. Radical AIDS activists working with ACT UP, and radical environmentalists with groups like Earth First!, kept these techniques alive and developed them. In the 1990s, there was an effort to create a North American anarchist federation around a newspaper called Love & Rage that, at its peak, involved hundreds of activists in different cities. Still, it’s probably accurate to see this period less as an era of grand mobilizations than as one of molecular dissemination. A typical example is the story of Food Not Bombs, a group originally founded by a few friends from Boston who had been part of an affinity group providing food during the actions at Shoreham. In the early 1980s veterans of the affinity group set up shop in a squatted house in Boston and began dumpster-diving fresh produce cast off by supermarkets and restaurants, and preparing free vegetarian meals to distribute in public places. After a few years, one of the founding members moved to San Francisco and set up a similar operation there. Word spread (in part because of some dramatic, televised arrests) and, by the mid-1990s autonomous chapters of FNB were appearing all over America, and Canada as well. By the turn of the millennium, there were literally hundreds. But Food Not Bombs is not an organization. There is no overarching structure, no membership or annual meetings.
It’s just an idea—that food should go to those that need it, and in a way that those fed can themselves become part of the process if they want to—plus some basic how-to information (now easily available on the Internet), and a shared commitment to egalitarian decision-making and a do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit. Gradually, cooperatives, anarchist infoshops, clinic defense groups, Anarchist Black Cross prisoner collectives, pirate radio collectives, squats, and chapters of Anti-Racist Action began springing up on a similar molecular basis across the continent. All became workshops for the creation of direct democracy. But, especially since so much of it developed not on campuses, but within countercultural milieus like the punk scene, it remained well below the radar of not only the corporate media, but even of standard progressive journals like Mother Jones or the Nation. This, in turn, explains how, when such groups suddenly began to coalesce and coordinate in Seattle, it seemed, for the rest of the country, as if a movement had suddenly appeared from nowhere.
By the time we get to Seattle, though, it’s impossible to even pretend such matters can be discussed within a national framework. What the press insists on calling the “anti-globalization movement” was, from the very beginning, a self-consciously global movement. The actions against the WTO Ministerial in Seattle were first proposed by PGA, a planetary network that came into being by the initiative of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. The emphasis on the WTO reflected the concerns of farmer’s groups in India and the tactics employed could equally well be seen as an amalgam of ideas drawn mainly from the Global South than as an indigenous American development. It was the Internet, above all, that made this possible. If nothing else, the Internet has allowed for a qualitative leap in the range and speed of molecular dissemination: there are now Food Not Bombs chapters, for instance, in Caracas and Bandung. The year or two directly after Seattle also saw the emergence of the network of Independent Media Centers, radical web journalism that has completely transformed the possibilities of information flow about actions and events. Activists who used to struggle for months and years to put on actions that were then entirely ignored by the media now know that anything they do will be picked up and reported instantly in photos, stories, and videos, across the planet—if only in a form accessed largely by other activists. The great problem has been how to translate the flow of information into structures of collective decision making—since decision making is the one thing that is almost impossible to do on the Internet. Or, more precisely, the question is: when and on what level are structures of collective decision making required? The Direct Action Network, and the Continental DAN structure that began to be set up in the months following Seattle, was a first effort to address this problem. Ultimately it foundered. In doing so, however, it also played a key role in disseminating certain models of direct democracy, and making their practice pretty much inextricable from the idea of direct action. It’s the conjunction between these two phenomenon, now pretty much irreversibly established in the most radical social movements in America and, increasingly, elsewhere, that’s the real subject of this book."
On activist lifestyles
David Graeber, chapter 6:
"If one sees capitalism as a gigantic meaningless engine of endless expansion that reduces the majority of the planet’s inhabitants to hopeless poverty, that reduces even its beneficiaries to lonely isolated atoms doomed by fear and insecurity to lives of mind-numbing work and meaningless consumerism, even as it threatens the destruction of the planet—but if at the same time, one does not wish to, or does not believe it possible to simply flee the system, but rather wishes to stay and fight—then what precisely can one do? What sort of social relations is it possible to create among those who wish to make their lives a refusal of the very logic of capitalism, even as they necessarily remain inside it?
The logic of bohemian life has always been an attempt to answer this. It has always tended towards both the cultivation of adventure, danger, and extreme forms of experience, but at the same time, of relations of mutual aid and trust between those pursuing it—even, often, those who might otherwise be strangers. This is precisely the sensibility one encounters in direct actions too.
Consider again the idea of a mosh pit, in which dancers hurl themselves into one another, or stage-dive into the crowd. It’s a matter of both creating dangerous, even violent situations, but at the same time, placing an almost blind faith in surrounding strangers—for help and support—since, after all, if they did not catch or buffer you, you might well end up with a broken neck. In principle, the logic of play aggression and ultimate trust has much in common with the sadomasochism that is constantly alluded to (though rarely practiced) in the punk aesthetic. It’s the kind of pleasure that arises from adventure: excitement, unpredictability, faith, and reliance on one’s companions—which can only be real with the endless possibility of betrayal. At the same time, though, it is anything but an ethos of machismo.
Obviously, all of this varies from one subculture to another. For many years at ABC No Rio, an anarchist social center in the Lower East Side, there was—aside from the usual zine magazine, computers, and the like— a weight room used by members of a group called RASH, the “Red Anarchist Skinheads.” But subcultural groups are always defining themselves against one another. The play of desire and mutual dependence reappears on all sorts of subtle levels.
The one theme that recurs endlessly in all of this is “autonomy”: simultaneously the greatest anarchist value, and the greatest dilemma. Certain forms of autonomy—the isolated individualism of mainstream American society, with its solitary pleasures—are precisely that against which one is rebelling. Or, perhaps, one might say, the question is how to balance autonomy, solidarity, and freedom. Cornelius Castoriadis (1987, 1991), for example, defined “autonomy” as the ability of a community to live only under rules they had themselves collectively created, and had the right to reexamine constantly. For many anarchists, freedom appears to mean the ability to create new communities, and ties of mutual dependence, more or less on the spot, and to move back and forth between them as one wishes. An action, a party, a picnic, a dance, can all be temporary autonomous zones where desires coalesce and the leap of faith involved in trusting strangers itself becomes a large part of the adventure—even when police are not present, which, as we shall see, is rarely, since police have a notable tendency to show up whenever anarchists get together. The dilemmas, though, become much more acute when attempts are made—as they regularly are—to turn TAZs into PAZs, to move from temporary to more permanent zones of autonomy.
In the next section then let me talk a little about more permanent activist spaces. As we’ll see, these are almost never quite, entirely, permanent. Every space has to be, to some degree, conquered, and most are almost instantly besieged.
Activist Landscapes: Community Gardens
The community gardens were a prime example. The Guiliani administration, on coming to office in 1994, almost immediately launched a broad offensive against the whole network of community gardens, redefining them as vacant lots and introducing a plan to auction off 741 of them throughout the city for the development of “affordable housing.” (In one weekly radio address, Guiliani made it clear this was an attack on the very principle of common property: “This is a free-market economy,” he said. “The age of Communism is over.”) A prolonged struggle ensued, peaking in 1998 and 1999 with numerous direct actions in which More Gardens! activists locked down in front of bulldozers, as well as one Reclaim the Streets action that closed down Avenue A for several hours and another that led to the arrest of sixty-two people at a lockdown on the West Side Highway. Several gardens were destroyed, but in the end, Guiliani suffered one of his administration’s few major defeats when a coalition of wealthy patrons intervened to buy up several of the targeted gardens in order to preserve them—and the state attorney general shortly thereafter sued the city to prevent any more auctions, on the grounds that doing so violated the city’s own regulations that there should be at least two acres of green space for every thousand inhabitants. This was a great victory, but an activist soon learns that no victory is irreversible. Also, that every victory tends to be accompanied by terrible, tragic losses.
Another Guiliani target was Charas itself. In fact, destroying it soon seemed to have become a kind of obsession of his administration. At least, that was how it seemed to local housing activists. During the entire period of DAN’s existence, the building was under legal siege. Since its status rested on what was, effectively, a gentlemen’s agreement with the government—the building being leased from the government for a dollar a year—it was perfectly legal for Guiliani’s administration to break the deal and auction it off which it did—at the same auction, on July 20, 1998, as several of the largest community gardens. The auction itself has become something of a legend among Lower East Side activists, who used every means possible to disrupt it, ranging from protests outside, to phony buyers trying to bid up the price inside, to the release of ten thousand crickets on the auction house floor—which did manage to clear the house, but only temporarily.
Eventually the title was passed to an anonymous purchaser who—despite the city’s efforts to protect his identity—was soon revealed to be one Gregg Singer, a small-time property developer from the Upper West Side. Singer was now technically the owner of the building (El Bohio), and Charas merely his tenant. He immediately moved to evict, but this was difficult: his hands were tied by a restricted- use covenant that allowed the building only to be used for “community facility use.” As a result, in order to expel Charas, he had to demonstrate that he had lined up new tenants who were also going to use the building for cultural or public-service related purposes. The legal problem from his perspective, then—at least, until a prolonged process of appeals and legal skirmishes was finished—was to find a legitimate cultural institution willing to lease the building, even if they knew that doing so would mean evicting a neighborhood community center.
This was almost impossible, but it meant that the entire activist community that used Charas was subject to instantaneous “Singer alerts”: the new landlord was obliged to announce visits with prospective tenants three hours in advance, so Charas would then send a message immediately over activist listservs, as well as their own phone trees, calling everyone available to dash down to the yard in front of Charas for an instant demo, grabbing signs left for the purpose in the Charas lobby, explaining to the visitors—say, the pastor of some Harlem church needing a space for choir practice, or some charitable group looking for office space—what was actually going on.
This approach was certainly effective. Singer never did find a legitimate tenant willing to displace Charas. But eventually he succeeded in driving Charas out by other means. After a trial in which a jury ruled unanimously in favor of Charas and against Singer, another judge (who we all assumed must have been bribed, though, of course, we cannot prove it) voided the results on the grounds that the matter should never have been brought before a jury to begin with, and simply handed the property over to Singer. Local squatters were prepared to launch a major occupation and defense—arguing that every building given up without a fight emboldens the city to move on another one—but the Charas people ended up vetoing the plan, on the grounds that, as a community organization, their only chance of acquiring another space depended on maintaining some kind of relations with the city, and that a pitched battle would certainly make this impossible. Therefore, after a (largely ceremonial) lockdown, the building was boarded up, and—at time of writing five years later—remains empty, since its new landlord has still been unable to find anyone willing to rent it, and has not yet acquired legal authorization to tear it down. Charas, the organization, remains homeless.
That same precariousness, incidentally, is felt around other activist institutions as well. Pirate radio stations are spaces won from the FCC; they tend to be shut down. Even Pacifica, the most friendly media outlet, was under continual peril after the “Christmas coup” at the very end of 2000, when it was effectively taken over by a pro-corporate faction. Many members were purged and banned, and the remaining radicals mostly marginalized. It took two years of continual mobilization, direct action, lobbying, and propaganda to finally restore it to its original board. All free or even semi-free territory has to be defended. One result is to reinforce the somewhat untidy, impromptu feel of all the spaces. Everything is slightly unfinished, or in process of construction. It’s partly an aesthetic, as we’ll see; but it’s partly also because almost everything in such spaces is in the process of either being captured or taken away.
Colin Campbell (1987) once suggested that one reason bohemians have always hated the bourgeoisie is that the former see themselves as people who have abandoned comforts for the pursuit of pleasure, whereas the bourgeoisie are people who have done exactly the opposite. However glib, there is a kind of truth here. Campbell also argues that bohemians are, effectively, the avant-garde of consumerism, exploring new forms of pleasure that can be commodified in the next generation, and here I think he misses the point. The point is that this pleasure is, specifically, at the point of creation: the pleasure of destroying the very boundaries that categories like production and consumption create. Pleasure in production is never comfortable. But it often can feel all the more thrilling for that fact.
Government regulations essentially enforce a certain model of society, in which individual actors or hierarchically organized companies seek profits, and anyone who wishes to organize themselves differently—around any sort of conception of common good—needs to either be part of the state apparatus, or to register with it as a nonprofit corporation. In theory, every aspect of “civil society” is so regulated. Basically, the only areas that are entirely off-limits to this sort of regulation backed by force are communicative ones: speech, discussion in meetings, exchanges on the Internet, etc.22 As soon as one enters the world of material objects, regulations abound. And the larger, heavier, and more visible the objects, the more those regulations tend to be enforced. The obvious result is to leave people with the feeling that radical politics is unrealistic. It’s all an ephemeral dreamworld that melts away the moment it hits material reality. As soon as it enters the “real world,” the world of large heavy things like buildings and machinery and so on, it all seems to be proved unrealistic. In fact, this is really just because heavy physical objects are so much easier to regulate. As a result, large, heavy, valuable objects tend to be surrounded by threats of physical force that back up a certain ideology of how people are expected to interact, and if they don’t, they tend to be taken away from you. The objects that seem the most self-evidently real are in fact those most surrounded by forces and abstractions.
To anticipate an argument I will make in the conclusion: consider for a moment some of the uses of the word “real.” One can speak of the forms of property that are easiest to regulate—the largest, the hardest to hide, therefore, the most effectively surrounded by the threat of violence—as “real estate,” “real property” as opposed to movables. Note that “real” property is in no sense more empirically real than movables: in fact, insofar as it involves complex abstractions like air rights, one might say that compared with, say, a tomato, it is decided less so.23 But one can also talk about “realpolitik,” or political “realism.” In international relations, for instance, to be “Realist” (as opposed to an “Institutionalist”) means proceeding from the assumption that nations will not hesitate to use force in pursuit of their own national interests. Once again, this has nothing to do with recognizing what we like to think of as empirical reality: “nations” with collective “interests” are purely imaginary constructs. They become “real” when they threaten to send in the army. The “reality” one recognizes when one is being a “realist” is purely that of violence. Yet it’s precisely that collapse of the effects of violence into the very apparent solidity of the object that produces the reality effect I’m talking about, and makes social alternatives seem so unrealistic. Abstractions like law and the state attach themselves, by threat of force, particularly to the largest, heaviest objects—the things that seem most empirically “real.”