A contribution by C Companyero, inspired by CrimethInc
The opposite of direct action is representation. There are many kinds of representation—words are used to represent ideas and experiences, the viewers of a TV show let their own hopes and fears be represented by those of the characters,—but the most well-known example today can be found in the electoral system. In this society, we’re encouraged to think of voting as our primary means of exercising power and participating socially. Yet whether one votes with a ballot for a politician’s representation, with kwachas for a corporate product, or with one’s wardrobe for a certain culture, voting is an act of deferral, in which the voter picks a person or system or concept to represent her interests. This is an unreliable way to exercise power.
Let’s compare voting with direct action, to bring out the differences between mediated and unmediated activity in general. Voting is a lottery: if a candidate doesn’t get elected, then the energy his constituency put into supporting him is wasted, as the power they were hoping he would exercise for them goes to someone else. With direct action, one can be certain that one’s work will offer results. In marked contrast to every kind of petitioning, direct action secures resources that others can never take away: experience, contacts in the community, the grudging respect of adversaries.
Voting consolidates the power of a whole society in the hands of a few individuals; through sheer force of habit, not to speak of other methods of enforcement, everyone else is kept in a position of dependence. In direct action, people utilize their own resources and capabilities, discovering in the process what these are and how much they can accomplish.
Voting forces everyone in a movement to try to agree on one platform: coalitions fight over what compromises to make, each faction insisting that its way is the best and that the others are messing everything up by not going along with its program. A lot of energy gets wasted in these disputes and recriminations. In direct action, no vast consensus is necessary: different groups apply different tactics according to what they believe in and feel comfortable doing, with an eye to complementing one another’s efforts. People involved in different direct actions have no need to squabble, only if they really are seeking conflicting goals, or years of voting have taught them to fight with anyone who doesn’t think exactly as they do.
Conflicts over voting often distract from the real issues at hand, as people get caught up in the drama of one party against another, one candidate against another. With direct action, the issues themselves are raised, addressed specifically, and often resolved.
Voting is only possible when election time comes around. Then you are told to shut up for 5 years. Direct action can be applied whenever one sees fit. Voting is only useful for addressing topics that are currently on the political agendas of candidates, while direct action can be applied in every aspect of your life, in every part of the world you live in. Direct action is a more efficient use of resources than voting, campaigning, or canvassing: an individual can accomplish with one kwacha a goal that would cost a collective a thousand kwacha, a non-governmental organization a million kwacha, a corporation a ten million kwacha, and the government a billion kwacha.
Voting is glorified as a manifestation of our supposed freedom. It’s not freedom— freedom is getting to decide what the choices are in the first place, not picking between Fanta Orange and Fanta Pineapple. Direct action is the real thing. You make the plan, you create the options, the sky’s the limit.
Ultimately, there’s no reason the strategies of voting and direct action can’t both be applied together. One does not cancel the other out. The problem is that so many people think of voting as their primary way of exerting political and social power that a disproportionate amount of time and energy is focused on electoral affairs while other opportunities to make change go to waste. For months and months preceding every election, everyone argues about the voting issue, what candidates to vote for or whether to vote at all, when voting itself takes less than a day. Vote or don’t, but get on with it! Remember all the other ways you can make your voice heard.