THE SHOCK OF VICTORY
by David Graeber
The biggest problem facing direct action movements is that we don’t know how to handle victory.
This might seem an odd thing to say because of a lot of us haven’t been feeling particularly victorious of late. Most anarchists today feel the global justice movement was kind of a blip: inspiring, certainly, while it lasted, but not a movement that succeeded either in putting down lasting organizational roots or transforming the contours of power in the world. The anti-war movement was even more frustrating, since anarchists and anarchist tactics were largely marginalized. The war will end, of course, but that’s just because wars always do. No one is feeling they contributed much to it.
I want to suggest an alternative interpretation. Let me lay out three initial propositions here:
1) Odd though it may seem, the ruling classes live in fear of us. They appear to still be haunted by the possibility that, if average Americans really get wind of what they’re up to, they might all end up hanging from trees. It know it seems implausible but it’s hard to come up with any other explanation for the way they go into panic mode the moment there is any sign of mass mobilization, and especially mass direct action, and usually try to distract attention by starting some kind of war.
2) In a way this panic is justified. Mass direct action—especially when organized on democratic lines—is incredibly effective. Over the last thirty years in America, there have been only two instances of mass action of this sort: the anti-nuclear movement in the late ‘70s, and the so called “anti-globalization” movement from roughly 1999-2001. In each case, the movement’s main political goals were reached far more quickly than almost anyone involved imagined possible.
3) The real problem such movements face is that they always get taken by surprise by the speed of their initial success. We are never prepared for victory. It throws us into confusion. We start fighting each other. The ratcheting of repression and appeals to nationalism that inevitably accompanies some new round of war mobilization then plays into the hands of authoritarians on every side of the political spectrum. As a result, by the time the full impact of our initial victory becomes clear, we’re usually too busy feeling like failures to even notice it.
Let me take the two most prominent examples case by case:
I: THE ANTI-NUCLEAR MOVEMENT
The anti-nuclear movement of the late ‘70s marked the first appearance in North America of what we now consider standard anarchist tactics and forms of organization: mass actions, affinity groups, spokescouncils, consensus process, jail solidarity, the very principle of decentralized direct democracy. It was all somewhat primitive, compared to now, and there were significant differences—notably a much stricter, Gandhian-style conceptions of non-violence—but all the elements were there and it was the first time they had come together as a package. For two years, the movement grew with amazing speed and showed every sign of becoming a nation-wide phenomenon. Then almost as quickly, it distintegrated.
It all began when, in 1974, some veteran peaceniks turned organic farmers in New England successfully blocked construction of a proposed nuclear power plant in Montague, Massachusetts. In 1976, they joined with other New England activists, inspired by the success of a year-long plant occupation in Germany, to create the Clamshell Alliance. Clamshell’s immediate goal was to stop construction of a proposed nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. While the alliance never ended up managing an occupation so much as a series of dramatic mass-arrests, combined with jail solidarity, their actions—involving, at peak, tens of thousands of people organized on directly democratic lines—succeeded in throwing the very idea of nuclear power into question in a way it had never been before. Similar coalitions began springing up across the country: the Palmetto alliance in South Carolina, Oystershell in Maryland, Sunflower in Kansas, and most famous of all, the Abalone Alliance in California, reacting originally to a completely insane plan to build a nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon, almost directly on top of a major geographic fault line.
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