Direct Action in a Time of Class Struggle

Changing the balance of power in society will require strategic direct action that imposes real costs on elites.


Perhaps the most important political sentence written about Chicago went by largely unnoticed last September in a Chicago Sun-Times report on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to stand for reelection.

“Two-thirds of the reason Rahm decided not to run is because of his family,” said a powerful political source close to the mayor. “But what Rahm wouldn’t tell you is that the nastiness in political life can sometimes be so hard on a family, particularly younger kids. And it’s no fun for them having their front yard picketed and protesters blasting their father, when all they had to do was call for a meeting.”

Nastiness in political life can be hard on families, it’s true. It was the nasty politics of this city that killed Laquan McDonald and that covered up that murder. It was the political life of this city that masked the vicious and racist closure of nearly 50 schools — for generations anchors of their community — as banal bureaucratic housekeeping. Political life churns neighborhoods, auctioning them off and throwing families, particularly younger kids, into the streets. It’s no fun for them, either, to watch their parents struggle to pay bills on paychecks eaten up by rent, by parking tickets, and by market exchange healthcare and to take on that anxiety, stress, and anger as their own.

For generations in the U.S., the nastiness of political life has been visited in one direction. The powerful — the rich and the layers of political, professional, and technical elite who owe them their position — inflict nastiness on the rest of us. They steal our labor, they immiserate the commons and inflict austerity, they let racist killers organize in peace and kill with impunity. And when things get really bad — world-historical financial meltdowns, population-disfiguring climate catastrophes, illegal and imperialist wars that coin money in blood — what nastiness do we send back the way of the ruling class? A lost election, that other than some embarrassment and some lost prestige, leaves them with their fortunes, their contacts, and their access to power? Lost book deals and canceled television shows?

In the struggle for power in the U.S., the nastiness of political life is asymmetrical. Every couple years, progressives and the Left engage in Herculean efforts of organizing and spend enormous sums of money and mental energy on elections from the local to the federal level, on lobbying, and on litigation. And when we win, what has been inflicted on the authors of the nastiness beyond some marginal loss in income and prestige?

That excerpt about the tiny bit of nastiness that entered Emanuel’s life — referencing no doubt the protests in front of his home organized by South Side students, parents, and activists in protest of ongoing school closures and resource starvation, in which Chicago’s DSA chapter participated — reveals much about what has been missing, but is crawling back into, the Left’s politics: strategic direct action intended to make public life untenable for our class enemies.

The election of a barefaced right-wing white nationalist to the White House was enough to shake loose the last of whatever inhibitions the Left may have had, and instances of high-profile direct action have finally increased. Notably, comrades from DSA’s Metro D.C. chapter confronted Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant after news of internment camp-like detention of children became a national story. Activists occupied the office of the Speaker of the House. Indigenous groups encamped to physically block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. These incidents sparked fear — expressed as outrage — among the professional class who rely on the one-sided nastiness of political life to maintain their comfortable position in the social hierarchy. Political competition is meant to be kept to “safe” confines they control, such as editorial pages, Twitter, legislative lobbies, and polling places.

When workers band together to organize their workplace, they face losing their livelihoods, their access to life-saving care, their homes, their families. When activists take to the streets to protest police violence, or environmental devastation, they risk their safety and even their lives. When socialist organizers make their presence in a community known, they face blacklisting, job loss, and threats from secretive, violent fascist groups. Our side risks a lot to take the fight to the enemy. For the ruling class, the risk they face in inflicting pain is a lost election, or less. In other words, the risk is asymmetrical. Until that calculation changes, who could blame them for staying the course?

Whatever other strategies the Left pursues, changing the nature of the risk associated with attacking working-class interests has to change.

Not All Actions Are the Same

“Direct Action” is a vague term, yes, but it does have a meaning: people going into motion together to directly impede the machinery of their exploitation. When workers go on strike, that is a form of direct action. When people barricade an ICE caravan to prevent deportation, that is direct action. When public defenders refuse to accept plea deals and take every case to trial, that too is a form of direct action. But not every public display of opposition is direct action. Not every march is “direct action.” Demonstrations meant to “raise awareness” are not impeding the machinery of exploitation. Direct action may be vague, but it does have parameters.

And not all direct action is created equally. Every confrontation with some powerful figure or detestable group, while psychically satisfying, does not necessarily intensify the class struggle. They can be intensely dangerous for the participants, they can backfire in terms of public support, they can consume immense planning and financial resources with only fleeting or ephemeral impacts. Direct action has to be part of a larger strategic vision, not only to change the calculation of risk and reward but also be edifying and empowering for those engaging in it and precisely calibrated to change the balance of power.

In 1947, a conservative Congress eliminated the power of workers to engage in “secondary boycotts.” But it is still one of the most effective examples of direct action, and it’s worth thinking through what it takes to pull off.

A “secondary boycott” happens when workers at one company are on strike and they target a second company in order to hurt their own company. So, for example, imagine the workers at your local grocery store go on strike. They reach out to the delivery drivers from the trucking firm that brings fresh produce and meat to the store and ask them to honor the picket line. Those drivers agree, and the grocer is starved of the products they need to continue business — rendering the scab labor they hired a pointless and expensive indulgence.

Capitalists went after secondary boycotts because they understood how these types of boycotts not only caused labor disputes to ripple outwards from a single workplace but also encouraged the working class to knit themselves together through mutual aid and protection, through an expanding circle of class struggle. It was strategic and farsighted and showed a sophisticated understanding by the ruling class of the risks posed to their power by strategic direct action.

Consider then the work that would be necessary for a secondary boycott to be truly effective — not just the result of random workers choosing individually to honor a picket line. You would need to research a company’s supply chain, financial relationships, and executive structure, to determine the essential and non-essential functions of the company and the timing and nature of the company’s revenue streams and identify which “secondary” companies would be most susceptible to pressure. You and your coworkers would need to develop and maintain lines of communication with workers at other companies to build trust and a sense of common purpose and solidarity.

You would also need a realistic evaluation of your own capacity and resources. Do you have enough people to maintain a picket line, and where can you maintain those lines? At headquarters? At logistical facilities? And if at logistical facilities, do you know when deliveries or meetings are to take place, and if they can be rerouted, and if so, to where?

Limited resources and capacity imply a need to prioritize, schedule, and adapt. This in turn requires a decision-making team and reliable information gathering from the front lines. It requires internal and external security. These again require people assuming responsibility and taking on roles, which means structures and strategies need to be decided collectively to get collective buy-in.

Only then could a “direct action” like a secondary boycott be effective. Just showing up because you heard about an early-morning delivery may make headlines, but it achieves no strategic objective and, having no material effect, can be demoralizing besides sapping organizational resources.

At a time of more and more acute class struggle, in other words, direct action is indispensable, but so is the strategic context in which direct action takes place: The larger campaign of which direct action must be a part. And the individual action will only be as effective as the research and planning that goes into it. Yes, preventing a board of directors from meeting on the day of a vote to close a plant or lay off workers impedes the machinery of exploitation — but for how long? Blockading an ICE bus full of detainees headed for deportation impedes the machinery for exploitation, but as part of a larger campaign to compromise the economic viability of the airline that transports detainees each bus blockaded has an amplified relevance.

Incorporating Direct Action into Campaigns

In modern political parlance, the type of direct action used against Emanuel and Nielsen is called “bird-dogging,” and the idea is to make participation in public life untenable for class enemies. In the case of Emanuel, “bird-dogging” worked, but it was not protests alone. It was a years-long effort to undercut the pillars of his political support, particularly in the communities upon which he relied to govern. Bird-dogging and direct confrontation are profoundly powerful types of direct action, not only because they disrupt the parameters of political engagement on which the ruling class relies, but because they are radicalizing and empowering for those who engage in them. Like when workers march on the boss, the moment of confrontation changes in a material way the balance of power, if only temporarily. Tactics like bird-dogging, picket lines, blockades, and boycotts are indispensable and necessary parts of struggle at times when struggle becomes more and more acute.

But they are tactics, not strategies.

DSA is now an organization of about 60,000 socialists; our goal is to make more and more socialists, not only adding to the membership but galvanizing membership into the role of organizers in their workplaces and neighborhoods. Chapters of the organization are tasked with developing or plugging into larger campaigns meant to move our coworkers and neighbors into class struggle, with the purpose of inverting the balance of power in the U.S. in favor of the working class. When planning and implementing these campaigns, that goal — inversion of power — means inverting the risk/reward calculation the people in power make when creating and implementing policy, whether that’s in a workplace or the halls of government.

Simply voting them out of office is not enough. That is losing a privilege — is that symmetrical with the workers who face a devastating loss of livelihood, or the activists who face imprisonment? If when in office you use that office to inflict material loss on thousands or millions of your fellow citizens, simply losing the power to do so and floating into some consulting or government affairs job is not enough. Bailing out Wall Street and then giving speeches on Wall Street for six-figure paychecks when you’re thrown out of office is not symmetrical. The risk has to be higher: public discomfort, loss of the type of feather-bedded enrichment opportunities, and loss of prestige should be a minimum.

Strategic research to identify the relationships that insulate the powerful from risk is therefore a critical tool. Strategic legislation to impede the operation of institutions and the transfer of wealth from the public to private hands is another. There is no organizational reason to draw a distinction between direct action and more “traditional” forms of political engagement — canvassing, propaganda, lobbying, electioneering, and voting are not tools we can afford to disengage from on some odd principle of what is sufficiently radical.

But we would be naive to believe that lobbying politicians and getting a bill passed will, alone, alter the balance of power. Government reflects the balance of social power in society; it does not by itself create that balance. To secure the gains we get at the ballot box and in legislatures, we need to identify the forces that oppose us and weaken them directly — through strategic use of direct action, through social confrontation, through organized labor action. We have to be able to inflict costs on those who wage class warfare against us. Because as long as the costs of engaging in struggle are asymmetrical, we will continue to lose.

But the pace of change is in our favor. With each passing day, we are gaining the experience and knowledge we need to plan comprehensive campaigns that take up every tool we need to win. And we will win — because we have to.

Republished from Midwest Socialist

Ramsin Canon lives and works in Chicago and is a member of DSA there. He is also a member of DSA's Bread & Roses caucus.