Attending an Open University summer school at the University of Sussex in the summer of 1989, the final afternoon was a workshop on industrial relations. The case of the 1978 closure of the British Steel works at Shelton Bar was the background for a role play exercise. A group of us were cast as workers in the plant. The workers were efficient and productive, yet they were unable to do anything to save the plant and so save their jobs.
Reading through the script of the role play, there was the realisation that there was nothing that we could do. There was no form of words that could change the reality of the situation for the workers. When it came to the turn of those of us who were cast as the workers, we set aside the script, climbed upon the desks and declared that we were engaged in direct action and that the plant was henceforth under workers’ control.
The lecturer leading the session smiled. “A nice try,” he said, “unfortunately direct action doesn’t work.”
He was right, of course. Unless it has suited those who are powerful, every effort at direct action has failed.
Direct action fails because it does not change the fundamental realities of a situation. Direct action springs from discontent and protest, it draws together disparate groups and alienated individuals. Direct action can be a last resort, a despairing gesture, a last stand against overwhelming circumstances.
Direct action begs an answer to the question in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?” People undoubtedly prefer the latter, standing up and shouting does not come readily.
In the brave new digital world, powerlessness was not meant to be the way of things. Universal access to the full facts of every situation was meant to create a world where the truth would bring a swift response, where a popular response would be sufficient to bring fundamental change. Communications technology and social media were thought to have the potential to create a world where direct action could bring change.
Watching the news from Russia and the United States, old fashioned power politics are the only ones that really make a difference to a country. Economic and military power is the only sort that troubles powerful politicians, the very power that people do not have.