The Harry Potter Alliance is a US-based charity and campaigning group which takes inspiration from JK Rowling’s books: “Harry and his friends start a student activist group called Dumbledore’s Army when the adults and politicians of their world fail to address the concerns of the day.” When I fund out about them, something bothered me about their mission — and it wasn’t that it seemed a bit cheesy, and it wasn’t anti-pop snobbery. It was that they took inspiration from a guerilla fighting force (albeit a fictional one) that takes violent direct action, and yet HPA’s tactics are the usual liberal rote of petitions, letters, votes and charity. So I wrote them a letter about it.
Dear Harry Potter Alliance,
Well done! You’re doing tremendously well in the Chase Community Giving Challenge, and I think you deserve to be congratulated for the way you’ve used your increased profile to continue to bring awareness to some very important causes. While it’d be easy to be cynical about your mission – and I admit when I first heard of HPA I did smirk a bit! – I think it’s genuinely wonderful that you’re harnessing the power of popular culture and a dedicated fandom to do something important in the world.
But I do want to talk to you about something, which is the way you’re undertaking your mission of creating a real world Dumbledore’s Army. I think you’re right that there’s a useful analogy – that the adults (politicians, parents, journalists, teachers . . . ) of Harry’s world ignore the severity of the crisis they’re facing, just as those running our world are keeping us on a track toward global disaster. But here’s the key thing: Harry and friends don’t raise funds, donate books and videos, sign petitions and register voters. They don’t even hold peaceful protests, act as human shields, create non-violent human blockades. They don’t even stop at theft and property damage in the name of their cause. In fact, what they do is train a guerilla fighting force that can engage in an aggressive covert war. So why don’t you?
The real world equivalent of this would be direct action. Direct action is when we stop asking people to change the world, and undertake it to change it ourselves. It encompasses everything from strikes and sabotage, which seek to cause economic damage as a tool of persuasion; to workplace occupations and thefts, which seek to take control of the means of production and consumption for those exploited by them; to tree-sits and assassinations, which seek to actively prevent destruction and oppression. (You’ll note I’ve used a range of possible actions of different levels of severity and violence; I don’t necessarily approve of them all, but I don’t necessarily disapprove, either. More on this in a bit.) Basically, direct action is everything which isn’t electoral politics, diplomacy and charity, but which seeks to create change.
Direct action is often classed as either violent or non-violent, with property damage occupying a middle ground. Non-violent direct action is what was advocated by Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks’s bus-sit is a good example of a peaceful direct action. Mohandas Gandhi is one of the foremost philosophers of peaceful action (not just protest, but action): Satyagraha is the name of the body of theory and practise he helped develop. To keep examples from struggles against racial oppression, John Brown and Nelson Mandela, for example, waged violent direct actions in their struggles.
Can you imagine what would have happened if the civil rights struggle in America had been waged only by letter-writing and fund-raising? You might think that violence is counter-productive, but surely not the whole non-violent civil resistance revolt which led to the independence of India? And is violence always counter-productive? Would you have opposed the American Civil War, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Second World War? So if states can wage justified violence on each other, and if Harry Potter is justified in fighting organisations and individuals, why aren’t we, autonomous citizens and groups? I don’t mention HP in the same breath as real world wars with any sense of frivolity; I genuinely think it’s amazing that you’ve taken inspiration from a work of fiction to do good in the world. But I want you to follow through on that inspiration: what is it about Harry’s fictional world that makes it so different from our world that you don’t think his tactics are justified in your causes?
Maybe you’ll argue that you want to bring as many people on board as possible, that you want to harness that power of mass culture, that you’re frightened that this kind of militancy, even a non-violent militancy, might alienate people. I have two responses: the first is, did Harry Potter seek to gain a majority of public support, or did he seek to fight his war with a small core of loyal followers? I know HP is a work of fiction, but it’s worth considering why you accept vanguard tactics in fiction and not in reality. And the second point is: maybe a popular movement like yours is exactly what’s needed to really encourage people to engage in mass direct action. Imagine what would happen if Harry Potter fans across the world started occupying threatened forests, barricading corporate headquarters, assassinating murderous politicians! (Again, I don’t see all these actions as equal, or as equally valid, but I do raise them for discussion.)
Maybe you’ll argue that Harry Potter faced a different sort of problem, a different scale of problem. Well, I have some sympathy here. With issues of violence and non-violence, I agree with author Derrick Jensen, who in his inspiring and frightening book Endgame argues that we have to see these decisions as contingent, relative to a situation. He refuses to utterly proscribe violence, or to say it’s always justified (or useful), but he does suggest that we should consider it as a potentially justified tactic. (Remember: why should states wage wars, but not individuals?) And violence aside, non-violent direct action also has to be seen as contingent on circumstances: Gandhi was part of a culture in which he was able to organise mass armies of non-violent resisters, and maybe you aren’t.
But. What scale of a problem are we facing? We live in a world of ever-increasing inequality, in which 1% of the people own 40% of the wealth, the bottom half of the population only have 1% of the wealth, and half of humanity lives on less than £2.50 a day. In which runaway climate change threatens the planet, with the world’s scientists concluding with an extraordinary degree of consensus, that temperatures and sea levels are rising in a way that will cause death and destruction for millions of humans and other species. In which, as you well know, genocide is still rampant. In which millions upon millions of hectares of forest are destroyed every year, and in which we as a species have caused one of the largest mass extinctions in the planet’s history. Need I go on?
I think the question should instead become: how bad do things have to get before you reach the conclusion that we must fight back? I think the question should instead become whether or not we’re being disgustingly irresponsible by salving our consciences with petitions and protests, instead of taking arms together. I think the question should instead be: those in power have already declared war on the world and its people, so why aren’t we, the other side, fighting back?
Just imagine if Harry had attempted to stop Lord Voldemort by gathering petition signatures and delivering them to the Ministry of Magic! – instead, he saw the urgency of the situation and took matters directly into his own hands; he recognised that adults weren’t doing enough or accepting the severity of the crisis, and so took direct action to solve the crisis himself.
I don’t mean to attack you. I do admire you. And I hope you don’t mind that I’ve posted this publicly. I’m writing not to poke fun at you or to condemn you, but to try and understand why committed moral individuals don’t see the scale of the problem and the necessary solutions. And I include myself in that, because I believe myself that I do far too many protests and petitions are far too few strikes, sabotages and occupations. I’d very much like it if you found the time to reply and helped us to reach an understanding together.
Yours in struggle,