Review of Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising

By Starhawk

Review by Chris Dixon, December 2003

Since the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, Starhawk has acted as a diligent organizer and dedicated reflective voice within what she calls the “global justice movement,” drawing on her previous participation in the women’s liberation movement, the nonviolent direct action movement, and the Pagan community. Her dispatches have marked many of the most critical moments as this movement has shifted and intensified through intoxicating confrontations at the Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), brutal police violence at the demonstrations countering the G8 summit in Genoa, and fundamental changes in political climate following September 11, 2001.

Starhawk is certainly no avatar. Indeed, it is vital to understand her and her writings in the context of the movement—neither “representing” it nor standing apart from it. Her most important contributions in fact crystallize from movement-wide discussions. Starhawk notes this herself as she charts the trajectory of her writing and participation in global justice struggles: “What I wrote could become part of a living dialogue, an ongoing discussion that might be reflected in the next call to action” (5).

Webs of Power brings together her widely resonant pieces from the last few years along with a series of longer, more synthetic essays. In the latter, she engages with and attempts to clarify many of the most critical issues of the movement. Among other topics, she touches on economic and ecological vision, the question of diversity, debates over tactics, and leadership. Her motivating concern throughout is to sharpen the possibilities for this global convergence of movements to challenge and fundamentally transform both individuals and institutions. In this sense, Starhawk sees her project as a revolutionary one. Importantly, however, she reminds us: “Revolution is not an exact science: we can learn from the past, but we can’t rerun any given action or insurgency in a different mode as we could a laboratory experiment” (257). And hence engaging in revolutionary work requires imagination and experimentation, two vibrant features of the global justice movement which she builds upon.

In terms of vision, Starhawk holds out for the promise of an egalitarian, directly democratic, and ecologically sustainable future, attempting to draw out these common values among diverse movement participants. But she doesn’t shy from offering critique either. For instance, she issues an important challenge to the misanthropic tone among some radical environmentalists: “if we believe that we are in essence bad for nature, we are profoundly separated from the natural world. We are also subtly relieved of responsibility for developing a healthy relationship with nature, for learning to observe and interact and play an active role in nature’s healing” (161). In this way, she wonderfully challenges the fatalism implicit in slogans and sentiments romanticizing the “collapse of industrial civilization,” popular among some activists, and instead offers an alternative: concerted efforts to build sustainable societies. Starhawk also offers us a widely-applicable lesson here: “people don’t act effectively out of feeling bad, guilty, wrong, and inauthentic” (161).

In her essay on “Building a Diverse Movement,” Starhawk engages with central debates and dialogues concerning the predominantly white, middle-class character of the global justice movement in the U.S. especially. She crucially notes that, internationally, this “is not a ‘white’ movement—it’s a movement inspired and rooted among people of color around the world…” (179). Yet Starhawk also points to the racial divide, historically, among and within movements in the U.S. For her, this suggests that activists are “stuck.” “To get unstuck,” she contends, “we may need to ask some new questions, offer some heretical critiques, and look more clearly at the history of how we got stuck” (180). For the most part, however, she offers little that is new, mainly reiterating the necessity of ongoing educational work, fostering welcoming movement cultures, building alliances and coalitions based on trust and personal relationships, and being conscious that how issues are framed influences who organizes around them—all of which are undoubtedly key. The tougher work, as Starhawk knows, is putting these into practice.

Starhawk’s most important contribution in this book lies in her essay “’Many Roads to Morning’: Rethinking Nonviolence.” Building on the at times bitter discussions around the Quebec City protests, she offers clarity in confronting the frequently polarizing “violence” versus “nonviolence” debate, which, she suggests, is largely an unhelpful dichotomy. A significant part of her insight in this piece is in her ability, as a veteran of the nonviolent direct action movement, to point authoritatively to both the strengths and limitations of nonviolence, at least as it is traditionally conceived. While acknowledging its effectiveness in creating dilemmas for opponents, raising stark moral contrasts, and valorizing suffering, Starhawk nicely synthesizes crucial critiques emerging among activists. “Too often,” she says, “nonviolence has come to mean stale, static tactics and orchestrated arrests, often prenegotiated with the police” (212-213). For many, this seems simply ineffective. Further, “In today’s world, morality plays are harder to stage and tend to ring false and unconvincing” (214). And what’s more, suffering as a basis for transformative action seems to play directly into the punitive model that many are seeking to resist. Starhawk explains, “when the jails have expanded to become a prison industrial complex hungry for more human fodder, a strategy of going to jail can also be seen as feeding the system rather than challenging it” (220).

Along with synthesizing these kinds of critiques, Starhawk has the unusual ability to appreciate critically the innovations of what she calls “the new challengers”—young activists, like me, oriented toward direct action with anti-capitalist and antiauthoritarian politics. She maintains, “We need room in the movement for rage, for impatience, for militant fervor, for an attitude that says, ‘We are badass, kickass folks and we will tear this system down’” (123). Although much maligned as “trouble-making black-clad anarchists,” Starhawk recognizes our crucial role: “They are worth listening to because they are smart, committed, and courageous and because they provide the driving energy and radical edge of the movement for global justice” (207). At the same time, she argues that violence, as it is often conceptualized, is a dead-end for transformative political action. We simply can’t outgun the most powerful repressive forces the world has ever seen. As well, she likens highly confrontational action to a loud guy at a meeting and points out how it can trump and endanger the actions of others: “just as the loud guy has to learn to step back occasionally and shut up to give others a chance to be heard, high confrontation tactics sometimes need to be restrained just to allow other possibilities to exist” (126).

The clincher of this discussion is Starhawk’s persuasive conviction that advocates of any tactics must look honestly at the strategic value of particular actions, not simply at their assumed moral value. She maintains, “if the main measure of an action’s success becomes how closely it allows us to conform to our personal moral values, we can lose sight of whether or not it is actually effective” (221). This goes for strictly “nonviolent” as well as “violent” action. And based on this, Starhawk suggests a third way—a path for transcending the dichotomy—what she terms “empowering direct action.” For her, this is a basis for thinking about tactics that emphasizes choice, creativity, and imagination and also solidarity, dialogue, and trust-building. It is a mode of action that neither valorizes suffering nor romanticizes militancy. Instead, it seeks to embody both vision and an invitation. As Starhawk puts it, “We steer away from the old tales of martyrdom and virtue. What we’re saying is ‘Look! A new force is rising up in the world, so creative, so vital, so full of life and passion and freedom that no system of control can withstand it. And you can be part of it’” (234).

Starhawk’s “empowering direct action” parallels her imaginative approach to leadership, what she calls “empowering leadership.” Similarly to her treatment of tactics, her ruminations here are rooted in longstanding movement discussions, in this case about antiauthoritarian approaches to leadership. Following these, she argues that we must transcend the dichotomy of “leaders” and “followers.” In contrast to conventional modes of leadership, she suggests, “empowering leadership is about persuasion, inspiration, and the sharing of power, information, and attention” (174). She says it is about acknowledging when particular individuals are taking on roles of responsibility and holding them accountable. It’s also about acknowledging different modes of leadership. Starhawk points to two, in particular: “issues leadership,” which is about proposing the direction of a group, and “process leadership,” which is about assisting a group in decision-making. In her model, these two are necessarily exercised separately. And perhaps even more fundamental than this dispersal of power, “empowering leadership” is both about stepping forward and being willing to step back and allow space for others. It ultimately is aimed at calling individuals to take greater responsibilities while also encouraging each other in a collective fashion.

In the end, these “third way” models of empowering direct action and empowering leadership encapsulate the very best of Starhawk. Wrestling with some of the most significant challenges of the movement, she doesn’t settle for timeworn organizing practices and ossified arguments, but works to incorporate what remains useful into visionary new modes. This is all the more pressing now in a time of increasing war and repression, both at home and abroad, as the occupation of Iraq continues, as militarization spreads and intensifies domestically, and as organized opposition faces more vicious state assaults, as in the FTAA protests in Miami. Rapidly changing circumstances such as these, Starhawk reminds us, call for changing strategies and, most of all, creativity. And thankfully, creativity isn’t something we’re lacking.