Practical action: Beautiful Trouble

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, eds Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell, reviewed by Justin Jacoby Smith
September 2012

It’s nearly become old hat by now to note that 2011 was a year of apparently spontaneous global uprising. Often forgotten in the awe and feeling of unity, though, is that many of the most visible successes of the past year – from Cairo to Wall Street and everywhere in between – were the result of decades of trial and error on the part of activists and communities experimenting in creative direct action. It’s fitting that the terrifically encyclopedic new book (and interactive ‘web toolbox’) Beautiful Trouble began gestating well before the occupation of Tahrir Square. And yet what better moment for this fantastic collection of ideas?

Andrew Boyd has assembled an imposing team of writers and righteous rabble-rousers – people behind actions for the Yes Men, CodePink, the Ruckus Society and others – to lay out instructions on a banquet of tactics with varying degrees of militancy, from eviction blockades to Yes Men-style ‘identity correction’ to ‘advanced leafleting’. As an instruction manual the book bears a number of similarities to CrimethInc’s Recipes for Disaster, a similarly impressive direct action teaching tool.

Beautiful Trouble distinguishes itself, though, by devoting the bulk of its pages to discussion of the principles behind creative direct action, overviews of the social theory behind those principles, and even-handed case studies. The book is beautifully and helpfully designed with cross-references and summaries in the margins, so that anyone reading about culture jamming can easily find related tactics (‘media jacking’, ‘identity correction’), read more on the principles at work (‘know your cultural terrain, page 142’), learn the theory behind the action (‘floating signifier, page 234’), and find successful implementations for reference (‘Billionaires for Bush, page 296’).

The book and website are collaborative and ongoing projects with a number of contributing voices, and those voices sometimes jangle a touch discordantly; one writer may make disapproving noises about tactics described elsewhere in the book. Still, Beautiful Trouble can be highly recommended as a useful and impressive compendium of decades of distilled practical knowledge.


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