I recently finished reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. Graeber gives a first-person account of the origins and fate of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, describes Occupy as a prototype of a future anarchist democracy and explains why he thinks the present-day American political and economic system cannot be reformed from within that system.
What his book shows is that there are other alternatives to the bipartisan Democratic-Republican establishment besides the radical reactionary Tea Party movement. Despite what so many politicians and commentators say, a better world is possible.
Anarchism is radical democracy, Greaber wrote. Anarchists want a society based on voluntary cooperation mutual aid. His capsule definition of anarchism is a society in which nobody has the right to give orders and then call on people with guns for backup if orders aren’t obeyed.
Occupy Wall Street was a prototype for such a society. It began with an article in a small, radical magazine called Adbusters, calling for activists to try gather in Wall Street on August 6, 2011. The whole movement might have taken a different course if one tiny group of radicals had taken charge rather than another.
When David Graeber and his anarchist friends showed up that day, members of an organization called the Workers World Party were acting as if they were in charge. The WWP, like the old Communist Party, represents what Graeber called “vertical” radicalism. “Vertical” radicals try to get themselves into positions of power and leadership in organizations, and leverage these positions to spread their influence.
“Horizontal” radicals, on the other hand, have a concept more like the Christian idea of the “servant leader.” Their goal is to empower people to articulate their own grievances, desires and ideas, and to move forward on that basis. While the “horizontals” may have their own ideas, they are willing to allow them to emerge in action.
The Occupy General Assemblies were organized with the stated goal of giving everybody a voice and preventing any individual from dominating the proceedings by virtue of articulateness or forceful personality. Within the anarchist community, Graeber wrote, there are trained facilitators who are expert at making the group process work well staying in the background. I would think this takes a lot of skill and self-restraint.
Setting up Working Groups to draft specific proposals helped with this. Nobody could be on more than one Working Group, so no single individual could dominate everything. The stack method of calling on people to speak gave everybody an equal chance to speak.
The People’s Microphone, used in lieu of forbidden actual microphones, had the audience amplify speakers’ words by repeating them, phrase by phrase, and this had the side benefit of ensuring speakers didn’t waste the group’s time by speaking without thought.
The most dubious part of the General Assembly procedure was the consensus decision-making. No decision could be made unless everybody, or at least an overwhelming majority, was willing to accept it. I think this can work well with people who are working toward the same goal and who are committed to restraint, but it leaves the General Assembly open to sabotage to those who oppose or misunderstand its goals, including agents provocateurs. Graeber acknowledged it sometimes is necessary to expel people from the group.
The decision-making process can be cumbersome. But once the decision is made, the fact that virtually everyone understands and accepts it evidently makes the Occupy movement more effective in action than a top-down organization would be.
The proof is that the Occupy Wall Street encampment, operating under circumstances of virtual military siege, was able to function, to provide food and shelter to newcomers and also to indigents which the police encouraged to go to their site, and to take concerted actions.