David Graeber’s The Democracy Project

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.

DGCAnarchism 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.

None of the planners of the Occupy Wall Street direct action expected it to draw thousands of supporters and hundreds of imitators across the country.

Why did the Occupy movement draw such unexpectedly strong support?  The historical record shows that people revolt not because they are badly off, but because they feel wronged.  Many Occupy protesters were young people, who’d gone heavily into debt to get educations, with the implied promise this would enable them to make decent livings.

Then the economy crashed in 2008, partly because of fraudulent and reckless practices by Wall Street financiers.  But Wall Street was bailed out by the federal government, while the students were left without jobs and treated as objects of scorn.  Graeber spoke to one young women who said the only way she can pay off her student debt was to be an “escort” to those very Wall Street operators.

Police here in Rochester, N.Y., treated our local Occupy campers as what they were, Americans exercising their Constitutional right to peacefully assemble to petition for redress of grievances. But the NYPD and many other big city police forces from the start treated the Occupy movement as enemies of the state.  As did the Department of Homeland Security, which coordinated a simultaneous shutdown of Occupy camps in big cities across the nation.

David Graeber

David Graeber

The conflict between the Occupy campers and the NYPD was not a conflict between law-breakers and law enforcers. The one side engaged in largely nonviolent civil disobedience; the other in lawless brutality and violence, based on what they could get away with. It was a kind of low-intensity war, with one side armed and the other side not, each trying to push the limits of what they could get away with.  Gene Sharp, the great strategic thinker of nonviolence struggle, could have used Occupy as a case study.

I sort-of, kind-of knew about what the NYPD did to protesters, and the role of the Department of Homeland Security, but it was good to have these facts brought home.

Graeber said he was disappointed that American liberals did not stick up for Occupy Wall Street.  In the past, he said, there has been a tacit alliance between radicals and liberals, with liberals using the radical demands as leverage to advance modest reforms.

I think I know why it didn’t happen this time.   The goal of liberal politicians such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton is to move the country to the right, not the left, so they benefit from the marginalizing of traditional liberalism.

The staunch friends of Occupy, according to Graeber, were labor unions, community organizations and immigrants rights groups—groups whose power was independent of the political and economic elite.

Graeber sees no point in trying to work within the existing political system, which he regards as hopelessly corrupt. Rather anarchists should try to build up alternative institutions, as has been done by radicals in Mexico, Iraq and other countries. An example might be Occupy Sandy, in which Occupy volunteers in New York City helped victims of Hurricane Sandy more effectively than government agencies did. But for this to happen on a mass scale, the Occupy movement would have to become much bigger than it is.

Graeber is right to say that the biggest problem of U.S. society is overhanging debt, and that some form of debt forgiveness is going to be necessary.  Otherwise the gap between the top 1 percent of the population and the other 99 percent will grow bigger and bigger.

Overall, though, neither Graeber nor the Occupy movement have much to say about public policy or political strategy in the short run.   They don’t intend to run candidates, lobby for new laws or reform the political process.   Others will have to take up that challenge.  It is not as if the Occupy movement is stopping them.

What the Occupy campers did do is create a vision of human possibility, which indeed may change things in the long run.  A better world is possible.  It is good to be reminded of that.


Click on the following links for quotes from The Democracy Project.

A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse

David Graeber’s ‘rape, torture and murder’ test

David Graeber on political polarization

A vision of a better world

Click on the following links for other reviews of The Democracy Project.

An interview with David Graeber by Adrien Chen for Gawker.

The Anarchy Project by Danny Goldberg for The Nation

David Graeber looks at the Occupy movement from the inside by Ben Ehrenreich for the Los Angeles Times

David Graeber is adept at explaining the problems, but not the solutions by John Kampfner for The Observer

The textual life of Occupy lives on by Laurie Penny for the New Statesman

The Democracy Project, by David Graeber on Make Wealth History

Click on the following links for my posts about David Graeber’s other important book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years.

David Graeber on debt as a false religion

What do we owe the world?

A David Graeber reader: Links to articles

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One Response to “David Graeber’s The Democracy Project”

  1. Does your job create real value? – The Week | Ye Olde Soapbox Says:

    […] David Graeber’s The Democracy Project (philebersole.wordpress.com) […]



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