Posts Tagged ‘The Democracy Project’

David Graeber’s The Democracy Project

October 21, 2013

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.


A vision of a better world

October 21, 2013


The following quotes are from the last chapter of David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, in which he outlines his vision of a future anarchist society.   The bipartisan establishment in Washington does not offer hope and change, but an argument that our present plight is the best that we can hope for.   Graeber and his friends show there are other alternatives to that thinking besides the reactionary right.


Since we are all unique individuals, it’s impossible to say which one of us is intrinsically better than any other, any more, for instance, than it wold be possible to say there are superior and inferior snowflakes.

If one is going to base egalitarian politics on that understanding, the logic would have to be: since there’s no basis for ranking such unique individuals on their merits, everyone deserves the same amount of those things that can be measured: an equal income, an equal amount of money, or an equal share of wealth.


We are already anarchists, or at least we act like anarchists, every time we come to understandings with one another that would not require physical threats as a means of enforcement.

It’s not a question of building up an entirely new society whole cloth.  It’s a question of building on what we are already doing, expanding the zones of freedom, until freedom becomes the ultimate organizing principle.


I’m sure that in practice any attempt to create a market economy without armies, police and prisons to back it up will end up looking nothing like capitalism very quickly.


There are many things in short supply in the world.  One thing of which we have a well-nigh unlimited supply is intelligent, creative people … … The problem is not a lack of imagination.  The problem is the stifling systems of debt and violence, created to ensure that these powers of imagination are not used—or are not used to create anything beyond financial derivatives, new weapons systems, or new Internet platforms for the filling out of forms.


… For the rest of us, having money, having an income, being free from debt, has come to mean having the power to pursue something other than money.  Certainly we all want to ensure that our loved ones are taken care of.  We all want to live in healthy and beautiful communities.  But beyond that, the things we wish to pursue are likely to be wildly different.  What if freedom were the ability to make up our minds about what it was we wished to pursue, with whom we wished to pursue it, and what sort of commitments we wish to make to them in the process?

Equality, then, would be simply a matter of guaranteeing equal access to those resources needed in the pursuit of an endless variety of forms of value.  Democracy in that case would simply be our capacity to come together as reasonable human beings and work out the resulting common problems—since problems there always will be—a capacity that can only truly be realized once the bureaucracies of coercion that hold existing structures of power together collapse of fade away.


Is such a vision possible?  I don’t know.  Or rather I don’t know to what degree it is possible.

The late Arthur C. Clarke said that the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to push a little bit into the impossible.

David Graeber on political polarization

October 16, 2013


In the current government shutdown and bond default crisis, the extreme left-wing position, the one that House Speaker John Boehner says would amount to “unconditional surrender,” would be to allow the government to function normally and pay its bills under the “sequester” budget.  This is the austerity budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, which at the time a surrender to the priorities of the Republican right wing.

Candidate Barack Obama, writing in The Audacity of Hope, criticized liberal Democrats for failing to give Ronald Reagan credit for his good ideas.  I should have paid more attention.  What the Tea Party Republicans do is to give President Obama cover for protecting Wall Street and the military-intelligence complex.

I intend to post a review of David Graeber’s The Democracy Project sometime soon, but in the meantime, here is a good quote on what the word “conservative” has come to mean.

DGCNowadays in the United States at least, “conservative” has mainly come to be used for “right-wing radical,” while its long-standing literal meaning was “someone whose main political imperative is to conserve existing institutions, to protect the status quo.”

This is precisely what Obama has turned out to be.  Almost all his greatest political efforts have been aimed at preserving some institutional structure under threat: the banking system, the auto industry, even the health insurance industry.

Not to mention the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon and their contractors.

In America today, “right” and “left” are ordinarily used to refer to Republicans and Democrats, two parties that basically represent different factions within the 1 percent—or perhaps, if one were to be extremely generous, the top 2 or 3 percent of the U.S. population [in income].

Wall Street, which owns both, seems equally divided between the two.  Republicans, otherwise, represent the bulk of the remaining CEOs, particularly in the military and extractive industries (energy, mining, timber), and just about all the middle-rank businessmen; Democrats represent the upper echelons of what author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich once called “the professional-managerial class,” as well as pretty much everybody in academia and the entertainment industry.

Certainly this is where each party’s money is coming from—and, increasingly, raising and spending money is all these parties really do.

My Obamaphile friends rightly point out the delusions of the Tea Party Republicans, but they themselves are committed to the illusion that President Obama is a progressive who is on the side of the common people.

David Graeber’s “rape, torture and murder” test

October 2, 2013

I’m reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, which is about the Occupy movement.  I came across this passage which I like so much that I’m going to make a separate post about it.   He started out by talking about how writers use phrases such as “human rights abuses” or “unsavory human rights records” when they mean “rape, torture and murder.”  He went on to write:

… I find what I call the “rape, torture and murder” test very useful.  It’s quite simple.  When presented with a political entity of some sort or another, whether a government, a social movement, a guerrilla army or, really, any other organized group and trying to decide whether they deserve condemnation or support, first ask “Do they commit, or do they order others to commit, acts of rape, torture or murder?”

DGCIt seems like a self-evident question, but again, it’s suprising how rarely—or, better, how selectively—it is applied.  Or, perhaps, it might seem surprising, until one starts applying it and discovers conventional wisdom on many issues of world politics is instantly turned upside down.

In 2006, for example, most people in the United States read about the Mexican government sending federal troops to quell a popular revolt, initiated by a teachers’ union, against a notoriously corrupt governor in the southern state of Oaxaca.  In the U.S. media, this was universally presented as a good thing, a restoration of order; the rebels, after all, were “violent,” having thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails …

No one to my knowledge has ever suggested the rebels had raped, tortured or murdered anyone; neither has anyone who knows anything about the events in question seriously contested the fact that forces loyal to the Mexican government had raped, tortured and murdered quite a number of people in suppressing the rebellion.

Yet somehow such acts, unlike the rebels stone throwing, cannot be described as “violent” at all, let alone as rape, torture or murder, but only appear, if at all, as “accusations of human rights violations,” or in some other similarly bloodless legalistic language.

David Graeber on the practicality of protest

May 14, 2013

Economic anthropologist David Graeber was one of the early participants in Occupy Wall Street.  He wrote an interesting article in the current issue of The Baffler in which he argued that the power of the political and economic elite is based on their ability to convince the rest of us that there is no alternative to the status quo.  He said that is why they have such fear of dissent and protest.

One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.   But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years.

David Graeber

David Graeber

It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof.   Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.

The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives.

And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this.  It didn’t matter.  They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

I think this is true.   The reason the United States government is moving heaven and earth to capture Julian Assange and punish Bradley Manning is the fear of letting the American public know what the government really is doing.  Fear is the reason for the massive police response to the Occupy movement and to protests generally is so out of proportion to what is actually being done.

Urban police departments have military equipment and are encouraged to use military tactics, as if they were an occupation force in a hostile foreign country.   It is as if the powers that be are preparing to suppress an uprising among the citizenry.

The United States government has, for more than 30 years, been dismantling government regulation of corporations and Wall Street banks, dismantling the social safety net and reducing taxes on rich people, with the promise of economic growth and prosperity for all, and that this promise has not been fulfilled.    It also is true that the optimism and hope for a better future, which has characterized American life since before the United States was an independent nation, is vanishing.   And historically, disappointed hopes were what inspired revolutions.   So it is no wonder that the elite are fearful.

Click on  A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse for Graeber’s complete article, which is well worth reading in full.  The article was taken from Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project (which I haven’t read).  Click on A Kaleidoscopic Sense of Possibility for Graeber’s discussion of the book with Lynn Parramore of Alternet.