The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement is a remarkably ambitious book, given that is also several hundred pages slimmer than its predecessor, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It’s also remarkably accessible, given its scope and the crucial issues with which David Graeber is concerned within.
There are several books worth of material contained in The Democracy Project. The first is a concise but highly informative and inspiring retelling of the early days of Occupy Wall Street, which is considerably better than many of the books published in the last year and a half bearing the word “Occupy” in the title.
It is a breath of fresh air to find an account of the Occupy movement that is avowedly radical instead of liberal, optimistic instead of regretful or bitter, and based on a first-hand insider perspective. The origins of Occupy Wall Street have become much contested, and at this point it is a badge of pride for some to say they were there at Zuccotti Park on the first day, September 17, 2011. But Graeber was there long before that, at the first General Assembly in New York following Adbusters’ call – which, as he tells it, was almost hijacked so that it was not a GA at all but rather yet another rally with designated speakers, until he and other anarchist-leaning “horizontals” who were there dragged it back on course.
But perhaps more importantly, Graeber was also present at various meetings and actions that paved the way for OWS before the Adbusters call, ranging from a visit to NYC from two founders of the Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement, to actions carried out by UK Uncut and its American equivalent. Graeber draws on all of this, as well as his history of participating in and thinking and writing about the Global Justice Movement (often erroneously called the “anti-globalization” movement), to inform a perspective on OWS that is fundamentally different from that of most commentators.
This experience leads Graeber to ask what Occupy Wall Street got right, instead of focusing on where the movement allegedly went wrong (as so many pundits and would-be strategists have done). Why did the occupation of Zuccotti Park rapidly achieve a level of success and influence that many of its more experienced participants had almost given up on expecting from any action?
The answers that are proposed in The Democracy Project run directly counter to some of what has become the received liberal wisdom about Occupy: Most notably, Graeber sees the movement’s commitment to horizontalism and consensus-based processes, as well as its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the existing political system or engage with it, as factors that led to Occupy’s successes, not its later alleged failures. (To the extent that the movement has diminished in the last year, Graeber lays the blame primarily on not just the authorities and law enforcement who effectively abolished the right to peacefully assemble, but also the liberals who accepted this with little complaint and spent more time worrying about “the Black Bloc” and broken windows than police violence and repression.)
To explore why horizontalism and consensus might have been part of Occupy’s original appeal, the book also includes a history of the American democratic spirit, which Graeber credits not to the Founding Fathers – who were all keen to ensure that such a threatening and radical idea as real democracy was kept out of the Constitution of their new republic – but rather to such unexpected sources as Atlantic pirate ship crews and the League of Six Nations of the Iroquois.
But perhaps the most radical contention here is the simple but compelling argument that what we commonly think of when we use the word “democracy” is not democratic at all. Elected representatives are one of the tools used to ensure that “the mob” does not gain the ability to make their own decisions, and the fact that they overwhelmingly tend to be men of privilege is not a recent corruption of the system, but entirely in keeping with the system’s original design: A feature, not a bug. Real democracy would look very different: It would look, argues Graeber, much more like what is espoused by anarchists, which is only fitting since at one point the words “anarchy” and “democracy” were used as interchangeable abusive synonyms. One term has gained respectability, but it has done so at the expense of its original meaning.
None of which is to say that Graeber does not acknowledge how challenging horizontalism, consensus and direct democracy can be, or that he is unaware of the pitfalls into which activists have fallen when trying to put these ideas into practice, in Occupy movements and elsewhere. To address this, The Democracy Project also includes a practical guide to tactics and process, which includes suggestions for how to deal with problems that will be familiar to anyone who attended a General Assembly in the last eighteen months or so.
The book concludes with suggestions for what a revolution might actually look like – a revolution in thought rather than one carried out by force,
“a revolution in common sense.”
Suffice to say, for enough people to accept the central arguments of The Democracy Project would constitute exactly that: A profound change in how we think about democracy, how we define that word, and our sense of what forms of politics might be possible.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]