The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement is a broad sweep at grassroots mobilisation that culminated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011. Fewer topics are timelier; having been at the centre of the movement from the proverbial first day, activist and anthropologist David Graeber is the person to tell both the story of the movement and the ideas that propelled it. For a movement that has eschewed formal leadership, Graeber may be closest to its spokesperson. If you are already a fan of Graeber from his previous works, you shall love The Democracy Project. Yet others, including those who self-identify as progressive, may find themselves frequently struggling with the book both on matters of style and content.
Before delving into what works and what doesn’t, let’s mull over the term democracy. Conventional usage posits democracy as a system where the elected leadership draws legitimacy from a mandate extended by the people. If democracy is a system, we think of the Western world — Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and more so than other countries, the United States — as countries where this political tradition has long been followed. But The Democracy Project opens with a forceful challenge to this conceptualisation of democracy; instead, Graeber insists that the rulers of the United States are scared by nothing more than the prospect of democracy “breaking out,” noting that taken to its ultimate conclusion “the democratic impulse can only lead to rendering [those who currently govern America] entirely unnecessary.” Even besides the fact that half of Americans couldn’t be bothered to vote, Graeber is adamant that for “most” Americans democracy is “not something they have ever practiced or experienced.”
These categorical introductory remarks unshackle the reader from thinking about democracy as suffrage. Instead, The Democracy Project defines democracy as empowering people to make decisions that affect their lives through a process of consensus building uninhibited by vertical power structures. More than halfway into the book — when the reader has long worked it out — Graeber spells out what he means by the term: “collective deliberation on the principle of full and equal participation” (these are ideals frequently associated with anarchism — in fact, Graeber describes himself as a lower-case “a” anarchist). But this leads to a roadblock: Graeber’s democratic ideal is not attainable without a radical transformation in societal power structures in present-day America.
This impasse is pivotal; it is the need for change in societal structures that bridges Graeber’s view of democracy with the demands for economic justice that inspired Occupy Wall Street. According to Graeber, the fact that one in seven Americans is hounded by a collection agency and only a minority of Americans describe themselves as being middle class, is an indication of the failure of the government in being truly representative. If the majority of Americans do not view themselves as middle class, then this has a profound implication, namely that the existing system is working against them. Instead — and here Graeber references economist Joseph Stiglitz — the current system in the United States is one where the top one per cent of the population determines how the political system works based on a system of “legalised bribery” (an example from the book: the Bank of America’s earnings in 2009 were $4.4 billion dollars; the bank paid no federal tax, instead getting a tax credit of $1.9 billion. Instead, the bank spent about $4 million on lobbying which went to the politicians that made the tax break possible). Here’s another fact: the generation born in the United States in the 1970s was the first in the history of the country that faced the prospect of having a lower standard of living than their parents. By 2006, asserts Graeber, this generation was worse off than their parents measured against any yardstick: they earned less, received less benefits, had more debt, and were more likely to be unemployed or in jail.
Such stark realities funneled discontent that led to the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011. On September 17, 2011, at least 2,000 protestors convened in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan; protestors camped in the park for months as similar occupations emerged in other cities in the US and around the world. Although the occupation had ostensibly been a response to an idea floated by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters in mid-July, Graeber was amongst those who began preparing for a general assembly weeks in advance. While Adbusters had provided the initial idea, a small group of activists, including Graeber, worked to publicise the event and to plan a focused public meeting on September 17. Here my curiosity piqued. Following the events from afar, I had many unanswered questions: what had the movement been about? What did the occupiers want? What brought people to the movement? The Democracy Project promised answers. But this is also where my struggle with the book began.
Graeber’s description of the occupation reads like a blog where he and his friends — a small group of friends, if I may add — take centre-stage. I can even put up with the cheesy reconstructed dialogues between Graeber and his buddies if The Democracy Project was forthcoming with details. For example, while we are told that economic disenfranchisement was a motivator, we are told little about the people camped at Zuccotti Park. As Graeber goes into painstaking details about the mechanics of consensus building in a general assembly, what the consensus was actually about gets sidelined. As a curious reader I wanted to know: what were people talking about? What ideas were being exchanged? What were the analytical frameworks? What were the disagreements? We get little insight into these questions. Put more directly, the chapter downplays the politics behind the occupation at the expense of the mechanics.
Moving on: despite sometimes erratic and awkward style (chapter two resorts to questions-and-answers only to abandon it in the next chapter and temporarily adopt it in chapter four), Graeber provides compelling insights. He repeatedly calls out the heavy hand of the state: the destructions of kitchens and libraries during the occupation, arbitrary changes in law to evict protestors, false accusations that the occupations were sites of sexual assault and crime, continuous surveillance and frequent police brutality. Heavy-handed tactics against demonstrators have become the hallmark of Western democracies, which Graeber attributes to the militarisation of the police post-9/11, a process that he contends took place with the tacit acceptance of middle-class liberals.
In chapter three we get a historical overview of democracy with Graeber forcefully debunking the conservative idea that the Greeks invented democracy. Instead he argues that if democracy is egalitarian consensus building it can just as easily be found in other parts of the world. Graeber also illustrates how, over the course of the late 18th and early 19th century, the meaning of democracy changed. American and French revolutionaries, for example viewed democracy similar to how anarchism is conventionally viewed today: riotous chaos. It was only with the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) — seeking populist support from Midwestern labourers and farmers against the bureaucrats — that the term democracy was slowly appropriated by the political elite to refer to a system of one-person, one vote. This new view of democracy was in harmony with structures of governance that ultimately favoured the elite; it is this system that we call democracy today. Graeber’s view of democracy, where people build consensus around collective interests, is anathema to elite structures of authority. The Occupation, with its lack of vertical structures, became the site where the new democracy was practiced.
Graeber’s discussion of democracy is both valuable and provocative, which ought to be debated. That said, it is uncertain if The Democracy Project is going to carry this discussion into the mainstream. This book has too many loose ends. For example: Graeber’s emphasis on the convergence between the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the so-called Arab Spring is unsubstantiated; I remain skeptical without knowing details of the ties. His discussion of post-War revolutions was too general. We get a diatribe against paperwork and bureaucracy. We get a humming and hawing on whether kicking in a shop front window during an anti-globalisation movement is right or wrong (so what is, Graeber?). Now and then we are subject to streams of consciousness such as “Violence is boring and predictable … Historically, it has always been the preferred tactic of the stupid. Violence is basically a form of active stupidity, a way of clasping one’s hand over one’s ears and refusing to listen” (My emphasis. There are few of us in the humanities and social sciences who wouldn’t be left scratching our heads at this). Amidst the penetrating observations and merciless critique of an unjust economic system, the reader is frequently subjected to tangents, repetitions, random thoughts and general observations with the net result that all too often The Democracy Project reads like a manuscript that was banged out to meet a publisher’s deadline (followed by a complete lack of copy editing).
My final and admittedly personal gripe is Graeber’s use of the category activist as exclusionary. For Graeber, activists adhered to set views on everything from globalisation to fast food (fast food is haram, incidentally). Here I found myself in a conundrum: I am a firm believer in standing up and being counted; I protest. I boycott businesses whose practices I disagree with. But I’ll occasionally have a guilt-free Starbucks white chocolate chip cookie when the mood strikes, and don’t feel the need to justify a burger and fries from a corporate fast food franchise. A friend who participated in the Occupation in Toronto recalled that one of the reasons that made the movement exciting was that it drew people with all sorts of ideas. That’s not the impression you get by reading The Democracy Project.
As I approached the end of the book I found myself comparing it to the late Howard Zinn’s unforgettable book, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. Zinn was a historian and an activist whose humanity and humility leaps off the pages of this lovingly told recollection of his adult life. Activism — whether during the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement during the Vietnam or the first Gulf War, or picketing at his own Boston University against the administration — was central to not only to Zinn’s life, but was depicted as a process that empowered all of us to speak against injustice. Graeber, like Zinn, was at the centre of crucial events of recent history. Unlike Zinn, however, Graeber’s recollection is one where I felt that I had been in a sustained argument with the author. Like all intense arguments it was thought-provoking; I would frequently put down the book to think. But like all arguments, I am uncertain how much I learned from it, and it left me exhausted. For an event like Occupy Wall Street and given Graeber’s central role in this movement, ending the book on this note was a pity.
The reviewer teaches in the Humanities and Social Sciences programme at Lums.