The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber – review

David Runciman is shaken from his apathy by a call for a new politics in a book that asks why the Occupy Wall Street protests worked

What's the first question that springs to mind when you think about Occupy Wall Street? Where did it go? Was anything actually accomplished? What went wrong? These are not the questions that David Graeber wants to answer in his new book on the protest and its ramifications. Graeber, an anthropologist and lifelong activist, was there from the beginning and helped give OWS its start in life in September 2011. He also helped coin the slogan "We are the 99%", which did so much to brand the movement. Now, nearly two years on, Graeber wants to draw some of the wider lessons. He thinks the question that needs to be answered is: Why did it work?

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Graeber has two reasons for believing that Occupy was a huge success. The first is that so many people showed up at all. Graeber, who is also an anarchist, is a veteran of actions, rallies and occupations whose participants can usually be counted in the tens, not the tens of thousands. Bloombergville, a forerunner of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, was a camp of 40 activists living in tents opposite City Hall in lower Manhattan during the summer of 2011. No one noticed, which is what tends to happen with this kind of protest. The original occupation of Wall Street on 17 September drew a couple of thousand people, which was considered a triumph. But within weeks the movement had spread to more than 600 cities, and huge crowds were assembling daily in New York. Graeber writes of having to pinch himself as he watched thousands of people mimicking the hand gestures and rallying cries of activists who were more used to shouting at each other across empty rooms.

These parts of the book read like the typical memoirs of anyone who has an unexpected brush with fame: they are breathless, self-referential and more than a little pompous. Graeber's stories of the infighting between the different anarchist and socialist groups in the runup to Occupy are inadvertently comical: it's the Judean People's Front v the People's Front of Judea. His account of the subsequent explosion of  interest in his ideas reminded me of Jarvis Cocker's description of the first time Pulp played Glastonbury. After years of scraping a living in grimy Sheffield clubs, the band suddenly found itself performing to a field of 50,000 people, who all seemed to know the words to "Common People" and were singing devotedly along. This sort of success rarely lasts. Cocker probably has a better idea of the vicissitudes of popular acclaim than Graeber does.

Graeber also thinks OWS should be celebrated precisely because the movement did not make concrete policy demands. As an anarchist, he believes in what he calls "prefigurative" politics: protests are not meant to extract concessions from the existing system, but to give people an idea of what the world would be like if there was no system and individuals were free to make their own choices. Graeber believes that democracy – or rather, the thing that we have come to call democracy, with its professional politicians, political parties and preoccupation with the money – has been entirely co-opted by finance capitalism. OWS gave a glimpse of a very different sort of politics, free-wheeling, interactive, sometimes chaotic, always creative, never knowing where it was headed next. The big, lively crowds of disparate people talking to each other about their struggles was the whole point: it showed that real democracy can break out almost anywhere given the chance.

To make his case that electoral democracy entirely stifles the expression of everyday experiences, Graeber provides a brief history of how we got into our present mess. This is where the book comes alive, because Graeber's uncompromising approach, so wearying when applied to his personal history, is bracing when applied to the world at large. He believes it is no accident that the current political system protects the interests of the super-rich at the expense of almost everyone else. Our democracy is not some imperfect version of the real thing. It is the opposite of the real thing. Genuine democracy enables ordinary people to break free from the conventions that limit their capacity to lead fulfilling lives. In our democracy, the limitations are entrenched, because the conventions are all about protecting the power of money.

For Graeber, the emblem of our impoverishment of expectations is the massive recent expansion in student debt. Being a student should be one of the few times in your life when you don't have to be fretting about money, but can experiment with other ways of thinking and of living. Instead, students are now forced to think about their degrees in terms of what they can be traded for. Graeber recounts meeting recent graduates who are selling their bodies to pay off their loans: a PhD has become the path to prostitution, not intellectual reward. The thrill of OWS was that it brought these students together with trade unionists and blue-collar workers – the newly graduated with the newly downsized – and got them talking about what they had in common. It turns out that debt – the subject of Graeber's previous book – is the great unifier.

The idea of a street alliance between students and workers will set alarm bells ringing for many readers. It sounds like 1968 all over again, another world-shaking revolution that achieved little and fragmented into petty quarrels and gesture politics. It is to the credit of The Democracy Project that it does not shy away from this comparison. It embraces it. Graeber accepts that 1968 was a failure measured by immediate results. But it still changed the world, because it changed people's expectations. The social transformations of the following decades – above all, the advances in women's rights and gay rights – were made possible by the readiness of the 1968ers to challenge the accepted order. Graeber also welcomes comparisons with the other great "failed" revolution of modern times: 1848. OWS coincided with the Arab spring, which gave some protesters hope that a new wave of democratic change was sweeping the planet. Those hopes now look wishful. But as in 1848, short-term reverses are not necessarily an indicator of long-term prospects. The second half of the 19th-century did eventually see widespread democratic reform, as the old order adapted to the demands of the new. Graeber hopes the first half of the 21st century will see a similar shift.

What would such a shift mean? He thinks the unfinished revolution is in the world of work. Workers have formal rights but they have no real power to break free from the mindless pressure of a service economy and a consumerist society. For most people the fear of losing your job is far greater than the hope of finding a truly fulfilling one. The new information technology has made things worse by ramping up the bureaucracy and relentless demands of working life. But it also contains the seeds of radical alternatives: the internet is a space where it is possible to experiment with new kinds of labour and new ways of sharing information, time and experiences. On a crowded planet of limited natural resources, there have got to be better ways of working for a living than we currently manage.

A lot of this sounds utopian. But Graeber is almost certainly right that something has got to give over the coming decades. We live at a time of astonishing technological change, yet staid and unadventurous politics. The two can't co-exist indefinitely. OWS may turn out to have been a straw in the wind. Graeber has too much personally invested in the movement to be able to write dispassionately about its drawbacks and absurdities. His chapter on how to run a "consensus" democracy, drawing on the experiences of the "general assembly" in Zuccotti Park, is hopelessly light on the practical limitations of anarchism (the main one being that most people are not anarchists). But when Graeber writes about the need to try something new – anything new – he is both compelling and sympathetic. Like many on the far left, he has more time for conservatives than he does for liberals. He respects people who are looking for ways to contribute meaningfully to their communities. As he says, in many parts of the US, where public life has been pared to the bone by the power of the market, there aren't many ways to do this except by joining the church or the army. Graeber gets why people make these choices. He just wants to broaden them.

Liberals, by contrast, tend to sit back and wait for things to happen. Graeber is right about this and reading The Democracy Project, I felt the sting of his critique. Like many people, years of inconclusive crisis politics have left me feeling jaded and apathetic. Despite its faults, this book woke me up.

From The Guardian UK



In before everyone dismisses occupy and/or David Graeber

It doesn't matter...

"He (David Graeber) also helped coin the slogan "We are the 99%""

As much as that phrase makes me want to vomit, I think he is good at communicating the argument against capital and the state.

Graeber’s question “Why did OWS work?” invites inquiry into the sense of ‘it worked’. The sense that ‘it worked’ seems to associate with the magnitude and wildfire-like spread of this eruption of dissent.

If we go with the ‘wildfire metaphor’, then ‘why it worked’ has nothing to do with the nature of the activism/fire; i.e. the spread of wildfires is not due to the nature of the fire but to the nature of the ground; ‘le feu n’est rien, le terrain est tout’. the potentials for fire, which reside in the variably accommodating receptacle of land/habitat orchestrate the incidence and spread of fires.

the building of tensions is global, just as with the tensions that associate with earthquakes. the tensions are everywhere; i.e. they are non-local, non-visible and non-material [they are purely relational]. should we ask ‘Why did the Japan earthquake work?’; i.e. why was it so large in magnitude and produce so many aftershocks?

Graeber studying everything that went on during the OWS, the coming together of students and workers united by common theme of ‘debt’ etc. is like studying everything that went on in the Japan earthquake and tsunami to try to understand why that quake worked so well.

The source of the sporadic explosive release of energy from tensioned relations lies in the global [non-local, non-visible, non-material] relational tensions that can accumulate and be triggered by some local event. the local event is NOT ‘the cause’ but the ‘trigger’. the cause, or ‘source’ are the continually rising relational tensions.

This is where Graeber should instead be looking, but the analytical inquirer is only equipped to think in terms of ‘what things do’ so he always looks on the yang ‘positive causal’ side of things instead of looking on the yin ‘negative causal side’ and so credits the gang of microbes for the illness, rather than changes in the terrain.

working class slaves can be passive and compliant for long periods and tip their hat at the boss and his missus, ... but things can happen to disturb that equilibrium; it could be reducing the workforce without reducing the work; it could be removing the job security that used to sustain the complacency; it could be seeing too many of your brothers suffering in the rising have/have-not inequality. it could be a lot of things on the ‘yin side’; i.e. ‘le pathogene n’est rien, le terrain est tout’.

there are over 200 strains of bacteria and viruses that can cause pneumonia. when a lot of them show up in tent city ready to do damage, like the motley crew that showed up in OWS, you can interview every one of them and hear their ‘rationales’ and study their ‘strategies’, but you are looking in the wrong place because when that happens, the source lies in changes in ‘le terrain’ that give rise to a 'defiency' that becomes a negatively causal source [analogous to a vitamin C deficiency].

the rational plan in people’s minds is secondary to the ineffable, intuitively felt [non-rational] incompleteness we feel in our web of relational social context.

“It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition that we invent. … Logic, therefore, remains barren unless fertilised by intuition.” – Henri Poincaré

living in an authoritarian, capitalist, material-gains-oriented society is feeling more and more ‘hollow’. students, in particular are feeling more acutely how they are being forced into joining in it;

ernest becker said it quite a while ago in his book ‘Denial of Death’ and it hasn’t gone away;

"The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don't believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times. We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect of our social life: the dropouts of university heroism; the rise of the anti-heroes, those who would be heroic each in his own way or like Charles Manson with his special 'family', those whose tormented heroics lash out at the system that itself has ceased to represent agreed heroism. The great perplexity of our time, the churning of our age, is that the youth have sensed --- for better or for worse --- a great social-historical truth: that just as there are useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars, so too is there an ignoble heroics of whole societies; it can be the viciously destructive heroics of Hitler's Germany or the plain debasing and silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges that now characterizes whole ways of life, capitalist and Soviet."

Ahh.. I see. Brilliant. But I still cannot determine precisely how much wood, a woodchuck could chuck?

Norris. A would chuck would chuck norris.

Sorry, but this is dumb. You're making a totally unfounded assertion here. Just for starters, you base a bunch of stuff on the quote about wildfire, and act like you're drawing a big revelatory connection, but that quote was yours in the first place. Secondly, if you want to argue that nothing "works" and everything is simply based on terrain (which reminds me a lot of some bullshit longue dureé theories of history that I'm not even going to bother critiquing because of the way they totally discard agency) you're going to have to give some real reason why OWS or whatever other event fits your analytical mode better than Graeber's.

It's not that I'm not sympathetic to that argument, either. I do think that it's basically wishful thinking from a very limited viewpoint, though. To use your yin/yang language, I would say that maybe looking for deep reasons behind events on the "yin side" is appropriate, but the fact is we know this already. Of course there's tension built up in wage slaves. Of course the conditions of history favor insurrection when interpreted broadly. Otherwise we wouldn't be anarchists. But the fact is that tension (be it earthquakes or social explosions) is released in certain places at certain times, and not everywhere/always/forever. There is value in determining why things shift when/how/where they do, and hand-waving about some vague "historical condition" is the opposite of having a functional analysis.

i won't say you're dumb, but let me spell this out for you;

FIRST: the citing of ‘wildfire’ was to plug the reader into the lesson that comes from our experiencing of nature, not from ‘emile’ or ‘emile’s quote/hypothesis’.

when the whole landscape is like a bomb waiting to go off at the slightest triggering, as after a long hot summer and where the grasses and brush and forests are tinder dry, then they need only the slightest trigger to explode into action, a bolt of lightning, a cigarette butt, a spark from a campfire, and from the sparks rising from a fire more fires are ignited.

lesson: when the landscape is tensioned close to its exploding threshold, if one fire starts, it may trigger many others.

now, if the social landscape is tensioned close to its exploding threshold, like in the wake of a global recession, when people find themselves trapped in untenable situations, then if one fire starts, it may spark others.

in the ‘social case’, there will be a feeling of solidarity out of empathy for brothers caught in the same untenable social-relational situation. now if a well-known member of the ‘intelligentsia’ pops up with a neat rallying calling call like ‘occupy everything’, some, including him, might start the rumour that this activity was due to a ‘meme’ that spread around the world and ‘called people to action’.

you see what this does, right? it NOTIONALLY takes the tensions in the social relational landscape out of the ‘equation’ and re-casts what happened in terms of a rational [all-yang, no-yin] movement.

SECOND: the untenable situation so many individuals were in was that they had no job, everyone was screwing them, the banks, the government, and they were caught in a bind without being able to do anything about it because the space they live is a controlled space, controlled by the sovereign state intelligentsia and their ‘theories’ that they impose on the people and refuse to back off, ... controlled by the people who own, directly or through corporations, the bulk of the land and its resources and nurturances, ... controlled by financial institutions and controlled by the police and military and secret police who are ready to pounce if you get serious about changing the basic system.

that describes the conditioning of the social landscape. it is a ‘relational-spatial conditioning’ where if you reach out for jobs, you are refused, if you reach out for assistance to forestall bank foreclosure on your home, you are refused, if you reach out for an apple on a tree in a corporate orchard, you are refused, if you reach out to demand change, you are refused. you are getting close to your ‘explode’ threshold and the social landscape becomes filled with people in such circumstances. these are wildfire conditions.

so why did so many people ‘come out in the streets’? it didn’t even matter what political theory they espoused. what was it about the ‘occupy strategy’ that made IT so successful? can we find a ‘theory’ lurking in here to explain it in a rational all-yang manner?

the ‘occupy event’ is NOT CAPTURABLE in the rational, all-yang terms of what things-in-themselves do. the people BOTH 'were' AND 'were not' coming from ‘rational theory’. the many forest fires in the long hot summer BOTH 'were' AND 'were not' coming from careless smokers. the wildfire-like spread was not DERIVING FROM the spread of an intellectual meme making this global outburst into a ‘rational action’. the slogans such as ‘occupy everything’ were simply ‘rallying calls’ [aboriginals in oakland made the point that 'decolonize' was a better term than 'occupy' and many people agreed]. the rallying call could have been ‘heeiyo, heeiyo, frog sings the arrival of spring’, or whatever.

THIRD: as bakunin observed in his arguments against marxism, the hegemony by way of theory is even worse than the hegemony by way of property. we don’t need to be educated to understand when we are caught in a social relational bind, and we don’t need to be controlled by some ‘intelligentsia’ with some theory on 'how we should organize the next 'occupy' event', ... as if it was a rationality-driven phenomenon which it was NOT.

do we really want to find [invent] some ‘theory’ of ‘why occupy was so successful’ so that ... what? ... we can develop a theory for how anarchists should organize, a theory that will generate an ‘intelligentsia’ who will use it to control everyone, as in marxism? graeber is so surprised by the success of this meme [what he evidently takes to be a meme], that he wants to extract the essential causal source of its success after the fact, as if ‘occupy’ was, simply said, a rationality-driven phenomenon. the fact is, it BOTH ‘was’ AND ‘was not’ a rationality-driven phenomenon; i.e. it was born of yin with yang features, but the yin came first, the tension coming from being included in an untenable web of social relations. this relational-situational tension was the deeper/primary animative sourcing and rational argument was secondary. ‘making no demands’ was not just a clever strategy, it was an expression of people animated, firstly and above all, by wanting to put an end to being stuck between a rock and a hard place [being cornered and controlled like a rat by wealthy property owners, by financial institutions, by government theorists and finally by police and military]. Bakunin saw this reduction of social phenomena to 'science' as a flaw that led to ‘theory-driven’ forms of organization.

“Bakunin maintained that education was as great an instrument of domination as private property. So long as leaning was preempted by a minority of the population, he wrote in 1869 in an essay entitled Integral Instruction, it could effectively be used to exploit the majority. 'The one who knows more', he wrote, 'will naturally dominate the one who knows less.' Even if the landlords and capitalists were eliminated, there was a danger that the world 'would be divided once again into a mass of slaves and a small number of rulers, the former working for the latter as they do today'.
Bakunin had denounced Marx and his followers as narrow intellectuals who, living in an unreal world of musty books and thick journals, understood nothing of human suffering. Although Bakunin believed that intellectuals would play an important part in the revolutionary struggle, he warned that his Marxist rivals had an insatiable lust for power. In 1872, four years before his death, Bakunin speculated on the shape the Marxist 'dictatorship of the proletariat' would assume if ever inaugurated:
"That would be the rule of scientific intellect, the most autocratic, the most despotic, the most arrogant, and the most insolent of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of genuine or sham savants, and the world will be divided into a dominant minority in the name of science, and an immense ignorant majority."
In one of his most important works,, Gosudarstvennost i anarkhiya, published the following year, Bakunin elaborated upon this dire prophecy in a most striking passage:
"According to the theory of Mr. Marx, the people not only must not destroy [the state] but must strengthen it and place it at the complete disposal of their benefactors, guardians, and teachers the leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr. Marx and his friends, who will proceed to liberate [mankind] in their own way. They will concentrate the reigns of government in a strong hand, because the ignorant people require an exceedingly firm guardianship; they will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural, and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies.-industrial and agricultural - under the direct command of state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific-political estate."
According to Bakunin, the followers of Karl Marx and of Auguste Comte as well were 'priests of science', ordained in a new privileged church of the mind and superior education'. They disdainfully informed the common man: 'You know nothing, you understand nothing, you are a blockhead, and a man of intelligence must put a saddle and bridle on you and lead you'.”

finally, while science is concerned with knowledge of how things work, there is also the philosophy of science of mach et al which seeks to develop understanding of science in society, something that bakunin was evidently also interested in. the bottom line is; never give yourself up to being controlled by someone or other's [or some collective or other's] rational theories, whether it be how to organize or how to 'run a community'; being controlled by a 'central intelligence agency' is tougher than being controlled by monopoly ownership of property.

you're getting closer.
can't stop don't stop

“The term “negative causality” denotes a highly controversial problem in metaphysics: Can negative entities such as the absence or the non-occurrence of certain events be causes or causal factors? This question is situated at the intersection of a series of fundamental questions that transcend disciplinary boundaries, questions concerning not only the nature of causality, actions, and events, but also the relationship between causality and moral and legal responsibility. This book is intended for philosophers, legal theorists, and theorists of science.” ---re ‘Negative Kausalität’, by Dieter Birnbacher and David Hommen

if a diverse assortment of people began gathering out in the streets, the question might not be in regard to THEIR common intention, ... but rather why it was that their wives/partners had stopped cooking them breakfast. if you see a succession of upward steps in global surface temperatures, the question might not be in regard to the 'causal agencies' that were driving the temperature up, but rather in regard to why long term temperature-depressing influences were falling off [as when the melting of old ice accumulations reduce their surface area and are no longer sustaining their former temperature-depressing influence]. when one's only tool is positive causality, everything looks like a causal agent, even poor old innocent CO2. when sherlock holmes and watson were camped out on an overnight stakeout and having both quoffed a few jars, dozed off, awakening later out of a deep sleep with sherlock asking watson what the significance was of the falling stars streaking directly overhead; ... while watson began responding at length in the technical terms of astronomical science, sherlock cut him short, saying; 'you fool, someone has stolen our tent!'.

the West took the yin [negative causality] out of yin/yang and it's time to bring it back home.

"Are you the Judean People's Front?"

"Fuck off..."


"Judean People's Front! We're the People's Front of Judea...Judean People's Front, Jeesh... [wankers]"

"Can I...join your group?"

"Nah, piss off!"

"Look, I didn't want to come to Zuccoti Park and live in a tent. It's only an activist job. I hate the 1% as much as anybody."

"Shhhhhh..." "Are you sure?"

"Oh, dead sure. I hate the 1% already"

"Listen, if you want to join the PFJ, you'd have to really hate the 1%"

"I do"

"Oh yeah, how much?"

" A lot..."

"Right, you're in."

"Listen, the only people we hate more than the 1%, are the fucking Judean People's Front" ("yeah, splitters").

"And the Judean Popular People's Front". ("yeah, splitters").

"And the People's Front of Judea" ("yeah, splitters").

"Huh? WE'RE the People's Front of Judea!"

"Huh? Oh...I thought we were the Popular Front"


"Whatever happened to the Popular Front?"

"[sigh] He's over there..."


If the middle class died overnight in a crash of empire, is everyone in the movement then equal or does one's status of poor or middle class retroactively affect them and how they are treated in the new society and how they appear to others?

whoa whoa WHOA

Like the Marxists, the Anarchists recognize the bourgeoisie, the petit bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the lumpenproletariat. There is no "middle class". The so-called "middle class" is purely a bourgeois construct.

a history, a crisis, a flaming bag of poop on david graeber's doorstep.

I don't understand..
Regards, tas batok kelapa blitar

David Runciman's review says: "These parts of the book read like the typical memoirs of anyone who has an unexpected brush with fame: they are breathless, self-referential and more than a little pompous." Really?! I have read the book and I find this claim to be utterly baseless. Nowhere in this book does Graeber come off like he's narcissistically blowing his own horn. He does place himself in the narrative of the early events in the formation of OWS. But he doesn't come off at all self-important and "pompous". Runciman seems to want to discredit Graeber by painting him as an arrogant fool. He's neither.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
Subscribe to Comments for "The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber – review"