“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” —Karl Marx
What ever happened to Occupy Wall Street? Only 18 months after the camps in Zuccotti Park and across the country were being compared to the Arab Spring, people now remember the movement with the same dismissive nostalgia usually reserved for lesser Backstreet Boys. Cynics wonder what the movement ever accomplished, as if OWS fizzled out on its own accord as opposed to being brutally, aggressively, and covertly evicted in a coordinated, nationwide campaign of repression.
Of course, the reality is that OWS never really went away—it only became less visible and therefore easier to ignore after the evictions. Even when OWS couldn’t be ignored, it was always easier to make fun of it than to try to understand it. The lack of concrete demands, the weird hand gestures, and the eclectic mix of people all made the movement impossible to fit neatly into the ubiquitous “Democrat vs. Republican” narrative, and so it was generally viewed as a sideshow or a “liberal Tea Party” by the mainstream media.
But OWS was always better understood in the context of history than in the context of American politics—the entire premise of the movement was that American politics were fundamentally broken in the first place. David Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement aims to place OWS in that historical context. It’s something of a tricky task, since the movement is only two years old, and its long-term effects are still unclear.
In this respect, Graeber’s book calls to mind The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, in which Karl Marx tried to place the rise of Louis Bonaparte in the larger context of the socialist movement. Like Marx, Graeber is commenting on a social movement almost while it is unfolding, while also trying to see it through centuries of history. Unlike Marx, Graeber doesn’t have a single view of history to which all events must comport—The Democracy Project offers no modern version of dialectical materialism. In some ways, this makes the book less coherent, but also more accepting of the oddities of history; Graeber’s book pays close attention to the impact of little things.
Much of the book is dedicated to ways in which protest movements are traditionally marginalized, and why those things didn’t work against OWS. For example, Graeber talks about the way protest movements are often penned into preordained “Free Speech Zones” with steel guards as a way of making protest seem simultaneously permissible and pointless. Small things about OWS, like the tents in the park, helped it grow as much as any political philosophy did.
One notable example that Graeber highlights is the People’s Microphone, or the system of amplification through repetition that was used in OWS’s General Assemblies. Though originally it was only used because organizers had failed to anticipate how many people would show up, and therefore didn’t have suitable mics or megaphones, Graeber talks about its other effects:
“It has a curious, and profound democratic, effect. First of all, it strongly discourages speechifying. Almost anyone will know better than to ramble on unnecessarily if they know that a thousand people are waiting to repeat every word. Second, since anyone can speak, and everyone must repeat, it forces participants to genuinely listen to everybody else.”
The crux of Graeber’s argument is that these things helped turn OWS into the culmination of a movement toward anarchist principles of resistance. This contention might seem somewhat alarming, since “anarchist” was constantly used as a term of slander against OWS, and people often vehemently denied that the movement had been “co-opted” by anarchist extremists. But Graeber simply denies that anarchists could have co-opted the movement, since it was always fundamentally anarchist in its principles:
“In reality, OWS is anarchist-inspired, but for precisely that reason it stands squarely in the very tradition of American popular democracy… Anarchism does not mean the negation of democracy—or at least, any of the aspects of democracy that most Americans have historically liked. Rather, anarchism is a matter of taking those core democratic principles to their logical conclusions.”
Graeber, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of 2011’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has a unique perspective to examine OWS, as he was present during its early days. Part of his book is essentially a memoir of the events leading to the encampment at Zuccotti Park, and these sections read like an Inside Baseball account of New York City’s activist movement, with all the infighting and politics that goes on behind the scenes. There is an alphabet soup of organizations—the WWP, the IAC, the ISO—that all have their own leadership structures, their own levels of acceptable radicalism, and their own rivalries. Each group is eager to take credit and control of any protest it feels will get some attention. Of course, this is precisely what turns so many people away from activism.
When Graeber and other activists arrived at an originally planned “General Assembly” on August 2, 2011, they were disappointed to find a strictly organized protest: “The organizers’ idea of an ‘assembly’ seemed to be an open mic, where anyone in the audience had a few minutes to express their general political position or thoughts about some particular issue before we set off on the preordained march.” Graeber speaks very dismissively of activist groups whose ideas of activism consist of “marching around with signs.” It was only when a few activists broke off and began their own General Assembly, under more horizontal principles, that the movement really took off.
It’s these horizontal principles that Graeber identifies as “the democracy project.” His use of the term “democracy” is initially confusing, since so many people now simply define the term as “more or less the kind of system America (or the UK, etc.) has.” Graeber, though, means something much closer to the word’s definition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when “democracy” was largely used as a term of slander, to mean something like “mob rule” or “anarchy.” After all, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written essentially to prevent democracy of this type, and parts of The Democracy Project are spent detailing how the term came to mean essentially its opposite.*
*Something else Graeber shares with Marx is a keen eye for the way terms are used.
Given this history, though, it’s not clear why Graeber even bothers with the term “democracy” at all. Like so many other terms, it seems more or less lost to history, and its use is only likely to confuse people. It’s true that none of the other terms Graeber uses—“horizontal,” “small-a anarchists,” etc.—have the romantic cache that the word “democracy” has, but the latter term is so loaded that it’s more of a distraction than anything else. Graeber describes how people used to the conventional forms of democracy had difficulty adjusting to the processes at OWS. People familiar with majority votes weren’t used to working in a consensus model, in which even minority viewpoints have to be considered and addressed. Similarly, people had to be taught that a “block” is not the same as voting “no,” and should only be used as a last resort. None of these are features of what we’ve come to know as “democracy,” and a new term might help prepare people for the differences.
This is especially important since the differences are the point. What made OWS successful was how it demonstrated the contrast between the current political system and an ideal “democracy.”
Of course, some people would take issue with calling OWS “successful.” The second chapter in The Democracy Project is called “Why Did It Work,” which essentially takes for granted a point many would question: that it worked at all. It’s true that Graeber’s definition of “success” is colored by his years as an activist: He freely admits that activists spend their lives planning events that almost everyone ignores. The mere fact that people paid attention to OWS makes it a success by these standards
For those outside this world, though, “success” is usually defined by tangible political results, and it’s not like OWS led to a tide of progressive legislation or electoral victories. Once again, though, it’s important to view “success” through a wider historical lens. OWS didn’t “succeed” by gaining concessions from the political system because the idea behind it was always to offer alternatives to that system and show how corrupt that system really was: “The refusal to make demands was, quite self-consciously, a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the existing political order of which such demands would have to be made.” It’s hard to understand what “success” by these criteria would actually entail, short of outright revolution. But Graeber makes a persuasive case that it can be judged by the effects it had on participants, who came to see that the American political system was not the only way to interpret “democracy.”
Some of the book’s most profound insights come on the topic of violence. Part of the success of OWS, Graeber contends, is that it exposed how much of the current political system is built simply on the use of force. Many of the most memorable images of the movement were of the police pepper-spraying peaceful protestors. What was unusual wasn’t the level of violence on the part of the police—Graeber assures the reader that this is to be expected at any protest—but that the media actually paid attention to it. Normally, he contends, the media simply define “violence” as “the unauthorized use of force”—something the police are, by definition, never guilty of. But Graeber cites various reasons, like the abundant evidence of abuse on social media and the similarities to the Arab Spring, that sources couldn’t take the same authoritarian perspective on OWS.
Thinking about this more generally, Graeber delves deeper into what this says about cultural attitudes towards violence. While massive acts of violence committed by the police or the government are almost always accepted as necessary, even the faintest hint of violence on the part of protestors is often enough to condemn the entire cause.* Exposing this double-standard is one of the many ways that OWS succeeding in exposing the moral hypocrisy of the state.
*The most perverse aspect of this, according to Graeber, is how often Gandhi is invoked by those in power to condemn all forms of semi-violent opposition. It’s true, of course, that Gandhi supported nonviolence, but he refused to condemn acts of violence committed by his allies. “While opposing injustice nonviolently, [Gandhi] insisted, is always morally superior to opposing it violently, opposing injustice violently is still morally superior to doing nothing to oppose it at all.”
This type of success may not satisfy everyone. It is, after all, very hard to gauge things like the state’s level of exposed hypocrisy. But it would be silly dismiss the effects of these things simply because they are hard to measure. In retrospect, of course, we understand the impact something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on the abolition movement. Graeber makes a persuasive case that OWS succeeded on the same level.
Making this case, of course, means making the case against the system of “democracy” that OWS was protesting. Graeber does this by placing what he calls “mafia capitalism” in the context of centuries of history. Like he did in Debt, Graeber jumps through history to identify the way certain features of American life—like, say, the student loan industry—are really just modern incarnations of historical systems of servitude. Sometimes he moves through history with haphazard restlessness—and he seems at times too dismissive of economic arguments—but he’s always enlightening and clever, and often slyly funny. By the end, even a reader less inclined to embrace his style of anarchism will have a new view of the historical role OWS plays.
Of course, such things can only be conclusively determined after many years have passed, so, to borrow a phrase from President Bush, history will be the judge. But history will ultimately depend on the future—how OWS is remembered will be determined by what happens over the next few years. The Democracy Project functions as a hodgepodge of different books—memoir, history, philosophical treatise, procedural guideline—but it’s mostly a call to arms. By illustrating what happens when people insist on “living as if they are already free,” Graeber invites readers to do exactly that. Presumably, they have nothing to lose but their chains…