Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: The Democracy Project by David Graeber

David Graeber has been writing about the Occupy Wall Street movement ever since he played a role in birthing it, but he pulls together his most comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon to date in his latest book The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement.

The book is a collection of several essays relating to Occupy.  The first, after the short introduction, “The Beginning is Near,” is a firsthand account of the genesis of Occupy in New York.  Graeber takes the reader through the many meetings, discussions, rivalries and confusions through which Occupy emerged.  Graeber ends with a play-by-play recollection of the first day of Occupy.  

The second chapter, “Why did it work?”, attempts to answer the question of why Occupy succeeded where other social movements failed to get any traction.  The chapter is structured as answers to several sub-questions -- for instance, “Why was the US media coverage of OWS so different from virtually all previous coverage of left-wing protest movements since the 1960s?” and “Why did the movement refuse to make demands of or engage with the existing political system?”

The third chapter, “The Mob Begin to Think and to Reason” doesn’t address Occupy directly, but rather is a discussion of “The Covert History of Democracy.”  The chapter hammers home the oft-misunderstood point that the framers of America actually hated democracy, and the American political system only began to be misleadingly called “democracy” decades after the Constitution was written.  The chapter’s purview is broader than the American experience, however, and touches on different systems of elections, such as sortition in Florence.

In the fourth chapter, “How Change Happens,” Graeber observers “It would be impossible to write a how-to guide for nonviolent uprisings, a modern day Rules for Radicals.”  Instead, he concentrates on a “series of practical ideas and suggestions” germane to social movements, addressing consensus, direct action, civil disobedience, camping and police.

The fifth and final chapter, “Breaking the Spell” is a slightly modified version of the Baffler essay A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse.  Graeber asks the “much vexed question: What is a revolution?”  He muses on the question a bit before examining a “number of pieces of conventional wisdom that surely need challenging if we are to create any sort of viable free society” regarding work, employment, bureaucracy and communism.  Graeber ends the book on a hopeful note:

As the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.

For close followers of Graeber, the themes and even the content of the book will be familiar;  Graeber cribs liberally from past works.  For instance, his discussion of police behavior echoes his sentiments in his previous essay On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets and his discussion of “western civilization” seems to be a quick overview of his There Never Was a West.

Graeber is at his best when he is exploding conventional wisdom.  In the introduction he argues that “middle class” has never been an economic category and instead has been about “that feeling of stability and security that comes from being able to simply assume that... everyday institutions like the police... are basically on your side.”  He writes of the suggestion that Occupy issue a list of demands: “If one were compiling a scrapbook of worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honorable place.”

Everyone interested in public affairs and American politics will find something to like in this book.  Those unacquainted with the philosophy of Occupy will appreciate the Occupy-for-Dummies style FAQs about the movement.  Hardcore activists can gain insight from the de-fetishization of the consensus process in chapter four.  Anyone that likes a thrilling story will enjoy the descriptions of machinations and manoeuvres of various political groups (“In the spectrum of activists, the [Workers World Party] is probably on the opposite pole from anarchists, but the [International Socialist Organization] is annoyingly in the middle: as close as you can get to a horizontal group while still not actually being one.”) in the days leading up to the occupation.  

Different retellings of Occupy history have been and will be written, and Graeber’s opinions about why the movement succeeded deserve to be debated and challenged.  Regardless, the book is a worthy entry into the pantheon of Occupy-related literature from an individual who was a key player in the movement’s crystallization.

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