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The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement
The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement
David Graeber
Spiegel & Grau, 2013
352 pp., $26.00

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Joseph Bottum


Occupying Anarchism

"The moral vanguard of change."

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Insofar as Graeber has given us something new in the book, it's not in the critiques he offers of the state, which are mostly the well-worn tropes one can hear from the libertarian right as often as the anarchist left: "Soliciting bribes has been relabeled fundraising and bribery itself lobbying," as Graeber notes. "At this point, bribery has become the very basis of our system of government." Of course, unlike the Tea Partiers on the right, he has no use for the Founding Fathers, whom he dismisses as anti-democrats. In a potted and bizarrely applied bit of pseudo-history, he suggests that what little democracy the 1776 revolution gave us derived from the colonists' admiring notice of the Iroquois and self-governing pirate ships.

He has a pair of interesting purposes in mind, however, in referencing societies believed (or blithely asserted, on thin historical evidence) to be non-hierarchical and contrasting them to the American Founding. The first is to suggest that the overwhelming governmental bureaucracy of our time was born from the Founders' statism, making it inevitable that American government would eventually use faceless administrators to keep itself free from accountability by relying on faceless administrators. And the second purpose is to propose that the Anarchism of the Occupy encampments found a truer form of freedom: democracy without the seeds of big government that the Constitution planted.

That new, truly democratic Anarchism was made possible, Graeber thinks, not so much by the Occupy movement's claim to represent the impoverished "99 percent" against the unholy nexus of big government and big corporations in the wake of the financial collapses of 2008. True democracy emerged, he insists, precisely from the refusal to say what exactly the Occupy movement wanted. Occupy was refusal—refusal of the whole mess and an effort not to participate in it even by standard forms of organized protest. "It was only when a movement appeared that resolutely refused to take the traditional path that rejected the existing political order as inherently corrupt, that called for the complete reinvention of American democracy, that occupations immediately began to blossom across the country." Indeed, "the movement did not succeed despite the anarchist element. It succeeded because of it."

The problem with all this is, of course, that Occupy Wall Street and its clones in other cities did not actually succeed. They sprouted up, they died (or were at last murdered by the police, in some occupiers' accounts), and nothing changed. The dilemma of Anarchism has always been a practical one: Every attempt at actual Anarchism has eventually become either a puppet of the communists, a leftist statism, or actual anarchy—which is to say a mob without staying power or resilience.

Still, Graeber retains his enormous optimism. "We are already anarchists," he claims, "every time we come to understandings with one another that would not require physical threats as a means of enforcement." The bombings and shootings of the original anarchists—in what they called "the propaganda of the deed"—have proved unnecessary, for the fact of the Occupy movement forever changed its participants. They proved, Graeber insists, that the paradox of anarchical organization is possible to overcome, and their example will last in a way that the anarchistic forebears he claims in the revolutions of 1848 and 1968 did not.

Less optimistic is James C. Scott, a Yale anthropologist best known for his work in South-east Asian history—and someone who, the much younger David Graeber declares, stands as "one of the great political thinkers of our time." Unfortunately, in Two Cheers for Anarchism, Scott refuses to give us a straightforward book of political thought. What he writes is a meandering set of what he calls "fragments" instead of continuous text. And the idea, I think, is that somehow the anti-organization of the text would echo and reinforce for us the anti-organization of anarchical society.

Scott usually calls himself a Marxist, but the recent protests of the anarchists, born in the financial crisis, have created in him a new appreciation for Anarchism—or, at least, enough for him to give the movement the same two out of three cheers Irving Kristol gave in Two Cheers for Capitalism and E. M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy. It would be nice if the refusal to give the third cheer were from a recognition of at least a temporary need for some genuine hierarchical government (before, as the Marxists say, the state withers away), and Scott does accept that need, to some degree. The real reason he can't fully support the political philosophy, however, is that Anarchism is insufficiently prepared for revolution. It is disorganized, as one might expect from people who want anarchy. And for the overthrowing of the state, the eradication of the current institutionalized oppressions, that makes it inadequate.

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