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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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It's this assertion of reborn Anarchism that has received the most publishing attention in recent years. When I mentioned an interest in the subject, Books & Culture editor John Wilson emptied a shelf of his review-copy bookcase, sending me Paul and Karen Avrich's Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman and Alex Butterworth's The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, together with Marina A. Sitrin's Everyday Revolutions and the anthology Prison Blossoms.

He'd clearly been saving up on the topic for a while, since he even added a set of pre-Occupy volumes from the past few years: Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible, John Merriman's The Dynamite Club, and Tripp York's Living on Hope While Living in Babylon: The Christian Anarchists of the 20th Century. And that first mountain of books didn't include the three most widely reviewed new volumes on Anarchism in the wake of the Occupy movement, which had to arrive in a second bundle—David Graeber's The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism, and the multi-editor anthology We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation.

I couldn't begin to read them all. I swore I wouldn't begin to read them all. But, then, I'm one of those people who lose time in grocery stores compulsively reading the text on cereal boxes, and I was incapable of not at least browsing my way through the forest of words. So let's do a little clearing away of the underbrush.

At a quick glance, Sasha and Emma seems solid professional historical work, with a narrative so painstakingly bloated that only specialists in the academic field will finish it. Butterworth's large-canvas The World That Never Was and Merriman's pointillist The Dynamite Club are both interesting popular history. Everyday Revolutions, Sitrin's account of Argentinian anarchism … I don't know what to say. The prose was so peculiar—alternating a thoughtless postmodernist pseudo-technical vocabulary with passages of equally thoughtless sentimentality—that it seems to have glued the pages together, making it impossible to wrench open the book past the second chapter.

The anthology Prison Blossoms, gathering old American texts, and We Are Many, collecting more recent reflections, both offer primary documentation. That doesn't make them readable, of course, but at least they have a reason to exist. Which Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible doesn't, as far as I can tell: error-ridden bloviation masquerading as an objective history of Anarchism is how it seemed before I gave up on its door-stopper 800 pages. Tripp York's small defense of Christian Anarchism, Living on Hope While Living in Babylon, however—now that was interesting. I recommend it to anyone generally interested in the topic, but written as it was before the clarifications that Occupy Wall Street brought, the book lacks analysis of the central fact to which any would-be Christian anarchist must face up: the deep anti-Christianity that pervades the movement.

I'm certain I haven't done these books justice. But what does seem apparent, even in an incomplete browsing of the topic, is that people in the Occupy movement are on a desperate hunt for an ideology. Or, at least (since many anarchists claim to reject the whole idea of ideologies), for some kind of satisfying philosophical account of themselves. And they have thus far produced only two significant texts: David Graeber's The Democracy Project and James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism.

Let's start with The Democracy Project. The ironies of attempting to be an anarchist in the political conditions of the early 21st century are not lost on Graeber. He tells, for instance, the story of participating in a London protest while thinking how odd it is to be among "a bunch of anarchists in masks outside Topshop, lobbing paint bombs over a line of riot cops, shouting, Pay your taxes!" But he believes, nonetheless, that a new theory began to emerge in the actual practice of Anarchism discovered by the Occupy movement. He played a role in the beginnings of that movement, and he spends most of The Democracy Project recounting its origins, explicating its history, and defending its reputation against its critics on the Left.

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