David Graeber, author of Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, is one of the most articulate and substantial anarchists to have appeared in the West for many decades. He is also, however, a vainglorious and preposterous prat. The combination of these qualities emerges in a complicated fashion from his recent book, The Democracy Project.
The centerpiece of the book is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Graeber easily compares with the Tahrir Square protests. There are certainly valid points of comparison, since both movements achieved essentially nothing of substance. Graeber also notes that the kind of decentered movement which OWS was striving towards was copied extensively by the CIA and implemented for destabilization purposes – of which Tahrir Square was surely a major part. Notwithstanding, OWS was a comparatively idealistic affair which was not heavily influenced by the ideology of Western imperialism, neocolonialism and plutocracy, in the way that Tahrir Square was. (Of course, the book was written while Tahrir Square still appeared to have successfully installed an Islamic regime in Egypt, and before the Islamists were massacred and driven out by American military puppets.)
Graeber, being an anarchist, was excited to see an anarchist movement arising in the United States. This is not, however, as surprising as it might seem. Anarchism is extremely popular in a self-centred, narcissistic culture (it is much admired on the American extreme right) and it is therefore not surprising that any broad-based middle-class anti-establishment movement would be anarchic. The real problem was, and is, whether it was effectual or sustainable.
Because it was anarchist, the OWS movement was officially leaderless (although Graeber gives the names of numerous people, including himself, who actually did the leading), had no actual principles, ideology or strategy. It also had no recruiting system other than word of mouth, and of course did not have a technique for appealing to established media or political organizations. These are not seen as a problem by Graeber; instead, the problem is that organizations get involved, or try to get involved, in projects like OWS, a fact which Graeber sees as unfair because such organizations try to further their own agendas (instead of Graeber’s agenda).
Having sketched out what OWS was, or what Graeber wanted it to be, he then devotes a 100-page chapter to discussing its accomplishments. The chapter is called “Why Did It Work?”, a title which ignores the obvious point that by any serious standard it did not work at all. However, Graeber evidently set other standards.
He notes, for instance, that OWS initially received more sympathetic media coverage than other left-wing movements. He offers a few idle speculations about reasons, none of which amounts to anything substantial, then notes that after a few weeks media coverage was solidly hostile and remained so until the end of the movement. He also notes that OWS spread across the country (but acknowledges that much of the spread was extremely small-scale and temporary in nature) and attributes this to the widespread immiseration of the intellectual aspiring middle class on which OWS depended.
However, he also says that this middle class movement attracted working class support. He provides a lot of evidence showing the immiseration of the American working class and the way in which the financialisation of the American economy was damaging working-class interests. However, he doesn’t provide any evidence of substantive working class support for OWS (as opposed to the kind of sympathy which everybody feels for anyone who bucks the repressive system). There doesn’t actually seem to be any (indeed, Graeber later complains that OWS was betrayed by the unions, although there is no real sign that the unions ever committed anything to OWS). This would seem to be a key failure of the movement.
He then raises two points.One is, “Why did the movement refuse to . . . engage with the existing political system?”. The answer seems to be that it was controlled by anarchists like Graeber who had raised such disengagement to the status of a principle. (Of course, “engage” might often mean “collaborate”, and obviously OWS did not collude and should not have colluded with the Democratic Party’s attempts to hijack the movement to serve the narrow interests of the elite which that Party serves.) The key problem with this disengagement is that it meant that there were no coherent attainable demands and there was no attempt to develop such demands or link the demands with any OWS action. Instead, OWS simply tried to tap into the anti-politics discourse which the Tea Party also exploited. Hostility to the system, however, is not something which can lead to any kind of coherent alternative to the system – and Graeber and his friends were also extremely hostile to any such alternative being posed, because that would have limited the individualist libertarianism of their movement.
Nevertheless, he claims that this was an “explicitly revolutionary movement”. A revolution, that is, without any goals, without any capacity to change anything or indeed desire to change anything, and without the support of the working class or the armed forces. This is, apparently, the anarchist vision of a revolution. Graeber notes what is wrong with America quite accurately (although very superficially) but offers no alternative and no notion of what force is going to right these wrings – apart from the rhetorical gesture of the “99%”, which Graeber unfortunately confuses with an actual constituency. When he says that challenging the role of money in politics is a revolutionary act, this shows that Graeber, like so many South African Trotskyites, is confusing rhetoric with the concrete world; simply talking about the role of money is not going to remove money from the equation. Ultimately the plutocrats have to be erased or blocked, which is not going to be accomplished by repeating dull slogans over a “people’s mic” which seems exactly like what Graeber denounced the Workers World Party for doing (the WWP were the people who actually began the occupation movement; Graeber and his friends shouldered them aside and hijacked it, supposedly in order to protect the movement against the WWP).
Then, he asks the key question: why did the movement appear to collapse so quickly after the camps were evicted in November 2011? He argues first that this was due to police repression, but compared with the repression which South Africans faced in the 1980s or the Bolsheviks faced in 1917 or in fact which pretty much every successful or partially successful revolutionary movement, this was quite tame. (Graeber tries to coneal this fact with massively florid rhetoric about the evils of the police and their tactics, all of which were entirely predictable.) One must assume from this that OWS was just as fragile as a revolutionary from an earlier period would have assumed that an entity without organizational cohesion, ideological integrity or substantive goals ought to be. What Graeber insists, however, is that although the movement appeared to collapse, it did not actually collapse. He provides little or no evidence for this claim, which appears to be essentially false; there is no public movement pursuing the goals of OWS insofar as it had any, and none appears likely to arise, nor is there anything else making a difference in this regard.
The rest of the book is a passionate but very questionable and meandering argument in favour of direct democracy rather than representative democracy (the book is actually replete with evidence that direct democracy is an ineffectual way of confronting a repressive system) and a long claim about how change is coming despite the obvious absence of any solid force capable of bringing change about. At the end Graeber admits that a radical alternative is needed, but nowhere in the book is any such alternative presented – either because Graeber doesn’t have the imagination to provide it or because he doesn’t really have the courage to take on the critics who would attack him for providing it. Certainly no sign of any such radical alternative, backed by any effective political force, is available anywhere in the United States (or anywhere else in the West).
So basically, Graeber’s book depends on false claims and misrepresentations of what is going on, couched in exaggerated rhetoric about the wonderful courage of the participants in a failed movement which is represented as not having failed though the failure is all too obvious and was predicted by almost everyone who wasn’t an anarchist from the beginning. This is depressing, because it prevents Graeber from identifying what he did wrong, just as it prevented Graeber from understanding why the very similar anti-globalisation movement failed in 2001-2. (Graeber claims that it was killed by 9/11, which is simply question-begging; had that movement been healthy and strong 9/11 ought to have invigorated it.)
In other words, this is a potentially interesting book which tells a pack of lies and leads nowhere. We need a revolution. Mikhail Bakunin thought, quite wrongly, that he knew how to make revolutions, and always supported them. Graeber, like Bakunin, does the same (though more lethargically and less bravely). It was once said that Bakunin was needed in a revolution, but that the moment it ended, he ought to be shot. In contrast, however, Bakunin’s heirs — like Graeber — are not needed in any revolution, and this book, unfortunately, explains why.