Occupy: Democracy, revolution and philosophy

August 30, 2015

From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters

David Graeber, the author of The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), is a well-known anarchist anthropologist and activist, an insider in starting Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

The book presents a close-up view of the activity and the thinking of OWS, and a contemporary treatise on revolutionary organization. Graeber explains that it “is not just a book about Occupy, but about the possibility of democracy in America. Even more, it’s about the opening up of the radical imagination that Occupy allowed.”

Cover Democracy ProjectThe book contends that “Democracy is as old as history” and tries to equate real democracy with anarchism. A section on the American Revolution and its aftermath discusses how democratic tendencies flowed from it. As against that, suppressing what John Adams called “the horrors of democracy” was a major part of the Constitution’s design.

Refreshingly, this book is revolutionary and anti-capitalist—unlike allegedly radical books like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Graeber devotes several pages to explaining why OWS was “an explicitly revolutionary movement.”

This movement “rejected the existing political order entirely” and issued “an explicit appeal to class politics, a complete reconstruction of the existing political system, a call (for many at least) not just to reform capitalism but to begin dismantling it entirely.”

Graeber bluntly describes “the police as an institutional structure” representing “the overall structure of power”—a lesson many occupiers were slow to learn, repeating that cops (and prison guards) are “part of the 99%” even after police brutality.

Unfortunately, Graeber raises organizational form above everything else. “How Change Happens,” one of only five chapters, devotes 60 pages to “a series of practical ideas and suggestions” from consensus to camping.


Why all this detail? Because to him the “anarchist” process is more important than philosophy, and he has faith that the process will lead to the new society. Yet only one page of the “strategies” mentions workers’ self-organization, self-activity, self-management.

Graeber’s stress on the “spirit” of the form of organization misses the point that process and form of organization can’t substitute for the actual spirit of the movement, whose disastrous transformation we witnessed firsthand at Occupy Chicago while the form of organization remained the same. From what I have read (though not in this book), the same transformation occurred elsewhere, such as in New York.

In recapitulating some of the thinking about form preceding OWS, Graeber writes:

“Back in the days of the Global Justice Movement we thought that if we exposed enough people, around the world, to these new forms of direct democracy, and traditions of direct action, that a new, global, democratic culture would begin to emerge. But as noted above, we never really broke out of the activist ghetto….”

Until OWS, that is. By then “horizontalist” activists had chosen to focus on “developing forms of egalitarian political process that actually work; forms of direct democracy….”

Through sleight of hand, the book absorbs what is desirable in the author’s eyes into anarchism. The attempt to define it is so overly broad that many who are not anarchists would be included: a “movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society….In this sense there have always been anarchists….” Then Graeber narrows it again in order to draw a distinction from Marxism, which, in his typical anarchist view, is falsely defined by an insistence to “seize state power…and use its mechanisms to transform society.”

Despite his partisanship in the field of philosophical schools, a certain glibness obscures just how intense the author’s dismissal of philosophy is. In reality, his faith in form of organization (which includes process) excludes any role for philosophy of revolution. He comes close by posing the need to transform common sense, but that doesn’t go anywhere. “What might a revolution in common sense actually look like? I don’t know….” Whereupon he proceeds to list some pieces of “conventional wisdom” to challenge.

One might have hope when he raises among them “the nature of work” and “What is labor?” But it becomes another opportunity to tar socialists with the old accusation of productivism, and hold up anarchists as those who rejected it, as if there never had been a Marxist-Humanist critique of automation and the planners (state-capitalist rulers and bureaucrats, union bureaucrats, intellectual planners) who fell for its siren song! And “What is labor?” poses nothing like Marx’s and Marxist-Humanism’s concept of what it would mean to establish the kind of society where labor is life’s first necessity rather than a mere alienated means to life.

In total separation from any discussion of labor as creative self-activity, he states the “obvious”: “Labor is virtuous if it helps others.” By way of indicating “a mother, a teacher, or caregiver” as models for what labor should be, he arrives at the grand conclusion that “the perfect revolutionary demand” is “a planetary debt cancellation.”

In his view, debt forces people to work in jobs they don’t want to do—what Marx called labor as “a means of life.” In general, debt is the dominant economic category for Graeber. His superficial analysis of class and capitalism, whose contemporary crisis he blames on “financialization of capitalism,” fits easily with his focus on debt. Politically he spells it out this way:

“The 1% were the ones creating the rules for how the political system works, and had turned it into one based on legalized bribery.” So “challenging the role of money in politics is by definition a revolutionary act.”

The Democracy Project never confronts the nature of capitalism as more than an extension of the ages-old phenomenon of debt. It does not grasp capitalism as being based in a historically specific manner on the separation of the worker from the means of production; as being characterized by the dialectical inversion of dead labor dominating living labor; as being driven by the self-movement of value, whose nature must be grasped to understand the movement of debt and money. The value form is the source of what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, which must be dispelled as an integral part of establishing a totally new form of society.

From this truncated concept of how deep and total the uprooting needs to be, he concludes that “All societies are communistic at base, and capitalism is best viewed as a bad way of organizing communism.”

In reality he is putting philosophy off to later, while everything is left up to practice:

“Myself, I am less interested in deciding what sort of economic system we should have in a free society than in creating the means by which people can make such decisions for themselves. This is why I spent so much of this book talking about democratic decision-making….

“Even what now seem like major screaming ideological divides are likely to sort themselves easily enough in practice.”

Graeber thus falls victim to his cult of anarchism—both as a school of thought and as a habit of subordinating thought to practice.

—Franklin Dmitryev

0 thoughts on “Occupy: Democracy, revolution and philosophy

  1. Excelent review. It helps to characterize not just the missing points of the author of the book, but of Anarchism in general. It reminds me of some Anarchists I know that, due to their poor comprehension of philosophy and, specifically, of the dialectical method, “falsely define [Marxism as] an insistence to ‘seize state power…and use its mechanisms to transform society'”. I found the review very important for the MH battle of ideas with other revolutionary currents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *