Have you ever seen one of those films in which the hero is supposed to meet up with someone who has some key information, only for the informant to turn up at death’s door, a knife in his back, blood on his lips, an obscure word or two left before he shuffles off this mortal coil? Imagine a 326 page book, delivered with the same obscure urgency, a tightly coiled thriller soundtrack yanking the drawstring of tension impossibly tighter with every page that turns. You stand, upon finishing, and turn your face up to the rain wet sky, an unusual expression on your face: you are a witness to the truth, and it is bitter and unpalatable and discomfiting and – yes, thrilling. You are thrilled to your core even as you are overwhelmed with helplessness, defeated, hopeless, depressed, unhappy. Welcome to David Graeber’s The Democracy Project.
A powerful work of nonfiction, Graeber begins by charting the inauspicious beginnings of the Occupy Wallstreet movement and, to begin with at least, there are glimpses of typical activist infighting, snipes and snarks, qualifications and disqualifications, one group pecking at another for lacking authenticity, for doing things for the wrong reasons. This, you may think, is why the Left never accomplishes anything. The right are always so clear, so uniform, so forceful and defiant (of truth and logic and sense) while the Left chase their own tail. And then something clicks (another movie comparison: the book is as the moment when Keanu surfaces eyebrowless from his pod in The Matrix): we start to see an alternate version of events, a version of events that is not reported, that is ignored by the Right and used by the Left as a bargaining chip. Graeber talks of activists whose eyes are gently cotton-budded with pepper spray, activists whose thumbs are broken by police, Ghandian techniques of non-violence met with force reserved for terrorist attacks. We hear of convicts bussed into Occupy camps, illegal raids, useless injunctions, Right and Left united to dismiss the threat of actual democracy.
We shift from Occupy to a short but fascinating history of democracy. This is followed by a kind of activist guidebook, advice on how to foster a new kind of consensus approach, possible theories for new ways it could all work. We look at words, words divorced of meaning used by the people in power (democracy! freedom!), chart their etymology, marvel at how recently the train appeared to leave the tracks. We come to understand, somewhat, why a new political movement would not want to work with or within a system founded on such abject corruption. We shake our heads and become angry about how Obama used the language of activism merely to ensure the status quo remained in place –
‘No part of the system was shaken up. There were no bank nationalizations, no breakups of ‘too big to fail’ institutions, no major changes in finance laws, no change in the structure of the auto industry, or of any other industry, no change in labor laws, drug laws, surveillance laws, monetary policy, education policy, transportation policy, energy policy, military policy or – most crucially of all, despite campaign pledges – the role of money in the political system.’
There are even suggestions for a possible solution, or a set of solutions, ranging from the establishment of a debt jubilee (something also posited by Auster and Coetzee in Here & Now) to the return of communism (Graeber making an interesting point about how, if someone asks you for a favour, only a real dick would say ‘What’s in it for me?’ – the current system is a system constructed by and for dicks). Democracy was not, we learn, something the Founding Fathers wished to embed in society – they were viciously opposed to the idea, wanted to keep everything for themselves. How do free people organise themselves? It’s a question Graeber doesn’t and arguably cannot answer. He posits a strategy, however,
‘to create alternative institutions, based on horizontal principles, that have nothing to do with the government, and declare the entire political system to be absolutely corrupt, idiotic and irrelevant to people’s actual lives, a clown show that fails even as a form of entertainment…’
There is an acute naivety to this, of course – you can’t go backwards, you can’t forget what has been learned – but taken alongside an admission that most change happens slowly (albeit refracted through the hope of a revolutionary flourishing like the Arab Spring), it does give you a kind of hope, even if the hope is merely of the ‘at least there are people like Graeber in the world’ variety.
Any Cop?: The Democracy Project is so urgent it should be taught in schools.