We’re reading THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT by David Graeber

24 May

There’s a race on to see what ideology succeeds capitalism. Nan Craig wonders why anarchism is running so slowly


The Democracy Project
David Graeber
Allen Lane, PPB £14.99

The one SF trope embraced more than any other by the mainstream in recent years is the dystopia. From Wool to The Hunger Games, it seems like everyone’s looking ahead to a world of scarcity, drastic inequality and state brutality. The societies of most Western countries have been operating in crisis mode – and it’s a very long, drawn-out crisis – for the past few years, and perhaps there’s something to be said for throwing up a worst-case scenario and trying to shock people out of their complacency with the threat of Big Brother. Then again, maybe it’s time for another view of the social future. One that suggests a direction we might want to go in, rather than what we should be desperate to avoid.

David Graeber’s twitter bio begs, “stop calling me the anarchist anthropologist”, because anarchism is “something you do, not an identity”. Helpfully, much of The Democracy Project is about how to do it.

The first half is an account of the origins and the course of Occupy Wall Street, and as a central figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, Graeber is no doubt well-placed to give a first-hand account of how it came to be. Although the story drags at times, he tries to address what he perceives as misconceptions about Occupy – for instance, that the lack of specified demands was a weakness. It might surprise some people that there’s a whole section on why Occupy was successful. The definition of success turns out to be very much an activist’s definition: Occupy was a success because people actually turned up. Graeber’s argument is that Occupy Wall Street changed individual people by creating an opportunity for them to experience proper democracy (direct democracy) for the first time. That’s admirable, but in that case it’s a very limited success, because the number of people affected by it needs to be far bigger to create mass change.

The second half of the book begins to take apart US political culture and the idea of democracy generally, challenging the idea that what exists in the US (and in other apparently “democratic” countries) relates in any way to real democratic principles. It does this well, and, though it’s clearly aimed at a US audience, it ranges fairly widely across cultures and history, picking out examples of people using consensus and direct democracy. It’s also far more interesting than the in-depth discussion of Occupy; if anything, there’s potentially a whole other book in this section, trying to get out. Graeber goes on to talk about how direct democracy and the anarchist organisation of society could come about, and what – broadly – it might look like.

It might frustrate political scientists and philosophers with its appeals to practicality and commonsense, but I suspect that’s for the best. Let’s get more anthropologists into politics and we’d probably be much better off: they tend to have a better and more expansive understanding of the possibilities of human culture. This is something SF tends to have, as well. And we all need more of it.

Read Nan Craig’s story Scrapmetal in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive, out now for phones, screens and tablets.

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