The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement

by David Graeber

Hardcover, 2013

Call number

321.8 GRA



Spiegel & Grau (2013), Edition: First Edition, 352 pages


A bold rethinking of the most powerful political idea in the world--democracy--and the story of how radical democracy can yet transform America. Democracy has been the American religion since before the Revolution--from New England town halls to the multicultural democracy of Atlantic pirate ships. But can our current political system, one that seems responsive only to the wealthiest among us and leaves most Americans feeling disengaged, voiceless, and disenfranchised, really be called democratic? And if the tools of our democracy are not working to solve the rising crises we face, how can we--average citizens--make change happen? David Graeber, one of the most influential scholars and activists of his generation, takes readers on a journey through the idea of democracy, provocatively reorienting our understanding of pivotal historical moments, and extracts their lessons for today.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
David Graeber takes on an enormously difficult task – giving historical perspective to a movement – Occupy New York - that only just happened, and whose effects have yet to run their course. It is difficult to distance yourself from the overall effect, particularly when, like Graeber - you are at the very center of it. He does an excellent job at a micro level, which will be enormously valuable for future anthropologists like Graeber.

But he does not have the historical perspective quite right. For example, he wisely asks a lot of questions – like why did this spread so far this time and not others? Graeber’s answer is structural and tactical (micro), and doesn’t ring true. I think the answer is that in every century, the pendulum swings too far (macro). There is an uprising of tormented souls, who, like college grads in the US today, are stopped in their tracks. Stopping the young and hopeful has always been the tinderbox of revolution. Abject misery remains abject misery, but the glass ceiling is the last straw. So in 1848, we saw popular movements that barricaded neighborhoods and attempted overthrow, all over the world. In the 1960s the slaughter of young men in Viet Nam led to a peace movement that spread to Paris and the Prague Spring. In 2011 the self immolation of an unlicensed Tunisian fruit seller led to uprisings all over the Islamic Crescent. And the bottoming of the 2008 financial miasma has led Americans to catch that Arab Spring fever as well. I think power and oppression make this a cyclical phenomenon.

Graeber wrestles with the question of structure – how Occupy made no demands and had no leaders or externalities. He says that was actually Occupy’s key asset, why it succeeded where other, previous attempts all failed. It’s the anarchist model that succeeds, he says. I say the very vagueness of it was what made it attractive to a broader audience. Once hard demands are made, you get opposition, you open yourself to criticism. The way Occupy worked, everyone at home could relate at some personal level (99%), like everyone can relate to a horoscope. Specific demands would have killed off Occupy instantly.
Graeber explores an underappreciated fact that Noam Chomsky has been explaining for decades: American voters are very much to the left of political parties and most definitely left of politicians, who they revile. At first, Graeber marvels at the broad swath of people who contributed to Occupy – in cash, in kind, in stories on its web pages. He evinces surprise at union support, and the participation of so many women. But eventually he gets over it and finds abundant stats to back the facts - women are more likely to enter college, finish and then be poor. Single mothers are the new breadwinners, working at jobs as caregivers or teachers. Americans do not detest “socialism” (no matter how it’s defined). They actually kind of appreciate it. It’s only poison in Washington. But then, so is peace, co-operation, privacy and sanity.

It was fascinating to read how the extreme left operates. It is made up of factions that do not like each other, don’t like to work together, and are suspicious. Graeber can tell them apart on sight. They have all the petty squabbles and politics of anyone else. As for the “liberal” media, the left sees it being just to the right of Mussolini. Nothing gets covered unless a financial overlord deems it worthy of a putdown, nothing gets covered accurately or dispassionately, and the media just waits for the slightest imperfection or miscue to label the entire event as subterfuge, extreme, criminal or wacko. Add everything the Right says about the media, and it sounds like the media is actually in the middle and fair.

But these are trifling superficialities. The gloves come off with Question 6 on page 89, where Graeber slams the American system. He shows the US is based on bribery, institutionalized bribery. You can’t get anywhere without payment to politicians and their parties. No pay, no hearing. The US is “unusually” corrupt. Grads can’t get decent careers in New York because the entry level positions are all becoming unpaid internships. So unless your parents are rich enough to support you in New York for a few years after running up all that debt in university, you can’t even get in the door. It’s good old class war, that America is supposed to have banished. America uses code words to describe what it can’t admit to. If you substitute “rape, torture and murder” everywhere you see the term “human rights abuses” you will appreciate how it changes the perspective of how we deal with our partners. Human rights abuses in Russia are rape, torture and murder, but we can still work with them, because “human rights abuses” sanitizes it. Bribes get relabeled as fundraising, bribery itself is lobbying. For Graeber this encapsulates the deadlock of American politics.

Now imagine another system, he says. What if our politicians were tasked with solving problems instead of pursuing existing interests. Everything changes.

Graeber spends a lot of time on the police. There is much evidence of police abuse, arresting people for literally anything – bending over to pet a dog, drawing with chalk on a sidewalk – breaking a store window with a marcher’s head, then claiming vandalism. The unfortunate truth is that NYPD is an “army of occupation” that intimidates rather than protects and serves. Unions back out of demonstrations for fear of the uncontrollable assaults by the police. There are more instances of stop & frisk of blacks in Brooklyn than there are blacks. And the cases of corruption within the police are mind boggling. It brags about being one of the largest armed forces in the world (they claim to be 7th biggest. Graeber says 30th. But we both digress). I have been posting their atrocities for years. It is really shameful; it is the ugly side of New York. New York is great despite, not because of the NYPD.

There’s lots to argue with, of course. Graeber says of Occupy Wall Street : “Most obviously, the refusal to make demands was, quite self consciously, a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the existing political order.” That’s not obvious at all. There at least two other more obvious possibilities: 1) It was so spontaneous they had no core demands that had sufficient support and 2) they wanted to keep it all as vague as possible to attract the widest possible sympathy.

And it doesn’t matter about the intent; that was the public perception of Occupy. And perception is everything. As I said off the top, distancing oneself from something this close is setting the bar pretty high.

I wrote a positively glowing review of Graeber’s previous book, Debt, and this one adds a whole other angle to the man. He’s a thorough anarchist, and as rational and as thought-provoking as anyone writing today. It’s hard to express except that if I could pick anyone in the world to have lunch with, I think it would be David Graeber. It would be endlessly fascinating.
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LibraryThing member willszal
I've seen some very negative reviews about this book. I think they're out there less because of the quality of the book, and more because some reviewers think it politically incorrect to give such a book good press.

Ultimately, the book has a lot of anarchist, communist tendencies, but in the way that your family and friends are anarchist and communist. So nothing that far out of the ordinary.

I love David's inside view of Occupy Wall Street. One thing that I was surprised to learn was that Occupy refused to put forward any demands out of disrespect for established institutions [especially the US government]. I just never got this until now; I hadn't known what the rational was during the height of the occupation.

The police in the United States may be the most violent, well-funded, and established terrorist organization in the world [according to our author]. And judging from the #blacklivesmatter movement, it seems as though many would agree with this point. Police are above the law, and aren't interested in the future.

Also, the US has almost nothing to do with democracy. Democracy is an anarchist form of government. We live in more of an aristocracy. And this was always the intention. It's because of movements like Occupy that the American psyche has some attachment to democracy.

So anyways, it's a great book and you should read it.
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