The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement
Allen Lane, 352pp, £14.99
Zuccotti Park is mostly empty now. Eighteen months after the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street camp, the tiny patch of public-private space in the centre of lower Manhattan’s financial district is scrubbed clean; intermittent police presence and a mobile observation tower ensure that the slightest suggestion of future protest here will be squashed. It’s a demilitarised zone: even the tourists wandering past on their way to Ground Zero seem to avoid this small plot of potted trees and marble benches.
Something important happened here recently, something loud and impossible to ignore, and now that it’s over the space is eerily quiet. But if you strain to listen, you can almost hear the echo of the ear-splitting drumming, off-key singing and chanting that rang around the palaces of Wall Street: “We are the 99 per cent!”
That slogan was coined by David Graeber, the anthropologist and sometime anarchist author who was a constant presence in the intellectual life of the Occupy movement. Graeber was there on the first day, part of the activist group that decided to hold Zuccotti Park, and his new book is the unofficial eulogy for Occupy and its discontents and an explanation of how the movement spread to more than 800 towns and cities across the world. It is shot through with excited disbelief that it happened at all. Like Occupy, The Democracy Project is a lot less gimmicky than it looks.
“We are the 99 per cent” was and remains a very simple statement of numbers. It is a response to the reality that in the US and, indeed, across what likes to think of itself as “the west”, democracy is not functioning as we grew up learning that it should – namely by representing the electorate. As Joseph Stiglitz wrote in Vanity Fair in 2011, most US political representatives “are members of the top 1 per cent [of society by personal wealth] when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 per cent, and know that if they serve the top 1 per cent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 per cent when they leave office”. “We are the 99 per cent” is an enraged statement of presence: the rest of us are still here and we matter.
In the US, the word “democracy” is now used synonymously with “the status quo”, with the result that wars of invasion and suppression of popular protest can be effected in the name of democracy without apparent irony. Children in “the west” grow up understanding that democracy is a tradition that began in ancient Athens, was nurtured and tempered in the fire of revolutionary Europe and found its natural home in the Americas. Graeber explains, with the same bluntly pedagogical air that made his previous work Debt: the First 5,000 Years a runaway success, that this is not at all the case: the concept of “people power” was mistrusted even by the founding fathers and continues to be undermined at every stage of the political process.
Graeber’s talent is to take big, basic concepts such as debt and democracy that are fundamental to our daily political lives and unpack them, forcing us to examine their implications for society. As an anthropologist rather than a political theorist or an economist, his perspective in some chapters spans a political macrocosm of millennia. As an activist, however, his perspective descends to the micro-level of the egos and arguments on various email lists and there’s an exhausting sense of vertigo as the book bungees from one to the other. That, however, is how most revolutions happen behind the scenes: either it’s the entire history of capitalism or it’s who was shagging who after the meeting.
The sole piece of evidence we had at the time that the Occupy movement was important was the clear determination of various world governments and much of the mainstream press to erase it from existence. It was not enough for the camps to be torn down and the protesters evicted, not enough that thousands of people, most of whom had done nothing more egregious than dare to question austerity in public, were beaten and gassed and arrested and imprisoned. They had to be seen to fail intellectually, too. Graeber explains that the only way of maintaining the illusion that there is no alternative to austerity capitalism is to ensure that: “Under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success.”
Books were a way of fighting this ideological assault. The textual life of Occupy has lasted far longer than the occupations. From the start, Occupy was intensely literary, with a makeshift library in every camp and newspapers in several: it wanted to read and write itself into existence, to situate itself within a history of radical thought, even as pundits on every major television station insisted that the movement had no ideas and was, in essence, meaningless. This was the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming.
A lot of bad books have been written about Occupy, too, and what saves The Democracy Project from being one of them is its perspective. The swagger and tendency to self-cite that might have made Graeber’s book unbearable are extremely useful, because a great deal of Occupy’s initial inarticulacy came from the unwillingness of any writer or temporary leader to “speak for” the movement. Graeber has no such qualms. He clearly thinks that if anyone can speak for Occupy, he can and he may well be right. Either way, the book is a cool drink of water after the dry, academic obfuscation of so much writing on the “revolutions” of 2011.
That year of global dissent is long over. The slogan that was passed around, as various national flavours of storm trooper were tearing apart the tents and arresting the activists at every Occupy camp, was: “You can’t evict an idea” – but they gave it a damn good try. I witnessed the New York police chucking thousands of lovingly curated library books into a rubbish truck and driving them away to the dump but it’s much harder to point and wail when people have their spirits crushed by months of police intimidation, by poverty and ostracisation – the “relentless campaign against the human imagination” that, in Graeber’s words, followed the final eviction of Zuccotti Park in November 2011.
Books of political history are always necessary but when activists are isolated and despairing, the best ones provide a shield that can save the imagination from eviction.