The Democracy Project by David Graeber: The textual life of Occupy lives on

A lot of bad books have been written about Occupy, too, and what saves this from being one of them is its perspective.

The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement
David Graeber
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.

A protestor in Zucotti Park. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear