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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt