2011 was a year of revolution. The Arab Spring was followed by a summer of protests across Southern Europe, with the Occupy movement emerging in the US in the autumn. Beginning with Occupy Wall Street in New York, camps sprang up in dozens of countries and hundreds of cities and towns – 600 in the US alone.
By Christmas it was all over, the camps cleared and local laws changed to ban camping in public places. Phrases like ‘the 99%’ have entered the public imagination, but was anything actually achieved? What did it all mean, both then and now? “Enough time has passed” thinks David Graeber, “that we can begin to piece together some of the answers.”
He’s the right man to tell the story. An anthropology lecturer at Goldsmiths in London, Graeber is also a lifelong activist in grassroots democracy movements. After decades of hoping for a revolutionary moment, it happened, and he was in the middle of it – there at the planning meetings and the first pitching of tents. He is often cited as the man who came up with the ‘99%’ slogan in the first place, although he modestly insists that “my own importance has been vastly overstated” and that the phrase was a team effort. The Democracy Project is his attempt to make sense of what happened.
One thing that rapidly emerges is that the media, and society generally, didn’t get what Occupy was about at all – at least, not here in Britain, where our experience was admittedly different from the US. For starters, the camp was pigeonholed here as an anti-capitalist exercise in banker-bashing. In fact, its primary concern was for democracy, with economic injustice an expression of a deeper problem. The real issue was the apparent invisibility of 99% of the population to the political elite. In response,Occupy attempted to model an alternative where decisions were made communally, demonstrating practical democracy.
Secondly, the Occupy camps were not protests – they were direct action. Graeber draws a distinction here. “Protest, however militant, is an appeal to the authorities to behave differently” he argues. “Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” This is why the movement declined to present a series of demands, one of the most often-repeated criticisms. “The refusal to make demands was, quite self-consciously, a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the existing political order of which such demands would have to be made.”
Occupy attempted to bring democracy back to square one, creating self-governing communities in the teeth of the authorities, where people were fed and cared for, but with no hierarchy or formal leadership structure. This is radical, says Graeber, but it shouldn’t be. This kind of horizontal democracy can be found in small communities all through history, from African village councils to 18th century pirate ships. When the US founding fathers drew up their constitution, they explicitly rejected that kind of community decision making, opting for a republic structure instead. To distinguish between the two, Graeber quotes James Madison: ” In a democracy the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.”
When those representatives can be swayed by financial interests, any semblance of democracy is illusory. Graeber goes so far as to suggest that through lobbying, “bribery has become the organising principle of public life” in America. To that add a political system in permanent and obstinate deadlock. Add a generation saddled with enormous post-college debts, only this time with the prospect of lower living standards than their parents. Add a president who rode to victory on a message of change, and then changed nothing. On this base, inspired by the Arab Spring, Occupy unsurprisingly evolved.
Did Occupy change any of that? Not directly, but Graeber builds on the work of historian Immanuel Wallerstein to argue that revolutions are global shifts in thinking that may or may not involve the toppling of governments – none fell in the ‘Spring of Nations’ of 1848 for example, but it made the end of feudalism in Europe inevitable nonetheless. 1968 was a year of protests and uprising around the world that opened up all kinds of anti-establishment cultural possibilities. In that sense, we don’t know yet what 2011 may have started, but things may not go neatly back into the box.
If the media ultimately saw Occupy as an irrelevance, the severity of the crackdown on the camps shows that the authorities certainly didn’t. The government clearly took the revolutionary talk very seriously indeed, and Graeber is able to fill in some of the unreported detail on just how far the authorities were prepared to go to persecute, intimidate and provoke the occupiers.
As far as Graeber is concerned, the real change didn’t happen in government or in city halls, but in the people that took part. Occupy gave thousands of people, of different backgrounds and different ages, a taste of grassroots democracy and a sense that anything is possible. It is that “revolutionary possibility” that is the real legacy of Occupy; it was a “transformative outbreak of imagination”. (And when it was quashed with violence, it may have radicalised thousands of ordinary Americans in the process.) What they do with that new democratic impulse remains to be seen. The remarkable Occupy Sandy relief effort and the Rolling Jubilee are two of the ideas that have emerged from the movement.
What of the book itself? I have to say I approached it with a degree of scepticism, largely because it was written with someone so intimately involved with the movement. But Graeber is a respected academic as well as an activist, and his unravelling of the story is perceptive and balanced. It’s partly the story of Occupy, and partly a history of democracy as an idea. It’s surprisingly funny in places – Graeber being a “small ‘a’ anarchist” himself, he has a sort of ironically patronising attitude towards the ‘wobblies’ and other socialist elements along for the ride. It’s worth noting that on the downside, the book is more relevant to American audiences. I was often reminded that our experience of Occupy was quite different. Occupy LSX did eventually make demands, for example.
The main reason to read the book is not necessarily the Occupy story though, in my opinion, but rather Graeber’s own philosophy. He is a true free-thinker, profoundly radical but entirely serious. That’s actually very rare. Radicals are often idealistic, sentimental and flaky. Those that hold maverick views with real intellectual coherence are always worth reading, even if you fundamentally disagree. Ivan Illich is one such writer who comes to mind, and David Graeber is in that mold. You will have strong reactions to much of what he says – I suspect he’d be disappointed if you didn’t – but he will make you think about things in a different light.
One last thing that I can’t not mention – Graeber did some of his early anthropological studies in Madagascar during the 90s, at the same time as I lived there. He mentions traditional Malagasy village councils as examples of grassroots democracy. So along with Obama and the Tea Party, the financial bailouts and the Arab Spring, perhaps Madagascar helped inspire Occupy too, just a little bit.