Democracy – What Is It Good For?: David Graeber and Gar Alperovitz

By Adam MorrisJuly 14, 2013

Democracy – What Is It Good For?: David Graeber and Gar Alperovitz

What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz
The Democracy Project by David Graeber

Triptych image: Occupy Wall St., Brazil, July 11, 2013

IN HIS NEW BOOK The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, David Graeber rejects the notion that “democracy” means the freedom to cast a desultory vote for this or that candidate’s slate of corporate-sponsored beliefs. Instead, Graeber wants to reclaim the word to describe the kinds of inclusive and participatory modes of self-government practiced by protesters at Occupy Wall Street. An economic anthropologist by training, Graeber self-identifies as a “professional optimist,” and for pragmatists — to say nothing of the cynics and inveterate pessimists — even a sympathetic reading of The Democracy Project will likely be punctuated by huffs, puffs, and eye-rolls. But, while his upbeat radicalism sometimes flirts with incoherence and naïveté, Graeber’s call to reshape the politics of everyday life around democratic practices is nevertheless striking in its ambition.   

Graeber is also a declared anarchist, and his work certainly dispels any myth of the anarchist as a lazy, unfocused ne’er-do-well. The sheer quantity of Graeber’s writing over the past several years, especially when considered alongside his near-ubiquity during the Occupy protests of 2011, suggests Balzacian levels of caffeine consumption. One can only admire the ardor with which Graeber tirelessly expounds his vision for a universal debt jubilee followed by the institution of radically democratic consensus-based society, while simultaneously dedicating so much of his time to on-the-ground participation in actually existing protest movements. His work has already inspired thousands of activists to imagine new possibilities for a more open and democratic society. Just as Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) became a touchstone for activists amid the alter-globalization protests at the turn of the millennium, Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) is often cited as the urtext of the Occupy movement, finding its way into the People’s Library of many an Occupied site and helping to generate grassroots movements for debt relief and resistance.

Though an avowed anarchist from the age of 16, Graeber admits that he didn’t get seriously involved in political activism until his academic career was well underway. While a junior faculty member at Yale, he became increasingly inspired by the unfolding Global Justice Movement, a series of direct-action protests generally associated with the alter-globalization movement begun by the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico and climaxing with the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Graeber’s initial perception of Occupy Wall Street was thus based on its continuity with this older movement and their shared origins in anarchism, feminism, environmentalism, and anti-capitalism. But it wasn’t until he was in the middle of an impromptu speech at an Occupy protest on the steps of Federal Hall in April 2012 that Graeber began to understand Occupy as part of an even longer trajectory of democratic struggle and populist revolt in the United States.

With his new book, Graeber would like to set the record straight on the concept of “democracy.” Quite contrary to what most Americans were taught in school, “democracy” was never a term beloved by George Washington or John Adams. In fact, the knotty roots of America’s current political and economic problems — the widening chasm between powerful wealthy elites and the indebted, precariously employed masses, for instance — can indeed be traced to divisions among the Founding Fathers regarding the degree of democracy desirable for the young nation. In his speech at Federal Hall — now a monument to the nation’s first Congress and the site of Washington’s inauguration — Graeber recalled that the word “democracy” is not even mentioned in the Constitution of 1787. In fact, the idea of a democratic society was anathema to monied Federalists like Washington and Hamilton. America may have been young, but its economic hierarchy was not. Graeber spies the specter of debt already conspiring in the halls of power, and cites John Adams worrying that true democracy would mean the abolishment of debt, heavy taxation of the rich, and, eventually, the equal division of everything amid the reign of “anarchy and tyranny.”

Having read the ancient classics and learned from the follies of Greece and Rome, many of the Founding Fathers so adored by the Tea Party preferred that the nascent republic be governed by an aristocracy, which, Graeber reminds us, literally means “rule of the best.” Two-hundred-odd years later, we’ve ended up instead with oligarchy, the rule of the few. The wealthy, Graeber claims, have conscripted the term “democracy” as a servant to their cause, conflating it with a corrupted form of representative government controlled by corporate interests that remains in power perpetually, no matter the governing party. Though Graeber prefers “mafia capitalism,” the term proposed by French philosopher Alain Badiou — “capitalo-parliamentarism” — better encapsulates the antidemocratic forces to which Graeber objects.

Graeber recalls these Revolution-era tales in order to strike a favorable comparison between contemporary anarchists and vintage “democrats” like anti-Federalists George Mason and Patrick Henry, populist agitators responsible for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. In those days, Graeber explains, the word “democrat” was used primarily as a slur: as with the word “queer” in the 20th century, it was reappropriated as a defiant provocation. Robespierre called himself a democrat, Jefferson renamed his party the “Democratic-Republicans” to galvanize the support of populist uprisings, and Andrew Jackson ran as a Democrat staunchly opposed to the Second Bank of the United States.

Today, Graeber discerns a similar reappropriation of the word “anarchist,” due to the resurgence, since 1989, of peaceful anarchist political philosophy. Although historically saddled with a bad rap earned by bomb-tossing and POTUS-assassinating fringe anarchists, Graeber clarifies that most contemporary anarchists consider violence “boring and predictable” and “the preferred tactic of the stupid.” He asserts that anarchism was the first modern political movement to renounce terrorism, and claims that, for nearly a century, “anarchism has been one of the very few political philosophies whose exponents never blow anyone up.”

Hoping to set the lexical record straight once and for all, Graeber returns to etymology to help correct the common misuse of “anarchy” as a synonym for chaos and violent disorder. The term simply means “without rulers,” and Graeber defines its contemporary political incarnation as a movement “that aims to bring about a genuinely free society — and that defines a ‘free society’ as one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence.” In Graeber’s reckoning, this means that anarchists are today’s true practitioners of democracy, which, properly implemented, would bear little resemblance to the perverted regime of mafia capitalism that sent its militarized police force to smash the heads of nonviolent protesters in New York and Oakland. Anarchism, he believes, will bring about “a genuine, participatory, democratic system that could dedicate itself to solving collective problems” instead of repressing the vast majority of the population.

Sometimes the terminological overlap between “democrat” and “anarchist” seduces Graeber into some peculiar historical revisionism, as when he attempts to theorize something called the “democratic unconscious” innate to mankind, a latent force behind populist revolutions and the eruption of democratic spaces. It’s just as well he’s already outed himself as an optimist: there are less kind terms, after all, to describe his indulgence in a narrative that idealizes pirate ships as the “perfect intercultural space of experiment.” Graeber cites the swashbuckling adventure tales told in colonial America as evidence of the power of the democratic unconscious to manifest rebellions at crucial historical junctures, as in the case of the colonists’ war for independence. He groups pirate ships with “those spaces of improvisation just outside the control of governments and organized churches” that would compose a real history of the democratic spirit. Frontier communities are another locus of historical fantasizing for Graeber, who cites recent historians’ discovery of “just how thoroughly entangled the societies of settlers and natives were in those early days.” While this may be true, touting the anarcho-democratic credentials of American frontiersmen feels like an uncomfortably sanitized account of colonization. Moreover, after decades of hackneyed Hollywood narratives of hyper-individualism and violent macho vigilantism, it is disorienting, and a bit disheartening, to see these staples of boyhood escapism — pirates and the Wild West! — repurposed for imagining a post-capitalist future.

Even more perplexing is Graeber’s comparison of the historical conditions surrounding the Occupy movement to those that birthed communist revolutions in Cuba and China. He reasons that, when the enlightened and disillusioned children of the bourgeoisie team up with educated members of the popular class, revolution is just around the corner:

For centuries now, revolutionary coalitions have always tended to consist of a kind of alliance between children of the professional classes who reject their parents’ values, and talented children of the popular classes who managed to win themselves a bourgeois education, only to discover that acquiring a bourgeois education does not actually mean one gets to become a member of the bourgeoisie. You see the pattern repeated over and over, in country after country: Chou En-lai meets Mao Zedong, or Che Guevara meets Fidel Castro. U.S. counterinsurgency experts have long known the surest harbinger of revolutionary ferment in any country is the growth of a population of unemployed and impoverished college graduates: that is, young people bursting with energy, with plenty of time on their hands, every reason to be angry, and access to the entire history of radical thought.

But this interpretation neglects a number of material and social conditions that make the Cuba–China analogy feel strained, such as their differing experiences of colonization and foreign imperialism, or the fact that Che was Argentine, let alone the relationship of each of these historical moments to the Russian Revolution, or to Occupy itself. Nor does the emphasis on students fit with the revisionist account of the American Revolution found in the book’s introduction: Graeber himself calls attention to the outsized influence exerted by small, wealthy elite on the architecture of America’s federal republic.

After all, what Graeber is trying to convince his readers is that, this time around, it’s the radical democratic principles practiced by anarchists that are inspiring new social formations, rather than the dogmatic socialists of yore. He believes anarchists have seen through the “pipe dream” of state-Marxism all along, understanding that appropriating state violence and organized repression will not bring about peace and equality. Anarchism requires a “horizontal” populist revolt, with none of the dogmatic top-down orthodoxy of last century’s socialisms.

If we leave aside the numerous tangential historical anecdotes that distract and sometimes compete with Graeber’s broader claims, a compelling but flawed narrative remains. Graeber historicizes the Occupy movement as the caboose, for now, on a long train of populist uprisings throughout the country’s history, dating all the way back to the Shays’ and Whiskey Rebellions of the late 18th century. These latter rebellions are fondly remembered by the Tea Party, and this is part of the reason Graeber thinks that, in order to escape the “trap” of helplessness and inertia reinforced by corporate media, “we need to take our cue not from what passes for a left at all, but from the populist right, since they’ve figured out the key weak point in the whole arrangement: very few Americans actually share the pervasive cynicism of the 1 percent.” His account of the slow exclusion of populist–democratic politics from representative government and the rise of the corporate-run fraud that passes for “democracy” in today’s America allows us to understand Occupy not as a historical rupture or the march of historical materialism, but as a return of the repressed: it is the bad dream of capitalo-parliamentarians everywhere.


And indeed, for a while in 2011 and 2012, Occupy was everywhere, attracting not just backpacking, patchouli-drenched neo-hippies or black-clad anarchist types but also debt-saddled students, unemployed college graduates, foreclosed homeowners, academics, clergy, ex-bankers, and even contingents from old-lady knitting circles. This unusually wide range of participants lent the movement the populist air of legitimacy that the Global Justice Movement, which was maligned by the media as a fringe movement sympathetic to violent tactics, always lacked.

The Democracy Project is Graeber’s attempt to deepen the anthropological context surrounding this latest visitation of the democratic spirit. The book reads as part history, part ethnography, and part memoir, and, it must be said, it suffers the deficiencies of all three genres: occasionally dry, overly interested in arcane details, and weighted down by ego and its own chatty indecision as to its direction and purpose. Graeber’s general disregard for brevity was forgivable in the 544-page Debt, a noble crossover attempt to write a copiously researched history for a general audience. But the free pass doesn’t extend to The Democracy Project, which is thin on secondary sources but thick with self-regarding anecdotes. Furthermore, The Democracy Project repeats many of the arguments Graeber’s followers will already have encountered in Debt, as well as in Revolutions in Reverse (2011), a collection of essays written between 2004 and 2010. Some passages even reappear nearly verbatim, which, in loyal readers, will engender the resentment that results from wading through a hastily written book whose publication was not entirely necessary.

Those already familiar with the unfolding of the Occupy movement and its general workings will be impatient to have the first chapter over with, only to discover that the recap of Occupy-related activity drags on for half the book. (This is not a recommended read for anyone who closely followed Occupy or read any of the surrounding commentary with interest, although I suppose it will be useful to anyone whose head was in the sand in 2011 and needs to catch up.) This is not to say The Democracy Project is wholly without novelty. The chapter called “How Change Happens,” for instance, provides non-participants with a window into the consensus-based decision-making processes used by working groups and general assemblies at OWS. According to Graeber, these processes could be deployed as strategies for the redemocratization of social life in America. Structured as a pedantic Q&A between Graeber and himself, the chapter allows him to pose common doubts about the consensus process and then handily dismiss them one by one. Although he begins the chapter by admitting it would be “impossible to write a how-to guide for nonviolent uprisings,” the chapter reads like one: he delves into the nitty-gritty of consensus procedures, but with the horizontalist’s predictable disclaimer that specific situations might call for completely different practices.

Consensus, of course, is not a new idea, or an inherently anarchist one. As Graeber himself observes, versions of the process have long been practiced by the Quakers, and were adapted by feminist groups in the 1970s. Most Americans have probably come across the practice in some form or another already, whether at summer camp or in a brainstorming meeting at work, and even Graeber admits that arriving at consensus can be cumbersome and boring. He does not draw what seems like the obvious conclusion, though, that such procedures seems unlikely to foment a large-scale revolution. It might be that Graeber has spent so much time in activist circles, enraptured by the prefigurative politics of consensus-building, that he can no longer register the vastness of apathy in the United States: most Americans with any significant number leisure hours are too hypnotized by the spectacle of consumer capitalism to spend them at lengthy consensus meetings.

In his glorification of consensus, Graeber repeatedly calls voting “stupid,” and argues that it forecloses the equity of every member’s opinion by ensuring that those in small minorities can basically be ignored. “Voting is divisive,” he explains:

If a community lacks means to compel its members to obey a collective decision, then probably the stupidest thing one could do is to stage a series of public contests in which one side will, necessarily, be seen to lose; this would not only allow decisions that as many as 49 percent of the community strongly oppose, it would also maximize the possibility of hard feelings among that part of the community one most needs to convince to go along despite their opposition.

Nevertheless, Graeber’s model for the consensus process includes helpful advice about how to exclude “uncooperative” people from decision-making. An anecdote about a neo-Nazi interloper is offered as justification for asking undesirable participants to leave, whether because they are “too damaged or disturbed to take part in a democratic assembly” or simply “disruptive and difficult.” And if they refuse, a collective decision can be made “to systematically ignore them.” This is what gives some liberals pause about anarchist practice: it can sometimes behave in ways that make it appear as one more variant of the same exclusionary groupthink it decries. (At least cranks and grumps still get to vote.)

Though Graeber claims his own role in the Occupy movement has been “vastly overstated,” elsewhere he is not exactly at pains to be modest. His stated aim in the most memoir-like chapter is “to give a sense of what living at the fulcrum of such a historical convergence can be like.” Readers are invited to relive those heady days in New York just before the eruption of OWS. We find Graeber nursing beers with globetrotting activist scenesters, strategizing the execution of Adbusters’ call for a Wall Street occupation, and facilitating an incipient General Assembly that brought together activists who would later take on key roles in OWS. We are also reminded that he is credited with having coined “the 99%” slogan that would dominate the public image of OWS. As retold by Graeber, he and his collaborators decided to make the very process of consensus-based decisions the “message” of the Occupy protest in order to provide a model for revolutionary movements across the world. Contradicting his own humble disclaimer, Graeber even includes transcripts of personal emails and text-message exchanges with activists, as if to show what an important role in the organization and intellectual articulation he has played in the movement. Thus does Graeber attempt to have it both ways, insisting on his centrality to Occupy while also downplaying it to avoid the appearances of passing himself off as the intellectual godfather of a movement that was to remain purely horizontal and leaderless by political design.

Here we taste the strong flavor of anarchism in the Occupy cocktail. The refusal to recognize leaders who could make specific demands on behalf of the Occupiers was, of course, one of the principal complaints raised by critics who mistook the movement for a political party or a labor strike rather than a general protest against the organization of life under neoliberal capitalism. Graeber rejects claims that Occupy’s lack of hierarchy or structure doomed it to failure. “Clearly the movement did not succeed in spite of the anarchist element,” he writes. “It succeeded because of it.” Victory, for Graeber and others involved in the movement, would not have been secured by running candidates, winning elections, or otherwise imitating or adapting to the political structure they wished to transform. Success could only be guaranteed by the spread of consensus decision-making among those who share the hope that another society might, after all, be imaginable. Elsewhere he has called this the opening of “kaleidoscopic sense of possibility,” and in such moments his “professional optimism” nearly eclipses his cynical conviction that the entire system is so rotten it can’t be saved.


But are lively protests and a “sense of possibility” enough to effect the transition to a new, more democratic order? The economist Gar Alperovitz doesn’t think so. In his new book What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution, Alperovitz dismisses the idea that popular protests will usher in any real structural change. Like the Occupiers, he acknowledges that the problems facing the United States are systemic, that is, “built into the very structure of the economic and political system.” But tellingly, OWS is scarcely mentioned in his book. His faint praise of the “very creative things” happening with “great local projects, and important experiments with self-organizing and open-source theory” damns these efforts to irrelevance if they’re unaccompanied by concerted civic opposition within the system itself.

Protests and civil disobedience are part of the direction we need to be moving to build a movement, Alperovitz explains, but only a part: he doubts there will be systemic overhaul without first targeting and challenging parts of the system directly. “Politics as usual” can’t fix systemic problems, and old ways of achieving reform are likewise outdated. With a jab meant for Occupy die-hards, he adds that “ill-defined, rhetoric-heavy use of the term revolution” will not help either. It is “monolithic thinking about what cannot be done that needs to be questioned,” he tells us. This includes a renewed belief in slow reform of the existing system, rather than wishing and waiting for its hasty demise.

Graeber, by contrast, is girding himself for systemic apocalypse. Even the professional optimist does not think capitalism can survive the ecological problems it has created for itself, or, for that matter, peacefully reckon with the finitude of the planet’s natural resources. While most progressives hold similar views about the unsustainability of our current economic order, in Debt Graeber writes them off as paralyzed by bourgeois dread of an unknown future: “Faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction — even from those who call themselves ‘progressives’ — is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse.” He continues this lament in The Democracy Project, writing that, under neoliberalism, “the imagination, desire, individual liberation, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet.” Militarized capitalism, he is sad to report, is designed to destroy even the notions of alternative systems.

Liberation, Graeber wrote in Debt, requires that we “see ourselves as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in world events.” But he offers few specifics about what a post-capitalist economy would look like. Beyond his renewed call for a global debt jubilee, Graeber does add four new, equally lofty demands in The Democracy Project: less work for everyone, a revaluation of “virtuous” labor, a massive reduction of bureaucracy; and a reclamation of the idea of communism. But each of these proposals is limited either to the realm of ideas or to the vague utopianism of its own generality. For all his talk of building a new society “in the shell of the old,” Graeber obstinately refuses to provide prescriptive practices for this new society beyond modeling a consensus process in which people can decide for themselves what their new economic practices will be.

Alperovitz, by contrast, is not shy about offering concrete proposals for action. He comes from old Midwestern progressive stock, and his folksy practicality and can-do attitude do not square with dogmatic anarchist refusals to negotiate within the current system. Reform on a massive scale, to say nothing of revolution, has always required intellectual as well as organizational leadership, and Alperovitz does not disappoint on that score. Instead of waiting around for the “emergence” of kaleidoscopically awesome ideas, he says, we ought to be rolling up our sleeves and building new institutions that will facilitate a transition away from corporate capitalism. Alperovitz recommends that we “displace” power away from the banks through “checkerboard” strategies of redemocratization: joining credit unions, campaigning to end special tax breaks for corporations, supporting and growing local networks of worker-owned coops, and pressuring municipal governments to use the purchasing power of schools and hospitals to buy from in-town suppliers. He describes precedents in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, DC, and Ohio, so that readers might adapt and emulate these strategies in their own hometowns.

Americans are not as opposed to such socialist projects as the right would have us imagine. Like Graeber, Alperovitz reminds his reader that socialism is “common as grass” in the United States. And he’s not just talking about schools and bridges. The “government now routinely uses taxpayer money and other programs to achieve economic goals,” like paying between $100,000 and $200,000 per job to attract certain businesses and prevent others from leaving. The so-called “Twitter tax break” in San Francisco was a notorious recent example, in which the city gave a six-year tax holiday to a business that obviously didn’t need it, simply because Twitter blackmailed the city with threats to move to the more business-friendly Silicon Valley. So much, Alperovitz says of similar cases, for the free market. In contrast, cities like Portland and Cleveland are at the forefront of using city authority to generate local economic development while reducing the city’s carbon emissions and providing incentives for greening and public transportation. Many cities are also getting involved in transit-linked housing development, the hotel industry, and hospitals. Alperovitz blames the “decaying” press for public ignorance of these types of projects.

If Americans want to “get serious” about democratizing wealth, there are plenty of movements to broaden and build: Alperovitz sees co-ops and ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) arrangements on the rise across the country, from breweries and janitorial service companies to community development corporations and land trusts. He cites the credit union and “move your money” movement as one of the most important components of this transformation away from the corporate model. The success of these local and grassroots initiatives will presumably make some of Alperovitz’s more ambitious objectives for systemic overhaul — such as turning the banks and health care system into public utilities — better understood, and therefore more palatable to the general public, and he believes these “evolutionary reconstructive” measures can propitiate viable institutions that will help break neoliberalism’s no-alternative spell.

Both Graeber and Alperovitz suggest that no insignificant amount of our woes would be solved by meaningful campaign finance reform. But while Graeber undercuts himself with grandstanding — claiming that “challenging the role of money in politics is necessarily revolutionary” because legalized bribery is so widespread — Alperovitz’s “straight-talk” rhetoric makes ending corruption seem like a reasonable and achievable demand. Moments like these make me wish for an equally visionary and caring but less rhetorically strident Graeber. My favorite Graeber is the functional-populist one who asks, “is ‘support our schoolteachers and nurses’ any less legitimate a cry than ‘support our troops?’”

Though decidedly unsexy, Alperovitz’s proposals are more exciting than the nebulous “hopey-changey” stuff — to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin — that Graeber offers in The Democracy Project. Graeber believes Occupy was a success because it opened new horizons for imagining a future different from corporate capitalism. But it’s been nearly two years, Occupy is fading from memory, and the fat cats are still purring into the president’s ear. If the beleaguered 99 percent is to achieve real change, we can’t afford to invest any more hope in formless Graeberism than we can in the hollow promises peddled by Obama and the Democrats. As Alperovitz is at pains to point out, real change will require a real class struggle.

Whatever our affiliations (anarchist, socialist, liberal), it would be useful if everyone desiring alternatives to neoliberal capitalism would recognize that the state is unlikely to vanish overnight. Nor should we wish it to: having understood the violence with which the state is prepared to maintain the status quo, it is safe to assume that its sudden dissolution would be the proximate cause (or effect) of some sort of destructive catastrophe. Unless one is of the conviction that only utter disaster can derail capitalo-parliamentarian control and its accompanying repression — a defeatist and messianic position, in my view — a more just society will have to start with creation and not destruction. If we want a different future, we’ll have to build it for ourselves. 


Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco. Recent work has appeared in BOMB, The Millions, parallax, and Public Books.

LARB Contributor

Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco. Recent essays and translations have appeared in BOMB, n+1, The Point, and The Believer. He is author of American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (Liveright, 2019).


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