The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber

Thu, Jun 6, 2013


The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber

In keeping with the grand tradition of the Occupy movement(s), and the manner in which David Graeber captures this same spirit in , I would like to begin this review by, first and foremost, delegitimizing the predominate, oppressive arguments about the book that seem to permeate pre-existing reviews. That is, as exemplified by John Kamphner’s review in The Observer, readers of The Democracy Project tend to agree that “the weakness at the heart of The Democracy Project, both the book and the movement it reflects, is that while it may know what’s wrong with the world, it seems to have little concrete grasp of how to put it right” (Kamphner, 30 March 2013). And yet, critiquing this engaging text for its inability, or, more correctly, its unwillingness to present an alternative that engages with or fits within the existing system demonstrates that the reader has, in no small terms, completely missed the point of the text. Let me explain.

Because Graeber goes to such pains to stake out his own biases and interests in the text, I will follow suit. As an academic reader, I wanted the book to engage with the ideas on an intellectually stimulating level (and, indeed, it does). As an anarchist, activist reader, I wanted the book to be readable for non-specialized readers – ie. readers who do not have Kropotkin and Proudhon in their back pocket. And, yes, it does that, too. But, I also longed for a text that bridged that gap, and this is the point at which The Democracy Project really shines. The book, counter to Kamphner’s review, is exceedingly pragmatic, detailing very specific and helpful guidelines for activists (new and experienced) to hold their own General Assemblies, to start their own consensus-based workgroups, or a plethora of other anarchic community-based alternative tactics. In this sense, it is hard to see why so many people have argued that the book is more interested in pointing out problems than it is in providing solutions.

Graeber anticipates these criticisms, of course, and throughout the book he repeatedly states that he is “less interested in working out the detailed architecture of what a free society would be like than in creating the conditions that would enable us to find out” (193). What he proposes is an opening of the individual imagination, encouraging readers and activists to rethink our approaches to protest. It’s the same argument writers like Hakim Bey or Todd May have been making for years, and provides a worthy balm against the terrifying omnipresence of Michel Foucault and his biopolitics in the academy (and, don’t worry, the irony of Foucault’s omnipresence is not lost on me). In fact, Graeber’s railing against the liberal academy’s dependence on Foucault and Poststructuralism as a whole was by far my favourite part of the text.

My qualms with the book are small, and relatively inconsequential. As a native Torontonian, I was somewhat disappointed to see that the widespread protests surrounding the 2010 G20 Summit, and the subsequent police brutality and mass arrests here, did not bear mention. This, I admit, is almost entirely my own desire to feel my presence in the energy and passion that flows throughout the text. Additionally, the text uses some really unhelpful ableist language throughout, particularly in Graeber’s frequent use of the term “lunatic” to describe people behaving egoistically or unreasonably. This said, my overall reaction to the text is ecstatic.

I can only describe the process of reading the book as joyful, first because the book captures, eloquently and engagingly, the passion, love, and anger required for revolution. Most readers would anticipate that a book centrally about the Occupy movement(s) would be plagued with nostalgia and a tone of loss, but instead The Democracy Project reverberates with hope, and a refreshing happiness about what the movement has been able to accomplish. Graeber quotes one Occupier towards the book’s close that encompasses this perfectly: “as far as I’m concerned, you guys have already changed everything. For me anyway. [… Y]ou can’t really go back to thinking about things the way you did before” (273). Reading this book has a similar effect.

Second, this reading was joyful for me simply for the fact that a book like this exists. The Democracy Project, despite the shockingly patriotic red, white, and blue on the jacket (which I am sure Graeber had little say in, and which I personally discarded immediately after receiving the book), is, at its heart, an anarchist text. Graeber is a self-identified “small-a” anarchist himself (192). The book even contains a detailed definition of anarchism (187-192), which appeased me, as a scholar of anarchism, but would be entirely readable for someone who had never considered the word anything except a synonym for chaos. And yet, this is also a new book published by Spiegel & Grau (a division of Random House). And, more importantly, owing at least in part to the widespread success of Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, this is a wildly popular book which has obtained the coveted position of the fancy table display at many of my local Chapters bookstores. This is no small feat in a world where the average person hears “anarchist” and imagines the flinging of feces (I should add that the myth of the feces-throwing activist is one Graeber dismantles quite skilfully in the text).

If I have shied away from providing you with detailed information or summary of the book here, it is only because I have a strong desire that you read it for yourself. It is my sincerest hope that the book inspires you as much as it has me. It is rare that a book so beautiful and angry appears in such a popular way, and I hope that this is an indication that Graeber’s hope is not misplaced; that, as the text concludes, “the age of revolutions is by no means over”; that the “human imagination” will continue its “stubborn refus[al] to die” (302).

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