Occupying Democracy

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There at the start of Occupy Wall Street, Anthropologist David Graeber teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently appointed professor at the London School of Economics and author of, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, he now argues for a re-awakened democracy.



On the Founding Fathers’ rejection of democracy: “Most Americans are unaware than nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution does it say anything about the United States being a democracy. In fact, most of those who took part in composing those founding documents readily agreed with the seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Winthrop, who wrote that ‘a democracy is, among almost all civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst form of government.’”


On the deadlock of American politics: “The moment we realize most Americans are not cynics, the appeal of right-wing populism becomes much easier to understand. It comes, often enough, surrounded by the most vile sorts of racism, sexism, and homophobia. But what lies behind it is a genuine indignation at being cut off from the means for doing good….The militant anti-intellectualism of the populist right is more than merely a rejection of the authority of the professionally-managerial class, it’s also a protest against a class that they see as trying to monopolize for itself the means to live a life dedicated to anything other than self-interest. Watching liberals express bewilderment that they thus seem to be acting against their own self-interest—by not accepting a few material scraps they are offered by Democratic candidates—presumably only makes matters worse.”


On the unconventional roots of the democratic sensibility in America: “If existing ship constitutions are anything to go by, the typical organization of eighteenth-century pirate ships was remarkably democratic. Captains were not only elected, they usually functioned much like Native American war chiefs: granted total power during chase or combat, but otherwise treated like ordinary crewmen. Those ships whose captains were granted more general powers also insisted on the crew’s right to remove them at any time for cowardice, cruelty, or any other reason. In every case, ultimate power rested in a general assembly, which often ruled on even the most minor matters, always, apparently, by a majority show of hands.”


On the central role of penalties, interest, and fines in American capitalism: “Huge proportions of ordinary people’s incomes end up going to feed this predatory system through hidden fees and, especially, penalties…We’re not in the habit of calculating such numbers because they are, even more than debts, seen as the wages of sin: you only pay them because you did something wrong. In fact, the entire system is now geared toward ensuring we make such mistakes, since the entire system of corporate profits depends on them…There has been a massive increase in such fees in recent decades without any notable increase or improvement in the services provided. Most Americans are delivering as much as one dollar out of five they make directly to…the financial sector.”


On what makes a successful revolutionary movement: “It’s a much vexed question: what is a revolution? What revolutions really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate. Before the French Revolution, the idea that change is good, that government policy is the proper way to manage it, and that governments derive their authority from an entity called ‘the people’ were considered the sorts of things one might hear from crackpots and demagogues, or at best a handful of freethinking intellectuals who spend their time debating in cafés. A generation later, even the stuffiest magistrates, priests, and headmasters had to at least pay lip service to these ideas. Before long, we had reached the situation we are in today: where it’s necessary to lay the terms out, as I just did, for anyone to even notice they are there. They’ve become common sense, the very grounds of political discussion.”


On freedom and the nature of work: “The most obvious is the assumption that work is necessarily good, that those unwilling to submit to work discipline are inherently undeserving and immoral, and that the solution to any economic crisis or even economic problem is always that people should work more, or work harder, than they already do. This is one of those assumptions that everyone in mainstream political discourse seems obliged to accept as the ground of conversation. But the moment you think about it, it’s absurd. First of all, it’s a moral position, not an economic one. There is plenty of work being done we’d all probably be better off without, and workaholics are not necessarily better human beings. In fact, I think any levelheaded assessment of the world situation would have to conclude that what’s really needed is not more work, but less. And this is true even if we don’t take into account ecological concerns—that is, the fact that the current pace of the global work machine is rapidly rendering the planet uninhabitable.”


On valuable pursuits in a free society: “Economically, what I would really like to see is some kind of guarantee of life security that would allow people to pursue those kinds of value they actually consider worth pursuing—individually, or with others. As I’ve observed, that’s the main reason people pursue money anyway. To be able to pursue something else: something they consider noble, or beautiful, profound, or simply good. What might they pursue in a free society? Presumably, many things we could barely now imagine, though one might expect familiar values like arts or spirituality or sports or landscape gardening or fantasy games or scientific research or intellectual or hedonistic pleasures would figure in, in every sort of unanticipated combination.”


On equality: “I’m sometimes asked: what does ‘equality’ really mean? I get this sort of question a lot. Usually from very rich people. ‘So what are you calling for? Complete equality? How could that be possible? Would you really want to live in a society where everyone would have exactly the same thing?’—and, once again, with the tacit suggestion that any such project would, necessarily, mean the KGB again. Such are the concerns of the 1 percent. The answer is: ‘I would like to live in a world where asking that question would be nonsensical.’”


On love as communism: “Stop imagining ‘communism’ as the absence of private property arrangements, and go back to the original definition: “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs….It becomes apparent that communism—at least in its most attenuated form—is the basis of all amicable social relations, since, sociality of any sort always assumes a certain baseline communism, an understanding that, if the need is great enough (e.g., to save a drowning person) or the request small enough (e.g. a light, directions), these are the standards that will be applied. We are all communists with those we love and trust the most; yet no one behaves communistically in all circumstances with everyone, or, presumably, ever has or will.”


On “small-a” anarchism: “There are endless varieties, colors, and tendencies of anarchism. For my own part, I like to call myself a ‘small-a’ anarchist. I’m less interested in figuring out what sort of anarchist I am than in working in broad coalitions that operate in accord with anarchist principles: movements that are not trying to work through or become governments; movements uninterested in assuming the role of de facto government institutions like trade organizations or capitalist firms; groups that focus on making our relations with each other a model of the world we wish to create. In other words, people working toward truly free societies. I am less interested in working out what the detailed architecture of what a free society would be like than in creating the conditions that would enable us to find out.”