Tuesday, July 22, 2014

David Graeber's "The Democracy Project": Book Review

Having found myself intrigued by this anthropologist-activist who was among the first, as he narrates here, to generate the "We are the 99%" slogan and Occupy Wall Street movement, I followed my reading of his dense but not dull academic study of Debt: The First 5000 Years (reviewed by me in April 2014) with his more casual 2013 narrative of OWS, its origins, impacts, and relevance within grassroots, participatory direct action as the genuine democratic exercise of rights. He insists that the lack of a platform or agenda spoke to the Occupy strengths, by its refusal to play into party politics, rather than as a left-wing balance to the Tea Party's anti-government (but less rarely anti-business, at least after the GOP co-opted it, an issue that merits attention more than the aside here, but it may not be that germane in Graeber's view given his anti-corporate as well as anarchist focus). I agree here, even if my friends and media disagree.  Graeber reminds readers that bipartisan "status-quo" presidents no matter their claims for "change" continue to prop up what's broken.

As I've opined often among my pro-Democratic Party friends and family, Graeber raises a critique few leftists promote; they capitulate to the lesser of two evils or "they won't let Obama win" retorts. He castigates the handling of the 2008 crisis with a new president who exhibited "perversely heroic efforts to respond to an historic catastrophe by keeping everything more or less exactly as it was." (95) This can be confirmed by Timothy Geithner's subsequent defense while he promoted his own book in Spring 2014; and by Matt Taibbi's concurrent exposure Eric Holder's role as he kept kid gloves on as he handled "legal justice" for those victimized by Wall Street's banking powers in '08. George Packer finds in his narrative history another pattern of how the law was used to suppress the common folks, buried by robo-signings and instant judgements from judges, not those in charge.

This fits well with these two recent accounts I've studied which address the mess we're in these decades post-Reagan, and all who've succeeded him: George Packer's "The Unwinding" about a disintegration of American stability under the corporate-political oligarchy, and Matt Taibbi's "The Divide" about the refusal of Obama's administration to pursue justice against Wall Street bankers while doggedly beating down and hounding the poor and weak among us who cannot counter the power of the law and order forces, paid by the government which enables these same banks to launder drug money, profit off debtors, expand prisons, and sustain an increasingly unequal economy.

Graeber shows close-up at OWS a common complaint: the "U.S. media increasingly serves less to convince Americans to buy into the terms of the existing political system than to convince them that everyone does." (109) This is a bit too compressed, but his point is that--take Ralph Nader's campaign--that the media portrays such candidates and platforms as is only the 2.7% who voted for him favor them. The media refuse to offer such alternative advocates the opportunity to speak out, and consigns them to the realm of fringe or freakish figures who don't merit the gravitas afforded the Democrats and to a lesser or greater extent depending on the channel chosen, the GOP. Therefore, a false choice perpetuates, and dismissal of spontaneous uprisings that may present a challenge to the parties who persist in representing the 1% more than the rest of us continues. Those who take to the streets or camp out near City Hall or big banks get ridiculed as dangerous bums or deluded rich kids.

While I remain cautious about his claim that over half of all British female students engaged in sex work to pay off tuition and that nearly a third went to prostitution, and his factoid that 280,000 American women with college debt signed up for sugar daddies needs more than one HuffPo citation to sway me, I agree that student debt (I heard recently costs have gone up 1200% since 1978) and the wider indentured status this incurs among many of us cripples us. For degrees are now the ticket into many professions, and that entry fee rises as banks profit off the money they lend to students and their families, continuing to deepen the hold that loans and interest have over many Americans now. Coupled with his own studies and the pressing need for reform or a debt jubilee (as his previous book naturally called for), this does seem a logical stance to take as the issue most needing redress by us.

The trouble is, "corporate lobbying" as he relabels it by its reality as "bribery" stymies progress. Each Congress member needs to raise, he says, $10,000/week from the time he or she is in office to prepare for the next election. Contrary to our national myth that we can separate the system from its overthrow as if we are revolutionaries anew, Graeber contends the economic and political control is so linked now that it cannot be reformed by representatives, complicit in the status quo. He shows how the appeals of the indebted smack of peasants begging for their land and relief from burdens, such is what Americans have been reduced to. As to "white working-class populism," he correctly chides this for its anti-intellectualism, and Graeber to his credit takes a moment to consider the lasting appeal of it for so many. Within its determination to call for liberty, there's "an indignation at being cut off from the means of doing good," within a society bent in equating our life's range with only the satisfaction of our self-interest. (124) People want to achieve for themselves and conduct their own decisions, and not expect the State to cater to all of their needs. A sensitive issue; a commendable insight. This is explored idiosyncratically in James C. Scott's 2013 "Two Cheers for Anarchism."

Midway, Graeber tackles liberal mockery of OWS. He confides that the left as they dominate media tend to project their guilty conscience by their coverage.  "Liberals tend to be touchy and unpredictable because they share the ideas of radical movements--democracy, egalitarianism, freedom--but they've also managed to convince themselves that these ideals are ultimately unattainable. For that reason, they see anyone determined to bring about a world based on these principles as a kind of moral threat." (150) He reminds us that what John Adams feared as "the horrors of democracy" as if anarchy (often a negative term from Plato on) does not negate "core democratic principles," but takes them "to their logical conclusions." (154)  In a truly eye-opening chapter "The Mob Begin to Think and to Reason," he shows Gouverneur Morris, gentry of NYC, witnessing at planning for the Constitutional Congress "butchers and bakers" arguing the merits of the Gracchi or Polybius (a sign of how far we've fallen from a classical education for the masses?).

He cautions those who'd toss bombs or instigate violence, and he shows as in the chapter "How Change Happens" not only the way direct action and affinity groups and peaceful assemblies reach consensus, but he notes in passing the dangers of coercion. The Iraqi Sadrists attempted to form a mass working-class base for self-governance, but the zones they opened with the wedge of "free clinics for pregnant and nursing mothers" took on, as they required security, the social apparatus and then political platforms supporting charismatic leaders turned cultural voices in formal institutions.

This book as with "Debt" skips about although it stays animated with Graeber's confident presence. In a few places the style stumbled and careful editing might have smoothed out a couple of rough spots in the prose. I liked the glances at humor as in the Occu-pie pizza, "99 percent cheese, 1 percent pig" provided those at OWS early on. Books on anarchism sometimes need a lighter touch, after all.  And as with other studies, I needed to see how workplace strategies might evolve to prefigure change, in an increasingly unstable and detached electronic and dispersed environment where freer standards may contend against online surveillance, weak wages, globalization, and reductive profit.

He touches on this, however, in "Breaking the Spell" as he glances at the "productivist bargain" that assumes work is a moral good rather than an economic position. He shows if in passing how labor discipline can make one worse, not better, if it does not become virtuous to allow us to help others. Why not make mothers, teachers, caregivers the "primordial form of work" rather than models of production lines, wheat fields, or iron foundries? Mutual creation and a shift, as he admits Occupy might formulate a key demand, to "change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be" is a small step, if one meriting a book and movement of its own. (289)  He tells us how the weight of bureaucracy grew, under capitalism and communism, and how the latter term underlies what society, our circle of friends, our family runs on: amicability, cooperation, practical assistance.

I wish the book, after its vignettes as early on he and a handful of activists met at the Irish Hunger Memorial and then Zuccotti Park to jumpstart OWS, had covered more of the blow-by-blow on the street examples of how consensus might or might not have worked, and how across the world (not only in this perhaps understandably Manhattan-centered p-o-v from one who is based now in London academia after his departure from Yale) people met to for better or worse try to coordinate progress. I saw at the L.A. encampment examples of both, and Graeber appears to gloss over a lot of the mess. It's a mixture: a study of democracy historically and at OWS, and part personal testimony. But this makes it uneven in pacing and scope; it's valuable behind-the-scenes, yet you want to peer in deeper.

In closing, Graeber teaches a different civics lesson. "No government has ever given a new freedom to those it governs of its own accord." (239) Grassroots turn tough. Laws may need to be broken. (Amazon US 6-20-14)

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