David Graeber, a lead organizer of Occupy Wall Street and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, has written a new book, The Democracy Project, in which he combines an on the ground account of the early days of Occupy Wall Street along with his provocative arguments about democracy, anarchism, and the sorry state of American politics. Here, Scott Lucas talks with Graeber about the birth of Occupy, the fusion of political and financial power, and crowd-sourcing the Model T.
You were one of the earliest organizers of Occupy Wall Street. As a result, the new book is part memoir, part history, and part how to guide. How did you end up with that structure?
DG: When I got an offer from Random House, I thought, here’s my one opportunity to get anarchism, direct action, and direct democracy out in front of the broader public. I see it as an intervention. Do try this at home.
In your earlier book, Debt, you traced out many of the issues that Occupy Wall Street later coalesced around. Was that a happy accident or something more intentional?
DG: It’s actually quite ironic. In the summer of 2011, I had a sabbatical year off from teaching. I showed up in New York to do publicity for the book. At the same time, I was looking for an activist project. I went to a few exploratory meetings and found out about this Occupy Wall Street idea. But I was quite self-conscious of not entangling the two things. I didn’t want to impose my ideas on the movement. You also don’t want to use the movement to sell your book! Though in personal terms, it was surprising and gratifying that I finally had some good timing.
So let me ask you the Passover question. Why was that political moment different from all others?
DG: It was a moment of intense political mobilization of young people—and then deep and bitter frustration with any idea that the system would be fair and responsive. It happened on the economic and political level. On the economic level, these were people who did everything they were told. They went to college, took out the loans. The people in Zuccotti Park weren’t studying basket weaving. They were studying business. And they still couldn’t get a job. The guys who created enormous global scams got bailed out, but now we’re going to spend the rest of our lives as deadbeats because we owe money to them. That was a terrible injustice, combined with a political injustice. Obama ran as the candidate of change. But he governed as a moderate conservative, whether it was a matter of saving the banking industry, the auto industry, or maintaining the profit-driven healthcare system. So they realized that those are the choices in the electoral system—a moderate conservative or a right-wing radical. There was a generation of Americans in a pretty desperate situation.
How did the “We are the 99%” slogan come about?
DG: Saying that it was some great act of genius is overstated. People were talking about the one percent a lot. There was the Joseph Stiglitz essay about the one percent. After our first meeting of Occupy Wall Street, we still had to figure out who we were. There was discussion of that on our list-serve, and I threw out the idea of the 99 percent. If you say working class, proletariat, the people, or the masses, people will immediately identify that with stale ideas and movements that we’re inoculated against. Sometimes for good reasons! So here’s a new way to frame it, around the issue of financial power and state power. A working group, in which there were two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist artist, put together a pamphlet in which they wrote “We, the 99%, ask you to come to this meeting.” Later when we set up a tumblr page, another guy put in the “are.” They say you can’t come up with a good idea through a committee, but we did.
You make a point in The Democracy Project that voting is not necessarily good for democracy. What do you mean by that?.
DG: There’s nothing inherently wrong with everybody showing hands to see who wants what. But there’s an agonistic, gladiatorial style of politics that comes out of majority voting. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of bad consensus processes done. But for those people who have been doing it for a while, there’s no better process.
This process of consensus building has deep roots, which are not the ones we are taught in American civics class in high school.
DG: We’re taught that democracy was like a scientific breakthrough. People discovered democracy, as if people didn’t know how to count beforehand. But what you see when you look at the anthropological record, are countless examples of egalitarian decision making.
In the States, this kind of democracy has a revival in anarchist politics, right?
DG: It’s not really anarchism, it's mostly common sense. You know you’re not at an anarchist meeting when the person who’s running the meeting is also making all the proposals. Rule number one is that you have a facilitator, and if you’re the facilitator you can’t make proposals.
One area the book doesn't delve into much is technology's impact on democracy. Why is that, given that you're writing from the center of the tech universe?
DG: Everybody else wants to talk about the tech stuff. There’s fun in that. But even the people in Anonymous didn’t think, oh my god, there’s revolutionary technologies that are changing politics. No, they said they we’re doing the same thing on a technological level that Occupy was doing on the streets. To be perfectly honest, I think the big problem with technological advancements is that we haven’t seen a lot of them. What we’ve got is much more fast ways of doing exactly the same thing we were always doing. I have a piece in The Baffler about this, called Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. For me, technological advance is way overstated. If we had giant robot blimps in Occupy Wall Street, okay, write about that. But rule number one of direct democracy is don’t discuss anything sensitive on the internet.
DG: It brings out the style of the mock-rationalistic, brute, gladiatorial debate that we’re trying to undo. I have to assume it’s possible to create technologies that wouldn’t do that, but it hasn’t happened so far. That’s why we have a principle that if there’s something sensitive—especially like race, gender, or class—don’t talk about it online.
So, for you, technical developments really don’t drive political ones?
DG: It’s the speed, that’s all. Remember the Model T? It could come in any color as long as it was black. What happened was every American male turned into a mechanic and modified their cars. Then the companies turned around and said, okay, we’d better give them more options. That’s just crowd-sourcing in ten years rather than six months.