The Democracy Project

New Political Map

my sketch of the ‘camps’ of political and philosophical movements of the 21st century; elaborated on here

David Graeber, who was actively involved in the early days of Occupy Wall Street and continues to work to advance its principles, starts his new book The Democracy Project with a fascinating (if long) personal history of how OWS found its legs and what it had to deal with (notably the brutal suppression of November 2011 when the governments of the day decided to shut down the protest through a sustained, globally coordinated and ruthless operation, and the disgraceful behaviour of the media ‘covering’ the movement, and then abruptly not covering it at all).

He sees OWS and its sister movements in Europe and the Mideast as important experiments in rediscovering the potential of a real democracy, and a society which retains real freedoms, even at a cost. To explain both the meaning and value of that, he presents a history of both democracy and anarchism that are starkly different from the histories we are taught in school. Democracy, he explains, was initially a derogatory term used interchangeably with the term “anarchy” by the ruling educated elites in most non-egalitarian, hierarchical, class-defined nations:

Jackson was running as a populist—once again, against the central banking system, which he did temporarily manage to dismantle. As Dupuis-Déri observes, “Jackson and his allies were well aware that their use of democracy was akin to what would today be called political marketing”; it was basically a cynical ploy, but it was wildly successful—so much so that within ten years time all candidates of all political parties were referring to themselves as “democrats.” Since the same thing happened everywhere—France, England, Canada—where the franchise was widened sufficiently that masses of ordinary citizens were allowed to vote, the result was that the term “democracy” itself changed as well—so that the elaborate republican system that the Founders had created with the express purpose of containing the dangers of democracy, itself was relabeled “democracy,” which is how we continue to use the term today.

What is democracy, in its essence? David defines it this way:

Democracy was not invented in ancient Greece. Granted, the word “democracy” was invented in ancient Greece—but largely by people who didn’t like the thing itself very much. Democracy was never really “invented” at all. Neither does it emerge from any particular intellectual tradition. It’s not even really a mode of government. In its essence it is just the belief that humans are fundamentally equal and ought to be allowed to manage their collective affairs in an egalitarian fashion, using whatever means appear most conducive. That, and the hard work of bringing arrangements based on those principles into being.

Consensus, rather than voting, has always, he says, been the preferred means of group decision-making in decentralized, non-militarized societies:

Even if people throughout history have always known how to count, there are good reasons why counting has often been avoided as a means of reaching group decisions. Voting is divisive. 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. A process of consensus finding, of mutual accommodation and compromise to reach a collective decision everyone at least does not find strongly objectionable, is far more suited to [a true democracy, i.e. to] situations where those who have to carry out a decision lack the sort of centralized bureaucracy, and particularly, the means of systematic coercion, that would be required to force an angry minority to comply with decisions they found stupid, obnoxious, or unfair.

Over the past two centuries, while the term “democracy”, in its distorted current sense of voting for one or another slate of elite leaders, rather than as defined above, has developed a positive connotation, “anarchy” has developed a negative one, for reasons that suit those with power. David explains:

In 1550, or even 1750, when both words were still terms of abuse, detractors often used “democracy” interchangeably with “anarchy,” or “democrat” with “anarchist.” In each case, some radicals eventually began using the term, defiantly, to describe themselves. But while “democracy” gradually became something everyone felt they had to support (even as no one agreed on what precisely it was), “anarchy” took the opposite path, becoming for most a synonym for violent disorder.

What then is anarchism? David defines it this way:

Actually the term means simply “without rulers.” The easiest way to explain anarchism … is to say that it is a political 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. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage, or wage labor, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Even deeper structural inequalities like racism and sexism are ultimately based on the (more subtle and insidious) threat of force. Anarchists thus envision a world based on equality and solidarity, in which human beings would be free to associate with one another to pursue an endless variety of visions, projects, and conceptions of what they find valuable in life.

image from Justin Bale’s OWS archive 

Far from being the philosophy of crazed bomb-throwers set on terrifying and unsettling the populace, anarchism has a long pacifist tradition, one whose greatest challenge is not a lack of purpose, but an almost dreamy idealism that many would probably think impossible to achieve in the “real” world. David asserts:

[In Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries] anarchists insisted that it wasn’t just that the ends do not justify the means (though the ends do not, of course, justify the means) but that you will never achieve the ends at all unless the means are themselves a model for the world you wish to create.

David is pragmatic about how this convergence of real (direct, egalitarian, non-hierarchical) democracy and true (with complete freedom of action and freedom from violence and coercion) anarchism might be achieved. He seems to suggest we should just start; disconnect from the dysfunctional political and economic systems that current oppress us and try living together in ways consistent with democratic and anarchist principles (which are, in fact, totally aligned):

It’s hard to figure out exactly what kind of anarchism makes the most sense when so many questions can only be answered further down the road. Would there be a role for markets in a truly free society? How could we know? I myself am confident, based on history, that even if we did try to maintain a market economy in such a free society—that is, one in which there would be no state to enforce contracts, so that agreements came to be based only on trust—economic relations would rapidly morph into something libertarians would find completely unrecognizable, and would soon not resemble anything we are used to thinking of as a “market” at all. I certainly can’t imagine anyone agreeing to work for wages if they have any other options. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. 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.

To my colleagues doing the difficult and important work of being facilitators in a world used to right by might, David would suggest that it is you who are leading the anarchist charge, you who hold the key to helping citizens find a better way to live:

What has now come to be called Anarchist Process—all those elaborate techniques of facilitation and consensus finding, the hand signals and the like—emerged from radical feminism, Quakerism, and even Native American traditions… Consensus is not just a set of techniques. When we talk about process, what we’re really talking about is the gradual creation of a culture of democracy… Consensus is an attempt to create a politics founded on the principle of reasonableness—one that, as feminist philosopher Deborah Heikes has pointed out, requires not only logical consistency, but “a measure of good judgment, self-criticism, a capacity for social interaction, and a willingness to give and consider reasons.” Genuine deliberation, in short. As a facilitation trainer would likely put it, it requires the ability to listen well enough to understand perspectives that are fundamentally different from one’s own, and then try to find pragmatic common ground without attempting to convert one’s interlocutors completely to one’s own perspective. It means viewing democracy as common problem solving among those who respect the fact they will always have, like all humans, somewhat incommensurable points of view.”

David then goes on to provide some of the techniques he believes could be instrumental in The Democracy Project — working to institute a true democratic and anarchic society. They include

  • (i) learning, practicing and instituting principles of consensus (in various forms, pragmatically) in all group deliberations, problem-solving and decision-making;
  • (ii) direct action,  civil disobedience and camping/occupying initiatives (creating in the process “communities of caring”) striving to achieve solidarity and freedoms, and to achieve a more just and egalitarian distribution of wealth, income and power; that includes respecting but not liaising or cooperating in any way with police and other authorities, applying improvisation and creativity to keep the forces of power off-guard, and, like the Zapatistas, “using precisely [and only] as much outright violence as [required] in order to put [our]selves in a position not to have to use violence anymore”; and
  • (iii) creating “liberated spaces” and institutions within those spaces that demonstrate the viability of alternative democratic/anarchic models of living and self-governance and which reflect the dysfunction and illegitimacy of the current undemocratic and oppressive systems.

In the concluding chapter, some of which was recently posted online as A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse, he talks about how much of the political and military policy in the US since Vietnam has been about minimizing dissent among the domestic population, and how policies like the use of drones (with huge ‘collateral’ damages but minimal harm to red-blooded Americans) directly stem from that. He asks “What happens when the creation of [a] sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power?”

He goes on:

The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.

How did they pull it off? The preemptive attitude toward social movements is clearly a part of it; under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in ‘security systems’ of one sort or another: the fact that the United States, which lacks any major rival, spends more on its military and intelligence than it did during the Cold War, along with the almost dazzling accumulation of private security agencies, intelligence agencies, militarized police, guards, and mercenaries. Then there are the propaganda organs, including a massive media industry that did not even exist before the sixties, celebrating police. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in ‘guard labor’ of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line.

To exploit this, he says, strategies for The Democracy Project might include persuading the corporatists that a general debt amnesty would be an excellent release valve for growing citizen anger over inequality. It would bankrupt Wall Street, and devastate some (mostly financial) sectors of the stock market, but it would give citizens back a modicum of control over their lives, and enable them to contribute again to the rest of the economy, and also rein in the catastrophic growth (and the need for it) that is desolating our planet. He writes:

Even those running the system are reluctantly beginning to conclude that some kind of mass debt cancellation—some kind of jubilee—is inevitable. The real political struggle is going to be over the form that it takes. Well, isn’t the obvious thing to address both problems simultaneously? Why not a planetary debt cancellation, as broad as practically possible, followed by a mass reduction in working hours: a four-hour day, perhaps, or a guaranteed five-month vacation? This might not only save the planet but also (since it’s not like everyone would just be sitting around in their newfound hours of freedom) begin to change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be.

Occupy was surely right not to make demands, but if I were to have to formulate one, that would be it. After all, this would be an attack on the dominant ideology at its very strongest points. The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system. That’s why they cling to them even as they are effectively destroying everything else. It’s also why debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand… [It would] bring home that money is really just a human product, a set of promises, that by its nature can always be renegotiated

[And] 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… It’s not a question of building an entirely new society whole cloth. It’s a question of building on what we are already doing, expanding the zones of freedom, until freedom becomes the ultimate organizing principle. I actually don’t think the technical aspects of coming up with how to produce and distribute manufactured objects is likely to be the great problem, though we are constantly told to believe it’s the only problem.

David is skeptical of the value of complicated ‘designs’ for an alternative economy and society, arguing that this isn’t how change happens. He says “I am less interested in deciding what sort of economic system we should have in a free society than in creating the means by which people can make such decisions for themselves. This is why I spent so much of this book talking about democratic decision making. And the very experience of taking part in such new forms of decision making encourages one to look on the world with new eyes.”

When I predicted the failure of OWS, it was not because I believed there is no alternative to the economic and political systems we have now. I expected that the powers of the day would not tolerate any threatening dissent for a prolonged period, and would use the newly militarized police and media to smash the movement. And I expected it to fail as well because of the endemic poverty of imagination of our dumbed-down citizens, who have been schooled and propagandized from birth to believe there are only variations of the one way to live. Too many in OWS just wanted their ‘fair share’ of the wealth and power of the 1%, a redistribution of resources of the unsustainable, massively destructive and dehumanizing society we have created, a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Too many believed that things really weren’t that bad, and that in any case nothing could be done to make it measurably better.

It’s great to read about someone, still active in the movement, with the knowledge, intelligence and imagination to see not only a better way to live that is radically different, but a means to overthrow (with minimal violence) the existing power structure in order to institute it.

I have written often on these pages that everything I know leads me to believe we are too late to prevent or even mitigate the collapse of civilization culture, and that we will be wracked in the coming decades by a cascading series of energy, economic and ecological crises. I have personally given up aspiring to be a radical activist, because I believe it would be too little too late, and that thanks to the Jevons Paradox anything I was able to accomplish would almost surely be offset or undone by positive feedback loops committed to the insane perpetuation of the existing systems for a while longer. And because I am afraid of pain and imprisonment.

But I am still a cheerleader for Occupy (camp F in the map above), still active in the Transition movement (camp G), still a supporter of Deep Green Resistance (camp H), especially against the Tar Sands, factory farming and other ecological and humanitarian corporatist atrocities, and still a believer in Communitarianism (camp I). All these movements embrace the only forms of action that still make sense:

  • learning how to live together in community,
  • learning the essential capacities of resilience that will make us better able to cope with collapse,
  • fighting back against the worst injustices of the global corporatist cabal, and
  • creating models of a better way to live that just might be useful to the survivors of collapse, our descendants, as they work to create what will be almost unrecognizably different, relocalized post-collapse cultures.

David Graeber’s vision draws on elements of all four camps, and his call for mass debt cancellation and the reinvention of work (to be meaningful, self-determined, sustainable and responsible), is just what’s needed to yank us out of our state of exhausted resignation and stir the idealist in us. Time for those of us who got our first real taste, our first sense of the possibility of real democracy and real freedom in the streets and parks and places we Occupied, to come together again.

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10 Responses to The Democracy Project

  1. Great review for a landmark book! Thanks.

  2. Godd day David, thank you both, for this movement moving synergy. We maintain free space for co-creative community building in an historic environment to effect significant change. Why not to paint together some landscape on our behalf?

  3. jukka says:

    “In 1550, or even 1750, when both words were still terms of abuse, detractors often used “democracy” interchangeably with “anarchy,” or “democrat” with “anarchist.” ”

    this seems to me somewhat strange. it would be interesting to know some references
    which confirm these claims. for instance who were these detrators? in which countries?
    which groups in which countries in the time period 1550-1750 identified themselves as democrats or anarchists?

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  5. Poor Richard says:

    Thanks for the review. The concept of consensus, like democracy or anarchy, is both an abstract ideal (absolute) and an evolving set of practices in which the degrees of consensus may be relative. Like many movements before it OWS bumped up against various practical limits of “pure” consensus. So I would love to see a broad analysis of variations, case studies, and academic research on social/civic organizing and decision-making models that have, as a common theme, a significant bias towards consensus; but which also try to address the practical limits or failures of consensus. Can you suggest one or two of the best available resources on this topic?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Richard: The book contains almost a whole chapter on the consensus process, that does a better job at it than I could. Alternatively, Tree’s website ( contains an exhaustive explanation of how consensus works and what it is and isn’t.

    To oversimplify, a block can only be invoked under certain circumstances, and imposes a responsibility on the blocker to come up with an alternative proposal that can achieve consensus, or remove the block. Far more common is a ‘stand aside’, where someone states for the record they have concerns with a proposal and will not actively participate in its implementation but will not block it and respects the view of the others. In large groups, especially when members do not know each other well, there is often a voting fallback.

    I’ve seen consensus work, even in groups that are polarized, far more effectively than voting, even supermajority voting. It takes time, and that can be infuriating, but the end result is much more durable and amicable than voting, which often leaves the ‘losers’ feeling betrayed, ignored, angry, or even plotting revenge.

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  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Just to note that the May 13th edition of the New Yorker has a review of David Graeber’s book The Democracy Project that is mostly sympathetic with the book’s pro-anarchism stance.

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