Saturday, November 02, 2013

On David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project”

Two years ago, this page was inspired by the social activism of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “We are the 99%!” was heard throughout the streets, college campuses, and shockingly, the pop culture and fashion industries. Working only a few miles away from, then occupied, Zuccotti Park afforded me the opportunity to experience lectures, workshops, and assemblies happening throughout the city. Although I never physically occupied the space itself, I did visit and joined in on forms of civil disobedience, most memorably the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 2nd. However I never clashed with police, nor pushed the limits enough to be hauled-off to jail. Not that that should ever be the goal; after all, what honest change could a busted head or time in jail bring to the movement?

Back then I was, as I am still today, working from paycheck-to-paycheck within a jaded, apathetic, and emasculated “professional managerial class.” Incapable of disengaging ourselves enough from the apparent comforts, conveniences, and pleasures associated with “Western” capitalism, we are unable to offer-up any real alternatives to the current social contract. So we find brief solace within the satisfying and fleeting illusions around us. Accordingly, like much of the American “left,” I left the real work of OWS to those more passionate, committed individuals with nothing to lose. These activists should be commended for at least trying to bring real change to this inequitable and, presumably, “democratic” society.  But instead, we mock the activists, while obediently working, laughing, and prattling-on about the same trivial, banal topics that constitute this hollowed-out and often meaningless existence. And yes, the status quo continues to be sustained as an oligarchic and exceedingly untouchable corporate elite continues to make record profits off suffering. 

What if we had contributed more to OWS? Or if the message itself had been effectively communicated to a wider audience? Would our world look and feel any different? Such questions are not explicitly asked in David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement,” but through his recounting of the early days of OWS, they are arrived at implicitly. Graeber takes his readers back to the beginnings of the movement, which the writer himself played a role in organizing. 

Before Adbusters posted a call to #occupywallstreet (i.e., “bring tent”), Graeber describes a New York activists scene “hit hard by the ramifications of 9/11.” One where “the level of arbitrary violence police were willing to employ against activists ratcheted up unimaginably; [for instance] when a handful of unarmed students occupied the roof of The New School in 2009, the NYPD is said to have responded with four different anti-terrorist squads, including commandos rappelling off helicopters.” 

I recall arriving to work that day and feeling like I had walked onto the set of “Dog Day Afternoon.” The police presence was absurd and almost laughable if not so frightening. Four city blocks became “frozen zones”-no one could go in or out. The subsequent videos of police pepper-spraying and attacking unarmed college students quickly became a public relations nightmare for the university admissions’s office and Board of Governors (who must have, at some point, questioned former President, Bob Kerrey’s decision to give Ray Kelly and the NYPD a green light on the aggressive operation.)

Student activism is a vital, healthy component of any vibrant, creative and socially just university. As an alumnus and working administrator of said university, I recall being angered and disappointed by former president Kerrey’s heavy-handed response to the student protesters. Admittedly, the students could have found more effective means of communicating their concerns of a lack of transparency and involvement in university decision making to the wider community, but I cannot find anything to justify the thuggish force used against them. 

Graeber also sympathizes with the student activists that occupied The New School, and later, those in Zuccotti Park, as a generation “of Americans who were born in the late 1970s [and] is the first in U.S. history to face the prospect of living standards lower than their parents. By 2006, this generation received lower wages and less benefits, were more indebted, and are far more likely to be either unemployed or in jail.” This generation has, according to Graeber, “had every reason to feel they’d done exactly what they were supposed to do according to the rulebook-and got worse than nothing.” Agreed. But hasn’t every generation had its fair share of complaints and perhaps “worse than nothing” is a bit hyperbolic? After all, what makes the mounting problems and broken promises of generation Facebook so unique? I recall hearing people calling the occupiers “whiny, spoiled, privileged brats.” Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss the real reasons this group came out in such force: crushing debt, income inequality, a decade of war, the environmental crisis, the list could go on... Graeber’s book is inspiring in that it should actually allay any concerns that this generation has somehow just been “lazy,” or not worked hard enough. It is not about a lack of initiative, this generation is facing a lack of resources and opportunities like no other and, very likely, it will only get worse.  

Graeber’s most stinging assessment is toward the POTUS, and rightfully so. Obama would not be in the White House if it were not for young voters (likely some within OWS.) Yes, Obama could also have done more. “No part of the system was shaken up.” Graeber writes, “Obama robbed [this generation] of precisely the thing he so famously promised: hope-hope of any meaningful change via institutional means in their lifetimes. If they wanted to see their actual problems addressed, if they wanted to see any sort of democratic transformation in America, it was going to have to be through other means.” 

Fortunately, the ‘other means’ this generation embraced were non-violent (well at least from OWS’s side of the street fight) and even more significantly, created a place for people to experience genuine democracy in all its frustrating and messy glory. As anyone who has served on a committee or to an OWS "general assembly" can attest, reaching consensus to move decisions and actions forward is often a tedious and slow process, especially in large groups. But as with anything so important, it's rarely easy.

What Graeber also does through his retelling of OWS is guide readers to reconsider the way we organize our social lives. He writes, “Consensus is an attempt to create a politics founded on the principles of reasonableness.” And further, that genuine deliberation “requires the ability to listen well enough to understand perspectives that are fundamentally different from one’s own... 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.”
OWS succeeded in showing America how difficult real democracy is to achieve and maintain (something the “Founding Fathers” were also leery of fully embracing.) The movement exemplified the realities and potentialities of anarchist ideals to establish “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...with only one proviso -they would be limited to ones that could exist without anyone having the ability to call on armed men to show up and say, ‘I don’t care what you have to say about this; shut up and do what you’re told.” 

Such a world may be labelled ‘utopian’ or impossible to achieve, especially with the lack of imagination and commitment from those either fortunate enough to be coddled by, or just tethered to the comforts and confinements of capitalism. Despite never fully achieving a full-scale world-wide revolution (at least not yet...), OWS did succeed in directing more of our national conversation to consider the dehumanizing and degrading affects of debt, the realities of economic inequality, imagining new definitions of “wealth,” and challenging the practicality of our very notions of democracy itself. 

Instead of regretting not doing enough two years ago, we must admit that these problems and frustrations have not gone away and will not until the current dehumanizing structure is subverted. Until then, we remain on a crash course to collapse. Our only chance is to continue to take the message of reasonableness, equity, social justice, consensus building, and democracy itself into our lives and communities so as to change our basic conceptions of how this society functions. Perhaps with some more concerted efforts, we can establish a better world, before it is too late...

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