The Democracy Project
A History, a Crisis, a Movement
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A bold rethinking of the most powerful political idea in the world—democracy—and the story of how radical democracy can yet transform America
Democracy has been the American religion since before the Revolution—from New England town halls to the multicultural democracy of Atlantic pirate ships. But can our current political system, one that seems responsive only to the wealthiest among us and leaves most Americans feeling disengaged, voiceless, and disenfranchised, really be called democratic? And if the tools of our democracy are not working to solve the rising crises we face, how can we—average citizens—make change happen?
David Graeber, one of the most influential scholars and activists of his generation, takes readers on a journey through the idea of democracy, provocatively reorienting our understanding of pivotal historical moments, and extracts their lessons for today—from the birth of Athenian democracy and the founding of the United States of America to the global revolutions of the twentieth century and the rise of a new generation of activists. Underlying it all is a bracing argument that in the face of increasingly concentrated wealth and power in this country, a reenergized, reconceived democracy—one based on consensus, equality, and broad participation—can yet provide us with the just, free, and fair society we want.
The Democracy Project tells the story of the resilience of the democratic spirit and the adaptability of the democratic idea. It offers a fresh take on vital history and an impassioned argument that radical democracy is, more than ever, our best hope.
Praise for David Graeber’s Debt
“A sprawling, erudite, provocative work.”—Drake Bennett, Bloomberg Businessweek
“Written in a brash, engaging style, the book is also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of debt—where it came from and how it evolved.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Fresh . . . fascinating . . . thought-provoking [and] exceedingly timely.”—Financial Times
“The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate. . . . Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions.”—Peter Carey, The Observer
“One of the year’s most influential books. Graeber situates the emergence of credit within the rise of class society, the destruction of societies based on ‘webs of mutual commitment’ and the constantly implied threat of physical violence that lies behind all social relations based on money.”—Paul Mason, The Guardian
“Part anthropological history and part provocative political argument, it’s a useful corrective to what passes for contemporary conversation about debt and the economy.”—Jesse Singal, The Boston Globe
“Terrific . . . In the best anthropological tradition, he helps us reset our everyday ideas by exploring history and other civilizations, then boomeranging back to render our own world strange, and more open to change.”—Raj Patel, The Globe and Mail
From Publishers Weekly
© Publishers Weekly
Devil's in the details
At the risk of being diagnosed with tunnel vision, I want to concentrate on a single topic in a wide-ranging book. That topic is one about which I've written a book of my own—Occupy Oakland: The Little Revolution That Couldn't.
Mr. Graeber mentions Occupy Oakland several times and infers from it conclusions about the larger Occupy movement. The problem is that he gets the details wrong. No matter how clever one's reasoning or skillful one's presentation, one cannot arrive at the truth by proceeding initially from false premises.
Citing left-wing journalist Rebecca Solnit, Graeber gullibly repeats the "astonishing" canard that, in Solnit's words, "While the [Occupy] camp was in existence, crime went down 19% in Oakland." Writing three months after police forcibly evicted the camp, Solnit demands, "Pay attention: Occupy was so powerful a force for nonviolence that it was already solving Oakland's chronic crime and violence problems just by giving people hope and meals and solidarity and conversation."
Blithely oblivious to the correlation-causation fallacy, Ms. Solnit fails to note that the citywide 19% reduction in violent crime occurred during only one of the five weeks of Occupy's 2011 encampment outside City Hall, or that during the camp's final week the same rate shot up by 47% (including the murder of camper Kayode Ola Foster, allegedly by a fellow camper).
Nevertheless, David Graeber is indignant. "Needless to say," he says needlessly, "no newspaper headlines loudly proclaiming 'Violent Crime Drops Sharply During Occupation' ever appeared." For the record, no Bay Area headlines loudly proclaimed 'Violent Crime Rises Sharply During Occupation,' either—although that would've been an equally accurate description of single-week results.
Again ignoring the evidence, Graeber also claims that police fired tear-gas canisters "directly at occupiers' heads—as did indeed happen several times in Oakland." Actually that did not happen even once at Occupy Oakland. The famous October 25, 2011 injury to protestor Scott Olsen was the result of a drag stabilized beanbag round, not a tear-gas canister. Graeber not only fails to grasp this distinction, he casually eschews documentation of these alleged atrocities.
Graeber is similarly slipshod in responding to the February 2012 criticism of Occupy by left-wing journalist Chris Hedges. "The Black Bloc anarchists," wrote Hedges, "who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. ... Groups of Black Bloc protesters, for example, smashed the windows of a locally owned coffee shop in November in Oakland and looted it."
Graeber pooh-poohs such concerns over what he calls "a single café window that may or may not have been broken by an activist associated with a Black Bloc in Oakland." He conveniently omits Hedges's reference to looting, and maintains a tactful silence about the numerous other instances of vandalism, burglary and arson associated with Occupy Oakland.
Graeber nevertheless attempts to explain why Oakland saw the largest Black Bloc contingent of any Occupation. "Where in most cities," he contends, "Black Bloc tactics could easily alienate the larger movement from working-class communities, in Oakland militant tactics are more likely to be seen as a sign of working-class solidarity." Yet Graeber neglects to tell us why, despite these militant "signs," Occupy failed to establish enduring relationships with Oakland's working class.
Graeber likewise evades Chris Hedges's most salient point: "The Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1%. These anarchists represent no one but themselves. Those in Oakland, although most are white and many are not from the city, arrogantly dismiss Oakland's African-American leaders, who, along with other local community organizers, should be determining the forms of resistance."
In questioning David Graeber's methodology and integrity, I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to trust the rest of his book. But I do suggest that if Graeber is willing to play fast and loose with the facts regarding Occupy Oakland, there's at least the possibility he does so in other areas as well.