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David Graeber died on 2 September 2020 at the age of 59. I republish here a review of one of his inspiring books.

Occupy: Human imagination will not die

By Tapani Lausti

David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. Allen Lane 2013.

Every mass movement based on direct democracy and participatory instincts broadens the human imagination of what might become possible when the current social system loses its credibility. The American occupy movement and the Spanish indignados together with radical movements in many other parts of the world will leave their imprint on the way millions around the world view their chances of taking democracy to something more exciting than the current near-moribund systems. The future is uncertain, unpredictable and prone to serious setbacks as in Egypt, but the inspiring experiences of what real freedom might be like remain.

David Graeber, an anthropologist and one of the activists of the American occupy movement, points out what a surprise the success of it all was even for the participants: "The experience of those who live through such events is to find our horizons thrown open; to find ourselves wondering what else we assume cannot really happen actually can." (p. 5)

The leaderless movement was incomprehensible to the American liberal intelligentsia and mainstream journalists, and even to some left-wing veterans. They all failed to see that the lack of leadership and clear political demands reflected a vision of a future society which would be non-hierarchical, based on free dialogues without political doctrines which would require a hierarchy of ideological interpreters. The movement did not need endless theoretical analyses of what was happening and what might happen. This was perhaps one reason for the fact that ordinary people without any previous political involvement enthusiastically joined in. Political education would be based on real personal experience.

One group which was baffled by the leaderless nature of the movement were the police. They were desperately trying to find leaders with whom they could negotiate. They wanted marshalls to represent the demonstrators. When they found them, they drew them into a subtle mode of cooperation. Rules were drawn and then supposedly not allowed to be broken. Most of the movement understood this and wanted none of it.

The political and economic elites were furious. The police had obviously been told by the power elite that they were free to use aggressive tactics. The rest of the world watched in horror how the militarized police of "the land of the free" behaved in a way that many who had not studied the history of repression in the US connected only with tyrannical states. The international attention which the movement and the police behavior attracted forced the US media to pay attention.

Many demonstrators were students of middle-class but modest background. They symbolized vividly the madness of modern life. With talent and enthusiasm they had enrolled in colleges and universities with expectations of an exciting and rewarding life. And what happened? They ended up with no jobs, big debts and life without a future. They were up against the money world which had almost destroyed the world economy.

Graeber understands the feelings of those deep in debt. He has become famous for his other book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Here he writes: "One of the themes of my work on debt was that its power lies in intense moral feelings it invokes, against the lenders, and more to the point, against the indebted themselves: the feelings of shame, disgrace, and violent indignation from being told, effectively, that one is the loser in a game no one forced one to play." (p. 66) Graeber also writes: "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." (p. 289)

Graeber asks if it is really surprising that people whose life prospects have been destroyed by the money elite would like to have a word with the financial magnates who have stolen their future. These young people have followed the rules which society set out for them, whilst the financial class have used fraudulent speculation to enrich themselves and in the process have destabilized world economy. More and more people in the US can see how the whole political system has become corrupted by big money. The reality of economic inequality also brought much of the working class to the movement. The working poor are another group caught in the debt trap.

People living a life full of anxiety have been provoked to dream of a more creative, inspiring existence. Graeber emphasizes that the means to achieve a better life must be a model for the world you wish to create: He writes: "By gathering together in the full sight of Wall Street, and creating a community without money, based on principles not just of democracy but of mutual caring, solidarity, and support, occupiers were proposing a revolutionary challenge not just to the power of money, but to the power of money to determine what life itself was supposed to be about." (p. 127)

Graeber's account of the occupy movement suggests that in spite of its revolutionary fervor it does reach out for allies with less revolutionary spirit like trade unions, community organizations and immigrant right groups. Graeber also disputes the idea that the movement is dead. He points out that there have been many new campaigns: occupy foreclosed homes, occupy farms, rent strikes, educational initiatives. As to other movements, Graeber has sympathetic remarks about the participatory economy project. He formulates his own vision thus: ". the ultimate aim would be to create local assemblies in every town and neighborhood, as well as networks of occupied dwellings, occupied work places, and occupied farms that can become the foundations of an alternative economic and political system." (p. 261)

Achieving a decent democratic society may take a long time. But let's finish with another quote which is the last sentence of Graeber's fascinating book: "The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight." (p. 302)


A review in Finnish - Suomenkielinen arvio kirjasta

Visit the archive: David Graeber, Occupy & los indignados, Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Social thinking, United States, Spain, Greece,Turkey, Egypt, World economy, Environment



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