I have just begun my third David Graeber book, The Democracy Project, a more-or-less history of the Occupy Wall Street movement, his
roles in that event and the anarchist foundations of the endeavor. I've also plowed through Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a book which I firmly believe physically made my
brain stronger because of the synaptic work it had to do following his brilliant arguments about debt, money and obligation and the violence that binds them together. (I'm now
doing a re-read.) I am also re-reading The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, where he links economics, bureaucracy and violence
into a plausible explanation of the state of our state.
He died on September 2, 2020, from necrotic pancreatitis while on holiday in Venice. And I miss him.
While I'm only at the beginning of working through Graeber's work, what draws me to him is the way he grounds his anarchist sensibilities in
the scut work of anthropology, quarrying human history and nature to understand why things are the way they are and how humans can redirect that "why" on a bearing toward a
post-capitalist commonwealth. Graeber is given credit for creating the phrase "We are the 99%" for Occupy, though he argues, in typical fashion, that it was a collective effort,
but it captures a crucial element of his work and worldview.
Voices like his, like the thousands who took up the Occupy banner, like all the others working to get capitalist societies to render more
justice and less suffering, are completely banned from becoming part of approved political discussion in the United States. Graeber acknowledges this when says that "there is such
a straitjacket on acceptable political discourse, [on] what a politician or media pundit can say without being written off as a member of the lunatic fringe," with the result that
"the views of very large segments of the American public simply are never voiced at all."
This why an Occupy happens and why, at the same time, no one takes it seriously. (Well, that's not entirely true. Graeber noted that the powers
confronted by Occupy's actions knew very well the threat it posed and, with complete seriousness, sic'd the police on it to crush it.)
So, because most Americans bothered by the way things are going don't have a broad lexicon to use in concocting alternate futures for their
democracy, they're forced to construct visions out of the crabbed and low-grade ideas offered by American culture, like our republican version of democracy itself and
hyperindividualism and pulled-up bootstraps and a milquetoast vision of diversity. The people assaulting the Capitol on January 6 and those assaulting social injustice all draw
from the same crimped menu of concepts and vocabularies, a menu that has been crafted by certain powers and principalities to foreclose on anything getting loosed into the wild
that endangers their control.
This is why the oft-called-for conversation Americans should be having to find common ground and neutralize partisanship will never result in
anything but stalemate: they literally have nothing to say to one another despite their desperate desires to speak out and act upon what they've spoken.
Graeber, though, has another point to add to this. There is a common ground for each to stand on, and the clue about its location is found in
right-wing populism: action motivated by an indignation over "the very idea that self-interest is all that politics could ever be about." He goes on to say:
The rhetoric of austerity, of "shared sacrifice" to save one's children from the terrible consequences of government debt, might be a cynical
lie, just a way of distributing even more wealth to the 1 percent, but such rhetoric at least gives ordinary people a certain credit for nobility….The moment we realize that
most Americans are not cynics, the appeal of right-wing populism becomes much easier to understand. It comes, often enough, surrounded by the most vile sorts of racism, sexism,
homophobia. But what lies behind it is a genuine indignation at being cut off from the means for doing good.
He then proposed anarchism as a way to unknot the toxic bind of right-wing populism and give its indignation a vocabulary and a means worthy of
its impulse and desires.
This is why Graeber was important, at least to me: his ideas and proposals opened up windows in a room full of suffocation. But more than that,
he challenged people to toss aside the cherished principles and conclusions that had (mis)guided them through the world and take the risk of reimagining what it is possible for
people to accomplish when given the option of guiding their own destinies.
Having said this, how can people manifest this change in their lives? One can always tinker with the system that one has, the way Garett Jones,
an economist and former Senate staffer, argues in 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites A Little More and The Masses a Little Less. Or you can, as Graeber
suggests, understand that American democracy, at least on the national level, is simply a system of institutionalized bribery with a police force at its beck and call and go for
something completely different, a horizontal anarchism that that tries to avoid the dark forces that often tag along with populism while creating operations that allow people to
give voice to their voices and from that extract a way of living that is dignified, nutritional and liberated.
Or we could do nothing at all and let things stumble until they crumble, let Joe Manchin's ego decide the fate of millions and continue to
pretend that the power to govern comes from the consent of the governed when we really know it's the truncheon and the servitude of debt that shapes the republic.
"Which side are you on?" sang Florence Reece in 1931. Still a pretty good question to ask and answer, and I very, very much like the answer
that David Graeber helps me make.