This book was not at all what I expected it to be, judging from its title and description. Based on what little I’ve heard from him in radio interviewThis book was not at all what I expected it to be, judging from its title and description. Based on what little I’ve heard from him in radio interviews and podcasts, David Graeber struck me as an intelligent scholar who challenges and proposes alternatives to our dysfunctional political system. Having grown disillusioned with the status quo (like most Americans), I hoped this book might offer pointed but thorough critiques of the American political system from an anthropologist’s perspective and present insights into different ways we could reformulate democracy. While Graeber technically does deliver on both of those fronts (and not altogether unintelligently, I might add), he somehow manages to dilute his argument into a proselytizing message that feels like all spirit with little substance. I need more than spirit, admirable as it is, to become convinced. To cut to the chase, my three biggest frustrations with this book are as follows: 1. this book is poorly organized, 2. it seems to be guilty of preaching to the choir or at least not knowing who its target audience is, 3. it lacks the intellectual rigor of an academic book, and it does this especially by not CITING its f***ing sources!
I was hoping Graeber’s thesis would resemble something more along the lines of an anthropological take on philosopher Jason Brennan’s “The Ethics of Voting,” which outlines the reasons why voting does not prove in the least effective at promoting and implementing the best policies to benefit the populace, as well as proposes a few theoretical alternatives to our current outdated model. Graeber could have turned to any number of social scientists, such as psychologists Drew Westen, Michael Spezio, and Brian Nosek on the cognitive dissonance involved in the decision making process in voting. Instead, we begin with a gratuitously lengthy (albeit somewhat entertaining) introductory narrative of Graeber’s experience in the Occupy Wall Street protests, which somehow feels tacitly self-congratulatory, especially when he emphasizes his own role in the formation of the movement while dismissive of the other left-wing occupiers. This unnecessary anecdote is proceeded by some sprawling history lesson about how America never really was a democracy to begin with (in fact he claims the only true direct democracies were Native Americans and 18th century pirates), up to our present day problems from economics to public policy—all of this we have to take his word for since he never cites where he’s getting his findings from. Finally he concludes with his ethos-laden appeal to persuade readers why anarchism is superior to any other radical or moderate left-wing alternative, by which point it begins to feel less like a cogent argument and more like a leaflet for a revolutionary cause. I shall elaborate on each of these sections later, but for now I’m simply listing them to demonstrate how unfocused this book feels in its overall organization. Is this lack of cohesion supposed to be part of Graeber’s anarchist aesthetic?
In the first section, Graeber appeals to the just cause of “direct democracy” frequently enough for this to be merited as the central theme (it is in fact one of the key ideas of Graeber’s argument), but he fails to explain exactly what he means by “direct democracy,” what it might look like or entail, whether it is remotely feasible or under what conditions it might occur. Not until around the last quarter or so of the book do we learn that his ideal of direct participatory democracy takes the form of a “horizontal” (leaderless) consensus. Here, he goes into boring detail about the best way to conduct a consensus and its potential shortcomings and how to avoid such shortfalls, etc. Yet despite all this agonizing detail, he still neglects to take into account much of the problems with this form of democracy that social scientists would be quick to point out, among them: issues of group think (although he does emphasize the importance of diversity), factionalism when carried out on the broader scale (although he does address the problem of cliques), and the possible peer pressure effect of non-anonymous in-person consensus meetings, which is partly why caucuses have proved so controversial. He deliberately avoids the pitfall of asking more practical questions about how this anarchist consensus vote would operate on the large scale because such an undertaking would be worth several volumes of material in itself. Obvious questions still arise, such as how would such a system of direct democracy be possible in an age of mass media consumption? Or perhaps this would obviate the dominant forms of “vertical” (centralized) mass media, and American society atomize into regional communities with their own local policy procedures and micro-politics? In the latter case, I believe that kind of democracy is called regionalism or tribalism which we typically associate with the bloody conflicts in Afghanistan, but perhaps I’m being a bit unfair and too broad-brushed here. My point being that the needs of society seem far too vast and complex for me to accept consensus as the ultimate panacea to all policy procedures.
As I mentioned above, Graeber’s narrative in the first section seems outright dismissive of the marxists, socialists, the liberal moderates (represented by the MoveOn activist organization), and even the international labor movements who all clearly participated in OWS as much as his strand of anarchists. I do not fault Graeber for staking out a position and defending it; in fact, I think he did a pretty decent job justifying his political philosophy. However, I find his narrative of the OWS protests suspect, as if he’s hijacking OWS to his own anarchist agenda, when in fact the OWS protesters appeared disorganized and disparate, with their disgruntled feelings towards their collective disenfranchisement to unite them. While I’ve seen scholars like law professor Bernard Harcourt make cases for how it was precisely the OWS protesters’ lack of demands that made them so radical and “resistant to discourse,” I feel there’s a good argument to made that it was simply a sign of the kind of protest that emerged (the rabbling scream of a mob that felt voiceless), and that discourse and a set of demands is precisely what they would have needed to unite it into a revolutionary cause. It appeared to me that the vast majority of these protestors were students who couldn’t pay off their loan debt—that is, a privileged status that is losing its status (I myself fall in this category.) To quote Slavoj Žižek in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously: “They are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to a proletarian status…This also accounts for the new wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus-wage in later life.” I’m not attempting here to dismiss the occupiers as mere petty complaints of the salaried bourgeoisie, but on the scale of global capital, the American crisis (which suffered the least from the fallout) appears dwarfed in comparison to (e.g.) the Indonesian prawn farmers earning the equivalent of 12 cents an hour in a job that is far below acceptable labor standards. Perhaps I’m making a red herring argument here, but I fail to see how we can talk about the decline in our standard of living without also addressing the labor standards in developing countries that have made our way of life possible. Graeber fails to mention this elephant in the room in the context of the OWS protests and instead spins it as an opportunity to push his political agenda.
In the second section, while I found myself fascinated by his refreshing take on the American Revolution as ultimately an anti-democratic enterprise, I would have liked to go to the sources and see whom he borrowed this revisionist interpretation from. And when he moved on to the present day, his description of the woes of capitalism and American “democracy” appeared merely to preach to the liberal choir rather than persuade any moderates or conservatives of his view. He would have been more effective had he cited his freakin sources! Some facts he mentioned in passing were more nuanced than he admitted. For instance, I recall him referring to the recent repeal of usury laws to hike interest rates as high as 300%. What he failed to mention was that these ridiculously high interest rates apply specifically to the politically fraught “payday loans,” whose nefariousness is in all likelihood overblown (for those interested, there’s an informative Freakonomics Radio episode that goes into detail about the murkiness of these loans.)
While I have mostly been trashing this book, I will say I found it entertaining and perhaps even thought provoking. Informative? I wouldn’t go that far, but I will give this point in Graeber’s favor: because of the last section of his book, where he outlines some reasonable, common sense demands, I am now less quick to outright dismiss radical left-wing anarchism as an inconceivable, utopian pipe dream. While still very much a skeptic, I’d love to delve more into anarchism and see how they address issues such as: how would they propose we should take care of the elderly, the mentally disabled, etc.? I want to end with my final skepticism of the anarchist left-wing appeal, again by turning to Žižek and his critique of Deleuzian collectivist participatory politics: “The vast majority of people want to be passive and just rely on an efficient state apparatus…I wouldn’t like to live in a state where some kind of permanent participation engagement is going on and so on…I much prefer to be a passive citizen” (“A Reply to My Critics” (2013)) Even if we cast aside serious (and legitimate) concerns about the possible Hobbesian selfish, brutishness of human nature when devoid of the State, and how this brutish nature may be propelled when people unfortunately have relatively easy access to weapons, we still are left with people who are too tired, ignorant, and concerned with their own domestic issues to consider the best way to care for a remote population of people who have no access to clean drinking water. Perhaps those are tasks best suited for the smooth machinery of bureaucracy. Perhaps we might be able to envision some kind of compromise between the two, should we sort out which issues best fit the community, and which pertain to bureaucracy....more