David Graeber’s Democracy Project: A Review

David Graeber’s Democracy Project: A Review

This is just one point that Graeber doesn’t consider, but then, the book doesn’t aim to provide a general historical account of the Occupy movement as it unfolded internationally, but rather an anarchist and anthropological account of Occupy Wall Street [OWS] with selective comparative references to the movement in other parts of the United States.  The point is not just to provide an account of OWS but also to use this account to outline “the possibility of democracy in America” (p.xv). 

There is much in the book’s 311 pages that is important, interesting, insightful and potentially fruitful. Described in the Guardian as “a leading light in the Occupy movement” and in The New Yorker as “perhaps the most influential radical political thinker of the moment”, Graeber was an influential participant in OWS and has emerged since Occupy as one of the most internationally well-known and influential intellectual advocates of anarchism.

There is little doubt that anarchism has grown substantially as a political current and that this revival has coincided with anarchist involvement in the Global Justice and Occupy movements, as Graeber suggests. Reading The Democracy Project can thus be useful in order to more clearly understand and critically evaluate the most influential anarchist current within OWS. 


The Introduction establishes the book’s central themes: the importance, impact and continuing relevance of OWS; the lack of real democracy in the US despite the democratic pretensions of its rulers; the factors that led to the emergence of the Occupy movement; and the recent vitality and future prospects of “small-a anarchism” with its commitment to individual liberty and the “notion, so far unrealised, that free people really ought to be able sit down together like reasonable adults and govern their own affairs” (p.xiv). 

The first chapter, “The Beginning is Near”, describes the immediate background to the emergence of OWS, and the unfolding of events within the movement in New York leading up to the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Without doubt one of the most inspiring aspects of the Occupy movement was the fact that “for the first time in most of our living memories, a genuine grass roots movement for economic justice had emerged in America” (p.59).

In order to explain why it worked, in the second chapter Graeber poses, then answers seven questions: Why was the US media coverage of OWS so different from virtually all previous coverage of left-wing protest movements since the 1960s? Why did the movement spread so quickly across America? Why would a protest by educated but indebted youth strike such a chord across working-class America in a way that it almost certainly would not have in 1967, or even 1990? Why did the movement refuse to make demands of or engage with the existing political system, and why did that refusal make the movement more compelling rather than less? Why was it an explicitly revolutionary movement? Why is it that in America, challenging the role of money in politics is by definition a revolutionary act? Why did the movement appear to collapse so quickly after the camps were evicted in November 2011? The answers to these questions are, for the most part, informative, interesting and convincing. 

In chapter three, the most theoretically and historically focused chapter in the book, Graeber discusses the covert history of democracy, which is entitled “The Mob Began to Think and Reason”.  The title is drawn from an observation of working class participation in a Patriot mass meeting in New York in 1774 by Gouverneur Morris, then chief justice of New Jersey, reflecting a widely shared concern within the ruling class that the American Revolution should culminate in the creation of a formally democratic system of government that would nonetheless tightly circumscribe and severely limit the influence of the poor and middling folks.

Accordingly, most of the chapter provides a radical critique of the form of democracy that emerged in the American Revolution, echoing rather than adding much that is new to the Marxist critique.[1] It also contends that inequality can exist only “if backed up by armies, prisons and police” (p.187), and argues that anarchism is centrally focused on the struggle against the coercive maintenance of the capitalist system that generates these inequalities and that is supported by a farcical governmental “system of open institutionalised bribery” (p.152). Anarchism is thus defined as “a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society – and that defines a “free society” as one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence (p.6). 

Marxism is dispensed within a single paragraph. Although Marxism is also committed to the ultimate creation of a class-less, state-less, self-governing society, “Most Marxists insisted that it was necessary first to seize state power – whether by the ballot or otherwise – and use its mechanisms to transform society, to the point where … such mechanisms would ultimately become redundant and simply fade away into nothingness. Even back in the nineteenth century, anarchists pointed out that this was pipe dream” (p.190).

It is, Graeber contends throughout the book, much less of a pipe dream to think of a mass anarchist revolution in America that would eliminate the state, capitalism, money, debt, inequalities, and environmentally destructive forms of human behaviour and create an egalitarian, democratic, environmentally sustainable cashless self-governing society free from all forms of coercion, without having to overthrow the existing state power or build revolutionary organisations to provide political leadership within the revolutionary movement. This chapter then finishes by describing the kind of anarchism that Graeber favours, and the consensus model of democratic decision-making that it advocates. 

Chapter four, entitled “How Change Happens” provides a more concrete discussion of the strategy, tactics, and procedures that are most promising for activists radicalised by the Occupy movement. In this respect, it provides “a series of practical ideas and suggestions, born of my own decade-long experience in horizontal organising, and my direct experience with Occupy itself” (p.210). Twenty-two pages of this chapter are devoted to outlining and defending consensus decision-making, including a section entitled “A Quick Consensus FAQ”, followed by a discussion of direct action, civil disobedience, camping and dealing with the police. 

The final chapter focuses on the future of what may come after the Occupy movement. It provides a recap of the rise of the Occupy movement, describes the disfunctionality of OWS when the movement started to decline in response to massive state repression and ideological warfare conducted via the corporate media, and then argues that the continuing significance of the Occupy movement is the long-term impact on the political consciousness of a substantial layer of the American population.

Graeber makes the interesting point that neoliberalism has been a highly successful ideological project in which state and business elites, in large part through their control of the media, have adopted a pre-emptive attitude towards social movements trying to ensure that “under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success” (p.280).

Defining revolution as having “consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense” (p.274), he then suggests that an anarchist revolution would involve the rejection of the productivist idea that workers should work harder and longer in order to have better access to consumer goods. Instead it is likely to reduce the hours workers spend performing productive labour, involve planetary debt cancellation, systematic elimination of bureaucracy, libertarian communism, and environmentally sustainable forms of production. 


Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the fact that it is based on the author’s concrete experiences within the Occupy and anarchist movements. Consequently it avoids the weaknesses of academic theorising divorced from practice and contains far more interesting insights than I can attempt to summarize here. Among other things, I enjoyed being reminded of the emphasis on creativity in anarchist inspired activism, the interesting and informative critique of contemporary capitalism and representative democracy, the detailed description and critique of the coercive suppression of the civil liberties of those participating in the Occupy movement and several sensible suggestions for protest strategy and tactics. 

In essence, the over-riding aim of the entire book is to convince the reader to become a small-a anarchist. Consequently, it provides a superbly clear account of the central ideas of this particular political current, and the collective attempts that were made to implement these ideas through the Occupy movement, with particular reference to OWS. This will be of great value for readers who share this particular anarchist perspective as well as for readers who are critical of this perspective, particularly class struggle anarchists and revolutionary socialists based in the classical Marxist tradition. 


It is a pity that the book does not provide the kind of comprehensive scholarly historical account of the Occupy movement that would be tremendously valuable for the wider left. There is, for example, no account of the Occupy movement as it spread throughout the US, let alone internationally, giving a more precise and empirically grounded sense of the sequence of events, the relative size of the Occupations in different regions and cities, the relative influence of different political and ideological currents within different occupations, and a critical assessment of where and why the Occupy was most successful, and where it was less so. 

One of the major aims of the book is to describe, defend and advocate consensus decision-making as the most desirable form of participatory democracy and horizontal organising (see pp.192-232). This is the least convincing component of the book. Although there is an attempt to honestly account for the more obvious problems that consensus decision-making generated within the movement, Graeber does so only in order to convince the reader that these problems can be avoided in the future. 

There are some major conceptual problems here that undermine the strength of Graeber’s argument. At several points he defines democracy as centrally involving equality of influence over decision-making. “In its essence [democracy] is just the belief that humans are fundamentally equal and ought to be allowed to manage their collective affairs in an egalitarian fashion” (pp.183-84).

But is it actually the case that consensus decision-making ensures greater equality of influence than participatory voting in situations where a consensus cannot be reached in a timely manner? And is it the case that consensus decision-making is more inclusive and less alienating than using voting where necessary to reach collective decisions in large group situations? There is considerable evidence that consensus decision-making provides those who are time rich with substantially more influence than those who are time poor because of parental responsibilities and/or paid work commitments. 

There is an important class and gender dimension in this respect that Graeber fails to address adequately. He poses the question: “Is it reasonable to expect people to constantly attend fourteen-hour meetings?” His answer is that it is not and that possible solutions include making long meetings entertaining by introducing “humour, music, poetry, so that people actually enjoy watching the subtle rhetorical games and attendant dramas” and having facilitators who impose tight time budgeting (pp.226-227).

But this ignores the fact that for women with dependant children and men working 40 hours or more in paid employment, an important consideration given that in all capitalist societies women typically do more unpaid work than men, while men spend longer hours in paid employment, time is precisely of the essence. (Disturbingly, Graeber fails to emphasise the importance of childcare provision to ensure greater female participation in the consensus decision-making process he advocates.)

In order to ensure equality of participation and influence over decision-making it is vitally important to ensure that the discussion doesn’t drag on for hours, in which case many people simply have to leave, and voting is a mechanism that enables decisions to be made within set time frames. In my experience, and the experience of many other participants in the Occupy movement, consensus decision-making is actually more rather than less alienating than voting in situations where a consensus cannot be easily reached.

As one socialist activist who was involved in OWS observes: “While the possibility for democratic participation offered by this system has been invigorating for experienced and first-time activists alike, it also has limitations that have gradually become more evident over time, including the length of time it takes to reach a decision, the tendency to avoid difficult questions and seek the lowest common political denominator, and the ability of small minorities to overrule large majorities, which has made it difficult for the GA [General Assembly] to make many important decisions or to act quickly in situations requiring an immediate response. According to its supporters, consensus prevents decisions from being made that would alienate any members of the group, but as the debates within OWS have shown, it creates as much or more alienation as it avoids.”

Graeber’s conceptual definition of democracy is combined with an essentially negative conception of liberty. Throughout the book freedom is defined as freedom from any kind of coercion, whether state coercion or collective coercion of individuals and/or minorities by majorities. This raises the important questions: Is it appropriate to place so much emphasis on a negative conception of liberty when arguably those on the left should be placing much more emphasis on the importance of a positive conception of liberty that focuses, among other things, on the social, cultural, economic and political conditions that are required to give poor and middling folks more freedom to achieve their goals? This is a well-worn distinction in political theory, but in an epoch of rising social and economic inequality its political relevance has never been greater.

Democratic working class solidarity, for example a rank-and-file driven strike, can require collective action in order to ensure that the will of the majority prevails, such as maintaining picket lines. Why should the personal freedom of scabs be given priority over the social freedom of workers to withdraw their labour and then take measures to ensure that the strike is effective? Overall, Graeber’s negative conception of liberty brings to mind Bookchin’s critique of life-style anarchism; Graeber appears to be an individualist “whose concepts of autonomy originate in a strong commitment to personal liberty rather than to social freedom”. [2] 

The distinction between horizontal and vertical organising is fundamental to the book, with anarchists being “horizontals” and members of socialist organisations, trade unions and/or political parties being “verticals”. Although the critique of the lack of real democracy within most unions and political parties, and some socialist organisations, is sound, this distinction is not as useful and powerful as Graeber seems to think. The question is not so much whether protests, unions and radical organisations should be as horizontal as possible with a minimisation of vertical bureaucratic hierarchy and a maximisation of bottom-up democratic control over decision-making, since revolutionary socialists and class struggle anarchists readily agree with this, but rather whether at least some degree of centralised decision-making is unavoidable and if so how it should be organised.

Graeber refers to Jo Freeman’s widely influential article, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, but ignores most of her critique of informally structured groups and the weakly constrained decision-making of elites within them. As The Democracy Project clearly shows, in reality there was a lot of centralised decision-making within OWS, and much of this was conducted in a genuinely democratic manner. But some of it, such as the formulation of the slogan “We Are the 99%” that Graeber describes (pp.33-41), was made by a relatively small group of influential individuals. As well, the encampments provided the necessary degree of centralization by hosting the General Assemblies. Little wonder that once these encampments were broken up by massive state coercion, the movement started to fall apart. Lacking more formal centralised organisational structures, the movement was highly dependent on geographically centralised nodes of collective decision-making. 

The argument in the final chapter for another better world, a world that is more democratic, egalitarian, libertarian and environmentally sustainable, would be more convincing if Graeber had drawn upon the small but important body of literature that outlines the central features of a democratic socialist alternative to capitalism and representative democracy. [3] Although most contributors are Marxists, they make many points that could have helped Graeber to strengthen and refine his argument for a free society, such as those pertaining to the transformed political economy of time required to create a more libertarian, democratic and egalitarian society. 

Finally, completely contrary to the author’s intentions, no book that I have read over the past decade has provided a more compelling case for a genuinely democratic, intellectually open-minded and honest, self-critical and realistic Leninism of the kind outlined by Paul Le Blanc. [4] In the final chapter, Graeber provides an illuminating description of the rise and fall of the Occupy movement.

As the state and the corporate media mobilised massive coercive and ideological forces aimed at crushing this movement, the movement turned inwards and internal disputes intensified. The account is worth quoting at length: “These were young men and women who’d been first drawn into a euphoric sense of almost unlimited possibility, but who now had to deal with vivid memories of watching their library, so lovingly assembled, trashed and sent off to the incinerators by laughing patrolmen, of seeing their dearest friends beaten with sticks and shackled as the mainstream media dutifully refused to enter the perimeter, unable to do anything to help them, of seeing friends maced in the face having to face the prospect of lifelong respiratory problems, of having to scramble to find housing for people whose life possessions, however modest, had been destroyed by agents of the state – led to a bubbling up of every conceivable tension and ill-feeling that had been repressed or ignored in the weeks previous when organizing and defending the camps had given us such obvious common purpose. For a month or so, the New York General Assembly and Spokescouncil fell into almost complete dysfunction. There were near fistfights at some meetings; screaming fits; ringing cries of racism; an endless tangle of overlapping crises over tactics, organization, and money; and accusations on everything from police infiltration to narcissistic personality disorder” (p.272). 

Yet, as Graeber convincingly argues, OWS nonetheless did have a profoundly radicalising effect on a substantial layer of American society. A genuinely democratic socialist organisation can play a vitally important role in drawing some of these people into an organisation that can collectively and critically reflect upon the strengths and weaknesses of the Occupy movement, acting as the memory of the movement in this respect, while ensuring that an organised force for progressive change remains in place. The classical Marxist and Trotskyist conception of dual power, and the Leninist emphasis on the importance of destroying the existing state power as a necessary pre-requisite to building a new society, are both leant empirical support by the historical trajectory of the Occupy movement.

In this respect, I’ll conclude this review by quoting from an article that was published in the year prior to OWS: “If anarchism is still to be a vision of a new society rather than simply accommodation with the old, it must tackle the question of power. Clearly, autonomous zones do not challenge capitalism or the state. However, assuming for a moment that the ‘horizontal networks of self-governing institutions’ that anarchists seek to create become widespread and broadly effective, then the existing state’s power is necessarily threatened (the ability to regulate trade, maintain ‘special bodies of armed men’, enacting and enforcing laws, etc.) Consequently, any successful revolutionary movement will immediately run into the state’s opposition and one of the two forces must emerge victorious from the resulting struggle; the two cannot exist in harmonious balance indefinitely.”

Consequently, as the ruthless and violent suppression of the Occupy movement in the US clearly shows, it is impossible to change the world without destroying the existing state power in an insurrectionary manner. Occupying public spaces will undoubtedly be an important part of this, but such occupations can expect to enjoy limited tenure unless the prevailing state power is destroyed. 

Brian S. Roper is a member of the International Socialist Organisation of New Zealand/Aotearoa 


[1] See, for example, David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism; Brian Roper, History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation; Ellen Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism

[2] Bookchin, M. (2007). Social Ecology and Communalism, AK Press, Oakland and Edinburgh. 

[3] See, for example, Alex Callinicos, The Revenge of History: Marxism and the Eastern European Revolutions, and “Socialism and Democracy” in Prospects for Democracy; Pat Devine, Democracy and Economic Planning: The Political Economy of a Self-Governing Society; Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development; Ernest Mandel, In Defence of Socialist Planning; David McNally, Against the Market; Istvan Meszaros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century; Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism

[4] Le Blanc, P. (1993). Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Humanity Press, New York.