The New Yorker
n the summer of 2011, when David Graeber heard rumors of a mobilization against Wall Street, he was hopeful but wary. Graeber is an anthropologist by trade, and a radical by inclination, which means that he spends a lot of time at political demonstrations, scrutinizing other demonstrators. When he wandered down to Bowling Green, in the financial district, on August 2nd, he noticed a few people who appeared to be the leaders, equipped with signs and megaphones. It seemed that they were affiliated with the Workers World Party, a socialist group known for stringent pronouncements that hark back to the Cold War—a recent article in the W.W.P. newspaper hailed the “steadfast determination” of North Korea and its leaders. As far as Graeber was concerned, W.W.P. organizers and others like them could doom the new movement, turning away potential allies with their discredited ideology and their unimaginative tactics. Perhaps they would deliver a handful of speeches and lead a bedraggled march, culminating in the presentation of a list of demands. Names and e-mail addresses would be collected, and then, a few weeks or months later, everyone would regroup and do it again.
Graeber refers to march planners and other organizers as “verticals,” and to him this is an insult: it refers not just to defenders of Kim Jong-un but to anyone who thinks a political uprising needs parties or leaders. He is a “horizontal,” which is to say, an anarchist. He is fifty-two, but he has made common cause with a generation of activists too young to have any interest in the Cold War, or anything associated with it. And, as he listened to speeches in Bowling Green, he realized that many of the people there seemed to be horizontals, too. Working with some like-minded activists, on the opposite side of the park, Graeber helped to convene a general assembly—an open-ended meeting, with no agenda and a commitment to consensus. Adbusters, a Canadian magazine, had called for an occupation of Wall Street on September 17th, which was six weeks away; that afternoon, in Bowling Green, a few dozen horizontals decided to see what they could do to respond.
When the day came, Graeber and his allies had to fend off two different enemies: the people who wanted to stop the occupation and the people who wanted to organize it. Occupy Wall Street succeeded, and survived, in its original location—Zuccotti Park, halfway between Wall Street and the World Trade Center site—for nearly two months, much longer than anyone predicted. It inspired similar occupations around the country, creating a model for radical politics in the Obama era. And it became known, more than anything, for its commitment to horizontalism: no parties, no leaders, no demands.
Inevitably, this triumph of horizontalism increased the prominence of a handful of horizontals, none more than Graeber, who has emerged as perhaps the most influential radical political thinker of the moment. His American academic career has been rocky: he was an associate professor at Yale but was never up for tenure, and in 2005 the university decided not to extend his contract. (He now suggests that he was insufficiently deferential to Yale’s “hierarchical environment.”) By the summer of 2011, he was teaching anthropology at Goldsmiths College, in London, while building a growing reputation in anarchist circles worldwide. His books tend to end up as pirated PDF files, freely available on left-wing Web sites.
A few weeks before the rally in Bowling Green, Graeber published “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” a provocative counter-history of civilization that has become an unlikely best-seller. He argued that the current American anxiety about debt, private and public, is merely the latest manifestation of an ancient obsession. He sought to show that debt preëxisted money: people owed things to each other before they had a way to measure the size of those obligations. In one of his most memorable passages, he considered the differing roles of debt in a market society (where we “don’t owe each other anything,” except what we agree to) and in a nation-state (where we all owe an insurmountable debt to the government, whether we agree or not). He called this dichotomy “a great trap of the twentieth century”—a false choice between the freedom of a consumer and the obligations of a citizen. “States created markets,” he wrote. “Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least in anything like the forms we would recognize today.” This is the essence of Graeber’s ideology, and to a large extent the essence of Occupy: a commitment to fighting the twinned powers of private wealth and public force. He has proposed a grand debt cancellation, to remind the world that a debt is merely a promise—that is, a plan, and one that can be changed.
By the time the New York Police Department reclaimed Zuccotti Park, in November, the evictees were already trying to figure out whether the occupation had been a success, and what “success” might mean. In the past year, this debate has been taken up in a series of essays and books rehearsing the little indignities and big ideas that characterized life in Zuccotti Park and other sites of occupation. Now comes Graeber himself, with “The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement” (Spiegel & Grau). Like all revolutionaries, he is skilled in the art of wild extrapolation, starting from a small band of dissidents and imagining a world transformed. He doesn’t believe that a better future is inevitable. But like lots of people, not all of them radical or even political, he does believe that the current arrangement is unstable, and that we may as well start thinking about what might come next.
“We are the ninety-nine per cent!” That was the rallying cry in Zuccotti Park, and beyond, although there is some debate about exactly which member of the “we” came up with it. In his book, Graeber stakes a partial claim, quoting an e-mail he sent to a group list on August 4, 2011, in which he proposed calling the occupation the Ninety-Nine Per Cent Movement. The figure had been popularized by the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who estimated that the richest one per cent of Americans earn nearly twenty-five per cent of the income and control forty per cent of the wealth. “The ninety-nine per cent,” then, is everybody else. It was a great slogan, because it linked the people in the parks to the people watching at home, suggesting a kind of class struggle that even class-averse Americans could support.
What’s striking about this formulation, though, is what’s missing: any explicit reference to the one per cent. It was a self-reflexive slogan for a self-reflexive movement, one that came to be known more for its internal politics than for its critique of the outside world. Perhaps no one could say exactly what the Zuccotti Park occupation wanted, but lots of people knew how it worked. There was “the people’s mic,” an ingenious system of public address: short speeches were delivered one phrase at a time, with each phrase repeated, in unison, by whoever happened to be standing nearby. And there was a small lexicon of hand signals, which Occupiers could use to respond with approval, or disapproval, or extreme disapproval—the crossed-fists “block,” which could bring any discussion to a halt.
In “We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation” (AK Press), a deftly edited anthology, a wide range of Occupiers and sympathizers look back on those days in 2011. One New York participant recalls the nerve-racking moment when she helped block the adoption of an official declaration, because she felt that the language downplayed the importance of race, gender, and other kinds of identity. Marisa Holmes, a New York activist, describes how the occupation’s horizontal structure—composed of semi-autonomous working groups, free-form discussions, and a spokescouncil—worked, for a time, and then disintegrated. Graeber describes the encampments as “a defiant experiment in libertarian communism,” but the subtext of “We Are Many” is that this experiment was more inspiring as an ideal: the most enthusiastic essays tend to come from people, like Graeber, who spent little or no time actually living in the parks.
Is it fair to describe the Occupy movement as anarchist? In “We Are Many,” Cindy Milstein, a longtime activist, stipulates that radicals in Zuccotti Park were outnumbered by liberals, including those she deprecates as “militant liberals.” But she argues that, even if the Occupiers weren’t all anarchists, they were nevertheless “doing anarchism.” In Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, “doing anarchism” often meant struggling not against bankers, directly, but against local government and local police. (In New York, one galvanizing figure was Anthony Bologna, a senior police officer who was disciplined after video surfaced showing him squirting protesters with pepper spray.) Perhaps this was a smart strategy: instead of arguing about economics and ideology, the Occupiers could affirm, instead, their unanimous commitment to freedom of assembly. Occupy may have begun with a grievance against Wall Street, but the process of occupation transformed the movement into a meta-movement, peopled by activists demanding the right to demand their rights.
Karl Marx agreed with the anarchists of his day that the state should be destroyed. But he disagreed about when. He was convinced that the state would become obsolete only after the working class had taken it over, thereby destroying the class system. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French philosopher who popularized the term “anarchist,” thought that the idea of a revolutionary government was a contradiction in terms. “Governments are God’s scourge, established to discipline the world,” he wrote. “Do you really expect them to destroy themselves, to create freedom, to make revolution?” Mikhail Bakunin, the prickly Russian agitator, sneered at Marx’s idea of a workers’ state. “As soon as they become rulers or representatives of the people,” he wrote, they “will cease to be workers and will begin to look upon the whole workers’ world from the heights of the state.” In 1872, at a meeting in The Hague, Marx helped to expel Bakunin from the International Workingmen’s Association, formalizing a division that seemed no less stark, nearly a century and a half later, when the horizontals broke from the verticals on an August afternoon in Bowling Green.
In delivering his brief for anarchism, Graeber asks readers to take into account the movement’s history of good behavior. “For nearly a century now,” he writes, “anarchism has been one of the very few political philosophies whose exponents never blow anyone up.” This is a sly way of acknowledging that, a hundred years ago, anarchists had a rather different reputation. On May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Square, in Chicago, police tried to halt a demonstration by striking workers, and someone in the crowd threw a bomb, which killed at least ten people, including seven police officers. Chicago had become a hub of anarchist politics, and although the bomber was never identified, eight anarchists were convicted of being accessories to murder. In Europe, anarchists carried out a series of spectacular attacks, including the assassinations of one President (French), two kings (Italian and Greek), and three Prime Ministers (Spanish, Russian, and Spanish again). In the U.S., anarchism’s reputation was sealed for a generation by Leon Czolgosz, who killed President William McKinley, in 1901; he had evidently been inspired by Emma Goldman, the prominent anarchist rabble-rouser.
Over the years, though, anarchists’ ferocious reputation has mellowed. The Occupy movement borrowed some of its organizing tactics from the egalitarian groups that formed, in the nineteen-seventies, to try to stop the construction of nuclear power plants. And the rise of punk helped give anarchism a new image: “Anarchy in the U.K.,” by the Sex Pistols, was an ambiguous provocation; other bands, like Crass, used “anarchy” to signal their commitment to a bundle of emancipatory causes, and their independence from the socialist organizations that dominated the British left. The connection to punk lent anarchism a countercultural credibility, and in 1999, when tens of thousands of activists materialized in Seattle, intent on shutting down a World Trade Organization conference, raucous young anarchists were out in front; at one point, they smashed the window of a Starbucks. The smashed window became an icon of resistance, and the chaos in the streets of Seattle galvanized a mobilization, known as the Global Justice movement.
Twelve years later, not all of Occupy’s supporters were happy to see anarchists playing a starring role. In a contentious essay titled, “The Cancer in Occupy,” Chris Hedges called for a clean break. Hedges is a former Times reporter turned socialist author and activist, and he published his essay on the progressive Web site Truthdig, a few months after the Zuccotti eviction. His main target was the “black bloc” phenomenon, in which activists—often anarchists—dress in black clothes, with black handkerchiefs obscuring their faces, the better to cause mischief anonymously. Hedges accused black blocs of a “lust” for destruction, which he described as a sickness. “Once the Occupy movement is painted as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob we are finished,” he wrote.
In a deeply indignant response to Hedges, Graeber pointed out that black-bloc actions had been rare in the Occupy movement. Much of Hedges’s concern seemed to arise from a single incident in Oakland, when a black bloc smashed bank windows and vandalized a Whole Foods. Like many anarchists, Graeber doesn’t think property damage is violence. And he believes that so-called “mobs” have their uses—in 2001, in Quebec City, he was part of a black bloc that succeeded in toppling a chain-link fence meant to separate activists from the free-trade meeting they wanted to disrupt. He supports “diversity of tactics,” an approach that urges different kinds of activists to stay physically separate (so as not to endanger each other) but politically united. Above all, Graeber rejects what he calls “the peace police”: activists who try to control other activists’ behavior, sometimes in collaboration with the real police. His tolerance for confrontational protest stems in part from his disinclination to empower anyone to stop it.
Graeber is more worried about the charge that modern anarchists are feckless, so he is keen to give anarchists credit for changing the world. He claims that the Global Justice movement weakened the W.T.O. and scuttled the Free Trade Area of the Americas pact, which was the topic of those discussions in Quebec City. And he credits the Occupy movement with preventing Mitt Romney from becoming President. (He underestimates Romney’s own, invaluable contributions to this cause.) Graeber is pleased, too, to underscore the links between Occupy and other popular movements around the world, from the Egyptian uprising to the ongoing demonstrations of the Indignados, in Spain. He sees a global “insurrectionary wave,” united less by a shared ideology than by a shared opposition to an increasingly global social arrangement.
The rehabilitation of anarchism in America has a lot to do with the fall of the Soviet Union, which lives on in popular memory as a quaint and brutal place—an embarrassing precursor that modern, pro-democracy socialists must find ways to disavow. Graeber sees “authoritarian socialists” not as distant relatives but as longtime enemies; channelling Bakunin, he claims that the Marxist intention to smash the state by seizing it first is a “pipe dream.” For anarchists, the major historical precursors are so fleeting as to be nearly nonexistent: the Paris Commune lasted scarcely two months, in 1871; anarchists dominated Catalonia for about a year, after the Spanish revolution in 1936. The appeal of anarchism is largely negative: a promise that a different world needn’t resemble any of the ones that have been tried before.
In a new book, “Two Cheers for Anarchism” (Princeton), James C. Scott, a highly regarded professor of anthropology and political science at Yale (and, Graeber says, “one of the great political thinkers of our time”), commends anarchism precisely for its “tolerance for confusion and improvisation.” Graeber did his anthropological field work in the highlands of Madagascar, and Scott did his in Southeast Asia, but their conclusions were similar. Both of them encountered communities that lived more or less autonomously, finding ways to resist or ignore whatever governments claimed jurisdiction over them. And both are eager to expand the history of lived anarchism beyond Paris and Catalonia; it is, they argue, broader and more common than we’ve been taught.
“Two Cheers for Anarchism” conducts a brief and digressive seminar in political philosophy, starting from the perspective of a disillusioned leftist. “Virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew,” Scott writes. Traditionally, this has been an argument against revolutions, but Scott wonders whether it might be an argument against states. He stops short of calling for the abolition of government, which explains the missing cheer. Instead, he highlights everyday acts of petty resistance: “foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight.” Most of all, he urges citizens to be wary of their governments, which is good advice, but rather deflating—Scott can make anarchism sound like little more than a colorful word for critical thinking.
Graeber shares Scott’s mistrust of grand prescriptions, but he thinks that he has found an alternative: prefigurative politics, which holds that political movements resemble the worlds they seek to create. Instead of planning a new society, revolutionaries must form a new society, and then grow. A hierarchical vanguard party will never create broad equality, just as, he says, “grim joyless revolutionaries” can’t be trusted to increase human happiness. From this perspective, all those seemingly insular procedural debates in Zuccotti Park weren’t insular at all: how the movement worked would determine what it wanted. What Graeber wants is a kind of decentralized socialism, with decisions made by a patchwork of local assemblies and coöperatives—at one point, he imagines “something vaguely like jury duty, except non-compulsory.” He argues that serious economic inequality wouldn’t endure without a state to enforce it. “We are already anarchists, or at least we act like anarchists, every time we come to understandings with one another that would not require physical threats as a means of enforcement,” he writes. “It’s a question of building on what we are already doing, expanding the zones of freedom, until freedom becomes the ultimate organizing principle.”
Graeber is comfortable—perhaps too comfortable—with uncertainty. “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse,” he writes, which seems an odd admission for a deeply committed unfetterer. (If we don’t know much about this “free” world, how do we know it won’t be, in some ways, just as coercive?) Graeber talks about the way a new society would expand people’s options, but he has acknowledged that a truly anarchist revolution would mean less production, and less consumption. Humankind would be rid of “all the useless or destructive occupations like telemarketers, lawyers, prison guards, financial analysts, public relations experts, bureaucrats and politicians.” (Anthropology professors would appear to be safe.) Although Graeber likes to distance himself from his grim and joyless rivals, there is a trace of asceticism in his vision. Part of Graeber’s motivation for wandering down to Bowling Green, back in 2011, was his opposition to what he calls “draconian austerity budgets” proposed by Mayor Bloomberg. Graeber wants to demonize modern debt without demonizing debtors. Yet the language of economic “austerity” finds a striking analogue in his vision of a post-debt society composed of people who have learned, at long last, to live within their means.
Graeber believes that the Occupy movement wouldn’t have attracted as much attention if it hadn’t been for the Tea Party movement, a few years earlier. Reporters sensed a parallel, and they wanted, he says, to make “a minimal gesture in the way of balance.” He notes that the reporters moved on around the time it became clear that the Occupy movement, unlike the Tea Party movement, was not going to become a force in electoral politics. In fact, there is one anarchist who could be considered influential in Washington, but he wasn’t among the activists who participated in the Occupy movement—he died nearly twenty years ago. His name is Murray Rothbard, and, among small-government Republicans, he is something of a cult hero. He was Ron Paul’s intellectual mentor, which makes him the godfather of the godfather of the Tea Party. Justin Amash, a young Republican congressman from Michigan and a rising star in the Party, hangs a framed portrait of him on his office wall.
Rothbard was an anarchist, but also a capitalist. “True anarchism will be capitalism, and true capitalism will be anarchism,” he once said, and he sometimes referred to himself by means of a seven-syllable honorific: “anarcho-capitalist.” Graeber thinks that governments treat their citizens “like children,” and that, when governments disappear, people will behave differently. Anarcho-capitalists, on the contrary, believe that, without government, people will behave more or less the same: we will be just as creative or greedy or competent as we are now, only freer. Instead of imagining a world without drastic inequality, anarcho-capitalists imagine a world where people and their property are secured by private defense agencies, which are paid to keep the peace. Graeber doesn’t consider anarcho-capitalists to be true anarchists; no doubt the feeling is mutual.
The split personality of anarchism demonstrates the slippery nature of anti-government arguments, which can bring together a wide range of people who are deeply dissatisfied with the government we’ve got. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the government bailouts and loans that followed, capitalists and anticapitalists were often united in their disapproval, and, when Graeber criticizes “collusion between government and financial institutions,” he is speaking the shared language of the Tea Party and the Occupy movements. During those days in 2011, one of the politicians who expressed support for the Occupy movement was Buddy Roemer, a Republican and a former governor of Louisiana, who was waging a long-shot campaign to win his party’s Presidential nomination. “I think the Tea Party is onto something: special favors for special friends,” he said, after visiting the Washington encampment. “Hell, that’s what Occupy Washington, D.C., is saying—they’re saying the same thing.”
Despite a few attempts at outreach, Occupy and the Tea Party never found much common ground. It’s not easy for a protest movement to shrug off the logic of partisanship: the Tea Party was essentially a Republican movement, and, if the Occupiers held low opinions of the Democratic Party, it was always clear that they disdained Republicans much more. Even Graeber, for all his radicalism, still sees himself as an ally, however disaffected, of liberal Democrats in their fight against the conservative agenda. In a recent online exchange, he wrote about his frustration with the political establishment. “What reformers have to understand is that they’re never going to get anywhere without radicals and revolutionaries to betray,” he wrote, and went on:
I’ve never understood why “progressives” don’t understand this. The mainstream right understands it, that’s why they go crazy when it looks like someone might be cracking down on far-right militia groups, and so forth. They know it’s totally to their political advantage to have people even further to the right than they so they can seem moderate. If only the mainstream left acted the same way!
Despite his implacable opposition to state power, Graeber often finds himself defending the sorts of government program that liberals typically support, such as socialized medicine. There is a distinction, he argues, between state institutions based on coercion, like prisons or border control, and those which could (in a post-capitalist future) be run as voluntary collectives, like health care. Still, he is self-aware enough to be amused by all the ways in which anarchists find themselves fighting, in the short term, for causes that would seem to increase the role of government. Early in “The Democracy Project,” he describes being at a demonstration in London that protested government budget cuts and corporate tax breaks. He remembers thinking, “It feels a bit unsettling watching a bunch of anarchists in masks outside Topshop, lobbing paint bombs over a line of riot cops, shouting, ‘Pay your taxes!’ ” Then he admits that he was one of the paint bombers.
At times, Graeber can sound like one of the orthodox Marxists he lampoons, eager to see the state wither away—just not quite yet. It’s a common paradox. For years, American politicians have been promising to bring the country a smaller, more streamlined state; President Obama was obliged to present his health-care reforms as an opportunity to reduce, not increase, the federal budget. As the government expands, the calls to shrink it grow louder; even many radicals, these days, decline to be counted as proponents of big government. In a more fragile state, like Greece or Spain, anarchism often adopts an apocalyptic tone: to be an anarchist is to accept, or even to welcome, the cataclysm that all the politicians fear. But in America anarchism’s appeal surely has something to do with the seeming durability of our current arrangement, and the inexorable growth of the government that maintains it. Such is the power of a sprawling and sophisticated state: the bigger it gets, the easier it becomes for us to imagine that we could live without it. ♦