David Graeber on the anarchist movement

Progressives seem to be confronted with some real conundrums (or is it conundra?), here in the early part of the 21st century. We want to see a world that is genuinely committed to some basic principles of social justice, equality, and personal freedom. And we generally acknowledge the point that the modern world can only function on the basis of social, political, and economic structures that have a degree of authority over individual conduct. These two framing ideas are in tension, once we recognize the permanent likelihood of “institutional capture” of social structures by privileged individuals and groups. Capture may result from the access a privileged party has to the sources of wealth and power (the CCP in China) or the astronomically disproportional influence that corporations and private interests have in the legislative and regulatory process (lobbyists in France, the UK, and the US). So is it possible to create a society in which organizing structures exist, but that are genuinely governed by the constraints of justice,equality, and democracy? Can democratic institutions be established and defended that genuinely embody the interests and dignity of poor and working people? In a word, is social democracy actually a feasible outcome in the conditions of the 21st century?

There is a strand of radical thought that answers these questions in the negative.  The “autonomist” theories and practices within the labor movement of the 1950s that were described in an earlier post represent one thread in this world. Another is the body of thinking, rhetoric, and action that is involved in the anarchist organizations associated with current anti-globalization activism.  David Graeber has done an important service to the rest of us by offering an extended ethnography of this loosely connected movement in Direct Action. The book is the first I’ve seen to offer a nuanced description of the thinking, practices, and networks that have emerged within this movement over the past fifteen years or so. Unlike much of the journalism that this movement has produced, it resists both caricature and polemic. Graeber is a participant within the movement as well as an observer, and his voice helps to make sense of the thinking and actions that have surfaced in Seattle, Washington, Quebec, Madrid, and London in the past 15 years. And it certainly helps to put voices and faces into the OWS movement. Graeber is, by the way, an unusually appealing writer, so the book is a very engaging read.  (It is also very long — 538 pages of text.)

The first half of the book provides a detailed chronological ethnography of the preparations that several Direct Action groups made to engage in demonstration and resistance at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April, 2001. Graeber gives a textured understanding of the personalities and debates that unfolded. (Here is an activist-produced video of the protests;link.)  As his description makes clear, this was a transnational network from the start, with alliances and affinities extending from Chiapas to Italy to Spain to Switzerland to the Mohawk Nation spanning the US and Canada border.

The second part of the book is a more analytical exposition of direct action and anarchism.  He offers a clear description of what these activists mean by “direct action” (chapter 5), and attempts to capture something of the culture of anarchist activism (chapter 6). Here is an interesting observation about the social composition of anarchist networks in the US, which may also shed some light on OWS:

Speaking broadly, it seems to me activist milieu can best be seen as a juncture, a kind of meeting place, between downwardly mobile elements of the professional classes and upwardly mobile children of the working class. (252)

The groups that Graeber describes include various Direct Action Networks (DAN), including the one based in New York in which he was involved, NYC DAN. Another is Ya Basta!, also anarchist but with a decided taste for performance.  These groups conduct their discussions, planning, and decision-making according to egalitarian, consensual practices: no leaders, no executive committees, no authority. These practices are described in the principles endorsed by one of the oldest Direct Action groups, the Peoples’ Global Action (PGA) (link). Here is how Graeber describes the principles of consensus:

DAN employed a formal consensus process with rotating facilitators, an elaborate system of “stacking” designed to ensure no small group of voices dominated the conversation. Smokey and Flamma hated DAN. Like a number of other anarchists in New York—I’ll call them the “hardcores,” for lack of a better name, the sort that were likely to have more experience in Black Blocs, tree sits, or the squatter scene, or anyway used to working in small, intimate collectives—they saw DAN’s formal structure as itself stifling and oppressive. (20)

But the ideal of consensus doesn’t imply inability to act as a group. In fact, Graeber describes an extended process of brainstorming, planning, and decision-making leading up to coordination with the Mohawk Warrior Society, Ya Basta!, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), and other sympathetic groups, and execution of complex actions in Quebec. (Graeber and other DAN participants seem to find the socialist ISO activists particularly annoying because of their apparent opportunism and vanguardism; and yet their egalitarian principles make it impossible for them to exclude them.)

The detailed notes about the tactics and actions in Quebec once the demonstrations began read like an urban combat novel: anarchist groups approaching the fence surrounding the core Summit area, police firing tear gas and water cannons, many injuries and arrests, molotov cocktails from a variety of Blocs against water cannon.  Graeber’s narrative gives a vivid depiction of what must have been similar actions and tactics in Strasbourg, London, and Seattle, with activists learning new tactics (and equipment) from one siege to another.  (The horrendous video and photos from UC-Davis of police methodically pepper-spraying seated demonstrators give another current exposure to the potential for police violence in circumstances of protest and resistance.)

I find some interesting affinities between the movements and ideas that Graeber describes and the views of economic development advocated by Arturo Escobar in Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Escobar articulates much of the radical critique of globalization and its effects on poor people that lies at the core of the worldview expressed by the anarchist movement Graeber describes.  Escobar’s position is strongly anti-neoliberal, taking issue with foundational development ideas about growth and the general beneficence of markets. He too favors a view of the future in which people exercise continuing control over the processes that affect them. And he too likes a future built around fairly autonomous communities, cooperatives, and non-market institutions.

Also resonant are new ideas about deliberative and participatory democracy being developed by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright under the rubric of “empowered deliberative democracy”– for example, in Deepening Democracy. Here is a representative statement of their view of the challenge facing existing democracies:

As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century—representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration—seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century. “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and impleenting public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions of the democratic ideal, ensuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth. (3)

There are quite a few political values and perceptions embodied in the Direct Action movement that many progressive people can relate to. It isn’t surprising that OWS has caught the attention of many young people. But are the mini-movements of activists that Graeber describes really a potential solution to the conundrum mentioned above? Can we get to a more just world through this kind of activism? Seattle and Quebec can claim some successes in achieving negative goals — discrediting the IMF, challenging the World Bank, exposing a latent violence in democratic societies through excessive police force and brutality. And perhaps OWS will be successful in pushing back against over-greedy financial institutions.  This kind of effect can plausibly come about through spontaneous popular protest. And as Graeber makes clear, these large anarchist actions are organized and planned, even if they are collective and mass-based.

But this just delays the problem, because it doesn’t give a basis for creating institutions and structures that really work from the point of view of social justice and participatory democracy.  The kinds of activism Graeber describes might be compared to an “immune system” for the periodic disorders of imperfect democracy: activists and their organizations (lymphocytes) swarm around important causes of distress (infections, inflammation), provoking repair responses within the society. But the movement doesn’t contribute to the basic metabolism of society and politics. “Direct Action” isn’t really a prescription for organizing society in its routine work; the approval of food and drug safety, the plans that states make for energy production, the creation and maintenance of social safety nets. The voice of the people can demand these protections. But then we need institutions that actually do the work. And the funny suits of Ya Basta! and spokescouncils don’t fill the bill for this task.  In the end, I am more attracted to the kind of work begun by Fung and Wright, which is aimed at creating sustainable institutions of participatory democracy.


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