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The Democracy Project

The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement, by David Graeber, reviewed by Michelle Zellers

February 1, 2014
2 min read

Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.

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David Graeber calls himself a ‘small-a anarchist’, meaning one who’s willing to adjust his style in order to build coalitions with a range of the radically-minded. His undogmatic, accessible writing style is the best asset of The Democracy Project, a readable 300-pager reflecting on the Occupy Wall Street movement and asking what factors paved the way for mass protest in America.

Though inviting to many, the book is tailored to no one. It starts with creative memoir narrating the beginnings of the protest in Zuccotti Park; here the tone feels more suited to sympathetic onlookers than to activists. Later, Graeber unravels contradictions in American popular opinion and pokes holes in myths about the ‘founding fathers’. Sprinkled throughout are substantial bits of reflection that could benefit anyone trying to create more robust social movements. Yet long chapters with far-reaching titles such as ‘How Change Happens’ will prevent individual readers from sifting for specific morsels of interest.

For me, one of those morsels was the attention drawn to social care within the camps’ kitchens, library tents and anarchic relationships. We see how it sustained Occupiers, even in the face of riot police and shifting laws designed to criminalise anything they did. Graeber remarks that ‘it’s impossible for activists to really know what the other side is thinking’. Despite that challenge, he describes with impressive insight the push and pull between reclaimed spaces, where community flourished, and the state’s impulse to repress, evict, destroy.

The Democracy Project devotes less attention to unpacking the dazzling array of ideas and experience within ‘the 99 per cent’. The book is best seen as Graeber’s own take on Occupy in the context of his broader political philosophy. New York-focused, it doesn’t tell the tale of rural Occupy groups fighting staunch conservatism in the ‘red states’, or the Christmas-time wave of direct action that briefly halted shipping at west coast ports.

I suspect no single voice could provide an adequate overview; a media blackout has served to keep many worthy stories off record, so that it’s up to the people involved to tell them. By highlighting Occupy’s significance to ongoing social change, Graeber’s book will hopefully invite further narratives to surface from below.

Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.

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