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

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.



Review: Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women

Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women by Silvia Federici, reviewed by Jessica White

A master-work of graphic satire

American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes

Review: No Is Not Enough

Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein


Marx’s Capital at 150: an invitation to history

Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong

Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards