current affairs

Review: David Graeber’s The Democracy Project

Most people tend to believe that the Occupy Movement failed miserably due to a complete lack of vision.

Most people tend to believe that the Occupy Movement failed miserably due to a complete lack of vision. They were great in explaining what was wrong with the world, but offered no workable solutions to overcome these problems. David Graeber, a teacher of anthropology at the University of London’s Goldsmith College and one of the key figures of the Occupy Movement, tries to debunk this persistent notion in his new book The Democracy Project.

The book gives a first-hand account of how Occupy Wall Street got started and sets out a dubious history of the concept of ‘democracy,’ but above all it is to be read as a political manifesto. In it, Graeber argues that in order to achieve a truly democratic society, we need to get rid of all forms of money and attain a completely horizontal process of consensus. In other words: pure anarchism.

Pure anarchism

Obviously, this radical plan can be quite a mind-boggling idea for most of us. As it often goes with the introduction of new paradigms, it proves to be hard for many people even simply to perceive it. Even the acclaimed critic John Kampfner fails to acknowledge Graeber’s proposition as a credible economic and political alternative’, and falls back on the platitude of calling Graeber ‘adept at explaining the problems, but not the solutions’ in his review of The Democracy Project for The Guardian.

Like all world-changing ideas, from Galileo’s astronomical insight to Einstein’s relativity theory, Graeber’s concept of horizontal democracy seems to be bound for a lot of ridicule before it will ever be considered as an actual possibility.


Although at first glance it might seem the Occupy Movement slowly died out over time, Graeber beliefs it has been a huge success, and still is, because it has set in motion a revolutionary mood among the Western people. By now we all recognize that our current political systems are only responsive to the wealthy ‘one per cent,’ and for Graeber this realisation is only the first step in a series of changes that are bound to take place over a much longer period.

In order to reach a better understanding of this horizontal concept of democracy Graeber is talking about, we only have to look at the organizational structure of Occupy Wall Street itself. In Graeber’s eyes, the march planners, organizers, speeches or even the use of megaphones were regarded as just as much of a threat to the movement as the actual police force trying to stop it. For him, democracy can only exist when there is no trace of ‘vertical’ power, so no leaders, not even parties and no demands. All decisions should be based on consensus.

The consensus process isn’t just a unanimous voting system, but it enables everyone to weigh in equally on a decision and it prevents anyone having to live with a decision they detest. When someone ‘blocks’ a decision on reasonable grounds, this sets in motion a new process of creative synthesis in which a new compromise has to be reached. That way, people always have to come up with something that everybody thinks is okay.

Some may like it more than others, but nobody has to hate it.

Extremely stupid mistake

Interestingly, on the day that the Occupy movement moved into Zucotti Park with around two thousand people, Graeber describes how they stumbled upon some trouble during one of the first horizontal brainstorming sessions. The decision of forming one big circle turned out to be ‘an extremely stupid mistake’:

‘There is actually no way that a team of facilitators standing in the middle of a circle of people that large, even if shouting at the top of their lungs, could possibly make themselves heard to more than half the assembled multitude at once. The proper thing to do would have been to form a semicircle, and then make aisles, so that speakers could walk to the front and address the assembly.’

Although this might at first seem like an insignificant incident, it could also be seen as the reflection of the actual limits of this kind of horizontal democracy. The larger the group, the more difficult it seems to become to distribute the power horizontally. So while this completely decentralised democratic system seems to work just fine for small groups or even small communities, it’s hard to imagine how, and if, it might actually be effective on a bigger, especially global, scale.

Workable solution

While Graeber is aware of this problematic area in his democratic system, he annoyingly avoids talking about it. Yet, in essence, this point of critique isn’t really able to harm his system at all. When you look at it from within the frames of his theory, the problem of scale could be brought up as just another of these objections or so-called ‘blocks’ in the relevant decision-making, and horizontally there can be sought for a workable solution.

It remains very hard to embrace Graeber’s democracy project, but it’s important we don’t dispose of weird ideas just because we think them too bold or exotic. With its revolutionary view on politics, The Democracy Project might one day turn out to be one of the most ground-breaking books in history, and even if it doesn’t, Graeber’s unique ideas are well worth taking seriously.

What do you think? Do you agree? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Photo: David Shankbone