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Anarchists Vs. Liberals: What's That About?

David Graeber’s account of Occupy Wall Street is essential—and somewhat maddening in its insistence on heightening the differences between anarchists and liberals.

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Then there is the “no leaders” concept, which is not without its virtues. Without designated leaders, there are no individuals who can be targeted for arrest, smear campaigns or even assassination. The lack of leaders also forestalls the creation of overnight movement celebrities who, corrupted by publicity and power, may develop agendas at odds with the people they are supposed to represent. But an absence of leaders also causes an opacity that is confusing and needlessly off-putting to those outside of the in-group. If no one has any authority, then no one has any responsibility. As Jo Freeman’s feminist essay “ The Tyranny of Structurelessness” pointed out long ago, a lack of structure can disguise cliques or individuals who have de facto control without any accountability.

Graeber anticipates these critiques, and he describes various ways to ameliorate the flaws and excesses of consensus decision making for larger social groups such as “lottery systems...something vaguely like jury duty except non-compulsory, with some way of screening obsessives, cranks, and hollow earthers, but nonetheless allowing an equal chance of participation in great decisions to all who actually do wish to participate.” That sounds nice, but it’s far easier said than done. Graeber declares “it’s hard to imagine” that the abuses of such a system “could actually be worse than the mode of selection we use now.” One would think that anyone who’d studied even a little history would have little trouble imagining societies much worse.

And Graeber doesn’t address the many areas of organized life in which expertise is indispensable. A series of public events in New York—including on Veterans Day 2011, Martin Luther King Day 2012 and a much hyped May Day 2012—squandered the enormous hopes that had been raised for a new vision and made depressingly minor impact in large part because unwieldy committees bound by horizontal process made decisions that failed to inspire anyone other than those who felt therapeutic reward from the process.

Graeber is not clear about what happens when anarchists “with a small a” don’t like a decision made by a larger group of people via the consensus process. OWS at the outset announced it had “no demands.” For a few weeks this created an interesting space in which diverse voices could protest, but it also made it difficult to collaborate with sympathetic non-anarchist groups. While some in OWS were content with the horizontal process as both a means and an end, and some felt that anything other than a complete change in the political structure was counter-productive, many others felt an impetus to be a force for tangible democratization within the current system. Thus, on Jan 5, 2012,very soon after the eviction from Zucotti Park, the New York General Assembly, using the horizontal process, reached a consensus that “money is not speech, that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights…”

It was the closest thing to an issue specific demand that OWS produced and could have been a big deal if the movement had decided to work on a mutually respectful basis with reformist wonks advocating for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Yet Graber doesn’t even mention it. Only a small fragment of OWS participated in “money out” groups, and most anarchists chose not to focus on the issue, which was apparently deemed too reformist by the cognoscenti.

Graeber is absolutely correct in his outrage at the state’s overreaction to OWS, including evicting encampments that posed no threat to public safety and the arrests and beatings of non-violent protesters. This repression represented a real erosion of American democracy and the policies that produced it should not be allowed to stand.

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