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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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But in his most unfair anti-liberal inference, Graeber claims, “It’s also fairly clear that when the camps were cleared…the liberal establishment, more generally made a strategic decision to look the other way. From the perspective of the radicals, this was the ultimate betrayal.” This is toxic and untrue accusation. It may be that many in OWS themselves made such a decision. Following the evictions, rather than focus on the right to protest, many occupiers concentrated on upcoming rallies like Martin Luther King’s birthday (J15 in OWS parlance) and May Day, with its ill conceived call for a “general strike,” and on campaigns like debt abolition and preventing home foreclosures. Meanwhile, several non-anarchist civil liberties lawyers worked tirelessly to represent those who were arrested and who had possessions destroyed by the police. In April, Norman Siegel, the former Executive Director of the NYCLU, won a settlement for OWS against New York City for over $300,000 for property destruction of occupiers during the eviction.

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Despite his anarchist provincialism, Graeber’s central thesis is very strong. With all respect to the Democratic party of Clinton and Obama for keeping the hounds of fascism at bay, far too often it seems like their message to America is “this is as good as it gets folks.” For progressives, as well as anarchists, this is simply not acceptable.

Graeber indulges in utopian rhetoric about “self-governing communities outside of any state” and “refusal to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions” and “complete reinvention of American democracy.” He uses the word “revolution” with no plausible explanation of what he actually means. In fact, many OWS anarchists have been involved in “reformist” efforts such as helping people hurt by hurricane Sandy and in efforts to reduce or abolish various kinds of debt. In the late ‘60s, John Lennon encountered similar absolutist rhetoric from self-styled revolutionaries and memorably sung “You say you got a real solution, well you know—we’d all love to see the plan…”

Graeber is no worse than most liberal thought leaders when it comes to insularity and hubris. He is right when he says that the liberal world in the early Obama years suffered from a “chilling” of the imagination and his very willingness to express ideas outside of the conventional progressive sphere, which he does repeatedly and engagingly in The Democracy Project will add important intellectual energy to both the anarchist and non-anarchists for years to come. Like OWS itself, Graeber is flawed and human and sometimes maddening, and like OWS he is also an important prophetic voice that the left ignores at its peril.

Danny Goldberg is president of Gold Village Entertainment and the author of "Bumping Into Geniuses" and "How The Left Lost Teen Spirit."

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