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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.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Daryl Lang


In The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), David Graeber’s engaging new book on Occupy Wall Street, the author writes of the dismal culture in Washington during the summer of 2011, a few months before the occupation of Zucotti Park:

Republicans were threatening to cause the US government to default in order to force massive cuts in social services intended to head off a largely imaginary debt crisis…President Obama, in turn, had decided the way to appear reasonable in comparison and thus seem as his advisors liked to put it ‘the only adult in the room’ was not to point out that the entire debate was founded on false economic premises, but to prepare a milder, ‘compromise’ version of the exact same program--as if the best way to expose a lunatic is to pretend that 50 percent of his delusions are actually true...This is how a ragtag group of anarchists, hippies, unemployed college students, pagan tree sitters, and peace activists suddenly managed to establish themselves, by default, as America’s adults in the first place.

Although OWS publicly had “no leaders,” it was obvious in those heady days that a few individuals held enormous sway on the anarchist presence in the movement. One name that invariably came up was David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the University of London (and formerly at Yale). He is one of several people who are credited with originating the phrase We Are the 99%, and he describes himself as an “anarchist with a small ‘a.’”

Graeber has a long affiliation with the Global Justice Movement and fondly recalls time he spent in Exarchia, a neighborhood in Athens “full of squatted social centers, occupied parks, and anarchist cafés where we’d spent a long night downing glasses of ouzo at street corner cafés while arguing about the radical implications of Plato’s theory of agape, or universal love.” But he has no trouble articulating the rationale for much of OWS: “Our government has become little more than a system of institutionalized bribery where you can be hauled off to jail just for saying so.”

Notwithstanding Graeber’s eloquence and moral clarity in describing the “mafia capitalism” of bankers and other oligarchs and the political system that further empowers them, he spends a lot of the book differentiating his brand of anarchism from other political tendencies on the left who share many of the same enemies. He rejects old-school communist and socialist radical groups, which he refers to as “verticles” to contrast their authoritarian hierarchies with the “horizontal” culture of anarchism. Above all, he wants to distinguish Occupy Wall Street from liberals. Graeber writes snarkily, “Liberals tend to be touchy and unpredictable because they claim to share the ideals of radical movements—democracy, egalitarianism, freedom—but they’ve also managed to convince themselves that these ideals are ultimately unattainable. For that reason, they see anyone determined to bring about a world based on those principles as a kind of moral threat.”

It is not at all clear whom Graeber is stigmatizing since he uses the word “liberal” (or interchangeably, to Graeber, “progressive”) to describe both the Obama administration and some of its critics on the left. Over the course of The Democracy Project he singles out leaders of the groups Moveon.org and Rebuild The Dream and readers of DailyKos, but it seems as if he views any person or group not committed to anarchist “horizontal” process as inherently suspect, or to use the ultimate anarchist insult, “reformist.”

Graeber writes “For ‘small a’ anarchists such as myself–that is, the sort willing to work in broad coalitions as long as they work on horizontal principals—this is what we’d always dreamed of.” Of course, to limit coalitions to partners who work on “horizontal principals” guarantees that they will not be very “broad” at all.

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