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'A Kaleidoscopic Sense of Possibility': Interview with David Graeber on Democracy in America

One of our most intriguing public intellectuals discusses his new book.

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The one thing that really impressed me about Occupy was how so many of those who got involved, or even more of those who supported it from afar, were in the caring and helping professions. Which is not a huge percentage of our workforce: teachers, social service providers, medical workers... And that's what they were saying too "if you want to do a job where you do good in the world, where you take care of others, they'll put you in so much debt you won't even be able to take care of your own family." We need to start from that and think about what work is and why people do it, what an economy is even for, and the fact that a society that punishes people for trying to be decent human beings is profoundly inhuman.

LP: You favor consensus democracy with collective deliberation and equal participation. How can that operate at a large scale? What's wrong with majority voting with rights?

DG: Majority voting tends to encourage maximizing the differences between people, rather than encouraging compromise, creative synthesis, seeking common ground, which is what consensus is designed to do. Majority voting also invariably needs some sort of coercive mechanisms of enforcement. Don't get me wrong, nobody's talking about absolute consensus, like they used to do, where just one person can block everything and there's nothing you can do about it. Consensus is just a way to change proposals around until you get something the maximum number agree on, rather than our system, say, where practically 48-49 percent of voters each time always ends up crushed and defeated. And yes, when you get up to a larger scale, you can't just rely on assemblies or spokescouncils. It does make sense to decentralize as much as possible. Consensus only works if you don't have to ask for it unless you really have to. But as for scaling up: there are any number of possibilities.

One I've been studying up on of late is sortition. Through much of Western history, it never occurred to anyone that elections had anything to do with democracy -- they were considered aristocratic. The democratic way of choosing officials, if you had to do it, was lottery. Give people basic tests for sanity and competence and then let anyone who wants to throw in their name have an equal shot. I mean, how can we do much worse than a lot of the people we have now? Sortition would be more like jury duty, except non-compulsory. But there are all sorts of other possibilities.

LP: Is democracy possible in America? If so, what might it look like?

DG: It's possible anywhere. But it would take enormous changes in our economic and political assumptions. Myself, I'm less interested in mapping out a constitution for a truly democratic society than creating the institutions by which people can collectively decide for themselves what it might look like. The one resource in the world that's absolutely not scarce at all is smart, creative, people with ideas we'd never have thought of. Solutions are out there. The problem is 99 percent of those people spend most of their lives being told to shut up.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.