David Graeber is widely considered to be the greatest anthropologist of his generation. Yesterday, his 12th and final book — The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity — was released to widespread acclaim.
In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber, who died last year at the age of 59, and his co-author David Wengrow, an archaeologist, set out to rewrite human history, especially pre-history — that long epoch spanning tens of thousands of years of human activity before writing developed. The authors’ goal is to overturn the traditional, pessimistic narrative about humanity’s inevitable descent from free, unencumbered bands of hunter-gatherers to the hapless subjects of the modern world they accidentally created starting with the agricultural revolution, the rise of city states, kings, armies, priestly religions, etc. The two Davids seek instead to present a more nuanced view of that pre-history and the possibilities it suggests for how we can make and remake our shared collective reality.
Twenty years ago, Graeber, a proud anarchist and a native New Yorker, was drawn to the same alter-globalization movement that inspired the birth of The Indypendent. On sabbatical from his junior faculty position at Yale, Graeber both observed and participated in the NYC Direct Action Network. He was also an occasional contributor to this publication and a frequent visitor to our chaotic Midtown office loft where his presence was registered by the sound of him laughing at his own quirky jokes.
The article below appeared in the February 2002 Indypendent which hit the streets a week before mass protests against a World Economic Forum meeting being held in New York City. In this piece, Graeber brings an anthropologist’s eye to a movement that in many ways was the precursor to Occupy Wall Street, which he would go on to play a key role in organizing.
The same passionate belief in people’s ability to collectively remake their social reality that informs The Dawn of Everything shines through here as well.
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Reclaiming The World: Anti-corporate globalization activists are just causing a ruckus, they are redefining what democracy means
by David Graeber, 2002
A great deal of nonsense has been written about the so-called anti-globalization movement — particularly the more radical, direct action end of it — and very little has been written by anyone who has spent any time in it. As the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu recently noted, the neglect of the movement by North American academics is nothing short of scandalous. Academics who for years have published essays that sound like position papers for large social movements seem seized with confusion or worse, high-minded contempt, now that real ones are everywhere emerging.
The phase “anti-globalization” movement was coined by the corporate media, and people inside the movement, especially in the non-NGO, direct action camp, have never felt comfortable with it. Essentially, this is a movement against neoliberalism, and for creating new forms of global democracy. Unfortunately, that statement is almost meaningless in the United States, since the media insists on framing such issues only in propagandistic terms (“free trade,” “free market”) and the term neo-liberalism is not in general use. As a result, in meetings one often hears people using the expressions “globalization movement” and “anti-globalization movement” interchangeably.
Globalization from Below
In fact, if one takes globalization to mean the effacement of borders and the free movement of people, possessions and ideas, then it’s pretty clear that not only is the movement a product of globalization, but that most of the groups involved in it — particularly the most radical ones — are in fact far more supportive of globalization than supporters of the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization.
Internationalism is also reflected in the movement’s demands. Here one need only look at the three great planks of the platform of the Italian group Ya Basta! (appropriated, without acknowledgement, by Michael Hardt and Tony Negri in their book Empire): a universally guaranteed “basic income,” a principle of global citizenship that would guarantee the free movement of people across borders, and a principle of free access to new technology — which in principle would mean extreme limits on patent rights (themselves an insidious form of protectionism). More and more, protesters have been trying to draw attention to the fact that the neo-liberal vision of “globalization” is pretty much limited to the free flow of commodities, and actually increases barriers against the flow of people, information and ideas. As activists often point out, the size of the U.S. border guard has in fact almost tripled since the signing of NAFTA. That is not really surprising, since if it were not possible to effectively imprison the majority of the people in the world in impoverished enclaves where even existing social guarantees could gradually be removed, there would be no incentive for companies like Nike and Gap to move production there to begin with. The protests in Genoa, for example, were kicked off by a 50,000-strong march calling for free immigration in and out of Europe — a fact that went completely unreported by the international press, which the next day headlined claims by George Bush and Tony Blair that protesters were calling for a “fortress Europe.”
New Forms of Organization
Protesters have been trying to draw attention to the fact that the neo-liberal vision of “globalization” is pretty much limited to the free flow of commodities, and actually increases barriers against the flow of people, information and ideas.
In striking contrast with past forms of internationalism, however, this movement has not simply advocated exporting Western organizational models to the rest of the world; if anything, the flow has been the other way around. Most of the movement’s techniques (consensus process, spokescouncils, even mass nonviolent civil disobedience itself) were first developed in the Global South. In the long run, this may well prove the most radical thing about it.
Here, there is often a very conscious effort to destroy existing paradigms. Where it once seemed the only alternative to marching along with signs were either Gandhian nonviolent civil disobedience or outright insurrection, groups like the Direct Action Network, Reclaim the Streets, Black Blocs or Ya Basta! have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory in between. They’re attempting to invent what many call a “new language” of protest, combining elements of what might otherwise be considered street theater, festival and what can only be called nonviolent warfare. These new tactics are perfectly in accord with the general anarchistic inspiration of the movement, which is less about seizing state power than exposing, delegitimizing and dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning ever-larger spaces of autonomy from it.
Means And Ends
I can’t remember how many articles I’ve read in the left press asserting that the globalization movement, while tactically brilliant, has no central theme or coherent ideology. These complaints seem to be the left-wing equivalent of the incessant claims in the corporate media that this is a movement made up of dumb kids touting a bundle of completely unrelated causes. Even worse are the claims — which one sees surprisingly frequently in the work of academic social theorists who should know better, like Hardst and Negri, or Slavoj Zizek — that the movement is plagued by generic opposition, rooted in bourgeois individualism, to all forms of structure and organization. It’s distressing that, two years after Seattle, I should even have to write this, but someone obviously should: In North America especially, this is a movement about reinventing democracy. It is not opposed to organization; those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is a movement about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down (especially, state-like, corporate or party) structures, networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.
It seems to me that in many ways the activists are way ahead of the theorists here, and that the most challenging problem for us will be to create forms of intellectual practice more in tune with newly emerging forms of democratic practice.
Over the past 10 years in particular, activists in North America have been putting enormous creative energy into reinventing their groups’ own internal processes to create a viable model of what functioning direct democracy could look like, drawing particularly, as I’ve noted, on examples from outside the Western tradition. The result is a rich and growing panoply of organizational forms and instruments — affinity groups, spokescouncils, facilitation tools, break-outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibeswatchers and so on — all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling people to do anything to which they have not freely consented. It is very much a work in progress, and creating a culture of democracy among people who have little experience of such things is necessarily a painful and uneven business, but — as almost any police chief who has faced protesters on the streets can attest — direct democracy of this sort can be remarkably effective.
Here I want to stress the relation of theory and practice this organizational model entails. Perhaps the best way to start thinking about groups like the Direct Action Network (which I’ve been working with for the past two years) is to see it as the diametrical opposite of the kind of sectarian Marxist group that so long characterized the revolutionary left. Where the latter puts its emphasis on achieving a complete and correct theoretical analysis, demands ideological uniformity and juxtaposes a vision of an egalitarian future with extremely authoritarian forms of organization in the present, DAN openly seeks diversity: It’s motto might as well be, “If you are willing to act like an anarchist in the present, your long-term vision is pretty much your own business.” Its ideology, then is immanent in the anti-authoritarian principles that underlie its practice, and one of its more explicit principles is that things should stay that way.
There is indeed something very new here, and something potentially extremely important. Consensus process — in which one of the basic rules is that one always treats others’ arguments as fundamentally reasonable and principled, whatever one thinks about the person making it — in particular creates an extremely different style of debate and argument than the sort encouraged by majority voting, one in which the incentives are all toward compromise and creative synthesis rather than polarization, reduction and treating minor points of difference like philosophical ruptures. I need hardly point out how much our accustomed modes of academic discourse resemble the latter — or even more, perhaps, the kind of sectarian reasoning that leads to endless splits and fragmentation, which the “new new left” (as it is sometimes called) has so far managed almost completely to avoid. It seems to me that in many ways the activists are way ahead of the theorists here, and that the most challenging problem for us will be to create forms of intellectual practice more in tune with newly emerging forms of democratic practice, rather than with the tiresome sectarian logic those groups have finally managed to set aside.
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