How to answer the question: ‘if you don’t like this system, what do you want to replace it with?’ – aka a review of The Democracy Project by David Graeber

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Posted Jul 30 2015 by Dave Darby of

Graeber was a leading light in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the book begins with a fascinating insider’s view of the goings-on in and around Zucotti Park in 2011. The most important point in the book for me though was the reminder that people always want a blueprint for a new society – i.e. ‘if you hate corporate capitalism so much, what do you want to replace it with?’ – as if before the French Revolution, people sat down in smoke-filled rooms and worked out exactly what society was going to be like after the revolution.

Or maybe it happened even earlier – maybe groups of serfs got together and said: ‘right, we’ve had enough of this feudalism business. We have here a document that we’ve been working on that has laid out the details of a new society, that will have a stock market, fractional reserve banking and currency speculation, with compound interest at its heart. We’re calling it capitalism’.

I can’t stress this enough – not only is it not important to have a blueprint for what a new system might look like, but it’s a very, very bad idea. People like Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot had those utopian blueprints, and the the thing is, some people disagreed with them – and those people got killed in extremely nasty ways, which is never a good thing.

It’s not about blueprints, it’s about principles – the main one being democracy. We absolutely don’t need to know what will replace corporate capitalism. We just need to take power from corporations, and put people in positions to make big decisions who are not, at all, employed, paid, lobbied, seduced, threatened or in any other way influenced by banks or corporations. In fact, that’s exactly what democracy is – working out how to run society ourselves. Coming up with a blueprint would be profoundly undemocratic.

The US Founding Fathers framed their constitution so that their new country would be a republic, run by representatives of wealthy, white landowners. They were extremely nervous of ‘people-power’, of ‘the people’ governing themselves, of true democracy – but they weren’t at all nervous of the complete take-over of their political and economic systems by the corporate sector, because the corporate sector didn’t exist at the time. I believe that they would have been as opposed to corporate rule as they were to British rule, if they knew what was going to happen. I dwell on the US because, due to the size of the US military, whoever controls the US controls the world and its global institutions. And the US and global institutions are corporate. If Americans want to break free from corporate power, their constitution isn’t enough.

I agree with David Graeber that for this breaking-free to be successful, it has to be done without violence, and we also agree that ideally, it would be done in a way that ended with people being able to more-or-less govern themselves. OK, let’s say it (Graber does) – anarchism of some flavour. Where Graeber (and several other people I know) and I might part company is that I’d be happy (or happier at least) just to have non-corporate decision-makers (leaders if you like – anathema to anarchists), maybe as an intermediate step to complete self-governance.

Graeber describes various self-governing systems that have existed, from Native Americans to Zapatistas, Quakers, Catalan anarcho-syndicalists and (my favourite) pirates! They never seem to be a match for hierarchical forces in the end though (often forces of the left, it has to be said), but who knows what could happen in the age of the internet, and as the undemocratic and unsustainable nature of corporate capitalism becomes obvious to more and more people?

The book contains lots of interesting insights – for example, in the Roman Republic, assemblies consisted of men who were either armed themselves, or had the support of armed men. In this way, majority voting was used to show everyone what would happen if they decided to settle the matter by fighting. That way, violence could be avoided. He also provides evidence that the US Founding Fathers wanted a republic of representatives of the land-owning class, and had no intention at all of allowing democracy. Democracy was used as a term of abuse in fact, until the word was reappropriated in the same way that ‘queer’ has been reappropriated by the gay community.

Best quote in the book, for me, was ‘power never gives up anything voluntarily’. He’s right – we have to take power, but we don’t need a blueprint for a new society, we just need a democratic decision-making process and we can work it out as we go along.