The Mob Began to Think and Reason
July 10, 2013
David Graeber, an anthropologist and key figure in the Occupy Wall Street protests, dissects the deeply undemocratic origins of America and the meaning of anarchy in this excerpt from his book The Democracy Project.
Reading accounts of social movements written by outright conservatives can often feel strangely refreshing. Particularly when one is used to dealing with liberals. Liberals tend to be touchy and unpredictable because they claim to share the ideas 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. I noticed this during the days of the Global Justice Movement. There was a kind of mocking defensiveness on the part of many in the “liberal media” that was in its own way just as caustic as anything thrown at us by the right. As I read their critiques of the movement, it became clear to me that many senior members of the media, having gone to college in the 1960s, thought of themselves as former campus revolutionaries, if only through generational association. Within their work was an argument they were having with themselves; they were convincing themselves that even though they were now working for the establishment, they hadn’t really sold out because their former revolutionary dreams were profoundly unrealistic, and actually, fighting for abortion rights or gay marriage is about as radical as one can realistically be. If you are a radical, at least with conservatives you know where you stand: they are your enemies. If they wish to understand you, it is only to facilitate your being violently suppressed. This leads to a certain clarity. It also means they often honestly do wish to understand you.
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, the first major salvo from the right took the form of an essay in The Weekly Standard by one Matthew Continetti entitled “Anarchy in the U.S.A.: The Roots of American Disorder.” “Both left and right,” Continetti argued, “have made the error of thinking that the forces behind Occupy Wall Street are interested in democratic politics and problem solving.” In fact, their core were anarchists dreaming of a utopian socialist paradise as peculiar as the phalanxes of Charles Fourier or free love communes like the 1840s New Harmony. The author goes on to quote proponents of contemporary anarchism, mainly Noam Chomsky and myself:
This permanent rebellion leads to some predictable outcomes. By denying the legitimacy of democratic politics, the anarchists undermine their ability to affect people’s lives. No living wage movement for them. No debate over the Bush tax rates. Anarchists don’t believe in wages, and they certainly don’t believe in taxes. David Graeber, an anthropologist and a leading figure in Occupy Wall Street, puts it this way: “By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.” The reason that Occupy Wall Street has no agenda is that anarchism allows for no agenda. All the anarchist can do is set an example—or tear down the existing order through violence.
This paragraph is typical: it alternates legitimate insights with a series of calculated slurs and insinuations designed to encourage violence. It is true that anarchists did, as I said, refuse to enter the political system itself, but this was on the grounds that the system itself was undemocratic—having been reduced to a system of open institutionalized bribery, backed up by coercive force. We wanted to make that fact evident to everyone, in the United States and elsewhere. And that is what OWS did—in a way that no amount of waving of policy statements could ever have done. To say that we have no agenda, then, is absurd; to assert that we have no choice but to eventually resort to violence, despite the studious nonviolence of the occupiers, is the kind of statement one only makes if one is desperately trying to come up with justifications for violence oneself.
The piece went on to correctly trace the origins of the current global anticapitalist networks back to the Zapatista revolt in 1994, and, again correctly, to note their increasingly antiauthoritarian politics, their rejection of any notion of seizing power by force, their use of the Internet. Continetti concludes:
An intellectual, financial, technological, and social infrastructure to undermine global capitalism has been developing for more than two decades, and we are in the middle of its latest manifestation… . The occupiers’ tent cities are self-governing, communal, egalitarian, and networked. They reject everyday politics. They foster bohemianism and confrontation with the civil authorities. They are the Phalanx and New Harmony, updated for postmodern times and plopped in the middle of our cities. There may not be that many activists in the camps. They may appear silly, even grotesque. They may resist “agendas” and “policies.” They may not agree on what they want or when they want it. And they may disappear as winter arrives and the liberals whose parks they are occupying lose patience with them. But the utopians and anarchists will reappear… . The occupation will persist as long as individuals believe that inequalities of property are unjust and that the brotherhood of man can be established on the earth.
You can see why anarchists might find this sort of thing refreshingly honest. The author makes no secret of his desire to see us all in prison, but at least he’s willing to make an honest assessment of what the stakes are.
Still, there is one screamingly dishonest theme that runs throughout the Weekly Standard piece: the intentional conflation of “democracy” with “everyday politics,” that is, lobbying, fundraising, working for electoral campaigns, and otherwise participating in the current American political system. The premise is that the author stands in favor of democracy, and that occupiers, in rejecting the existing system, are against it. In fact, the conservative tradition that produced and sustains journals like The Weekly Standard is profoundly antidemocratic. Its heroes, from Plato to Edmund Burke, are, almost uniformly, men who opposed democracy on principle, and its readers are still fond of statements like “America is not a democracy, it’s a republic.” What’s more, the sort of arguments Continetti breaks out here—that anarchist-inspired movements are unstable, confused, threaten established orders of property, and must necessarily lead to violence—are precisely the arguments that have, for centuries, been leveled by conservatives against democracy itself.
Most Americans are unaware that nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution does it say anything about the United States being a democracy. In fact, most of those who took part in composing those founding documents readily agreed with the seventeenth-century Puritan preacher John Winthrop, who wrote that “a democracy is, among most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.”
In reality, OWS is anarchist-inspired, but for precisely that reason it stands squarely in the very tradition of American popular democracy that conservatives like Continetti have always staunchly opposed. Anarchism does not mean the negation of democracy—or at least, any of the aspects of democracy that most Americans have historically liked. Rather, anarchism is a matter of taking those core democratic principles to their logical conclusions. The reason it’s difficult to see this is because the word “democracy” has had such an endlessly contested history: so much so that most American pundits and politicians, for instance, now use the term to refer to a form of government established with the explicit purpose of ensuring what John Adams once called “the horrors of democracy” would never come about.*
As I mentioned at the beginning of the book, most Americans are unaware that nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution does it say anything about the United States being a democracy. In fact, most of those who took part in composing those founding documents readily agreed with the seventeenth-century Puritan preacher John Winthrop, who wrote that “a democracy is, among most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.”
Most of the Founders learned what they did know about the subject of democracy from Thomas Hobbes’s English translation of Thucydides’ History, his account of the Peloponnesian War. Hobbes undertook this project, he was careful to inform his readers, to warn about the dangers of democracy. As a result, the founders used the word in its ancient Greek sense, assuming democracy to refer to communal self-governance through popular assemblies such as the Athenian agora. It was what we would now call “direct democracy.” One might say that it was a system of rule by General Assemblies, except that these assemblies were assumed to always operate exclusively by the principle of 51 to 49 percent majority rule. James Madison for instance, made clear in his contributions to the Federalist Papers why he felt this sort of Athenian democracy was not only impossible in a great nation of his day, since it could not by definition operate over an extended geographical area, but was actively undesirable, since he felt history showed that any system of direct democracy would inevitably descend into factionalism, demagoguery, and finally, the seizure of power by some dictator willing to restore order and control:
A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction… . Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Like all the men we’ve come to know as Founding Fathers, Madison insisted that his preferred form of government, a “republic,” was necessarily quite different:
In a democracy the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.
Now, this notion that republics were administered by “representatives” might seem odd at first glance, since they borrowed the term “republic” from ancient Rome, and Roman senators were not elected; they were aristocrats who held their seats by birthright, which meant they weren’t really “representatives and agents” of anyone but themselves. Still, the idea of representative bodies was something the Founders had inherited from the British during the Revolution: the rulers of the new nation were precisely those who had been elected, by a vote of property-holding males, to representative assemblies like the Continental Congress, originally meant to allow a limited measure of self-governance under the authority of the king. After the revolution, they immediately transferred the power of government from King George III to themselves. As a result, the representative bodies meant to operate under the authority of the king would now operate under the authority of the people, however narrowly defined.
The custom of electing delegates to such bodies was nothing new. In England it went back to at least the thirteenth century. By the fifteenth century, it had become standard practice to allow men of property to select their parliamentary representatives by sending in their votes to their local sheriff (usually recorded on notched sticks). At that time it never would have occurred to anyone that this system had anything to do with “democracy.” Elections were assumed to be an extension of monarchical systems of government, since representatives were in no sense empowered to govern. They did not rule anything, collectively or as individuals; their role was to speak for (“represent”) the inhabitants of their district before the sovereign power of the king, to offer advice, air grievances, and, above all, deliver their county’s taxes. So while the representatives were powerless and the elections rarely contested, the system of elected representatives was considered necessary according to the prevailing medieval legal principle of consent: it was felt that while orders naturally came from above, and ordinary subjects should have no role in framing policy, those same ordinary subjects could not be held to be bound by orders to which they had not, in some broad sense, assented. True, after the English Civil War, Parliament did begin to assert its own rights to have a say in the disposal of tax receipts, creating what the framers called a “limited monarchy”—but still, the American idea of saying that the people could actually exercise sovereign power, the power once held by kings, by voting for representatives with real governing power, was a genuine innovation and immediately recognized as such.
The American colonies, of course, lacked any hereditary aristocracy. But by electing a temporary monarch, and temporary representatives, the framers argued they could instead create what they sometimes explicitly called a kind of “natural aristocracy,” drawn from the educated and propertied classes who had the same sober concern for the public welfare that they felt characterized the Roman senate of Cicero and Cincinnatus.
The American War of Independence had been fought in the name of “the people,” and all the framers felt that the “whole body of the people” had to be consulted at some point to make their revolution legitimate—but the entire purpose of the Constitution was to ensure that this form of consultation was extremely limited, lest the “horrors of democracy” ensue. At the time, the common assumption among educated people was that there were three elementary principles of government that were held to exist, in different measure, in all known human societies: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The framers agreed with ancient political theorists who held that the Roman Republic represented the most perfect balance between them. Republican Rome had two consuls (elected by the Senate) who filled the monarchical function, a permanent patrician class of senators, and, finally, popular assemblies with limited powers of their own. These assemblies selected from among aristocratic candidates for magistracies, and also chose two tribunes, who represented the interest of the plebeian class; tribunes could not vote or even enter the Senate (they sat just outside the doorway) but they were granted veto power over senatorial decisions.
The American Constitution was designed to achieve a similar balance. The monarchical function was to be filled by a president elected by the Senate; the Senate was meant to represent the aristocratic interests of wealth, and Congress was to represent the democratic element. Its purview was largely to be confined to raising and spending money, since the Revolution had, after all, been fought on the principle of “no taxation without representation.” Popular assemblies were eliminated altogether. The American colonies, of course, lacked any hereditary aristocracy. But by electing a temporary monarch, and temporary representatives, the framers argued they could instead create what they sometimes explicitly called a kind of “natural aristocracy,” drawn from the educated and propertied classes who had the same sober concern for the public welfare that they felt characterized the Roman senate of Cicero and Cincinnatus.
It is worthwhile, I think, to dwell on this point for a moment. When the framers spoke of an “aristocracy” they were not using the term metaphorically. They were well aware that they were creating a new political form that fused together democratic and aristocratic elements. In all previous European history, elections had been considered—as Aristotle had originally insisted—the quintessentially aristocratic mode of selecting public officials. In elections, the populace chooses between a small number of usually professional politicians who claim to be wiser and more educated than everyone else, and chooses the one they think the best of all. (This is what “aristocracy” literally means: “rule of the best.”) Elections were ways that mercenary armies chose their commanders, or nobles vied for the support of future retainers. The democratic approach— employed widely in the ancient world, but also in Renaissance cities like Florence—was lottery, or, as it was sometimes called, “sortition.” Essentially, the procedure was to take the names of anyone in the community willing to hold public office, and then, after screening them for basic competence, choose their names at random. This ensured all competent and interested parties had an equal chance of holding public office. It also minimalized factionalism, since there was no point making promises to win over key constituencies if one was to be chosen by lot. (Elections, by contract, fostered factionalism, for obvious reasons.) It’s striking that while in the generations immediately before the French and American revolutions there was a lively debate among Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and Rousseau on the relative merits of election and lottery, those creating the new revolutionary constitutions in the 1770s and 1780s did not consider using lotteries at all. The only use they found for lottery was in the jury system, and this was allowed to stand largely because it was already there, a tradition inherited from English common law. And even the jury system was compulsory, not voluntary; juries were (and still are) regularly informed that their role is not to consider the justice of the law, but only to judge the facts of evidence.
There were to be no assemblies. There was to be no sortition. The Founding Fathers insisted that sovereignty belongs to the people, but that—unless they rose up in arms in another revolution—the people could only exercise that sovereignty by choosing among members of a class of superior men—superior both because they were trained as lawyers, and because coming from the upper classes they were wiser and better able to understand the people’s true interests than the people themselves were. Since “the people” would also be bound to obey the laws passed by the legislative bodies over which this new natural aristocracy presided, the Founders’ notion of popular sovereignty was really not too far removed from the old medieval notion of consent to orders from above.
Actually, if one reads the work of John Adams, or the Federalist Papers, one might well wonder why such authors spent so much time discussing the dangers of Athenian-style direct democracy at all. This was, after all, a political system that had not existed for more than two thousand years and no major political figure of the time was openly advocating reestablishing it.
Here is where it becomes useful to consider the larger political context. There might not have been democracies in the eighteenth-century North Atlantic, but there were definitely men who referred to themselves as “democrats.” In America, Tom Paine is perhaps the most famous example. During the same period in which the Continental Congress was beginning to contemplate severing relations with the English Crown, the term was undergoing something of a revival in Europe, where populists opposed to aristocratic rule increasingly began to refer to themselves as “democrats”—at first, it would seem, mainly for shock value, in much the same way that the gay rights movement defiantly adopted the word “queer.” In most places, they were a tiny minority of rabble-rousers, not intellectuals; few propounded any elaborate theory of government.
Most appear to have been involved in campaigns against noble or ecclesiastical privilege, and for very basic principles like equality before the law. When revolutions did break out, however, such men found their natural homes in the mass meetings and assemblies that always emerge in such situations—whether in New England town hall meetings or in the “sections” of the French revolutions—and many of them came to see such assemblies as potential building blocks for a new political order. Since, unlike elected bodies, there were no property restrictions on voting at mass meetings, they tended to entertain far more radical ideas.
In the years immediately leading up to the American Revolution, the Patriots made much use of mass meetings, as well as calling up “the mob” or “mobility” (as they liked to call it) for mass actions like the Boston Tea Party. Often they were terrified by the results. On May 19, 1774, for example, a mass meeting was called in New York City to discuss a tax boycott to respond to the British closing of Boston Harbor—a meeting probably held not far from the present Zuccotti Park, and which apparently produced the very first proposal to convene a Continental Congress. We have an account of it from Gouverneur Morris, then chief justice of New Jersey, scion of the family that then owned most of what’s now the Bronx. Morris describes watching as common mechanics and tradesmen who had taken the day off work ended up locked in a prolonged debate with the gentry and their supporters over “the future forms of our government, and whether it should be founded on aristocratic or democratic principles.” As the gentry argued the merits of continuing with the existing (extremely conservative) English constitution, butchers and bakers responded with arguments from the Gracchi and Polybius:
I stood in the balcony, and on my right hand were ranged all the people of property, with some few poor dependants, and on the other all the tradesmen, who thought it worth their while to leave daily labor for the good of the country. The spirit of the English Constitution has yet a little influence left, but just a little. The remains of it, however, will give the wealthy people a superiority this time, but would they secure it, they must banish all schoolmasters, and confine all knowledge to themselves. This cannot be. The mob begin to think and to reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning, they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this.
So did Morris, who concluded from the event that full independence from Britain would be a very bad idea, lest, “I see it with fear and trembling, we will be under the worst of all possible dominions—a riotous mob.”
Still, this conclusion seems rather disingenuous. What his account makes clear is it was not the irrational passions of “the mob” that frightened Morris, but precisely the opposite, the fact that so many of New York’s mechanics and tradesmen could apparently not only trade classical references with the best of them, but frame thoughtful, reasoned arguments for democracy. The mob begin to think and to reason. Since there seemed no way to deny them access to education, the only remaining expedient was to rely on the force of British arms.
There are endless varieties, colors, and tendencies of anarchism. For my own part, I like to call myself a “small-a” anarchist. I’m less interested in figuring out what sort of anarchist I am than in working in broad coalitions that operate in accord with anarchist principles: movements that are not trying to work through or become governments; movements uninterested in assuming the role of de facto government institutions like trade organizations or capitalist firms; groups that focus on making our relations with each other a model of the world we wish to create. In other words, people working toward truly free societies. After all, it’s hard to figure out exactly what kind of anarchism makes the most sense when so many questions can only be answered further down the road. Would there be a role for markets in a truly free society? How could we know? I myself am confident, based on history, that even if we did try to maintain a market economy in such a free society—that is, one in which there would be no state to enforce contracts, so that agreements came to be based only on trust—economic relations would rapidly morph into something libertarians would find completely unrecognizable, and would soon not resemble anything we are used to thinking of as a “market” at all. I certainly can’t imagine anyone agreeing to work for wages if they have any other options. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. I am less interested in working out what the detailed architecture of what a free society would be like than in creating the conditions that would enable us to find out.