Beyond the State: An Anarchist History of HumanityHistorians in the News
tags: anarchism, Occupy Wall Street, radical history, Political theory, David Graeber
Reviewed: THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A NEW HISTORY OF HUMANITY
By David Graeber and David Wengrow
Protest speaks a language of forceful insistence. “Defund the police,” “Build the wall”—the unyielding demands go back to Moses’ “Let my people go.” So it was curious when the July 2011 issue of the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters ran a cryptic call to arms: a ballerina posing atop the famous Charging Bull statue on Wall Street, with the question “What is our one demand?” printed above her in red. The question wasn’t answered; readers were only told, “#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent.”
In retrospect, it’s astonishing that such a vague entreaty worked, especially since Adbusters declined to organize the action. After issuing the call, the magazine had “almost nothing to do with it,” its cofounder admitted. Instead, an unaffiliated group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, composed largely of socialists, announced a planning meeting the next month at Bowling Green in Manhattan’s financial district. The meeting was tacked on to a protest the group had organized against Republican attempts to enforce the federal debt ceiling and gut social services.
“They were going to make speeches, and then we were going to march under waving banners,” said the anarchist David Graeber, who attended the meeting. “Who fucking cares?” Graeber and some like-minded thinkers defected to the other side of the park, sat in a circle, and discussed less hierarchical possibilities. “We quickly determined we had no idea what we were actually going to do,” he recalled. And yet it was this freewheeling collection of anarchists, Zapatistas, and squatters that formed the organizational seed of Occupy Wall Street, an explosive movement that held Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan for two months, made headlines, and set off more than 200 occupations globally.
What was the occupiers’ one demand? They never said. And as they practiced a leaderless form of democracy, there was no one to say. The movement did have a slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” informed by recent economics research exposing the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else. Yet the occupiers didn’t seem particularly inspired by the technical solutions that economists proposed. When Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank’s former chief economist and a critic of unregulated capitalism, came to Zuccotti Park to complain about how financial markets had “misallocated capital,” he looked adorably out of place in his collared dress shirt and khakis, surrounded by activists in kaffiyehs, baseball caps, and hoodies.
Journalists trying to understand this inchoate insurgency turned for answers to Graeber, a seasoned veteran of the global justice movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s and a central figure in Zuccotti Park. It helped that he was a witty commentator with a knack for summing things up crisply. He’d been the one to suggest the language of “the 99 percent,” which he’d adapted from an article by Stiglitz. Graeber was also, as some of his fellow occupiers were surprised to learn, a major anthropological theorist. Starting as an expert on highland Madagascar, Graeber had become a free-range thinker specializing in questions of hierarchy and value but interested in virtually everything. He’d recently written a 600-page ethnography of the protests against neoliberal globalization—protests he’d joined himself.
Graeber’s academic career had faltered when he was denied tenure at Yale and was effectively locked out of the US academy (he suspected that his politics were the problem). But he’d found a new position in London, and his fifth book, the hefty Debt: The First 5,000 Years, had come out to significant buzz just months before Occupy Wall Street began. Its sweeping attack on the economic assumptions behind austerity politics seemed to fit the moment perfectly.