democracy and direct action according to David Graeber

For those of us who wish to consider the implications of recent worldwide events, three of anthropologist David Graeber‘s books offer a deeper understanding of relatively unfamiliar organizing practices and their relationship with democracy:

(1) Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009, AK Press)

(2) Revolution in Reverse (or, on the conflict between political ontologies of violence and political
ontologies of the imagination)

(3) The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013, Random House)

Fabio’s previous posts covered one of Graeber’s most famous books Debt. For those of us who teach and practice orgtheory, Graeber’s work on direct action and criticisms of bureaucracy offer much-needed insight into how collectivities can gel in taking action. In particular, his in-depth account of how groups make decisions by consensus offers rich examples that can help students and practitioners understand the steps involved, as well as the pitfalls and benefits of these alternatives to topdown orders. (Other examples in the research literature include Francesca Polletta’s research on SDS and my own work on Burning Man – see chapter 3 of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event).

(1) Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009) offers a lengthy, traditional anthropological account of anarchist organizing efforts, with a focus on New York City’s Direct Action Network. For fellow researchers, he addresses the difficulties of using the narrative form and offers tips such as notetaking tools used (spiral notebook and rapidograph, a technical pen that eases hand-writing). Throughout, Graeber recounts the actions taken by the state against protestors, namely, policing and myths disseminated to encourage the frontline police to follow orders. Chapter 7 meetings covers the nuts and bolts of making decisions by consensus while chapter 8 describes different kinds of actions, including street parties and classic civil disobedience.

(2) Graber’s (2007) Revolution in Reverse imparts tidbits gleaned from his Direct Action Network experiences, along with explicit acknowledgment of the role of feminism in contributing ideas and actions. This publication, like his others, underscores something that most don’t realize: the state has access to a resource – the use of legitimate violence – that other parties do not.

(3) In The Democracy Project, Graeber (2103) shares a condensed description of the events leading up to OWS, offering a garbage-can like account of repertoires of organizing and moments that eventually generated the now iconic Occupy actions. Of particular interest is his account of how the staff at Adbusters published the term Occupy Wall Street and a date for the gathering in the hopes that local activists would take responsibility for organizing action. He notes that Adbusters had promoted other events that never materialized, underscoring the interplay between planning and enactment. In Chapter 2 “Why did it work?,” he speculates on the conditions that allowed OWS to coalesce, as well as the police actions that ultimately resulted in the dismantling of camps at Zuccotti Park.

Chapter 4 “How change happens” offers recommendations for how to practice decision-making by consensus, in which “everyone should be able to weigh in equally on a decision, and no one should be bound by a decision they detest” (211). His recommended 4 principles state:
4 principles:
• “Everyone who feels they have something relevant to say about a proposal ought to have their perspectives carefully considered.
• Everyone who has strong concerns or objections should have those concerns or objections taken into account and, if possible, addressed in the final form of the proposal.
• Anyone who feels a proposal violates a fundamental principle shared by the group should have the opportunity to veto (“block”) that proposal.
• No one should be forced to go along with a decision to which they did not assent.” (211)

Graeber outlines typical procedures for how to offer a proposal for consideration and how shared input should help modify or table a proposal without resorting to an endless meeting. Moreover, he underscores how passionate expressions of emotion and conflict are part of the process, rather than something that should be considered deviant and undesirable. He also advises what to do with those who intentionally seek to destroy decision-making processes – set boundaries and show them the door.

Overall, Graeber strikes a hopeful note about the prospects of future organizing. Similar to sociologists like myself and others, he argues that as democratic organizing actions become more familiar, the more likely they are to spread and bring about a society that reflects more people’s interests and aspirations. One potential pitfall of such dissemination, which I thought merited more discussion, was how to avoid cooptation of these practices for other purposes – for example, maintaining the status quo, workplaces extracting more work without corresponding compensation, etc.

For more on Graeber, see this reddit thread, which includes tidbits about functioning (or not) in the academy.


Written by katherinechen

June 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm

3 Responses

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  1. “Moreover, he underscores how passionate expressions of emotion and conflict are part of the process, rather than something that should be considered deviant and undesirable.”

    Does that mean I can keep throwing polysyllabic temper tantrums on orgtheory, and that my subsequent denial of tenure at Yale will be evidence to my religious followers that I’ve been systematically discriminated against because I’m “speakin’ tha’ truth?”


    Graham Peterson

    June 21, 2013 at 10:17 pm

  2. Graeber’s critique is class-based. He describes how in collectivities practicing decision-making by consensus, communication styles have devolved into an “upper-middle-class cocktail-party-style emphasis on politeness and euphemisms” that avoid any displays of “uncomfortable emotions” (218). I thought this was a striking analysis as it underscores an organizational dilemma. On the one hand, people feel drained by public displays of emotions, as Jane Mansbridge describes in Beyond Adversary Democracy. On the other hand, external/internal criticisms of displays of emotions (i.e., you’re being the “angry [insert ethnicity] wo/man”) are often used to cool out individuals, which may result in alienation.

    In any case, Graeber recommends that “conflict between friends and allies ought to be encouraged, provided everyone remembers that this is, ultimately, a lovers’ quarrel” (218). If you care, most likely you won’t feel so alienated that you’re willing to display some emotional intensity or raise questions.

    Given this, I expect that fellow orgheads will be more open to your expressions. :)



    June 22, 2013 at 12:07 am

  3. Ha. I was kidding. Graeber’s economics is atrocious and infuriating, but he’s brilliant a lot of the time.

    He’s right about argument. It’s fundamentally pro-social behavior. People don’t argue to alienate and drive one another away — that’s what killing is for. People argue to persuade and cajole. Lovers. Academics. Sometimes both at the same time (ech). Lakoff points out in Metaphors We Live By that a central metaphor we live with is Argument is War. People talk about “winning” arguments and so forth. But ultimately people argue to cohere. Why else would people pound away when “someone is wrong on the internet.”

    Steaming Mad Social Conservative White Upper Middle Class Men’s Rights Activist Capitalist Oppression Legitimator


    Graham Peterson

    June 22, 2013 at 12:25 am

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