David Graeber - what is an anarchist?

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David Graeber - what is an anarchist?

He is a US anthropologist, activist and author and he was a leader in Occupy Wall Street. Now he teaches at the London School of Economics. He talks about peace, democracy and anarchism with Jo Lateu.

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Adam Peers

What is your first memory of political awareness?

I remember a 1960s peace march in Central Park. And another peace march on a beach on Fire Island. I was carrying a sign that said ‘We want peace’. An older man, who saw I was seven years old, asked me if I understood what it means. I remember telling him that the meaning was very clear.

Your latest book, The Democracy Project, says that the Occupy movement was a great success. But for most of the 99 per cent, life hasn’t improved much – there are still many negative effects of the cuts. How are you so positive?

Well, a social movement never has immediate effects on government policy. When we have global revolutions, like in 1968 or 2011, we often have chaos or even regression in the next few years. But the ideas slowly change everything.

The Occupy movement became a social experiment in democracy (with no hierarchy). But it had problems at the beginning. Is there anything the movement could have done differently?

There were a lot of things I wanted them to do differently. They had to start a lot of things from the beginning, because not many people who already had experience of direct democracy got involved. People were quite innocent about infiltration and disruptors. People didn’t understand the principles of consensus (democratic agreement).

Your book is called Debt – the first 5,000 years. This sounds like you expect another 5,000 years of debt. Is there an alternative to an economy based on debt and credit?

The title means: do we really want another 5,000 years of debt? I don’t think we have to have this system. I think in about 50 years, we’ll find it hard to believe we organized the economy like this.

You say that ‘anarchism is something you do’, rather than something you believe in. Can you explain what you mean?

I’ve always said that Marxism is the theory of the strategy of revolution; and anarchism is an ethical theory about the practice of revolution. Look at the way people divide themselves. On the Marxist side there are Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyists.... They are all named after an intellectual leader who wrote strategy. On the anarchist side there are trade unions, communists, individualists, rebels – they are divided by plans and forms of organization. I don’t think it’s meaningless to say you’re an anarchist if you don’t take action; you can hope for a world without states and capitalism in the future; you can believe it would be better and possible, but not do anything about it. But this doesn’t really mean much. On the other hand, it’s possible to act like an anarchist without saying you are an anarchist. Most of us act like anarchists – even communists – a lot of the time. To be an anarchist is to be aware of doing it to work towards creating a world based on those principles.

You have lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you think there is more hope for democratic and social change in the US or in Britain? Why?

It’s very hard to say. Many people in Britain feel they cannot change anything – maybe many of the working population have no more energy. But maybe Britain has passed the worst and will be better in future. I’m still trying to understand it – I’m quite new here. The US is an empire that’s collapsing. The important institutions, eg. the educational system, are collapsing and most of the democracy is ending. There’s a lot more anger, I think, but also more control.

The Democracy Project is in shops now.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/columns/finally/2014/01/01/david-graeber/