Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Lynn Stuart Parramore — 'A Kaleidoscopic Sense of Possibility': Interview with David Graeber on Democracy in America

David Graeber talks about his new book, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, and shows how America was not founded as a democracy, but as an anti-democracy.
LP: You note that democracy was contested during America's founding. Who were the proponents of democracy and how did they manifest their views?
DG: Actually, there were almost none. In the writings of the patriots and leaders of the revolution, word "democracy" was used almost interchangeably with "anarchy" or even "mob rule." Everyone opposed it. By democracy, they meant, either rule through popular assemblies like in ancient Greece -- which they saw a little during the big mobilizations they called out during the revolution -- or by extension, any system where ordinary people held the power of governance themselves. So it wasn't really contested among the political classes. They were uniformly opposed to it. You just have to read the opening remarks of the constitutional convention of 1789: it begins, 'we have a problem. There's far too much democracy in this country. State constitutions cannot contain it. We need to set up something stronger.'

In the course of the interview he sums up the major economic problem today.
As for financialization, well, we tend to talk about that as if it's all very abstract. More and more profits are derived not from making or selling anything, but pure speculation, as if these Wall Street types have figured out a way to whisk wealth into being simply by saying that it's there. In fact what it really means is that financial interests collude with government — which they've basically completely bought out, at this point — to enforce policies that reduce more and more Americans into debt. The reason it's so anti-democratic is that it changes the role of government itself, which is increasingly becoming merely the legal cover and muscle behind debt and rent extraction, for a very small group of the super-wealthy who play by a completely different set of rules. This in turn changes ordinary Americans' basic perceptions of their relation to government and other key institutions of our society.
'A Kaleidoscopic Sense of Possibility': Interview with David Graeber on Democracy in America
Lynn Stuart Parramore


Dan Kervick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Kervick said...

I hope Graeber's discussion in the book is more nuanced than the quoted passage here. In the quote he seems to be making the mistake of assuming that America was founded by the so-called "Founders". Obviously those men played a large role in organizing the post-revolutionary government. But America was founded by millions of people, many of them quite democratic indeed, with instinctive democratic habits grounded in the radical dissenting churches that settled parts of the country, and the unique historical experience of the settlement movement with its lack of a transplanted landed aristocracy.

To hear our contemporaries describe things, it is some kind of inexplicable mystery that Americans have a deep and durable tradition of elected town and municipal governments, town meetings, elected popular assemblies, boards, councils, etc.

The contemporary rhetoric of American non-democracy - especially prominent in libertarian circles - is both historically lazy and morally disempowering.

At the same time the illustrious "founders", full of models from classical Rome, were attempting to establish Republican traditions that somewhat limited democratic institutions, the country was seething with much more radically democratic movements organized by farmers and urban workers, and these democrats had a profound impact on the future direction of the country.

The most careful and noted foreign observer of 19th century American culture - Alexis de Tocqueville, had no compunctions about calling the culture he observed "democracy".

Dan Kervick said...

Just to be clear, I was only commenting on the first quote from Graeber. The second one sounds fine.