For many decades now it has been the case that it is no good expecting democratic government; the best we can hope for is responsible government.
That lowered expectation also turns out to be too much for the wealthy nations of the world to provide for themselves. Here at home - not to trespass for the moment across the Atlantic or the Rhine - our ruling class is intent only on retaining power for itself in the southern half of the two nations, strategising zealously to subjugate all the pleasures and fulfilments of everyday life to the demands of that ravening monster, the economy. The notion of the common good starves to death, and the tiny intelligences staffing No 10 busy themselves trying to succour a doomed and dying system.
On to this blasted landscape rides a dashing cavalier speaking in strange tongues. David Graeber is man of the moment in London and New York, prominent in the pages of Harper’s, The Guardian and, bless us all, The Wall Street Journal; Anglo-American and inexcusably self-styled “radical anthropologist”; author of that racy and compelling book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
To our incredulous amazement, he has come to tell us that the Occupy Wall Street moment of direct action was an important victory in the common rediscovery of democratic participation, broken up only by means of illegal, clandestine and brutal violence on the part of the police, as were the fraternal insurrections that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, with echoes in popular protest against unspeakable misery in India, Sri Lanka and Burma.
Graeber writes a brisk and breezy prose, tainted at times with the dotty delusions of Private Eye’s Dave Spart. Rewriting another pretty minor urban demonstration - one notable for its quietness and persuasive courtesy moreover - is one thing, a fragment of bold, ineffectual propagandising. But his swift analysis, borrowing from his earlier book, of the demeaning and deathly consequences for individual citizens aged, let us say, 18, of lifelong, unrepayable debt sounds as truthful a bell as may be rung to rouse a somnambulist people.
He accompanies this moral diagnosis with as compact and incisive an account as one could wish for of why capitalism as presently so disorganised has run with such a smash into the buffers. There are many grave voices making the same argument from desks in the economics departments, especially Ha-Joon Chang and the incomparable Paul Krugman. Graeber speaks his part almost without academic references, and in a garrulous, unstoppable and, it must be said, self-regarding demotic.
But he is clear, pungent and right. To be sure, he braces himself with the help of such dependable demons as the “planetary bureaucracy” of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well as US military extravagance, but there again, they are halfway demonic. He is fervent in a deeply improbable belief that American youth is ready to try out socialism, and - quite irrefutably - he names the US system of votes bought for cash by way of the lobbyists as stinking to high heaven.
So far, so good. But after showing off a speedy sprint round the history of democracy from the Founding Fathers to the present, with unlikely object lessons provided by Native Americans, he reaches back to Paris after 1848, to the saintly Prince Kropotkin and Georges Sorel, to commend to us the anarchist tradition (except that anarchy, by definition, cannot have a tradition).
Well, there is nowhere else to look for new ideas other than the past. Showing himself, as one would expect, master of the social media (as they say), Graeber proceeds to a lengthy, talkative and imperfectly self-aware guide to the principles of running mass urban protest. Quite apart from the plain fact that such practice is learned not from textbooks but from action itself, these pages sit uneasily beside his journalism reporting the triumph of Occupy Wall Street, his succinct economics and his rather scrappy piece of intellectual history.
I have no wish to put Graeber down with elderly condescension, and I believe him right to call for a genteel renewal of the class war. The many gleams of undoubted intelligence in this sprawling book, however, are too much obscured by automatic writing and awful sentimentality.
The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement
By David Graeber
Allen Lane, 326pp, £14.99 and £8.99
ISBN 9781846146633 and 9780718194567
Published 25 April 2013