Back in the days of Occupy Wall Street, David Graeber, the anthropologist-author of "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" and one of the movement’s principal catalyzing theorists, got a whole lot of things exactly right and at least one thing (as far as I was concerned at the time, and still am) dead wrong.
For starters, Graeber was one of the people (and some would argue the person) who came up with the 99 percent/1 percent trope. Just as significantly, he understood, perhaps more powerfully than anyone else, that neoliberalism (which is to say the globalizing position championed by Clinton and Blair and Rubin and Geithner and Summers and so forth) was never so much an economic doctrine as it was a political one, and that its political essence, stripped of all its voluminous policy papers and bracing manifestoes, could be boiled down to a single phrase: Tough luck, that’s just how it’s going to be, there is no alternative. As Graeber wrote, “The last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.”
The tragedy was the way Graeber (and his colleagues) couched such insights in a radical anarchist vision whose DNA, as it were, came to insinuate itself into virtually every aspect of the movement he and they helped to launch. It was an uncannily gentle anarchism, to be sure (Graeber may be the least sectarian anarchist there has ever been), but one that, with its emphasis on the fundamental importance, before anything else, of deep democratic process, of endless general assemblying, of universal participation and thoroughgoing consensus, with a concomitant suspicion of the rise of any sorts of leaders (Graeber himself famously absented himself from New York the minute things really got going, this after having spent the previous six months assiduously laying the groundwork for what would become the occupation at Zuccotti Park, precisely so that he himself would not get cast in such a leading role), all meant that in the crush of events to follow, the movement was unable (and indeed intentionally, theoretically, insistently unwilling) to coalesce around a unified set of demands that might in turn force a brace of legislative ultimatums, which in turn might set the stage for electoral contests with the horizon of any sort of real contest for power.
In the short term, at least, Occupy Wall Street petered out (or at any rate splintered into countless local side shoots without any real, coherent national program), and what we got instead, for example, were the dismal electoral offerings of 2014.
But things may be looking up. And with considerable velocity at that. I am thinking here of the coming Greek elections, now slated for Jan. 25. Polls are currently favoring a victory by the “radical leftist” Syriza party, and its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, all of whom (along with an apparent majority of the Greek population) have had altogether enough of the neoliberal austerity nostrums and technocratic strictures that have been imposed on the Greek economy over the past seven years, laying waste to much of the country’s infrastructure and strangulating the prospects of an entire generation. Phrased differently, Occupy may be about to win its first national election.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: The days ahead will see a concentrated neoliberal counteroffensive, raising up all sorts of horrendous prospects, under the general banner of Tough luck, that’s just how it has to be, there are no alternatives.
And even should Syriza triumph in the polls, there will doubtless be a scorched earth campaign to isolate and punish the country. Which may or may not work. The European neoliberal technocrats have spent a good part of the last several years rejiggering their system such that a Greek exit from the euro, a Grexit, as it is being called (or rather, more accurately, a Greek expulsion), might not be too terribly damaging, economically speaking, to the rest of the system (albeit with an emphasis on that “might”). But -- and here we come full circle, back to Graeber’s essential insight -- the Greek contagion that really has the neoliberal technocrats in Berlin and Brussels (and Wall Street) spooked is not so much economic as political. What if others (in Spain and Italy and France, but also on the main streets of America) begin imagining, in response to the endless “no-alternatives” chorus: Oh yeah, how bout this? And this? And this?
The great Polish-born, Harvard émigré poet and translator Stanislaw Baranczak died the day after Christmas, which sent me back to reviewing some of his most seminal poems, from the days immediately before the first rise of Solidarity in August 1980 back in Poland (another period, another place where all the responsible sages kept insisting, Tough luck, the miserable and immiserating status quo was just how it had to be, there was no alternative). For example, his “Those Men So Powerful” of 1978, which launches out:
Those men, so powerful, always shown
somewhat from below by crouching cameramen, who lift
a heavy foot to crush me, no, to climb
the steps of the plane, who raise a hand
to strike me, no, to greet the crowds
obediently waving little flags, men who sign
my death warrant, no, just a trade
agreement which is promptly dried by a servile blotter …
Continuing on in that tenor for several more metronomic stanzas, before concluding:
you were so afraid of them
you were so small
compared to them, who always stood above
you, on steps, rostrums, platforms
and yet it is enough for just one instant to stop
being afraid, or let’s say
to begin being a little less afraid,
to become convinced that they are the ones,
that they are the ones who are the most afraid.
So here’s looking at you, all you smug bankers and plutocrats and committee chairs and hedge funders and ever so serious and responsible apologists for the status quo: Buckle your seat belts and Happy New Year!