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David Graeber, "Situating Occupy Lessons From the Revolutionary Past"

The Big Ideas of 2012:
Situating Occupy Lessons From the Revolutionary Past
David Graeber

Perhaps the greatest world historian alive today, Immanuel Wallerstein,
has argued that since 1789 all major revolutions have really been world

The French revolution might have appeared to only take place in one
country, but really it quickly transformed the entire North Atlantic
world so profoundly that a mere 20 years later, ideas that had
previously been considered lunatic fringe – that social change was good,
that governments existed to manage social change, that governments drew
their legitimacy from an entity known as the people – had been propelled
so deeply into common sense that even the stodgiest conservative had to
at least pay lip service to them. In 1848 revolutions broke out almost
simultaneously in 50 different countries from Wallachia to Brazil. In no
country did the revolutionaries succeed in taking power, but afterwards,
institutions inspired by the French revolution – universal education
systems, for instance – were created pretty much everywhere.

We see the same pattern recur in the 20th century. The “ten days that
shook the world” in 1917 took place in Russia, where revolutionaries did
manage to seize state power, but what Wallerstein calls the “world
revolution of 1968” was more like 1848: it rippled from China to
Czechoslovakia to France to Mexico, took power nowhere, but nonetheless
began a broad transformation in our sense of what a revolution might
even mean.

In a way, though, the 20th-century sequence was very different because
’68 didn’t consolidate the gains of 1917 – in fact it marked the first
significant move in the opposite direction. The Russian revolution of
course represented the ultimate apotheosis of the Jacobin ideal of
transforming society from above. The world revolution of 1968 was more
anarchist in spirit. There’s a strange paradox here since by the late
‘60s anarchism itself had largely disappeared as a mass social movement.
Yet its spirit pervaded everything: the revolt against bureaucratic
conformity, the rejection of party politics, the dedication to the
creation of a new, liberatory culture that would allow for genuine
individual self-realization.

The most profound and enduring legacy of the world revolution of ’68 was
modern feminism. And it was only through the imperatives and
sensibilities introduced by radical feminism, the nonhierarchical
consciousness-raising circles, the emergence of consensus process, the
emphasis on smoking out every form of inequality, no matter how deeply
embedded in our everyday existence, that Anarchism – as a social
movement – itself began to take form once again.

In recent years we have seen a kind of continual series of tiny ’68s.
The uprisings against state socialism that began in Tiananmen Square and
culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union began that way, though
they were quickly diverted into the culmination of that capitalist
recuperation of the spirit of ’60s rebellion that has come to be known
as “neoliberalism.” After the Zapatista world revolution – they called
it the Fourth World War – began in ’94, such mini-’68s began happening
so thick and fast the process almost seemed to have become
institutionalized: Seattle, Genoa, Cancun, Quebec, Hong Kong ... And
insofar as it was indeed institutionalized, by global networks the
Zapatistas had helped set up, it was on the basis of a kind of small-a
anarchism based on principles of decentralized direct democracy and
direct action. The prospect of facing a genuine global democratic
movement seems to have so frightened the US authorities, in particular,
that they went into veritable panic mode. There is of course a
traditional antidote to the threat of mass mobilization from below. You
start a war. It doesn’t really matter who the war is against. The point
is just to have one; preferably, on as wide a scale as possible. In this
case the US government had the extraordinary advantage of a genuine
pretext – a ragtag crew of hitherto largely ineffective right-wing
Islamists who, for once in history, had attempted a wildly ambitious
terrorist scheme and actually pulled it off. Rather than simply track
down those responsible, the US began throwing billions of dollars of
armament at anything in sight. Ten years later, the resulting paroxysm
of imperial overstretch appears to have undermined the very basis of the
American Empire. What we are now witnessing is the process of that
empire’s collapse.

It only makes sense then that the World Revolution of 2011 should have
begun as a rebellion against US client states, in much the same way as
the rebellions that brought down Soviet power began in places like
Poland and Czechoslovakia. The wave of rebellion soon spread across the
Mediterranean from North Africa to Southern Europe, and then, much more
uncertainly at first, across the Atlantic to New York. But once it had,
in a matter of weeks it had exploded everywhere. At this point it’s
extremely difficult to predict how far all this will ultimately go.
Truly historical events, after all, consist of precisely those moments
that could not have been predicted beforehand. Could we be in the
presence of a fundamental shift like 1789 – a shift not only in global
power relations but in our elementary political common sense? It’s
impossible to say, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

Let me end by listing three:

First, in no previous world revolution has the main center of
mobilization been in the imperial center itself. Great Britain, the
great imperial power of the 19th century, was barely affected by the
uprisings of 1789 and 1848. In the same way, the US remained largely
immune from the great revolutionary moments of the 20th century. The
decisive street battles typically happen not in the imperial center, nor
in the super-exploited margins, but in what might be termed the second
tier: not London but Paris, not Berlin but St. Petersburg. The 2011
revolution started according to that familiar pattern, but it has
actually spread to the imperial center itself. If this is sustained, it
will be quite unprecedented.

Also, this time the power elite can’t start a war. They already tried
that. They’re basically out of cards to play in this respect. This makes
an enormous difference.

Lastly, the spread of feminist and anarchist sensibilities has opened up
the possibility of a genuine cultural transformation. Here is the big
question: Can we create a genuinely democratic culture? Can we change
our fundamental conceptions of what politics must necessarily be like?
For me, the image of middle-aged white guys in suits, in places like
Denver or Minneapolis, patiently learning consensus process from pagan
priestesses or members of groups like Anarchist People of Color so as to
take part in their local General Assemblies (and there are … it’s true!
I’ve heard reports) may well be the single most dramatic image to have
come out of the Occupy movement so far.

Of course this could be the first moment in yet another round of
recuperation and defeat. But if we are witnessing another 1789, a moment
where our most basic assumptions about politics, economics, society, are
about to be transformed – this is precisely how it would have to begin.