Thursday, May 2, 2013

Democracy, Community, Consensus and David Graeber

David Graeber's Latest

There's been a spirited and extended discussion over at Naked Capitalism taking off from the reprint of an interview David Graeber gave to Lynn Parramore at Alternet. 

Graeber has taken on something of the sheen of a semi-divinity since the heady days of Occupy, an effort he had more than a little to do with, and some of his writings on the topics dear to the hearts of Occupiers everywhere have become modern classics -- maybe not Kropotkin level classics, but still.

His latest book is called "The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement." It's one I haven't read yet, but it is on my list, and it is available up in Santa Fe at Collected Works -- where I'll probably try to pick up one of their few remaining copies of Forrest Fenn's "Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo" next time we're in town, so may as well pick up a copy of Graeber's book at the same time.

The discussion at NC is quite wide ranging, and it's not entirely about nit-picking Graeber or anarchism or Occupy. Nor is it some mindless speculation on the Nature of Democracy.

Instead, it strikes me as much more a discussion of "What do we do now? Where do we go from here?" than most of what I find online these days. I've said for some time that Graeber doesn't have all the answers -- nor necessarily any of the correct ones -- but he is trying to move the overall discussion forward, and in this case (ie: the discussion at NC), I think he's succeeded smartly.

The thing about Graeber is that he participates in these colloquies -- which aren't always friendly ones, believe me -- and typically he brings them a great deal of insight without a lot of rhetorical flourish and fol-de-rol.

He isn't doing this as if he were playing a game, in other words. He isn't in it for the points. Instead, he tries to open eyes and minds to possibilities, based on models of the past, his own studies of recent and current models, and wide-ranging thoughts about what kind of society we actually want.

Graeber's views he says are based in the Global Justice Movement -- and what kind of society some people on Earth already have or once had -- which in turn is based in mutual respect, democracy, community, and cultural, spiritual, economic and physical sustainability.

In other words, Utopia. Well, that's not entirely fair, but Graeber's perspective, at least in my view, does point the way to a Utopian future -- if only we could see and seize it.

Ultimately, of course, it's all about Dignity, Justice, Community and Peace, qualities of living that seem to be ever more elusive as our journey in this handbasket continues to race onwards toward who knows what.

In that regard, I'm still making my way through Arthur Kopecky's New Buffalo Commune journals, and I was struck by something he wrote in 1976 toward the end of his time there, [paraphrasing] "We can't continue on if we have to stay poor."

But, but, but... material poverty of a certain kind is the natural state of being for most of human kind for most of human history. If we are hard-wired for community, we are also hard-wired for some kinds of poverty. It is no great loss to be without (many) things. The conscious rejection of material goods is fundamental to many kinds of communities, especially spiritual and religious ones. The New Buffalo Commune grew out of a desire to transform wealth and abundance for a few into a sustainable and survivable way of life for many, and for a time at any rate, it seemed to be on the right track. But in order to sustain themselves and survive, the New Buffalo communards had to be financially poor. They never had much money (although individuals within the commune sometimes did, and that could be a source of tension). Things -- especially vehicles -- were always breaking down and requiring more and more money for continuing maintenance and repair. Living conditions at the commune could be primitive and uncomfortable, though again, individuals were often capable of creating very vibrant, warm and comfortable living spaces -- for themselves -- despite the lack of some modern conveniences and even the lack of money.

But they needed money to buy seeds, materials and supplies, to buy livestock, to purchase vehicles and maintain the ones they had, and to pay their property taxes among so many other things. The commune couldn't function without at least some money on hand, and too often, there either wasn't any or there wasn't enough to cover all the current and likely and unexpected expenses, no matter what they did.

So Kopecky came up with plans to put the New Buffalo Commune on a better and more consistent financial foundation, and that seems to be what triggered the eventually successful effort to get rid of him, an effort that ultimately led to the implosion of the commune. I'm not sure that's the case, however, since I haven't got to that point in the journals, but that's my impression from what I've already read -- both in the journals and in other sources.

New Buffalo failed as a commune, but the place is still there and has not fallen to ruin, much of the spirit is still there. I personally am not too fond of the Taos area, mostly because of the altitude, and I would probably not do well in a commune situation. On the other hand, I don't know. I've never tried it!

Intentional communities of all kinds can be found all over New Mexico. Some have been around for decades, generations, and in the case of the Indian Pueblos, for many centuries, even millennia;  others come and go, seemingly as transitory as the wind and the weather. Seems to me, it's all quite natural.

Graeber and some of Global Justice Movement acolytes appear to want to rationalize and codify the creation and sustenance of human-scale community and democracy. It's generally lumped together as anarchism -- but I'm not sure that's what it is. And I'm not sure that will ever be a successful/sustainable model. I'm not sure that's how human nature works. Human nature is not entirely rational, and it's not always amenable to codes and rules of conduct, especially if they are imposed by fiat rather than organically developed. There are ways to do these things (such as democracy), says Graeber, ways that work. I'm sure there are, but they aren't necessarily universal nor are they necessarily applicable to current conditions and peoples -- or at least not for very long.

I think we need to get beyond what's been done, go forth and find something else again, and it looks to me like there are many, many efforts under way to do just that.

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