Occupy Wall Street’s march against police brutality, New York City, September 30, 2011.
Occupy Wall Street’s march against police brutality, New York City, September 30, 2011.

The preamble to the US Constitution boldly asserts a claim of popular sovereignty. The document declares itself the work of “We the People.” This claim, as many historians and others have pointed out, is a mystification: Insofar as ours is a democratic polity, it has become so in spite of the intentions of the Founding Fathers, who were, at best, the palest of democrats.

Among the clearest indications of this mystification are the absence in the document of anything but the thinnest provisions for indirect popular rule and the Founders’ failure to provide any institutional space for the exercise of direct democracy. Critics ranging from Thomas Jefferson (the most democratic of the Founders) to Hannah Arendt to Robert Dahl have stressed the pronounced democratic limitations of the document solemnizing our government’s founding. What’s more, since these studied evasions of democratic rule come packaged within an elaborate constitutional architecture designed to insulate and sustain elite power, American democrats have long had to grapple with the distressing realization that this sacred text in our country’s civic religion is a perennial obstacle to their hopes and dreams.

Nonetheless, they have persevered. Beginning immediately in the 1790s, a host of dissidents have struggled, often with an eye to the work of like-minded radicals in Europe and elsewhere, to imagine and realize a more robust American democracy. The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011–12 and the wider Occupy movement they fostered are clearly movements in this lineage.

The fruits of such dissidence have been both practical and theoretical. The visions of radical democrats have encompassed new ways of doing democracy and new ways of thinking about it, and about its enemies. The practical legacy of the Occupy movement is still very much a work in progress, but, as these books by David Graeber and David Harvey suggest, the conceptual gains of this urban revolt and others like it around the world in recent years—in Egypt, Spain, Greece, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and elsewhere—are already considerable.

Both Graeber and Harvey see the Occupy movement and other urban uprisings as hopeful prefigurations of a democratic politics decidedly different from the money-besotted regime of “bribery” (as Graeber calls it) that now passes for representative government in the United States. And both theorists hope that such provisional experiments in principled dissent may yield what Harvey terms a “coherent opposition,” which will “freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people.” Graeber and Harvey both urge us to think in new ways about the class relationships of modern capitalist societies and the debilitating effects they have wrought on the lives of many citizens. And both contend that capitalism and the capitalists who have reaped enormous returns from its dynamics have entered yet another destructive crisis that they may not survive. As Harvey puts it, “The system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.”

The Occupy Wall Street protest addressed these pressing questions of class inequality in its substantive focus and signature slogan—“We are the 99 percent”—and in its formal practice in Zuccotti Park attempted to create an inchoate kind of direct democracy. Harvey and Graeber both have much of interest to say about social class and democracy, though Harvey (the neo-Marxist) devotes deeper attention in Rebel Cities to class, while Graeber (the communitarian anarchist) centers the analysis of The Democracy Project on the formal practices of a radically egalitarian politics.

Harvey follows a Marxist line of reasoning that highlights the relentless pursuit of profit by a capitalist class that produces surplus value by extracting it from the working class. But he departs from Marxist orthodoxy by arguing that “the dynamics of class exploitation are not confined to the workplace.” Rather, he maintains that exploitation takes place in all the circuits of capital—not only in the production of commodities but also in their sale and in the money markets that undergird a financialized capitalist order. Viewed in this way, value created in production is not necessarily extracted solely at the point of production; it may also be harvested by landlords charging exorbitant rent or by banks engaged in predatory mortgage lending. Harvey’s Marxism thus posits a much more various “proletariat” than does a Marxism that fails to look beyond the factory floor.

In the United States and elsewhere, credit in particular has become an increasingly significant instrument of class exploitation. As Graeber—the author of the wide-ranging 2011 study Debt: The First 5,000 Years—points out, the “financialization” of American capitalism has meant “collusion between government and financial institutions to ensure that a larger and larger proportion of citizens fall deeper and deeper in debt.” Graeber further suggests that this unorthodox approach to the class relationships of capitalism helped the activists of Occupy Wall Street forge effective alliances—for example, between unionized transport workers and college graduates whose lives are withering under the crushing weight of student-loan obligations.

Graeber also adds an intriguing dimension to Harvey’s argument by suggesting that Occupy Wall Street was particularly attractive to young debtors whose resentment was directed “not just to the power of money, but to the power of money to determine what life itself was supposed to be about.” The evidence for this claim is modest, but Graeber’s insight is nonetheless suggestive: The burdens of college-loan debt have cut off many young Americans from careers spent in the service of others, because satisfying work of this sort cannot generate enough income to pay back lenders and take care of a family. “There was a time,” Graeber notes, “when the paradigmatic politically self-conscious working-class American was a male breadwinner working in an auto factory or steel mill. Now it is more likely to be a single mother working as a teacher or a nurse.” Such members of an increasingly postindustrial proletariat “are broadening our conception of meaningful work to include everything we do that isn’t for ourselves.” In targeting the mechanisms of financial privilege, these protesters are insisting, in essence, that one should not require a trust fund to pursue work that advances a public good.

Harvey, an urban geographer, has long argued that cities are fertile sites permitting workers and citizens displaced by the frenetic energies of postmodern capitalism to likewise start to lay bare emerging new patterns of capital accumulation and class exploitation and conflict. Since the Great Depression, as one economist has observed, “Americans recover from recessions by building more homes and filling them with things.” Harvey marshals this central idea to highlight the many ways in which capitalism has shaped urban geography to meet its needs—and to show how cities (outside of the well-guarded enclaves of the wealthy) have suffered for it. In this country, we find ourselves at home in sprawling metropolitan regions, divided by class and race and locked into an environmentally unsustainable way of life.

This experience of urban life inevitably spawns new modes of popular discontent—and Harvey suggests that cities are developing into the most prominent sites of prospective revolutionary change. He focuses his political vision on a campaign to democratize urbanization that affirms for all city dwellers a “right to the city.” By this he means not only a right to share in a city’s resources but also the right to “claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way.” Capitalists and their allies have had their chance to shape cities to their hearts’ desire; now, Harvey argues, it is time for the rest of us to do so. In this vein, he cites the Occupy movement as one among several recent instances of urban rebellion around the world that have given provisional life to this possibility.

Graeber, an American anthropologist who teaches in London, was an active participant in Occupy Wall Street and has emerged as a leading spokesman for the movement. For him, the Zuccotti Park encampment was significant not only as an anticapitalist protest but also as a relatively successful experiment in direct democracy—that is, as a demonstration of the self-conscious pursuit of democratic ends by democratic means. In The Democracy Project, Graeber extends the scope of this claim, seeking to situate the Occupy movement in a broader tradition of radical democratic thought and practice in Western politics.

Democracy, for Graeber, is direct self-rule; representative democracy is a pale shadow of the real thing. And the means to robust democracy, he insists, must be robustly democratic: “The organizational form that an activist group takes should embody the kind of society we wish to create.” He thus offers a full and admiring account of the procedures and practices of the “horizontal,” antihierarchical democracy that Occupy anarchists constructed in Zuccotti Park. The centerpiece of its “horizontality” was its general assembly, and he describes the methods of consensual decision making by which a couple of thousand people were able to govern themselves effectively for weeks.

Nothing distressed and annoyed practitioners of conventional protest politics more than the failure of the Occupy movement to formulate a set of demands, but, as Graeber sees it, the principal point of the occupations was not to enumerate policy positions. The idea, rather, was to provide “a glimpse of what real democracy might be like.”

Harvey, for his part, mordantly recalls that the violent and disastrous end to one of the great nineteenth-century urban rebellions, the Paris Commune of 1871, provoked recriminations and bitter divisions between Marxists and anarchists that persist to this day. So one might well expect that Graeber and Harvey, for all their shared utopian hopes, would register some strong disagreements on the proper scope and utility of direct democracy.

That is indeed the case on two related points of theory and practice. Harvey does not dispute the importance of fully participatory, face-to-face governance of the sort Graeber celebrates in genuinely democratic local politics. Yet, as critics of direct democracy have done for centuries, he challenges horizontalists like Graeber to confront the difficulties of scale. Democratic practices that may work in small gatherings of citizens, such thinkers have contended, cannot possibly function in larger political units. One cannot imagine a general assembly of the sort Graeber describes governing an entire city, let alone a nation or planet.

Under this view, any reasonably imagined democratic future must involve some measure of representative government—a “nested hierarchy” or concentric circles of democratic governing groups of the sort Thomas Jefferson imagined in the scheme of overlapping deliberative bodies he proposed in 1816. Graeber—about as undogmatic an anarchist as one could hope for—pretty much concedes this point, as long as the hierarchy is truly “nested,” and power flows upward rather than downward.

Still, as Harvey argues, it is difficult to see how such a democratic structure could survive without some coercive power flowing downward. At a minimum, leaders and citizens will need to coordinate the activities of the various smaller-scale democracies in confronting problems that far outstrip the strictly local level—most notably global crises such as climate change. In the absence of such coordination, major issues of international distributive justice could be a death sentence for political confederations that allow some communities to become free riders on the sacrifices of others or to secede when they dissent strongly from a decision in the upper nests of the hierarchy. Moreover, such a confederation would presumably have to thwart inequities among its different communities, even as each of the member communities is taking on the inequities within its confines.

As Harvey concludes, “The only way that general rules of, say, redistribution of wealth between municipalities can be established is either by democratic consensus (which, we know from historical experience, is unlikely to be voluntarily and informally arrived at) or by citizens as democratic subjects with powers of decision at different levels within a structure of hierarchical governance.” In other words: However much radical democracy may shun the tainted practices of authoritarianism, it still must exercise its own principles of legitimate authority, and the capacity to enforce them.

This dispute is, of course, a purely theoretical concern at this point in the revolutionary transformation Harvey and Graeber envision—though it’s still well worth airing and debating. The more immediate, much less theoretical, disagreement between these two radicals is over the relationship between movements of rebellion such as Occupy and existing political institutions and practices (such as, say, labor unions, political parties, or constitutional reform).

Graeber is sometimes adamant in his insistence that no such relationships be forged, since there is no point for anarchists to engage a political and social order that is beyond redemption. He writes that the Occupy movement is “trying to create liberated territories outside of the existing political, legal, and economic order, on the principle that that order is irredeemably corrupt.” This agenda hinges more on the delegitimation of the present order than on the piecemeal politics of reform. And Occupy activists are seeking to implement this program on the one hand by exposing the corrupting effects of inequality on American politics and on the other by prefiguring a politics free of such corruption.

Harvey is much less enamored of such “termite politics”—not least because it is too easily susceptible to repressive extermination at the hands of the capitalist state. Reforms, he argues, might be steps on the path to more radical change; they may “reveal deeper layers of possibility for more radical conceptions and actions.” Marx himself, after all, “depicted restrictions on the length of the working day as a first step down a revolutionary path.” Limiting the damage may have both short- and long-term rewards.

Here, too, Graeber backs away from purism. He acknowledges that anarchists in the Occupy movement have obligations to those nonanarchists who joined the protest not because of its prefigurative politics but because they hoped it would do something concrete about gross inequality. In a rigorously uncompromising anarchist conception of its aims, he admits, the movement risks “creating tiny utopian enclaves that could have no immediate effect on anyone else’s lives.” Hence Graeber allows for alliances with reformers who care deeply about inequality, if little about horizontality—as long as such collaborations are provided with “various sorts of firewalls” to protect what he views as the movement’s foundational commitment to radical democracy. If the divides between anarchism and Marxism remain firmly in place, those between Graeber and Harvey appear bridgeable.

Quite obviously, despite their concessions to reform, neither Harvey nor Graeber is much interested in short-term, readily “doable” politics. Their invitation is to launch thoroughly disruptive nonviolent direct action in the streets, and they harbor no illusions about the violent response that such action will provoke from their enemies. And even from their friends, they invite skepticism, to say the least, and charges of pie-in-the-sky utopianism. Graeber has a preemptive response to such skeptics. “It’s crucial to begin,” he says, “by underlining that transformative outbreaks of imagination have happened, they are happening, they surely will continue to happen again.” Events such as Occupy Wall Street “cause us to reconsider everything we thought we knew about the past. This is why those in power do their best to bottle them up, to treat these outbreaks of imagination as peculiar anomalies, rather than the kind of moments from which everything, including their own power, originally emerged.”

He has a point. Still, Graeber’s radical hope, and Harvey’s as well, rests on much more than such transformative outbreaks of imagination. Both writers confidently predict ongoing catastrophic failures of global capitalism to sustain itself—as well as deepening popular discontent with the sheer awfulness of representative government. Since more expansive democracy is not the only, or even the most likely, consequence one can imagine from such circumstances, it’s never too soon for democrats to make their preparations for ever more difficult struggles ahead.

Robert Westbrook teaches history at the University of Rochester.