David Graeber on Democracy

It was very sad to hear the news of the death of David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist academic, on 2nd September 2020.  David Graeber was professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, and the author of multiple books including, Debt, the first 5000 years, The Democracy Project, and Bullshit Jobs. I was fortunate to film this footage of David speaking to a group of people gathered in Parliament Square, London at Occupy Democracy on 1st May 2015.

Here’s a transcript of the video:

David Graeber

I come from United States where everybody is taught that democracy, you know, comes from the Founding Fathers who created the constitution, the declaration of independence constitution. And you know, the amazing thing is if you actually look at the declaration of independence, the constitution doesn’t say anything about America being a democracy, no one ever talks about this. And if you look at it and you figure out why, you read the original documents, you realize that actually those guys hated democracy. They said so all the time.

I actually saw the opening speech of the constitutional convention, where all the people gathered together to create the American constitution and the first speech is by a governor of Virginia, he says, ‘we’ve got a real problem in this country. There’s a real danger of democracy breaking out. There’s democratic elements in a lot of the local constitution, you’ve got to do something about this. What are we going to do to prevent democracy? We need to create a federal system’, so forth and so on. So the entire constitutional project is an attempt explicitly to suppress democracy.

Now, what did they mean by democracy? Well, they meant this. They meant people sitting around in squares, publicly discussing what to do and brainstorming ideas and, and resolving their own problems in an equal fashion. And why were they against it? They said very blatantly. I mean, John Adams, who was, I think the third president wrote said, ‘one man, one vote, that’s insane. You can’t have democracy. We have, you know, we have like 10 million people with no property in 1 million people have property. What do you think is going to happen? If you give these guys the vote, they’re going to, appropriate us right away.’

So they made very clear that there’s no way you can have real democracy if you have vast inequalities of wealth without people actually undoing the great inequalities of wealth. Now what they have done over the last 200 years is figure out a way a) to take these institutions, which are basically created to stop democracy and convince everybody they are democracy and b) to get people more and more involved in the system. Since gradually, they did expand it to one man, one vote and still somehow not have them do the thing everybody was afraid that they were going to do in the beginning, which is expropriatie the wealth. I mean millions and millions of very ingenious people have been working on how to do this for years. It’s one of the greatest feats of propaganda ever done, but it’s ultimately backed up by force and the moment you really seriously challenge it. Well, we all see what happens.

David Graeber


Question from the audience

Perfect. Thank you. And so I just want you all to be aware that we need to acknowledge that the wealth and the deep intelligence and deep understanding what true democracy is, comes from the native people of what’s. I only called the USA because you can’t call it because America’s a huge continent.


David Graeber

One thing I would add to that, which people don’t acknowledge is most of the actual democratic elements that did end up in the American constitutional system originally come from native Americans. I mean, the federal system is borrowed from native Americans directly. The story of what actually happened historically has really not been told, because we have this idea that we have these people who have just always been sort of these nature people that don’t have politics of their own, but actually when European settlers showed up in North America, what they really encountered was the result of hundreds of years of democratic movements within native American society. There were these vast kingdoms in the Mississippi, Mississippian civilization they were called, with cast systems which were hierarchical, human sacrifice. Those things were overthrown and they were overthrown by popular movements. It’s only now we’re beginning to understand what happened within indigenous societies, which then created a remarkably individualistic and egalitarian democratic system. And a lot of the enlightenment was actually borrowed from native Americans directly.


Question from the audience

What do you think of systems like liquid democracy and other sort of internet based democratic systems, if you know any like delegative democracy, things like that.


David Graeber

Should I answer your direct answers? Okay. In this case, I don’t have much of a direct answer. I haven’t really studied them. I mean in my experience social media, internet based forums of democracy they’re really useful for spreading information and coordinating things, but I’ve yet to see a really good way to frame and make decisions collectively that doesn’t involve at some point, people sitting down together. And I think that the technology is really useful to get people into the spaces where they can sit down together and we can’t have enough of that, but at some point people have to look at each other’s eyes.


1 Comment

  1. Alex Mills   •  

    Sorry to hear about your friend’s passing, John. David sounded like a popular and well respected academic.

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