Personal Anecdote: Graeber and Me

It must have been in the fall of 2001 when strolling down Orange Street with David Graeber, we ran into the Mayor of New Haven’s chief of staff, a fairly typical Ivy League technocrat named Henry Gonzalez. Of course, he detested me (as I recall, I had just voted against the mayor’s budget in the Board of Aldermen based on his doling out for himself a pay raise while demanding salary concessions from the municipal workers’ unions), but we maintained at least cordial relations so I introduced him to David. I remember at the time trying to explain to David what the Greens in New Haven were trying to accomplish, and insofar as there was a core vision, it revolved around challenging the assumption of machine Democrats like Gonzalez “that the role of a representative is not to represent, not to listen, but to tell people what to do.”

Our view was to try “to move from a politics of accountability to one of participation: to create forms of popular education and decision-making that allow community groups and local assemblies made up of citizens of all political stripes to make key decisions affecting their lives.”

These two quotations are from David’s superb piece from today’s  Guardian. I should say that at the time, David was unconvinced, and, as the New Haven Greens would implode not long after, we were never able to make the case to him for electoral politics as a viable means to implement this vision. David was working, as he describes them in the piece, “in movements aimed at creating new forms of bottom-up democracy” and, so while he was supportive of our work, he regarded our attempts as excessively verticalist, remaining as “outsider” while investing himself in horizontalist movements, first the Global Justice Movement then later and most famously, Occupy Wall Street where he would become, well, David Graeber.

Now, almost 15 years later, Corbyn and the remarkable inside/outside formation Momentum, are showing that electoral politics can, in fact, serve in the capacity which we were arguing for 15 years ago. On some level, I feel a small sense of validation, but more importantly, I think the main lesson is from Graeber himself: he recognizes that, at least at the moment, the direction the movement is taking is not the one that’s in the playbook which he has spent years thinking about, developing and implementing. But he recognizes that the goal is much more important than the route by which we reach it. So he weighs in supportively, usefully, and as always, very perceptively in this piece.

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