If the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, with its paraphernalia of flags and vestments, reminded some people of the liberal revolutions of more than two centuries ago, it made me think of a more recent event. My mind went to the episode in the early pages of David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, which recounts his reaction from the spring of 2012 when a comrade of the Occupy Wall Street movement offered him a megaphone to address the assembled video cameras and a few dozen activists. The setting was nothing less than the steps of the Federal Hall Memorial in front of the New York Stock Exchange.
The brilliant professor and political activist gave an impromptu speech that was strongly inspired by the place he was at: the marble steps leading up to the memorial where the statue of George Washington presides over and protects the site of the signing of the US Bill of Rights. It is the birthplace of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the one on freedom of speech, press and peaceful assembly, without which US could hardly claim the mantle of democracy, much less the label of being the oldest democracy.
From that place, Graeber, who died recently, told some truths about American history unknown to the majority of its citizens and those of us who live under the influence of its great power. He concluded by saying:
“There is nothing that terrifies our leaders [at the time Obama and Biden] more than the possibility of democracy awakening in America. And if that possibility exists, if anyone can claim to be the heir of those who risked taking to the streets to claim the Bill of Rights, I fear that possibility is limited to those gathered here.”
Graeber’s complete speech is a plea for the relevance that the popular mobilisations have had in the history of the country and the denunciation that if it were not for them the protagonists of that history would not even have a place in it. If it were not for the fact that this thesis could give rise to a third American revolution, the discourse is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster or, hopefully, a brilliant documentary capable of illuminating the path that our democracies should take.
Perhaps that is why, since the assault on the Capitol, I have remained fearful that among that circus-like mass, as Mike Davis called it, there might appear if not a brilliant and articulate academic at least an artist-activist capable of selling us a brilliant slogan that could give context to such an embarrassing event.
What if by stretching the Occupy Wall Street-Assault on the Capitol association, we were to incorporate into this demonstration of discontent the dozens of unprecedented mass protests that have taken place in the US over the last year and recognise all these mobilisations, as Graeber was impelled to do, as part of a “great American tradition”? What if we focus not only on the injustice of the police duplicity that responded to Capitol raiders differently than the peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters (whose sole purpose is to remind their oppressors that the lives of the unjustly marginalised also matter), but also highlight what the similarities may be?
Can it be said loud and clear that what those who inhabit the ivory tower of the so-called American democracy are two factions: they have little of what is expected of the meaning of their name, whether Democrats or Republicans. Instead, they are the very expression of the distant, colonial aristocracy, unaware of the reality and social injustice against which some of the Founding Fathers fought? Two factions radicalised more than ever, summoning people by means of marketing of votes, previously agitated by networks that have little in the way of social – an apparatus in short that has nothing to do with the democratic project that Graeber rescues in his book and with which the thinkers of yesteryear inspired the Founding Fathers. A project that today we can say without a doubt has left aside those it claimed to address.
This is the translated version of an article that first appeared in El Pais.
Luis Feduchi, formerly professor of design at the University of Queensland and faculty dean at the UCJC Madrid, is a practicing architect based in Berlin. Since 1990 he has worked extensively in heritage and land development projects in India.