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November 2011: Agoraphobic moments of revelation

November 16, 2011
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November 2011: Agoraphobic moments of revelation

To connect a couple of dots, one short, one long.


Embattled Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, speaking in an interview with the BBC (excerpted on The Takeaway radio program-audio of Quan starts at the 5:30 mark), casually mentioned that she was on a conference call with leaders of 18 US cities shortly before a wave of raids broke up Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country.


Occupy Wall Street-and all the others-was an "agora." From Wikipedia we learn this:

The Agora (Greek: ?????, Agorá) was an open "place of assembly" in ancient Greek city-states... The word agoraphobia, the fear of critical public situations, derives from Agora in its meaning as a gathering place...The Forum was the Roman equivalent of the Agora and the word is often used in older texts to refer to Greek agorai (plural of Agora).

David Graeber, one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street and a highly recognized anthropologist by other anthropologists and many anarchists, talks of the "impossible marriage:" [1]

For the past two hundred years, democrats have been trying to graft ideals of popular self-governance onto the coercive apparatus of the state. In the end, the project is simply unworkable. States cannot, by their nature, ever truly be democratic. They are, after all, basically ways of organizing violence. The American Federalists were being quite realistic when they argued that democracy is in consistent with a society based on inequalities of wealth; since, in order to protect wealth, one needs an apparatus of coercion to keep down the very "mob" that democracy would empower. Athens was unique case in this respect because it was, in effect, transitional: there were certainly inequalities of wealth, even arguably, a ruling cass, but there was virtually no formal apparatus of coercion. Hence there's no consensus among scholars whether it can be really be considered a state at all.

It's precisely when one considers the problem of the modern state's monopoly of coercive force that the whole pretence of democracy dissolves into a welter of contradictions. For example: while modern elites have largely put aside the earlier discourse of the "mob" as a murderous "great beast," the same imagery still pops back, in almost exactly the form it had in the 16th century, the moment anyone proposes democratizing some aspect of the apparatus of coercion. In the US, for example, advocates of the "fully informed jury movement," who point out that the Constitution actually allows juries to decide on questions of law, not just of evidence, are regularly denounced in the media as wishing to go back to the days of lynchings and "mob rule." It's no coincidence that the United States, a country that still prides itself on its democratic spirit, has also led the world in mythologizing, even deifying, its police.

Francis Dupuis-Deri (2002) has coined the term "political agoraphobia" to refer to the suspicion of public deliberation and decision-making that runs through the Western tradition...I would add that even the most impressive accomplishments of the liberal state, its most genuinely democratic elements-for instance, its guarantees on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly-are premised on such agoraphobia. It is only once it becomes absolutely clear that public speech and assembly is no longer itself the medium of political decision-making, but at its best an attempt o criticize, influence, or make suggestions to political decision-makers, that they can be treated as sacrosanct...While liberal democracies lack anything resembling the Athenian agora, they certainly do not lack equivalents to Roman circuses. The ugly mirror phenomenon, by which ruling elites encourage forms of popular participation that continually remind the public just how much they are unfit to rule, seems in many modern states, to have been brought to a condition of unprecedented perfection. Consider here, for example, the view of human nature one might derive generalizing from the experience of driving to work on the highway, as opposed to the view one might derive from the experience of public transportation. Yet, the American-or German-love affair with the car was the result of conscious policy decisions by political and corporate elites beginning in the 1930s. One could write a similar history of the television, or consumerism, or, as Polanyi long ago noted, "the market."

(Emphases added.)

[1] David Graeber, Possibilities: essyas on hierarchy, rebellion, and desire, 365-6.

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