I Have Seen the Future, and It Is Betafo

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Keeping Paul Krugman's strictures on the separation of advocacy and activism carefully in mind, I dropped by Zuccotti Park last week. People seemed to be having a good time. David Rushkoff, an admirer of the movement, described the mood pretty well:

[U]nlike a traditional protest, which identifies the enemy and fights for a particular solution, Occupy Wall Street just sits there talking with itself, debating its own worth, recognizing its internal inconsistencies and then continuing on as if this were some sort of new normal. It models a new collectivism, picking up on the sustainable protest village of the movement's Egyptian counterparts, with food, first aid, and a library.

What more do you need, really? Society as a sustainable protest village. With food, first aid and books sourced from other sustainable protest villages. The idea, according to the Chronicle of Higher education, has deep intellectual roots:

Occupy Wall Street's most defining characteristics--its decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-making--are rooted in other precincts of academe and activism: in the scholarship of anarchism and, specifically, in an ethnography of central Madagascar.

It was on this island nation off the coast of Africa that David Graeber, one of the movement's early organizers, who has been called one of its main intellectual sources, spent 20 months between 1989 and 1991. He studied the people of Betafo, a community of descendants of nobles and of slaves, for his 2007 book, Lost People.

Betafo was "a place where the state picked up stakes and left," says Mr. Graeber, an ethnographer, anarchist, and reader in anthropology at the University of London's Goldsmiths campus.

In Betafo he observed what he called "consensus decision-making," where residents made choices in a direct, decentralized way, not through the apparatus of the state. "Basically, people were managing their own affairs autonomously," he says.

The process is what scholars of anarchism call "direct action." For example, instead of petitioning the government to build a well, members of a community might simply build it themselves. It is an example of anarchism's philosophy, or what Mr. Graeber describes as "democracy without a government."

I wonder if there are limits to what local communities can "simply" decide to do--we're OK for wells where I live--but you see the point. BusinessWeek has a longer profile of Graeber, and says a little more about the Betafo model.

Because of spending cuts mandated by the International Monetary Fund--the sort of structural-adjustment policies Graeber would later protest--the central government had abandoned the area, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. They did, creating an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus. When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a lynching required permission from the accused's parents.

No plea bargains?

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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