It hadn’t occurred to me to think about democracy and culture growing up in Japan. It’s easy to take our social and political systems in our home countries as given. The path that led me to think about the problem began at a bookshop in San Francisco, where I was visiting for a research trip. It was there that I came across the book The Utopia of Rules by the late anthropologist David Graeber.

Inspired by the expansive horizons in his writing, I applied to and was accepted to study under Graeber at the anthropology department of the London School of Economics. My background is in ethnic studies, researching Asian American film; I had never studied anthropology before.

It wasn’t just his class or books, though, that left an impression, but his exuding joy of research and intellectual inquiry.

After the end of the course, I followed Graeber’s work closely. This past April, a Japanese translation of an essay of his appeared, “There never was a West.” I had been planning to write about this when I heard of his untimely death at 59 this past September. Now that he is gone, it seems all the more important to consider how his ideas will resonate outside of their cultural context, outside of the west that never existed.

Democracy is often assumed to be a western idea. This belief is held in Asia, too, where the story of democracy as the movement that began in ancient Athens has had remarkable influence. Critics of democracy like to talk about how “Asian values” are incompatible with democracy, and, historically, some advocates for democracy have seen it as a part of western-style modernization.

But stopping for a moment to think about the multitude of cultures in Asia, the range of political regimes from authoritarian to democratic, and the power of resistance movements against the authoritarian regimes, makes these cultural arguments seem ridiculous. Is the authoritarian regime in Thailand the political expression of Thai culture, or the mass protest movement against it? Can culture explain the difference between North and South Korea?

Graeber, however, took the challenge further. It’s not just that culture can’t explain tendencies toward democracy. It’s that democracy has no origins in any particular culture at all. Contrary to what many people believe about the origins of democracy, Graeber believed that democracy meant nothing other than the practice of communal self-governance.

By this definition, democracy has no origin story — at least since humans began associating with one another. What he called “democratic practice,” or decision making in an egalitarian manner, occurs everywhere. The problem, Graeber writes, is that we have a system that’s a product of elite compromise to prevent “mob rule” as democracy, at the expense of the real thing.

Implied in the common understanding of democracy is the existence of the state with an elected government. Graeber argues that the state is more properly understood as a form of organizing violence than as a vehicle for democracy. Those looking for democracy are better off looking in places outside the purview of the state, on pirate ships, or frontier communities.

The history of states being no friend to democracy is abundantly present in the history of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both share a history of colonization and a long denial of formal democracy. And citizens in both continue to struggle today. Because of China, the aspirations of those in Taiwan for international recognition of sovereignty, and those in Hong Kong for civil and human rights are denied.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Students occupying Taiwan's Parliament during the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

The movements in Hong Kong post-Umbrella Movement and in Taiwan during the Sunflower Movement expose the limitations of the state as a site of democracy. Who knows what form of state may emerge from the movements in the coming decades?

They may be the starting point for creating a realm beyond the existing political, legal, and economic order. The second half of the headline “There never was a West,” is “democracy emerges from the spaces in between.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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