Bookforum talks with Astra Taylor

Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone Astra Taylor. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27

The media landscape is awash with concerns about threats to contemporary democracy. Political commentary rightly speaks to very troubling political shifts: President Donald Trump’s undermining of liberal institutions; concerns over Russian election interference; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s upending of liberal democracy; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s fascistic agenda; right-wing populism's rise across the West, and more. But media commentary often takes for granted that our imperiled democracies are the form of political life we should be upholding and defending, rather than interrogating. All too often, it is assumed that we have a state of democracy (which is under threat) without interrogating what we really mean by “democracy.” Author and filmmaker Astra Taylor follows her latest film, What Is Democracy?, with a new book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone. Building on her documentary, the book explores democracy as a fraught but precious idea, undergirded by intractable tensions.

As with your recent film, the central question of your book is “What is democracy?” What are the risks of failing to ask that question?

The big risk is that we will think democracy describes something we have, or rather had, and that we only need to turn back to the clock to 2015 or so for everything to be good and democratic again. That’s not my view.

The historian Richard Hofstadter described an intellectual as someone who can turn anything into a question, which I always liked. On the one hand, What is democracy? is an almost embarrassingly simple query, but it’s also an incredibly important and surprisingly rich one. “Democracy” is this word we hear all the time, but rarely pause to reflect on. Democracy is also not something people actual do that much of in their day to day lives—not at their jobs or in their schools, for example.

There’s a moment in the movie where I tell the political theorist Wendy Brown that I wrestled with whether or not to make democracy the theme of the film, and that was a genuine dilemma for me. Perhaps because I came of age when George W. Bush and company were “bringing democracy” to Iraq and Afghanistan, I always felt the word rang pretty hollow. But after making this film and writing the book, I see the word’s vagueness and protean character as a source of strength. Democracy is the deceptively simple promise that the people (demos) rule or hold power (kratia)—deceptively simple because it actually requires a complex set of supports to enact.

Of course, who counts as “the people” and how they rule is always up for debate and reconsideration. Democracy is a risky proposition—by definition it undermines its own legitimacy. Plato’s famously anti-democratic musings were, for example, made possible by democracy, which invites people to reflect on what system of government is best and to criticize the system they’ve got or even reject it outright. But it’s also a powerful and hopeful proposition, because it means that who the people are and how they rule can always be expanded and reimagined. For example, not that long ago, as women, you and I wouldn’t have been part of the demos, right?

Ancient Athens didn’t invent the practice of democracy, only the word. And the Athenian community certainly had its major democratic failings—the exclusion of women, the enslaved, foreigners and let’s not forget the brutal facts of imperialism! But it’s worth emphasizing one thing on which Athenians were very clear and that Plato and Aristotle both highlighted: democracy means rule of the poor, because the poor are always bound to outnumber the rich. In his book Democracy: A Life historian Paul Cartledge compares the Athenian system to a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” cribbing from Marxist terminology to describe a system of working class control. And the late Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood, whom I really admire, did fascinating work on this topic, specifically on how the participation of the peasantry was promoted through various mechanisms from sortition (the random selection of political officials) to offering payments for attending the Assembly. This economically egalitarian component of ancient democracy often gets overlooked, but it’s arguably the most significant component given our problems today.

You organize the book’s chapters to each address a core tension, indeed a seeming contradiction, that animates democratic ideals and practices. For example, “Freedom/Equality,” “Conflict/Consensus,” “Expertise/Mass Opinion.” You cite Cornel West, who called democracy a “leap of faith” which requires “living in the tension.” Why did you feel democracy was best interrogated through its paradoxes?

I like paradoxes, I always have. It was a framework that was there from the beginning, at least for the book. Even the title—Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone—tries to express a duality I often inhabit: sometimes I feel like our society is so messed up that we just need to burn it all down and start anew while I also recognize the fact that there have been remarkable social reforms that I shouldn’t take for granted or be glib about and need to help protect. While there has never been a true democracy there has been democratic progress—and that progress can be reversed.

But as I write in the book’s introduction, I am focused on a very specific kind of paradox, namely the ones I think are intrinsic to self-rule and that will not go away, even as we continue to make democratic progress. For example, I do not see the divide between the rich and poor, owners and laborers, as an intractable and eternal fact of human life (even if some rich people insist that’s the case). I can imagine a world where wealth is equitably distributed. But I cannot imagine a democracy where we don’t have to wrestle with the question of how to balance the needs of people living now with those yet to be born or the local scale with the global one.

Your film closes with socialist-feminist theorist Silvia Federici saying that democracy is worth fighting for, but that “we must define it never from above, always from below.” In the book, you expand on the difficulties therein, such as fighting the systems which sabotage public education, knowledge and understanding, which a “democracy from below” would require. The disenfranchising prison system comes immediately to mind, as does the privatization of schooling. Would democracy as defined “from below” require the dismantling, indeed the abolition, of many of the systems that liberal democracy has long maintained?

Yes, I think a whole lot of dismantling and abolition will be required if democracy is to be on our horizon. But that’s not just destructive or nihilistic work—it requires tearing down and building up. This brings us W. E. B. Du Bois and his concept of abolition, which Angela Davis briefly mentions in the film. Du Bois understood “abolition-democracy” as the road not taken out of Reconstruction. It would have been both a dismantling of the structures of white supremacy and the creation of new inclusive, egalitarian, and socialistic institutions that were—that I would say still are—required to make the promise of emancipation real. Democracy isn’t just spontaneous, it needs structures and supports to facilitate democratic outcomes and nurture democratic sensibilities. But then the challenge is how we put those structures and supports in place when people don’t seem to be democratically inclined, or are even hostile to democracy. That is the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s famous paradox: how do you get democracy out of an undemocratic people? Centuries later, it remains a valid question.

You note that capitalism and the resulting individualism of a market driven society “taken to its extreme, erodes the very idea of the people.” Historic experiments in democracy were clear about the incompatibility of combining a wealthy ruling class with a people’s rule. Plato (an elitist) was explicit about this. Which brings us to the central question of contemporary democracy: do you think true democracy is possible under capitalism?

This takes us back to the point about democracy being, by definition, rule of the poor—not the oligarchic rule of the rich we have today. But just like we can ask, “Which democracy?” we can also ask, “Which capitalism?” I think there was a period in the twentieth century when democratizing processes benefited from market expansion and stability, and that’s no longer the case in the same way—we’re in a different moment with a different balance of powers. Today, capitalism is the biggest threat to democracy.

Capitalism, with its tendency to concentrate wealth, subverts the political equality democracy depends on. But that’s obvious. The hard thing is figuring out what to do to tame or transcend and incredibly powerful, adaptable, merciless, and global economic system.

I try to get at this challenge in the film. I visit Siena, Italy, as a way of visualizing the origins of financial capitalism. There, Silvia Federici and I view and discuss a series of frescoes called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338-9. The paintings were commissioned by the merchants and bankers who ruled the city, which is the home of the oldest bank still in existence, the Bank of Siena, founded in 1472. Fourteenth-century Siena was no egalitarian democracy, but the power of the ruling merchants was localized and visible, present in the form of the towering homes of the wealthy who lived next door to the poor rabble. Federici points out that today we face a different problem when confronting power and wealth: it operates through opaque international systems that are difficult to regulate or trace; it’s hard to fight something you can’t easily see or reach. We definitely have our work cut out for us.

Your chapter addressing the issue of “inclusion” and “exclusion” brings up one of the most thorny questions about democracy. You reference a discussion with political theorist Wendy Brown, who states that that democracies must be bounded in the sense that if “we” are to rule as the people, we must have a constitutive sense of who and what that "we" will be. She rejects, however, that this “we” must be constituted by the brutal demarcations of nationality, race, gender or class. She suggests that we must re-constitute a sense of the localized demos. What are your thoughts on this?

I’m of multiple minds here. And of course Brown’s thinking is more complex and nuanced than I can convey—I highly recommend her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, which was published in 2010 but is very prescient.

Brown’s comments play a key role in the film and the book because they are really provocative and I believe she has a point: a demos that claims to be universal and include everyone risks being both incoherent and imperial. So somehow we need to be internationalists while also recognizing that communities should have a say over their destinies—it’s a paradox, but one we can’t just wish away. We also have to remember that not everyone always wants to be included in the demos. Historically, anti-colonial struggles and many indigenous communities have fought, and continue to fight, to be separate and distinct, to maintain their sovereignty and resist what they see as predatory, assimilationist forms of inclusion.

Another thing I take away from Brown’s comment is that we have to create more egalitarian conditions where exclusions don’t do as much damage, and boundaries are permeable. Around the time of the French Revolution the Marquis de Condorcet called for the abolition of inequality between nations, saying, “Equality between the nations and equality within a single nation are mutually dependent,” and I think that’s right. Now whether we need to have nations is another question! Finally, Brown raises a concluding point, and it’s a strategic one. In order to create such conditions—in order to dismantle anti-democratic global capitalist structures and replace them with something else—we have to work from the bottom up. As citizens, as individual human beings, there’s no other way. Most of us don’t have the power to work from the top down.

I think the problem of identity is sort of implicit here. Identities, national or otherwise, are tricky beasts—they bind and divide. Yet even if we want to emphasize broad identities—like class, for example—we still have to struggle to determine who, specifically makes what decisions, when, how, and where. Not everyone can or should be involved in everything.

People need to belong, but history shows that belonging can have a dark side. Somehow we have to foster identities don’t negate more encompassing, cosmopolitan forms of solidarity. This is part of the reason why, in the film, I cut from the conversation with Brown to a scene where a young man, Hasan Hmaydan, is on his way to volunteer with refugees who have arrived at Piraeus Port (which happens to be the port where Plato set the Republic, so the film comes full circle). Hasan explains how he is both Syrian and Greek. He’s doing the work of democracy at the grass roots, but he also embodies the fact borders are not and never will be absolute and that we all have multiple identities and that there is actually no contradiction in that fact at all.

When we talk about inclusion, as you note, we tend to speak in terms of identity and diversity but all too often fail to talk about class. Can explain what you mean when you say “class exposes inclusions’ limits”?

In a nutshell, I’d say that I don’t want poor people to be included (whatever that means), I want them to not be poor anymore! In a world as rich as ours, poverty should not exist (and neither should billionaires). I recently interviewed my friend Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, for an article, and she said it well: “People today think the problem is access. They think that we need to remedy exclusions with inclusions. What gets missed is the nature of the institutions people are being integrated into.” Are we including people into a pyramid shaped society, and trying to make the tippy-top slightly more diverse, or are we fighting for inclusion with the aim of leveling the pyramid so no individual’s success is contingent on another’s suffering and immiseration?

One of my favorite details in the book is about how pirates offered a model for managing the problem of conflict and consensus in a democracy. Tell us about the pirates!

That part was really an excuse to pay tribute to two of my favorite historians, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, who have written about pirates at length in various books. Pirates, as we all know from childhood, were the ultimate rebel outsiders. Ship crews were often incredibly diverse in terms of nationality and race and ran as veritable workplace democracies, even offering some of the earliest examples of health and unemployment insurance on record. They were also intensely egalitarian, with crews voting on all kinds of matters and income relatively equalized. It was only during the heat of battle that the captain was actually allowed to boss people around. The rest of the time he was just an ordinary shipmate who could be deposed at any moment. What I admire is that they adapted their process as conditions demanded. When things were calm, they deliberated at great length, making sure all voices were heard—when they were at risk of dying, they chose one person to be decisive and everyone got in line. I’ve been in so many activist groups that can’t get the balance right, and that crash and sink on the rocky shoals of badly run meetings, so maybe I just take heart that pirates pulled it off and stayed afloat.

Natasha Lennard is a columnist for The Intercept and her work has appeared regularly in The Nation, Esquire and the New Inquiry, among others. She teaches critical journalism at the New School for Social Research. Her first book, Violence: Humans in Dark Times (with Brad Evans) was published by City Lights in 2018. Her second book, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, was published by Verso Books in May.