So What Is Democracy Anyway?

A Q+A with filmmaker and author Astra Taylor


In a forthcoming book titled ‘Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone,’ author and filmmaker Astra Taylor contends that democracy isn’t something that we may ever achieve, but rather something to always be striving for. Each chapter represents a contradiction or a paradox unlikely to be reconciled in the next election cycle or even our lifetimes: freedom vs. equality, spontaneousness vs. structure, global vs. local, and the past vs. the future, to name a few. Before the the book, Taylor directed a movie, which is playing Thursday at Amherst College, called ‘What is Democracy?’ — it doesn’t answer the question it poses per se, but asks everyone from school children to philosophers to engage with it. Taylor suggests that to rule ourselves, we can’t escape these types of questions but must grapple with them. I worked as Taylor’s research assistant for the book and asked her a few questions about the film.

Catch ‘What is Democracy?’ and a discussion with Taylor on Thursday April 25th at 4:30 in the Lipton Lecture Hall in the Science Center at Amherst College, room E110 .  

In other interviews, as well as in the companion book, you’ve mentioned that the meaning of the word democracy has changed for you. How has your thinking about the term changed and how does this new definition inform the movie?

When I began this project I was pretty ambivalent about the word “democracy.” I think a lot of that had to do with coming of age during the Bush years with all of the disgusting neoconservative rhetoric about “bringing democracy” to the Middle East. So words like equality, freedom, socialism, revolution drew me in when I was younger, while the word democracy sounded pretty used up, hollow. But as I say in the book, I now find the concept’s disorienting vagueness to be a source of strength and generative potential. Democracy is this idea that the people rule, but who the people are and how we rule is always open to debate and contestation.

But democracy doesn’t just mean anything. I think there are some core aspects. Democracy demands a baseline of political equality (everyone has a say and has basic rights) and political equality requires, in turn, a baseline of economic equality, otherwise the extremely wealthy will dominate, just like they do today. Maybe we could just go back to Aristotle, who was adamant that since democracy is the rule of the many (as opposed to rule of one, which is tyranny, or rule of a few, which is oligarchy) democracy then must mean the rule of the poor, since the broke are bound to outnumber the rich. He wasn’t a fan of democracy, but I think he got that point right.

But the film tries not to be too didactic. Instead, on a fundamental level, the movie is just trying to get us to take this question that sounds deceptively obvious – What is democracy? – and reckon with how complicated and [how] rich a question it actually is. So even though my own thinking has evolved a lot, and I have lots of ideas about what democracy is and could be (and a lot of them are in the book), I still think asking the question and being open to new ideas and points of view and new horizons and prospects is critical.

The movie shows these beautiful vignettes of both philosophers and quote unquote ordinary people engaging with big ideas. To rule ourselves, you are positing that everyone must engage and grapple with philosophical questions. How did you think about constructing a “demos,” if you will, for the film?

It was tricky because the film is under two hours long, so obviously it’s not comprehensive even if it has a wide geographic scope. Lots of people, and groups of people, are left out. But I tried to construct the film so that there’s a kind of openness (it doesn’t pretend for a second to be the definitive film on the topic), and so that the audience can make associations and relate what they are watching back to their own lives and communities, even if they are not directly represented on screen. While shooting, I encountered a lot of wisdom from the people I met and interviewed, and that was amazing, but I also didn’t want to paint an overly rose-colored portrait, so I tried to include some disturbing attributes and comments. The demos is incomplete and also conflicted.

I was also trying to show the demos as multigenerational. Not just the old and the young (the movie subjects range from kids who are 12 to older folks in their 70s and 80s) but across time – the film has a wide temporal scope as well as a geographical one. The movie goes back 2,500 years, in part to remind us that the problems we are facing aren’t necessarily new but are deeply rooted. We’re still living through the repercussions of past wrongs, such as imperialism and slavery, and past rights, all of the victories won by people who stood up and resisted abuse, who fought for abolition and civil rights and gender equality and labor protections, who expanded the circle of inclusion. Past militants helped create conditions for a new, more expansive and more democratic demos, and hopefully those of us who live today will do the same for those to come.

The film is about democracy, but elections and voting, the bread and butter of capital-D democracy, get little attention. The most explicit talk of voting comes from William Barber at a protest. The film contains a workers’ cooperative run by immigrants in North Carolina, a health clinic run by unemployed people in Greece, Silvia Federici says democracy starts in the bedroom. What it doesn’t suggest, however, is that democracy is something you obtain by invading other countries in order to redistribute their natural resources to U.S. corporations, as many powerful people might like us to believe. In that light, your film acts as a corrective about how democracy might expand. How might democracy expand?

Democracy is always expanded through struggle against domination, marginalization, and exploitation. It’s not a top down process. Even the much-revered democracy of ancient Athens (limited as it was to male citizens, and not slaves, women, or foreigners) only came about because common people rioted. At one point I thought I might call the film “The Trouble With Democracy,” and I meant the word “trouble” to have multiple meanings. First, democracy is in trouble, we live in a period of political crisis. Second, democracy is trouble, as in it’s a pain in the ass (“freedom is an endless meeting,” as the saying goes). Third, it takes trouble, you have to make trouble. People have to mobilize, organize, strike, and riot—not only campaign, run for office, and vote.

But if we want democracy to both deepen and expand, as your question suggests, we have to get better at creating solidarity and strategizing across distances and differences. Again, that’s just hard work, it’s trouble. The left has dreamt of building an “international” for a long time, but it’s proven challenging in practice for all sorts of reasons we can’t get into here. But maybe the silver lining of capitalism being fully globalized, with investments and profits crossing borders even when human beings can’t, is that working people often have common enemies to organize against. We’re all at the mercy of Google, Shell, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and so on. We need to turn that into a common, border-crossing cause.

On Twitter as well as in conversations we’ve had, you’ve said that every town should have a Shoestring. How come?

Journalism is truly in peril. I don’t know if people realize just how fucked up things are. On the one hand we can all read more material online, it’s a cornucopia of content (I hate the word “content”). But the seeming abundance is misleading. More and more of what we read comes from a handful of commercial sources, and it is national and opinion-based, not local and reported (nor international – we are getting more parochial despite the fact foreign papers are a click away). I’m not saying there were some perfect good-old-days when journalism was thriving, but the shift to the digital realm has decimated the old funding models that kept local reporting alive. So I think it’s amazing that the Shoestring exists and that you are doing in-depth city beat reporting and investigative reporting that is in-depth and edgy, serious and cool. In the end, however, state subsidies are, in my view, the only way journalism can survive at the scale it’s needed, the only way every town can realistically have someone covering City Hall. So I think the Shoestring is fantastic and should be emulated. The only way you would be better is if you were publicly funded and not, well, operating on a shoestring. You’re doing a public service and deserve public support.


Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring.

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