- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Astra Taylor’s documentary film “What is Democracy?” is a meditation on the idea of rule by the many, not the few. Where did this idea come from, how close are we to realizing it today, and what are the primary obstacles we encounter as we attempt to build a free and egalitarian society?
Taylor’s film takes up these complex questions, interweaving observations from well-known intellectuals like Cornel West, Silvia Federici, and Wendy Brown with the perspectives of ordinary people, including high school students, activists, cooperative workers, formerly incarcerated people, and refugees. The film avoids overt prescriptions, but gestures toward solidarity and class struggle as a means of building democracy in the real world.
Taylor has a companion book called “Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone,” which will be released in May 2019. Her film hits select theaters this month. Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day spoke with Taylor about democracy and tyranny, filmmaking and organizing, and capitalism and socialism.
In one of the opening scenes of the film, philosopher Eleni Perdikouri says that the fundamental question guiding the work of Plato and Aristotle is that of happiness, how to live a good life. In answering this question, they postulated that a good life requires a good city, a city characterized by justice and unity. “For Plato,” says Perdikouri, “the basic factors which endanger the unit of the city are wealth and its counterpart, poverty.”
Let’s start here. To what extent is wealth inequality a theme of your film about democracy, and why?
Capitalism is the number one threat to democracy today. Of course it’s ahistorical to say the capitalism was the problem when Plato was writing, because capitalism as we know it didn’t exist, but the film is trying to draw attention to the fact that economics has always been central to democratic struggle and the corruption of democratic ideals.
I wanted to take the viewer into a different time horizon. That felt important to me given the state of our media and the fact that we’re caught in this constant present, where everything is so timely. Part of what the film does is to say, now let’s take a more timeless look at things. Let’s look at recurring problems. Let’s go back 2,500 years instead of just twenty-five minutes.
When we do that, we see that economics was central even then. Aristotle was very clear on this — and Plato agreed — that democracy is rule by the poor. This simple definition is something we’ve forgotten, and while the film doesn’t use that phrase explicitly, it’s part of the subtext of the entire project.
I tend to think of democracy as majority rule, which I guess is synonymous with rule by the poor as long as the poor exist, since the vast majority of people are not wealthy. But Cornel West complicates that in your film, arguing that democracy requires balancing the will of the majority and the rights of minorities.
I had to raise that issue in the film, because the film is unabashedly about people power, but I didn’t want to imply that if only we all just made decisions directly by general assembly everything would be perfect, because I don’t believe that. I’ve been part of enough failed activist experiments that tried to equate democracy with a simple majority-rule model that I believe our definition of democracy has to be more complicated.
That said, minoritarian tyranny is actually a very big problem for democracy, and American democracy in particular. But in this case we’re talking about the minority of very wealthy people.
Looking back at American history, the majority that the founding fathers were afraid of was the majority of poor people. When they were talking about protecting minority rights, they were talking about protecting the rights of a tiny subset of affluent white men.
We’ve expanded that idea, and now when we talk about minority rights, we’re talking about something very different from what they were talking about. When considering the relationship of democracy to minority rights, we have to be clear that not all minorities are the same.
That’s what’s so funny about Mr. Starbucks, Howard Schultz. When he objects to being called a billionaire, says he wants to be called a “person of wealth” instead, he’s speaking in the language of beleaguered identity groups. But rich people are not a democratic minority that needs to be protected from majority rule.
In one scene of the film, Delaney Vandergrift, a young black woman who participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Charlotte, describes a white man threatening her and her fellow protestors with a pistol.
In all likelihood, this man was not a member of the economic elite. People who control the world with their wealth don’t personally threaten people with pistols. They have little reason or occasion for spontaneous expressions of violence like that.
Where does this division come from, racial and otherwise, between people who together constitute the subject class, broadly speaking?
That’s quite true. The mega-wealthy and the people at the very top are capable of exercising structural violence, instead of the kind of direct violence she’s describing. Or, when it comes to direct violence, they sometimes literally have private mercenary armies at their disposal.
Right before that scene, I have a scene with North Carolina state assemblyman Mickey Michaux. He describes the classic conditions under slavery, where the plantation owner pitted the overseers against the enslaved people. There’s a similar dynamic at play today. We’re watching the elite pit social groups against each other by creating conditions of scarcity, making people fight for scraps.
I don’t know if you watched the credits, but I indulged myself and put a clip of Reverend William Barber at the very end of the film where he just basically makes the call for solidarity. To me that is what the Left exists to do, to create conditions in which people don’t see themselves as primarily in conflict with one another, but actually united in class conflict with those at the top.
And we can’t just do that through our films or through our writing. We actually have to do that by building structures and organizing. This is where we also encounter the limitations of media. The film can make a kind of implicit argument that we’re all in this together, but then we actually have to build the conditions so that people can actually feel that it’s true.
One point the film tries to make is that democracy is not just confined to the political sphere — or, rather, that the political sphere itself extends beyond the electoral realm.
There’s a scene where we visit a worker cooperative in North Carolina run primarily by Guatemalan immigrants. “We are owners of our work,” says Alfonso Gonzales, “and we don’t have a boss.”
A boss is a dictator, issuing commands from on high and threatening serious consequences for disobedience. We don’t need dictators in our work environment any more than we do in the state, right? Is it possible to build democratic workplaces today?
Yes, I think it is possible. But I think there are all sorts of interesting democratic dilemmas that happen when we democratize the workplace. Getting rid of the boss is just the beginning, because then we have to ask: What’s the relationship to the community? What’s the relationship to consumers? What’s so sad about the current social order is that we often don’t get to dig into these rich issues, because we’re still fighting against these ridiculous systems of open domination and exploitation.
That scene is not what I expected it to be. I set up the shoot months before, and I didn’t realize that Donald Trump was going to be the victor in the election, which happened the day before I shot. I planned to talk to people at the factory about all of these complex questions of cooperative workplace governance. But I found that, because the cooperative members are all Guatemalan immigrants, they were feeling with their entire beings that everything was at risk.
We can build democratic institutions like worker cooperatives under capitalism, but they will have a tendency to be fragile, because the forces aligned against us are very powerful. This was also the message of the scene with the Syriza victory in Greece. The point being that you can do everything, you can occupy, you can build a party, you can win power, and then you still have to deal with international markets and scales.
These scenes were an attempt to balance hope with realism. The workers’ cooperative was the micro-example, Greece was the macro-example.
There’s a scene in the film where you and the Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici are looking at a fourteenth-century mural together in Siena, Italy. The mural is a sort of instruction manual for oligarchs, the “do’s and don’ts” of government run by a class of wealthy merchants. One of the prescriptions is that leaders shouldn’t flaunt their wealth, because it inspires envy, which can create social problems.
You could compare that with what Plato had argued many centuries before: that it was the fact of wealth, not a particular behavior of the wealthy, that creates corruption. This actually seems like an analog to the split between how liberals and socialists today talk about politics: the former believe that politics is more about manners, while the latter believes it’s more about material realities.
Yeah, it is true. Socialists say the thing that is obvious, and should in no way be unsayable, which is that if you’re a billionaire, that vulgar wealth was not created by you. It’s outrageous, whether you’re flaunting it or not. And yet we live in a culture where for decades that observation was beyond the pale.
Siena is meant to function narratively to ground the story in the rise of financial capitalism. It’s home to the longest-operating bank in existence — the Bank of Siena was founded in 1472. So all of these oligarchs who were trying to restrain themselves, as you point out, they were basically the predecessors of modern bankers. Financial capitalism is a form of extractive violence that has always been wrapped in a cloak of respectability.
It is very exciting to see more people beginning to say that being a billionaire in a society where people are starving is immoral, instead of parsing the merits or demerits of various mega-wealthy individuals, which is the liberal tendency. That’s intellectual progress.
Your film focuses partly on the Greek economic and political crisis of 2009 onward. A central theme of that crisis is debt, with the European Union demanding that Greece impose austerity on its people in order to pay its debts to the banks, and the Greek people demanding that the debt simply be canceled and austerity foregone.
But this idea that debt can be canceled is an interesting one. If that’s true, then what is debt besides a fiction and a tool of blackmail and coercion? Is debt inherently undemocratic?
Inherently, I don’t think so. You can make a philosophical claim that we are all born debtors to what came before. You can call that social debt, which needs to be repaid through taxes, through solidarity, through making the world habitable for those who come after you.
But there’s no doubt that debt has been used as a profoundly anti-democratic tool. If you look at the modern era, and look at the way debt has been used to enforce capitalism and white supremacy, it’s kind of astonishing. Look at the way debt was used as a form of punishment for the Haitian revolution. Look at the way debt was used to limit emancipation through sharecropping in the United States. Look at the way that it was used to limit the progressive agenda of decolonized nations in the seventies.
On an individual level, debt ensnares the future. It’s a claim on your future wages, ensuring that you’ll be working the rest of your life to pay off your loans. That limits the scope of what you can do, what’s possible in life. It binds you, and in this way it limits your freedom.
We do need credit sometimes. Credit is a tool that can open up possibilities in the moment, because if you can manage to get your hands on more resources, you can do more, and that can benefit you as an individual or benefit a community or a country. But we need to figure out what socially productive credit would look like instead of the predatory, extractive and domineering forms of indebtedness that we have now.
Speaking of capitalism and freedom, just a few days ago Donald Trump warned all of America that socialism would guarantee “coercion, domination and control.” He was reiterating this popular theme of capitalist ideology, that capitalism itself is synonymous with freedom and any challenge to the rule of profit will corrode democracy.
Bernie Sanders responded, “People are not truly free when they can’t afford to go to the doctor when they are sick… people are not truly free when they cannot afford a decent place in which to live.” Sanders has said many times that socialism means democracy to him.
At play here are two fundamentally different conceptions of freedom. In your film, Wendy Brown makes a distinction between negative or positive liberty, or freedom as the right to “collective self-determination, as opposed to the right to be let alone.” Can you expand on these competing conceptions of freedom a little bit?
I wanted the film to sort of hit on major points in political theory, and to serve as a kind of primer for people who haven’t thought about those things, or who don’t have the space to engage in philosophical musings as often as they might like. This question of freedom and negative or positive liberty is really key.
When I started filming, I went around and I asked people the question, “What is democracy?” and they would typically say freedom. But I was somewhat taken aback that nobody said anything about equality.
This idea is so alive in Rousseau, and especially in Marx, that it’s only possible to attain freedom by securing equality. But in our political climate, that idea is largely off-limits. I’ve always believed the Left needs to speak about freedom, but I now understand better that we need to infuse that conception of freedom with an attention to equality.
The cliché vision of socialism is that it’s this crude leveling, making people equal by making them all the same, all drones. Instead I think we should talk about socialism as a society in which everyone has their material needs met, and because of that they also have the capacity to flourish as individuals, to be creative and make choices about their lives. That capacity for flourishing is being suppressed right now through exploitation, scarcity, and the politics of division.
In one of the final scenes in your film Salam Magames, a Syrian refugee woman in Greece, defines freedom as “the right to work, a good living… to be educated, to be employed, to have a salary, to have responsibility, to have a family.” This comes close to your definition of freedom, predicated on a guarantee of the basic conditions necessary for human flourishing.
If we agree with Salam’s vision of freedom, and we accept that it’s not possible for some people to achieve that vision in their country of origin, then shouldn’t they be allowed to move to where they can get their basic needs met? How can we claim to represent democracy, in Europe or in the United States, when we deny people the right to have their fundamental needs met because they were born in the wrong place?
I don’t think that we can justify it. There are so many people who are outright denied opportunities, and I don’t mean the opportunity to pursue the American dream, whatever that is, but the opportunity to sleep at night without being afraid of being killed just based on the fact that they were born on the wrong side of the Aegean or the Mediterranean or the Rio Grande. This is totally an unforgivable.
When the Left attempts to address this question, I think we must assert that democracy means the right to migrate. But we have to also emphasize the right not just to move, but to stay. If the United States had not assisted with a coup in Guatemala, then maybe all of these millions of people’s lives wouldn’t have been upended, causing them to move. Another subject of my film, Abid, did not want to flee Afghanistan or leave his mother in Pakistan. Salam hates Syria, but that’s partly because she loves it.
We must articulate the right to free movement, but also the right to be rooted, without the threat of displacement. How did capitalism begin? With enclosure, forcing people off their land, uprooting them and profiting from their precarity.
People have a right to cross borders, but we must have a larger conversation about a global redistribution of wealth and power.
Why don’t people simply rebel? There’s one scene in the film where a student in a public high school explains to you that she and her classmates would unite and ask for better lunches, but they’re afraid of the consequences. Does that hold a clue into why people don’t simply unite and overthrow society’s masters?
On one hand that rebellion has this spontaneous dimension. There are points in history where people simply won’t take it anymore, and they will riot. But to make lasting change, rebellion has to be organized. I think the absence of structures on the Left is a major factor of why people don’t unite and revolt.
We need to do the humble work of building strong institutions that can enable people withstand the inevitable losses and consequences of struggle. The question isn’t, “Why don’t people rebel?” It’s “What can we do to create conditions so that people can rebel and not ruin their lives doing so?”