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What Is Democracy?

Astra Taylor

Filmmaker Astra Taylor on her latest documentary, the relationship between democracy and freedom, and why the latest round of books on the erosion of norms are "just not very good."

The Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon, viewed from Lycabettus Hill on July 8, 2015 in Athens, Greece. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Earlier this year at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, filmmaker Astra Taylor joined Jacobin’s Micah Uetricht for a conversation about her new film, What Is Democracy?.

In this wide-ranging discussion, Taylor reflects on the relationship between democracy, equality, and freedom, the latter a concept she says the Left “almost abandoned”; right-wing populism, particularly the Right’s conceptualization of the relationship between capitalism and democracy; and the tension between rootedness in the local and thinking at the macro-level, and the dangers of failing to take the power of the transnational seriously.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.


MU

There are several themes that reoccur throughout the film. One that is brought up only once, but is present throughout the movie, is the question of positive and negative freedom in relation to democracy. In the classic definition — Wendy Brown talks about it in the movie — negative freedoms are “freedom from,” freedom from being imposed upon by the state, say, and positive freedom is “freedom to,” freedom to have your needs met, etc.

Can you talk about that? On one hand, positive freedom in the United States, with the rise of socialism, is something that’s increasingly talked about in a way it wasn’t before, but on the other hand is negative freedom — we see refugees who are stuck in these camps, or the black nineteen-year-old talking about freedom from being killed by the police. Both of these things are central to how people talk about democracy in your film.

AT

The discourse of freedom has been hijacked by the Right in the United States, and it was a concept that the Left almost abandoned and gave to the Right. So it felt important to address. I asked a lot of people what democracy is, and most people will say “freedom.” As I got closer to the 2016 elections, they would say free and fair elections, but freedom.

I was really struck by the fact that not a single person said democracy was equality. Finally, after a Q&A in my hometown of Athens, Georgia, somebody said freedom was equality. I wanted to tackle fundamental issues of political philosophy, and this concept of positive freedom is invaluable. Freedom and equality are not at odds the way that we’ve long been told they are. It’s only by coming together under conditions of equality and collaborating that we can be free as a community. That was something I wanted to demonstrate. But when you talk to people about their experiences — and part of this film was an exercise in talking to people and listening to what they said — people were concerned about what you described as negative freedom. They don’t want to be killed, they don’t want to be oppressed, they don’t want to be dominated. And I’ve had a few people respond to the film by asking, “Why did you mix this issue of democracy and how we rule ourselves with these questions of how to survive?”

MU

You didn’t mix that, the people you’re talking to in the film did.

AT

We live in a society where a huge portion of Americans can’t get $400 for a medical emergency. This is where people are at.

MU

But also in the film, for example, is the Trump voter at a rally in North Carolina. You ask her what democracy is and she says, “I don’t really care so much about that word. I’m more concerned about the American dream and being able to advance.” She’s talking more about positive freedom. Or even the Afghani refugee, you ask him, “What about freedom?” and he says, “Freedom for what?” He’s literally in a refugee camp and he’s saying, “No, my freedom needs to involve this positive element.”

AT

His answer that freedom is justice is a really powerful, simple answer. You know, the woman, the Trump supporter, her answer was just so concise and her vision of the American Dream — she changed the way I thought about borders, too. I realized through her that, yes, they’re about keeping people out, but they’re also about hoarding opportunity, resources, in a time of scarcity.

But what was also interesting was that the nineties-aughts consensus was that capitalism and democracy go together. Yet that group of Trump supporters — these were college Republicans — said, “no, we need to get rid of democracy because we understand that it’s a threat to our status.” It was the day after the election, and they said we need the electoral college, we need minority rule. Forget that old rhetoric: “yeah, capitalism, democratic, it’s gonna lift all boats.” Instead it was “no, capitalism lets the best rise to the top.” They told me, “You live in New York City? Well, it’s a liberal cesspool, and we need to put constraints on these very populated metropolitan centers.” I feel like that’s a conceptual shift — I haven’t done the empirical research, but how widespread is that? This shift from young conservatives to say, “Let’s forget that democracy rhetoric. We don’t need it. We know what we need, and we need to be very overt in our minoritarian strategies.”

MU

As you said, they’re arguing that at this time of scarcity, it’s about hoarding resources. So even though you associate the Right with this negative aspect of freedom, a “don’t tread on me” style of approaching freedom, even then it’s from a positive angle, it’s “we need the stuff to be free.”

AT

Yeah, but that’s where it’s always been bullshit —“don’t tread on me but give me my mortgage deduction, give me all these forms of state support and affirmative action for white middle-class people.” It’s always been rhetoric.

MU

Which is at the heart of the right-wing populism spreading around the world. It’s not “rah, rah, free-market neoliberalism,” it’s “batten down the hatches.” One thing you don’t talk about in the film is the way a lot of liberals in the United States talk about democracy today. There’s all this discourse about democracy in crisis because of the Trump presidency; there are so many books coming out about “democracy under fire.” It’s rhetoric around the erosion of democracy because of the Trump administration that has to do with ideas of democratic norms. That is not in your film, which seems like it must be a conscious choice given how central it is to democratic discourse now.

AT

There are so many people writing those books now, it’s a genre. I wrote an essay for Bookforum bitching about it. They say, “this is how democracy ends,” “the people vs. democracy,” but a lot of these people were saying how great things were six years ago. My thinking is: you got it wrong, shut up for a while, and let other people speak — or maybe do some talking and some listening and some learning and take some time to assess.

This film was conceived long before Trump was on the horizon. I wrote the first email to my producer in 2013 and started shooting in 2015, so I was picturing that this film would come out against the backdrop of the neoliberal consensus where Hillary Clinton was president and Trudeau was prime minister in Canada, and this film would say, “no, this isn’t what democracy is.” It’s the same film, but it came out in a context where everyone’s saying democracy’s in crisis. And the film’s saying, “no, let’s sit back and think.“ Instead of trying to jolt people, it’s providing a reflective space to say our problems predate November 2016. And domination precedes capitalism. To talk about Plato and oligarchy, it would be wrong to say that’s capitalism, but it’s a question of economics and domination. These are ongoing challenges and a lot of democratic dilemmas will stay with us — they’ll stay after we have democratic socialism. Because the question of how to balance the local and the global, or how much structure or planning vs. spontaneity — we’re not going to resolve these challenges once and for all. And hopefully, we’ll keep learning as a species — if we continue to exist —

MU

Big if!

AT

Right, and expanding this conception of democracy. There’s also a huge gender component to those books you referred to. Part of the argument in my Bookforum piece is that there’s maybe one general interest trade book written on democracy, and it’s by Condoleezza Rice. Otherwise, it’s a certain kind of male academic who writes these big books on democracy, and they’re just not very good.

MU

I don’t know if you meant to do this or not, but the quick mention is striking when Angela Davis is introducing herself in Miami and she says, “The last time I was in Miami, well I won’t tell you the last time I was in Miami I was fleeing the FBI.” Those are the norms we’re talking about returning to. The norms were functioning properly, and they were trying to lock up Angela Davis.

AT

This conception of what counts as a crime is always political, and as activists we have to break the law because the laws are unjust. But at the same time, I like when [one of the interviewees] says “no, I want there to be some sort of rule of law.” He knows what it’s like to live in a vacuum in a failed state. It has to be complicated. I tried to structure the film so that these points are complicated or a nuance is added.

MU

That seems related to the question Cornel West brings up about democracy, along the lines of “if we gave all the people a vote on whether or not I deserve full humanity in 1956 or something, they would’ve voted no.” So in order to uphold the conception of human rights as we think of them now, we need some “antidemocratic” ways to carry that out.

AT

It’s interesting because the story’s more complicated, of course, because decades of mobilization for racial justice created different conditions. Not to mention that there was international pressure. It was the period of the Cold War, and it made the United States look bad to have segregation when it claimed to be the land of the free. So there are all these other factors that complicate that story, but that was a dynamic that also had to be there: sometimes democratic things are imposed.

Climate change is an interesting question about this. If we are going to have a sustainable society, we may need some state intervention that appears antidemocratic by that definition but will allow people to continue to exist. The big challenge though, to me, today, is the rule of the minority. Eighty-one percent of people want the Green New Deal, and even with all the disinformation, most people think climate change is real and would prefer to have ecological sustainability over economic growth. “The people” aren’t the biggest problem.

MU

Although, to go back to the norms discourse, a lot of those kinds of arguments are framed around, “Oh, clearly we cannot trust the people to govern us,” right?

AT

Exactly. But the real question is: can we trust the elites?

MU

Greece is central to the movie, both in terms of the ancient political philosophy you’re drawing on, but also the contemporary Greek scene that brings up so many of these basic issues about democracy. And the story of contemporary Greece is so striking. I remember when the vote happened — “oxi,” the great “no” vote on whether the Greeks should accept the Germany-imposed, EU-imposed austerity measures. It felt like an incredible moment of triumph, this democratic moment. This left party, Syriza, is elected to office, and they don’t just try to carry it out themselves, they take it right to the people and the people deliver exactly the correct thing, which is saying no to austerity. But then it doesn’t matter. There’s this great betrayal. But it’s more complicated than a betrayal: the democratic mechanisms that were in place were not sufficient to carry out the will of the people. There are transnational structures that people are up against and there’s a need for a new kind of democratic body to fight back.

AT

As that drama unfolded in Greece, Greece became central. One woman who worked under Tsipris, the prime minister, said something very poignant: “We’ve done everything we were supposed to do. We occupied, we rioted, we organized, we built the political party, we took state power, and look where we are.” Because we live in a global system and it’s not enough to control the mechanism of the state, because there are also rich people taking their money out of the country — and Greeks were, too, the problem was not just foreign. It was oligarchs collaborating across national lines.

It’s a parable about how challenging circumstances are. It’s a difficult situation and a serious warning to those of us who are trying to build power and organize. Wendy Brown’s point at the end is that if we’re going to tackle these global structures, we have to also be rooted. We can’t just jump to the international order and create some lefty, democratic super-national governing body, because we have no power without being rooted in places. That’s one of the challenges of democracy today. It ultimately comes down to us, we’re little tiny people, and we have to collaborate with each other. We live in places, yet we also have to think at a macro-level. Internationalism is a beautiful idea the Left has had for a long time, but we still have to figure out how to do it.

MU

Wendy mentions near the middle of the movie that she’s been terrified of technocracy. You mentioned the failures of Syriza, a left party, in this respect, also in the United States, throughout Europe, all throughout the world, technocratic liberal parties have failed. Wendy frames that in terms of democracy. Technocracy means there are people who are self-appointed as experts, who have the right degrees, and they are the ones who can fix problems. That is a fundamentally undemocratic, antidemocratic character. Certainly, in the United States, the rise of socialism is in many ways a reaction to that technocratic style of governance. Can you talk about technocracy and the problems of democracy? It doesn’t appear that much in the film, but it seems to be a central problem.

AT

It’s in the background because it’s part of the criticism of the European Union, which says, “what does it matter if the people, the Greek people, say no to austerity? They’re not experts. They don’t know how to keep GDP growing.” I also think it’s a temptation that a lot of people indulge — “can’t the experts just handle this?” But how is expertise constructed? This goes back to education: who is allowed the opportunity to become an expert, what sort of expertise is acknowledged and compensated and put into positions of power. “Meritocracy” is not the same word but they’re related, and that word came out of a work of satire a Labour Party activist wrote in the early 1970s. It’s a satirical dystopia where people who had merit because they had the proper education would be allowed to become a ruling class, and then they would, of course, say, “well, not only do I rule, but I deserve to be here.” This dystopia is now the society in which we live.

That speaks to a bigger thing in the film, and for me, it does speak to socialism, an egalitarian politics. The film is in a framework of philosophy, of Plato, who wanted a class of guardians, philosopher kings and queens, and the film says no, we have to create a world where there’s the potential for everyone to be involved in political philosophy because that’s what democracy demands of us. And people have a tremendous amount of insight. [One of the film’s interviewees] says a guy on the subway could be president, that he might know more than someone who’s protected by the system, more than these guys writing books about how norms are sacred. These norms are not so sacred if they are putting you in prison or punishing you for being poor. It’s a question of who sees how democracy actually works.

W.E.B. Du Bois, who’s cited by Angela Davis in the movie, has a great essay, “Of the Ruling of Men.” He talks about excluded wisdom, the excluded wisdom of black people and women and children, and this idea that we not only should include them because we want to be nice and inclusive but because it’s necessary to have a functioning and just society. This wisdom needs to also be included through economic democracy, industrial democracy, and real power-sharing. So the film tries — in everything from the gaze of the camera to the way I approached every single person — to approach everyone as though they were a philosopher, and to take them seriously whether they are a twelve-year-old kid or a refugee or a Guatemalan immigrant. Political education isn’t “let me put my thoughts in your brain and implant you with the right analysis.” It’s about engaging people, and being open to learning from them. That’s what an intellectual is: not just someone who professes and knows, but someone who constantly wants to learn and be curious and grow. That’s why the title of the film is a question.

MU

You mention the way that you shot people in the film. Can you explain that and its relation to your commitment to a democratic way of making the film?

AT

In making a film about political philosophy, the last thing I would want to do is have the visual aesthetic be remotely pretentious because already you have this air that “oh, it’s intimidating, or I’m not invited into this.” I wanted the aesthetic of the film to be absolutely unpretentious, so there are no gratuitous drone shots. I wanted it to feel intimate and humble.

MU

It felt like you would have long shots on people, a close up of their face, and you just let them give their comments.

AT

I like that intimacy. I like to feel like there’s someone really listening on the other side of the camera.

MU

You mention wanting to take the wisdom and thoughts of people seriously in this very democratic way, and I felt that a lot during the scene with the high schoolers in Miami. They’re talking very eloquently and thoughtfully about the basic conditions of their own lives, which are “Do we get decent food when we’re at school or not?” They have a lot of thoughts on it, and there was one young woman they all applauded. Watching her, I was simultaneously struck at how thoughtful she was, but also at the sense of despair she seemed to have. You could read it in her face. She didn’t really think her thoughts on the school lunches are going to be instituted. On the one hand, you’re bringing out her thoughts about her life in a democratic way, and she’s talking very eloquently about it, but on the other hand, what happens to a dream deferred? What happens to this democratic impulse you stir up that doesn’t go anywhere? What happens to the Greek people when they’re stirred up and their democratic impulse doesn’t go anywhere?

AT

That’s the limit of filmmaking, and why I don’t see films as activism or my political work. I see this as my art project, and we have to organize because we have to tap into that discontent and create structures so people can have solidarity and engage in strategies that might have a chance of winning. I’m here in Chicago with the Debt Collective and my co-collaborator Laura Hannah, trying to build a debtors’ union that can work alongside labor unions and organize people to engage in collective strategies of economic disobedience and collective bargaining, and fighting for public goods. But that girl is also a part of the group of younger kids that still have spirit. You can see the way they support each other, whereas the older group is much more “You have to grin and bear it.”

MU

They’ve been broken down a bit.

AT

That scene has been one of the most controversial in the film, which surprised me. Quite a few people have said, “I really liked your film, but I didn’t like that you spoke to kids because of course there shouldn’t be democracy in schools and kids should listen to their elders.” But the kids’ analysis is so astute; they know it’s not just the teachers being mean to them, it’s the county. They have an analysis of power. They understand they’re asking for something pretty modest. They weren’t even asking for good food, they were asking for warm food. So they’re an amazing example of democratic capacity. I got releases from them — because you have to go to their parents — because there was a woman at an afterschool program who used me to generate a conversation because she knew how they were being treated, and she wanted them to realize they could push back. She wanted a way to start a conversation so she could carry that energy forward. I don’t know what exactly happened, but she felt that was a conversation kids needed to have. So it was because of her facilitation that I was able to do that.

MU

My overall read of politics right now is this sort of best of times, worst of times. There are obviously barbarities on the rise in the United States and around the world, but also this rising — from a democratic-socialist’s perspective — of a very promising, hopeful tide of left-wing politics. Is that your sense about the future of democracy?

AT

Yeah, democratic socialism or barbarism. I intend the film as a hopeful film, but there also has to be an element of realism. We can write, we can occupy, we can strike, we can build a political party, but nobody’s going to hand us over the keys with a smile, and we’ll go off, fade to credits, and play the happy music. But it is an exciting moment.