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Astra Taylor’s ‘What is Democracy?’ Offers No Simple Answers

Mark Read Jan 17

Winston Churchill famously said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It’s a wonderful quip, but does it conclusively end any discussion on the merits of democratic government? What if I told you that democracy doesn’t — and possibly can’t — lead to a society that ensures justice, equality, happiness or freedom? What if I told you it was high time to debunk this myth and begin to consider alternatives? Would you dismiss me as a fascist, a communist or merely an idiot? Why?

The claim that democracy is an inherently progressive, morally superior form of government has gone almost entirely uninterrogated (at least within popular western discourse) for centuries, really since the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century and the subsequent establishment of democratic rule in many European countries and the United States. It was used ad nauseam to discredit communist regimes during the Cold War and to justify all manner of imperial adventures by those same powerful western nations. It is, in fact, the basis of American exceptionalism, an ideological toxin that has claimed the lives of millions and continues to wreak havoc across the globe. If one looks at the track record of democracy, however, it’s hard not be a bit skeptical of the claims about its superiority. Furthermore, given our current historical moment, it’s clear that democracy is in crisis and may ultimately fail.

Maybe it’s time to give this democracy thing a bit more thought.

‘How do you make democracy out of an undemocratic people?’

In her latest and perhaps most timely documentary film, What is Democracy?, director Astra Taylor gives voice to the longstanding skepticism towards democratic rule, while simultaneously using the film itself to model the kinds of practices that would be required to fulfill the promise that democracy represents. The titular question of the film is her primary instrument in generating a wide-ranging, heartfelt and complex conversation about how we define and pursue the creation of a good society, and rightly so. After all, if we aim to evaluate democracy’s merits we should probably attempt to define what we mean when we use the term in the first place.

Do we mean majority rule? That’s a definition most people would recognize, as it is the primary instrument by which a people self-govern. One person, one vote. The person or group with the most votes wins and they govern by popular mandate to ensure the common good. Simple, right? How has this worked out historically? Does such a mechanism ensure justice, equality, liberty, or happiness?

The answer is clearly no. Hitler, after all, was democratically elected. Closer to home, slavery was an ongoing enterprise at the inception of democracy in the United States and was not abolished through democratic means but rather through violence and autocratic dictum. Jim Crow laws were democratically decided and were not undone by the majority either. As philosopher Cornel West pointedly reminds us in the film, those laws were changed by the courts, a decidedly counter-majoritarian institution.

West lays out what he refers to as “Plato’s challenge” to democracy, which looms over the entire film, as it has loomed over democratic projects since the earliest experiments with self-rule. Plato, the pre-eminent thinker to emerge out of Athenian democratic culture, was himself not a fan of democracy. The essence of his challenge is the assertion that “mob passions” inevitably supersede “political wisdom,” and thus does democracy inexorably lead to tyranny. In West’s example, this is a tyranny of the majority over the minority, whereas in Plato’s thinking the danger was an actual tyrant, one that would manipulate said passions to assume dictatorial powers, such as a Hitler or the current occupant of the White House. In either case (tyrant or tyranny of the majority), democracy not only fails to deliver those qualities that we want in a good society, it delivers the people into a system of unjust rule.

But Plato was writing in a context far different than our own, where only a few property-owning men were allowed to participate in governing. How could anyone expect such an elite group to govern for the common good, Plato’s definition of political wisdom? Perhaps Plato’s challenge was specific to the democratic practices that were in place in ancient Athens and no longer applies. Haven’t we done better than that already, and couldn’t we do yet better?

After two and a half centuries of practice, the results are mixed. We have certainly expanded the franchise of democratic participation and created laws and institutions that protect minority rights. Although these gains are under constant attack and seem particularly precarious at the current moment, they are indeed gains. In other ways, we have lost ground. The money that washes throughout the political system means that the rich and powerful have an increasingly greater say in policymaking than everyday people. The rich keep getting richer. The ensuant mob passions that Plato predicted would be manipulated by a tyrant in their ascent to power seem to have taken hold. We teeter on the precipice of authoritarian rule, all within a system that is nominally democratic. But this just means that we need to do democracy a bit better, doesn’t it? Why can’t we just do it better?

In the film, we return several times to a lengthy dialogue with Wendy Brown, a political theorist at Berkeley who has thought deeply about this question. Central to her thinking is the problem posed by “Rousseau’s paradox,” the second conceptual frame that looms over this film, and democracy writ large.

Taylor’s approach to making this film exemplifies a listening practice which true democracy requires.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is to modern democratic theory what Plato was to classical political theory: a towering intellectual figure whose thinking shaped the creation of modern democratic states. He believed that human beings were capable of seeing beyond their own narrow self-interests and basic survival instincts and could prioritize the common good. Given this capacity, according to Rousseau, we can and should govern ourselves. Through collective self-determination, we can and should forge a society that will ensure justice, liberty and equality. While we are endowed with this capacity, however, exercising it does not come to us naturally. Rousseau argues our cooperative nature must be cultivated, nurtured, taught.

This is bound to be an uphill battle because so many aspects of modern life encourage and teach the opposite lessons: that we are atomized individuals that must fend for ourselves. Thus, a paradox, as described by Brown: “How do you make democracy out of an undemocratic people?”

This is a profound question, to which there is no simple answer. Taylor wisely opts not to try. Instead, she allows the process of making the film itself to model a possible path forward.

Who is to be engaged in this conversation about democracy? Whose voice gets to be heard? If democracy is to be true to its highest aspirations, it must be built from the bottom up rather than the top down. Furthermore, despite what history teaches us, democracy has always been constructed and enacted from below, where it is also constantly being practiced.

Silvia Federici (left) with Astra Taylor in What is Democracy? Credit: Zeitgeist Films.

Feminist scholar Silvia Federici’s contributions to the film’s discourse are crucial in this regard. She offers her interpretation of “The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government,” an ancient fresco in Siena, Italy, contending that the ruling class represented in the painting and who define the virtues of good government for posterity are not the people to whom we should be looking for inspiration. The struggle of working people and the democratizing effects of that struggle on governance, both of which are gleaned by Federici’s discerning reading of the fresco, are where democracy is made real and full of promise.

The film does more than pay lip service to this idea. Importantly, it embarks upon a path of listening to people in the midst of struggle. Taylor spends as much time with those on the margins of society as she does with intellectuals at the center, and this choice is itself an important signifier. “What is democracy?” Taylor asks them, to which they reply with a kaleidoscopic view of hope and possibility.

An Afghan refugee responds that justice should be the defining characteristic of democracy. Everyone should be following the same rules, and suffer the same consequences for breaking them, no matter how rich or powerful. As preconditions for democracy go, one would be hard-pressed to argue with him.

A young woman, a Black Lives Matter activist, describes the physical threats upon her life and the precarity of black lives in general under the current criminal justice system. Basic physical safety is democracy’s precondition in her eyes.

A young Syrian woman refugee describes the freedom to pursue an opportunity for a better life as elemental and a basic right that, if not respected, makes democracy’s promise hollow. 

A formerly incarcerated man echoes the Afghan refugee and the Black Lives Matter activist, remarking on equality under the law and the sanctity of physical sovereignty as twin pillars without which we cannot contemplate true democracy.

Taylor appreciates the skill and importance of listening. As she recently put it: “I have to train myself, minute by minute, to really take in what people are saying so I can respond to the conversation without simply steering it in a predetermined direction that inevitably misses rewarding digressions and revelations.”

Taylor’s approach to making this film exemplifies a listening practice central to cultivating the kind of person Rousseau theorized and which true democracy requires. She is considerate, patient and, most of all, willing to see people not as a means to an end but as ends unto themselves.

Should “the people” be entrusted with the responsibility to govern themselves? Is democracy what we should be striving for? I would say yes, on both counts, and I suspect Taylor would agree. Not for the simplistic, there-is-no-alternative reason given by Churchill — the same sort of ideological defense offered on behalf of capitalism by Margaret Thatcher years later — but as an act of faith and hope in the human capacity for cooperation and compassion. To paraphrase Cornell West’s own answer to the film’s central question: “count me among the foolish.”

What is Democracy?
Dir. Astra Taylor
Zeitgeist Films, 2018
Opens Wednesday, Jan. 16 at IFC Center


Photo (top): Still from Astra Taylor’s What is Democracy? Credit: Zeitgeist Films.