The Tensions in Democracy: Interview with Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor is an independent writer, documentarian, activist, organizer, and musician. She recently completed a project on the concept of democracy, which produced both a movie–What is Democracy?–and a book–Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone. Both treat democracy as a paradoxical and tension-filled ideal that nevertheless must be fought for. Both have many insights that can help left lawyers as we think through the thorny questions that come with the institutionalization of equality and self-governance. Taylor shares some of them in this interview.

LPE: In a recent post for this blog, Samuel Bagg argues that democracy is best understood in terms of what it’s not, or rather, what it’s against. Do you agree? How do you think about arguing for the value of democracy without having an easily articulated concept of what it is? Is history more valuable than philosophy here?

I see democracy as a kind of moving target, something that we can never define definitively and close the case on. But I do think having a minimal definition helps, and I’m happy to start here: the people (demos) rule or hold power (kratos). The problem is that who the people are and how they rule is always open to debate.

Bagg’s approach reminds me of a scene in What Is Democracy? where I’m talking to the political theorist Wendy Brown and I tell her that I really wrestled with making democracy the theme of the film. And it’s true, initially I was open to the idea of jettisoning the word since it’s been so corrupted. But the more reading and thinking I did, the more my perspective shifted. I began to see democracy’s disorienting vagueness as a source of strength, in that the concept can always be contested and reimagined. Researching the book also just drove home the fact that elites have always hated democracy, even as they have attempted to co-opt and contain it—which means there must be something to it. Elites don’t care for democracy because it implies the leveling of hierarchy, including hierarchies of wealth. (Here, I’m also partial to Aristotle’s definition of democracy as rule of the poor, since the poor always outnumber the rich. In my view, even a very minimal definition has a material or class dimension.)

In any case, during the interview Wendy empathized with my plight. We keep coming back to democracy, she says, because the alternatives—or in Bagg’s terminology, all the things democracy is not—are worse. The alternatives to ruling ourselves are pretty unappealing: we could be a ruled by a tyrant, an aristocracy, an oligarchy, a technocracy, and so on. Which is why, as Wendy says, we keep coming back to the word democracy, to the idea of ruling ourselves.

I think history is vital, but I wouldn’t say it’s more valuable than philosophy. Philosophy is baked into democracy on a fundamental level. As I write in the preface, democracy demands perpetual engagement in the realms of both theory and practice. “The people” is an abstraction, and democracy as self-rule means the people (however we define ourselves) have to get together and rule, which means we have to ponder and deliberate and battle it out. Democracy, as Danielle Allen told me, is “intellectually hard” by design, whereas it doesn’t require much thought to follow the dictates of an autocrat. So we can look at history, and see how democracy has been defined and redefined, expanded and restrained, and that’s incredibly illuminating—but ultimately we have to take a risk and plunge into the unknown. We have to act and reflect, act and reflect, act and reflect, and see what happens next. Which is why the book and the film are both hybrids. They are not pure philosophy, nor pure history, nor pure reporting from the frontlines of the current political crisis, but rather amalgamations of all of the above.

LPE: There has been a tendency in leftist thought to highlight contradictions in existing systems of domination and to posit–implicitly or explicitly–that those tensions will be resolved in a truly democratic society. In your book, you argue against this way of thinking, and specifically Marx’s version of it (and in a recent essay for the New Republic, you discuss how Marxist teleology has faded into the background for most leftists). Instead, you think it is useful to focus on the tensions within democracy. Can you explain why?

Teleology doesn’t seem credible to me, so I can only fathom thinking about democracy without it. The thing is, you don’t need to think at all if there’s teleology, or theology—if history is preordained who needs to waste time pondering? The left is having a resurgence because the liberal “end of history” has proven to be anything but. But I don’t think a leftist “end of history” will ever be on the horizon. I am resigned to the fact that democracy is inherently risky. “Democracy destabilizes its own legitimacy and purpose by design, subjecting its core components to continual examination and scrutiny,” as I write in the preface. But life’s uncertain, so deal with it.

I love Marx. The book is hugely indebted to his analysis of capitalism and the way he thought about contradictions. For Marx, a contradiction is a dynamic feature of capitalism (capital vs labor, private property vs common wealth, etc) that would resolve under communism. But he went further at times, insisting that communism would be “the riddle of history solved,” inaugurating the end of all struggle and a new world of integration and non-alienation: “the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species.”

I don’t buy it. I think class conflict is key to our society as it currently exists, and I am enough of a utopian that I can imagine a world where we have transcended capitalism and society is no longer divided along the class lines we take for granted today and where capital no longer calls the shots. But I do not believe that would be the end of the story. Instead, as I say in the New Republic piece, “Under a more economically egalitarian, explicitly socialist system, these democratic dilemmas will not disappear; the riddle would not be solved. Instead, our problems would become more interesting.
” Right now there are a lot of thorny, potentially fascinating democratic dilemmas we don’t dig into because they are just off the table given our current economic and political system, and I name some of them in the article: “How much top-down planning will be required to create an ecologically sustainable economy or just a functional one? And how will markets, money, and finance be democratized and fit into the mix? How should we balance collective ownership of our natural common wealth with local and worker control—and how do we combine local and worker control with the ideal of international solidarity? How are the boundaries of decision-making communities to be determined and accountability to be enforced?” The list goes on and on….

The book is organized so that each chapter is a paradox or tension I think will not ever be resolved once and for all. I examine tensions between freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, inclusion and exclusion, coercion and choice, spontaneity and structure, expertise and mass opinion, the local and the global, and the present and future. There’s no way to just come down on one side of these binaries, instead we will have to keep assessing and reassessing them. I tried to be very alert to the way capitalism intensifies these tensions in destructive ways. But even if we manage to eliminate the gap between owners and workers, the rich and poor, democratic challenges will persist. We’ll still have problems, hopefully just better ones. I find thinking about democracy as organized around these paradoxes useful and clarifying—it helps me understand why democracy is so difficult to enact.

LPE: In touring with the movie, you’ve mentioned how you understand a method of inquiry that is comfortable with the sorts of tensions and with amalgamations you’re talking about as distinctively feminist. And to the extent democracy requires living those tensions, it would benefit from feminism-as-method. Can you explain?

Both the film and the book are shot through with a women’s voices and pay attention to the role of the marginalized and oppressed in advancing the democratic project throughout history, and the final lines of the book call for us to aspire not to be founding fathers but perennial midwives, helping to usher in this process of democratization and never being done with it.

However, when I said my approach is feminist I meant something a bit more subtle. In cinema people talk about the male gaze, and my film has a different perspective, maybe by default since I’m not a man. But I really did try to mess with the typical documentary formula. For example, I edited myself so that when you see me on camera or hear me in the background, I am asking questions or listening not pontificating or explaining. So I play a Socratic role, going around and asking random people what they think about things, but in doing this I am trying to challenge our implicit ideas about what an expert or philosopher is. For me, asking questions and having curiosity are core to what being an intellectual is really about, as opposed to being the authority who knows all and never doubts (as Richard Hofstadter said, an intellectual lives for ideas not off them), and for me there is something feminist about embracing the role of listening and learning not seeing those as weak. And then there are the people on screen or interviewed in the book, who run the gamut from established academics to refugees and factory workers and the formerly incarcerated and school children. I wanted to elevate what W.E.B DuBois called excluded wisdom, all the intelligence of ordinary people, that gets ignored and suppressed in our society.

LPE: One of the tensions in your book has been especially salient among progressive lawyers as a way of arguing against democracy, or at least against a notion of majority rule: that involving inclusion/exclusion. It has long been taken as evident that the more democratic bodies–i.e. legislatures–cannot be trusted to expand civil and social rights to marginalized groups, especially black and brown people. Instead, enlightened jurists above the fray of politics were needed to articulate the moral grounds for inclusion based on constitutional principles and to force white majorities to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do. How should those of us with less faith in the enlightenment of judges–or their removal from the political process–think about the conundrum presented by democracy’s apparent need exclude?

This is a difficult question, and the chapter on inclusion and exclusion was the most challenging to write. The film gets into this issue as well. There’s a tension between democracy’s apparent universalism and its necessary particularity. I personally have a hard time imagining decision making structures that involve 8 billion people that don’t risk being incoherent or imperial. At the same time, I’m committed to an ideal of human solidarity. But how to we balance that ideal with the desire for local control, for the idea that specific communities and individuals should have a say over the decisions that impact their lives? Part of why things are so challenging is because we’re living in a society where existing exclusions are predicated on horrible factors and histories, racism and colonialism/imperialism for example, so it’s difficult to talk about what kinds of exclusions might be justifiable. But I think addressing underlying economic conditions is key. As things stand, exclusion facilitates domination and exploitation. Under more egalitarian conditions (not just domestically but globally) exclusion would lose some of its bite, instead of being a death sentence.

I shot What Is Democracy? during the height of the refugee crisis, and couldn’t help but be struck but the response of regular Greek people, who were in a state of financial devastation themselves. There was an incredibly outpouring of solidarity. Xenophobia is certainly intensifying in Europe and here, but the picture is complex (attitudes tend to be most bigoted where there are the lowest rates of immigration, etc). Or consider the surveys showing that Americans have the most liberal attitudes to immigration pollsters have recorded since the mid-sixties. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of outlets for this openness. We have few options to expand our polity, to extend membership to those in need—indeed the federal government prides itself on exclusion, even if it means violating the human rights of asylum seekers. The Canadian system of private sponsorship is an interesting model. It allows small groups of private citizens to support refugees, and the program has been incredibly popular. My sense is Americans would be flocking to such a program if it existed, and maybe it’s something we need to push for and emulate.

To return to your image of enlightened jurists, it’s a nice fantasy but ultimately misleading. In the nineteenth century the US courts defended segregation against members of civil society who were lightyears ahead of them, and then only came around much later (due as much to shifting Cold War dynamics as a change of conscience). Especially at this moment of conservative control of the Supreme Court, we need reassess our view of the judiciary and see them as following advances made by civil society (in the best case scenario) or stifling a more enlightened public (where it sadly seems we are heading). Don’t get me wrong, majorities can oppress minorities. But in the United States today I’m much more worried about the tyranny of the minority, and the way a regressive and disproportionately white, wealthy minority can use the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, and the Senate to block the will of a more progressive diverse majority. That’s seems like the bigger problem democracy is facing today.