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.

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