Sept/Oct/Nov 2018

Declaration of Independence

How writing about democracy can become more democratic.

Astra Taylor


I've spent the past few days unpacking my library. My books are finally on the shelves, though not in a particularly orderly fashion. For the past couple of years I’ve been uprooted, shooting and editing a film called What Is Democracy?, and I could carry only a few precious boxes of reading material with me. I lugged all the titles relevant to my project between countless hotel rooms and sublets in case I might need, or feel a random urge, to crack them.

I began writing the film proposal in 2014. I like the openness of the question in the title, though I briefly considered calling it The Trouble with Democracy. But I worried that sounded overly pessimistic, even though democracy is, of course, deeply troubled—a trouble reflected in the fact that most mainstream books on the topic are written by a certain demographic. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly old white guys.)

It’s a rather bookish movie, though one that’s certainly not averse to the male thinkers—many of the dead men who dominate the canon figure rather prominently. For example, the film is framed with quotes from that founding (and rather confounding) text of political theory, Plato’s Republic, which is far more multifaceted and surreal than I remembered. The Republic opens with Socrates leaving Athens and heading down to the port of Piraeus—in other words, descending from the intellectual heavens to the mess of daily life. That very port features prominently in the film; for over a year it was one of the epicenters of the refugee crisis. And so, more than two thousand years after Plato portrayed it as a space of encounter and debate, it remained a vibrant and devastating demonstration of democratic challenges. My crew and I arrived at dawn one March morning in 2015 and documented as hundreds of men, women, and children disembarked from a ferry with all of their worldly possessions on their backs. They were Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Afghan asylum seekers looking for safety, opportunity, and human rights—attributes, I learned, of many refugees’ definition of democracy.

The initial impetus for the film goes back further still. In 2011 and 2012, as a wave of social movements swept the globe, the question of what the word democracy means took on a new urgency. In places as far-flung as Egypt, Spain, Turkey, Slovenia, Chile, and Greece, people gathered in public squares to demand “real democracy.” I joined my fellow 99 percenters in New York City. We marched on Times Square and tried to shut down the stock exchange. Zuccotti Park became a miniature city, with food, sanitation, classes, multiple newspapers (my friends and I published one), and even a library. But as life in the encampment became more crowded and complicated, the open-air meetings went off the rails. I had to wonder, Is this really what democracy looks like?

Click to enlarge

A still from Astra Taylor’s What Is Democracy?, 2018.

After Occupy Wall Street, I helped found a debtors union, the Debt Collective, that launched the first student-debt strike in history. But this sort of organizing—the daily practical work of democratic contestation and making demands of the state—is very focused on logistics and is typically quite reactive. I wanted to step back, take stock, and reflect. Making a documentary film would be a good chance to do so, and it seemed the appropriate medium for a project aiming to illustrate the linkage between the personal and political and to create the sense of polyphony that any attempt to represent “the people” requires.

The film proposal included a list of possible next steps. The first one: Read. And so I did. Of course, there were the classics: the aforementioned Plato and also Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Toqueville, Marx, Dewey. Sheldon S. Wolin’s magisterial 792-page Politics and Vision was a trusty foundation and guide (it would be a decent candidate for desert island reading, except for the fact that there would be no reason to ponder social and political dysfunction in a state of blissful solitude).

Scouring my shelves, I realized I didn’t own much in the way of general, or general-interest, books on democracy, so those had to be purchased. I had many books on specific facets of democratic history—histories of Reconstruction, the civil rights era, feminism, the disability rights movement, and so on—but the heavy, history-of-democracy tomes make up their own unique genre. I plowed through James T. Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy, Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life, Michael J. Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, and others. Can Democracy Work?, written by my friend and former professor James Miller and published this fall, is a welcome, erudite, and engaging (and refreshingly concise) addition to the list.

As I accumulated and read these books, I couldn’t help but notice who wrote them. Women authors were decently represented in narrower academic domains, particularly within political theory, as we’ll see, but when it came to sweeping treatises aimed at a popular audience, half of humanity seemed to disappear. I asked a young research assistant to do some digging. Perhaps I had overlooked something major, a seminal (ovarian?) text, in my admittedly haphazard and idiosyncratic quest. But his report had little I hadn’t already discovered, including one book I simply refused to read: Condoleezza Rice’s 2017 Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom. (No, thanks.)

Looking over my shelves, I landed on a few titles that almost fit the bill and merit mention: Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. Yet the fact remains that these three books, however impressive and revelatory, do not claim to be about democracy per se, but rather the radical right’s attack on it.

Troublingly, most of the big books on the theme of self-rule uphold the image of democracy—both doing it and writing about it—as primarily a male business. Even more worryingly, the same trend holds true for the spate of democracy-in-crisis books that have been published since the 2016 election, with Madeleine Albright’s recent Fascism: A Warning (another book I confess I haven’t read) appearing as a proverbial exception that proves the rule. The People vs. Democracy, The Road to Unfreedom, Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America, How Democracy Ends, and many more—all these books, fresh off the presses, are authored by men of a certain race and class. In crisis is opportunity, as they say, I suppose (or at least a book deal). While I’m sure some of the volumes listed above are perfectly good or at least decent, the handful I’ve read have left me rather perplexed—consider, for example, How Democracies Die, written by two esteemed liberal scholars whose conclusion includes the hard-hitting observation that Republicans need to fix their party (I’m sure conservative strategists are taking note). What I found odd was the way the alarmism that drives these books coexists with a sense that our political system basically works—or did, as recently as two or three years ago—and that if norms can be upheld, inequality magically kept in check, and reason respected once again, the nation can be put back on track and the slow forward march of progress can continue.

Such an assessment stands in stark contrast to the work of many women political theorists I admire. While it’s hard to generalize about these thinkers, who come from various and often conflicting intellectual traditions, none of them are facile in their analysis or prescriptions. Chantal Mouffe (The Democratic Paradox), Jodi Dean (Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies and Crowds and Party), Bonnie Honig (Democracy and the Foreigner and Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair), Carole Pateman (Participation and Democratic Theory and The Sexual Contract), Jane J. Mansbridge (Beyond Adversary Democracy), Seyla Benhabib (Democracy and Difference), Danielle S. Allen (Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality), Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective), and quite a few others informed my thinking as I worked on my film and still do. None of them shy away from the complexity, contradictions, possibilities, and profound (perhaps fatal) flaws of the modern-day democratic project.

Some of these theorists made it into my film. My dialogue with Wendy Brown, whose Undoing the Demos I reviewed in these pages, was pivotal. We spoke about the ascension of neoliberal market logic as a new form of minority rule, and lingered on Rousseau’s famous paradox: How do you make democracy out of an undemocratic people? In Miami I filmed a rousing lecture delivered by Angela Y. Davis that touched on her brilliant Abolition Democracy. With a few powerful lines and a tribute to W. E. B. Du Bois, she was able to convey the depth of change—the abolition of mutually reinforcing structures of racism and capitalism—that will be necessary if we want our society to live up to a word that expresses the deceptively simple idea that the people rule.

And there was also Silvia Federici, whom I had come to know through various activist projects in New York City around the time of Occupy. At first I didn’t realize that the wise and endearing woman I regularly encountered on the streets was the same person who had written the classics Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero and who had helped lead the feminist-socialist International Wages for Housework Campaign. I had fallen in love with Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1330s three-panel painting The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government after coming across a mention of it in an essay by the historian of political thought Quentin Skinner. When I found out Federici loved it, too (a reproduction of the main panel hangs above her couch), I arranged to have us meet in Siena, Italy, to film in front of the fresco.

Federici and I talked about many things: the origins of a market economy, the dynamics of feudalism, the rise of feminism, the fact that power seems to be moving further from regular people. She is a fervent believer in democracy from below and in fighting to create a political system in which everybody matters. Democracy, she reminded me, is a practice that has almost always been advanced by people on the margins who rarely get the credit they deserve—perhaps because they aren’t the ones writing the books that make up the official record.

No doubt, some of the male authors of the new books about our country’s nightmarish decline named above would have been fine interview candidates. But even when they are insightful and well-intentioned, their voluminous output is better understood as a symptom of our present political crisis than the cure it claims to be. Reading even a handful of titles in succession, it’s hard not to see the new crop of democracy-in-crisis books as a by-product of the same regime that lifted the president they all denounce to power and prominence. After all, many of the authors were as shocked as the average Hillary Clinton supporter by Donald Trump’s win. One might think that would open space for a new batch of pundits, or that this group of commentators would at least take a moment’s pause to engage in a period of analysis, reassessment, and inquiry. But no, they chose to write, rapidly and often self-righteously. And why wouldn’t they? Americans on both sides of the political spectrum are united by their equation of democracy with free speech. But, in reality, self-government requires listening as much—or likely even more—than speaking. Deliberation, we too easily forget, isn’t just waiting for your turn to talk, outshouting your foes, or muting people whose points of view you don’t care for.

Like democracy (and reading), documentary filmmaking involves the art of listening. Whenever I begin working on a new project, I have to relearn how to actually hear what the person in front of me is saying. It’s always a challenge to break the habit of saying, “Yes,” “Right,” “Umhmm,” and other words to signal that I’m engaged in the conversation, to learn not to interrupt and instead let people finish their thoughts. 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 (such as the statements by young kids who told me how they were punished at school for asking that their lunch be served hot). While I’ve listed all the books I’ve read and all the scholars I feature in the film, some of the most fulfilling conversations I had were with people who weren’t academic specialists. Nevertheless, I tried to approach everyone I met as if they were theorists, inviting them to share their thoughts on things such as freedom, justice, and fairness. Their reflections were fascinating and often thorny: A former prisoner turned barber in Miami spoke eloquently of the double standards of American justice; an Afghan asylum seeker I met in Greece, whose life had been in danger because of his ethnicity, made a powerful case for the rule of law and reliable systems of punishment. Listening allowed me to open a space for others to speak and, I hope, to be heard, and in the editing suite I did my best to place their voices on par with former prime ministers and famous philosophers.

Of all the things I read while making What Is Democracy?, one stands out. In her article “The Public Voice of Women,” Mary Beard traces the silencing of women through Western literature, noting that women were allowed to speak only in rare instances: as victims, martyrs, and mothers. While that’s no longer explicitly the case, the idea that deep-voiced men are, well, deep, and that high-voiced women are unstable and ill-informed stays with us today. “What we need is some old fashioned consciousness raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it,” Beard writes. “And rather than push women into voice-training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the fault lines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.” Her essay stuck with me as I worked to figure out my film’s voice. Without losing the sense of urgency that drove me to undertake the project, the mode of democratic discourse I strove to present is one that values thinking as much as doing, listening as much as speaking, and questioning as much as answering.

Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and activist. What Is Democracy? was screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and is being distributed by Zeitgeist Films.

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