Every day seems to bring another crop of headlines about assaults on our democracy. There’s been a deluge of books about democracy’s demise: Fascism: A Warning, How Democracy Ends, How Democracies Die, The People vs. Democracy. The cover of a recent New York Times Book Review featured a cartoon of beleaguered women, made to look like Greek columns, peering out anxiously from under a roof labeled “Democracy at Risk.”
Astra Taylor’s new documentary, What is Democracy?, offers a chance to ask what we actually know about this form of government, so exhaustively lauded in eighth-grade civics class, and so rarely practiced in full. What are the challenges democracy has faced since its inception, and what challenges is it up against now? Is it worth fighting for? And what does fighting for it look like?
To answer these questions, Taylor interviewed contemporary political theorists like Silvia Federici and Cornel West, as well as men and women on the street, in refugee camps, on campus, and at the barbershop. Like democracy, the film is proudly polyvocal.
This is Taylor’s third film, following Žižek!, about Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; and Examined Life, in which she takes a series of walks with contemporary philosophers. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11, and will be screened at New York’s IFC Theater in January.
Though the film feels topical, the documentary has its roots in the mass movements of 2011 and 2012: the Arab Spring, Greek anti-austerity protests, and Occupy Wall Street, which Taylor participated in. “Even within systems that were ostensibly democratic, people weren’t actually being represented,” Taylor told me by phone. She soon realized, though, that “a chaotic assembly in a public park isn’t democracy either,” especially not in large, diverse countries like the United States, where she’s lived most of her life, or Canada, where she is a citizen.
She was influenced, too, by researching and writing her book The People’s Platform, which asks why the internet never became the radically democratic space some of its proponents predicted it would. She wrote the proposal for the film in 2014, around the time she was promoting the book. “I felt like it was time to take the question of democracy more seriously.”
But she didn’t plunge in with the intent to create an unquestioning celebration of democracy. Quite the opposite: as she said to the Toronto Film Festival Review, at that time “Democracy meant nothing to me. That word seemed so sold-out. You know who said that word? George W. Bush. It wasn't a word that spoke to me. Words like ‘justice’ spoke to me, or ‘equality,’ or ‘liberation.’”
Taylor has described herself as “a server of steamed broccoli cinema,” and I had doubts whether my social media-warped attention span would endure one hour and forty-seven minutes of on-screen philosophizing. But the film is really more like balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts: healthy brain food, but complex, enjoyable. It scrupulously avoids lecture mode while delving into the long history of democracy. In one charming episode, Ancient Greek literature professor Efimia Karakantza, a curly-haired woman in a bright red blazer, asks Taylor whether she wants to hear a story about the moment of its birth in ancient Athens. Taylor does. “Oh, okay.” Karakantza says, clapping her hands together with obvious delight. “I adore this moment.”
It helps, too, that the film explores a series of questions, rather than delivering predetermined answers. And it shows how and why those questions matter to real people with recognizable struggles. How can we temper the oppressive tendencies of the majority, asks African-American political philosopher Cornel West, pointing out that major victories of the black freedom struggle, like the abolition of slavery and Brown v. Board of Ed, were handed down by undemocratic figures and institutions. How can democratic habits be taught to a people unused to ruling themselves, asks political theorist Wendy Brown – a question that hovers in the air during a visit to an after-school program where mostly black students talk about how they’ve been punished for expressing opinions about how their school should be run. (Interestingly, Taylor was invited to film at the program by a woman who thought the conversations she facilitated would be a good jumping-off point towards a more democratically-run school.)
And it’s visually engaging, with an eye for the democratic beauty of graffitied trains and the emphatic hand gestures people make when they respond to serious questions. It lingers on the figures depicted in a strange and gorgeous mural, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 13th-century allegory of good and bad government created in Siena, Italy: curly-headed, vampire-toothed Tyranny with his gold cloak and cup, and Lady Justice sawing off a rebel’s head.
Still, I wasn’t sure whether the film would feel urgent. Isn’t our democracy under attack now? Why spend time trying to nail down a definition of what we’re desperately trying to preserve? I gave up that line of questioning during the scene where a young blonde woman responds to the film’s eponymous question: “Democracy…isn’t that when they tell you what to do?”
In the film, Taylor proposes that “real democracy, if it’s going to work, demands a certain deliberation,” especially around questions of why we want a democratic system in the first place, and who gets to be included in it. As Brown says, “[The notion of] democracy can be appropriated by anyone for anything.” She notes that it can be and has been used to justify imperialism, colonial projects, free-market economic policies, union busting – “all kinds of things…you might object to.”
Without consensus about what democracy is and why we value it, the film suggests, we might be led towards institutions and practices toxic to it. Some of the interviewees seem to buy into the idea that economic freedom is the most important form of freedom, the end for which democracy should serve as the means. College student Hannah Niles says she doesn’t really connect to the idea of democracy: “When I think about the word that inspires me it’s not democracy. It’s the phrase ‘the American Dream,’ and that ability to climb.”
But one of the primary threats to our democracy today, the film shows, is the rampant inequality produced by unconstrained capitalism. As far back as Plato, the gap between rich and poor has been seen as a source of political instability. Today, democracies don’t just face the threat of cooptation by moneyed elites. They also must protect themselves against undemocratic multinational corporations and institutions that seek power over their citizens. “Capitalism and democracy are on a collision course,” declared Taylor in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine.
Undemocratically instituted, austerity’s punishments fell on the demos nonetheless.
This second challenge is illustrated heartbreakingly by the film’s section on the Greek austerity crisis. Though Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected these harsh measures, they were nevertheless imposed by the country’s politicians, bowing to pressure from creditors in wealthy EU nations. Undemocratically instituted, austerity’s punishments fell on the demos nonetheless, especially pensioners, young people forced to leave the country for lack of economic opportunity, and those in ill health, who we see seeking treatment at a medical clinic run on volunteer labor and donated supplies.
Some commentators, predominantly libertarian-minded conservatives, argue that democracy can interfere with individual prosperity – and that we should abandon or further constrain it. But Brown warns of the “strong temptation to just turn the whole business of governing over to technocrats…as opposed to the interested, the passionate, the political, let alone the popular.” That would mean abandoning the whole project of “choosing and deliberating about who we want to be, what kind of people we want to be, [and] what we want to become,” with potentially disastrous results. In Plato’s words – which flash on screen just before footage of a Trump rally – “The greatest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone worse than oneself.”
Democracy is demanding, complicated, and never fully realized, the film makes clear. But it also illustrates that we nonetheless need it, and need much more of it than we have. The battle to expand democracy will always be opposed by inequality’s beneficiaries. By its nature, it makes society more just, more inclusive, and less profitable to a powerful few. Inviting those traditionally excluded from the demos, like women, African-Americans, incarcerated people, children, and non-citizens, to speak out, What is Democracy? takes up the tradition of what Cornel West calls “democratic critiques of…truncated democratic practices.”
“I wanted this film to start a conversation,” said Taylor at the end of our interview. In other words, it’s an invitation for you to participate in asking and answering the question of who the people are, and how they might rule.