Daniel Denvir: Welcome to The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin Magazine. My name is Daniel Denvir and I’m broadcasting from Providence, Rhode Island. What is democracy? It’s a very good question, but one that too few in the political establishment bother to ask. Instead, they simply warn that democracy, which they self-servingly conflate with the pre-Donald Trump status quo, is under threat from Donald Trump. Trump of course threatens all sorts of things, but too often what establishment figures mean by a threat to democracy is a threat to American political norms and institutions. What establishment scolds either can’t or won’t acknowledge is that those institutions and norms, waging wars on drugs and terror, facilitating the massive transfer of wealth to the superrich, plundering the planet, and constructing a national security state deportation machine and horrific system of mass incarceration are so often themselves fundamentally anti-democratic.
This episode is an interview with filmmaker Astra Taylor about her new philosophical documentary, What Is Democracy?, which asks ordinary people and political philosophers alike just that. The answers are often extraordinary and far more incisive than the mindless pablum that emanates from Washington and its official interpreters. Also, I’m not conducting this interview––political scientist and Jacobin editor Alyssa Battistoni is. What is Democracy? opens in New York on Wednesday, January 16th––in other words, today, the day that I’m posting this interview, at the IFC Center, before traveling to theatres and campuses. Many special guests will be on hand during opening week in New York for live Q&As with Astra, including Silvia Federici, Cornel West, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
For details, go to www.ifccenter.com/films/what-is-democracy. Those of us who don’t live in New York can find other dates through the distributor, Zeitgeist Films, and if you want to bring this film to your school or town––and you really should––please contact Zeitgeist Films before we move on.
Also, I’m moving to Santiago, Chile for three months in a few days. My partner, political scientist Thea Riofrancos, has fieldwork to conduct on the politics of lithium mining––lithium being a key component in the renewable energy transition. But have no fear: I found a studio in Santiago and the podcast will continue and will definitely include at least one show on Chilean politics. If you live in Chile, please hit me up. Also, many of the questions that today’s show wrestles with will be taken up again next week in an interview on populism with Thea and political scientist Laura Grattan.
Okay, let’s get going. Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and organizer. She is the director of the philosophical documentaries What Is Democracy?, Examined Life, and Žižek!. She is the author of the American Book Award winner The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, and a co-founder of the Debt Collective. Her new book, Democracy May Not Exist But We Will Miss It When It’s Gone, will be out for Metropolitan Books on May 7th. Alyssa Battistoni is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She writes frequently for publications including The Nation, n+1, Dissent, and Jacobin, where she is on the editorial board.
Alyssa Battistoni: Astra Taylor, welcome to The Dig.
Astra Taylor: Thanks for having me.
AB: It’s great to have you on. And I wanted to start off by saying how much I love your film, What Is Democracy? I’m a political theorist so I am very much the audience for it. But I think what’s so great about it is that it’s not a film for academic political theorists, it’s a film that takes these big questions that I think often just get asked, or are sort of thought of as asked by academics or in academic political theory and poses them to everyone. And I’m teaching an intro political philosophy class right now and the questions that we’re talking about every week are the questions that you’re asking in the film: who should rule, what is democracy, do we live in one? And it’s really incredible to see a film bringing these questions out of the classroom and into the public, which is where I think they should be. So it’s really incredible and rich and moving and beautiful and I want everyone to see it, so everyone go see it when you can. I’m going to start with a couple of questions about making the film and then wanted to get more into the questions. So questions about the questions film was posing. So first off, could you just tell me more about how you came to make this specific film and ask this question, what is democracy? Because there’s a point early on in the film where you say that you weren’t sure what it was going to be about exactly, but you kept coming back to the question of democracy.
AT: Let’s begin with democracy. Because I personally even wrestled a bit with making this the theme of the film. But I kept returning to democracy.
AB: Great, great. All right great.
AT: So you’re almost a metaphor for our problem, which is, on the one hand, democracy is this totally fluid and stretchable notion today. It can be appropriated by anybody for anything. It has been appropriated for terrible purposes: for imperialism, for colonial conquest, for smashing unions, for undoing affirmative action. All kinds of things happen in the name of democracy that you might object to, that I might object to, and it has many possible forms but then we think, okay, so let’s get away from it, let’s have something else. Let’s go to a different form for understanding justice or for centering our own projects of freedom, equality, emancipation, just living, inclusion, and so forth.
AB: So I was wondering when you started thinking about this. It certainly feels very timely, but when did this start percolating? How did you develop it into this particular focus and question?
AT: First, thanks for the kind introduction. It makes me really happy to hear that someone who is an expert in political theory enjoys this and thinks the film works and that a film that follows these theoretical ideas out into the world is worth doing, because it’s not the most intuitively cinematic concept, right? There aren’t that many philosophy films, sadly, especially not in the United States.
AB: So you’re leading the way.
AT: Yeah, I kind of have the genre cornered, I guess, which is sort of funny. I mean the question of what is democracy is something that came to me while I was involved in Occupy Wall Street of 2011. And there was the wave of social movements, not just in the United States, right, so in Spain, in Greece, the Arab Spring. And all of these movements were united by this word, regardless of their political context or what they were railing against. Yeah and I don’t want to be harsh but there was also a lot of dysfunction in Occupy and there were these general assemblies that were in theory open to everybody; it was trying to practice direct democracy and then they would break down and people would fight. I remember one night I saw somebody get punched and I was thinking, I think we could use a bit of political theory here. We know what we’re against, but let’s go back to basics. I was also thinking at the time a lot about the Internet because I wrote a book called The People’s Platform, that’s a political economy of the Internet. And so I was basically debunking Silicon Valley claims of democratizing everything. It was the heyday of “we’re democratizing media, we’re democratizing culture, we’re democratizing your laundry.” It’s funny now––it’s funny sad––because we’ve gone from this ridiculous Silicon Valley techno-utopianism to this very dystopian view that now social media has played a big role in destroying our democracy––if we ever had one. So the word was on my mind and I wrote a proposal for the film and I just thought, okay I’ll just use this very simple question just as a sort of lodestar, just to keep this inquiry at the top of my mind. And I thought at different points that I would come up with a better title, but I’ve settled on it because I think it for me it’s really important that the question is there because that’s what the philosophical mode is: it’s questioning, it’s unsettling, it’s trying to challenge our presuppositions and it would be ridiculous to imply that I could somehow answer that question in a 90-minute movie. So by the end I was like, okay that’s actually the right question. But I imagined, like a lot of people, that the film would come out under sort of neoliberal Clinton administration, in a different political context than the one we’re in. So what’s interesting to me about showing the film at this moment is that whereas I thought that I would be engaging with the sort of culture in a very complacent moment and trying to jolt it, this is not democracy. The film actually is serving a different role because we’re actually now in this moment of political crisis and turmoil and there’s so much fear. We’re so caught up in the reaction, reacting to every comment that Trump makes. And so the film, it does something very different. It creates this more reflective mood. And it’s actually a no, step back and think. And the film has this very expansive time horizon, going back 2500 years, and it’s like we’ve never had democracy and democracy certainly didn’t die in November of 2016.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really interesting to hear that you were thinking it would come out in, maybe a Clinton administration or something, because I think obviously the moment we’re in is one where we’re constantly seeing these headlines, like “democracy in crisis,” that democracy is in trouble around the world, but sometimes you wonder whether we’re all operating with the same understanding of democracy or what the threat to democracy is, where it’s coming from, and so on. The film really is great for this taking a step back from all those headlines and thinking about the questions underneath and, I mean, I think the question works so well because you’re posing it to philosophers as you’ve talked to philosophers in previous films and people who are sort of, I guess recognized as academic philosophers in some way or professional philosophers, and you’re bringing in canonical thinkers, and Rousseau and Plato and going back as you said, 2500 years, but of course, also talking to “ordinary people” and asking genuinely and seriously, what is democracy and what do you make of this? And I think one of the things that I really like so much about what the film is, that it’s doing this work to compose a public and bring people together as a philosophical community and a political community. And it’s very democratic and the ethos of saying, you can talk to a lot of different people and they can have ideas about these big questions, it’s quietly a rebuke to Plato, who thinks the masses can’t philosophize. And so you know, you’re talking to this huge range of people, from Guatemalan immigrants who run a worker-owned co-opm and school kids in Miami, and Syrian refugees in Greece, and people who have served in office and people who have maybe never voted, and kind of everyone in between, and they all have really interesting and insightful things to say about democracy. They certainly don’t always agree.
Christian Guerrier from What is Democracy?: If we are going to struggle to make a better world, a more democratic world, we all first must agree that all lives has equal values. Once we all agree on that, I think we can definitely stretch the concept of democracy. To me, I just see another historical moment that we are in, where we can either live together forward, or we can go back.
Victor On-Sang from What is Democracy?: I think it’s really important, when talking about democracy, especially in Miami, being a global city full of immigrants, who gets to be a citizen, right? And who gets this global citizenship? Who’s able to be mobile and what’s able to be mobile? Zygmunt Bauman said that mobility in late modernity it is a lot more important than capital.
AB: So one of the things that I thought about [while] watching, was that I was wondering how you thought about composing this set of people, or whose voices you wanted to have in the film, how you went about bringing those people into it, and how you went out looking for the people you wanted to ask questions.
AT: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting, because you’re a political theorist, and that’s your expertise. I think one thing that’s really interesting about political theory is that it’s this in-between discipline, because it’s not pure philosophy. It’s not metaphysics or something that’s in a traditional philosophy department. But it’s also not a science. It’s not totally empirical or just, studying the facts on the ground. It’s in this in-between space and the film tries to occupy that in-between space. I mean, political theory, in my view, is something that everyone should have access to and I think the film does try to make the case that people are far more thoughtful than we give them credit for. So I really tried in every conversation I had to approach the person I was talking to as though they were a philosopher. And so that’s part of this egalitarian ethos that I think is really at the heart of the movie and how I approached the people I met, and the people I was really interested in. And I was quite impressed by how people rose to the occasion. I mean I didn’t know when I conceived this––okay, I had this idea in my mind, I’m going to go and talk to “regular people” like they’re philosophers, but actually so much brilliance came my way and so much insight about the world that we inhabit. And I think part of that is that people who occupy society’s bottom rungs really understand how society works and have a lot of interesting observations. So these school kids in Miami, they’re 12 to 14 years old, but they really see the way the apparatus of school functions and how decision-making is structured to keep people like them out.
Astra Taylor from What is Democracy: The idea of democracy is that the people rule. And so that’s one thing I want to talk to you guys about is, how do you feel? Do you feel like you have a say in your school? Is that a place where you feel like you have any say over how things go?
Student One from What is Democracy?: I think we don’t have a say because it’s run by people bigger than us and bigger than the school. Like, it’s a whole county, so I don’t think we really have a say.
Student Two from What is Democracy?: Whatever rules they establish, we just gotta follow, so it’s nothing else we can say to defend ourselves, we just gotta do whatever they say.
Astra Taylor from What is Democracy?: Is democracy something you talk about in school and that you’ve learned about in history classes, and stuff?
Student One from What is Democracy?: Yes.
Student Two from What is Democracy?: It’s like about government, like different branches. They don’t ask us, oh, so how do you feel about the school?
Astra Taylor What is Democracy?: Does anybody ever think about school being another way? Like could you imagine a school where the students actually had some sort of seat at the table and were allowed to have a vote or voice in things?
Student One from What is Democracy?: People inside of the school should have something to say but it’s really not going to matter, because, like I said, there’s other people ruling it.
AT: That was an encouraging takeaway, I think, from making this film. But I did think a lot about this question that you’re raising, which is, who is the demos of the film? And one insight that kind of stayed with me through the filming process was the fact that part of what makes democracy challenging intellectually is that “the people” is an abstraction. I mean, the idea of the democratic people is an invention, right. This idea of a social body that should have popular sovereignty. It’s not clear who “the people” are. It’s not something that you can just point to. And so I wanted to show a people that didn’t have any illusion of wholeness. You know not like an ethnonationalist people. It’s a conflicted people. It’s a people that’s not always pretty and it’s also a people that’s agitating, that is fighting to exist. But again, I’m working within the boundaries of a movie; it can’t be 20 hours long. So I also just needed to convey there needed to be enough people that it felt representative and that it felt open enough, that it was okay that I left out all of these other kinds of people who aren’t in the film. So that was also a tricky balance because we were in a moment where representation is really important. And there are like 30 or 40 people in the movie, but there are so many types of types of people who aren’t in there. So that was tricky, like when did it feel like I had enough? The film feels like it is a legitimate expression of the demos. But I think that the subject of democracy is really; it worked in the documentary format because it’s a medium where you can really have that polyphony, and you get the sort of polyphony of voices and characters and they kind of augment each other’s perspectives and add different insights. I work a lot as a writer and I wouldn’t be able to capture on the page their individuality and their magic or their perspectives. But a documentary is the form to show human beings and tell their stories. So I think it was a really good medium for this project. But I think what this film does that’s a bit unique is that it doesn’t just stay with the personal. It doesn’t just present human interest stories. It doesn’t give you a narrative catharsis. It’s all about, okay, yes, there are individuals, but there’s the structural. There’s the personal and there’s the political and so I’m always trying to move between those two registers.
AB: Yeah, and everyone is conveying where they’re coming from and who they are, but also they’re weighing in on these questions. I mean it feels to me, at points, political theory from below or something, or it’s what you’re saying about the documentary being a good form for a film about democracy makes sense because it really is. It’s like watching democracy in action or something. But not just in the sense of watching people voting, you’re just watching people work through ideas on screen, which is really cool. I was wondering how you’re thinking about this question of what democracy looks like and there’s that chant, you know, this is what democracy looks like. I have chanted that chant many times and I enjoy it––
AT: I have too.
AB: I’m sure we both have, possibly at the same events. And I always think democracy looks like a lot of things. There are a lot of ways a democracy looks and I think you see a lot of them in the film but I wonder how you thought about the image of democracy or what, literally, democracy looks like when you’re when you’re watching it on screen and in this visual sense. You have both these in the film, it’s very intellectual, there are a lot of ideas, a lot of conversation and dialogue, but it’s a film, so you’re also watching it. So how did you think about how to portray democracy?
AT: That is a really good question and I love that because I feel like part of the motivation for the film was actually that I kind of reached a limit and I’d gotten to the point where when I was at a protest and I heard that chant I was like, “I hope not.” We have to go beyond these little tiny marches that I’ve been to a million times. So that chant was definitely on my mind. There are some obvious visual motifs that aren’t in the film. There’s stuff that is not there. You don’t see the White House. You actually don’t see people voting. I mean, voting rights are discussed, but you don’t see people casting ballots. So there are some conventional tropes of democracy that we left out purposefully. And it’s quite hard to find examples of what to me would be true democracy in action. So there are some small-scale examples. There’s Occupy Greece. There’s some footage of that in a montage. There’s a very fascinating, as you mentioned, workers co-op which is one of the last textile factories in North Carolina. All of these factories have been devastated by NAFTA. And there’s one left and it’s actually run by immigrants as a democratic co-op. There’s a democratically-run health clinic in Greece. And one thing I struggled with was that I’m not someone who only thinks democracy can work at the small level. I’m not “a small is beautiful” person. But those are sort of the credible examples that I could find and felt that I could really feature in the film and and feel like they were legitimate examples. Well, also the people in those spaces are very aware of the limitations. The other big thing I think in terms of representing democracy is the issue of dialogue. So a big tradition is, of course, deliberative democracy, and what you see in the film is there’s a lot of conversation and a lot of not just talking, but listening, in the film. It’s a funny thing for this visual medium to be focused on, but the film is not just image. It’s also sound. And so there’s people talking and there’s people listening and a lot of time there’s me listening. And I think the film is structured so that the audience is on a journey with me. I’m posing questions, I’m guiding the inquiry, but a lot of the time I’m listening really intently and I sometimes feel like listening doesn’t get its due and a big part of this film is making the case for a sort of politics of listening: who is listened to, who is regarded as an expert, who is taken seriously. And that’s why it is so important for me to put a 12-year-old girl next to a quote from Plato. And challenge this idea of who an expert is.
AB: And asking people who have not been asked what they think about things maybe ever, or maybe asked what they think about something that they then won’t actually have any influence over, or that their answer won’t have any meaning.
AT: But I do think that one scene that is really important to me, and people haven’t picked up on it as much––because there is a divide in the film in the sense that there are non-academics, and then there are figures like Wendy Brown and Cornel West and Silvia Federici. And so there can seem to be this really stark division between the philosophers and the people. But there’s this one character who’s a Greek classicist and she talks about the origins of the word “democracy” in Athens, and we go to the Agora together and there’s this scene where you finally go into her house and you see that her daughter has had to emigrate because she has no future in Greece, in the wake of the economic collapse.
Aspesia Balta from What is Democracy?: If I would be needed there, to help––all of my classmates are leaving. Almost no one is staying. We need to have a chance at this life. It’s very difficult for me to leave Greece. And that’s actually a bit like ethical dilemma for me, that if some of us then hope, will change…. Are you crying?
Efimia Karakantza from What is Democracy?: Yes, of course I’m crying.
Aspesia Balta from What is Democracy?: I hope politically that one day I will be able to come, to come back, that the political situation will be better and the European situation will better, so I will be able to come back and help the place that I know so much about, and that I love so much about, and that I have pained so much for.
AT: And so to me that scene is meant to say, there really isn’t a separation. There aren’t people who just live detached from political problems––intellectuals are people too.
AB: Yeah absolutely and in some ways it sort of reflects what you get to at the end, when you’re talking to Silvia Federici about democratizing reproduction and bringing politics into reproduction and not just looking at politics as something that happens in the “public sphere”––that it happens in a lot of places. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but that’s a great moment of seeing that, in someone’s home, watching this woman who’s been talking about the history of Greek democracy and about these big philosophical concepts, and her crying speaking to her daughter, who is in another country.
AT: I mean I tried to actually put those scenes closer together so that that connection would be more explicit. And because I locked myself into this mode, or I chose to make the film in such a way that there’s a lot of implicit meaning––I didn’t have a sort of big red arrow that’s like, hey, this is the part about seizing the means of production, or this is the part about the fact that she’s also a person and not just a brain. So there are connections in the film and I sort of have to trust the viewer to make their own, and sometimes they pick up on what I intend and sometimes they see things that I didn’t see. Early on there’s a scene with a representative––so someone in state government. But the film does quickly go into all of these other spaces that are the institutions of our society and those are political spaces. So it goes to schools, it goes into hospitals, it talks about prisons. And so I think that in terms of, also this question of how do you represent democracy, it’s also again not just reinforcing these clichés that it’s electoral politics alone and something that you only do in capitol buildings.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so I’m going to ask you a big maybe red arrow question.
AT: Okay, yeah.
AB: I mean, do we live in a democracy in America today? You said earlier something like, “we’ve never actually lived in a democracy” and so maybe it’s just expanding on that but I think in America you’re raised to think America and democracy are synonymous, they go together, America has always been the birthplace of modern democracy in some way and this is where democracy will always thrive and they’re inseparable in some way. Even though I think much more rarely you actually ask what that means and what democracy is, and how that can be squared with the history of oppression and the many people who have not had any say in what happens in America for most of its history. But do we today live in a democracy?
AT: The answer to me is definitely no. But I also think that we live in a world that has been democratized in relation to what came before it. So this idea that democracy is a process and that it’s this ever-expanding concept. And I think when I went into this project I was much more skeptical of the term. For me, the Bush era was so formative. This idea that we’re bringing democracy to Iraq and that word was not a word that inspired me––words like equality and justice and socialism and revolution. And so I was actually quite surprised by how, through the making of this film and also writing the companion book that’s going to come out in the spring, how that actually made me go, no this word is actually really powerful and this concept is really powerful even if it’s never been actualized, it might never be actualized. So I think the answer is pretty straightforwardly no. It’s actually surprised me how many people with no irony say, you know that––a professor at Columbia University, who shall not be named, introduced the film last night and he said, oh you conceived this film when most of us thought we had a democracy. And I think it’s quite interesting that these people who thought we had democracy are now actually the ones who are so convinced that it’s all over and we’re about to have fascism. Like what a frail institution that was, if it can just be taken away so fast. I mean part of the problem was that their concept of democracy was pretty weak, it didn’t really involve them doing anything except going to vote. It didn’t demand anything of them. At one point, the Greek scholar just mentioned, Effie, she says democracy was in the original sense, was understood as our capacity to do things together, that it’s a collective action. There’s quite a difference. I mean I think there are some people who are really grieving. They really feel like we had democracy and now it’s gone and they’re really grieving that. And so for those people I hope the film is a little bit of a slap in the face and is like no, for a lot of people this society has never resembled something that could be described as democratic. Which is not to say there hasn’t been progress. But I’m just always surprised.
AB: It makes sense to me that you had this sort of trajectory through thinking about democracy, because I was struck by how seriously the film takes critiques of democracy, from thinking about Plato’s anxiety and fear that democracy always devolves into tyranny.
Cornel West from What is Democracy?: The fact that the founding text of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato’s “Republic,” provides the most powerful indictment of not just democratic practices but the possibility of democracy. He argued that every democratic experiment, every experiment in which those Sly Stone called “everyday people” attempt to govern themselves, will result in tyranny because there is too much unruly passion and pervasive ignorance among the demos, among everyday people.
AB: I have to say, it is disturbing to reread Plato and see his description of how tyranny comes about from democracy and then watch the clip of Trump saying people who are going to rule, while he is styling himself as a strong man type person. But even beyond Plato and beyond Trump, there are many people in the film who say versions of democracy have always been an experiment at the expense of Black people, is what one woman says in a meeting.
Aja Monet from What is Democracy?: Black people have been the experiment of democracy. We have been at the expense of this so-called democracy. So what, is democracy good for us? It’s never been good for us. There’s never been a democracy, to me, in my mind. So if that’s the case, it’s kind of like, fuck it. Why are we having this conversation?
AB: So Federici says women have never been protected by democracy. There are a lot of points at which it’s very clear that democracy has not been good for a lot of people and certainly many people have never been included in it. You know, you talked to people about the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression. Reverend William Barber is at some point talking about voter suppression and this attempt to roll back a very short period in which the voting rights of Black Americans were protected, like a very, very short period of time. And yet it ends––there’s a very strong current of the shortcomings and failures of democracy, but it feels like the argument of the film in some way is that what we need is more democracy or to achieve the democracy that we never have. Cornel West talks about Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer. These more radical democrats, more radical than the democracy that they were ostensibly living in and how they’re doing sort of democracy from underneath American democracy. And so I wonder how you see that, more democracy? How do we do more democracy? How do we achieve the democracy that we haven’t yet?
AT: Well, it can actually be a kind of a liberal cliché, like, oh, the solution is just more democracy. That’s kind of what I was arguing against in my Internet book. I was just like, what do you mean, democracy? More democracy is just the free market, like no thanks.
AB: Or it’s the Silicon Valley version, which is just selling more people more stuff or giving people access.
AT: Or voice without power, so you can express yourself but you can’t really change things.
AB: Or you vote but nobody listens to your vote.
AT: So I mean I think there’s a way the word is really up for grabs. I like what Silvia Federici says. She actually says democracy has never “befriended” women, and I think it’s this image of democracy some people want, where democracy just friends you, and it doesn’t demand anything of you. It’s not a pain. I think some of the dilemmas that the film raises about democracy are timeless. Even if we had our socialist utopia where there was collective ownership over wealth, we would still have to figure out the boundaries of decision-making bodies, who makes decisions for a specific factory? The workers, should the community have input, what about people who live really far away? I mean, these issues like how how much do we prioritize the people who live now versus the people who have yet to be born; how much needs to be planned versus how much needs to be spontaneous. Some of these problems, they’re not going to go away. Hopefully the conditions under which we’re asking them will get better and we’ll have better problems. But I think we’re always going to have democratic problems. And that’s why I think these questions are worth elevating and grappling with, because they I think they will stay with us. And as an activist and as someone who engages in economic justice organizing, and who is frustrated when social issue films that end with a really pat call to action or a Kumbaya moment of everybody out in the streets holding hands with rousing music. And so I wanted a film that was more honest, that I personally found credible. I’m not saying those films are dishonest, but they just irritate me. And so the film doesn’t end with an explicitly hopeful note. It ends actually with this image of Silvia and I still talking, like the conversation isn’t over. It was just important to me to not wrap it up with a bow and act like it’s figured out, or that if we could just have a big enough protest, we’d have democracy. Because that’s not true. In fact one of my guiding principles was that I wanted a film that began the day after the big protest that most movies end with. What do you do the day after, when you had your big mobilization but everybody’s gone home, but the problem is still there and the media has moved on and you still have to grapple with the issues? And that to me is more credible. And I think it’s why there’s always a portion of the audience that comes up and tells me that they feel hopeless after watching it, but then there are some people who really appreciate that it doesn’t pretend that things are easier than they are.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. You definitely don’t want to suggest it’s ending on some “woo” note because if anything, it feels quite troubling. Towards the end, you get into these really severe challenges that are facing democracy today, justice, equality––many of the things we might want to exist in more robust forms than they do today or these values that we hold in some way. So one of them I wanted to get into some was this… you’ve talked a bit about––you do economic activism and one of the themes running through the film is certainly the theme of the effects of concentrated economic power on the ability to realize democracy, the gap in wealth, whether in this Plato’s city, the city of the rich and the city of the poor, or very obviously in America today and in the world today, and there’s this one point in particular I wanted to ask you about, which I thought was really interesting, where you ask George Papandreou, who’s the former prime minister of Greece, you ask him who rules. Just a very classic question. And he answers “the market,” which I thought was so interesting because the usual political theory answers are the one or the few or the many rule, and the one rules when it’s a monarchy or a tyranny, and you can have the few rule when it’s an aristocracy or an oligarchy, and when the many rule, it’s democracy. And he says something totally different, he says the market. And it suggests that nobody is even in control, it’s a set of impersonal forces that of course are acting through people and that people are working to execute, but that seem out of control in some way. And this comes in the film in the context of the discussion of the Greek referendum on whether to accept the IMF and ECB bailout which came along with austerity measures, basically, and people voted no and then a week later the market was like, you’re gonna take our deal or you’re going to be in trouble. And so it’s this really interesting moment and I wonder how you think about this question of the market and capitalism and whether it’s compatible at all with democracy, when for a couple decades there was a story about liberal capitalist democracy, is that it all goes together and that’s how things work. And I think that is much more in question now. So how do you think about those?
AT: I really tried to shoehorn in this scene and the scene didn’t work otherwise, but it was a scene where someone just said capitalism and democracy don’t go together. In an economic crisis, the first thing they’ll get rid of is democracy. Again, it’s this moment of the explicit or the implicit.
Silvia Federici from What is Democracy?: In the 13th century, in Siena and surrounding areas, a banking system emerged. So what this town represents is really the beginning of a capitalist society. In 1287, there was a revolt in Siena that gave power to an oligarchy of merchants and bankers. This is the room where they used to meet. And then around 1330, they commissioned the painting of this room.
AT: And I think even without that scene, the film makes a pretty strong case that capitalism and democracy are on a collision course. I think there are all sorts of historical reasons why that marriage came to be and why there’s this messy divorce that seems to be happening. So the film, it definitely delves into the history of democracy at least in the sort of mythic form going back to Athens. But then the reason that I followed Silvia Federici in Siena in Italy is because Siena is one of the centers of banking. So how do you tell a parallel story along with a story of democracy? How do you tell the story of capitalism? And so I guess I could have gone to sort of the fields of the enclosure, but there may not have been much of the film there; we would have just walked around what is probably now a city. But basically there’s this amazing fresco painted around the time when the first banks were developed and it’s the first secular fresco and it’s called the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. And it’s this amazing painting that this group of oligarchs who ran this city-state painted for themselves so they would remind themselves not to get too greedy or let things get too out of hand. And so just as the film’s addressing sort of contemporary political problems, I’m also trying to say, okay the contemporary economic problems also have a long history. And the problem of oligarchy is something that goes way back. And I think the challenge was precisely what you said, which is like how do you represent the market? I mean I definitely didn’t want to individualize the bad guys too much. So I didn’t want to say the reason that we’re not living our best democratic life is because of the Koch Brothers or Trump or whatever nasty figure I can come up with. Because it’s not about those individuals, it is about the structure. But then you also don’t want to slip into having it seem like it’s some paranoid fantasy. “Invisible power.” But I needed that theme to be at the heart of the film. And I hope that nobody misses the message that right now, capitalism is the threat. I mean capitalism concentrates wealth and power and that is inimical to the idea of a system where political power is broadly shared. It doesn’t make any rational sense for those two to go together. But I also didn’t want to use tired, I didn’t want to use rhetoric. I wanted to make that argument in a way that felt novel to me. And so that’s why the scenes that are most about capitalism and exploitation are us looking at this painting from 1338. And part of why I did that was because I felt that it would get me and get Silvia out of our usual language and our usual rhetoric and to think on our feet––we analyzed this strange symbolic fresco––and to express ideas in a different way, instead of just going to the formulations that we’re most comfortable with.
AB: I love the scenes with the fresco because I’ve seen reproductions of it and I have looked at it, have never thought about it that seriously. And watching the two of you talk about all of the different parts and how you could interpret them is really amazing. So I love those scenes. There are also some really great scenes of Greek pensioners fighting the riot cops, when they’re being cut––
AT: Yeah, elderly people literally beating up the police.
AB: Yeah. So there are certainly various depictions of democracy coming into conflict with capital. And this is one of the big questions and challenges that is still hanging at the end of the film, and you have a conversation with Wendy Brown where you’re talking about, how do you confront something like global capital? Is that something that’s possible to do through global democracy? She’s pretty skeptical. I’m curious what you think about the question of how, politically, to confront a system that is global and that exceeds the bounds of existing political communities––it has never had a political and certainly not a democratic community that is equal to it in scale and scope. And you and Wendy Brown get into this question around, what are the bounds of the democratic community? Do there have to be bounds? And Wendy Brown says I think there always have to be boundaries around the democratic community and doesn’t say what exactly those are, recognizes they’ve often been racial, gendered––and certainly that’s what we see in a lot of growing nationalist movements today. What can we do to confront global capital? And what are the communities that can take on that really monumental task, and how can we reimagine what those political communities are that aren’t just going back into the familiar form of the nation state and nationalism that comes with it?
AT: I think even if I had the right answer that question it would be a problem of doing it, right?
AB: Yes. As with all of the great political questions.
AT: Yes. I mean, Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders have announced their new international front to combat the strangely contradictory, international nationalist, right-wing front that seems to be forming. It seems to be very well organized. And I think they probably have a great analysis. But the question is okay, but how do people do it? What structures connects this concept of a leftist International to where we actually live on the ground? And that’s always been what––
AB: We have internationalism as an ideal and something that has been very robust at times but is also different than a democratic community in the sense of a political community that has teeth or that has the ability to––
AT: Well, to challenge power.
AT: I mean, that’s the thing. You can have solidarity in theory, which isn’t to say it’s not sincere, but it can actually be hard to embody and to challenge structures that are very distant. So that’s definitely a theme of the film too, the fact that power has moved further and further away from people. I mean I think to answer your question, I think in some ways we do know some of the answers. The answer is to to strengthen labor, to create associations where people can exercise the power that they have collectively. So the work I’m focused on is around indebtedness. So I co-founded a debtor’s union called the Debt Collective and we launched a student debt strike in 2015 that has won over $600 million for its members. And we’ve been battling with Betsy DeVos for the last two years as she tries to roll back some of the modest gains we made. But I think you know for me, thinking about, in addition to traditional workplace organizing, thinking about how we actually organize around finance, because these are chains that tie, that link us as individuals. The chains of debt tie us back into these big financial structures that are international. But I think we have to take stock of just how, when we say power has moved away from people, it’s not just that it’s moved to Washington. I mean there’s literally these supranational institutions that are purposefully opaque, that were designed without any public input, that supersede domestic law and are not subject to any sort of democratic control. So it’s a really tough challenge. The situation we’re in…we can kind of see these structures and how illegitimate they are and how they’re essentially almost a sort of shadow government led by corporations. But how do we actually combat them? And the film has a sort of global dimension and it talks about these meta-problems but that’s why the scenes, they always come back to Earth. They always come back to a place and to people, because democracy has to be enacted between human beings. And it’s funny because we always think, okay, democracy: the people who rule. So there’s sort of the “who” question and then there’s the “how” question. So who are the people, how do they rule. But then there’s also the where. And I feel like that doesn’t get asked enough in general because we do have to do it somewhere. And places is so central, which is place, whether it’s the workplace in the film, or the city––where’s the place of democracy? Because it does have to come from below. I really believe that, the more I’ve thought about this and after making this film, it has to be grounded in a place in a community. Again, to go back to this idea of Varoufakis and Sanders announcing an international, that’s great, but it has to have roots if it’s going to have power.
AB: At the end of the day, somebody is talking to somebody else about what you’re going to do and I think at the end of the day all of politics kind of comes down to these conversations that people are having with one another and deciding what to do. And that’s what I think really comes through in the film.
AT: It comes back to your question, which is how do you represent democracy. It’s people doing stuff. Again, our capacity to do things together. We haven’t automated ourselves away yet.
AB: Well, keep an eye on the democracy bot coming to a retailer near you in 2020.
AB: Well, Astra Taylor, thank you.
AT: Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the kind words about the movie.
DD: Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and organizer and the director of the philosophical documentary, What Is Democracy?, among many other things. Alyssa Battistoni is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University, a contributor to many fine publications, and a member of Jacobin’s editorial board. Thank you for listening to The Dig from Jacobin Magazine.