An Epic Conversation on Astra Taylor’s ‘What is Democracy?’
Astra Taylor image by Deborah Degraffinreid.

An Epic Conversation on Astra Taylor’s ‘What is Democracy?’

At a historical moment when democracy everywhere seems like it’s under siege, filmmaker Astra Taylor is taking us back to the basics.

Is democracy good?

Towards the end of the Republic, Plato’s immortal work of political philosophy/homoerotic fanfiction, the ancient sage Socrates warns his students against the dangers of democracy. It is a degenerate form of government. Most people are incapable of rational reflection, and therefore self-rule; they are tossed about by their passions and appetites like a ship caught in a storm. Given the chance—especially in a deeply unequal society, where the poor are mocked daily by the excesses of the rich—citizens will flock to the first demagogue who promises them vengeance against their oppressors. Thus they deliver themselves inevitably to tyranny. Democracy is not only impossible, but a dangerous idea even to entertain.


The idea of popular self-government has had its ups and downs over the intervening 2,500 years, but it’s hard not to worry these days that the old Athenian pederast might have been right. From Donald Trump to Brexit, Austria to Ontario, democracies these days seem hell-bent on chipping away at their own foundations.

But why? What are those foundations? And what is democracy, anyway?

This is million dollar question posed by What Is Democracy?, a new film from activist and documentarian Astra Taylor. It helps clarify a lot of these basic questions—along with troubling nearly everything we think we know about government of, by, and for the people.

Taylor is no stranger to complicated questions. Her first film, Žižek!, explored the everyday antics and thought of one of the world’s most controversial and confounding philosophers. Then, in Examined Life, she brought some of the deepest thinkers out of the ivory tower and down to the street to show us that big ideas permeate the world around us—and that the world around us permeates our ideas. Her 2014 new media manifesto, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age was prescient in its critical analysis of both the power structures of our digitized media economy and the techno-utopianism in vogue when it was written; now that we’re all suddenly suspicious of Silicon Valley’s vast and uncontrolled social experiment, the book is downright prophetic.


But now Taylor has even bigger fish to fry: the gauntlet Plato threw down to democracy more than two millennia ago. What Is Democracy? sees her pinging back and forth between Greece and America, trying to uncover the prospects of popular self-rule by talking to the people themselves—as well as those who have been frozen out of “the people” altogether. From the ruins of Plato’s Academy to the police-choked streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, the heights of international finance to the dregs of the US prison system, Taylor gives us a glimpse of “what is really going on.” But more importantly, she also gives us a glimpse of the world that might be possible, and the wonders that might be achieved, when everyone is given a seat at the table.

I was lucky enough to talk with Taylor about her film while she was in Toronto for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

VICE: What really stuck out to me in this film is that you spent so much time, not just talking to so-called "ordinary people" but specifically people who have been excluded or otherwise marginalized from our democratic processes, which gives you an interesting vantage point on the question of democracy. Why did you choose this method instead of your previous approaches?
Astra Taylor: For me, on a fundamental level, this film is more reflective of who I am. Obviously I'm a person who really loves ideas and philosophy. But I'm not an academic, and maybe it's because of my background, and the fact that I was unschooled, and have always been kind of an outsider to the academy even as someone who appreciated it.


So for me, when I dropped out of grad school and started making my earlier films, partly it was a way for me to stay engaged in the realm of theory and the realm of philosophy, while also trying to bring those ideas out of the ivory tower. You know, literally, philosophy is in the streets. That's Examined Life: ideas are all around us.

So this film, when I talked to people, I tried not to speak to people as "subjects." I tried to speak to them not just as people, but as though they were political theorists. What do they think about freedom, and equality? Because we all theorize. We all have ideas, and we're just not invited to speak about them as such. And that's why I think the film—and my role in it—is actually quite Socratic.

So there's the layer of Plato's Republic, we're dealing with the text… but then there's the Socratic layer, which is the person who goes around asking "hey, person on the street, what is justice? What is truth?" In ancient Athens, I'm the gadfly. And that's really intentional, it's bringing non-experts into the conversation. The people who know the most about democracy—and I'm so much more convinced of this than when I started, because this was something I always ideologically "thought," but now I know—excluded people know the most about democracy. They see the structures from below, they see the hierarchies that are still there, they see the hypocrisies.


And it was amazing just talking to people on the street. Relatively privileged people, they would basically say like "well, you know, the United States isn't a democracy, it's a republic, case closed." Well like… hold on! That's not an answer! That's not thinking! That's your privilege.

So the Socratic intention is to unsettle people: what do you know? what do you not know? what do you know that you don't know? And that's just who I am as a person. I think that ideas belong to all of us.

I think school is a great thing. I am totally for school. But I also think… I want these ideas that I live and breathe to be everywhere. And it's so ironic for political theory to be specialized. Because it's about life, and it's about democracy. And the idea that only experts can speak on this shit is fucked up, and it's why we're so fucked.

That's totally true. That was one of my fun experiences in grad school. Political theory is such a weird fucking thing anyway. The philosophers don't take you seriously because you're "not philosophy enough," but the political scientists don't take you seriously because you're "too philosophy." Political theory is somehow both too concerned with ideas but also too concerned with earthly, material problems. It's an intellectual bastard child.
Exactly! And that's exactly what the film is trying to do. Yeah, this is concerned with big questions, but we have to experiment with them, we have to try them out.


The thing to me that proves this idea that people understand more than we give them credit for is the scene with the kids. They're like 12 or 13 and they know that their teachers aren't really in charge. They know that we don't have democracy. And this is not what they've been taught in school—they've been taught something different. They've been taught the lesson of "shut up and listen." They've been able to see the whole thing.

Yes, this film is also borne of me thinking "people are making terrible choices the world over," and there's so much evidence that people will hurt each other, and exclude each other. Yet there's all this potential that's not being tapped, and it's not being respected. So the film is my way to kind of honour my love for political philosophy and also show that I really think there is a capacity for reflection and self-rule that we've blocked from really allowing to flourish.

Yeah. In this sense it was such a good move to frame the film around Plato's Republic , and his challenge to democracy. In one sense it plays around with the idea that "all Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato," which I'm always a bit conflicted about because on the one hand, fuck Plato, but on the other, it’s kind of true. Every time you read it, there is new shit happening inside.
It's such a weird book. I was re-reading it and at one point Socrates says he's in favour of both philosopher kings and queens. That's so interesting! It's the founding text of political theory and in many ways the confounding text of political theory, because it's actually so much weirder than I remember.


So, OK, I'm going to have Plato but then I'm also going to have all these women, all these different people from around the globe. I mean, that's also my mode of engaging with political philosophy and the canon. Like, I love the canon. I love Marx. I love Plato. The 'old dead white men' are awesome. But let's bring them into this moment.

So, Socrates. Socrates wouldn't look like "Socrates" today, you know. Maybe he'd look like me! [laughs]

I just take issue with the idea that we have to just cut ourselves off from this tradition because it's problematic. No, let's actually re-read them with our perspectives and open-mindedness and maybe we'll see some aspects of The Republic that we didn't see before.

Yeah. That's what makes it a classic. The text remains alive because you can always read new things in it—things I guess that were always there, but couldn't be read until (to use the jargon) the heuristic conditions of the day change.
Yes! And the heuristic conditions aren't neutral, right. There were always people trying to enforce a certain meaning.

Yeah. To paraphrase our mutual friend Slavoj Žižek, "every history is a history of the present." Which is something I try to keep in mind, especially when thinking about the last 10 or 15 years.
Yeah. The movie was finished in a rougher phase, almost a year ago, and then I took some time away from it. But it started to feel like this is the right moment for it. I started cooking it up in a different context, in 2014, and people were just so confused about then-current events. People are more receptive now to having this kind of conversation.


Like, I just read last night the statement from prison strikers in Nova Scotia, and their last demand—I got emotional reading it—is to have access to the library. It's the last demand, it's number ten. Like, "we should have access to the library."

So it's interesting how the news cycles have different moments in the film. Family separation—it's like, oh wow, that is something we filmed over a year ago. Being in harm's way at a protest—that has gotten way more serious now than it was when we filmed. And now with the prison strike, and Elliot the barber talking about the prison libraries…

It's interesting how these moments are connecting with current events, and our current sense that, like you say, we're "over the cliff." [laughs]

Right? This is something I think a lot about. On the one hand, we've totally gone over this cliff, and something has changed, everything is fucked up. But on the other hand, like you're saying, the film is a little bit "old" in terms of its production, but it still captures all these things which are continuous the whole time.
Yeah. And I've really been thinking about that, because I think you're exactly right. The People's Platform does this too, the opening chapter says we overemphasize change when we need to look at continuity. The business model of media is basically the same—in fact, digital technology is more advertising-dependent than newspapers were.


So that is something I do. Maybe it's because I'm a wannabe historian, but I'm always thinking: what is the continuity? And instead of viewing whatever new right-wing authoritarian capitalist phase we're in as a rupture, a better question is: how has everything lead up to this? What is the basis on which this new 'turn' is built?

So I mean, yes, these dynamics will take on new forms, but in another way they're pretty timeless. These tensions and contradictions are not novel. My instinct is that if we can recognize that, it'll help us. But maybe I'm wrong. [laughs]

Dr. Cornel West

Well, I mean, I'm inclined to agree, but it's also possible that I am also just super wrong. [laughs]

But to just backtrack a little, I'm glad you brought up the scene in the school, because for me that was one of the most interesting scenes in the movie. You're in the hospital first, talking to everyone about what could be done to fix a lot of these political problems, and everyone agrees that education is important, it starts with education. And then you immediately cut to the school, where everybody's education has been in how powerless they are, which is not at all… what the idea of education is supposed to be.

And it's so interesting to me, because you're talking to the children. And at face value, the reaction to your conversation with the kids about whether or not they should be included in democratic deliberation is absurd, because… you're talking to children. Because traditionally, children were said to be incapable of reason, or whatever the standard excuse for exclusion is.


But that attitude is the absurd idea. These children are honestly much more self-aware than many of the adults I deal with in my daily life.
I've been writing the companion book, and one of the chapters is on coercion. Each of the chapters is about a contradiction or tension in democracy, so one is coercion vs choice. I've been reading a lot of political theory about coercion, and the one example philosophers always give is: "Well, yes, we should minimize coercion, but you know it's necessary. And you know it's necessary because you have to coerce your children." It's like—children are the subject that justifies coercion being a fundamental characteristic of our society.

And I'm like… why? Are they really, like you said, these "humans who lack reason" because they haven't been disciplined into adulthood, because they haven't yet been broken down? They show this incredible capacity that is not being respected.

Philosophers have this idea of education for citizenship, you know, "we should all learn about the truth so we can collaborate and cooperate." And these kids are being taught the truth. But it's a really ugly truth, and it's the truth that you don't matter.

One kid basically invokes Darwin, you know, "survival of the fittest." But not like a rich guy would say it, “oh well, I'm going to succeed, I belong at the top of this Darwinian contest.” This kid is basically like, "I just need to exist. I just need to keep my head down, and do what I'm told, not speak up, not get fired, not be homeless." It's just so tragic.


Like, to go back to the prisoners, they can't even have access to a library. We're seeing this in Nova Scotia. What kind of democracy are we? We're not one, obviously, if these basic tools of education, the opportunities and resources, are being denied people. To me, it's such a deep indictment of the world we're living in.

That's the problem with reading most liberals over the last two and half years. Because it's all the bromides, it's all "we just need to go back to the formula that we know works, it'll be fine." And it's like… come on. We're through the looking glass here.
I totally agree. I mean, I'm obviously someone with radical political ideas, and I could write my ten-point plan and socialist manifesto for democracy. But again, I wanted to operate in that Socratic mode. So the film is not propaganda in the sense that it's trying to tell you what to think, it's philosophical in the sense that it's trying to remind us that we have to really question what the word "democracy" means.

"The dilemmas will transform. We'll still have problems. Just hopefully they'll be better problems."

Even if we had equality, even if the world was my perfectly egalitarian economy, we would still have to decide where the boundaries of our community are, who's in, who's out. We still have to figure out how to deal with the fact that there will be future generations who do not exist yet but who will need a livable environment.


The dilemmas will transform. We'll still have problems. Just hopefully they'll be better problems. [laughs]

I mean, I hope the film challenges the liberal worldview, but without… I don't know, I didn't want to spend the film building up the liberal view to then deconstruct it. I just wanted to move past it.

That's what I love about it. It's called "What Is Democracy?" and you think, of course, I will learn the answer when I watch this movie. But you don't leave the film knowing what democracy is, you leave like, "wow, this is a lot to think about, I should talk about it with somebody." Which is why it works so well as a Socratic film.
My hope—and I know this can be such a filmmaker cliche, "oh, I want to start a conversation"—but for me, it's not a cliche, because I actually do a lot of political organizing and economic justice work and I had helped organized strikes, and debt strikes, and it's like… I'm not saying "we need to start a conversation" so we can then maybe work towards organizing. No, we are organizing and we're trying to build power and we're simultaneously always having to question and challenge. Those things have to happen together, simultaneously.

And a film is not organizing. A film is not activism. A film is a film. Be humble about what its role is.

It's a text, right. It's part of the tool set for people to educate themselves and others and do the whole enlightened self-rule thing. But at the end of the day it is just an object which doesn't work unless people are engaging with it as part of a bigger process.
Films are interesting because they're good at conveying other perspectives. It's been interesting writing the companion book, because some of my favourite scenes in the movie don’t translate onto the page. They didn't really give me as much fodder for writing as I thought they would, whereas a lot of stuff I left out was really good on the page. So a film, as a medium, is a great medium for showing the demos, for showing all these voices and all these people and to remind you of the multitude.


It's actually been really interesting to think about how these different kinds of texts, in different mediums, have different affordances. Documentary is about showing other humans and getting a window into their life. And then the challenge I think for me is to not just let it be this empathetic catharsis, like, "oh, I understand that person's story and I cried for them." I always wanted to kick it up from the personal to the political, kicking it up to the structural. Story lets you off the hook sometimes.

The humanizing aspect of stories and films, and even in political discourse, tends to obscure the non-humanistic side, the structures that actually fucking shape everything. So in that sense it's good that you didn't linger too long on any of the actual people themselves and kept the bigger picture in focus.
A lot of it was just toning back the emotion. People cried a lot while I was filming, people were really… like, people's lives are really fucking fucked up, and not just because they are lazy or bad. But the movie is not about empathy. The movie is about understanding, in an intellectual sense. I don't want people to go "Oh yeah, I feel their pain." No, that's not it.

Feeling pain is not actually the useful thing here. It's feeling the pain but then stopping to think about it. Or maybe feeling and thinking at the same time is a better way to put it.
I think there are a lot of theorists and intellectuals who think none of this can be emotional. This can't be embodied, right. It's the mind, it's the theory, it's the anti-practice. So I hope the film also perturbs those people. I hope they go "ugh." [laughs]


That's what is so great about ending the film by going back to Sylvia Federici, who says something to the effect of "women have the best insight into democracy, we've never been protected by the system." And it lays out the rationale for talking to people who are excluded. I thought that really was the best way to do that.
I was hoping that scene would be part of the key to understanding it. And it's so interesting in this moment of #MeToo… is a feminist film really just one that says "and now we will reveal how these women have fought to become athletes, just like men" or "we'll now show how this woman has been a victim of sexual harassment." I mean, this film is feminist in a very different way: I included women talking about philosophy and political theory. The part at the end is just the big reveal like, okay, that wasn't an accident. [laughs]

Yeah. To me this isn't an explicitly feminist film, thematically. I mean, obviously feminism and democracy are connected intimately and anyone who says otherwise can fly to fuck. But at the same time, it's not flag-waving… it's not, like you say, a propaganda film. It's methodologically feminist.
Yes! I love that: methodologically feminist. And also in the sense that, I think there's a female voice to it, being a female-bodied and female-identified person.

I couldn't get away with what Adam Curtis gets away with in his films, And I can either lament the fact that I will never be taken as seriously, in the same way, as an old British guy. Or I can say fuck it, and that gives me the freedom to explore the world in a different way and to present a different mode of intellectual experimentation and encounter.


So the way that I put that last shot, of me and Sylvia still looking at the painting, that to me is supposed to tell the viewer: this ain't over. We're still chatting. [laughs]

Yeah. It doesn't wrap up in a conventional way. Everything is still unsettled.

Actually, another really interesting thing in the film was one of the other scenes with Sylvia. At one point she's talking about how the structures of power in the medieval era were so physically close, so it was easy to imagine engaging with them. And then you start talking about how all of those things are starting to recede from actual physicality. Even money is vanishing, it's increasingly a pure numerical abstraction.

And then you said something about how as power relations become invisible they become in many ways heavier but harder to see and resist, which made me want to jump up out of my chair.
As an activist, it's like: where is the lever of power? I think that is part of why it's so hard to figure out how to be effective and fight back. And because it's hard to identify the real powers then people start blaming immigrants, or scapegoating something that's nearby, or having a conspiracy theory or whatever.

For me, that scene also was saying, it's OK that this is hard, because things have gotten more challenging. It's real. The book gets more into international trade law, and the purposeful internationalization of finance. Neoliberal economists, Hayek and the rest, they wanted to move power away from the nation-state, because that's where labour unions and stuff could exercise influence and redistribute wealth. It's not an accident that power evaporated. It was political.


And it's also a reflection that we're just truly inspired by the painting. It's a proto-Renaissance painting. Sienna was a republic, democratic by the standards of the day… and it's interesting too because we filmed that when the Bank of Sienna, one of the oldest banks in the world, was still dealing with the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, so the banking system was collapsing, and being bailed out… so it was quite a neat setting for our conversation. I think having this weird visual prompt helped us frame things in a way that wasn't part of our usual rhetoric or shorthand.

We don't really use a lot of jargon, you know. No one says "ah, you see, the men are not able to seize the means of production in the village." [laughs]

That's the other really great thing about the film. It's people having conversations that are intelligible to those who haven't spent $20,000 on a graduate degree.
I think the painting estranged us from our usual mode of talking to each other. We're discovering new things through it. I would use that technique again. It was really good for talking about ideas in a different way.

One more thing. Over the course of your conversation with Wendy Brown, in the last segment, you come up against this fundamental contradiction of hyper-inclusive democracy, which is basically that ultimately, at the end of the day, the demos always has to be bounded. There always has to be some demarcation of who can and cannot be part of "the people."

And this is something that's especially hard to chew on, because at many points in the film you're talking to refugees and stateless persons, who are the ultimate foil to the nation-state democracy we live in now. But you also have a scene with a Greek person, and a few Americans, and it kind of carries the implication that these refugees, these different people, threaten the integrity of the demos . So okay, there is a lot of border anxiety at the same time that borders are breaking down, and refugee movements are only going to increase, and there is the fear that this will galvanize the forces of white hegemony.
It's funny, I just finished reading this really interesting (but also really boring) book called Colouring the Masses, and it kind of clarified something for me. So there's a really long chapter on the US, and a really long chapter on Canada—their immigration policies are not that different—and what's sad is that the takeaway of this book is that the demise of race and ethnicity exclusion policies in immigration did not come because the demos was demanding it. Canadians were not clamouring to get rid of race-based exclusions in immigration. It was the opposite, the further British imperial rule receded from Canada.

Because imperialism is always about, like, "ahh, India, you are ours" and they would give people some basic citizenship as a tool of control and keeping the empire together. But the more independent Canada got, the more racist it got. These rules only diminished in the 60s with decolonization and the backlash against overt racism.

So I think there's something really troubling about that. But I wouldn't say the racism was democratic, I would say that it was popular. It's poli sci 101, right, democracy cannot just be majority rule. There are democratic principles, and just because something is popular doesn't mean it's democratic. That's market logic.

I mean, I have my thoughts about it, and they'll be in my book. But I wanted to leave it uncomfortable in the film. So when we're talking about that, Wendy says something very important, which is that the exclusions thus far have been fucking terrible. Indefensible. But it doesn't mean we don't have to have exclusions.

Like, look at Toronto right now. Should Toronto be able to decide how its city council is represented, or should Ford and his cronies at the provincial level be able to decide? This is a really good example. Who gets to decide who has voting rights? It's another example of power moving further away. They're saying "it's the province, we control everything about you," but Torontonians are saying, "what a minute, we're the ones who actually live in Toronto."

We're still so caught up in race-thinking, and nationalism and xenophobia, that we haven't even begun to have a constructive discussion about what community boundaries are. The old participatory democracy slogan is: people should have a say the decisions that run their lives. So that means I shouldn't have a say in the decisions that run Halifax, because I'm not living there right now.

I wanted that challenge to be there. So that back and forth between Wendy Brown and me about how the anti-democratic power of capitalism is global cuts back to Salam, the young woman from Syria. And I intended that just to say, like, if you have a fucking conscience, you can't exclude this person. In terms of that sequence, I wanted to give her the last word, to leave with the perspective of someone who is on the outside but who deserves to be let in.

I felt so bad for them. They finally get to Austria, they actually have a family reunification, it's amazing, her mom and dad are flown in. And then the fucking neo-Nazis won the election.

So she's just at the beginning of her saga.

From the sounds of things, perhaps we all are. Thank you for this, Astra.

[This conversation has been edited for (some) length and clarity.]

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