Surveying the Demos: Reviving Civic Dialogue in Astra Taylor's What is Democracy?
“Nothing beautiful without struggle.”
So said that master of the quip, Plato, in Book IV of The Republic.
Astra Taylor’s latest documentary, What Is Democracy?, which screened at Montréal’s Cinema Politica on January 23rd, opens with Plato’s dictum on a black screen. The shot crossfades to a close crop of an Italian fresco depicting a cross-eyed man with horns and fanged teeth. In his left hand, this devilish figure holds a golden platter, and in his right hand, a knife. He personifies tyranny in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, the Renaissance’s first and only secular fresco series, completed in 1339. As the camera pans over the paintings, Taylor and renowned Marxist-feminist thinker Silvia Federici begin discussing their symbolism. Taylor and Federici’s analysis turns to the image of a woman “sawing the social body,” but Tyranny’s grotesque face—rendered with perverse beauty in Lorenzetti’s Gothic style—recalls the opening reference to beauty and struggle, and the perilous stakes of modern democracy.
Though the film begins with allusions to rule and justice from Antiquity and the Renaissance, What Is Democracy? is very much about the global present. Taylor, whose earlier documentaries Zizek! (2005) and Examined Life (2008) established her ability to reframe philosophical questions for wider audiences, is also a writer and organizer known for her work with Occupy Wall Street and the Debt Collective. One gets the impression that Taylor constantly reads life through multiple lenses, and the film’s titular inquiry provides an appropriately multivalent muse. Throughout the film, Taylor interweaves the perspectives of philosophers, politicians, activists, factory workers, students, refugees, citizens, and undocumented individuals. The result is an engaging portrait of the modern-day demos, the Greek term for the populace or common people.
The question of democracy is—at least theoretically—open to everyone. Taylor’s film reveals the myriad ways in which individuals choose, or choose not to, engage with this query. Her philosophically-inclined interviewees, such as Cornel West, Wendy Brown, Eleni Perdikouri, and Federici, commonly emphasize how democracy relies upon a sense of shared responsibility. In a dense but rewarding scene, Brown, presumably sitting in her office at UC Berkeley, explains this challenge with reference to Rousseau’s paradox. “For Rousseau,” she recounts, “the meaning of democracy and the meaning of freedom is self-governance and self-legislation. It’s not … negative freedom, liberty, or freedom from the state.” The idea of working together for humanity’sshared benefit seems well and good, but as Brown notes, “Rousseau understands [that] to nurture democracy, you also have to have a people oriented toward the desire to govern themselves and that Moderns, especially because of … capitalism, are much more inclined to be self-interested or self-involved.” The challenges facing democracy are thus exposed as being not only the abstract forces of late capitalism—neoliberalism, ongoing colonialism, and oligarch-favoring financial systems—but also a growing sense of everyday ennui corroding interest in self-governance.
Taylor’s overarching project is certainly ambitious, but what makes the film successful is its presentation of the discrepancies between democracy’s promises and its actualization. Ruminations on political theory, as in the aforementioned Brown scene, are succinctly intercut with testimonies from individuals with wide-ranging experiences. Taylor's thoughtful interviews are supported by Maya Bankovic’s agile handheld cinematography, and the film presents us with striking snapshots from the lives of Indigenous Mayan immigrants from Guatemala working at a textiles co-operative in North Carolina, elderly Greek folks protesting proposed EU austerity measures in Athens, and African American students at a Miami public school discussing their teachers’ apathy. Despite differing contexts, these subjects’ travails derive from remarkably similar sources. The question of what fully realized global democracies—or even a single global democracy—would look like looms large.
Crucially, What Is Democracy? frames its subjects with equal dignity. Taylor’s respect for the interviewees’ unique perspectives reminds the audience that all participants—including those living outside of democratic conditions—may have valuable insights. Some of the most exigent scenes feature individuals discussing the failures of purportedly democratic societies. Such interviews relay pragmatic and refreshingly instructive views of democratic potential. For example, after describing the unknown fate of her family in Syria, Salam Magames, a refugee from Aleppo, responds to the question of how she definesfreedom: “To be educated, to be employed, to have a salary, to have a family, to have responsibility, this is freedom. What more could we want?” Magames’s remarks echo Ellie Brett’s comments in an earlier scene. Speaking while working at a Miami barbershop, Brett reflects on the challenges of re-entering civilian life after nine years in prison. His thoughts are bookended by a poignant reference to an American bank CEO’s acquittal following the financial crisis. The audience is left wondering just whom western democracies serve, and whom they leave behind.
The Montréal screening of What Is Democracy? was also the co-launch of Federici’s most recent books, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons and Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, and Taylor and Federici took questions together. When one audience member asked an apt question regarding the absence of Indigenous North American perspectives in the film, Taylor appeared self-reflective and cognizant of the stakes of attempting to represent democracy in a single vehicle. (Also conspicuously absent was direct attention to climate change and its impact upon global migration and sovereignty.) Though inevitably unable to encapsulate all the crises of contemporary democracy, Taylor’s representation of divergent understandings of political terms and realities guides the audience toward an appreciation for another Hellenic value: dialogue. Her tactic of asking questions as a means of developing nuance presents one path towards cultivating, as Rousseau might put it, a renewed sense of democratic responsibility. Much like democracy itself, a polyphony of voices is clearly required to address questions of self-governance and representation. One hopes that Taylor’s bold—if imperfect—foray may therefore inspire a flowering of new civic dialogues.
Time will tell, but for now What Is Democracy? plays for a new audience at DCTV in New York on March 11th at 7 pm.