As impeachment hearings hit a fever pitch and new revelations surface weekly about the connections between Facebook and Republicans, the problems of our democracy on the threshold of the 2020 election couldn’t be more glaring. To get some insight into how best to confront our political morass, I caught up with Astra Taylor, a teacher, activist, and documentary filmmaker who specializes in the study of our democratic aspirations and decline. Her 2019 book Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone is less a straightforward investigation than a do-it-yourself-kit for redefining your own political views at a time when U.S. citizens are waking up to find their lifelong assumptions about government and citizenship upended nearly every day.
Taylor’s focus on participatory democracy follows from her long association with the Occupy movement beginning in 2011, when she co-edited, with Sarah Leonard of Dissent and Keith Gessen of n+1, the Occupy Gazette, a collection of writings documenting events at Zuccotti Park and analyzing their broader significance. She subsequently cofounded Strike Debt, an activist collective dedicated to working on medical and student debt issues, with a few former Occupy colleagues. A film followed in 2018, her third. What is Democracy? features dozens of casual interviews of academics, politicians, students, and people in the street, placing the question of equality not just at the center of our thinking about democracy, but showing it as the central concern of our increasingly surveilled and technologically troubled private lives.
Taylor’s new book is dedicated to her partner, Jeff Mangum, the lyricist, vocalist, and guitarist of Neutral Milk Hotel. Fans of the band may find aspects of Taylor’s vision familiar — from her playful and oblique approach to hard questions to her engaging large-heartedness. Taylor herself was born in Winnipeg in 1979, before going on to become a lifelong autodidact who’s taught sociology at SUNY New Paltz and the University of Georgia. She is, indeed, something of an outsider philosopher, and our conversation predictably ranged across a vast philosophical territory.
What follows has been edited for clarity and brevity.
GEN: In the book you approach the topic of equality not as a goal to strive for, but a fact to realize. Please expand on this.
Astra Taylor: Equality is a recent concept — that’s something I didn’t know before I started the book, in terms of the history of ideas, the philosophical concept — but it’s one that is wonderfully simple, and wonderfully radical, and really essential.
I believe that equality actually goes beyond the human. Whatever life is — life isn’t just a human characteristic; it’s something that we share with nonhuman animals, and we also share with the natural world... We’re all equally entitled to this existence. There’s something really profound about that, and there’s a randomness to it, too: Why does my existence mean more than yours?
And that’s an equality that’s deeper than our physical being, so whether you are big or small or strong or weak or ill or well, or again, human or again, a nonhuman creature... This earth belongs to all of us, and we are all part of the earth. We’re seeing now how necessary that perspective is.
Where has it gotten us, to think that human beings are not only separate, but also superior?
When we believe we are more than equal, then we can exploit and extract everything that’s around us, dominate nature, or dominate other life-forms, even the Earth itself. Why would we think that the Earth is something that could have equality as a characteristic, when it’s just a thing — it’s just a commodity, right? And commodities aren’t equal.
If there’s one simple message of the book, it’s that we need to put equality at the center of not just democracy, but of our social life.
You discuss the connection between freedom and equality, but what of the tension between the two? Like when Chekhov says that even the possibility of freedom “gives wings to the soul,” he doesn’t mean the freedom to harm, like what Mark Zuckerberg wants — the uncontrollable human appetite that just wants to grab.
The paradox is that egalitarian convictions oblige you to try to take care of the interests of everyone, including those who wish to inflict harm.
This relates to my chapter on coercion. When is coercion legitimate in a democracy?
We should have said “no” to Mark Zuckerberg a long time ago. Are we human beings cursed with these appetites? Is this just part of our nature? It’s hungry, it knows no limits, it’s insatiable — and ultimately destructive.
We have to live in a society, and philosophers going back to the Stoics distinguished between what you actually need, compared to what you can want. Epicurean philosophy is all about trying to get those things on track, so that you realize you don’t need that much.
In order to achieve happiness.
But society creates these needs that are endless, related to vanity, ego, status. There is an actual physical limit to how much food an individual human being can consume, but in a world where we’ve been told that economic growth is endless, then a billionaire can dream of becoming a trillionaire.
People who are interested in politics and democracy have always catastrophically underestimated the malevolence and greed of such people.
Well, I think you’re really seeing how malevolent and greedy and evil Mark Zuckerberg is, in the last few months, right? The mask has finally come off. People were just giving him passes: Boy Wonder, Boy Genius. And now we’re finally able to see: No, he is actually a fascist. He’s willing to sacrifice so many core principles just so his company can keep growing.
In my version of a democratic society, how would wants and needs be rebalanced?
Right now we’re told our wants should be a new car, or the latest iPhone. Well, maybe our wants should be like, a four-day weekend, where we can just hang out with our families, and eat soup, and you know... chat with folks on the stoop. There is something bigger to address than our current political system.
We know that there was an effort in the 1960’s and ’70s to create new desires, to expand consumer capitalism. At the same time, this effort to undermine people’s livelihoods, to make them precarious and disempowered. Austerity, combined with the consumer society.
This taking away of people’s basic needs — no you can’t have housing, no you can’t have health care, no you can’t have education — but we can make you think that you have to be a millionaire to have a decent life!
There’s an indigenous parable in Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, the Windigo. It’s about this sort of undead creature that is endlessly hungry, insatiable. This creature has eaten its own lips off. It’s a cannibal, but it’s cannibalizing itself. I might read that myth and think, that’s capitalism. But this myth comes from a society that is not capitalistic. So there is something essential in the human being that we have to tame.
I think what creates that insatiable, eat-off-your-own-lips hunger is the fear of death — that’s like pure Ernest Becker. Until people are ready to talk about that, it’s going to be hard to fix.
I’m thinking of Erich Fromm and The Fear of Freedom. For some people there’s an almost morbid fear of being free, like maybe they’d rather be dead than free.
Ahaha. Please elaborate on this.
Democracy is about being free with others.
It’s based on the premise that there is no individual freedom, but that it is through our collective decision-making and determination that we become both individually and collectively free. That we become civic equals, and then, by working together, we actually have some control over our own lives, and our destiny.
That’s something people have run away from, there’s no denying that. There is a sort of security in nihilism, whereas there’s an uncertainty about this collective project of self-government. We don’t know if it’s going to work.
We can march toward authoritarianism with some image of what that looks like, right? There’s patriarchal authority. There’s punishment. There’s discipline. There’s domination. There’s othering. Maybe it’s not fair, but at least there’s a structure that’s known, even if it’s tragic and horrible.
We don’t know what it would be like to live in a society that wasn’t based on hierarchy — where we tried to take responsibility for ourselves, with a sense of freedom as responsibility, not just freedom as license.
And so the question becomes: How do we speak rousingly to people’s desire for freedom, but then also speak to people’s fear?
Look what is happening in Hong Kong, in La Paz and Kashmir, in Tehran and Baghdad. It makes a difference if you’re not going to be thrown in jail or tear-gassed or killed for like, having this conversation we’re having right now. I mean, there are degrees.
We have to have a more complicated view of things. Otherwise, what? I mean sure, everything is tainted. But some of us are more free than others, and we have an obligation to try to use that freedom and expand it so that others can be less oppressed. It’s not a binary.
Plus, to want to burn everything down, it’s not doing anywhere near enough in the way of asshole-proofing —
I love that idea!! Ahaha, all we need to do is asshole-proof the future.
To me, when Angela Davis says we have to abolish rather than fix the system, what does she mean by “abolish”? Neither some conservative Republican nihilism, nor some “only a revolution will fix this” anti-reformism.
She’s talking about a double movement: abolition is the dismantling of repressive structures, and then a rebuilding, right? The structuring of more just and expansive, ennobling and enabling institutions, and that’s what we should be trying to build.
It’s hard to exist today and know even a fraction of what’s going on in the world and not have some part of oneself saying, “Yup, let’s burn it all down.”
Who gets hurt by the world burning? Not the rich people who are flying off in their fucking private jets.
So I think, if we’re going to be radical, it has to be in a radical productive, creative sense. It’s too easy to say what’s wrong with everything.
There’s something about democracy that demands humility, which is the opposite of hubris.
I was thinking about hubris, which is another word for “asshole.”
A lot of the most damaging characters in our world’s history, on the one hand they have this greedy, insatiable energy we were talking about, and on the other they have a lot of hubris, they think they know the way, and they’re the smartest — and arguably Mark Zuckerberg has both of these characteristics.
There’s something about democracy that demands humility, which is the opposite of hubris.
Democracy is about people thinking together and figuring things out. And that’s also what being on the left is. The left is about believing in people’s capacities. Not just to imagine new things, but to figure out their problems, build new worlds. And this is a kind of thought that can only be done as a group. It’s not about individual genius, even though we might contribute our own ideas and we’re all valuable.
Democracy is just knowing that you’re part of a collective enterprise, and so it demands humility.
My dream is that there are people, a couple of generations from now, who look back at all our very progressive tweets and think that we are living in the total Dark Ages. Because of the way we treat each other. Because of the way we design our nation-states. Because of the way we treat nature and the nonhuman world. Because of the way we’re employing technology to extract and exploit, instead of to create common wealth, and dignified lives.
Ancient Greek philosophy has a key role in your thinking, not only in this book.
Ellen Meiksins Wood — this great, lusty historian and political theorist who just recently passed away — influenced me in incorporating ancient Athens into my work. I had my smug 21st century view that this was a society that was cruel to women, it was founded on slavery, it was imperialist, and all of that is true.
But there were rational things in their democracy that I think we could really learn from. They knew that democracy could go off the rails. They also gave us the word demagogue, and demagoguery, which they devised techniques against.
Ostracism, for example. The idea behind this was okay, once a year we should get together and vote out the guy who’s trying to make a power play. But what happened was that the two powerful guys who were the most likely to get ostracized would conspire and rig the vote against the third most powerful guy. After decades of having this imperfect system of ostracism, they said okay, this isn’t working.
But the point is that they tried. They were trying to think of ways to prevent demagogues from taking power.
The Greeks didn’t think that elections necessarily led to the best outcomes; they used randomness, rotation, or selection, so that different people would have a chance to rule and be ruled in turn. Maybe the uncharismatic, lowly, soft-spoken, shy person would be a good leader, if given the opportunity. But all of our incentives are aligned so that the people whose number one trait is that they want to hold power are given the chance to dominate the rest of us. There is the quote from Plato in my movie: “He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself.”
We have democratic socialism, which I’m 100% for. But the people who want to lead are not necessarily the people we should be trusting with that.
Part of our problems may be rooted in human nature, in existential issues we’ll have to face — but even then, we have to design systems that mitigate those qualities.