Astra Taylor is an unconventional public thinker. Unschooled until the age of 13 in Athens, Georgia, she went on to develop a body of a work that defies disciplinary categorization and institutional affiliation. By her own admission, she is not an academic. Instead, Taylor is an organizer, filmmaker, musician, and writer. Her first film, Zizek! (2005), spawned a new film genre, philosophical documentary, that she went on to perfect with follow-up films Examined Life (2008) and What Is Democracy? (2019). She is the author of the American Book Award–winning The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age and cofounder of The Debt Collective, which is leading the fight for student debt cancellation and free public college. In her new book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, Taylor explores a range of paradoxes that are central to democratic theory and practice. “Perfect democracy,” Taylor writes, “may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear.” In this interview, Stephanie DeGooyer speaks to Taylor about her long view of democracy, especially in the wake of COVID-19, and how we can fight for it while sheltering in place.
Stephanie DeGooyer (SDG): Your film, What Is Democracy?, along with its companion book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, appeared during the so-called global crisis of democracy: the election of Donald Trump, coupled with Brexit in England. And now the paperback version of the book is set to appear in the midst of a global pandemic.
Obviously, none of these crises was at the forefront of your mind when you were putting the book and the film together. But both do speak to this moment. What originally prompted you to pose democracy as a question?
Astra Taylor (AT): The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. That crash catalyzed this project for me, and of course it was a foreshadowing of the economic crisis that is unfolding now: then as now, people were losing their homes and millions of people were losing their jobs; and the response of the Bush administration and the Obama administration was to bail out the banks and to leave working people in the lurch. That’s what the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged out of; the slogan was “They got bailed out, we got sold out.” But really Occupy was part of a global movement, which was happening in 2011 from the Arab Spring to the movement of the squares in Europe to South America, including Chile. An international movement that was calling for real democracy.
In the context of this international movement, I thought: Well, what do we mean by this word? What do we mean by “democracy”?
AT: And at that time, “democracy” was not a word that appealed to me very deeply. Because in my experience, “democracy” was really quite hollow; “democracy” was a word that George W. Bush invoked when he said we were bringing democracy to Iraq and to Afghanistan. This word that a Republican neoconservative could use, that a grassroots anarchist could use, just seemed so incredibly hollow to me. Now, however, I see the word’s protean character as a source of strength. It’s a word we need to fight over.
Words are important. I’ve been thinking about how the word “crisis” comes from the ancient Greek. The word means the turning point of an illness, when you either begin to heal and emerge with health or you die. So today feels like an actual crisis point: we’re facing this health emergency coupled with an economic collapse. Which way will we turn? Will we get better or worse?
SDG: In 2015, when the film was greenlit and you were thinking about a book, you thought people were complacent about democracy and you wanted to shake them up a bit. How did things change after the election of Donald Trump?
AT: I did initially see the project as something that would have to shock people. The film would ask a question: What is democracy? And my goal was to make a case: what we have just isn’t it. And I would do this by talking to people who are disenfranchised and who are being exploited and who are working class or undocumented or otherwise on the margins and thereby have a very valuable perspective. The people who actually understand democracy’s failings are not the people who are the most privileged, or the people who are dealing with it abstractly as political scientists. It’s the people locked away in prisons, the kids forced to study in schools that have no books, and undocumented people working in factories.
Those were the kinds of people I was filming. And then on the last day of the film shoot Trump was elected, which wasn’t what I expected. Trump’s victory meant I didn’t have to do the initial work I thought I would have to do. Suddenly people who had been complacent and confident that democracy was resilient were saying: “Oh my God, fascism is around the corner.”
I realized the film didn’t have to do the work of causing an existential crisis in the viewer because everybody was freaking out about Trump, and what I actually needed to do was to open a contemplative space for people to ask the question, Well, what is democracy? How did we allow this to happen? Has democracy ever even existed?
SDG: So, a wild turn of direction for your projects.
AT: More wild for us as human beings! This would all be very interesting to be reading about in a history book; I’m not sure how I feel about living it.
SDG: Right! There’s something so haunting about watching the film right now. There are all these scenes in public spaces: barbershops, schools, university campuses, refugee camps, and the Agora in Athens. All of these spaces are in some fashion closed or changed right now because of the coronavirus. This seems to me to present a new paradox about democracy, one that you couldn’t have known would arise when you were working on the film and book. How can we remove ourselves from public space in a democratic way?
AT: The Agora is the place where people got together. It was the market in ancient Athens, but it also symbolized the political space. The Agora wasn’t where they had their political assemblies—those were nearby—but it was where these democratic people lived their lives, walked and talked and did the stuff of democratic Athens.
And you know what? Ancient Athens had a fucking plague during the second year of the Peloponnesian War. According to some sources, it killed 100,000 people, a third of the population, including Pericles. It was brutal, and in fact the plague was part of the downfall of democratic Athens. And they did try to lock down the city, even while they were also at war. So there is a whole dimension to the myth of Agora and the public life of Athens that I missed and that is strikingly relevant now, because that lionized classical period also suffered through this epidemic disaster and endured this medical crisis that had huge implications for their society. The plague had lots of consequences, including paving the way for oligarchs to gain power.
SDG: Yes, incredibly relevant history.
AT: But the problem when we ask this question—Can we fight the pandemic in a democratic way?—is that it is very hard to do when you don’t have a very democratic society.
SDG: Right. And now we are faced with the prospect of even more limited forms of democratic engagement online. The internet is far from a democratic space.
AT: Anything that tries to analogize the internet—as we typically use it—to public squares or libraries is deeply misleading. The spaces we frequent online are all commercialized, they are all powered by surveillance capitalism; their business model is about mining our data and selling it.
This is the basic argument of my book The People’s Platform. The reason that there aren’t a lot of alternatives has to do with the underlying political economy of the internet: we don’t run the internet as a public utility; it’s a commercial endeavor at every level. However, you can build platforms with very different business models and with different purposes. The group I organize with, The Debt Collective, has built an online platform that we describe as a “virtual factory floor,” a place where users can dispute their debts and can come together and organize campaigns. The idea is that we can aggregate personal information for a truly public—and, I would say, subversive—purpose. There’s also coworker.org, which is a site that is now exploding, because workers who don’t have unions are issuing these petitions, their grievances, quite often about hazard pay and lack of protective gear.
These small, noncommercial democratic digital spaces are really important at this moment. The problem is that they are expensive to build and there’s no obvious way to fund their creation, since they are not in the business of invasive data collection or advertising. That’s why all of the brilliant engineers who could be building stuff that benefits the public good are off working for Google or Amazon—because they pay a lot.
SDG: Right now, as we speak, every single public school in America is online. I’m a professor, and it has become obvious to me that we can’t just “go online” and assume that everybody has equal access to the same space. This has not been the case for my students, even at a school like Harvard.
AT: Exactly. It’s a very good argument for universal public broadband. One problem is that all the cable companies have lobbied and made it illegal to have municipally run broadband in many, many states. They are monopolies and don’t want competition.
Unfortunately, people don’t know how good a service could be until they have experienced it. We’re all just used to slow, crappy, privately owned and operated internet. The communities that do have municipal broadband often have far superior, speedier service, which is why Comcast and Verizon want to squelch it.
SDG: What do you make of the reality that certain authoritarian-minded leaders are exploiting, or could exploit, the pandemic to weaken democratic institutions? Viktor Orban has now received sweeping emergency powers to take control of the country [Hungary] by decree; the Trump administration has sought new powers for the justice department to request indefinite detentions without trial during emergencies.
AT: There’s nothing like crowding people into prisons at a moment like this, if you want to contain a health emergency.
As much as we know our president admires Orban, it does seem to be more what we could call a “disaster capitalism” scenario, to use Naomi Klein’s phase, and less a traditional autocratic bid for power. Consider the news about the EPA using this moment to sweep away air pollution regulations, when we are in the middle of a pandemic that is a respiratory illness. Or the bailouts of the cruise industry or private equity, including groups like Blackstone. We need to have all sorts of definitions of authoritarianism, and the one we’re living under is our own, all-American, “disaster capitalism” model.
There’s always this hope on the left that a crisis will prompt people to wake up. But I think crises tend to work better for the people with power, with the power to seize the moment. Which the right wing and the corporate sector are doing now.
Of course, I’m rooting for regular people, for those who don’t have the power. Because otherwise all we are going to see is the enrichment of those who are already rich and the bailout of companies that have engaged in decades of bad behavior. But the odds aren’t in their—our—favor.
SDG: You were very active with Occupy Wall Street, which was a takeover of a public space. How can we preserve democratic scrutiny of executive authorities at a time when we are sheltering in place?
AT: To be honest, we haven’t had much democratic scrutiny in a long time, let alone democratic input. Look at the 2008 bailout. The public had no say over how that bailout transpired, and there was no public audit of the results. Same thing 12 years later.
If we want democratic scrutiny, the demos must first have power. Unfortunately, the pandemic has accelerated an antidemocratic, oligarchic power grab while ushering in a period of social distancing. So a hard task has just gotten much tougher. But lots of people are still working. Lots of us are participating in the economy, even if our patterns have been disrupted and we’re doing so via the internet.
We need to respond appropriately to what is transpiring. We are getting fucked. We are getting robbed. Human beings are sick, human beings are dying. All of us now know people who are sick with this disease, know people who have passed away, or know of people who have passed away. And Republicans and large corporations are taking this moment to avail themselves of trillions of dollars of public money, to fire workers, to get rid of pesky unions. Fuck this shit.
Given that, we need to think about how to adapt and escalate our tactics. People need to resist, because their lives depend on it. We need people to go on all kinds of strikes: rent strikes, labor strikes, debt strikes, prison strikes. We need people to protest six feet apart from each other, protest from their cars. We need to put real pressure on centrist Democrats, figures such as Speaker Pelosi and Governor Cuomo, who are in different ways making it harder to mount a more progressive response.
SDG: Now is the time to figure out how to be democratic and not in public. There are classic examples of online protest such as petitions and solidarity statements, but these seem rather limited. More important, I think, are the strikes by frontline workers demanding safety protections and protests (six feet apart!) by nurses drawing attention to healthcare inequalities. The right, however, seems to be organizing just fine, taking over capitol buildings and organizing drive-and-honk protests.
AT: For years, I felt oppressed by this idea that all protesting was going out with your sign on your piece of cardboard and then marching impotently around. Maybe it’s not so terrible that we can’t do that right now. Protesting in the street is not always effective—remember the record-breaking protest of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the massive Women’s March when Trump was inaugurated.
Instead of parades, we need to figure out how to wield economic power. That’s why I am heartened by the revival of traditional labor-union organizing and the fact that the younger generation seems to have made the connection: “Oh, there’s a reason why the powerful hate unions, because unions are where workers, where regular people, have power.” We are seeing how essential so-called “gig workers” or healthcare providers and other essential workers are. It’s a scary time, but we’re also seeing that those workers potentially have more leverage right now than they may have again in a long time.
As you noted, the far right is mounting some mediagenic protests. I think we need to be careful not to let them grab the spotlight. There have been many more progressive actions, and we need to amplify those and not let the right own the narrative.
SDG: My sister is a hospital housekeeper in Canada. For the past year, she has been very involved in her union and agitating to resist cuts to healthcare workers that the Alberta government has been trying to make. And now the government has backed off; they have a hard time proving that a hospital housekeeper who disinfects and cleans and does a lot of invisible labor is not essential. So she feels like, strangely, she has a lot of power and recognition right now.
AT: That’s really interesting. It makes me think of a related idea about internationalism. The minute Trump got elected, Americans became even more self-obsessed with our country’s political problems. This is one of the paradoxes of the Trump administration: Trump is all about America first and closing the borders. And yet the left too has become much more focused on domestic affairs, losing sight of the internationalism that should be our trademark.
Maybe COVID-19 will change that. Like the recognition of invisible labor within the nation, it is driving home the need to think internationally. Even if we had a functional domestic government—which we obviously don’t—the pandemic requires a global response.
We are very focused right now on the ventilator question in the US. Americans feel entitled to sufficient medical supplies, as if there should be a ventilator for every person. But in Liberia, there are literally five ventilators for the entire country. They are not even in the public hospital system, they are privately held.
My father is a medicinal chemist who does research on RNA viruses, including the coronavirus, and is focused on the question of nutritional health, specifically the role of selenium, which he just published a really interesting paper on. Many countries don’t have a chance in hell of having enough ventilators. That means we need to focus on a more fundamental baseline: ensuring that populations have the basic nutritional minimum to allow people’s immune systems to mount a robust response.
Here in the US, we’re rightly freaking out about things like protective gear—and we should be looking to countries that are better handling the crisis for guidance, including South Korea, which basically nationalized mask distribution—but we also have to consider poorer countries and think about what we owe them. The amount of aid that needs to be flowing from rich countries to the global south is really significant. Because the fact is that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not.
SDG: I agree, especially about the need to denationalize this crisis and turn our attention to countries with very weak healthcare infrastructure. Swine flu, for example, devastated sub-Saharan Africa, and COVID-19 is deadlier. The Trump administration has taken so many steps to look away from the rest of the world, cutting global disease budgets and threatening to cancel funding for the World Health Organization.
I wouldn’t say there are any glimmers of hope at the moment, but one thing that the coronavirus has exposed is that we are all potentially infected or infectable. This may be the moment when many more people realize that, for their own individual good, everyone needs to have health care—and by “everyone” I mean citizens, immigrants, and refugees.
AT: Protect other people to protect yourself. We have to learn something from this, or else it is even more of a tragedy.
I read recently that the Democratic primary actually caused support for Medicare For All, which is generally very popular, to go down, because most of the contenders were attacking it. Thank you, Mayor Pete! Polls show that the pandemic has reversed that. When 30 million-plus people file for unemployment in a matter of weeks, it becomes pretty clear that there are risks associated with linking employment and medical insurance. Universal health care starts to look very sensible.
That said, I think we need to go beyond thinking about health in strictly human terms. I recently coauthored a piece in the Guardian about how this novel coronavirus emerged because of our encroachment on and destruction of the natural world. We need to massively expand our conception of public health and include the wider environment.
SDG: Let’s talk about the future. Maybe when this is all over we will not be shaking people’s hands anymore, or kissing cheeks, but I can’t imagine we come back from this without reverence for public parks, schools, libraries, and museums. My hope is that we will fight for them like never before.
AT: We’re all realizing how fast the supply of canned goods goes if you have more than one person in your household. How fast those libertarian, prepper fantasies of rugged individualism and independence just evaporate, right?
AT: We actually can’t do this alone. This is why people are cheering the gig workers, who are still treated like shit by their employers, but before were treated like shit by everybody. If we can just resist the temptation to go back into that American illusion, “I’ve got this, I’ve got mine.” We can’t actually go this alone.
AT: Exactly. Our bodies are permeable; we’re all inhaling each other’s out breaths. Whether we like it or not, we’re in contact from six feet away or even across the world. We should conceive of a body politic that reflects this basic truth of the human body. Interdependent democracy.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
Featured image: Astra Taylor. Photograph by Am Johal