Is democracy doomed?
Actually, let’s take one step back: what came to your mind when you read the word "democracy"? It’s one of those words that on first glance seems easy enough to define but can trip you up as you get deeper in parsing it.
Luckily, filmmaker Astra Taylor has a new documentary out conveniently titled “What is Democracy?” It’s a movie that traffics less in trying to answer the title’s question and more in figuring out the right questions to ask about this big flawed experiment. Questions about who truly has the power in a democratic society, how far our democracy has strayed from the ideal, and how a person who lost by three million votes became President of the United States.
ASTRA TAYLOR: You know, I think the consensus — which I just took to be this unbreakable consensus — this was what we were told, you and I were told. when we were growing up was like, Capitalism and democracy go together and they're married. It's liberal democracy. That's the recipe for liberal democracy. That's how it is.
CHRIS HAYES: Like burgers and fries.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Burgers and fries, you know? So we're seeing a messy divorce, we're seeing people sort of go into one camp or the other.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why is This Happening," with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
So there's been a conversation recently — which is part of a longer conversation, which actually stretches back to the founding of the American republic — which is about how we elect our president. And the latest round of this conversation was kicked off by Elizabeth Warren, who came out and called for the abolition of the electoral college, and that got a lot of people talking. In an interesting way, it sort of has cut across, I think, largely kind of ideological and partisan lines.
Conservatism and Republicans saying, How dare you talk about eliminating the electoral college.
Look at this map.
Someone had posted this on Twitter. It's like a map of the red counties and blue counties, being like This map wouldn't be enough to elect a republican president because there's a lot of red in it because, like, Wyoming has not many people but a lot of land. And a lot of people responded by making jokes about, like, you know, Universal suffrage for every acre and things like that, because land shouldn't vote.
But land does vote. I mean, land literally does vote in our current system. It votes for president and votes for Senate.
So this conversation's been going on for a long time, and one of the things that it gets to is, like, what exactly is American democracy and what do we mean by it? I mean, it's not that this goes unremarked on it. And I hope I'm not breaking the news to you that the person that got 3 million more votes in the last presidential election is not the president. And the person who got 3 million less is the president. And, in any other context, that's bizarre. Like, we all sat around on election night in 2018 watching these races come down to 150 votes in some cases and 500 votes. I've covered local races that come down to dozens of votes. And it's like, that's it.
The person with the most votes, they get to be the person. And there's just one office, the most powerful office in the world, where that's not the case and that's fricking weird. But it's also intentional, right? I mean, the founders — who I have a complicated set of feelings towards, but who were brilliant in certain ways and deeply flawed and terrible and others — they were wrestling with this question and constitutional design. Literally the question that was probably front of mind, it's the one that they returned to time and time again in federalist papers. Two questions, right? Concentrations of power, and the risk of tyranny, right? We don't want another king and Oh God, the people are scary. We don't want the king, totally, no king, right? No king, let's not go with the king. (Although, Hamilton at one point in the constitutional convention says the president should rule for life and people storm out.)
So no king, but like, no the people really so much, because they're not real trustworthy and they're illiterate and might want to take all our property. I think if they got together... So let's just sort of figure out a middle space like not king, not really the people ruling, something in between in this representative democracy that we've crafted that sort of strikes a balance but is real careful about how much power is vested in the common folk. (Keep in mind there's also millions of slaves at this point, right? Who are treated like non-humans and non-citizens, as property.)
This question is actually a question that goes all the way back to the first theorist of democracy, Plato. And it's not an accident, because the founders read the Greeks a lot and relied on them a lot. You know, democracy is a concept that has been a system of governance in the world for thousands of years and it's got some fundamental problems in balancing these competing imperatives, right?
I think we would all agree that we would not want, say, a universal referendum in the United States on every amendment to every bill. Not going to work, probably not a good idea, right? There's some sort of representation we want. How much representation we want, how much do we want things that aren't subject to what the democratic polity could actually do? It shouldn't be the case, for instance, that democracy could come together and vote to make the New York Times illegal, right? Even if it was a majority vote, like we don't want to do that.
This deep paradoxical question is at the heart of what trying to run a democracy is. Our own system has struck its own bargains and they are in many ways pretty remarkable for how long they've endured and in many ways, super problematic. See for instance, College, Electoral — which, by the way, I favor getting rid of it in case that's not clear. But it's actually a really profound question.
It's a particularly profound question in this moment, because we are seeing this sort of unraveling of an order that had happened before. So, for a very long time in my adult life, I came of age in the wake of the Cold War in which the triumph of liberal democracy was assumed. That basically the idea was open markets, free enterprise and capitalism, liberalization in the small-“L” sense, right? Like taking things out of public utilities and privatizing them, making an economy more free market-oriented, and democracy, and freedom, and rights, and rights of a free press. All those things would go together and we were all headed towards this new world in which communism had been vanquished and we're all going to be liberal democracies.
No, no, no, no. That has not happened. In fact, lots of countries have come up with new models that are not liberal democracies but are thriving in their own way. China is the most obvious.
An indication is a question for all of us, which is, what exactly do we mean by democracy? What do we want our government to look like? How representative should it be? How much should the people be empowered? Do we trust them enough or do we trust them too much? What should be outside of their domain of democratic rule and what should be inside of democratic rule? How much are we genuinely committed to concepts like, for instance, universal suffrage and empowerment?
Those questions are all the subject of the film by today's guest, Astra Taylor. And the title is really hard to parse, so I'm going to say it slowly, 'cause you're not going to be able to understand just what the film is about. The title is "What is Democracy?" And it is a film literally about that question, and it is a fascinating and super strange film, which oscillates between interviews with ordinary folks from all sorts of different walks of life and theorists talking about what democracy is to them.
One of those theorists, by the way — who we mentioned a few times that you may not be familiar with — is named Wendy Brown. She's a political theorist in California, philosopher, essayist. And she's written recently about the kind of anti-democratic politics and, particularly in this era, neoliberalism, that sort of vision of politics that she sees as sort of pitted against democracy. So we mention her a few times.
To talk about what we mean when we say the word — the most basic word, the word that's at the foundation of our system of government, a word that I think we all have fairly warm feelings towards, although not certain anti-democratic elements at the right: What is "democracy"? And Astra is such a fascinating, unique, eccentric, brilliant person with a totally distinct career in which she's been a writer, and she's been a filmmaker, and she's been an essayist, and she's been an activist.
She was — as you'll hear in this— she has this really fascinating upbringing in which she was “unschooled,” meaning she didn't go to school when she was a kid. Didn't hurt her, as you can see from how erudite and sharp she is. She’s done all sorts of different projects. And what’s great about this film, and the reason I want to talk to her, is it just... You know, sometimes, the thing I love about philosophy class would be, like, turning on a black light where you're looking at a thing, then all of a sudden you see something there that you hadn't seen before. You know, a finger smudge or something on a shirt. You can't see it in regular light and you put on black light and like, Oh look at that. And philosophy would do that all the time to me for most basic concepts.
I remember taking a philosophy class and it was like, We're going to talk about love. Like, what is love? It was like, We all know what love is. It was like, Well, wait a second. We actually don't have any idea what love is. And once you start to theorize it, the concept totally falls apart. And so what I loved about this film is that it made me think hard about this thing that I take for granted. This very obvious concept, like we all know what it is: Democracy. Well, no, actually we don't know what it is. It's incredibly contested. In fact, it's one of the most contested areas of political battle and conflict at this very moment globally, in the world.
And so watching this film and then talking to Astra Taylor, I think is a really good occasion to think about, for yourself, as particularly as you watch this presidential primary go forward, as we talk about voting rights, as we talk about getting rid of the electoral college. What does democracy mean to you?
You've got this movie out that's a fascinating film. It's called "What is Democracy?" Which is a great... It's a real narrow question.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's actually like the title you would pick if you want to fail as a filmmaker in this world, I think, right? If you're like, My film is never going to be a blockbuster what should I call it? “What is democracy?” That would be good. It's just such an unabashedly, sort of, nerdy title, I think.
CHRIS HAYES: It's nerdy but it's also open and curious and the, and the film itself is very authentic journey of inquiry.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, it is one, that's why I wanted the question in the title because it is a philosophical film. I mean obviously like I have a strong political point of view and I have my opinions about what democracy is and could be, but I think we always have to think. And I see the film as an invitation to think, and so I try to create space for the audience to have their own thoughts and, you know, and to engage in these ideas in a philosophical manner. But nevertheless, I do think the title is amusing.
CHRIS HAYES: You were born in Manitoba?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Mm-hm, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: It's one of my favorite Canadian provinces. It's cold there.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It is very cold there.
CHRIS HAYES: And you have a fascinating... you've written about this, and this is, I think something some people may know about you, is that you didn't go to school until you were 13.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. So I was born in Canada and raised in the U.S., in Georgia. So actually a lot of the film is set in Athens — in Athens, Greece. But I come from the other Athens, “G,” Athens, Georgia. And we were these sort of out-of-step bohemians in the American south.
So I was unschooled, which is a sort of radical form of homeschooling that is child-centered. The idea is, basically — it's a very sort of Rousseau-ian democratic idea — it's this idea that, you know, people are intrinsically good, it’s institutions that are corrupting. And if you trust children, if you just give them the trust and the support that they need, they'll flourish. And there'll be sort of naturally curious and they don't need all of these rules. They don't need bedtimes, they don't need sticks. They just need... they don't even need courage, just let them be, right?
So it was quite a strange thing. We always were allowed to try school. So at 13, I thought I would see how the other 99.999% live. And one of my most distinct feelings, just not in terms of like, there was, of course, this sort of cultural adaptation, but I had never worn my shoes for eight hours a day. I mean that was... we were pretty feral. It was like, ‘cause we’re home all day, reading or sleeping or eating or...
CHRIS HAYES: That is feral. That was the biggest takeaway from school was like I'm bound...
ASTRA TAYLOR: I felt like...
CHRIS HAYES: ... like a horse with a horse shoe.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, just in terms of just sort of the physical sense of it. And so it was sort of a sociological experiment, because I didn't have to be there and, you know, everyone else did — the other students had to be there and the teachers had to be there, right? So they also seemed sort of trapped in many ways. But I was also very earnest in my approach to school. I really wanted to learn, I wanted to do something interesting with my life. And so I felt that I had to go to school in order to have a chance as an adult. But I think the experience of unschooling really did shape my... it shaped me for better or for worse, right? I mean, there's no denying it.
In all of my films — so this is my third film — in all of my films you see this desire to bring ideas, bring philosophy, out of the academy, out of the classroom, into everyday life, into the environment, into a conversation. It's almost like, because I didn't go to school, I want school to be so much more than it is. Like why can't school be everywhere? Why can't we always be learning? Why can't we always be talking about important things and why does education have to be something that just happens in these specific spaces or this specific timeframe?
But there's also an ambivalence for me politically in the sense that I really believe in public education. I believe in expertise and I really respect expertise and the work people put into learning and mastering things. A lot of my work as an activist is around public education and in fighting for education as a public good. So it shaped my perspective in a way that's complicated.
CHRIS HAYES: Who are your parents and how, how were they, the kinds of people, that's a choice that again, 99.9999% of parents don't make. So something was distinct about that.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. They're interesting. My dad's a scientist and he was a...
CHRIS HAYES: Really?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. He was a scientist and he was a sort of like math prodigy as a kid. And so his experience of school was that it just went too slow. Like, I think he was in college at 15 or 16. He had like a chemistry lab when he was a kid in his basement, back when chemists, like, sold chemicals and you could go down the street to like…
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
ASTRA TAYLOR: You know, buy some stuff that would blow up. And my mom is quite young. My mom was born in 1960. So in 1968 her hippie mother took her to the Yukon Territory to start a commune. And my mother went to this democratic free school. So like way up north, right in this town called Carcross where the kids ran the school. So this is like 70s and alternative education was this mass phenomenon at that point. There were thousands and thousands of alternative schools, free schools, the freedom schools of the civil rights movement. And people were thinking about political change and educational change. And so at this democratic free school, my mom was part of the pedagogy group. She's like 12 or 13 at the time, by that time, talking about, How do we learn? How do we teach? What do you as the student body want to learn about? What you need to learn about? And so she took those ideas with her to Georgia. And so I think that experience is what informed her ideas.
My mom is quite a radical. I mean she's... I think it's not an exaggeration to say she's a child liberationist, like full stop. And in a way...
CHRIS HAYES: Like children should not be told what to do?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, that children are people. They're people, too. And so, one thing, she tried not to say “no” arbitrarily. She was like, she never said “no,” just like a knee jerk thing. I mean there were moments, I mean my sister, who's younger, there were moments when I was like, Oh, shouldn't we teach her how to read? And they were just like, No, she'll learn. And she did. My parents always provoked me and inspired me to, you know, be more trusting of people.
CHRIS HAYES: So it's your parents, you're in Athens, Georgia. Is your dad at the university? Is that what you're there?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah he's at the university.
CHRIS HAYES: So it’s university. It's you guys and it's your younger sister?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. So I have three younger siblings.
CHRIS HAYES: You have three younger siblings.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. One’s Sonora Taylor, who's closest to me; she's a disability theorist and writer. She actually appeared in my last film, “Examined Life" in this walk with Judith Butler. I have a brother who does disability law stuff and then my 27 year-old sister who's actually a budding documentarian.
CHRIS HAYES: So you guys, I mean, I just... partly I'm somewhat obsessed with this because it relates, it really relates, directly to the subject of this film. It relates to a deep sort of philosophical disposition that I think people have about whether people can be trusted or not, right? I mean the question of Can you trust a child? is sort of related in some ways to whether you can trust adults, and what the kind of inherent nature of the human animal is when given freedom.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Particularly radical freedom.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, one mantra of the sort of unschooling community is, you know, Freedom not license, right? So it's like this idea...
CHRIS HAYES: That’s very good.
ASTRA TAYLOR: ...of giving people freedom. This doesn't mean anything goes, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Right, like you don't want your nine-year old drinking?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. You don't want your nine-year old kid to like... You don't want your three-year old kid to put their hand in a fire, right? But there are moments when you intervene for those reasons, which are legitimate. And then there's other moments when you're kind of just being controlling or domineering. And so I think…
You know, one thing I actually write about in the companion books — in May, the companion book to the movie comes out and it's called “Democracy May not Exist, but We'll Miss it When it's Gone,” they’re sort of sister projects in that they deal with the same themes — but there's a chapter in it on the tension between, in a democracy, how there's always going to be a tension between expertise and mass opinion.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right. And I think one thing that I take away from my experience unschooling is that there's a difference between an authority and authority figure. Earned authority, the authority of expertise, and, like, being an authoritarian. And one thing that school does — especially in our deeply unequal, underfunded schools today — when you have one teacher in a class of 40 kids, is that they have to be sort of both, right? They have to be these disciplinarians who are also trying to inspire love for an academic discipline. I came to really respect people's authority if they knew more than me and had earned authority; I sort of revered it 'cause I wanted to learn from them. And I wasn't fearing that they were gonna punish me or, I don't know, put me in timeout or a detention.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. It's like genuine or organic affection for their knowledge.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah. And I think that, that's something... to me, I'm more democratic. Society would allow more space for that to be cultivated, right? And I think there are lots of pedagogical approaches that try to do that, where schooling is less rigid and there's more time for students to explore things, and there's lower teacher-to-student ratio. So, that thing of like What is authority? When does it merit your respect, right?
CHRIS HAYES: It's a real question.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's a real question, yeah. And it's a question that you raise in your book about elites and meritocracy.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. And I’ve wrestled in my thinking with the same thing. There's a kind of small “D” democratic, radical small “D,” democratic instinct I have — which is kind of populist — that the people in charge are not there because they're better and that the radical promise of democracy and self-governance is that we all collectively decide stuff. And at the same time, I really blanch at a certain kind of populism that's like, Those pointy headed scientists don't know what they're talking about. And, you know...
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, but that's not really...
CHRIS HAYES: But those two things are... you're making a distinction between them, 'cause you're talking about earned authority on the one hand and authoritarian. But I actually think distinguishing between those two gets actually pretty tricky.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: That actually, those impulses as kind of descriptive facts about people's disposition, and particularly the political movements that embody that disposition, it can be very hard to distinctly channel the impulses.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: You see what I'm saying?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: If you're cultivating that feeling of radical democracy and populism, that can start hitting the experts pretty quickly.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, I guess I would say though that when you think about how many millions of dollars have been invested to cause people to doubt climate science, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, totally. Yes.
ASTRA TAYLOR: The fact that the majority of Americans still believe it's real.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, totally
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right? So, it's always like, Well whose interests are being served by these, what you're calling “populist,” campaigns of doubt?
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ASTRA TAYLOR: And who's propagating them? I mean, often it's... the biggest foibles of our adulthood have been sort of led by the people who supposedly know, the smartest guys in the room, whether it's the financial crisis or the war in Iraq.
CHRIS HAYES: 100 percent, yeah.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Or climate change denial.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. We're the exact same age. I think you were born in 1979. It's the defining feature, to me, of our shared adult life, our generation's experience, is just time after time after time, Of course there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there are not weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Of course we are not in a housing bubble and we are, actually, in a housing bubble. Of course Donald Trump won't win and Donald Trump wins.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, and who called the Brexit referendum that now we're blaming the voters for? I mean, so elite failure is the narrative.
But what you're getting at with how my upbringing has shaped my approach to ideas and these big topics is definitely true. And I think you see that in the film in terms of also questioning... so, the film has sort of esteemed philosophers, Cornell West, Silvia Federici, Angela Davis, Wendy Brown from Berkeley.
CHRIS HAYES: Wendy Brown, who is — I have to say, I have read Wendy Brown but never seen her and she is amazing in the film.
ASTRA TAYLOR: No she's great, and I love how she talks with her hands and she's so lucid.
And so there are these experts, right? And I have a lot of respect for them and they have insights that I want to help find a broader audience. But then the film also positions “regular people,” as though intellectuals aren't regular people, but "regular" people as experts. I tried to construct... part of the whole frame of the film is to do that, is to say, How can I create a work of art — 'cause I think the film is a work of art — that allows the audience to hear the insights of these people who they might otherwise not even see, let alone recognize for their intelligence?
And so I always think about this Mary Beard quote — the classicist Mary Beard — when she says, "We've been trained our whole lives to think deep voices are deep." That the big philosophical insights come from typically men, often with British accents, sitting in some fancy university.
But I think the film shows that there are incredible political insights from people who have had no formal schooling: 13-year-old kids in their youth center, talking about how their schools operate, refugees talking about what it is like to be born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean. I mean, people...
CHRIS HAYES: The guy in the barber shop.
ASTRA TAYLOR: The guy in the barber shop, right? Who is amazing.
CHRIS HAYES: He really... that guy did nine years in prison, he's in a barber shop and he has a moment in the film that just absolutely blows my mind.
ASTRA TAYLOR: And it's not like I interviewed 10 barbers and picked the one.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, yeah.
ASTRA TAYLOR: I mean, that's the thing, there's not a ton of people on-
CHRIS HAYES: I actually did wonder that.
ASTRA TAYLOR: There's not a ton of people on the cutting room floor. What I did was, I went into the film and I said, I'm gonna approach everyone as though they're a philosopher. And I went with that as the way I treated people: I didn't treat them as subjects I was trying to get a sound bite from, I treated them as thinkers. And I treated them with that trust — to go back to the idea of the trust that I feel I was given as a kid, I tried to treat everyone I met with that trust. You have the capacity; you know your life. You think about things. And I'm gonna talk to you like you're a thinker. And I didn't know the experiment would work but, by the end of the film I was so happy that I did that because what I got was often really incredible. And people were so appreciative.
CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about what — sort of specifically — the film's about and the origins of it, and particularly what happened in Greece and its connections to Occupy Wall Street that happened here, which you were involved in. If you would stay with us, we'll be right back.
CHRIS HAYES: A lot of the film revolves around Greece, for these sort of two reasons, right? It's the birthplace of democracy — like literally the word and the first theorizations of it as a form of government, at least in the Western canon. (There may be other theorizations of it I'm not familiar with.) And also because of what's happened to Greece and the sort of democratic tragedy of Greece in the era of the E.U. and austerity.
And one of the things I was reminded by, in the film — which I had forgotten — which is that these movements to occupy the squares in Greece, in the midst of their crisis and austerity, was what prefigured the Occupy Wall Street movement here in the U.S.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, totally. Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Which is something that you were quite involved in.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And really were bizarrely philosophical enterprises, as sort of laboratories of radical democracy in a little square block.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes, and always with their libraries. Whether it was Occupy Gezi Park in Turkey or it was the movement of the squares in Europe, in Spain, in Greece, there was always the library too — which I thought was also this sort of visualization of the fact that it was theory and practice together, and that those things are actually twins. It's not like there's just the people in the armchairs and then the doers out there, the sort of mental work and then the sort of menial labor of protesting.
But the film certainly is born of 2011. And 2011 was this amazing year where there were all these movements in all these different countries with different modes of government, from authoritarian governments to liberal democracy to social democracy.
CHRIS HAYES: It's the year of the Arab Spring.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Arab Spring, Movement of the Squares, Occupy. And everyone is saying, No, we want real democracy. What we have is not real democracy. And so, that word was ringing out in a way that I took notice of. For me, coming of age when we did, in the aughts, “democracy” was such as sold-out word, with George Bush bringing our democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan.
CHRIS HAYES: It's true.
ASTRA TAYLOR: That word just was like, Oh my God, it was not a word that seemed...
CHRIS HAYES: Worthy of embrace.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Worthy of embrace.
CHRIS HAYES: Or as a radical goal.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Or as a radical goal. It just seemed like so depleted and abused. And so, intellectually I knew that I should value the word, but words like “equality,” and “freedom,” and “socialism,” and “revolution” all appealed to me. But democracy was something I felt really ambivalent about. And at the same time I was writing this book, "The People's Platform," about the false claims of Silicon Valley in terms of democratizing the internet. So it's also like deconstructing these corporate platitudes about democratizing our culture, our media, our society.
With Occupy I was so happy that a movement had emerged that put economic issues front and center. And so, for all the movement's problems, right? You know, I didn't think that occupying squares was gonna overthrow a political system, but I was like, This is finally happening, after what just seemed like this desert where there was, like, no social movements. We'd been so beaten down, the anti-war movement had been so beaten down, that I threw myself into it with a lot of fervor and always tried, in my way, to make it better.
I ended up joining a movement, joining with people who would build a movement of debtors. And so, we founded a debtor's union called the Debt Collective and actually we launched the first student debt strike in 2015 and we helped win over a billion dollars of debt relief for our members, which is not bad for three and a half years of work.
So, I threw myself into actual organizing but there were moments along the way where I was like, Gosh, I wish this movement had a stronger background in political philosophy. It was a movement of direct democracy, so it was these general assemblies and anyone could join. Even people off the street who had no intention of following through on their votes. So, people had rights without responsibilities. It was like separation of powers: Occasionally a good idea. I was having these thoughts that would be very controversial in that context.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, what's so funny about them was like it was so radical. I mean, my understanding is that part of the structures were actually put in place by Greek anarchists, right?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes. Yeah, there was a direct line actually.
CHRIS HAYES: There was a direct line between Greek anarchists, who were doing these square meetings in Greece and then it was sort of imported actually. Right? I mean… What's interesting is that, in the practice, they're walking through some of the challenges, problems of political development and democracy in real time.
So, it's like, OK, general assembly, everybody's gonna vote on everything. Well, then, We gotta differentiate, then next thing you know you start to have committees. Then the committee then, OK, well, then, This committee seems to be getting itself a little too much power.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Oh yeah. I mean, there were all sorts of battles like that, that were, you know, if you have studied social movements, they were actually all sort of predictable. You could see them in advance.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It was like, OK, wow, we're going through this process, and I think it was indicative to me of the fact that we were coming into being in a vacuum because there was no... in the left in the United States, there's no institutions, there's no institutional memories, unions are really weak. Also, so many people were engaging in political movements for the first time and trying to reinvent the wheel. That was when I started thinking more seriously about democracy.
It was 2013 when I first pitched the film to my editor and then, in writing the book, the book I sort of get to say more directly what I'm thinking and what I'm working through. In the book it's like, you know, part of, I think, my motivation was why is democracy so hard? Why is it so hard to do this work?
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Yeah.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right? And so, what I settled on in the book is that there are certain paradoxes or tensions that are just inherent to democracy and they're just always gonna plague us and that's just how it is. So, one is coercion and choice: When is coercion legitimate? When can you just like, No, you have to do this! versus, Okay, we're free to decide.
Another is the local and the global: How do we reconcile with the fact that we human beings live in a specific space, in a specific community, but we're operating in a society where there are these enormous global forces and we have to think beyond what's in front of our face? With the question of inclusion and exclusion: Who's in the demos? Who's making decisions? In Occupy, it was theoretically everyone, but that... it really wasn't a tenable way to run society.
CHRIS HAYES: Dude! It's never everyone. It's never everyone.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's never everyone.
CHRIS HAYES: Anyone who has ever gone through first grade school group projects,— which you have not, you're one of the very few people who've not so you had to learn this lesson later — but for those of us who were schooled, you have a group project — Tiffany Champion looking at me right now, and I know what kind of student Tiffany Champion was — you're given a project, everyone's around the table and it's like, Is that work being done equally? It is not being done equally. And it’s not because some people are lazy and some are hard working. A lot of it's because some kids are just grabbing it all. Like, I'm gonna... you know.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Not me obviously; not my style, personality. But, to me, that's the thing I keep coming back to. As you walk through the film you're talking, you're exploring these different conceptions of what democracy means with some the tensions inherent in it, going all the way back to Plato's "Republic" and what he identifies. He ultimately thinks democracy's both bad but also sort of inevitably self-sabotaging, that it will collapse into demagoguery.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's entertaining. It's charming, he says.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, it's charming.
ASTRA TAYLOR: But you got...
CHRIS HAYES: It's cute when people try it, but ultimately it fails because, essentially, a demagogue will come along to sort of rally the mob and create a sort of authoritarian alternative to a democracy 'cause they're not stable.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Because of wealth inequality.
CHRIS HAYES: Because of wealth inequality.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Because of the divide between the rich and the poor, which breaks the city apart. And I think that's the thing. It's like, yeah, Plato was not a democrat, we can't look to him to provide the blueprint for the future. But I think it's important to be like, even then, obviously it's ahistoric to say he was talking about capitalism; it wasn't a capitalist society. But the problem of wealth has plagued democracy for so long. And it's that problem of wealth that provides the fertile ground for the demagogue.
CHRIS HAYES: That's right.
ASTRA TAYLOR: And it's an important thing for us to remember today.
CHRIS HAYES: One hundred percent, yes. But part of it, there's a technical, organizational question at the heart of what democracy is that I kept coming back to in watching your film. There's a scene in the movie which is a health collective in Greece, and you watch them doing their thing. These sprung up in the wake of the austerity, where the country's living standards plummet tremendously. And so, you watch them doing their thing, their health clinic thing day by day, and then they have a meeting at night to talk about... and this woman says, "No one makes the decision. We make it together." There's like twelve of them in the room and I'm just like, Oh my God, that looks so exhausting. You just worked all day giving out medicine. And I thought about the Oscar Wilde quote, which he says, "The problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings." And it's like, real democracy means a lot of f****** meetings.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It does, but you know, I guess this is where I immediately want to play the utopian.
CHRIS HAYES: I know! No, please, that's why I'm setting you... my long monologue is to set you up.
ASTRA TAYLOR: What's the non-devil's advocate? The angelic, the completely naïve advocate here. I mean, I think in my version of a more democratic society, democracy is not just political democracy but economic democracy, right? Because I think the big challenge today is economic; capitalism is the biggest threat. Capitalism, as a system, concentrates wealth and power and that is anathema to a system that says, Okay, people have a baseline of political equality.
So, I would say, in an economic democracy, people wouldn't have to work, not just 40 hours a week but what, 60, 80, right? I mean, we would get some... we wouldn't be producing the surplus in our jobs — the surplus, the profit. We would be producing for our needs, more or less, which would free up some time for these endless meetings that I do think would be required.
CHRIS HAYES: They are.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's also like, what do we spend our time on? Because right now we spend so many hours of our lives filling out little forms on the internet, commuting to jobs that aren't useful. I don't know. So, we could free some time.
CHRIS HAYES: How dare you say that about cable news.
ASTRA TAYLOR: We could free up some time for the meetings. But, you know, on the other hand, I also relate to what you're saying because I'm a total loner, I want to be left alone. I don't want to think about the pothole on my street. I want someone else to take care of the pothole.
CHRIS HAYES: I also think those meetings, like, the thought — and I've covered meetings, I've covered planning meetings, I've covered zoning meetings, I've covered school board meetings — they stress me out.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Meetings are stressful.
CHRIS HAYES: And I think about, it's funny what you just said, the vision that you just sketched, is almost directly a paraphrase of a line that Marx has where he talks about, after full communism, that every man can be, I think, it's a fisher by the morning and a worker in the day and a poet by night. I think that's the...
ASTRA TAYLOR: I wish. You know, it's actually something, as a vegan, I have to say it's like a portrait of hell. It's like you can hunt in the daytime and fish in the afternoon and then go on safari in the evening. It's like... I'm like, Oh my God!
CHRIS HAYES: It's all about killing animals.
ASTRA TAYLOR: They really don't like animals in Marx's vision of communism. Other than that, I like the general spirit, which is that's also about the idea that only collectively, and by having a baseline of equality, will we actually be free as individuals, right? To do what we want to do.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, but to me — the reason I'm pushing back on this is 'cause I think there's a deep psychological thing to deal with — is, even prior to, people are busy 'cause they're working. Which I think is, I 100 percent agree with you but, just, like, I'm part of various membership groups and I, I mean I'm busy, but I also have the time, if I wanted to, to like, vote in this election or that election or this group. And I don't. Because citizenship, the point of is that like citizenship, real democracy, in the kind of radical sense we're talking about ,just requires work.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the inescapable thing.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Vibrant trade unionism requires work.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: It requires organizers, it requires the work. Vibrant American democracy requires work. And there's just no getting around that basic truth.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes. I totally agree. The thing is that the system we have takes a lot of our time. I mean, look how many... Again, I think you're talking about the fact, a question that Cornell West raises at the end of the film, which is, “Do we want to be free?” That's a question I ask him. I'm like, "Well hold on. Do we want to be free? Do we want to be part of a democracy?" There's evidence pro and con, right? I mean, nobody wants to be part of a dysfunctional group or a meeting that's going nowhere or that's a waste of time. So I think that's one thing we have to figure out.
The problem is that, for all the talk of democracy in our society, democracy is actually something we do very little of, right? I mean...
CHRIS HAYES: I 1,000% agree.
ASTRA TAYLOR: ... we do almost none of it. So, we kind of don't know what we're talking about. It’s like, because it's not just voting in an election every three to four years, right?
CHRIS HAYES: No and, in fact, there's moments in the film, like ... We're talking about Occupy, right?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s moments in the film where you just have a bunch of people in a room, talking, talking about, What are we? What are we trying to do? I mean, even in the clinic, there's a scene in Miami where folks are sort of talking through stuff. And like that kind of democratic practice... if you go back and you read "Parting the Waters," the first in the trilogy about the Civil Rights movement, they're having like nine-hour meetings in the basements of these churches that are just brutal but they're doing the democratic work. It's not just like the bus boycott isn't just like someone comes in and they’re just like, We’re doing that. Painfully, through these collective processes. But we don't have spaces to do that. When do we meet with each other to talk about...
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right. Or to actually make decisions together that affect us. So that was one reason, early in the film there's a scene in a factory. It's one of the last textile factories in North Carolina, and it's one of the only cooperatives that's industrial, right? Because we all know food co-ops and bike co-ops and anarchist bookstores that are run as cooperatives, worker cooperatives. But this is actually a factory, and I went there in part to explore precisely this issue. Like what does an actual functional democratic meeting look like?
These people are running a successful business, also a brilliant example of what it means for workers to control their labor in an age of NAFTA, right? Because they're not going to sell their job overseas. They have a vested interest in being employed and succeeding.
And so the thing is that I, completely through random circumstances, arranged to film with them two days after the election of Donald Trump. Once again, most of them are from Guatemala. Part of why they were uprooted is because of the civil war there and the fact that there was a genocide against indigenous people. Some had papers, some didn't, so I thought I was going to have this deep, succinct talk about, Well OK, what's it like to have no boss? To make decisions and how do you share your profits? But what they were really feeling was that everything they built was at risk all of a sudden.
CHRIS HAYES: There's a woman who breaks down crying in just a gutting moment about what has just happened.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah and the fragility of these democratic experiments when they're in the shell of a society that's deeply unjust. We have to be open to the idea that some people have figured some things out. In those meetings, part of what makes them frustrated is when they're not about anything, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ASTRA TAYLOR: But if they're actually about, OK, well how do we collectively run this business? Or Where are we going to put the library that we need? Then it's meaningful because there's an outcome.
CHRIS HAYES: And part of the atrophying of that muscle is that there are good and bad meetings and there are good and bad ways to run meetings and there's good and bad collective decision-making processes. And those collective decision-making processes when we're talking about them, they have been in the forums that get made. I mean, one of the greatest experiences of my life — and still formative to this day and I would say the most important experience I had in the entirety of my education for preparing me for adult life — was the student-run theater of Brown University, called Production Workshop. You went to Brown for a year didn't you?
ASTRA TAYLOR: For a year, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Then you're like, Peace!
ASTRA TAYLOR: I was like, Bye, y'all.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, well I stuck it out. And, in fact, it's one of the ways that my wife and I didn't meet, but we spent a lot of time doing this together. So we're both on the board of this production company and we had our own space that we got to run with a budget. And we would have meetings once a week where we would collectively decide on people who would apply with shows. There's no controlling authority. We just had to make a decision together collectively. It was small enough that we didn't need Robert Rules of Order and things like that, we would just talk to each other, but those meetings were better preparation for the real guts of adult life, which is the give and take of collaboration with other people, in the absence of a controlling authority. And there's just not many... We do not have a lot of places where we do that.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, we don't have a lot of places to do that.
CHRIS HAYES: Scrutinized, in America.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, in the companion book, I talk a bit about... There's one chapter that's on conflict versus consensus because the dream of consensus is a really old one in political philosophy and political reality, going back to the founding fathers even of this country, who wanted nothing more than to get rid of factions and the spirit of factions. It was also a spirit that you see really alive in Occupy, this idea that we'll all get in this assembly and agree. One thing is we have to be able to distinguish, OK, when can we use a model where you can assume everybody has common interests, like your theater production? And kind of use a friendship model, or an almost like Quaker model, right? Where we're going to have the patience and figure out what's the common good and where we all want to go with this. And when, actually, we're in an adversarial mode, and when that's the democratic mode and when there's just conflict because there's irreconcilable interests.
CHRIS HAYES: There are different interests, yes.
ASTRA TAYLOR: You have to have a process that fits...
CHRIS HAYES: That's a great point.
ASTRA TAYLOR: ... the community. So when you try to have a friendship process, like, Oh we're all just going to work it out. But actually there's a true conflict, that's frustrating. And vice versa, when you're using an unnecessarily conflictual process when it's like, Hold on, we all kind of get along here, we don't need that authority. We don't need to fixate on the rules.
These sorts of things, for me, after being part of Occupy and doing my own organizing, I've had to work those through. One thing, the film brings this up briefly and it's explored more deeply in the book, but it's the question of who makes the decisions? Right now we're very used to either we have the model of direct democracy, we're all making choices all the time — which I think as we both agree, that's untenable at a certain point. Or it's like representatives, we elect people. And the film brings up the fact that in ancient Athens, elections were just seen as terribly aristocratic because the rich and the well-born and the charismatic were going to win them, or the people with the followings on television.
CHRIS HAYES: Which is wild, right.
ASTRA TAYLOR: So they used petition, they used lottery as much as possible, which is randomly selecting people, again...
CHRIS HAYES: The lottery thing blew my mind. I don’t think — I guess I knew that at some point, but I had forgotten it.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's this trust idea. It's the idea of trust, again and this idea that maybe people have the capacity to do this. I mean, I think it's a very powerful example of this moment when you’re like, We really couldn't select a worse president off the street.
CHRIS HAYES: There's an old William F. Buckley line about that he would rather take someone out of the Cambridge phone book than a professor at Harvard, you know?
ASTRA TAYLOR: I know, it's the only time I ever agree with that guy. It's like when the clock is right.
CHRIS HAYES: But I would 100 percent take someone at random out of the phone book to be president over the current president. 100 percent.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah and the point is, you don't give one person all the power.
CHRIS HAYES: Give me a phone book.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right?
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ASTRA TAYLOR: You figure out how to give a selection of people shared power and to create incentives so that they don't become corrupt...
CHRIS HAYES: That's a great point too, right?
ASTRA TAYLOR: ... the oligarchy, the iron love oligarchy is turned into something softer and less iron-like. But I think there's actually quite a powerful insight in this challenge to our fixation on elections and the reminder that they're actually aristocratic. I mean Aristotle was very clear: Elections are not democratic. Whereas we do have this residue of random selection of juries, it crops up in our society in this way, like this phantom limb that we haven't totally...
CHRIS HAYES: That's fascinating.
ASTRA TAYLOR: ... we haven't gotten rid of but we don't actually recognize its potential.
CHRIS HAYES: There was a long time where a set of institutional arrangements were viewed as the inexorable future of free markets, representative democracy with elections, people call it neoliberalism, whatever, that kind of global order. That now seems very much not inevitable at all and in fact, coming undone.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Through various different challenges, technocratic authoritarianism in China.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, which some people here are really fetishizing, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I think there's a lot about it that I think people find seductive, I mean if you're not one of the two million Muslims in a concentration camp, that it's kind of the logical conclusion of the outsourcing idea.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Right? Like, I don't want to go to any meetings, I don't want to. You guys just do your thing. In defense of the Chinese state, as technocratic, authoritarian regimes go, they are quite competent in many ways. So there's that challenge, there's the challenge of right wing populism, nationalism and sort of illiberalism as represented in various places — Viktor Orban's Hungary, I think Turkey to a certain extent through Erdogan. What's the radical, democratic, left version of that countering model that's out there?
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, I don't know if I'm going to answer that question directly. I think we're in a really interesting and potentially hopeful but also sort of scary moment. I think the consensus — which I just took to be this unbreakable consensus, this was what we were told, like you and I were told when we were growing up — was capitalism and democracy go together and they're married and that's liberal democracy, that's the recipe for liberal democracy, that's how it is.
CHRIS HAYES: Like burgers and fries.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Burgers and fries. We're seeing a messy divorce, we're seeing people go into one camp or the other. And you see this in this new flourishing of, talk about, democratic socialism. They're on the side of democracy, not on the side of capitalism and I agree with this. I think if you want the liberal values and rights and freedoms to be upheld, you need a more socialist system. Capitalism is not going to do that for you. But on the flip side, I spoke to a lot of young Republicans for the film and they make it into the book as well and what alarmed me was how they also aren't buying that old story anymore.
CHRIS HAYES: No.
ASTRA TAYLOR: They're not like, Oh yeah, capitalism and democracy."They're like, Democracy is a problem, we won the election because of the electoral college, if it wasn't for the undemocratic senate, these liberal cesspools like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Austin would have too much power and so hallelujah, we need to maintain our status as economic elites so goodbye democracy. Right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ASTRA TAYLOR: And so that was like, they're not buying the old myth any more either.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Gloves are off on both sides.
CHRIS HAYES: That's a great way of putting it. They're also drawing on a very old right wing tradition of anti-democratic thought which, I mean...
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right. They‘ve actually just come home to the aristocratic founding of this country and you're right, like so many conservative philosophers, it's the 20th century blip where there was this pact between the two sides.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, which is why in a weird way, when you say to me, OK, well there's these options, that's what I think what makes our politics, right now, messy. So if there's democratic socialism as one alternative, the neoliberal consensus as another, and then anti-majoritarian right wing nationalism? I take the neoliberal consensus over that.
ASTRA TAYLOR: But I guess I would say that we can't go back to the neoliberal consensus...
CHRIS HAYES: No I know that but...
ASTRA TAYLOR: ... but that will just tip us right back into where we are, and it's so discredited itself and you see that in, I think, in the example of Greece in the film. So I think we have to fight like hell for the side of democracy. That doesn't mean abandoning those liberal ideas. It's saying if we want them, if we want the supposed benefits of liberal democracy, we have to change our economic system and we have to bring democracy into the economic sphere, that's the challenge of this century. Last century we were trying to get everyone the right to vote, and suffrage, and basic political equality. Economic equality is what we have to focus on now.
I included the story of contemporary Greece because it's fascinating, but also because there's a real warning for those of us who are organizers right now. A young woman worked as an archival researcher for me — and she had actually worked for Prime Minister Tsipras, high up in his administration before getting disillusioned — she said to me over coffee one day, "We've done everything we were supposed to do. We went on strike, we rioted, we occupied, we built the political party. We took power in this country, but we still lost." Because the global forces they were up against were too powerful. They quite reasonably desired to say, Hey let's not have austerity because that will actually kill the economy which actually then kills the country and the inhabitants.
CHRIS HAYES: And people.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Right, like real people. It's considered just beyond the pale. So that's a warning for us. The political order is not going to be remade without an ugly fight. That's why, yeah there's moments of hope, people are saying things that weren't sayable not that long ago, but it's also scary because it's not going to be easy.
CHRIS HAYES: Which also connects, I think, ultimately to one of the things I really enjoyed about the film, was making me think about the history of democratic theory, is that none of these tensions are new.
ASTRA TAYLOR: No.
CHRIS HAYES: They're just there from the beginning and they're there throughout and we think about... We’re so ahistorical in the way we think. People have had different forms of what you would call "democratic government" in different periods of time that have failed for all kinds of ways. They've succumbed to tyranny, or they succumb to chaos, or they've slipped back into a sort of quasi-feudalism, or essentially oligarchy. There's all sorts of ways democracy fails and it's failed before. It's a precious thing that the critics of it are correct in that sense.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, they're not always wrong.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It's maddening. Wendy Brown, I think is really right in the film. She says, "Well what does it mean to give up on democracy?" Because what are you going to be ruled by? If the people don't rule, OK, then you're ruled by an oligarchy, you're ruled by a dictator, you're ruled by a tyrant, you're ruled by a technocracy. The alternatives are so unappealing that somehow we have to figure this out. But I think exactly what you just said, these tensions have been there for so long and I don't think they're going away.
CHRIS HAYES: No, they’re more...
ASTRA TAYLOR: I don't think democracy's something we're ever going to get and then we can just rest on our laurels and tweak on the margins. That's why, even though I loved these more radical words going into this project, you know, "revolution," "liberation," I now love the word "democracy" because all it is the demos, the people, have power. Right? “Cratos.” And they're like, Who is "the people"? Whether they're even people, the people could come to include animals and robots and trees. We might still be in the Dark Ages in that sense and how we rule, whether we share political power or economic power, what territory we rule in. All that's open for debate when we just...
CHRIS HAYES: If the people rule.
ASTRA TAYLOR: But somehow, yeah we have to do it, and you're right, it does take time and it is a pain in the a** but I think it's a wonderful concept and a wonderful word and through making this film and writing this book, I became much of a small “d” democrat.
CHRIS HAYES: Astra Taylor is a writer, an activist, a filmmaker. Her latest film's called "What Is Democracy?" It's a great film and it really makes you think. The book is coming out soon, whenever you're listening to this, which is called ...
ASTRA TAYLOR: "Democracy May Not Exist But We'll Miss It When It's Gone."
CHRIS HAYES: "Democracy May Not Exist When It's Gone." Astra, it was great talking to you. Thank you.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Good, thanks Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Astra Taylor, the film's called "What Is Democracy?" It's already released, and there's going to be an upcoming companion book, which she mentioned in the conversation, called "Democracy May Not Exist But We'll Miss It When It's Gone." That will be out this May, so look for that.
As always, we'd love your feedback. We had great feedback about my conversation with Jonathan Metzl about "Dying Of Whiteness." Lots of folks talking about it and tweeting about it and wrestling with the implications of it, which has been really great to see. It is a great book and I recommend you pick that up, I know I'm constantly pushing product here but a lot of people, this is actually a common email or tweet like, You're expanding my reading list, you're costing me a lot of money in books. Books are good, a good use of your hard-earned money.
You can tweet us #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. As always, we love to hear from you about everything.
"What Is Democracy?", a film by Astra Taylor.
"Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone," by Astra Taylor
"The People’s Platform," by Astra Taylor
"Examined Life," a film by Astra Taylor
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"The Republic," by Plato
"Women & Power" by Mary Beard
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.