Fighting for democracy from the bottom up | Astra Taylor, Pt 2

Filmmaker, writer and activist Astra Taylor sets out to answer a question we rarely ask: what is democracy? Her conclusion: democracy doesn't exist — at least, not quite. And yet, she says, it's still worth fighting for. Taylor takes us on a walking tour in New York searching for the meaning of democracy. Part 2 of a two-part series.

Democracy is worth fighting for because the alternatives are worse, says the filmmaker

Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and political organizer. She is also the director of the philosophical documentaries 'What Is Democracy?', 'Examined Life, and 'Zizek!'. She lives in New York City. (Isabella De Maddalena, Metropolitan Books)

** Originally published on October 18, 2019.

It's too easy to define democracy in terms of political structures like parliamentary systems or voting procedures.

Astra Taylor argues that democracy has to be looked at in much broader terms, she asserted while sitting on a New York ferry — itself is a profoundly democratic service.

"We've done ourselves a real disservice by letting democracy be limited to this sort of formal political sphere. And not recognizing that democratic principles have to infuse all of the spaces we inhabit," Taylor told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

"So we're just about freedom and equality. What if you have accessible, efficient public transit?"

A newer, fresher thinking about democracy also means that we have to consider the larger context of how people actually feel about the quality of their lives.

"Do people feel that they are living lives with dignity? Do they feel that they live in a world where their lives matter and where they have a say? I mean, these are hard things to definitively measure. But they have to be part of our accounting of whether democracy is successful or not," Taylor said.

Elites have always known why they don't like democracy and that hasn't changed.- Astra Taylor

Here and there around the world, we can find examples of what is — for Taylor — a broad experiment in what's possible in a radically broader rethinking of what modern democracy means.

"Governments are experimenting with calling up randomly selected citizens to deliberate over really contentious issues. In Ireland, for example, citizens deliberated on questions of abortion access, environmental sustainability, what to do with an aging population. [There were] a hundred strangers in a room over five months and people actually made really wise determinations." 

Online is not a democratic space

Today, the ideal democracy is showing stress fractures. And the idea of community has gone beyond the physical location of groups of people — the online world suggests the possibility of new kinds of community, but there's a challenge here. 

"So much of the space that we visit [is] online. It's not public space, it's not democratic space. So we often use metaphors: we say things like 'Google is a kind of universal library.' Or we talk about a kind of 'virtual town square'. [But] almost all this space we go to on the internet is actually privatized. The online spaces we inhabit are more like shopping malls than town squares or civic centres."

One reason to fight for democracy is because some people are going to fight against it.​​​​- Astra Taylor

Democracy isn't a top-down affair. It's bottom up, and has been — in fact, has to be, — driven by people who don't comprise the one percent. The democratic commons of the future, Taylor thinks, will come to us only through struggle — as it always has.  

"Elites have always known why they don't like democracy and that hasn't changed. And so one reason to fight for democracy is because some people are going to fight against it."

** This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Nahlah Ayed, with production assistance from Jackson Weaver.


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