In What Is Democracy? Astra Taylor, a Canadian filmmaker, writer, and organizer, poses that question to Greek scholars, Guatemalan immigrants in North Carolina, Syrian refugees, a Miami barber who's a convicted felon, and many others. In one scene, black middle-schoolers discuss how their voices are often ignored by teachers. "What you say to us all the time is, 'Go to college so you can do what you love,' but you don't even love what you do," says one student, to the applause of her classmates. What Is Democracy? is a fluid visual essay, an investigation stitched together with quotes from Plato's Republic. The film, in violation of one of the most common tropes of filmmaking, is actually interested in listening to what its subjects have to say.
Taylor, who also tours occasionally with husband Jeff Mangum's band Neutral Milk Hotel and wrote 2017's must-read The People's Platform (from Metropolitan Books), is a co-founder of the Debt Collective, an organization that provides a digital platform to dispute debt and turns individual indebtedness into collective power (and action, like a successful debt strike against Corinthian Colleges, a now-defunct group of for-profit schools). She's hosting an "assembly of the indebted" at Hull House on February 15 and will attend the Friday and Saturday screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Instead of showing textbook examples of democracy like voting and the White House, you choose to film black and brown faces who define democracy as the pursuit of justice and the American dream. Why?
When people think about democracy, they think typically of government and of elections. They think of the rule of law. They think it's the protection of minority rights as a sort of principle, individual liberties. But there has to be an economic component, right? You can't separate politics from economics.
The American dream, which was stronger in an earlier cut, is this pathological way that Americans have talked around the issue of class. It's such an ideological phrase because it's this idea of freedom, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, meritocracy, striving, the pursuit of happiness from the declaration of independence—but it was always founded on exclusion, founded on the dispossession of indigenous people and slavery, and a very selective relationship to immigration. Implicit in the film is the fact that there's a critique of the American dream, but then there's also something related to it, which is that everybody has the right to not just exist but to thrive.
Americans are disillusioned, for very good reason. Why did you bother making this film?
You can't just wag your finger at people, because that doesn't acknowledge the fact that people are cynical because the structure is actually really rotten. It is really corrupt. You have to hear people, you have to speak to people's discontent. You can't just smugly tell them that they should engage in the most baseline aspect of democracy, which is voting. And our voting system is so fucking unfair. The film is one thing, but as an activist, what we have to do is tap into that discontent and orient it in a constructive democratic direction and be strategic about how we then engage in what's going to be a pretty brutal power struggle. Because the billionaires are going to write their little books like Howard Schultz. But when push comes to shove, they will try to kill us!
Schultz referred to billionaires as "people of means."
Somebody tweeted that at me. He really wanted a euphemism? Wait till he hears the word "capitalist."
In the film you go to a Trump rally in Raleigh. How do we view the MAGA movement through the prism of democracy?
I did need to show this idea of popular sovereignty, but if it's disconnected from other types of guardrails then it can be the tyranny of the majority even if they're not really a majority. It's more like the tyranny of a nostalgic retrograde minority. What struck me the most at those events (aside from genuine misogyny and racism) was some of the messaging on the big screens on the jumbotron. And it was all this anti-hedge fund, antibanker messaging. We cannot cede discontent to this pseudopopulist plutocrat-serving divide-and-conquer bullshit. The solution can't be the sort of platonic idea that the masses are so moronic that we have to disempower them. It has to be "let's engage in political education and actually try to improve people's lives so we can pull some people to our side and marginalize those where there's no hope." But it is democracy. Democracy is always going to be unstable, it's always going to undermine its own legitimacy.
Part of the message of the film is that, all the way back, Plato said the problem is the divide between the rich and the poor. Then when Madison and Hamilton were writing their Federalist Papers, they were like, "oh, democracies are unstable, but what we should do instead is just, you know, make a republic so that the natural aristocracy can shine." The thing that we have never tried is actually just sharing the wealth. Let's finally create conditions of relative economic egalitarianism and see how unstable things are.
How do we break the stranglehold tech companies—monopolies that still brand themselves as democracies—have on our lives?
There's just a problem with the business model. The current pathologies of democracy, whether it's electoral or technological, derive from the incentives that are driving it. There has to be an economic fix. There has to be a breaking up of tech monopolies. There has to be a de-commodifying of things. It's not about privacy. It's about the status of this private data as the sort of raw material for an extractive form of capitalism. A lot of our leverage over these tech companies is actually more as citizens than consumers. But because we are not the main consumers, because we're not really paying for the services—the advertisers are—we have almost no power of the purse. No ability to boycott. We have to think about them politically. So that's why it's ultimately more of a democracy problem than a technological problem.
I want to ask about your camera and how it lingers on faces and watches as they shift from arguing to smiling, and then crying.
I didn't want the camerawork to reinforce the idea that this is an elite inquiry. I specifically make films that are philosophical and people do not feel invited into intellectual conversations. I wanted the camerawork to say, "Hey, you're here with me. I might be an intellectual, but actually what an intellectual is is someone who wants to know more, who is curious, who's always learning." I want to put asking questions and the desire to learn back at the heart of what it means to be an intellectual. I wanted to have respect for the people on screen and also a love for them. Because I do think we have to have a kind of affection for other human beings if we're going to work this out. v