On seeing Astra Taylor’s What is Democracy?

by Chris Bertram on October 22, 2019

I went to see occasional Timberite Astra Taylor’s remarkable film What is Democracy? last night. It takes us from Siena, Italy to Florida to Athens and from Ancient Athenian democracy through the renaissance and the beginning of capitalism to the Greek debt crisis, occupy and the limbo life of people who have fled Syria and now find themselves stuck. It combines the voices of Plato and Rousseau with those of ordinary voters from left and right, Greek nationalists and cosmopolitans, ex-prisoners, with trauma surgeons in Miami, Guatemalan migrants in the US, with lawmakers and academics, and with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. All the while it poses the questions of whether democracy is compatible with inequality and global financial systems and the boundaries of inclusion.

Some of the testimonies are arresting: the ex-prisoner turned barber who tells us of his nine years in a US prison of a hunger strike when the authorities tried to take the library away and of his problems adjusting to life of the outside, to being around women, and the fact that he’s denied the vote. And all the time he’s telling you this with attention and passion he’s clipping a customers beard, which adds a note of tension. We hear from trauma surgeons who tell us of the levels of violence in Miami – so much blood that the city is used for training by medics from the US military – and the shock of cycling from one neighbourhood to the next and experiencing swift transitions from opulence to utter destitution. We hear from a young Syrian woman who relates how she had to leave Aleppo after her mother was wounded by a stray bullet in her own home and whose idea of democracy is a country where she can lie safely in her bed.

There are experts in the movie in the shape of (among others) Cornel West and Wendy Brown but they provide us with context without dominating. Brown poses the central and unresolved question of the film: does democracy need boundaries and to have at its heart a constitutive “we”? And if so, who gets inccluded and who gets left out. Brown’s own view is somewhat “Lexity””: particular democracy rejecting capitalist globalization but Astra pushes back a little toward ideals of global citizenship. Whatever the boundaries of democratic units should be, there is no doubting the conviction of the film that migrants, refugees and ex-prisoners belong on the inside as participants.

The renaissance frescoes of The Allegory of Good and Bad Government in Siena form the bookends to the picture. Sylvia Federici talks us through the symbolism of the paintings noticing the contrasts of wealth and poverty, the scenes of exclusion and cruelty and the absence of domesticity and childhood in this imaginary of government, inter alia, she tells us that the idea of governing together as free and equal persons is not so much native to the European traditions as an import from the peoples of North America after 1492, a claim I’ve heard from others (such as in Charles Mann’s 1491).

It is hard to make a film about an abstract idea such as democracy and it is hard to make one with so much philosophy at its heart. But this film succeeds through letting people speak. The selection of people is important too: the voices of women and the marginalized take precedence over the wealthy and the males for whom citizenship was once an exclusive privilege. Do make some time to get to see it, I’m told you can get it on Amazon.

(Full disclosure: Astra is a member of the CT collective and we met and discussed following a panel on the film in Bristol last night. I also make a cameo appearance, in the form of my Penguin edition of Rousseau’s Social Contract, to which the camera pans in Wendy Brown’s office. The film was shown as the Watershed in association with Bristol Festival of Ideas.)



Gareth Wilson 10.22.19 at 8:53 am

“Astra pushes back a little toward ideals of global citizenship.”
Before we give the global citizenry real power, I’d like to see some global polls to see what policies they’d vote for.


oldster 10.22.19 at 2:36 pm

The goal of the global plutocrats — whether they are authoritarians in office like Putin or Erdogan, or “private citizens” like Zuckerberg and Thiel — is to enjoy complete impunity.

They do this by exploiting capital mobility and offshore banks, by exploiting lax enforcement of laws and financial regulations.

I want a global community that enforces the rule of law, and ensures that no individual is above that law. Whether it’s war-criminals like Bush, perverts like Epstein, or criminals like the Murdoch family, I want them all to face justice.

Institutions like the EU have the power to rein in particular bad actors. That’s why the plutocrats and authoritarians want to destroy it . It has all sorts of flaws. But without it, there are even fewer trans-national mechanisms for enforcing accountability.

How to design the best global institutions for limiting elite impunity? That’s a hard question. But that is my central goal in the globalization debate. Even more central, to my mind, than questions about (e.g.) the free movement of ordinary people.


Tim Worstall 10.22.19 at 2:50 pm

Yes, I know, with a film there’s a certain selection to make the point. Yet:

” We hear from trauma surgeons who tell us of the levels of violence Miami – so much blood that the city is used for training by medics from the US military”

Well, yeeees. Trauma’s something that we’d probably like military medics to know how to deal with – as best anyone can at least. It is true that (having looked it up) the US Army uses a Level 1 trauma center in Miami (https://www.aana.com/docs/default-source/pr-aana-com-web-documents-(all)/about-us—in-service-to-our-country/the-army-trauma-trainng-course-in-miami-aana-newsbulletin-july-2018.pdf?sfvrsn=1c0558b1_4) to do such training.

But, you know, there seem to be (per Wiki) some 200 such centers across the US. The US Army was going to use one of them.

One of the equivalent UK trauma centres is at Southmead Hospital, perhaps somewhere Chris B knows. The equivalent training centre for the military in the UK seems to be at Queen Mary’s, London.

The statement that Miami is bloody enough to train military medics is true. But possibly just a little misleading.


Roger 10.22.19 at 7:33 pm

I think they want a trauma center where they see bullet wounds rather than car accidents.


engels 10.22.19 at 7:42 pm

Sounds very interesting, hope I can see it.


Jim Johnson 10.23.19 at 12:10 am

You are right on the money Chris. And … you can indeed get the DVD on Amazon in the US.


notGoodenough 10.23.19 at 7:47 am

Thanks for the recommendation – it certainly looks like a thought provoking film, and a timely release!

I don´t want to put links (as it can sometimes bork the post), but for those interested there are some trailers on Youtube, and already the reviews seem quite positive (according to Wikipedia).


Kevin McDonough 10.23.19 at 2:24 pm

FYI, the film is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, at least in Canada.


steven t johnson 10.23.19 at 3:05 pm

At a first approximation, democracy is the alliance of the city dwellers for the power of the city, ignoring tribes and rural aristocrats, carefully contained so the landowners keep their land, and the slaves are kept under control. Or, to update it, the class collaboration of the wealthy (nowadays some sort of capitalist,) the middling strata and the common people for the power of the nation, carefully arranged so the people with great property make the decisions about the economy.

It doesn’t sound like this is very informative or useful, so I will wait until I have a cheaper way to see it.


LFC 10.23.19 at 5:04 pm

@ steven t johnson

Since your views on most matters seem set (or perhaps “fixed” is a better word) and don’t seem esp. open to revision or reconsideration, why bother to see it at all?


Z 10.23.19 at 8:38 pm

In my opinion, democracy as an actually existing property of a society is only imperfectly described in terms of institutional arrangements, philosophical constructs, political system or (as steven t johnson would have it) power relations between social groups. In addition to all that, but probably prior to all that, democracy relies on principles which are anthropological in nature, that pertains to the particular way human beings relate to each other on a given territory.

This means that I absolutely believe in the necessity of a “we” to underlie democracy but I doubt that this “we” needs to be (or indeed is ever) constitutive, it exists primarily if not exclusively as a matter of human relations not as a constitutive abstraction. This also means that I’m not surprised by the general absence of convergence in democratic forms around the world (much to the bemusement of English-speaking political philosophers, or in the last 20 years, German and Flemish politicians) and that I believe that global citizenship is under present circumstances a meaningless concept with respect to democracy. Some people understand this to be arguing for a national, ethnic or cultural definition of democracy, in which only people with a specific national identity, or a particular ethnicity, or specific cultural practices or (in the contemporary American libertarian version) specific personality traits may participate, as a matter of normative or positive judgment, depending on various proponents of this theory. This seems to me to be a rather ironic analytical error: if indeed a core property of democracy is rooted in the characteristic ways people relate to each other, it is highly implausible that this could change under the influence of even a substantial minority (in one direction or the other).

Incidentally, the idea that democracy is originally native to North-America is somewhat classical (Voltaire championed it, but as usual with him, it is hard to vouch for his seriousness). Since then it has resurfaced periodically for instance in William James Sidis (disturbed) book The Tribes and the States or in the works of Bruce Johansen. Serious discussions of this question lead, I believe, to the seemingly paradoxical observation that English and Dutch settlers came to adopt the democratic principles of the Haudenosaunee because they were themselves rather primitive (temporally speaking), and hence democratic, in their anthropological values. Suc discussion would also lead to the far more pessimistic conclusion that beyond their political models, native people in North-America facilitated the establishment of a political democracy by providing a large neighboring group to exclude out of humanity.


steven t johnson 10.23.19 at 8:49 pm

LFC@10 uses a reason for waiting as an excuse for a rhetorical question meant as a taunt. The reason I might see it, if it’s cheap enough, is because new facts and the (rare) new perspective, if any, would seep into my thinking. The idea that my thinking doesn’t change is unfounded. It changes, it just doesn’t change by conversion experience. The cogent arguments of the wise on the internet are like Jesus on the road to Damascus, not quite able to be described consistently, but still irrefutable.

But, try as I may, continual reworking of old ideas by new—to me—information inevitably leads to the change. The process usually goes A Is that really true? B My old ideas get a parenthesis added. C The parenthesis gets worked into the rest of the paragraph so that I’m more consisten. D I’ve always believed that. The step where I abjectly plead for forgiveness for being a moron is never there, any more than actually being consistent.

As an example, it’s only in the last few years I’ve wakened up to the extraordinary tendency to people to ignore either the progressive content of bourgeois revolutions, such as in pretending that destroying a national secular state in Iraq or Syria and replacing it with a cantonal confederation is a step backward. Or in surreptitiously pretending that democracy has nothing to do with the democratic state needing fighters against other states. Like most people on the internet, i do tend to get a little trendy, and repetitive. But apparently I’m too socially backward to get the memo on the correct trendy, and repetitive.

For a less contentious example, as part of the process I’ve realized that ancient Sparta was on the democratic spectrum, not least because of two kings which is definitely not twice the monarchy. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is still true, despite authority. But a true expert who actually cared could revise the elementary insight into a much more sophisticated, much superior way that might not even seem controversial. It might even seem just like the answer to the questions: Why did Sparta ever ally with Athens in the first place? Why did both Athens and Sparta ally (at different times) with Persia?

I will admit to a general prejudice against every historical discovery that a particular place etc. was the birth of virtue.


hix 10.24.19 at 12:31 am

Not quite sure where this film is supposed to go with trauma surgeons and traumaticee refugees that grew up in non democratic staates, who get the definition wrong in a way that is rather predictable considering their background.

Are people in Miama not going to the ballot because they are afraid to get shot on the way?


SamChevre 10.24.19 at 12:50 am

I find it odd that a film about Democracy sees safety as part of the concept. Maybe it comes of growing up in a minority religion, and converting as an adult to another, but the idea that majority rule would keep people safe is rather surprising to me. (I tend toward the “letting people alone keeps them safe, but both elites and majorities don’t like leaving weird people alone.”)


ccc 10.24.19 at 10:50 am

Very keen to see this. I liked the director’s previous film Examined Life.

Trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHxRj9JWQMs

Official page https://zeitgeistfilms.com/film/whatisdemocracy , which also has link to iTunes store for streaming of the film.


steven t johnson 10.24.19 at 3:20 pm

Re the Haudenosaunee as exemplars of democracy, this is as I recall long known to be true of Benjamin Franklin, one of the disreputable founders, nearly as disgraced as Tom Paine. (Indeed, the notion that the revolutionaries weren’t the founders, but Philadelphia lawyers’ convention was, is remarkable, though unremarked on.) But, what did Franklin admire about the Iroquois League? I think it was the power through unity of different “tribes.” The league essentially genocided the Hurons to control the fur trade; launched long distance military expeditions to drive away many other peoples from large areas in the Ohio valley to free up hunting grounds; when it was convenient, they sold their rights, lands, there to the US. (The treaty of Fort Stanwix) was later repudiated, verbally at least, by other.

The classic model of course was the Roman Republic. By coincidence I was reading Livy’s first five books and the relationship between rights for the plebs and the need for them in war, stands out. Macchiavelli’s Discourses on Livy makes this even plainer. In the US much of this was conveyed to the Americans via Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government as refracted through Cato’s Letters. (I hope to live long enough to read Discourses on Davila by John Adams, solely because of the title.)


eg 10.25.19 at 2:35 am

It would seem to me that the answer to the question “what is democracy” is best answered by another question: who gets (and doesn’t get) the franchise?

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