The world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies.
– Bill Clinton
He can’t even run his own life / I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine, sunshine
– Jonathan Edwards
There we were, two months in, lost at home, ball-and-chained to a virus, but finally, because we’re a nation of ‘rugged individualists,’ coming around to the Moment’s epiphany, the teaching point of our collective illness; going, ‘My, how the world will have changed during The Time of Plague™,’ and our mask fashions all changed up, too, going from medical model muffs to Zoomlander statements. Really getting into the swing of it. We were philosophical, long-suffering; now seemed a good time to get a grip and tweak our exceptional democracy; come together, be as one. Just two months in and we were an interconnected ad hoc Continental Congress, full of wisdom and new ideas.
Masked and anonymous, we tentatively tip-toed outdoors, tempting fate and indulging Trump, and voila! the shit hit the fan almost immediately: Black Man Down in Mogadishu, Minnesota. Riots, fires, looting everywhere. Surveillance drones overhead. Jobs down. Evictions up. No sign of sports to keep us distracted. Overnight, America had become a Shithole. Like groundhogs, we went, “Nope,” no sign of the American Spring yet, and ducked back inside for another nap.
Well, that’s the way it seemed to unfold, 10,000 miles away, and CNN including the live meltdown of law and order as part of their continuous coverage of the Trump Administration takedown. So many pundits, and people too, have uttered the profound cliche, “Democracy is messy” — sounding like something Socrates might have said before snatching the hemlock from Crito and going, “Tell Asclepius he’s a cock and I owe him one.” America the Beautiful, from afar, looks to have gone from the free-spirited days of Zorba the Greek to days of getting exorbitantly greeked by Cretinous creditors.
And that latter sentiment is one Astra Taylor picks up on, in different words, in her book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Taylor examines instances of Democracies everywhere under extreme stress brought about by the out-of-control excesses of late stage Capitalism. A well-received filmmaker, Taylor has previously produced Zizek! (2005), Examined Life (2008), and What Is Democracy? (2018), which could be seen as a video companion to Democracy May Not Exist.
In each of these works, Taylor strives to mix high-minded political philosophy with the earnest input of the hoi polloi. She accomplishes this mix by considering how several binary tensions that hold together (and pull apart) democracy operate on its practical functions and ideals over time — Freedom/Equality, Conflict/Consensus, Inclusion/Exclusion, Coercion/Choice, Spontaneity/Structure, Expertise/Mass Opinion, and Local/Global.
The Wall Street banking collapse of 2008 was long in coming; its inherent House of Cards vulnerabilities were well known ahead of time. GHW Bush called Ronald Reagan’s proposed Trickle Down economics little more than the practice of Voodoo. A kind of sympathetic magic built around the suckerhood of patriotism. Proving that it was a bipartisan effort to undermine Everyman, the Clinton Administration continued the downsizing of FDR’s ‘socialist’ New Deal policies, concentrating, instead, on deficit reduction, debt maintenance, and neoliberal globalization.
When Wall Street forced Obama to go along with TARP (a welfare safety net for banks) before he was even inaugurated in January 2009, the false advertising of American democracy was glaringly apparent. Taylor writes, “The global financial crash of 2008 put an end to this laissez-faire lie.” The casino gamblers of 2008 who made their fortunes through derivatives and shorts (betting on systemic failure) have never faced accountability.
Taylor spends some time laying out how this crash spread across Europe, and annihilated the democracy of Greece by turning it from a self-government to a state owned lock, stock and barrel by global moneylenders who overrode local legislative policymaking. In return for a $100 billion emergency loan from the
European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, Greece essentially handed over their sovereignty. Taylor writes,
The loan came with steep interest on the repayments and sweeping austerity measures: cuts to already insufficient pensions and wages, diminished health care services and education spending, weakened labor protections. All the while taxes ballooned and public assets were privatized for sale to foreign investors.
Almost overnight, Greece became a nation of debt slaves.
The world media portrayed the meltdown in Greece as a product of poor governance; in essence, they had only themselves to blame; globalization and its casino gambles, were not responsible. But says Taylor,
Greece’s crisis is instructive because the country’s woes were not wholly homegrown—the local economy faltered because the global economy crashed, the initial contagion emanating from Wall Street before spreading far and wide. Greece came to exemplify a profound contemporary conundrum.
It’s a crisis that questioned the very viability of self-rule, and saw, says Taylor, the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party. Massive protests ensued, including the occupation of Syntagma Square in 2011, which “was … an indictment of those in power…a utopian expression of … a just society … and a more authentic vision of democracy into practice.” Indignados rise!
“How did it come to this?” Taylor asks. “How did we arrive at a situation where the will of a sovereign country can be overruled by remote financial interests?” In other words, she seems to ask: How could a country be invaded and occupied by unseen financial forces the way the Germans invaded Poland? Surely, the fascist side of globalization (“or what other countries call ‘Americanization’”). Taylor looks to the Ancients for answers, not just the Greek philosophers but playwrights too, and, briefly, even further back to the collective systems of early indigenous cultures.
Taylor spends some time asking the question, What is democracy? She notes,
Ancient Athens’s signal breakthrough…was that it gave real political power to poor people—so much power that one esteemed scholar has likened it to a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
It was a direct system of democracy that included equality before the law and freedom of speech (but tell that to Socrates). Taylor sends kudos to Solon “an aristocratic poet turned social reformer [who] instigated the first significant step toward the inclusion of the working poor in political life.” Not exactly a philosopher king, but a poet will do in a pinch. She tells the story of farmers so debt-bound that they were selling themselves into foreign slavery. Solon cancelled debt payments and arranged for the repatriation of debt slaves. Taylor writes that
He also tackled criminal justice, repealing the laws established by the former tyrant Dracos, whose “draconian” code made almost every crime—even stealing a single fruit or vegetable—punishable by death.
Debt management has been a key to both economics and democracies for thousands of years.
More than the messy processes of democracy, for Taylor the lack of debt is a key or prerequisite to a healthy democracy. She cites classicist Danielle Allen’s explanation of the principle:
Freedom requires political equality; political equality requires social equality and economic egalitarianism. You line the concepts up that way, and freedom and equality fit together like hand in glove.
And Taylor extends the import of that principle into modern democracy:
Indeed, it was the visible presence of slavery that led people in both societies, Athenian and American, to deeply, and perhaps pathologically, value and romanticize the ideal of liberty as the antithesis of bondage.
But in 2010, ‘Globalization’ took its gloves off and proceeded to greek the Greeks, making their economy scream, from benign to benighted in an instant.
Abstractly, Taylor was turned on by a couple of characters coughed up by the ancient Athenians — Diogenes and Sophocles’s character Antigone. Diogenes, the founder of cynicism, lived in the streets and was said to have slept in a large urn. Of him, Taylor glees, he was the “first proponent of a kind of irreverent freedom of expression we now might associate with the counterculture of the 1960s.” (Think Abbie, RIP.) She continues with an anecdote:
Flouting convention, Diogenes treated everyone equally, which is to say, cheekily: he famously told Alexander the Great, one of his many admirers, to move aside and stop blocking the sunlight.
Trust me, back in the day, such sauce was the equivalent of levitating the Pentagon.
She was equally inspired by the character of Antigone. As far as Taylor’s concerned, Civil disobedience, from Antigone to the present day, involves people choosing to break rules not because they are criminals but because of ethical conviction, a direct action that inevitably puts one on a collision course with authority.
One thinks here of Amy Carter, daughter of the president, who with Abbie Hoffman and others successfully disrupted the CIA’s recruiting efforts on a college campus back in 1986. Of Antigone, Taylor adds,
The fact that she is a young woman, a nonperson according to the logic of Athenian democracy, makes Antigone’s rebellion all the more notable, and her gender is one reason she has been a touchstone for political theorists ever since….
American Antigones will not be dis-counted any more, the way their ballots were during the 2016 election that gave us Trump.
More recently, the Syntagma Square uprising in May 2011 inspired Taylor and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in September 2011, ten years after the towers came down. Both Syntagma and OCS seemed to bring out the blowback irony of the Arab Spring revolts against tyranny and repression that American neoliberals waved the flag for. For Taylor, OWS represented an opportunity to observe democracy in a more back-to-the-garden experiment, a political Woodstock on Wall Street. She wrote about the gatherings and doings, as co-editor of Occupy!: An OWS-Inspired Gazette. She describes the early atmospherics of OWS:
Some evenings, standing in the dark with hundreds of others, repeating what a stranger had said so others at a distance could hear it, I felt as if I were a part of some great living, breathing poetry.
When was the last time you heard somebody describe politics that way?
They were all trying to figure out anew what democracy was in its root form. “ The founders of Occupy aspired to do something profoundly different, to
build a new, more authentic cooperative society” she writes in the chapter on the tension between conflict and consensus. To avoid the former, OWS activists earnestly strove for the latter. They soon discovered the impracticability of any scaled-up consensus, remembering that even with a jury, all it takes is one ‘hold out’ to bring about a mistrial. Taylor writes, “[As] I saw vividly at
Occupy Wall Street, in actuality, the reckless exercise of the veto is also the
model’s fatal flaw.” She points to a set of drummers who refused repeated requests to stop beating and kept thumping, “declaring their rhythms to be the ‘heartbeat of the movement.’”
The disruptive value of the veto in a consensus (passively or aggressively) was a discouraging eruption. OWS activists were not just university students, but others who were trying to figure out how change things before it was too late. Taylor writes:
What Occupiers did know, in their bones, as they faced home foreclosures, overwhelming student debt, mounting medical bills, insecure employment, and impending climate catastrophe was that they had very little influence over matters that concerned them.
Consensus was an ideal, but impossible to realize. Taylor wondered if she’d ever seen real democracy, and began to deconstruct how we experience it.
Following in the thought-prints of philosopher Cornel West and Black Agenda Report stalwart, who sees democracy as “living in the tension,” Taylor considers examples of such tensions:
The history of democracy is one of oppression, exploitation, demagoguery, dispossession, domination, horror, and abuse. But it is also a history of cooperation, solidarity, deliberation, emancipation, justice, and empathy.
These tensions are rarely fully resolved, she writes, as democracy is meant to be not static, but dynamic.
Taylor reminds the reader, lest she forget, that the word democracy comes to us from ancient Greece, and it conveys a seemingly simple idea: the
people (demos) rule or hold power (kratos). Given what she learned observing consensus in action, the word is practically an oxymoron. But there are all the other tensions, too, that make democracy jittery. Take the Freedom/Equality tension, touched upon earlier with Solon, and his debt forgiveness and political egalitarianism, Taylor says that we can see it in action in the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union.
“By 1989,” writes Taylor, “freedom and equality, two terms central to the theory and practice of democracy, occupied opposite ends of a bipolar political spectrum after decades of a slow rupture.” For the crows and galahs of free enterprise, the demise of communism equated to the end of equality. Depressingly, in her preparation for this book, Taylor writes, “No one, not a single soul in the United States or elsewhere, told me that democracy meant “equality.” The Soviet Union may have been dead, but so were the corrective days of LBJ’s Great Society quest to end poverty and social injustice.
There’s the tension of Inclusion/Exclusion. You can holler to the Heavens that All Men Are Created Equal, but then find, on the small print, that, you know, what’s meant is “men” not women, or, doesn’t include slaves, or felons (even after “paying their debt to society”). And it goes on, writes Taylor,
Wealth, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, religion, nationality, ethnicity, immigration status, criminal history, and career choice all have been or are still being used to justify denying some people full equality.
How inclusionary is your democracy? How exclusionary? Trump’s Wall contains an answer to the limits of America’s ideal.
In its mean stages, after peak capitalism has passed, and the cheating for dollars begins just before the pyramid scheme collapses, cynical inclusion scams begin — you know how the pyramid works (wink): If you ain’t the Eye, you must be the we. It can get nasty, writes Taylor,
Sociologists speak of “predatory inclusion” to address insidious ways in which black communities have been invited into the dominant culture, whether through subprime housing, scammy for-profit colleges, or payday loans.
The selfish anti-democratic bankers who set up the short-driven subprime housing scam got rewarded — not one went to jail, and taxpayers bailed them out with fresh cash. And now, we’re almost there again. Really, this presidential election, we may be deciding on who we want in charge of the next bail out. Greece is the word.
Another worry for democracy that Taylor examines is the Coercion/Choice tension. You can be driving down the highway at 75 in a 55 zone, whistling “King of the Road” to yourself, when the whistle turns into a siren, and you’re pulled over and presented with a fine you have to pay or else, the nice policeman walking away and whistling. And also the Panama Papers. And Trump’s four year tax audit. You gotta coerce sometimes; you have no choice.
Or, as Taylor puts it,
The distinctions between incentive, persuasion, influence, manipulation, and coercion constantly blur. Regardless of where those lines get drawn, the fact is our choices rarely qualify as “free.”
The lesser of two evils, feel free to choose your next president this fall.
In her look at the tension between spontaneity and structure, Taylor considers the absurd practice of gerrymandering, which Republicans strongly favor. She tells us that it all began back in 1812 in Massachusetts when Governor Elbridge Gerry set off political fireworks by ‘re-zoning’ voting districts to suit his party (over democracy). A cartoonist for the Boston Gazette, writes Taylor, depicts is as “some kind of winged salamander (‘THE GERRYMANDER: A new species
of Monster,’ the caption warned).” To illustrate how absurd such division can get Taylor raises the example of Agricultural and Technical State University.
Situated on the outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina, where the main campus is divided down the middle by one long main road, the two halves each represented by a different member of Congress. Notes Taylor, “the usually obscure purpose of the precinct designations shockingly clear: the lines were drawn to deliver Republican representatives.” Damn, Mason-Dixon, you crossed the line.
There’s the tension of Expertise/Mass Opinion where Taylor talks about honeybees and hivemindedness. “Why does honeybee democracy work so well?” she asks. “Perhaps because, unlike humans, bees are reasonable.” It is the worker bees who have all the important information, and Taylor describes how they sort it all out in a kind of consensus, and she lets the reader know that the Queen, despite the title, has no real function but producing more bees.
Her caution here is that with the Internet we are becoming more of an actual hivemind and losing personhood with the digitalization of the self. Whatever noble cause the Net represented in its beginning, Taylor avers, the problem is that
our entire digital communications infrastructure is based on the business model of advertising, which spreads exaggerated claims and outright lies by design. As the techies say, it’s a feature, not a bug.
It’s all fake news and we are becoming more absurd by the day. Democracy is the least of our worries. (At least two new versions of the Internet are underway.) “If we are ever to equitably and democratically remedy the problem of mass stupidity,” she says, “we will first have to deal with elite cupidity.”
This becomes a segue into meritocracy, which Taylor reminds the reader began with The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian novel by Michael Young. Taylor cites the author’s distress that his term had been perverted and co-opted by the Right. Taylor writes that “Michael Young lamented the fact that his cautionary tale had been uncannily prophetic. Meritocracy, a word intended as caricature, had become a creed.” (Remember how Reagan co-opted Springstein?)
At the end of all the tensions and deconstructions, Astra Taylor ends up where she started: “I don’t believe democracy exists; indeed, it never has.”
Yet, at the same time, as she includes in her title, we’re gonna miss it when it’s gone. It’s not merely an Idea or Canon, but, as Abbie used to say, Democracy is something you do and he believed you needed to goose it once in a while in a Yippie principle he expressed as “revolution for the hell of it.” Astra Taylor doesn’t go that far, but she does argue that we need to re-mold the political colossus we currently refer to as democracy. She leans, without great detail, toward democratic socialism. All she says is that “democratic socialism, a system where, in contrast to capitalist democracy, social power, not economic or state power, prevails. This is a democracy that has never been tried and is not yet in our sights.” Why don’t we get Mikey to try it.
It’s also a cautionary excursion, reminding us that as we export Pax Americana by means of globalization, intent on running our bull through China’s shops, we face the prospect of seeding chaos, of turning all nations we have touched with our Corp. evangelism (sorry, Bob) into muddles of chaos, like Greece, the mother of all modern democracy. We needn’t run through the streets of Pamplona tossed from one horn of the dilemma to another wishing we;d never been born. It’s our Life, let’s resist. Real Democracy:
Other things to do as the System teeters and crumbles:
+ Watch Taylor’s film, What Is Democracy? for free at Internet Archive or Kanopy.
+ Re-read the Constitution.
+ Talk ‘revolution’ with your buds over Buffalo wings and beer, even by Zoom, and figure out what happens next. Think of your consciousness as WMD they’re looking for.