What do we mean when we say democracy?

January 24, 2019

Christopher James reviews a new film that takes a fresh look at an old concept.

ACTIVIST FILMMAKER Astra Taylor’s new documentary What Is Democracy? isn’t exactly a film about the nature of democracy. Rather, it’s a film about what the nature of democracy is understood to be.

Two historical framing devices make this angle perfectly clear. The film opens with a quotation from Plato’s Republic, quickly followed by a rumination on a kind of proto-capitalist democracy by Italian autonomist Marxist scholar Silvia Federici.

Without a doubt, Federici’s segments of the film are among the most compelling and act as a scaffolding for a central theme that recurs throughout: the tension between the promise of capitalist democracy, a government of the people, and the reality of democracy only for the rich.

The other framing device, Plato’s Republic, builds in the second theoretical tension: the question of if, in the end, democracy is even possible or if society should be run by latter-day philosopher kings.

People flood into the square outside Greece's parliament to celebrate the "no" victory
People flood into the square outside Greece's parliament to celebrate the "no" victory

In the first moments of the film, Astra Taylor, who appears in the film as herself, states her view of democracy: that it doesn’t seem to be something that’s ever actualized, but is an idea worth striving for, especially when it seems so under threat today. Federici uses the phrase “the power of the people” and argues that when so many people have fought for so long for democracy, it remains an idea worth defending.

These are some pretty compelling ideas, certainly enough to build a film upon. And yet, the particular way that the question is posed also sets up the film to run into some problems.

There’s never any tension around the film’s central question for the simple reason that the filmmaker has already stated her own answer at the start. This general philosophical orientation is never seriously challenged during the film and is simply affirmed scene to scene.

That said, the film threads in tantalizing hints at a possible arc of definitions of democracy. We begin with ancient Athenian democracy and its famous challenge in Plato’s Republic. Then we move to enlightenment ideas on democracy through the lens of Rousseau, a thinker who is explored at length by postmodern political theorist Wendy Brown.

Finally, we move on to Karl Marx and his ideas of working-class democracy, a logical theoretical endpoint for a film that ostensibly wants to make the case for a “democracy from below.”

Perhaps it’s unfair for me to hope that when a collection of Marx’s writing is displayed on screen, what follows would be an exploration of proletarian democracy and socialist movements for democracy in and beyond capitalism.

Instead, we get Brown’s reading of Marx inflected through a highly localist conception of direct democracy that somehow leaves out any discussion of class or revolution, and instead comes off as an argument against a Marxist case for internationalism (a case which is itself conspicuously absent from the film).

WHAT IS Democracy? is a film of impressive scope, and the filmmakers should be applauded for avoiding uninteresting didacticism — a perennial problem with activist documentaries — and instead leaning on interviews with activists, artists, academics, refugees, school kids and others who take their own stabs at answering the question posed in the title.

The film is most successful when it sits down with people who experience particular forms of oppression under capitalism to ask them what they think about democracy. Taylor asks a group of Black school kids in Miami if they think they have any democracy at school.

They reply by talking about how they have to follow rules made up by people who are bigger than them and bigger than the school, and they can’t say anything to defend themselves.

Their discussion is among the most wide-ranging in the film, connecting the lack of democracy at school to what they know from their parents about the lack of democracy at work. They are invited to think about what a democratic school might look like.

The most powerful moments in the film are shot in Greece. Once the home of Athenian democracy, we are reminded, Greece is now the poster child for the subordination of democracy to international financial capital.

It’s hard to imagine a better subject for a film about democracy. Setting much of the film in Greece allows the film to fully expose the empty promise of capitalist democracy.

Against a backdrop of shuttered shops and ubiquitous graffiti that calls out the crimes of finance capital, Taylor interviews former social democratic Prime Minister George Papandreou, who is frank about the limits of democracy in a small, indebted country like Greece.

His implementation of austerity measures to satisfy international creditors is largely credited with dooming the traditional party of Greek social democracy, PASOK. Taylor takes us through the “movement of the squares” that swept across Greece in response to the first round of austerity, culminating in the rise of the broad left party SYRIZA, and the democratic high point of the referendum on the proposed bailout.

Of course, we know how this ends. The “no” vote wins, but only eight days later, under pressure from the eurozone, SYRIZA’s leadership reverses course and implements austerity anyway.

Political compromise with the ideologues of austerity was impossible, and the political will to leave the eurozone and challenge the power of Greek capital head on didn’t exist (at least not from SYRIZA’s leadership).

Taylor spends much of the film examining the aftermath, and how ordinary people, Greeks and refugees alike, now have to live or leave the country. Some of the most affecting scenes in the movie concern the conflicted feelings toward democracy expressed by refugees trapped by the European Union in its poorest country.

A medical clinic run by volunteers out of work provides medicine for people who cannot afford it. We are invited to see this as an instance of direct local democracy, simply doing what has to be done, and doing it without any hierarchies.

Other moments in the film provide examples of what small-scale local democracy might be. Guatemalan refugees who run a worker-owned sewing co-op in North Carolina talk about their experience running a workplace together, as well as their experience as immigrants in Trump’s America.

THERE ARE some moving moments here, but really, these experiments in democracy appear to be mainly elaborations of the film’s basic politics.

Taylor is known for her work during and after the Occupy movement, and much of that sensibility comes through on screen. Local experiments in self-management and mass movements for democracy (most poignantly, the SYRIZA experience in Greece) are emphasized to show the possibility for an alternate kind of democracy.

A Marxist might read these scenes as hints of the possibility of a future socialist democracy. An anarchist might read them as the kind of communities that need to be built and expanded upon in the here and now as a form of resistance to dominant social hierarchies. I tend to think the film wants us to infer the latter.

Ultimately, the film’s main political limitation is its philosophical idealism. It is uninterested in history except insofar as it allows the film to raise abstract questions about the idea of democracy. It also doesn’t provide an analysis that might allow us to conclude that a fundamental transformation of society to allow for full democracy is possible.

In short, although it’s tinged with a Marxist flavor, and it certainly has one or two Marxists in it making Marxist arguments, the film itself is not concerned with a Marxist critique of capitalism. Rather, it makes an anti-capitalist argument on basically moral grounds: the disparity between the promise of capitalist democracy and the reality.

With regard to that one central argument, the film is quite effective. Even as I disagree with some of the film’s politics, I found myself compelled and moved by its posing of the question. It’s unlikely to satisfy most organized socialists, but maybe that’s all it needed to be.

The phrase “democracy from below” is a paraphrase of the final moments of the film. In context, it comes off as a conclusion to an argument that was not fully made. And yet it’s not a bad place to begin a conversation about what that might actually mean.

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