Coming at a moment of profound political and social crisis, What Is Democracy? reflects on a word we too often take for granted.
Director Astra Taylor’s idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spans millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.
Featuring a diverse cast—including celebrated theorists, trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, and former prime ministers—this urgent film connects the past and the present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, in order to provoke and inspire. If we want to live in democracy, we must first ask what the word even means.
Coming at a moment of profound political and social crisis, What Is Democracy? reflects on a word we too often take for granted. What does it mean for the people to rule—and is that something we even want?
Director Astra Taylor’s idiosyncratic, philosophical journey takes us from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.
Celebrated theorists Silvia Federici, Cornel West, Wendy Brown, and Angela Davis are joined by trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, former prime ministers, and others. This diverse cast confronts vital questions: Who gets to participate in democracy? What is freedom? Can democracy even exist in an era of concentrated wealth? How can the people reclaim the power that is supposed to be theirs?
While touching on some of the most urgent issues of our day—inequality, xenophobia, education, globalization—director Astra Taylor reminds us that our challenges are not exactly new. We may think we are on the cutting edge, charting an unprecedented course, but age-old debates resurface and figures like Plato and Rousseau remain shockingly relevant to our current predicaments.
Democracy is a precious experiment, its promise still unfulfilled. But history also shows conceptual breakthroughs and collective action can produce real change. This vital film connects the past and the present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, in order to provoke critical dialogue about our future.
Instead of providing easy answers, What Is Democracy? reminds us that wrestling with ideas is central to the ongoing struggle to rule ourselves. If we want to live in democracy, we must first ask what the word even means.
Featuring a diverse cast—including celebrated philosophers, trauma surgeons, factory workers, refugees, and politicians—What Is Democracy? connects past and present, emotion and the intellect, the personal and the political, to provoke and inspire. If we want to live in democracy, we must first ask what the word even means.
What Is Democracy? has a question for a title because I undertook it in the spirit of genuine inquiry. A word we say and hear all the time but rarely reflect on, democracy is both an ideal and a reality, a rousing aspiration and a devastating disappointment. Broken down to its ancient Greek origins, democracy means the people (demos) have power (cratia). But who are the people, especially in this moment of increasing hostility and division? And what about the fact that, as wealth and influence concentrate, the people are not very powerful at all?
While there’s currently a broad consensus that we are living in a moment of profound political crisis, and that democracy is faltering globally, I began working on the film’s proposal before the now-pervasive sense of emergency set in. While my 2014 book, The People’s Platform, asks what a more democratic Internet might look like, what really launched me on the course of making this film was becoming a more committed activist. Like countless others, I was swept up in the 2011 wave of social movements—people around the world occupied public streets and squares and called for “real democracy.” But after a few years devoted to economic-justice organizing, I wanted to step back and take stock. What, I wondered, did that word “democracy” actually mean?
The result is an admittedly idiosyncratic inquiry into what democracy has been and might still become. My film does not attempt to provide a straightforward answer or a ten-point plan. Nor is it a chronological account of democracy’s development, or a shocking exposé of democracy’s many failings. And even though it has a very strong political point of view and moral core, it doesn’t tell people what to think. Instead I wanted to approach the topic of democracy philosophically, aiming less to persuade than to prod and unsettle. By opening space for people from all walks of life to speak, it turns the titular query back on the audience.
In pursuit of its elusive subject, the movie covers a wide territory and a vast time horizon, examining self-government’s origins in ancient Athens and capitalism’s roots in pre-Renaissance Italy. An extended conversation I had with the socialist-feminist scholar Silvia Federici threads through the film. We puzzle over a mysterious mural called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, the first secular fresco, which hangs in the public building in Siena, Italy. The painting is rich in symbolism, but Siena itself is also symbolic. It is one of the centres where banking as we know it first developed. The growing power of finance, and inequality more broadly, are some of the film’s recurring and foundational themes.
When investigating modern-day dilemmas, I focused on the United States and Greece. I chose these two countries because they are widely regarded as both historical cradles and contemporary beacons of democracy. Reality, of course, is more complex.
They also provided perfect forums for exploring ideas expressed in Plato’s Republic, the founding text of political philosophy and a text the film features prominently. Over 2,500 years after it was written, the Republic’s warning about the destructive divide between rich and poor remains as prescient as ever: both the United States and Greece have been beset by economic instability and recently elected leaders that Plato would have probably described as demagogues. Instead of getting lost in specifics, I present such stories as parables. My goal was to tease out the universal resonance of each particular place and person, and by doing so, to evoke timeless democratic challenges and paradoxes. Is democracy a means or an end? Can self-government ever live up to its promise of universal inclusion? Do we even want to rule ourselves? Are capitalism and democracy at odds? The numerous conflicts and contradictions presented may also serve as warnings for others to heed.
More than anything else, What Is Democracy? is an invitation to think. We live in overwhelming, confounding times and are bombarded by information and bad news. My hope is that this film opens a contemplative space, allowing the viewer to consider the challenge of ruling ourselves from a variety of angles. I took a digressive, prismatic approach, allowing each subject and scene to add a new perspective and way of understanding. A feature-length film seemed like the right medium to link the personal and the political, the subjective and the structural, and to represent the polyphony of voices any ostensibly democratic project demands.
Astra Taylor, September 2018