From Athens to North Carolina, Filmmaker Astra Taylor Asks: “What Is Democracy?”

In “What Is Democracy?,” filmmaker Astra Taylor asks how the struggles of the living can illuminate political theory’s most basic questions.

Scholar Silvia Federici, left, and Astra Taylor discuss “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” a series of frescoes which is on display in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy, in a scene from “What Is Democracy?” Still: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Plato believed that a city ruled by the rich could not last. The rich would rule according to their interest in enlarging their wealth, impoverishing everyone else in the process. The poor would not tolerate their raw deal, and they would revolt.

Something like this happened in the city where I grew up. In 2014, a group of leading economists released a report showing that Charlotte, North Carolina, ranked dead last among major U.S. cities when it came to the upward mobility of its poorest residents. Two years later, there was an uprising — hundreds of people flooded the streets, including the city’s main freeway, in protest. The catalyst was the fatal police shooting of the black motorist Keith Scott, but the underlying reasons were decades of segregation, deprivation, and immiseration inscribed into the very architecture of city governance.

If the link to Plato seems trite, it might be because we are not asking the right question. It’s not so much whether dead philosophers have something to teach us about contemporary politics. The question is rather how the struggles of the living can illuminate political theory’s most basic questions.

In “What Is Democracy?,” the philosophical is judged against the everyday — and the two harmonize in surprising ways.

The new film “What Is Democracy?,” directed by Astra Taylor, appears in its opening moments to be taking the former approach: The title fades in dramatically over a beautiful Athenian vista, and we soon find ourselves listening in on a group of philosophers discussing the Republic over a picnic among the ruins of Plato’s academy. As the scene shifts, though, from ancient Athens to more contemporary locales (including Charlotte in the wake of its uprising) — and the cast shifts from academics to workers, activists, and refugees — it quickly becomes clear that the present will not be cited simply to confirm dead philosophers’ ideas about the way things are. Instead, Taylor asks people who are living today to refine and improve those ideas.

As both an organizer involved in day-to-day campaigns for economic justice and a filmmaker who uses the medium to explore more metaphysical questions, Taylor is well-positioned to keep philosophy grounded in the world as it is. (Disclosure: In 2018, Taylor participated in an Intercept podcast pilot with Naomi Klein and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.) Her previous film, “Examined Life” (2008), features leading philosophers explaining the applicability of their thinking against worldly backdrops: Judith Butler walks through San Francisco’s gentrifying Mission District; Cornel West rides through Manhattan in Taylor’s Volvo; and Slavoj Zizek digs through a London garbage dump.

The tagline for “Examined Life” — “philosophy is in the streets” — could just as easily belong to “What Is Democracy?,” which premieres Wednesday. But this time, Taylor poses the titular question not just to famous thinkers, but to all manner of democratic subjects: activists, former politicians, college Republicans, Syrian refugees, an immigrant workers’ cooperative, black schoolchildren, and Miami beachgoers, among others.

“I tried to approach everyone I met as if they were theorists,” Taylor recently wrote. The philosophical is judged against the everyday — and the two harmonize in surprising ways.

For a film with such a cerebral premise, “What Is Democracy?” often seems preoccupied with the human condition on a bodily level. Even the academic opening casts the so-called crisis of democracy in bodily terms. “What we’re faced with,” the philosopher Eleni Perdikouri proposes, “is the need to re-member this dismembered society.” (The film then cuts to a Trump rally in North Carolina.)

“What we’re faced with is the need to re-member this dismembered society.”

This emphasis on the bodily is present in the filmmaking itself: The handheld cinematography produces a kind of parallel conversation with the gestures of the subjects, embodying the Socratic dialogue that Taylor is carrying out with them. The most engaging scene takes place in a Miami barbershop, as a barber relays his reflections on his nine years in prison while giving a remarkably patient customer a full shave and haircut. The easy, silent intimacy and trust between the barber and customer stands in stark contrast with the description of prison’s abject cruelties, in which the body is no longer one’s own.

During a question-and-answer session accompanying an advance screening, Taylor said she was surprised by just how often personal safety and security came up when she asked people about democracy, by just how physical even this loftiest of concepts could seem to the average democratic subject. The tension between freedom and bodily security is a famous problem of political philosophy, but it’s not clear from Taylor’s exploration that the two are actually in conflict.

Her roundtable with a group of Miami schoolchildren, for example, gets off to a slow start. The children are asked what they think of democracy, and they initially look mystified. (Those of us who have been trapped in a typical U.S. classroom can easily imagine why.) Then the conversation turns to school lunch. The students passionately, articulately denounce the tyrannical way that access to hot food is curtailed by school authorities, and formerly blank faces become animated by looks and gestures of recognition and assent. Democracy appears suddenly as an impromptu exercise in mutual understanding and care.


The political theorist Wendy Brown in “What Is Democracy?”

Still: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Midway through “What Is Democracy?,” the political theorist Wendy Brown identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the modern philosopher who departed most starkly from the individualist views held by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, who famously prioritized bodily security above all else. Rousseau believed that humans could transcend their individual needs and flourish through the kind of collective self-determination that we now identify with successful democratic movements.

Yet Rousseau believed that this flourishing did not come naturally. Too many aspects of modern life cut against the inclination to think and act in a collective manner, encouraging us instead to think of ourselves as atomized individuals. Thus, a paradox: Only a people with a democratic orientation can produce a democracy, but a democratic orientation can only come about from genuine experience with democracy. “How do you make democracy out of an undemocratic people?” Brown asks. “That’s our problem today.”

The audience may not step out of “What Is Democracy?” with a pat answer to its title question, but the film does give us some insight into Rousseau’s paradox. After watching Taylor’s careful Socratic engagement with her diverse array of interlocutors, it’s hard to feel like there’s a paradox at all. She may find a dearth of democratic institutions and support for her many subjects — the formerly incarcerated, children from poor families, refugees — but she does not find a want of democratic culture.

In almost every conversation, an insistent civic mindedness and recognition of some larger, inclusive group of diverse people — what might be called the social body — eventually comes to the fore. If these aren’t the seeds of democratic culture, then I don’t know what is. In Taylor’s hands, bringing out this culture is a matter of giving people the time, space, and comfort they need to feel recognized. And, finally, a matter of asking the right questions.

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