NEJ’s Managing Editor Jacob Debets shares some brief thoughts on Astra Taylor’s 2019 Book ‘Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone’ (excerpt published in NEJ, March 2020)
Astra Taylor’s book ‘Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone’ (Verso, 2019) is, at its core, an exploration of how late stage capitalism and self-rule are fundamentally incompatible. Taking her cue from Athenian democracy, with its emphasis on social equality and economic egalitarianism (“rule of the people” observed Plato and Aristotle, means “rule of the poor”), Taylor argues that contemporary liberal “democracies” like the United States, defined by grotesque wealth inequality, gerrymandered elections and profoundly un-democratic structures within schools, workplaces and the wider economy, have radically abandoned the philosophy.
With a lens that is constantly expanding and contracting, Taylor offers both a sobering account of the past and a grim forecast for the future. Contrasting the democratic ideals of ancient Athens and the early United States with their legacies of slavery and colonialism, Taylor posits that democracy has not yet manifested in a form free from self-defeating inconsistencies or arbitrary exclusions. And yet in its current form, with its fetishization of market freedom at the expense of economic and political equality, Taylor suggests that the West is, in many ways, embracing an even more artificial and hollow iteration that its predecessors did – pointing to the “fossil fuel guzzling status quo” and the superior rights of transnational corporations over ordinary people as just two cases in point.
Taylor attributes this malaise in large part to the actions of conservative and neoliberal forces, who for decades -- through corporate media and right wing think tanks – have subsidised the rehabilitation of laissez fare capitalism’s image, discrediting egalitarianism as Communism-by-stealth and redefining freedom to mean “the ability to contract one’s services in the marketplace without overt coercion”. However, she devotes an equal amount of time discussing the failures of the left to articulate and defend an alternative perspective. She is critical of the historical embrace by liberal-democratic parties of diversity and inclusion (with a focus on facilitating access of women and minorities to the ranks of the plutocratic class) at the expense of equality and economic justice (which demands a redistribution of wealth and a levelling out of the class pyramid), and likewise laments the decline of long-term organizing and engagement with power structures, replaced by the largely symbolic protest culture.
Taylor’s critique of capitalism, and the inability of socialist and anarchist forces to effectively challenge neoliberal hegemony, is a constant theme, even as she grapples with other “discordant yet indivisible dualities” inherent to democracy, pontificating on the elusive balance between consensus and conflict (Chapter 2), inclusion and exclusion (Chapter 3) coercion and choice (Chapter 4), spontaneity and structure (Chapter 5), expertise and mass opinion (Chapter 6), local and global (Chapter 7), and the present and the future (Chapter 8).
She juxtaposes the failure of the Occupy movement with the victories of the civil rights movement; recounts the struggle of democratic communities to define themselves and their limits; questions the West’s cultural fixation on free choice when so much many domains of society – from consumer transactions that are subject to lengthy standard form contracts, to the relationships between employers and their workers and teachers and students – are characterised by relationships of domination and subordination; criticises “winner-takes-all” parliamentary majoritarianism and suggests we would be better served by proportionate rule; and makes a compelling case that, had the labour movement not abandoned its historical efforts to educate working class people, then the demagogues of the 21st century might have found a more discerning and less receptive audience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the breadth of subjects traversed, Taylor’s narrative consists of more thoughtful and confronting questions than it does specific answers, making for an enlightening and engrossing journey nonetheless. In her conclusion, she calls for a reimagination of self-rule along the lines of democratic-socialism, with a mandate of:
additional social and collective entitlements; an expansive commons and shared public wealth; access to dignified work and plentiful leisure; the extension of democracy into domains including workplaces and schools; a guarantee of housing free from the pressures of speculation along with political rights based on residency and participation; a demos that takes nature and nonhuman animals into account and the assurance of a habitable world for those to come.
This is surely a framework that many progressives would find agreeable, and her analysis provides some compelling ideas on how we might get there, albeit not a comprehensive roadmap.