Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone By Astra Taylor • Metropolitan Books • 2019 • 368 pages • $27
What does good coercion look like? When, in a self-governing state, is it appropriate to force someone to act against her will? In chapter four of author, activist, and filmmaker Astra Taylor’s new book on democracy, she runs directly at this question. Raised by leftists committed to “noncoercive parenting” (a practice aspiring to no threats or punishments), Taylor is fascinated by the existence of spheres where we, as a society, deem coercion to be generally acceptable (for both children and criminals), and the areas where we assume noncoercion but are nonetheless profoundly constrained. She is drawn to paradoxes, and sees coercion as a democratic paradox. Any non-consensual decision-making procedure—in any context—requires coercion, because dissenters are bound by the decisions of others. Moreover, non-consent is at the heart of rights-based democracies, since an essential premise is that there are rights—freedoms that we cannot sell or contract away. Therefore, figuring out the boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate coercion becomes an essential part of designing a democratic system.
For example, laws against jaywalking are clearly coercive; if you disobey, you risk punishment by the state. These laws were passed not by consensus (there will always be votes against jaywalking laws), nor by direct vote of those governed. According to Taylor, laws that “nudge”—a concept promoted by legal scholar Cass Sunstein—are also coercive; a representative, non-consensus-based institution decides whether we are automatically registered to vote or whether we must proactively sign up. But that coercion is not necessarily bad—it all depends on whose interests are served, and why. She rejects neat conclusions, and argues that “[t]he distinctions between incentive, persuasion, influence, manipulation, and coercion constantly blur.”
In the curious, open-minded spirit that runs throughout the book, Taylor calls on a wide range of sources to examine the puzzle of coercion and consent from different angles. She is most worried by the sphere of modern life that appears to be consensual but is in fact coerced: the sphere of contracts. Because of the absence of meaningful choice, “the powerful few look for ways to coerce the many while insisting that [they] have chosen their fate.” But what are the ideological roots of this condition?
She goes back to Hobbes, the monarchist, and then to his intellectual opponents who built an ideology of “contractarianism” that based legitimate government in consent, and argued that contracts were morally superior to the divine right of kings, as they were grounded in free choice. “[T]he idea that rational individuals had to give their consent to be ruled was shockingly radical,” she points out. She quotes Thomas Rainsborough, a militant seventeenth century colonel, and she unearths ideas from John Locke and the Levellers, a political movement from the mid-seventeenth century that demanded popular sovereignty, drawing on consent ideology. Consent ideology put the person, choosing freely, at the heart of legitimate exercises of power, replacing God as the justification for public power.
But the supremacy of consent has its own pathologies, epitomized in the anti-coercion ideology of the Austrian School, the free-market economists of the late nineteenth century who elevated the market above democratic systems by treating private contracts as the essence of free action. She explores how the language of the social contract, designed to free people from coercion, has instead led to new forms of coercion, as contract law and the fictions of consent have come to replace divine right as a means of control.
In the process, she quotes Hannah Arendt, who argues for the tyrannical power of truth, and she weighs and surveys nineteenth-century feminists like Anna Wheeler and William Thompson, who pointed out the fantasy of freedom in marriage contracts. She calls on De Tocqueville, Condorcet, and Sophocles, and she briefly chronicles moments of Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration and key episodes in the Cold War with the USSR to show the ways in which contract/consent ideology merged with consumerism in American thought.
This is just one of eight wide-ranging and unafraid chapters, in which Taylor confronts her own shibboleths and systematically complicates them. Consensus sounds like a good decision-making structure, but what are the implications? Radical inclusion sounds like the ideal, but can you have a nearly eight-billion person self-governing polity?
Her major thesis is that democracy is made up of paradoxes, and that seemingly unassailable values (freedom, inclusion, self-government) or institutions (a constitution) are all fraught with tension. Her minor thesis is that leftists who are trying to build a better world should eagerly plunge into these tensions, honor them, and when resolving them recognize the difficulty thereof. Inasmuch as she has a positive agenda, beyond the task of energetic complication, it is that power relationships are the most important aspect of any institution to understand.
Taylor traces her own political education to Occupy Wall Street. While she was political before, the realities of trying to build a functioning institution awakened her to the buried paradoxes thereof. During that time, she spent hours in meetings about self-governance and cofounded the Debt Collective, an ongoing group that advocates for mass debt cancellations, free higher education, universal health care, de-carceration, and reparations. It helps people to dispute debts and conducts campaigns and direct actions. Her experiences at Occupy are woven throughout the book, along with the stories and perspectives of people at the bottom of the current political structure
Those stories and perspectives are essential both to the book and to her theory of power: Every voice matters. She describes an interview with an Afghan asylum seeker, who attacks the idea of freedom as “freedom of killing somebody.” A Lhotshampa refugee from Bhutan bitterly mocks the Bhutanese democracy that was established after ethnic cleansing forced an exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Lhotshampas. “One hundred thousand Nepali people have been chased away. The country is not as populated as it was before. They have given democracy. But who have they given it to?” These and other voices play a powerful, grounding role. (I have not seen the film that accompanies the book, but I gather that these interviews play a larger role there.)
These two strands—her personal experience, and her interviews with those most struggling—might be expected, but what is most striking about the book is the third strand: Taylor’s reading of what used to be called the Western Canon. It reads as a passionate appeal to American leftist activists to learn American and British history and to learn from the writers who most directly influenced modern American structures. Not uncritically mind you, not as a celebration of great moments, great books, and great men, but as a way to understand where modern American intellectual structures came from, and as a way to more deeply explore modern paradoxes about the nature of self-government. Twenty-first century Americans are connected to both Hayek and Charles I, like it or not, and so we should excavate those connections, and understand them. To more effectively remove cancerous ideas, we must know where they began; to more effectively build on powerful ideas, we must clear off their roots; and to be humble and aware in the face of paradoxes and tensions, it benefits us to know that others have struggled with these tensions, and how and why they resolved them, or failed to. This is a book in which an optimistic leftist demands we recognize the importance of Plutarch, Plato, Engels, Voltaire, and John Stuart Mill, and joins the reading of these authors with her own experiences, and her own questions about the ideal shape of government. It is an argument about the autonomous power of ideas.
There is little original in Taylor’s book, and that is a virtue. She does not pretend to false novelty, does not try to create new grand theories, invent neologisms, or engage in the hand-wringing of all the “end of democracy” books. Her commitment to the seriousness of the task she gives us—giving people power—is the through-line.
She is an energetic and appealing writer and thinker. Taylor is nothing if not enthusiastic, and when we meet the Levellers, we experience her own excitement at the encounter. She celebrates the Diggers, a related seventeenth century activist group that advocated for agrarian socialism and radical cosmopolitanism, and we experience her awe. In the chapter exploring tensions between freedom and equality, she cites aspects of the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Madison. She leans on twentieth-century American theorists Jane Mansbridge and Richard Hofstadter, and uses interviews with some of the most prominent contemporary political theorists, such as Wendy Brown and Cornel West, to guide the exploration.
While class struggle is indeed her basic through-line, one would be hard pressed to find a less materialist book—it’s a sentence-by-sentence recommitment to the notion that ideas have independent power, and shape human institutions. The book stands as an implicit anti-materialist argument that concepts matter, that ideas have power, that while class struggles are essential and elements of Marx may be a touchstone, the architecture of thought is not mere cover. The radical materialist might tell you that the powerful concoct theories to mask an ongoing elemental struggle over resources. Taylor takes theory seriously, on its own terms. Ideas shape power, they do not just reflect it.
Taylor is at her strongest when all three strands—her own experience, the experience of the powerless, and the intellectual history of American thought—are combined. In a chapter on consensus decision-making, she shares with us the thrill of discovery and elation that defined Occupy’s early days, as well as the growing problems of both consensus and majoritarian rule, and then later discovers that consensus does not have the radical aesthetic that many felt that it did at Occupy.
But this scope also leads to a frequent feeling of vertigo. If it sounds scattered, it is. If one reads it as one might sit through a dazzling evening of drinking scotch with an autodidact, with strange and wonderful tidbits and insights, it satisfies; demand comprehensiveness, and it disappoints.
In one chapter we get an argument for the reasonableness of bees (who apparently are better and more rational collective decision-makers than humans) followed by interviews with students outside Professor Wendy Brown’s class, followed by a passage on ordoliberals, a neoliberal movement that prefers technocracy to democracy, a quote from Jonathan Swift, and a mild chastisement of Socrates for having trained oligarchic thinkers. Quoting from the Mises Institute website to explain Ludwig Von Mises—when the Mises Institute was founded 9 years after Mises’s death, and has been criticized for its distortion of his views—just seems sloppy, and inasmuch as the book celebrates real investigations, settling for the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes contradicts its strongest argument.
But more often than not, tying together the loose strands is thought-provoking in the best sense, and encourages more reading and deeper thinking rather than less and shallower. There are episodic moments of real delight. We learn, for instance, that the word “idiot” derives from the Greek idiotes, and it originally meant someone who does not participate in politics. There are also episodic moments of head-scratching: “It’s worth noting that Plato’s notorious elitism is conflicted,” she writes, “for the very style in which his texts are written, in dialogues that portray all characters as capable of reflection, as an inherently democratic form.” Hmm. The same argument would turn Hobbes into a small d-democrat. But I digress.
As simply an investigation into “what is democracy,” the book, in other words, falls short. Sometimes, Taylor writes that democracy exists and “demands” things (such as wrestling with difficult concepts). Other times, democracy has never existed. Still other times, it is in decline. She begins with an elegant discussion of how opposition to democracy has a clarity that support for democracy never can, because democracy is the promise of people governing themselves. But more often the word “democracy,” instead, becomes a clumsy boulder that gets in the way of her far more interesting discussions.
There is one strain in American culture that rejects learning about history, context, and ideology as a matter of principle, an attraction to elevating learning that comes entirely from personal experience, a freak offspring of misunderstood radical empiricism, salted with a heavy dose of anti-intellectualism. In this realm, personal experience is not only source of authority, but sole source of authority. At the extreme, this disconnection from our own roots leads to, in William Carlos Williams’s words, “no one to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car.” Donald Trump has taken this to new heights—history does not exist, words are speech acts disconnected from meaning, and if feelings and personal experience change, facts do, too.
A chilling on-camera representation of this strain of radical anti-learning appeared early on in the 2010 documentary directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. It follows the lives of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, whose platoon is supposed to gain the trust of the local population and clear the valley of insurgents. The company commander is a likeable, friendly, genial man. Against a green screen backdrop, he candidly explains that, before deployment, he read nothing about the valley or its people or the history or geography: no books, no reports, called nobody, studied nothing, because he wanted to arrive “with an open mind.” But openness is blankness, instead of curiosity. It does not give away too much to say that the platoon tragically fails in its missions.
Astra Taylor represents the opposite, equally American strain: irrepressible curiosity, an unabashed willingness to ask anyone anything, from strangers on the street to herself, to Rousseau to Arendt to Wendy Brown. Confronted with seemingly intractable puzzles of democracy, she takes on the questions with a Harriet-the-Spy kind of gusto.
Her creed-in-essence is best summed up in her final chapter, a meditation on climate, time, and responsibility. “Every person,” she writes, “whether or not they have children, exists as both a successor and an ancestor. We are all born into a world we did not make, subject to customs and conditions established by prior generations, and then we leave a legacy for others to inherit.” She adds, “The paradox is that to reach this accessible future, to figure out how to balance the needs and desires of those who live now with those yet to come, we need to tap the wisdom of the past without getting trapped by it.”
The word radical means “of or going to the root or origin.” In this sense, Taylor is a double radical, and you’ll relish joining her on her radical journey. It is a joy to read someone who is so committed to the past and the future and is capable of celebrating the former while building the latter, with both seriousness and respect. I, too, spent months of my life at Occupy Wall Street, and found the activists divided between the critics and the builders; those whose goal was the revolution, and those whose goal was what came after. Taylor is solidly in the latter camp: She is interested in paradoxes—not to tear down the possibility of democracy, but to explore honestly what is possible and worthwhile, to honor what is difficult, and to engage others in building.