What is Democracy?
Directed by Astra Taylor
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.
In this engaging and thought-provoking companion to her acclaimed documentary “What Is Democracy?”, filmmaker and author Astra Taylor offers an engaging introduction to foundational concepts in politics and philosophy. Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone demonstrates that real democracy — fully inclusive and completely egalitarian — has always been elusive. Weaving together history, theory, the stories of individuals, and interviews with leading intellectuals, Taylor invites us to reexamine the term. Is democracy a means or an end, a process or a set of desired outcomes? What if those outcomes, whatever they may be — peace, prosperity, equality, liberty, an engaged citizenry — can be achieved by non-democratic means?? In what areas of life should democratic principles apply? If democracy means rule by the people, what does it mean to rule and who counts as the people? Democracy’s inherent paradoxes often go unnamed and unrecognized. Exploring such questions, Democracy May Not Exist offers a better understanding of what is possible, why democracy is so hard to realize, and why it remains worth striving for.
"We live in an age that demands that we rethink democracy from the roots — and teach ourselves to think again as citizens. Smart and engaging, Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist makes a formidable contribution to meeting those pressing generational challenges." —Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
"What is this thing called Democracy? Google the question and you will exceed one million hits. But for an honest and illuminating answer, read this book — every single word. Searching, lucid, visionary, Astra Taylor takes a deep oceanic dive into the history, meaning, uses, and promise of democracy — moving from Plato’s Greece to Syriza’s Greece, from the Global South to post-Communist East, from slavery to fascism, liberalism to neoliberalism, Occupy to the Commons. She knows what most political scientists don’t: that democracy is a promise unfulfilled, and in our strivings to achieve it nothing is guaranteed. But we can’t live without it." — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
"Astra Taylor is a rare public intellectual, utterly committed to asking humanity’s most profound questions yet entirely devoid of pretensions and compulsively readable. Now she plunges deep into the crisis that underlies so many others: the sorry state (and the exhilarating promise) of this thing called democracy. At once richly historical and immediately relevant, this wise, lucid and unflinchingly honest book deserves to be at the center of public debate." — Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough