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The old Churchillian adage is that, for all its flaws, democracy is the least worst system of government. Philosopher, film-maker and activist Astra Taylor takes a more critical view in this fascinating essay, meticulously building an argument that most western countries are being run by a really bad form of democracy. Another kind of more direct democracy is possible if we can be bothered to strive for it. But there’s a catch – that would require the complete collapse of oligarch-led global capitalism. That awkward conclusion makes this documentary a deliberate challenge to complacency – and, as a result, it’s a great watch.
Taylor travels the world meeting thinkers and activists who are troubled by the way democracy operates in their societies. She returns periodically to two main pillars of the film – group discussions at the original sites of democracy in Athens, and a large, rather strange Italian mural depicting how democracy works explained to us by Marxist scholar Silvia Federici.
This could become very dry, but Taylor smartly encourages passionate and frequently funny responses from her contributors, prodding them to riff on their discontent with our lack of power. Federici is particularly good in her mural analysis, pointing out that from the early days of European democracy, it was understood that some win under it but many lose, especially protesters dissatisfied with decisions supposedly made in their name.
Cornel West is also great value in the film, the first to mention a much-repeated concern that modern democracy excludes most people, relying on a brute majority at occasional elections but also a very small elite of representatives claiming to speak for that majority. Nothing ever changes unless either another large group rise up to complain or, more likely, a small elite do something out of the goodness – or evil – of their hearts.
Most of us don’t do anything to influence democratic decision-making and when some people do, such as the Greek anti-austerity protesters of earlier in the decade, their leadership elite just ignore them. So what’s the point in believing in democracy?
If this sounds all obvious, perhaps it is, but Taylor’s masterstroke is to ask us why we still accept it. She confronts us with our pathetic condition, and refuses to offer an easy solution, because we need to work it out together. We see groups organising themselves on a local level – for example, dispensing medicines to those who can’t afford them – in defiance of central government.
These community initiatives seem sad and limited, and the people running them exhausted, but at least they’re doing something rather than just talking about it. This is the fascinating tension that builds in the film between the people who pontificate on the details of democracy and the people who try to make it work. Less talk and more action might make a difference, and that includes doing more than just making or watching a documentary.
In one brilliant sequence, a Greek expert in ancient democracy takes us to the agora where the earliest form of cross-society collaboration was established. She divides the earth beneath her into multiple sections and moves small stones between the sections, telling us that back then democracy involved making people work with other people who weren’t like them. The aristocracy were forced to collaborate with the artisans because, if they didn’t find common ground, nothing would get done. It wasn’t about electing a distant MP every five years, and it wasn’t about sticking to your social bubble. It was about making active choices together. By the end of the film, it’s clear that a more satisfying form of democracy would be something like this.
But this isn’t the kind of democracy we have, and Taylor’s documentary might be too utopian for some viewers and too depressing for others, despite the accuracy of its historical and political analysis. It’s a handy detailed guide to why our democracy has produced Trump and Brexit, but simply knowing that doesn’t make it any better. Anyway, by the end of the film’s winding global journey, it is suggesting that it’s not Trump or Brexit we should be wondering about; it’s global finance that makes us all powerless. We can’t vote out FTSE 100 CEOs or bankers. We can think about what we can do closer to home to create an alternative power base, but it’s not going to be an equal power any time soon.
This isn’t a happy ending, but it’s not that kind of documentary, and as such it might annoy Marxists as much as sneering rightwingers. An extended and good-looking essay, it serves as a sharp reminder to pay attention to politics and to remember that the personal and the local are political. If you like thinking about that sort of thing, and you care about whether your democracy means anything, this film might make you get up and take some action. If the ancient Greeks could create a whole new system out of nothing but their imagination, why can’t we?
Source: The Guardian
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