Cover Image: Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone

Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone

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DEMOCRACY MAY NOT EXIST, BUT WE'LL MISS IT WHEN IT'S GONE is by Astra Taylor, an activist and award-winning author.  Taylor challenges her readers to consider this book as "an invitation to think about the word democracy from various angles, looking back through history and reflecting on the philosophy and practice of self-rule in hopes that a more contemplative view will shed useful light on our present predicament." As a result, the text is frankly not an easy read, but it is an important one. She notes "while parts of the population have retreated to nationalism and xenophobia, they are outnumbered (though not out-funded or out-organized) by people who understand that acute inequality, global migration, and climate change demand a visionary response, not a nostalgic turn to the past." Taylor's basic argument is that "headlines tell us that democracy is 'in crisis,' we don't have a clear conception of what it is that is at risk." Similar ideas are explored in her documentary, What is Democracy?.  Taylor describes crafting DEMOCRACY MAY NOT EXIST, BUT WE'LL MISS IT WHEN IT'S GONE so as to place "the insights of school children, doctors, former prisoners, workers and refugees alongside the likes of Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and DuBois partly to underscore people's tremendous and mostly untapped capacity for reflection."  As such, the text appears to be one that our Social Studies classes (especially Civics, World History, AP US History and AP Euro) could use to further explore and discuss the contradictions and tensions which she outlines.  As Publishers Weekly said in its review, "This unusual and challenging work is worth the effort."
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Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone is one of those books you might want to get in its physical form so you can shove it full of bookmarks, highlight sentences, write notes, stick little sticky arrows to note something special, and generally leave it in unfit condition for anyone but you, but that will be okay because you will be going back to it again and again whenever you want to argue about something. Yes, it’s that good.

Astra Taylor does the difficult job examining democracy, something we talk about a lot without ever completely understanding its full implications. To do this, she examines eight tensions that pull democracies in different directions and are critical to balance or at least understand when understanding democracy. These tensions are interrogated in separate chapters, looking at history, research, and political experience that impinge on them. The vast research involved in these explorations is astonishing.

In the first chapter she examines the tension between freedom and equality and notes that once upon a time we thought they went hand in hand, but that they have become oppositional thanks to political movements that serve the powerful who define freedom in terms of making money and avoidance of regulation rather than freedom from want, hunger, or fear. Equality has become, to American eyes, the enemy of freedom. The second chapter looks at decision-making, the tension of conflict and consensus. This includes the understanding of loyal opposition, something that seems to be lost with a president who calls his political opponents traitors. I appreciated her taking on how consensus can become anti-democratic and stultifying.

The third chapter looks at the tension of inclusion and exclusion, who is the demos, to whom is the democracy accountable. In the fourth, the balance between choice and coercion is explored. Pro-corporate theorists talk about government coercion and attacks on liberty when they are not allowed to poison our drinking water and make government the enemy of the people. She also explores how we seem to think freedom is the be all, end all except at work. Chapter Five looks at spontaneity versus structure. This has an important analysis of organizing versus activism and how the focus on youth movements has weakened social justice movements overall as the energy dissipates after college without the labor and community organizations to foster movement energy. Chapter Six explores the balance between mass opinion and expertise and how meritocracy works against democracy. This chapter looks at how education functions to keep the powerful powerful from generation to generation, “the paradoxical, deeply contradictory role of education under capitalism , which facilitates the ascension of some while preparing a great many more for lowly positions of servitude.”

Chapter Seven looks at the geography of democracy, not just in terms of federalism and the federal, state, and local levels of participating in democracy but also the supranational entities like the World Trade Organization and how they undercut democracy and the integrity of the state. Chapter Eight considers what we inherit from the past, the traditions and norms of democracy and what we owe the future, including our obligations to pass on a livable planet.

Needless to say, this is all very discouraging in its totality, but the final chapter encourages us to balance pessimism with optimism just as democracy must balance all those other tensions.



It took me forever to read Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. That is because after I read a chapter I needed to think about it before I moved on to the next. I took sixteen pages of notes while reading it. I hate taking notes, but I did not want to lose the ideas.

This is also a book you might want to read with some other people, perhaps discussing a chapter at a time. I do not think it is a book you can read passively, without stopping to talk to someone, tweet, or reread. It’s that good.

That does not mean I agree with every word of the book, but then the author does an excellent job of interrogating her own ideas. She might seem to be asserting an opinion, and then offer a counter-example because she is rigorous like that. She perhaps places too much faith in Marxist theory from time to time, but then that may be because like democracy, it has never really existed except in conceptual form.

Taylor does not offer a simple answer because there are no simple answers. She does not pretend to know how to, or even if we can, fix democracy. She gives us the questions, the problems, and some ideas, but as someone who truly believes in government by the people, she asks us to take up the challenge.

I received an e-galley of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone from the publisher through NetGalley.
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Oh, yes. I wish the world didn't need this book so acutely right now, but it does. I love her writing and thinking so much that I added her last book to my TBR list immediately. This isn't an easy read--it's longer than a tweet and requires a bit of concentration--but it's a worthy read. I'm going to be talking about this and recommending this one for a long time.
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Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone from Astra Taylor is a sweeping assessment of what democracy is, was, and could still be. Additionally, she does not make the mistake many writers, and reviewers, make of thinking that discussions about aspects of a democracy other than elections and legislation are in some way not also about democracy.

Michel Foucault famously advocated for a distinction between doing work as an public intellectual and in doing work as an activist or one advocating for specific change. In Foucault's own work he was criticized often for not being prescriptive enough in his major works, yet by presenting sweeping analyses he offered information for use by those who may have been turned off by whatever prescriptions he might have offered. His activist work he kept separate from his research. The two can, and should, reside within the same person, but not within the same work. This is a work that presents the idea of and issues with democracy. It is not, as one reviewer actually complains about, prescriptive. The problem with being prescriptive, which many minds must have, they need to be told what to do rather than think a problem through, is that once a book makes that stand, the ideas are often ignored or only associated with that particular suggestion for action. By doing as Taylor does, her ideas can be read, pondered, and synthesized with other ideas by many people and not, when her work is cited, be accused of following what Taylor might have suggested. Inquiring (sorry, I prefer 'in' to 'en') minds want to know, as in learn, not be told what they should do.

Sorry, but even the idea of Burning Man as an ideal, or close to it, democracy, is asinine. The most recent incarnations have become as commercialized and hierarchical as any other such event. Maybe the first couple times I went I had a feeling of people living and working together, but not the last few. But whatever, that would be a miserable example even if the comment were true.

Democracy is so much more than electoral politics or simply one person one vote. The various areas she covers, different struggles for rights as well as important structures within society that make for a functioning society, are all part of a real discussion of democracy. It is in understanding the role of democracy, or lack thereof, in this areas that might get people to begin to seriously consider changes in the more simple understanding of democracy, electoral and legislative politics. Just complaining about electoral politics will only ever appeal to whoever is out of power at the time.

This is a wonderful book I would recommend to anyone interested in understanding democracy in all of its guises. It is broad in scope but should not be a reader's only foray into learning about democracy, there are no good Cliff's Notes to what democracy is and what it is not. But Taylor's book goes a long way into making the discussion about ideas and not about us versus them.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone is a romp through the thought processes of Astra Taylor. I found it less disciplined than her previous The People’s Platform, and it doesn’t take a position, much less propose a course of action. It is nonetheless a well written, engaging and nearly comprehensive look at what we like to call democracy. She has watched the failure of democracy in modern Greece and America, first hand. And she has given great thought as to how it all falls together. The result is a compelling overview of a misunderstood practice.


Democracy, as we now employ it, is nothing like democracy as the Ancient Greeks invented it. To Americans, democracy means freedom and nothing else, she says. And freedom means the right to be left alone, and nothing else. 


But democracy is not about independence; it is about interdependence. Taylor points out how the Greeks lived it, and how various societies throughout history either adapted it or invented it for themselves. It meant governing as an obligation, not a career. It meant serving, not getting rich and staying in power to milk it. It meant co-operation, not isolation. And it did not mean constant, lying, cheating elections.


In the USA, democracy is a shadow of what even the founders envisioned. She quotes John Adams, who along with James Madison, did everything he could to prevent political parties from soiling their American invention:  “The division of the republic into two great parties, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitutions.” 


American political parties are private organizations, not government bodies, yet they get to hold government-run electoral primaries and their candidates are automatically entered on election ballots. Independents and third parties have to navigate a thicket of bureaucratic entanglements and outsized expenses to make it onto a ballot. The fix is in, and parties have entrenched themselves, not to the benefit of democracy.


One of the solutions she touches on is proportional representation, desperately needed in North America. Those who do not vote for the winning party have no representation, even though up to 49% voted in their favor. But proportional distribution of seats can’t function effectively when there are only two parties on the ballot, and that is the case in the USA. Canada could still do it, but the party in power never seems to want to, for some reason.


On elections, she does give the excellent example of a black college in North Carolina that has been split in two for voting purposes. This gerrymandering helps ensure the black vote, the student vote and the millennial vote will have minimal impact on results, and the elected representatives will remain white male Republicans. It proves the point that elections should not be a democratic ideal. Party politics is not democracy. 


Democracy May Not Exist bleeds out in all directions, way beyond its scope. There are top line surveys of child rearing, marriage, women's rights, property tights, animal rights, ecological rights, school rules, climate change, Occupy Wall Street, and much else that takes attention away from the issue of whether democracy even exists. 


On the other hand, Taylor gives loving attention to co-operative companies and how worker satisfaction can rise sky-high when workers are respected. She dwells on the Six Nation (Haudenosaunee) pact that laid out both rights and responsibilities for native North Americans, giving themselves a far truer democracy than the whites did in their constitution 40 years later. The whites, like Benjamin Franklin, took notes and credited the natives for their influence in the US constitution. But electeds clearly had no respect for the natives, placing cash bounties on their scalps rather than copying their democratic solution.


There are other examples of truer democracies Taylor did not examine, like Burning Man in Nevada, where everyone is equal, no one is paid to rule, and everyone takes pride in their privilege and their legacy. It is still possible for Americans to participate in genuine democracy. Given the chance.


There is too much blue-sky talk of equality and democracy in the book. Democracy was never about equality; it was about service. In America, it was simply about white supremacy. She touches on this from time to time, but never focuses there.


Towards the end of the book, Taylor examines the nefarious effects of corporations on democracy. She points out that the Geneva School of economics saw democracy as a threat to business, and set out to minimize its effect. As a direct result, corporations now have all the rights of citizens, and far more. They can sue governments for loss of potential future profits, and governments cannot sue back. This abrogation of sovereignty is astonishing and goes largely unnoticed in society. 


Companies can sue because their activities have been curtailed by new environmental laws or because of a change in government and therefore policies. The vehicle for this is the web of so-called free trade agreements, which set out those rights, and special courts of their own making, held in secret and unappealable. She also stops short of condemning the spread of democracy by war on behalf of those corporations. Let there be no doubt, corporations rule the world. Globalization is the fruit of their efforts. 


Yet (to my surprise) she stops way short of saying that democracy and capitalism are incompatible concepts. And she doesn’t call for a democratic re-evaluation of treaties and relationships that give companies these superpowers beyond the rights of people in those democracies.


Taylor does have some excellent observations along the way, though. My favorite is “If we are ever to equitably and democratically remedy the problem of mass stupidity, we will first have to deal with elite cupidity.” That’s a quote for all time.


David Wineberg
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