Notes vol. 1

Notes on Astra Taylor's 'What is Democracy?'

Astra Taylor's What is Democracy? deploys this query among academics, activists, and several impromptu 'passerby on the street' interviews, and coalesces the responses around a few key tensions.

In particular, of interest: the role of 'coercion' in a free society. The inherent tension there.

Key idea: being 'free' is hard work. Cornell West -- what if many people don't want to be free? There is a lot of evidence that many don't. They submit themselves to authority.

Another key idea: the necessity of boundaries, Wendy Brown. We need to know who 'we' are when we're making collective decisions.

For me: perhaps we minimize the effects of coercion through close relationship. Some people want to follow; but they can follow people they are in close relationship with, whom they trust.

Posing "Do you live in a democracy?" followed by "Do you vote?" to people on the street is almost a bit of a stunt, rather than a serious exploration, in the context of the film's deeper questions. We explicitly have academics questioning whether voting is actually democractic. So these residents in the US who don't vote aren't 'dumb Americans', per se -- they are perhaps just living out the consequences of the real disenfranchisement that results from the voting-oriented form of government under which they live.

The Examined Life

Note also that Taylor has a lovely film, "Examined Life", that profiles several prominent philosophers -- Nussabaum, C West, Zizek. Worth tracking that down -- the exercepts I've seen thus far have been fantastic.

Jacobin podcast

'Italian question' episode -- @ 26:00 -- 'Technopopulism has been the end of political discourse in Italy.'

The family farm

Sparked by this article, and the discussion with JG.

The idea of the loss of the family farm. It seems useful to separate the question of "what should be done" with "how to do it" -- 'strategy before resources', as per the Obama-era military phrase. We shouldn't foist the burden of regenerative agriculture on individuals and families, as per the neoliberals. But the lack of economic viability of any particular structure in the current economic paradigm is not necessarily an indictment of that structure. There are many things that we ought to do that are currently 'impossible' economically, from universal healthcare to universal basic income. The deeper question for me is: what are the range of possible solutions? Then offer these solutions up for political debate around how to achieve them. If we begin with what is politically possible, we foreclose many useful possibilities.

The counter to this might be that it can slip into a sort of technocratic 'apolitical' stance that pretends to avoid politics and offer 'impartial' solutions. This is a real concern. One sees this everywhere in academia. But the solution to this problem is not simply to 'always begin with the political' ...

So, my tendency on this question would be to ask: what sort of agriculture do we need, at what scale, with what sort of structure? And then ask: what are the political structures and dynamics that could accommodate this?

Perhaps the key is to be asking these questions out loud, with a diverse array of other people and voices, and to be receptive to feedback, modification, transformation, coalition.


A common stance in 'community science' and in grassroots organizing seems to be to say "let the people determine the questions that are important; then let the scientists carry out the will of the people." But when one lives in a society that has been systematically misled and miseducated around science, there is a real risk that this will lead nowhere, fast.

The response to this worry often seems to be: "So be it! The consequences of 'top-down' science have been disastrous; we must begin anew with "grassroots" science, however messy it may be." Cf. Wendell Berry's "We've tried science. Now it's time to try something else."

But really, this simply 'punts' on the question. Science (like many other endeavors) is very complicated. Not everyone wants to do it, or should be forced to spend their lives doing it. In a way, it's actually a recapitulation of the neoliberal atomistic individualist picture to presume that every individual will become a scientist. This is unrealistic and undesirable. People can play different roles. In social relations that involve trust, it's possible to establish non-coercive, non-pathological divisions of labor; and this is necessary when it comes to complex topics like medicine, music, science, if we're to explore these topics in any sort of depth. And exploring topics to great depths is a joy for many people, a form of flourishing; people should be free to do this.

Which leaves us with: an uneven distribution of expertise, necessarily.

I think there's no way to avoid an uneven distribution of knowledge, even if it were desirable. There is perhaps a latent myth around an ever-more-perfect distribution of knowledge at work, here, that stems from certain conceptions of how society might be governed, and is related to the same mythical belief in the efficiency of the market, and the 'invisible hand' idea. If we are all to be governed collectively, then we must all be perfectly, and uniformly informed.

But: unless you have an absolutely monolithic culture; and even then, you would require a homogenous world, with no differences in experience across time and space. It's simply the case that individuals will be situated differently.

Which harkens back to Elizabeth Anderson's notion of egalitarianism. She argues that we shouldn't focus on absolute distribution of material wealth, but rather on esteem, respect, and social relations. She argues that if the latter is present, the former will follow. This might not be an absolute injunction, but more of an emphasis.

So, when it comes to expertise -- it's not that we need everyone to be an expert, or have the same level of expertise. That's a crude form of egalitarianism. Instead, it's that we need to establish relationships of trust and respect among people in society -- including among experts and non-experts.

More fundamentally (back to Anderson): there is a sort of 'vulgar' notion of fairness -- an understanable reflex -- that means 'everyone gets the same', 'uniformity'. This intuition around fairness undergirds many 'theories of change' out there -- that the goal is 'flat'.

And this impulse is understandable, given that historically, the dominant voices arguing against 'flat' distributions have been those who want to justify massively unequal distribution of resources -- neoliberals, right libertarians, etc.

But there is a world of possibilities between "winner takes all" and "uniform distribution". Negotiating these extremes is in a sense what the rich array of proposed 'anarchist' structures have concerned themselves with, asking: how do we balance freedom and solidarity? This is one of the tensions raised in Taylor's "What is Democracy?", above, and perhaps has no clear, consistent, stable answer -- it will always be a pluralistic, ever-changing, constantly-negotiated question, a strong function of who is asking and answering it.