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What is democracy really? What do we mean when we use the term? And can it ever truly exist? Astra Taylor, hailed as a "New Civil Rights Leader" (LA Times), provides surprising answers. There is no shortage of democracy, at least in name, and yet it is in crisis everywhere we look. From a cabal of thieving plutocrats in the White House to rising inequality and xenophobia wo What is democracy really? What do we mean when we use the term? And can it ever truly exist? Astra Taylor, hailed as a "New Civil Rights Leader" (LA Times), provides surprising answers. There is no shortage of democracy, at least in name, and yet it is in crisis everywhere we look. From a cabal of thieving plutocrats in the White House to rising inequality and xenophobia worldwide, it is clear that democracy--specifically the principle of government by and for the people--is not living up to its promise. In Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone, Astra Taylor shows that real democracy--fully inclusive and completely egalitarian--has in fact never existed. In a tone that is both philosophical and anecdotal, weaving together history, theory, the stories of individuals, and conversations with such leading thinkers as Cornel West, Danielle Allen, and Wendy Brown, Taylor invites us to reexamine the term. Is democracy a means or an end, a process or a set of desired outcomes? What if the those outcomes, whatever they may be--peace, prosperity, equality, liberty, an engaged citizenry--can be achieved by non-democratic means? Or if an election leads to a terrible outcome? If democracy means rule by the people, what does it mean to rule and who counts as the people? The inherent paradoxes are too often unnamed and unrecognized. By teasing them out, Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone offers a better understanding of what is possible, what we want, and why democracy is so hard to realize.


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What is democracy really? What do we mean when we use the term? And can it ever truly exist? Astra Taylor, hailed as a "New Civil Rights Leader" (LA Times), provides surprising answers. There is no shortage of democracy, at least in name, and yet it is in crisis everywhere we look. From a cabal of thieving plutocrats in the White House to rising inequality and xenophobia wo What is democracy really? What do we mean when we use the term? And can it ever truly exist? Astra Taylor, hailed as a "New Civil Rights Leader" (LA Times), provides surprising answers. There is no shortage of democracy, at least in name, and yet it is in crisis everywhere we look. From a cabal of thieving plutocrats in the White House to rising inequality and xenophobia worldwide, it is clear that democracy--specifically the principle of government by and for the people--is not living up to its promise. In Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone, Astra Taylor shows that real democracy--fully inclusive and completely egalitarian--has in fact never existed. In a tone that is both philosophical and anecdotal, weaving together history, theory, the stories of individuals, and conversations with such leading thinkers as Cornel West, Danielle Allen, and Wendy Brown, Taylor invites us to reexamine the term. Is democracy a means or an end, a process or a set of desired outcomes? What if the those outcomes, whatever they may be--peace, prosperity, equality, liberty, an engaged citizenry--can be achieved by non-democratic means? Or if an election leads to a terrible outcome? If democracy means rule by the people, what does it mean to rule and who counts as the people? The inherent paradoxes are too often unnamed and unrecognized. By teasing them out, Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone offers a better understanding of what is possible, what we want, and why democracy is so hard to realize.

30 review for Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    sheds light on so much, from the erosion of liberal democracy to the resurgence of mass movements fighting for alternatives, good and bad. this is a thoughtful meditation on the paradoxes lying at the heart of democracy, and one insightfully engaging with the work of leading radical thinkers (Cornel West, Wendy Brown, etc.).

  2. 4 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    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 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

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    While democracy can be difficult to define and challenging to implement, the primary purpose can be stated as the prevention of minority powers from dominating majorities. The rule by one (monarchies and dictatorships), or the rule by few (aristocracies and oligarchies), gives disproportionate power to one person or a small group, allowing the minority group to impose their preferences on the majority, often at the majority’s expense. Democracy, under the ideal of “one person, one vote,” is esta While democracy can be difficult to define and challenging to implement, the primary purpose can be stated as the prevention of minority powers from dominating majorities. The rule by one (monarchies and dictatorships), or the rule by few (aristocracies and oligarchies), gives disproportionate power to one person or a small group, allowing the minority group to impose their preferences on the majority, often at the majority’s expense. Democracy, under the ideal of “one person, one vote,” is established to prevent this tyrannical rule. However, the introduction of democracy introduces its own challenges, the main one being the inverse problem of the “tyranny of the majority” imposing its preferences on minority groups. Democracy, unabated, can result in disastrous consequences for minorities and moral atrocities, the earliest example being the execution of Socrates by Athenian democracy for his crime of “corrupting the youth,” i.e., teaching people how to think for themselves. That’s why constitutional protections and bills of rights are critical; they prevent democracies from being able to, through majority preference, dissolve themselves, install dictatorial leaders, or rescind the political rights of minority groups. Not all decisions, therefore, can be made via majority preference, even in a democracy, if the democracy is to last. Democracy, left to itself, sows the seeds of its own destruction, as Plato recognized long ago. Democracy is, therefore, perpetually in tension between majorities and minorities each vying to impose its preferences. Voting, at least in theory, can prevent the tyranny of minority power while constitutional protections prevent the reverse. But the situation gets complicated: the majority often want more equality and freedom from want, while the wealthy minority quite naturally want more liberty and freedom to conduct economic transactions without interference or taxation. How do you balance these competing forces? Which freedoms should be prioritized, positive or negative? Where on the continuum between equal distribution versus maximum individual freedom should society lie? These perpetual tensions define democracy, and are brilliantly captured in all of their complexity by Astra Taylor in her latest book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Taylor examines the tensions that arise in democracies, and shows that political philosophy must always balance the competing interests of different people and groups. The danger is not, however, that democracy must make trade-offs; the danger is that the voting public fails to recognize that any trade-offs are being made at all. The status quo can blind the majority to the possibility that things could be different, and to the fact that current arrangements, which benefit the minority at the expense of the majority, are NOT natural and inevitable. The current advantages the wealthy enjoy, along with the disproportionate power money has in politics, are not natural or inevitable or even preferable for most people. We accept it only because it’s been this way for so long that it seems inevitable, natural, or, because of incessant propaganda, preferable. We live in a political environment where most people acquiesce to the power of corporations, which under current laws are granted the same rights and constitutional protections as people. We allow corporations and executives an almost tyrannical control over most of our waking lives, and never stop to question whether or not corporate interests and market forces align with our higher social goals and aspirations. Taylor’s latest book, beautifully written, does not provide much in the way of answers, but offers something even more valuable—disillusionment to the status quo. The first step in solving our political problems must be an awareness that the problems exist in the first place. By exploring the complexities of and tensions within democratic rule, we come to understand that every political decision involves trade-offs, and with that recognition, that the current arrangements are skewed too far to the benefit of the 1 percent, a tyranny of the minority if there ever was one. Democracy cannot prevent the tyranny of the minority if the minority convinces the majority that their interests are in fact aligned, with the result that people vote against their own interests in service of a fabricated ideology. This remains the biggest challenge to democracy we currently face, and reveals a deep irony; that the very thing democracy is meant to prevent is something that can also infect and destroy it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Omar

    Highly recommend watching her companion documentary "What is Democracy?" Found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UYmx... The book points out the illusory and paradoxical aspects of democracy and why it's such an elusive project to realize with anti-democratic forces in the world. She is a champion for the people and possesses a very impressive and refined perspective that is worth listening to to better understand the current state of things. 5/5 Highly recommend watching her companion documentary "What is Democracy?" Found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UYmx... The book points out the illusory and paradoxical aspects of democracy and why it's such an elusive project to realize with anti-democratic forces in the world. She is a champion for the people and possesses a very impressive and refined perspective that is worth listening to to better understand the current state of things. 5/5

  5. 4 out of 5

    Alix

    This book took me longer to read than most, because it's so dense--dense with ideas. Each sentence is pure and clear, but also packed with meaning. I finished it last night and woke up with two thoughts: 1) Either Astra Taylor is brilliant/well informed or I am woefully uneducated/ ill informed or, most likely, both. 2) I grew up hearing people say communism was a good system in theory but we had just never seen a good instance of it--they were all corruptions of the original idea. What this book This book took me longer to read than most, because it's so dense--dense with ideas. Each sentence is pure and clear, but also packed with meaning. I finished it last night and woke up with two thoughts: 1) Either Astra Taylor is brilliant/well informed or I am woefully uneducated/ ill informed or, most likely, both. 2) I grew up hearing people say communism was a good system in theory but we had just never seen a good instance of it--they were all corruptions of the original idea. What this book made me realize is that the same could--indeed must--be said about democracy. This book is philosophical, but it's also historical and political and revolutionary. It turns out she IS brilliant, and it also turns out that she has had almost no formal education. And not only is she a brilliant self-taught historian-philosopher but she is also an activist. She quotes everyone from Plato to Alicia Garza in this book. She is not only writing about how and why our democracy went awry (spoiler: a lot of it is baked into the constitution) but she is actively working to change things for the better. What I don't know is whether this would be a good book for On the Same Page. It's so dense that some students might give up. But if we can't trust our students to be smart and diligent enough to read a book by a self-educated person who was smart and diligent enough to WRITE a book like this, maybe the whole enterprise is doomed? And they would learn so much if they would only stick with it. I know I did. Let me know what you think.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Gude

    I’ve read a lot of books about democracy, but this is easily one of the best.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Drew

    6 out of 5. Astounding, astounding stuff. I finished it, in terms of reading it front-to-back, about ten days after I started it -- but I've been paging through it again, over and over, since then. I'm not sure that I'll ever truly be 'done' reading it, and it's a testament to Taylor's insights and intelligence and just the sheer joy of her writing that the book was never a struggle to return to. This book radically restructured the way I think about the world. The bell cannot be unrung. I urge y 6 out of 5. Astounding, astounding stuff. I finished it, in terms of reading it front-to-back, about ten days after I started it -- but I've been paging through it again, over and over, since then. I'm not sure that I'll ever truly be 'done' reading it, and it's a testament to Taylor's insights and intelligence and just the sheer joy of her writing that the book was never a struggle to return to. This book radically restructured the way I think about the world. The bell cannot be unrung. I urge you all to read it, to better know how we may take up arms and fight for what freedom we might be able to claw back from the hands of all forms of tyranny.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joe Bambridge

    Quite surprised by the good reviews this has received. Without wanting to speak against Astra Taylor, who I know is a very acclaimed director and worthy activist, it is pretty basic and breaks very little new ground. The subject is worthy enough; democracy has fallen out of favour somewhat in socialist discourse in recent years. Given democratic victories for reactionary and authoritarian forces despite worsening inequality, a climate crisis, and at the time of writing, a global pandemic, leftis Quite surprised by the good reviews this has received. Without wanting to speak against Astra Taylor, who I know is a very acclaimed director and worthy activist, it is pretty basic and breaks very little new ground. The subject is worthy enough; democracy has fallen out of favour somewhat in socialist discourse in recent years. Given democratic victories for reactionary and authoritarian forces despite worsening inequality, a climate crisis, and at the time of writing, a global pandemic, leftists have been much more focused on the role of the state in the economy than promoting democracy for democracy’s sake. Taylor clearly wants to argue that democracy is a worthwhile end in itself. But instead most of the book is spent focusing on that one reliable facet of American exceptionalism, state sanctioned voter suppression along class and racial lines (American is no democracy, but in a distinctly American way) and not much arguing about why leftists should defend democracy for its own sake in the context of 2020’s multiple and overlapping crises. There is almost no interrogation of the Chinese model, for example. And it’s only the last two chapters that really touch on the novel challenges the next century will pose for democracy. Her use of quotes are confusing (Taylor clearly has libertarian socialist sympathies, but quotes several socialists who had a very different conception of he state approvingly when useful) and her critical sociological lense is applied unevenly. If we want to convince socialists that democracy is something worth defending, let alone expanding, in the face of multiple setbacks which threaten humanity’s very survival, then it’s going to need a much stronger defence than this.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christina Dongowski

    From being the triumphant winner of the confrontation with the authoritarian socialist block and expecting a peaceful & prosperous forever present in the supposed “end of history”, not only the image of liberal democracy has deteriorated rapidly & has come under heavy assault from the anti-liberal & anti-democratic forces it’s harboured since (at least) the founding of the United States. With Astra Taylor’s book you learn that Trump is not an unfortunate accident, but a consequence of anti-democ From being the triumphant winner of the confrontation with the authoritarian socialist block and expecting a peaceful & prosperous forever present in the supposed “end of history”, not only the image of liberal democracy has deteriorated rapidly & has come under heavy assault from the anti-liberal & anti-democratic forces it’s harboured since (at least) the founding of the United States. With Astra Taylor’s book you learn that Trump is not an unfortunate accident, but a consequence of anti-democratic, feudalist & elitist elements & processes imbedded into the specific form of a liberal democracy under market capitalism the US presents. But explaining Trump is not the goal of her book, it’s just something it does by thinking through what democracy could be, if we abandon the idea that the liberal democracies we know now are all there is to the idea of a workable democracy. Taylor takes the readers through all the dilemmas & complexities radical democratic or emancipatory projects (& political theories) have faced & still face - and the theoretical & practical solutions people have come up with. Her range of sources & examples is (at least for this reader used to rather stuffy german political theory clinging to Habermas & Luhmann) exhilaratingly divers: Think Plato & Gramsci meet First Nation communal political theory and school children organising better lunch. The diversity is part of the point she wants to make: rescuing the critique of (liberal) democracy from neo- & palaeo-conservatives and Trumpism while rescuing the idea of democracy from the hapless, liberal / centrist defenders of the status quo as the best form of (self-)government we can get. Taylor shows us that democracy is the result of a constant struggle and a constant struggle in itself, not something that just works the right way, if only people where more rational and would stop listening to fake news. (She argues that this is one of the fundamental argumentative tropes to discredit people demanding changes to the system.) By working through the classical canon of political theory, the history of the struggle for democracy and human rights & still almost forgotten or sidelined democratic traditions outside the liberal narrative, she opens up new horizons for thinking about what democracy could look like - and how we will get there one step at a time. She convincingly argues that millennialist activism will get us only so far, but is a vital point to get radical ideas (like universal healthcare) back into the public conversation and political process, where it has to transform into grass roots organisations & unions to really get things moving politically. I learned a lot from the book. It’s highly readable & you don’t have to bring a doctoral degree in political theory to understand Taylor’s arguments.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Summary: Explores what we mean when we speak of democracy, argues that real democracy has never existed, and explores the balance of paradoxes or tensions inherent in the idea of democracy. All kinds of people toss around the language of democracy. We may contend that part of American greatness is its democratic institutions. A movement toward democracy has offered hope for many countries. The official name of North Korea is The Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Astra Taylor poses the questi Summary: Explores what we mean when we speak of democracy, argues that real democracy has never existed, and explores the balance of paradoxes or tensions inherent in the idea of democracy. All kinds of people toss around the language of democracy. We may contend that part of American greatness is its democratic institutions. A movement toward democracy has offered hope for many countries. The official name of North Korea is The Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Astra Taylor poses the question in this book of what it is we mean when we speak of democracy. On its face, it seems simple, the word is a compound of the Greek terms for "people" (demos) and "rule" (kratia), hence the idea of the rule of the people. Taylor's argument in this book is that a perfect democracy has never existed, that the best we have are approximations, but that striving for closer approximations is worth the struggle and something significant would be loss if we yield to the forces that diminish democracy. Taylor resorts to an analysis of tensions within existing democracies that reflect the struggle between its ideals and its shortcomings. The book explores eight tensions: 1. Freedom versus equality. Often some have been free-er than others, who sometimes are losers in the system, sometimes branded as inferior and marginalized. 2. Conflict versus consensus. Rule of the people seems to imply deliberation leading to consensus, yet on many things people conflict, and "consensus" simply reflects what those in power enact. 3. Inclusion versus exclusion. The question here is, "who are the people?" Often, supposed democracies have excluded or marginalized groups of people within a state. Women, blacks, LGBTQ persons, those of lower economic status may argue that they have lacked a voice in the deliberations of democracy. 4. Coercion versus choice. While we speak of government exercising its power by the consent of the governed, this often results in behavior that is coerced in subtle and not so subtle ways. There are roadways I would be crazy to try to navigate on a bicycle or as a pedestrian. The rule of law reflects ways we have structured our economic life that shape our behavior in certain directions. At times, acts of civil disobedience are the only choice one has in the face of an unjust coercive law. 5. Spontaneity versus structure. Often existing structures (for example gerrymandered districts, or restrictions of voting rights through efforts thwarting voting registration or voting) only change in consequence of spontaneous actions uprising against structures that are apparently "democratic." 6. Expertise versus mass opinion. Can a "Socratic mob" rule? Don't we need experts for the complicated decisions that must be made in a society? Shouldn't parents just defer to "trained educators" on what is best for their children? 7. Local versus global. We live in an increasing global village, and yet, is not democracy most achievable at the local level? Do not local decisions have ripple effects all the way up to a global scale? 8. Present versus future. What are the rights of those yet to be born in our democratic system, weighed against those currently alive, or even those who lived in the past whose influence may still be felt (for example, the limiting of inheritance taxes to all but the wealthiest estates that concentrate wealth among a few). Likewise, our environmental policies have implications for generations we will not see. While Taylor distinguishes her analysis from a strictly Marxist approach of identifying contradictions leading to the collapse of the system, her solution seems to rely on Marxian and Gramscian analysis, and in fact, a kind of uprising of the proletariat, that is a reform from below and admits that her economic vision is one of socialist redistribution of resources. There are suggestions in this book that it is time for a new form of constitution. I find all of this troubling, in some ways a modern equivalent of the French revolution of 1789. Democracy can disappear in a variety of ways, whether through nationalist plutocrats or liberal revolutionaries with their own statist solutions. What this points up however is that these ideas become popular precisely when supposedly democratic leaders move away from democratic ideals--the importance of all of our citizens, a determined focus on social inequities and the limiting of rapacious capitalism. Books like Taylor's are a wake up call to those who may least like what she is saying to take a hard look at how well all "the people" are served by our government. It is also a challenge to every one of us who calls themselves a citizen to take a hard look at what is taking place in our democratic institutions, and what it means for us to exercise responsible citizenship in this present time. _____________________________________ Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jim Razinha

    I received an Advance Reader's Edition of this in January for review from the publisher, though it was published in January, 2019 (systems being systems, my approved request was in November but it didn't arrive until the end of January.) My copy had numerous editorial errors of missing words and similar, and the Notes section was incomplete, but I hope the former were corrected in the final copy and I expect the latter completed. Right from the start in her Introduction, Ms. Taylor hits her main I received an Advance Reader's Edition of this in January for review from the publisher, though it was published in January, 2019 (systems being systems, my approved request was in November but it didn't arrive until the end of January.) My copy had numerous editorial errors of missing words and similar, and the Notes section was incomplete, but I hope the former were corrected in the final copy and I expect the latter completed. Right from the start in her Introduction, Ms. Taylor hits her main thesis that the meaning of democracy "taken as self-evident, is rarely given much serious consideration. Though the headlines tell us democracy is in 'crisis', we don't have a clear conception of what it is that is at risk." She thinks "perfect democracy" may not exist and may never will (my take is that in a super-populated world, it can't) but it may still be worth working toward. She nails part of the problem of defining democracy as it is "something people rarely encounter in their everyday lives..." Hello light bulb moment. Sometimes things intuitively obvious need saying out loud, or written out loud. This is an indictment of a trope. Common terms used to attempt definition in the past - freedom and equality - are now at odds, especially in the political dichotomous extremes of modern America. But that is not uniquely American...Ms. Taylor says that in making her documentary "What is Democracy?" She asked dozens of people what democracy meant to them, with "freedom" being the overwhelming majority of replies. She says that "[n]o one, not a single soul in the United States or elsewhere, told me that democracy meant 'equality'." Think on that and add it to your toolbox. US origins may have claimed that all people are created equal, but the government based on the Constitution and its entire history have clearly shown that some people are more equal than others. The myth of democracy is a sham, and tying it to "freedom" is more than problematic. Taylor quotes Orlando Patterson who asked, "Who were the first persons to get the unusual idea that being free was not only a value to be cherished, but the most important thing a person could possess." He continues, "The answer, in a word, slaves." Yeah. Freedom is not equality. But the "disparaged and dispossessed" imagine what democracy could be by connecting both freedom and equality, something Taylor says that "the powerful aim to shatter to ensure that most people are neither." Taylor observes a UN General Assembly tenet that flies in the face of what is at least in the US political status quo: "When you adopt resolutions by a vote, you only need to get a simple majority to agree ... This process is divisive. When you adopt resolutions by consensus, you have to be concerned about the viewpoint of everyone and engage in negotiations that often result in compromises so that different points of view are taken into consideration." I've maintained for many many years that I will not see consensus again in US politics in my lifetime since any potential for it was destroyed by Gingrich in 1994. Taylor paraphrases a quote of John Adams (“[T]he division of the republic into two great parties is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”) to suggest that Adams believed two parties would lead to conflict. Her para-quote is uncited and might be misleading as it is from 1780 and refers to the Massachusetts Constitution “There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each arranged under its Leader, and concerting Measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble Apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil, under our Constitution.” Regardless of reference, her point is that a Founder saw potential conflict in a dichotomy. That his fears manifested 200 years later is no surprise. Without consensus, that illusion of democracy is pierced. Democracy may aspire to be inclusive, but every manifestation has exclusion in different forms. Exclusion is human, primate, even as base as mammalian in nature (my observations, not in the text.) Taylor quotes from an interview with political theorist Wendy Brown: "To have democracy there has to be a we. You have to know who we the people are. It can't just be a kind of vague universal thing." (Italics hers) Such a simple thought, and yet so uncommon a thought. Ask anyone to define "the people." You'll get any number of answers, some mutually exclusive, but for any democratic process to work, "we have to decide who's in and who's out..." Exclusions too often evidence as discrimination and pecking order. Even more...racism. Another aspect of exclusion is citizenship. To participate in a democracy, one of the rules usually requires citizenship. And there is a term for becoming a citizen that comes with an overlooked by most subtext: "naturalization"; as if being not a citizen is un-natural, less than, unworthy. And yet, the term is accepted. Embraced by those who attain it; then there is inclusion. And then there are the digital sentries, the algorithms, accessing risk of those included and excluded. Reliance on them is a problem, as Cathy O'Neill's Weapons of Math Destruction (not cited by Ms. Taylor, just something I read recently) describes in detail, and as Ms. Taylor notes, they can be hacked (ICE agents hacked the risk assessment system to recommend detainment of immigrant 100% of the time.) People tend to think of democracy as a choice, as if the participants have choices, but that is largely an illusion as well. Ms. Taylor describes the aspects of coercion that people are subject to blatantly, surreptitiously, blindly (we "choose" to accept the terms and conditions, but 45 pages are too much to actually read thoroughly...) We are sold politicians, and the "choices" are limited. If the choices of democracy were invented to oppose the "divine right" of kings such that the government is legitimized by the consent of the governed, the irony of the limits of choice - a two party choice - is lost among the influence of a few (über rich and corporate "citizens") who can buy the choices. Aggregate votes might average to mitigate the extremes of the few, but when the choices are limited... (This is obviously not limited to politics and governance...workplace, medical care, classrooms and the material being pushed, for some examples...even in politics, primary votes in the US nearly always require membership in the club to vote for the party rep) As if the choice limits weren't enough, there are other obstacles: gerrymandering, stacking, and in the a United States, the biggest system game of them all...the electoral college. The odds are stacked against a real democracy. But, even if they weren't, there is the even bigger problem that while we think we don't want exclusion, suppression, coercion, Ms. Taylor nails it with: "The idea of empowering ordinary people can seem terrifying today because there is so much stupidity on display." Bam. Eighteen words. Truth. And worse, as she points out, digital technologies "are used to spread myths and lies and empower hucksters." The savvy and subversive take advantage of that stupid so prominently on display. ( My words.) " Taking advantage of and perpetuating human idiocy is a profitable enterprise." (Hers.) In a democratic society, education should be paramount, right? As Ms. Taylor says, "the solution to inequality", right? She observes what John Taylor Gatto saw: Carnegie and Rockefeller capitalizing (accidental pun on my part) on the Horace Mann wagon and compulsory education to churn out compliant ... that can't be understated ... factory workers. Class suppression of the working sort. (And if you doubt that, unless you were ho e educated surely you can recall the forming of lines, silence by all before proceeding, marching smartly , "pencils down",...oh, and mountains of useless homework...) A "free market" is supposed to be the cornerstone of capitalism and capitalism is considered an essential manifestation of democracy. Well... Capitalism is an "ideal" that couldn't be less democratic. It is manipulated by the few, sold to the masses as an ideal end state, and profited by the few. Once corporations became "citizens" with few restrictions, they became the "democracy". And it is t limited to the US...corporations pretty much dictate the world economy so there are plenty of world democracies that are influenced and controlled by corporation. Obvious once you see it; sobering once you think it through. And the world is more connected today than ever..."the Internet may be global,..." - yes, it is, and as Ms. Taylor observes, there is a price for that: ", but the profits are disproportionately localized." Who run Barter Town? The attack on Net Neutrality illustrates who has control. Further, all of the "free speech" platforms have exclusive rights to censor. [Or not... Violate the terms of Twit-ter and get put in "jail", unless you make them a ton of money like a certain executive Twit user who gets away with attacks, slurs, defamations, lies, libel...my observations to back up hers.] What happens when a current generation takes away the democratic choices of future generations? Ms. Taylor's last chapter looks at that. Human caused climate change is a prime example - the choices of today (and keep in mind they are not choices of democracy - the oligarchy, corporate "citizenry", the monied profiteers make the choices for the demos) will have devastating effects for the future, who will have no choice as to what they inherit. There are no other historical comparisons of the same magnitude, but I could argue that genocides have deprived us of rich cultures lost to the past. Elected leaders work to stay in office and pass the future on to future elected leaders who will do the same. Taylor concludes observing the [fallout from 2016 sparking an] uprising of citizens "debating the anti-democratic structure of the American political system." So it is finally known...but what happens from here? She finishes with "[i]nstead of founding fathers let us asp[ire to be perennial midwives, helping always to deliver democracy anew." Good point...if what doesn't really exist lasts long enough for us to create it. [There were several passage quotes throughout the book without citations - I do not know if they were sourced in the final edition.]

  12. 4 out of 5

    David Dinaburg

    Criticizing something—particularly on the internet—requires a lot more work than praising it. Throughout the first chapter of Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone, I began to fret as I considered how many notes I might need to take. In part because I came into the book already in agreement with the tacit thesis—“The problem with foreign oligarchs isn’t that they’re foreign, but that they’re oligarchs.”And in part because the twitter-blasted landscape I call my mind kept focu Criticizing something—particularly on the internet—requires a lot more work than praising it. Throughout the first chapter of Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone, I began to fret as I considered how many notes I might need to take. In part because I came into the book already in agreement with the tacit thesis—“The problem with foreign oligarchs isn’t that they’re foreign, but that they’re oligarchs.”And in part because the twitter-blasted landscape I call my mind kept focusing in on vague banalities while filtering out their supporting context: [ Read the rest of this review at DinaburgWrites.com ]

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sanjida

    I think this book was a disappointment because I was expecting a clearer description of both how democracy has failed and also succeeded and how we would, indeed, miss it when it's gone. But this book is more a leftist meditation on the philosophy of democracy, leftist in that the solutions are inevitably - anything but neoliberalism. I learned some things that stuck when me though, for instance, that ancient Athenians rejected elected representatives as popularity contests in favor of lotteries I think this book was a disappointment because I was expecting a clearer description of both how democracy has failed and also succeeded and how we would, indeed, miss it when it's gone. But this book is more a leftist meditation on the philosophy of democracy, leftist in that the solutions are inevitably - anything but neoliberalism. I learned some things that stuck when me though, for instance, that ancient Athenians rejected elected representatives as popularity contests in favor of lotteries for political office. That sounds like a good idea, actually, given how the skills for running for office in America are so different from those of a good leader. 3 1/2

  14. 4 out of 5

    Robyn

    "I would never deny that history provides mountains of evidence to fuel a fatalist inclination to failure - our legacy brims with horrors. But the past abounds with counter evidence, deep veins of conviction and ample fodder to maintain morale, a second legacy of compassion, courage, tenacity, vision, solidarity and strategy. Prior struggles and victories put the present in perspective. Who am I, writing these words on a portable computer (in my living room and not a prison cell, no less), to im "I would never deny that history provides mountains of evidence to fuel a fatalist inclination to failure - our legacy brims with horrors. But the past abounds with counter evidence, deep veins of conviction and ample fodder to maintain morale, a second legacy of compassion, courage, tenacity, vision, solidarity and strategy. Prior struggles and victories put the present in perspective. Who am I, writing these words on a portable computer (in my living room and not a prison cell, no less), to imagine the challenges we face as terrible and immutable? Countless nameless women before me were burned at the stake as witches, held as chattel, force-fed when they demanded the right to vote, and here I it with rights some of them could never have dreamed of. In light of the sacrifices made by past rebels to secure our privileges, defeatism feels wrong, even trite." This book is a jam-packed, highly ambitious and earnest project of developing political thought about the contemporary moment via historical analysis, journalism, and intentional conversations with a wide range of people. Each chapter takes two seemingly disparate or even opposing concepts and draws them together dialectically. It's a bit wild and unwieldly at times, but I ultimately found it very educational and quite moving. Taylor is an ardent student of democratic socialism and, in the spirit of writers like Howard Zinn and Naomi Klein, makes accessible and highly compelling cases for understanding our current world from an anti-establishment perspective. Recommended if you're looking for help to make sense of the current moment without false optimism nor debilitating despair.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Alex Macon

    An exploration of and defense of "democracy," positioning self-governance (REAL self-governance) as incompatible with capitalism, as rife with contradictions even at its best, as more endangered than ever, and as something that's never been truly realized, but also as a necessity if we're going to get out of the apocalyptic hole we're digging ourselves deeper into every day. Makes for a good synthesis of a lot of zeitgeisty stuff getting pushed by "the left" in recent years -- there's even a Gre An exploration of and defense of "democracy," positioning self-governance (REAL self-governance) as incompatible with capitalism, as rife with contradictions even at its best, as more endangered than ever, and as something that's never been truly realized, but also as a necessity if we're going to get out of the apocalyptic hole we're digging ourselves deeper into every day. Makes for a good synthesis of a lot of zeitgeisty stuff getting pushed by "the left" in recent years -- there's even a Green New Deal nod in one of the later chapters -- coupled with some illuminating examples of democracy in action, from Greece circa 500 B.C. to North Carolina circa now.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Eva

    I think this book is really important. Everyone should read it. While a lot of her discussion focuses on the history and current government of the United States, she does have a number of international examples. Her explanation of the Greece situation was excellent. It's important to understand that there is no clear finish line, a 'democracy accomplished' moment. Her embrace of the paradoxes of democracy was nuanced and refreshing. Everyone should read it! I think this book is really important. Everyone should read it. While a lot of her discussion focuses on the history and current government of the United States, she does have a number of international examples. Her explanation of the Greece situation was excellent. It's important to understand that there is no clear finish line, a 'democracy accomplished' moment. Her embrace of the paradoxes of democracy was nuanced and refreshing. Everyone should read it!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kurt

    Astra Taylor's DEMOCRACY MAY NOT EXIST didn't break a ton of new ground for me, but it was excellent nevertheless in the way it collected and rehearsed left-wing analysis. I loved the series of clarifying questions through the lens of tensions inherent in democracy: coercion/choice, spontaneity/structure, present/future. It felt quick and necessary. Astra Taylor's DEMOCRACY MAY NOT EXIST didn't break a ton of new ground for me, but it was excellent nevertheless in the way it collected and rehearsed left-wing analysis. I loved the series of clarifying questions through the lens of tensions inherent in democracy: coercion/choice, spontaneity/structure, present/future. It felt quick and necessary.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ricardo Nuñez

    This was an enjoyable if difficult book to get through. Enjoyable because of the insights laid out in practical examples and from regular people (workers, school children, refugees, etc). Difficult because of its expansiveness and that every few pages was a new story, so it was difficult to tease the narrator arch at times. Still, it was profound and lyrical. A necessary read for anyone interested in knowing the complexities and contradictions of democracy in action.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Viral

    An absolutely amazing book from one of the best voices on democracy and politics today. Taylor gives us an incredibly well researched and thought out discussion of what democracy means, how it works today, the flaws we see in liberal democratic societies, and what modern movements for direct democracy and workplace democracy look like. If we imagine a democratic vistas as the core of a just and inclusive vision of human society, we will need to radically re-imagine what democracy means for our p An absolutely amazing book from one of the best voices on democracy and politics today. Taylor gives us an incredibly well researched and thought out discussion of what democracy means, how it works today, the flaws we see in liberal democratic societies, and what modern movements for direct democracy and workplace democracy look like. If we imagine a democratic vistas as the core of a just and inclusive vision of human society, we will need to radically re-imagine what democracy means for our political economic order. Taylor has brought us far along that path. Incredibly well written and researched AND approachable for audiences who might not be well versed in modern politics. Highly, highly recommend. One of the most important books written this year.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ietrio

    Taylor chains slogans to mimic the appearance of reason. Overall the text is extremely racist and narrow, without excelling even at this. Take the first paragraph: > In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, people everywhere cheered the dawn of a new democratic age. The free world had triumphed over the unfree and was now in ascendance. The liberal doctrine of individual rights, periodic elections, and consumer abundance appeared both irresistible and unstoppable. "People everywhere" is code word for w Taylor chains slogans to mimic the appearance of reason. Overall the text is extremely racist and narrow, without excelling even at this. Take the first paragraph: > In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, people everywhere cheered the dawn of a new democratic age. The free world had triumphed over the unfree and was now in ascendance. The liberal doctrine of individual rights, periodic elections, and consumer abundance appeared both irresistible and unstoppable. "People everywhere" is code word for white Westerners. I doubt much Chinese were even aware of the changes in the former DDR, and some are still perfectly content of not knowing where Berlin is located. The Soviets and their European colonies were told with every occasion that they are the guardians of the true rights of man, and not the West. Also, they all held periodic elections. And today, many of the Westerners believe consumer abundance a sin and not a virtue. So what is Taylor talking about? Overall this dense text is a sort of ode to the people who know better what the masses should want. Read the book if you need a collection of cute socially aware quotes for the Facebook status of a socially concerned person.

  21. 5 out of 5

    David Gomez

    There is no definition, practices, rules or set standards that can be put in place that constitute democracy. It means many things to many people, and, like freedom, democracy is a constant struggle. Historically, we have sadly seen democracy used as the ostensible justification for occupation, war and even ethnic cleansing. In this book, Astra Taylor explores what democracy really is, what it can be, and suggests why, in its various shapes and forms, it is foundational to creating a better soci There is no definition, practices, rules or set standards that can be put in place that constitute democracy. It means many things to many people, and, like freedom, democracy is a constant struggle. Historically, we have sadly seen democracy used as the ostensible justification for occupation, war and even ethnic cleansing. In this book, Astra Taylor explores what democracy really is, what it can be, and suggests why, in its various shapes and forms, it is foundational to creating a better society. By weaving together examples from the past, lessons from philosophy, and conversations with scholars, students and even refugees, Taylor describes the liberatory potential of democracy, and why we should fight for it. There's also some cool stuff about pirates in the book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    1. Athenians has real democracy (for males non-slaves non-foreigners anyway). They consider freedom and equality to be inseparable, because with economic inequality comes political inequality. Yet Plato and Aristotle despised democracy. 2. American democracy was more limited, to land-owning white men. The War of independence happened because 1) the Brits wanted to tax to be used to halt settler appropriation of native land; and 2) the Brits just outlawed slavery. These developments ‘upset’ peopl 1. Athenians has real democracy (for males non-slaves non-foreigners anyway). They consider freedom and equality to be inseparable, because with economic inequality comes political inequality. Yet Plato and Aristotle despised democracy. 2. American democracy was more limited, to land-owning white men. The War of independence happened because 1) the Brits wanted to tax to be used to halt settler appropriation of native land; and 2) the Brits just outlawed slavery. These developments ‘upset’ people like George Washington. 3. The rich has always want to separate freedom and equality. So the poor are free to choose amongst low paying crappy jobs, without protection; the rich pay a flat proportion of tax (after all the deductibles, trusts and oversea account a la Moneyland); any progressive actions are labelled as ‘communists’ and ‘freedom quashing’. Any talk of equality means less freedom (thus ‘Right to Work’). It’s survival of the fittest/richest jungle out there. Progress over the rights of minorities did not happen due to the oversight of the founding fathers, but because of constant bottoms-up activism. Madison especially was concerned about the poor majority taking away the property of the 1%. 4. Occupy Movement: started well but debate soon devolved into chaos, favouring people with a lot of time, and an ‘irascible’ core group can block every reasonable proposal, and finally fist fights. However this striving of unanimity and consensus reaching is practised in the United Nations. Voting alienates the minority opinion. She admires anarchists (!) because of their expression of their voice. Consensus is not always good; when women and African Americans fought for equal treatment, most whites disagreed. 5. Thus continual conflict and struggle is essential in democracy. 6. Democracy must decide who is in and who is out. Bhutan is the happy country for Bhutanese but not the Lhotshampas who were invited guest workers who were expelled from the country. This sounds like what is happening to a lot of invited workers when the ‘true locals’ do not want them anymore. Racial, religious, birth place, caste, gender can all be used to exclude groups of people from democracy. Taylor thinks that everyone should be included, and non-citizens should be allowed to vote. Indeed, democracy is often discriminatory and perpetuate bigotry and racism. 7. Since corporations can be ‘persons’ with rights, Taylor thinks that animals should have rights too. I find this... disturbing, because how about other living things such as plants? Is it right for us to kill any animal or plants to maintain ourselves? 8. Taylor mentioned the current corrupt American lori coal scene when Congress is rated lower than commune. Corruption with political donations in exchange for favouritism is rampant. 9. There is absolutely no democracy in the work place. Bosses often coerce and micro-monitor the workers, not allowing even toilet breaks. Taylor suggests we break the law if we deem it unjust. 10. Social reform often only happens after public unrest. To suppress voters, gerrymandering has been mastered by Republicans to ensure they will always win more seats even when their overall share of votes drop. Republicans such as Reagan cut taxes to limit government. Equal representation of states regardless of population gives undue influence to rural whites, and should be abolished... Taylor suggested going back to the Greek style of using lottery to select their representatives. 11. College students are now focused on earning the qualifications to become an expert, and apathy is the rule. We need experts, but today’s experts have become elites who think they are above the masses. They use meritocracy to justify their privileges, enrol their kids in good public schools or private schools, to lock out the disadvantaged. For schools in the poor districts, severe funding cuts mean little money for stationary, cold and disgusting food, to train students to become obedient workers so ever easier to control when they grow up. 12. The founding fathers learnt about the idea of a ‘United States’ from the local Indian tribes, not from the Greeks; Europe still had mostly monarchy at that time. 13. Greek showed that neoliberalism triumphed over democracy. Lots of Greeks have already left the country. The Geneva School involving Hayek and others is the culprit of that system, and the World Trade Organisation is the evil empire. The Geneva School would put the rights of corporations and investors paramount; nations and workers be damned. Trade treaties even allow corporations to sue governments for lost potential profits! 14. Taylor thinks that people must be able to flow freely like capital and be allowed to vote wherever they are. She agrees with Piketty that the lack of inheritance tax, will increase inequality over generations because return from investment is faster than economic growth. In summary, Taylor wants a revolution to institute democratic socialism. Some of the suggestions are good, but the whole system sounds like communism in theory to me, and we know what happened to communism in practice.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ken-ichi

    I like the paradox / tension framework, and I like the ones she picked (even if I might have added independence / solidarity, i.e. the ability to go off and do your own thing vs. having to stick it out and work with people you don't agree with). That said, I think Taylor used some of them as light cover for editorializing or digression. For example, the coercion vs. choice chapter is almost exclusively focused on the coercive power of capitalism vs the power of violent coercion invested in the s I like the paradox / tension framework, and I like the ones she picked (even if I might have added independence / solidarity, i.e. the ability to go off and do your own thing vs. having to stick it out and work with people you don't agree with). That said, I think Taylor used some of them as light cover for editorializing or digression. For example, the coercion vs. choice chapter is almost exclusively focused on the coercive power of capitalism vs the power of violent coercion invested in the state, while the coercive powers of culture or of architecture / design went unexplored. Why wouldn't a more socialist economic system be equally coercive? This failure to question her own assumptions, even if the result might be to reaffirm them, recurs throughout. That said, Taylor is forthright with her opinions and they often keep the book from getting bogged down in an academic death spiral of introspection. You can't finish the book angry about knowing more about a problem without having been offered some solutions, because Taylor is generally as clear about those as she is attached Greek analogies. My brain-barf notes that you should probably ignore... p. 19 isegoria: "the right to both speak and be heard in the Assembly." I'm sure she emphasized the right both to speak *and* be heard based on her problems with the latter during Occupy General Assembles. A curious principle that has never really been a part of American free speech, to my knowledge. p. 23 Taylor proposes that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 limiting private purchase of land and expansion west of the Appalachian crest "was the glue that united small-time farmers and wealthy land speculators" against the British because their privileged position as whites was threatened in favor of some privilege for Indians west of the line. A quick read on the Proclamation would suggest that this is over-reliance on the single source she cites, Aza Rana's The Two Faces of American Freedom, and that the importance of the Proclamation in motivating revolution is at best debated. As Taylor writes herself on the same page, I'm sure "the reality was, of course, more complex" than reducing the American Revolution to an exercise in pure racial enmity. p. 25 Taylor cites Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown describing "the only true aristocracy, the race of white men" as a way to elide class divisions by emphasizing (and reinforcing) racial ones (actually she cites Coates, who in turn cited Brown's original missive to his legislature). At the time I was reading this I was also listening to the outstanding podcast The History of American Slavery by Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie, and this quote really illustrated the "slave society" in America on the eve of the Civil War in which explicitly racist thought was a core tenet of social structure, as opposed to the "society with slaves" of a century prior when people were still racist but those thoughts and opinions weren't the foundation of social organization. Also, they did a follow-up about Reconstruction?! But I have to pay for it?! p. 38 "If advancing equality via affirmative action or progressive taxation is portrayed as an unjust curtailment of liberty, it follows that 'color-blind' policies or a flat tax that treats everyone the same, regardless of their background, qualify as equity–maintaining, in other words, equality before the law while ignoring equality of opportunity or outcome. This is how equality has been twisted to mean leaving vast imbalances of power firmly in place, lest the freedom of the unfathomably wealthy or racial privileged be impinged." This sticks in my craw a bit. I think the analysis / accusation is sound, but it fails to address the true part of the half-truth: that we *should* be equal before the law (isonomia, right?). If there are going to be rules, they should be the same for everyone. That doesn't seem like a novel conception of equality to me, so if it's wrong, why is it wrong, and if it's right but the degree and extent of its application defeats different conceptions of equality, how does one strike a just balance? Is there one? Voter identification just seems like a red herring b/c there's so much evidence that voter fraud *doesn't* happen, but these issues seem more acute with affirmative action, because there are very real advantages in going to particular schools, and a limited amount of space in those schools, so if the law favors the admission of, say, black people over white people, white people have to sacrifice, specifically parents have to sacrifice opportunities for their children to right wrongs they didn't personally inflict. Equality of outcome might be achieved on a societal level, but not an individual one. Why is that state-imposed sacrifice for the greater good acceptable but, say, a cap on the number of children you can have totally immoral? I felt like Taylor just kind of assumes the morality of these issues is self-evident, while to me it's a murky mess. My other beef here (and I'm sure Taylor and I would agree on this) is conservatives only apply this principle of equal treatment before the law when it suits them. I don't think they're twisting the definition of equality so much as they adopt certain definitions of equality only when they profit from them. p. 42 "Should capitalism as we know it cease to be, the conflict between freedom and equality will linger on." Yes! I wish there was more exploration of this paradox beyond capitalism. Like, of course capitalism, but how do other economic systems address it? p. 44 Some nods toward the potential influence of American Indian political ideologies on European democratic developments of the 1700s, though not very thoroughly cited. What should I read on this topic? p. 51 "The consensus-based system, promoted as a cure for the ills of mainstream democracy, had turned out to be unbearable and a good measure more ridiculous than the original disease." Here Taylor's describing the failure's of Occupy's attempt to make decisions by consensus, which allowed minorities (sometimes individuals) to stymie decisions supported by large majorities. One remedy follows on p. 56 from political scientist Jane Mansbridge: consensus systems with adversarial fallbacks, i.e. if there can't be consensus, there should be a vote (or... what, trial by combat?) p. 73 American juries can chose to acquit, even if they think the defendant broke the law, if they think that law is unjust. My civics game is weak. This is called jury nullification. p. 80 Bhutan, the country that brought is the Gross National Happiness Index, has a history of ethnic cleansing. p. 95 Arendt: rights are not inalienable, intrinsic aspects of being human, or being alive, but privileges people collectively agree they should have. Taylor touches on this to delineate the exclusionary power of citizenship, but maybe doesn't poke at it as much as I might like, because I think it contradicts how most people think about the notion of a right, i.e. some kind of numinous part of selfhood like a soul or something. If we thought about rights as delicate external constructions maybe we'd be better able to perceive their erosion in the case or privacy or value them despite their ubiquity like the ability to breathe without effort. If we thought about them as emerging from collective decision-making and not the supernatural we might be less resistant to their abridgment for the collective good in the case of masks or vaccination. p. 102 Do all these countries with non-citizen suffrage actually have a lot of non-citizens, and if so, how do they compare socio-economically with the citizens? Taylor cites New Zealand, a country so desperate for immigrants that they pay them to come, so the fact that they grant them the right to vote might speak more to their need for people than their egalitarian conception of the demos. America could be more egalitarian, but there are at least other potential explanations for non-citizen suffrage that should be explored. p. 104 on the excesses of inclusion, I wish she'd chosen *some* conservative examples to maintain the guise of arguing from principle. Resistance to public school education (evolution, sex) seems like an easy one. p. 106 "Democracy, in my view, cannot be reduced to majoritarian preferences and popularity contests, but requires a more robust framework that protects minority rights from intolerant, illiberal prejudices, however, widespread those prejudices may be." This is in an attempt to argue that racism is fundamentally undemocratic, but this is exactly the reason we have minoritarian components to American democracy, like the Senate and the electoral college: because some of the founding colonies feared what they viewed as their rights might be threatened by a majority that didn't agree with those views. In America's case, a big one of those minority views was that slavery was ok. What kind of "robust framework that protects minority rights" can't be used to protect minorities that we fundamentally disagree with? p. 111 defining membership by "intercommunity relationships and cultural commitments." How would you do that? Like X different people vouch for your connection to the community and you have participated in Y cultural events? Could you use social media interaction data to quantify community membership? p. 113 Leland Stanford's Southern Pacific Railroad Company successfully argued that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applied to corporate "persons" and thus types of corporations or industries couldn't be taxed differently. It's way more complicated than that, but it started a gross misuse of the 14th to defend corporate personhood. This also comes up in Lepore's These Truths. Following this to other kinds of "artificial personhood" like viewing trees and rivers as people was one of Taylor's better connections. The idea that corporate personhood is a kind of animism might be Christopher Stone's, but including it here was great. p. 169 The word "gerrymander" was coined on a parodic broadside in 1812 criticizing the partisan districting work of Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. p. 184 "What is democratic progress, after all, if not new and better problems?" As my brother once grumbled, "'Good problems' are still problems." p. 189 "The effect of issues such as foreign disinformation on social media pales in comparison to homegrown structural hindrances [like the Electoral College], which dramatically dilute the impact of citizens' choices or disenfranchise them altogether." An excellent point. Prioritizing our problems is hard, though, and addressing foreign disinformation campaigns by regulating social media companies seems much, much easier than abolishing the Electoral College, abandoning the Senate, adding DC and Puerto Rico as states, adding more Supreme Court justices, etc. p. 210 The word "meritocracy" was only coined in 1958 in a satirical book by British sociologist Michael Young, who, in 2001, wrote an essay lamenting that the dystopia he warned of happened regardless. "It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others."

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tonstant Weader

    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 dem 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. https://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpre...

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

    The book starts off with the question: what is democracy? 🤔 I think the book does a great job analyzing democracy as a balance of paradoxes: - freedom and equality - conflict and consensus - inclusion and exclusion - cohesion and choice - expertise and mass opinion One of the key themes of the book is: "freedom requires political equality which requires social equality and economic egalitarianism." It is shown how neo-liberal capitalism and globalization has dominated the modern world, and exacerbated The book starts off with the question: what is democracy? 🤔 I think the book does a great job analyzing democracy as a balance of paradoxes: - freedom and equality - conflict and consensus - inclusion and exclusion - cohesion and choice - expertise and mass opinion One of the key themes of the book is: "freedom requires political equality which requires social equality and economic egalitarianism." It is shown how neo-liberal capitalism and globalization has dominated the modern world, and exacerbated economic and political inequality in all levels of society: local, municipal, national, regional, and global. These economic inequality make certain sides of the paradoxes worse, increasing instability and suffering. Thus, we need to understand this point: "Recognize that a baseline of equality is needed for people to freely make democratic decisions, and if they are impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged, they can more easily be disenfranchised or coerced." The book draws from the perspectives: - of great thinkers of the past like Hamilton, Paine, and Locke - of various forms of government as historically seen in the indigenous Iroquois, and Athens of ancient Greece - of lessons learned from more recent historical events such as the 1978 People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, 2015 Greek bailout referendum, and the 2016 US election I loved the amount references and concrete examples the author includes. It's great for general breadth of learning, and to name a few: - Friedman's characterization of globalization as "a golden straightjacket" - ISDS setting up double standards that favored investors over sovereign governments (basically it's unfair and shady 👀) - 1944 Bretton Woods Conference leading to the establishment of IMF and World Bank Despite how it is written for the general public, this book was fairly challenging to read given the amount of abstract arguments, and the huge breadth of examples and history provided as evidence. (Yet, the nerd dutifully obliges! 🧐👨‍🏫) A few noteworthy points I found profound: - People go to university to get a job rather than be a better democratic citizen. - Students of low and middle class cannot afford to think of university not as a return on investment. - The discovery of fossil fuels is strongly linked with the history of liberal democracy and capitalism. - The rich and the poor may share common citizenship, but live in very different worlds and have different interests. - Banks, not tanks, are used to undermine modern sovereignty. === Some notable quotes from the book (and there were many to choose from 🤯): "Democracy destabilizes its own legitimacy and purpose by design, subjecting its core components to continual examination and scrutiny." "Democracy demands that everyone contemplate and deliberate, that all of us think and reason, even if there have always been some who prefer that we didn't." "They insisted that globalization would spread democracy far and wide as long as democracy was meant to be formal elections and free markets." "Domestic special interests often push for and benefit from global economic order that undermine accountability, stability, and democracy at home." "The present is constrained and shaped by decisions of past generations." "Prior struggles and victories put the present into perspective." "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." "Freedom itself was the source of faction. Because constraining the liberty of citizens was an unacceptable price to pay for peace, for that would mean overturn to tyranny, the only resource was to try to mitigate the damage. A well-formed system complete with checks and balances and the separation of powers could curb factions' more destructive effects and yield social unity."

  26. 4 out of 5

    J Earl

    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 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.

  27. 4 out of 5

    B.

    **Free book alert! I received this Advanced Readers Copy in return for an honest review.** Just like 328,330,000+ other humans, I live in America, a country that is equivalent to an insecure male who constantly brags about his size and abilities as though he's god's gift to the planet. One of our greatest successes is being the world leader in democracy, spreading it across the world like heroes. We bathe in freedom and get capitalist facials, while ignoring the overwhelming flood from pipes burs **Free book alert! I received this Advanced Readers Copy in return for an honest review.** Just like 328,330,000+ other humans, I live in America, a country that is equivalent to an insecure male who constantly brags about his size and abilities as though he's god's gift to the planet. One of our greatest successes is being the world leader in democracy, spreading it across the world like heroes. We bathe in freedom and get capitalist facials, while ignoring the overwhelming flood from pipes bursting of poverty, rising healthcare costs, gun violence, and more. In Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone, along with her documentary What is Democracy?, Taylor explores the past and present of democracy including its many contradictions. This book raises so many questions about where we are and where we could possibly go in the future. Starting at the introduction, I found that so many of my inner conflicts were validated. Even Taylor's story about being told "authoritatively" by several men that we live in a republic, not a democracy, is very similar to an experience I had. When I went on to clarify that it is, in fact, more resembling an oligarchy, something else Taylor validates, I was dismissed. What is freedom? It is America's biggest brag, but freedom from what? For whom? If democracy is by the people, then who qualifies as the people? Taylor explores so many topics related to a democratic government including equality, gerrymandering, corporate rights, voting vs. lotteries, and more. She also makes it clear that there is no simple, definitive answer. Even when we look back at the lottery system of ancient Athens that gave equal access to government (at least for men), there now becomes the question of whether we truly want some people to be given office and decision-making powers? Also, are there times when certain freedoms should be constrained? In a world that is becoming more and more divisive along political lines, is democracy doomed? Taylor remains hopeful, but critical which is the kind of voice we need. With government processes being sugar coated and fake information being concocted on both sides to create confirmation bias, it becomes ever more important that we have discussions on these topics. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent in a system that continuously works to keep the wealthy in power. This was definitely a heavy book that will make you think, consider, and question. At times you may feel that it is hopeless, while other moments feeling the spark of optimism. It is not what I deem "brain candy", but it is an important read. I am anxious to see more of Taylor's work, including her documentary.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nick Klagge

    As an aside, I checked out this book from my library on "3M Cloud Library," which I heartily anti-recommend. On top of the annoyance of only being able to read on my phone, the reading interface is clunky and very slow, not nearly as good as even the Kindle phone app. However! This book was good enough that I persisted in reading, when I think I would have given up on many other books. I wasn't certain how strong of a book this would be since it seems to be a companion piece to Taylor's recent do As an aside, I checked out this book from my library on "3M Cloud Library," which I heartily anti-recommend. On top of the annoyance of only being able to read on my phone, the reading interface is clunky and very slow, not nearly as good as even the Kindle phone app. However! This book was good enough that I persisted in reading, when I think I would have given up on many other books. I wasn't certain how strong of a book this would be since it seems to be a companion piece to Taylor's recent documentary (which I haven't yet seen, but the book made me more interested to watch). But it very much does stand on its own. The book is structured in an interesting way, with each chapter discussing the tension between two seemingly opposing principles that have to stand in tension in a democracy--for example, freedom vs. equality, majority rule vs. expert opinion, etc. Each discussion is far-ranging yet also fairly focused and self-contained. Taylor integrates a variety of interesting topics, including for example what we know about governance structures on pirate ships. She also does a good job of complicating principles that might seem simple on their faces--for example, by touching on ways that including previously excluded groups in a polity can be done in ways that are both good (expanding the vote to women) and bad (de-recognizing the sovereignty of Native tribes). Of many good parts, I think my favorite part of this book was Taylor's serious discussion of the Athenian practice of sortition, or assigning governmental offices by random draw. She provides a very compelling discussion of the specific reasons the Athenians had for favoring this method as more democratic than elections, and makes some intriguing comments on how such a system would completely revamp many aspects of our society (such as education). Taylor argues fairly convincingly that ancient Athenians would not recognize the current American system of government as a democracy. At the same time, she is definitely not putting Athens on a pedestal, and acknowledges the many ways that they also fell short of democratic ideals. As the title says, Taylor's view is that no society has achieved the ideal of democracy, but many may have something to teach us as we struggle to salvage and improve our own. I think this would be an awesome book to use to structure a college course!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Erhardt Graeff

    This is the companion book to Astra Taylor's excellent documentary What is Democracy? Many of the interviews, historical references, and scenes are fleshed out here and organized around a more pointed argument than the documentary offers. Where the film pursues curiosity about the true meaning of democracy and how it is meant to function through the lenses of historical definitions and contemporary history, Taylor's book explores many of the tensions inherent to democracy to help us understand i This is the companion book to Astra Taylor's excellent documentary What is Democracy? Many of the interviews, historical references, and scenes are fleshed out here and organized around a more pointed argument than the documentary offers. Where the film pursues curiosity about the true meaning of democracy and how it is meant to function through the lenses of historical definitions and contemporary history, Taylor's book explores many of the tensions inherent to democracy to help us understand its fragility as a concept and practice and warn us that we are at risk of losing the bits of democracy we have established in modern times. Democracy's contradictions and tensions, especially its modern coevolution with capitalism, allow it to be exploited easily in ways that undermine its own ideals. Its strength and weakness is its fluidity. Most importantly, it is dependent on a shared belief of its citizens that this is how we want to govern ourselves, and a commitment to collaborate together to preserve it. This all makes democracy rare and precious and, as I said, fragile. Taylor marshals a wide range of philosophy, literature, history, and contemporary commentary to present her case. The book is erudite and insightful in the juxtapositions in provides, like the movies Taylor makes as a skilled documentarian. At times, though, it feels a bit thrown together and winding. Being organized around themes, means it often lacks the compelling, cohesive narrative that makes you want to keep reading past the parts that don't grab you as strongly. The book seems little confused about what it wants to be—straddling the line between an academic volume and a popular press book—but not quite succeeding as either. The book would have benefited from an edit developing stronger storytelling at the book and chapter levels to structure its narrative. I still think Taylor's contribution here as an amateur democratic theorist and observer of contemporary society is impressive. Right now, we are all looking for some guidance on how to make sense of democracy, and I think Taylor's book will be instructive for many, especially in helping make sense of why democracy is not "the end of history," but is rather an unlikely dance we have found ourselves in. And if we don't pay attention and work together, "we'll miss it when it's gone."

  30. 4 out of 5

    Joel Paine

    An extremely thought provoking and interesting book, I feel that it is probably phenomenal for a politically minded book club to spark discussion, but it ultimately suffers from trying to tackle too big a subject in too few pages. I can’t blame her. Taylor has a big project: a complete history of the concept of democracy. All of it’s flaws and contradictions on full display. Taylor believes that a true democracy has never existed and may not even be truly possible, but that it is an ideal that mu An extremely thought provoking and interesting book, I feel that it is probably phenomenal for a politically minded book club to spark discussion, but it ultimately suffers from trying to tackle too big a subject in too few pages. I can’t blame her. Taylor has a big project: a complete history of the concept of democracy. All of it’s flaws and contradictions on full display. Taylor believes that a true democracy has never existed and may not even be truly possible, but that it is an ideal that must be struggled for, each generation building on top of the foundation laid before it, with a mind towards the generations to come. I agree with her thesis. Where I find myself holding back a fourth star is that she sometimes assumes a certain familiarity with the topics on hand and assumes a particular world view on the part of the reader. While I met her assumptions on both points, I found it to be a stumbling block in my desire to possibly share the book with acquaintances who might have a different placement on the political spectrum. *I* understand that socialism and democracy are inseparable concepts. I can’t say that for a more conservative relative who I might otherwise want to recommend the book to. Ultimately, the message of the book is deeply necessary, which is partly why I might want to share it with people outside of my political bubble. As Taylor concludes: democracy may not exist, but it still might.

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