By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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What is democracy? It’s a simple question with many complicated answers. For her 2018 documentary of the same name, activist and filmmaker Astra Taylor traveled to locations as disparate as Athens, Greece, and Raleigh, North Carolina, to pose this question to Syrian refugees, college Republicans, and philosophers such as Cornel West. What she learned also informs her most recent book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, a meticulous examination of the tensions that emerge when any community is governed by “the people.”
Taylor grew up in a different Athens — the college town in Georgia that is one of the South’s cultural hubs. She and her siblings were “unschooled,” a form of education based on the belief that a universal curriculum limits children’s potential. “My parents thought, ‘Kids are innately curious, so why do they need all this regimentation?’ ” she says. A self-directed syllabus meant that Taylor could pursue her emerging activism, self-publishing magazines that railed against animal cruelty and the destruction of the environment. At the age of thirteen she made the decision to attend public high school and realized that not everyone her age was as passionate about social justice: “It was the mid-nineties,” she says, “and being political was not a particularly cool thing to be. Kids in my high school were not like kids today, walking out of class to demand action on climate change and gun control.”
After graduating from the University of Georgia at nineteen, Taylor moved to New York City to attend graduate school. In 1999 she read a front-page story in The New York Times about protests outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in Seattle, and she realized that this was democracy in action, not theory. Remembering the independent rock bands and artists fostered by the Athens culture of her youth, Taylor asked herself, “If you’re allowed to be an independent songwriter or an independent painter, then why can’t I be an independent scholar?” She started to devour books about the global economy and political philosophy.
In 2011 Taylor participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, contributing to a printed gazette that documented the movement’s progress. A common theme of those protests was Americans’ massive debts: student loans, medical bills, underwater mortgages. Taylor and other Occupy activists went on to form the Debt Collective, a nonprofit that merges the strikes and collective-bargaining strategies of a union with the information-gathering techniques of the Internet era. On the collective’s website, debtcollective.org, debtors can file disputes over credit reports, payday loans, or garnisheed wages while their personal information is used to identify predatory lending tactics and create solidarity. The collective’s moral and legal arguments for debt cancellation have been adopted by Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in their 2020 presidential campaign platforms.
In addition to her activism, Taylor has made two other films: Zizek!, about the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and Examined Life, about a series of conversations with other philosophers. Her 2014 book, The People’s Platform, takes a critical look at the rise of social media. I saw Taylor speak this spring on a panel in North Carolina, but for this interview we met on a muggy, overcast June day in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is an intensely focused speaker, whether in front of a group or one-on-one. As a rainstorm abruptly came down around our umbrella-covered table, she barely seemed to notice, firmly making her case about predatory lending, the perils of technology, and the ideological battle for American democracy.
ASTRA TAYLOR© Deborah DeGraffenreid
Cohen: You write that freedom and equality have a volatile relationship: “An excess of one can endanger the other.” What do you mean?
Taylor: Our contemporary understanding of the relationship between freedom and equality, at least in the United States, was shaped by the Cold War, when the U.S. came to stand for freedom — which was kind of a marketing ploy — and Soviet communism came to stand for equality but in a negative sense, as stultifying sameness. The two were like weights on a scale: if you have more freedom, then you have less equality, because in a world where everyone’s free to pursue his or her own interests, some people are going to succeed and others are going to fail. The price of freedom is massive inequality. On the other hand, if you try to maintain equality, you’re going to suppress people’s freedom to pursue their own interests and accumulate wealth and differentiate themselves.
The political traditions I gravitate toward are ones that see those terms as interdependent and try to hold them in balance so we can have the benefits of both. There have been times when freedom and equality have been seen as related. The French Revolution was the modern birth of democracy. For all its problems, the revolution led to the idea of freedom, equality, and fraternity as a triad of values: you need people to be free, you need people to be equal, and you need brotherhood to hold them together and keep the other two from getting out of balance. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was an inspiration for the French Revolution, said it’s only by coming together and deliberating that we can actually be free. Nobody can survive or flourish in isolation, and civic participation enables us to have autonomy. In other words, you need a kind of civic equality in order to collectively be free. That’s the tradition I look to.
In the American context, freedom has been reduced to mean freedom in a market-driven sense; freedom as an individual and not as a collective; the freedom to pursue your own interests.
We have all this propaganda for freedom. The day before yesterday I had a meeting in the Freedom Tower in Manhattan; there’s no Equality Tower. There’s a Statue of Liberty but no Statue of Egalitarianism. We need more equality propaganda! [Laughs.] Right now the balance between freedom and equality is really out of whack, and we need to put our fingers on the equality side of the scale. I think I see this starting to happen, just in how more people are talking about politics and about systems of oppression and the kind of world they’d like to live in.
Cohen: You say in the new book that contemporary freedom is the idea that we are “free to be unequal.”
Taylor: Equality can be a kind of oppression, if what you mean by equality is that every single person must be treated the same, no matter what. We’re not all the same. Some of us are old, and some of us are young; some of us are sick, and some of us are healthy; some of us are physically disabled, and others are able-bodied. Equal outcomes sometimes demand unequal treatment. I would like to see conditions that ensure all people have the resources to be free. I don’t think you fit the definition of free if you’re dying because you can’t buy insulin. If you literally can’t survive because you can’t obtain the basic necessities of life, that’s not freedom in my mind.
When I was making What Is Democracy? I interviewed some young Republicans. I don’t normally talk to twenty-two-year-old Trump supporters, and I assumed that they were going to give me the conservative spiel that democracy is free markets and everyone having a chance to duke it out in the marketplace and trickle-down economics and blah, blah, blah. Instead they told me they don’t like democracy, because democracy is about the majority wanting to improve their situation, and they, the young Republicans, are part of a minority of affluent white people. They literally mocked democracy on camera; that scared me.
They see capitalism as more valuable than democracy, because capitalism benefits them. And if the masses are empowered, they’re going to want to take rich white people down a peg. These young Republicans recognize that their status is dependent on others being impoverished. They recognize that if we had a popular vote in this country, and not the Electoral College, Republicans would not win the presidency. They recognize that controlling a majority of seats on the Supreme Court is essential to imposing their agenda. It’s not going to happen through mobilizing voters, because the policies they support are genuinely not popular.
What’s increasingly clear is that the far Right is abandoning democracy. It sees democracy as the enemy. It is a politics of aristocracy, a politics of hierarchy. I have gone on deep dives into far-Right subcultures online, and what they hate about democracy is the idea of equality at the center of it.
I do not see the problem of our time as one of populism and an overly passionate majority. I see the problem as an affluent minority who are tired of democracy and the equality that it demands. You find this in the bowels of the Internet, but you also find it in mainstream conservative thinkers like George Will. On the surface his new book looks like a standard-issue political treatise, but he’s basically saying that democracy has gone too far and is at odds with American conservatism. During the Cold War it was easy for conservatives to promote U.S. democracy over Soviet communism, but now that democracy means including all these groups and sharing resources and expanding the government, conservatives are going back to their roots and saying democracy is a problem.
Cohen: You mentioned the affluent white minority, but plenty of people on the Right are poor. You’ve been to Trump rallies; it’s not like everyone there is rich. We often read about how Trump’s policies are “punishing his base.”
Taylor: Yes, though it’s important to note that his voters were, on average, fairly affluent; the poverty of his base has been overplayed in the press. The thing is, you can still be middle-class and feel insecure, since it’s easy to lose ground in this society, and that tension pits people against each other. The most credible theory about why white people cotton to politicians and policies that hurt them has to do with racism. In his book Dying of Whiteness, Jonathan M. Metzl points out the irony that white supremacy has led to the decimation of welfare and social services, which mostly go to poor white people. If you’re poor and white, you’re going to be less healthy and not live as long as somebody who’s rich. The life-expectancy gap between a poor white man and a rich one is almost fifteen years. White supremacy turns out to be a kind of suicidal impulse for many white people.
I actually don’t think you can persuade people through argument, though. It’s better to use action. A policy that improves people’s lives is much more convincing than saying, “Hey, misguided Trump voter, read my book,” or, “Listen to my arguments about why you are a bad person and your point of view is wrong.” I think solidarity is something we have to consciously generate and cultivate. What brings people to Trump rallies, in part, is a desire for solidarity, but they can imagine only a kind of exclusionary solidarity: us against them. There are very few institutions that show them otherwise. These rally-goers probably don’t have a union at their job. They don’t have much of a political culture, besides Fox News or what they find on YouTube. We have to intervene by giving people a credible alternative. That takes organizing, and that’s why the Right and private interests have been so vicious about stifling any attempts to do that. Look at all the money they’ve invested in destroying unions.
I do not see the problem of our time as one of populism and an overly passionate majority. I see the problem as an affluent minority who are tired of democracy and the equality that it demands.
I do not see the problem of our time as one of populism and an overly passionate majority. I see the problem as an affluent minority who are tired of democracy and the equality that it demands.
Cohen: Trump’s rise has come at the expense of what passes for normal discourse, which has also coincided with the rise of outrage culture. Social-media platforms have discovered that anger increases “engagement.” So online platforms are giving people more and more things to be upset about — for example, the followers of YouTube channels who believe “lizard people” are running the world.
Taylor: I met some people in Georgia who believe that. We’ve outsourced our autonomy to algorithms. When we leave decisions about what we should watch to algorithms programmed to get people to click, they recommend YouTube channels that radicalize viewers and keep ratcheting up the extremism or the outrage. Studies show that awe makes people click, too, just slightly less than outrage, which is why we see this weird juxtaposition on the Internet of anger followed by a viral video of some animal doing something transcendent. [Laughs.]
Trump seized expertly on people’s anger and cynicism about government. He spoke to their sense that Washington is corrupt and politicians aren’t serving voters’ interests. I went to one of his rallies when I was shooting my film, and he confessed that he didn’t even like the phrase “drain the swamp,” but his people told him to say it, and the crowd loved it! He was basically telling the audience he didn’t mean it.
The fact is, the swamp does need draining, and for decades the Democratic Party was incapable of saying anything about money in politics that wasn’t mealymouthed.
I remember in 1999 reading about people protesting the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. There were the Teamsters and the Turtles — blue-collar workers and environmentalists — all saying we needed to reevaluate the North American Free Trade Agreement. What happened? The liberal establishment decided to have the next WTO conference in Qatar, where the public couldn’t protest. So who brings that issue to the national stage years later? Donald Trump. At his rallies I’ve seen messages on the jumbotron criticizing hedge funds and banks! I think there’s a lot of racism and misogyny in his base, but I also think there’s legitimate anger at elites, and that anger shouldn’t be swept under the rug, because addressing it would make our world better. I saw that same rage at Occupy Wall Street, and the Democrats couldn’t comprehend it then, either. If no one is speaking credibly to the problem, then citizens will turn to Trump — or to lizard people.
Cohen: Do you think it was inevitable that we were going to end up here?
Taylor: I don’t think it was inevitable, but it wasn’t a fluke either. We’re in a battle over what America is and what America could be. Cornel West says it beautifully in my movie: thirteen colonies revolting against the British Empire was a precious but highly limited democratic experiment. So we can hold that in our minds at the same time: precious and limited, profound and imperfect. The colonies won a kind of freedom that was transformative for some, but it was predicated on the dispossession of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. That’s just a fact. We have to live with that complexity.
Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. There’s a strong American tradition of the demagogic charlatan leader. In my book I draw an analogy between Trump and George Washington, who also invested in real estate; he wanted to speculate on land in indigenous territory and was angry at the British Crown for getting in his way. We can also see hints of Trump in Ronald Reagan, who was a General Electric–branded movie star. We can see hints of him in Sarah Palin, who turned a failed vice-presidential run into celebrity status on the Right. And I think this troubling continuity is more visible to certain people. In What Is Democracy? I talked to Delaney Vandergrift, a student at North Carolina A&T State University. The day after the election, she said Trump is just America with the mask off. As a nineteen-year-old black woman who’d been involved in protests and who’d had a gun waved in her face by an angry white man, she was speaking from an experience that I don’t have. She told me Trump is the “blood, guts, and sinew” of America. She was sad but not shocked.
There’s also this other American tradition of increasing egalitarianism — of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the New Deal in the 1930s, and the Supreme Court pushing for social equality in the 1960s. But I resist seeing Trump as just a fluke or an aberration, because it’s too flattering to ourselves. When people say, “Trump’s not us,” I think, Maybe we need to see how he is us, so we can prevent this from happening again.
Cohen: Do you think our democracy can save us?
Taylor: It comes back to the question “What is democracy?” And “Are U.S. elections, as they are currently structured, democratic?” I personally think the way we structure our political system, with the Electoral College and winner-take-all elections, is incredibly flawed. Then there’s the fact that people in many states have to drive ninety minutes to a polling station, in an age when I can get something delivered by drone! [Laughs.] This is not accidental. This is because America is still living this racist, aristocratic legacy.
Part of American vanity is that we think of the U.S. as the apex of democracy, but there are many other, better ways of structuring elections and fostering democratic engagement. Even the idea of “one person, one vote” is a recent development here. The phrase was famously uttered by John Lewis at the March on Washington in 1963. Lewis [now a U.S. representative from Georgia — Ed.] said in a speech, “ ‘One man, one vote’ is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.” The “African cry” was a reference to the African National Congress in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela and others were saying, “We want one person, one vote.” That seems like such a minimal definition of democracy, but it didn’t become part of Supreme Court jurisprudence until 1964. The founding fathers certainly didn’t want “one person, one vote” — that’s not in the Constitution. And the fact is, we still don’t have “one person, one vote” because felons are disenfranchised, and because a lot of people can’t get to the polls, and because votes aren’t weighted fairly in our system. If you live in a populous state like California, your vote for president counts a lot less than the vote of someone from a rural state. Senate races are similar. So “one person, one equally weighted vote” could be a nice goal to work toward. If we had that, we would have a different president. We would have a far more liberal political system.
Or why not “one person, multiple votes”? I don’t mean voting twice for your candidate but “ranked-choice” voting — picking your top three (or more) candidates in order of preference. So you could vote, say, for the Green Party first, but if the Greens failed to get a majority, your vote would go to your next choice. Right now third-party contenders are just splitting the vote, but ranked choice — which just passed in a suburb of Detroit, and in Maine for some federal elections — enables us to vote for third parties without worrying about casting a “spoiler vote.” So “one person, multiple votes” could be a better goal. Or maybe we should be doing what Ireland did in 2016, when it was considering amending its constitution to make abortion legal: It put together an assembly of ninety-nine average citizens and a single judge who oversaw the proceedings. They spent months deliberating on numerous constitutional issues and concluded that the Irish constitution was out of date. That led to the 2018 referendum that legalized abortion in Ireland.
Those average citizens didn’t have the power to say, “This is now the law.” But they created a sense of democratic legitimacy in the decision to hold a referendum. They weren’t professional politicians. They didn’t have an agenda. They weren’t trying to get reelected. They weren’t taking favors. And in a landslide, this reform that had once seemed totally impossible passed.
These are all credible ways for us to break out of our ossified thinking. Democracy isn’t set in stone. It’s mutable, and there are lots of strategies to increase participation. Republican gerrymandering is an effort to decrease participation and keep a minority in power. Although a lot of people voted for Trump, and a lot of people will vote for him in 2020, they’re not the majority, especially when you think about how many people don’t vote in this country. What we need to be sweating bullets over are the structures that allow for minority rule or minority veto — the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and the Senate filibuster, not to mention the role of money in politics. Those are hugely powerful points of leverage where it doesn’t matter what the majority of the country wants. I personally think constitutions should be periodically updated. They’re not the word of God.
Cohen: Some people treat ours like it is because it fits the argument they’re trying to make — about the Second Amendment, for example.
Taylor: I totally agree. This is why I think it is important to bring the founding fathers down a notch. Some of them were smart — I’m not denying it. Go back and read The Federalist Papers. These were erudite men. But they weren’t saints. They were fallible human beings. And they understood that what they produced was a messy compromise, not a utopian blueprint. We have a twenty-first-century society running on an eighteenth-century document. It’s OK to update it once in a while. Other countries update their constitutions, and they’re fine. [Laughs.]
Cohen: You participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. What did you take away from that experience?
Taylor: I learned that what brought people to the encampments were experiences of financial hardship: they couldn’t pay their medical bills or their student debt, or their mortgages were underwater because of the financial collapse. What connected everyone was indebtedness. So, out of Occupy, a group of us started a debtors’ union called the Debt Collective.
Cohen: How does it work?
Taylor: The overarching idea is that, since the 1970s, we’ve moved from a welfare state to a “debt-fare” state. Wages have stagnated, and people have compensated for that by accessing credit. Credit cards weren’t a thing for our grandparents when they were younger, but now almost everyone has one. Today the majority of bankruptcies stem from medical bills, and the average American dies with $62,000 of debt. So much for passing on an estate to your kids!
Easy access to credit masked the fact that inequality was growing at alarming rates.
Cohen: What are the arguments for student-debt forgiveness?
Taylor: I think the most important and compelling arguments for debt forgiveness are moral and democratic. Education should be a right, and is essential to creating an informed, democratically minded population. When you debt-finance education, you transform learning into an investment, and the payoff is a well-paying career. In contrast, when education is free and publicly funded, the goal is a well-educated citizenry, and everyone benefits. That’s why I believe we should cancel student debt on principle. There’s also an economic argument for canceling the debt. Research shows that it would be a massive economic stimulus. Student debt is holding back growth, causing people to delay starting families and buying houses because they’re paying these enormous bills for their student loans month after month. Getting rid of student debt would allow millions of people to spend more on housing and other necessities.
Finally there are some legal arguments. The first hinges on a little-known part of the Higher Education Act that basically says a school can’t defraud you. It doesn’t say what counts as fraud, and until we worked with a team of lawyers to create a debt-dispute tool, only a handful of intrepid individuals had ever tried to dispute their debts, because the government had never outlined the rules for how to do it. Now there’s some legal precedent. We established that borrowers, whether they went to a for-profit college or a nonprofit college, have the right to cancel their debt if they were defrauded. And that’s significant in a world where you can’t discharge your student loans through bankruptcy — because Senator Joe Biden and his friends rewrote the bankruptcy laws in 2005. Thanks, Joe!
But there’s an even better legal argument called “compromise and settlement.” It seems that the Department of Education (DOE) has the unilateral authority to cancel all federal student loans. Nobody has ever convinced the DOE to use its compromise-and-settlement authority, but the DOE has the ability to do it without waiting on Congress.
Cohen: Can you walk me through the process of getting debts forgiven?
Taylor: The first step is coming to a kind of political awareness. Our slogan is “You are not a loan,” which gets at the fact that our financial realities are not always of our own making. It’s not your fault if you have medical debt or have to take out a payday loan because you can’t keep a roof over your head on minimum wage. The problem is not personal; it’s structural. We’ve done dozens of debtors’ assemblies over the years, where people are invited to talk about their financial situations in a sympathetic public setting. It can be extremely powerful.
The second part is recognizing where you have leverage and using it. Your debt has value to lenders. It represents money they stand to receive. By refusing to pay, you can force financial entities to negotiate.
The third part is exercising the rights that Americans already have on the books. There are all sorts of consumer-protection laws regarding finance. Lenders can’t be discriminatory, for example; they can’t target certain classes of people; they need to have all their paperwork in order; debt collectors can’t harass, threaten, or intimidate you. When you spot a violation, you need to say, “Hold on, you actually broke the law. My rights aren’t being respected.”
The fourth part is a kind of media imagination strategy. This is where the Rolling Jubilee [another activist group that was formed out of the Occupy Wall Street movement — Ed.] came in. We bought debts from the same brokers that sell them to collection agencies, but instead of collecting on the debts, we abolished them. We crowdfunded around $700,000 and were able to erase more than $31 million of medical debt, private probation debt, and payday loans. Often debt collectors are trying to extract an amount from you that dramatically exceeds what they paid for the asset. They basically paid for your information so they could harass you.
For the student-loan strike we launched in 2015, the target was the DOE, the government. We argued that people had been given government loans on behalf of colleges that had targeted single moms, people of color, and first-generation students, and on top of that had completely lied to them. The strike began with fifteen people and grew to hundreds of strikers, who insisted on exercising a right they had on paper but had no way to actually pursue. We wanted one person from every state to use an app we had made to dispute their debt, and instead tens of thousands of people used it, to the point where the DOE just took our program and put it on its website. We created this crisis of rule-making in Washington, and we’ve won more than $1.5 billion in debt relief for our members.
There’s abundant evidence of fraudulent behavior in student loans. The schools are essentially perfect mechanisms for sucking up government money and abusing students. In fact, some of our members are suing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos because she’s legally supposed to cancel some people’s loans, and her department is stalling. In the specific instance of for-profit colleges we had a lot of legal leverage, because the fraud was so egregious. For-profit-college students are disproportionately black. More than one in four are single parents.
As we focus on the education system in general, we’re creating more political demand for debt cancellation and free higher education for everybody. We’re redirecting the conversation, and our goal is to create more policy changes. To our surprise and happiness, this position has been picked up by the left flank of the Democratic Party: Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders have announced their “college for all” act, which would cancel all student debt and institute free college. Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a similar plan that her advisers have said was inspired by the Debt Collective’s work. In that sense, things are moving so rapidly that we’re having to recalibrate our strategy and expectations. It looks like the public is far more enthusiastic about these ideas than we had initially given it credit for.
In an ideal world the Debt Collective platform would become wildly popular, and we would collect enough of people’s personal information and economic histories to see financial patterns and build strategies around them. Why should data mining be used only by private companies to grow their profits? What would data collection for the public interest look like? Instead of just ceding that terrain to all these data brokers on the Internet, why not use it to benefit people? As we browse the Internet, data brokers are generating consumer scores and profiles about us. Mine probably says, “Astra: She’ll buy your vegan products. Advertise those comfort-brand shoes to her over and over again.” [Laughs.] But we could be collecting data for radically different causes.
When you debt-finance education, you transform learning into an investment, and the payoff is a well-paying career. In contrast, when education is free and publicly funded, the goal is a well-educated citizenry, and everyone benefits.
When you debt-finance education, you transform learning into an investment, and the payoff is a well-paying career. In contrast, when education is free and publicly funded, the goal is a well-educated citizenry, and everyone benefits.
Cohen: You say the Debt Collective functions like a labor union. How so?
Taylor: A traditional union organizes people by workplace; we organize them by debt type and by region. So instead of being in a collective with others who work in your trade or for the same company, you’ll be grouped with others who have the same type of debt or maybe owe money to the same hospital or payday-loan company. It’s a way of building commonality with people you don’t know personally. That’s the challenge of organizing: How do you get people to recognize the cause they have in common?
We have had people successfully dispute old utility bills, credit-card debt, and private student loans. The reason this works is that many entities trying to collect debts do not have the paperwork or do not meet the baseline legal standards to collect. There was an article in The New York Times a few years ago in which a judge said that in 90 percent of court cases regarding credit-card debt, the entity trying to collect didn’t have the proper paperwork. It was either missing or had been forged, or something hadn’t been done properly. Part of our operating principle is that if enough people start exercising these rights they have on paper, it will be a crisis for the financial system. Right now banks act as if they are entitled to take 26 percent interest — and 26 percent is low! Many payday loans or title-loan shops end up taking 400 percent interest.
It’s going to be very hard to win new consumer protections under the Trump administration, but that doesn’t mean we can’t exercise the rights that exist.
© Joanna Proffitt
Cohen: So there are protections for people who owe money, but people either don’t know about them, don’t know how to find them, or — if they’re taking out payday loans — don’t have time to figure them out?
Taylor: People’s first impulse is to think, “I did something wrong. I should have known this for-profit college was not a good school. I just got a bad deal.” But some of these for-profit colleges are systematically lying to people, ginning up their graduation or employment numbers or worse. In their marketing departments they talk about finding the “pain hole” when recruiting. If you’re trying to recruit a single mom, you say, “Don’t you want your kids to admire you? How can they, if you don’t get a college degree?” They use these high-pressure marketing tactics on people. Why should the fact that you wanted to go to school, or that you had to pay for an ambulance ride with a credit card, be a source of profit for anyone?
We want to use these moments to have a larger conversation about how our society is structured. When the U.S. was founded, the interest rate was capped at 6 percent. Anything more than that was considered obscene; there were taboos against usury. Why do we now think it should be limitless?
A theory of social change is that people often become involved in movements out of self-interest. We speak to that self-interest — “You can’t pay your student loans” — and then get them to see (a) they’re not alone, and (b) part of the reason they are struggling is because society’s not set up to help them live a dignified life.
Cohen: People don’t have medical debt or student debt in Europe, but they pay high taxes. And Americans don’t want to pay higher taxes.
Taylor: I’m more familiar with the Canadian model. [Taylor was born in Canada and holds dual citizenship. — Ed.] Taxes there aren’t that much higher than they are here. It also depends on what we think of as a tax. I would happily pay the government the $1,300 a month my household pays for health insurance if I never had to deal with a private insurer again. I just wrote a piece for The New Republic about how Americans — especially, I think, middle-class white people — are attached to the idea that we don’t have social services, that we’re self-made, but that’s only because all the mechanisms that support us are less visible than food stamps or disability benefits. Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler talks about the “submerged state.” The mortgage-interest deduction, for example, is a massive subsidy to middle- and upper-class people. It encourages people to borrow from banks and benefits only those who are already privileged enough to buy a house. That’s invisible, and we don’t think about it as welfare, but we do think about food stamps, which are pretty meager in comparison, as welfare.
To get Americans to accept free public-college education or universal health care, we have to say, “Hey, the state’s already helping us.” We have to bring that submerged state into focus and talk about how to make it more equitable. Instead the system is designed to flatter a certain population that believes it’s not getting benefits. Only after we bring the state into view can we have an honest talk about how to expand it or democratize it. Yes, you might pay a bit more in taxes, but in return you’d get security, and you wouldn’t have to pay for private health insurance or spend time battling with your health-insurance company.
We’re still far from that, though. With debt, we first have to deal with people’s incredible shame over the fact that they went to college to get a better life and now can’t pay off their student loans. People are reluctant to talk about how they are struggling because they feel like they’ve failed. That’s why those debtors’ assemblies I mentioned can be so key, because they open up a space for participants to realize they are not the only ones drowning.
Cohen: People who work forty to sixty hours a week may not have the time to engage with these issues. They’re just trying to survive. That’s the paradox of America: we’ve created a system that reveres freedom and the ability to make choices, but a lot of people don’t have much choice in life.
Taylor: This is where I’m very much a partisan of the Left. Social progress is made when there’s a robust left wing. So many of the reforms we now take for granted — universal suffrage, the forty-hour workweek, the weekend — would not have happened if there hadn’t been real momentum on the Left, often driven by people who were socialists or communists. Capitalism has taken over our lives and depleted our political imaginations, in part, because there hasn’t been a countervailing force in a long time. That’s why this political moment, as terrifying as it is, is also full of possibility. There’s been a breakdown, but there could also be a breakthrough. People are saying, “Maybe we want an alternative.” A poll just came out that shows roughly half of millennials have a positive view of socialism. A year or two ago another poll said four out of ten Americans, and a majority of women, are sick of capitalism. There does seem to be baseline recognition that what we have is not working.
If you look at the civil-rights movement, many of the organizers, like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, had been involved in socialist politics. They didn’t want to keep the world the same and just have more black people at the top. They wanted to restructure our economy entirely, so there weren’t incredibly rich people living at the expense of incredibly poor people. So I try to pay attention to electoral politics and the noise of the day, but I also try to put my energy into building and strengthening the Left.
Cohen: Is there too much antagonism between the Left and the Right? People are retreating into entrenched positions and shouting each other down.
Taylor: Yes, there’s a lot of polarization, and it has complex sources. I think we really feel it, in part, because we are all online too damn much! If folks would talk it out in person, it would be better than an Internet discussion. People are not necessarily their best selves online, because, as we discussed, destructive behavior is incentivized by the big social-media platforms, which is why some scholars rightfully call them antisocial media.
If we want to change the world, we have to find ways to talk to people who don’t agree with us. Otherwise we’re just going to write off entire swaths of humanity. But the best approach is not to argue with people or try to intimidate them with your superior knowledge. You have to show people that another way of living is possible, that scarcity isn’t inevitable. Outrage culture is not appealing to me. I’m pushing back against sanctimony and self-righteousness on the Left: “Well, I know all the answers, and I know how it should be, and if you were just enlightened like I am, we wouldn’t have all these problems.” That attitude is antithetical to my values. I’m not here as a writer or organizer to give marching orders. I want to create bonds of solidarity. To me, being a leftist is being anti-hierarchy and wanting to empower people, and that means having to trust people. Why do we treat trust like it’s this scarce resource?
In my film I try to demonstrate this trust by asking people from all walks of life about their ideas and giving them space to reflect. As a director who is present in the film, I tried to have a principled voice but also to actively listen. There are places where I could have inserted my opinion or insight, but instead I stripped myself out as much as possible, unless I was asking questions.
Listening and taking people seriously is not a position of weakness; it’s a position of strength, a position of learning, and an important part of the democratic process. There’s this great quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” The ancient Greeks revered the concept of parrhesia, of frank and fearless speech, of “telling it like it is.” But even more important to them was isegoria — the idea that everyone had the equal right to speak in the assembly. And they ensured equality of speech by making sure that people could actually be there. Farmers and artisans got paid for a day’s work so they could participate in self-governing. The ancient Greeks saw that equality of speech would demand material support. Our Supreme Court has decided that money is speech, and there’s no equality in that.
Listening is important because if you begin to act self-righteously without being receptive, you can become tyrannical. There’s a beautiful documentary called Seeing Red, about people who were Communists during the Great Depression, the New Deal, the early fights for civil rights. At a certain point in the film, they are confronted with the fact that Soviet Stalinism was hell on earth. And one woman says, “How did this happen? We’re critical thinkers, and we wanted to build a better world. But our listening devices got turned off.” You can’t stifle other points of view. You can’t turn off your listening device.
Cohen: After the 2016 election some black writers on Twitter posted messages aimed at white liberals, essentially saying, “Welcome to our world.”
Taylor: Exactly. Hello! The day after the election, I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I interviewed state representative Mickey Michaux for my film. He’d been recruited into politics by Martin Luther King Jr. He was unhappy about the election results, but he also said he’d seen this before. What did we expect: that the forces of bigotry, segregation, and class warfare were just going to roll over and let us have the day? He put it in historical perspective for me. At the time, he was eighty-six — he had lived more than twice as long as I had on this earth. He had lived through Jim Crow and been in the pitched, violent battles to end it. He basically said, “You don’t win and then stop. You have to keep fighting.” Somehow we had been lulled into thinking that the progress of the twentieth century was absolute.
Again I go back to the idea that change has never been made without the participation of hard-core radicals — labor organizers, socialists, communists. That type of militant wing doesn’t have much of a presence in civic life anymore. We’re not going to go to the voting booth and create a world where resources are equitably distributed. We have to figure out other strategies. That’s why I’m happy to see renewed attention to labor organizing and strikes. You have to be willing to obstruct business as usual. It’s not enough just to march in the streets with pink hats on, even if you have a million or more people. Americans are so hesitant to actually make trouble. We’re so well behaved! [Laughs.]
This is why, with the Debt Collective, we write our white papers, we write our op-eds for The New York Times, but our members also go on strike. We believe in economic disobedience. When it comes to debt, sometimes you have to say, “Can’t pay, shouldn’t pay, won’t pay.” There’s a long tradition of people refusing to work, refusing to go to war, refusing to exploit others. We need to do a lot more of that. We have to misbehave. Gay rights started with a riot! We wouldn’t have the Americans with Disabilities Act if disabled people hadn’t publicly made able-bodied people uncomfortable. We have to interrupt business as usual and the flow of capital if we want to create change.
Cohen: In the book you write about how democracy must be protected from capitalism. What you’re advocating is not armed rebellion, but it is drastic action.
Taylor: There’s this word that’s tossed around in politics: realism. It’s used to pooh-pooh people who are maybe too idealistic, or maybe want things to change too rapidly, or want changes that are too dramatic, or support supposedly fringe ideas. We’re at a moment now when the climate crisis is challenging that. Established science is telling us that we have about a decade not just to curb emissions but to radically remake our society and our economy. We have to do something transformative. If we don’t, the consequences are going to be bleak.
Capitalism has a pattern of wealth concentration. Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, says that inherited wealth grows and pays dividends and interest that are greater than wage increases, and this always leads to greater inequality. To prevent this, we need to drastically change the way our economy is structured, or at least start taxing wealth at the rates that it was taxed in the middle of the twentieth century.
What I’m saying is that radicalism is realism. These so-called fringe ideas are striking people as common sense, especially younger people. More than 50 percent of millennials and Gen Zers say they are in favor of socialist policies. And they’re getting involved in politics.
The capitalist idea is “Leave it to the market to solve.” The democratic impulse should be to ask, “Why?” Matters like how we structure our retirement and how we take care of each other are political. They’re not questions the market alone can answer. We can’t just abolish Social Security, put everyone’s money in 401Ks, and hope people retire when the market’s high.
Capitalism is antithetical to democracy in the sense that the concentration of wealth undermines political equality. It’s not just that rich people can buy off politicians or pay lobbyists; it’s that all decisions get made based on the bottom line: whether we invest in fossil-fuel extraction or renewable energy; whether we invest in a mental-health-care system that’s never going to be profitable but would improve people’s lives; whether we burn down the Amazon, even if it causes the planet to overheat, or invest in the restoration of wetlands with no financial return.
Cohen: After all these discussions you’ve had with people about democracy, what does it mean to you personally?
Taylor: Over the course of writing the book and making the film, I returned often to the Greek etymological roots of the word: demos and kratos — the people rule. I guess I’ve come around to that as the definition. But the question of who “the people” are is always up for debate. As a woman, I wouldn’t have been included in “the people” a century ago.
I also often find myself going back to a definition offered by Aristotle, who names three types of governments: rule by one, which is monarchy; rule by the few, which is oligarchy; and rule by the many, which is democracy. And he says that since the poor will always outnumber the rich, democracy, by definition, means rule by the poor. We’ve lost sight of that class component.
Josiah Ober, an expert on ancient Greece, has a beautiful definition of democracy as “the capacity to do things together.” I love that idea of collective capacity, but it’s not just doing things together; it’s thinking together, reflecting, and asking that Socratic question: How do we want to live?
Astra Taylor says, “When people say, ‘Trump’s not us,’ I think, Maybe we need to see how he is us, so we can prevent this from happening again” [“An Imperfect Union,” interview by Finn Cohen, November 2019]. This is a stark admission that more folks must come to grips with.
Taylor accurately outlines the obstacles to a real populism based on one person, one vote — especially how the burden of debt restricts our political self-determination. Our real situation is clear: since the concentration of wealth undermines political equality, we must start taxing wealth at the rates it was once taxed.
I helped organize the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that showed Astra Taylor what “democracy in action” looked like [“An Imperfect Union,” interview by Finn Cohen, November 2019]. I am also working-class.
So many movements — from civil rights to feminism to LGBTQ issues — have been helped by those with the money to fund the effort. But who will put up the money to end the stigma of poverty? Since those of us in the lower classes don’t have the wealth to fund our own movement, most people who speak for the poor on the national stage are middle- to upper-class intellectuals. How are we to launch an effective movement when so few of us have access to the power that money could afford?
While interviews with thinkers like Taylor encourage me to speak up and act, I wonder where people like her think people like me will find the time and energy to do so.