JULY 5, 2019
IN ANNA BURNS’S Man Booker Prize–winning novel, Milkman, the main character — “middle sister” — learns about two-thirds of the way through the book that she has been defined as a “beyond-the-pale” in her community. This status comes not as a result of her attempts to avoid the sexual stalking of a local paramilitary leader (“Milkman”), but instead as a result of her habit of walking while reading. “Longest friend” tells her that her behavior is “not natural”; it is “disturbing,” “deviant,” “[n]ot public-spirited,” “[n]ot self-preservation.” Walking while reading, her friend tells her, is an activity that is “incapable of being mentally grasped, of being understood.” She is “[going] around in a political scene” with her “head switched off.”
Of course, middle sister’s head is very much switched on, but not in the way her community demands. Rather than using her head to defer to what Astra Taylor calls “constraining common sense,” middle sister goes about in public letting her body and mind inform each other, opening up new possibilities for thought and movement.
Burns’s book is my example, not Taylor’s, but “walking while reading” is as good a description as any for the kind of democratic citizenship Taylor advocates in her magnificent, paradigm-shifting new book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Taylor’s book challenges the very old idea that the demos is the “belly” of the polity, which depends on the “head” of elites to direct and guide it. This idea, which goes back at least to Plato, continues to inhabit the majority of recent books on democracy, which tend to look to institutions, experts, and “norms” to address the rise of right-wing leaders, rather than to the people. Taylor does something very different: she looks to democratic actors as democratic thinkers. Democratic movements, Taylor notes, have always had “strong pedagogical components,” from the Knights of Labor’s emphasis on self-education, to the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights movement, to the volunteer-run libraries of the Occupy movement, among many other examples. Even as the people in these movements “walked” — protesting, congregating, occupying, striking — they also read and thought.
In our society, as in the quasi-mythical (para)military society of Milkman, walking-while-reading is threatening to the powerful (and to those who identify with them) because both groups rely on hierarchies of knowledge to constrain our actions and imagination. In Burns’s Milkman, “longest friend” uses the dominant notion of “public spirited” to discipline middle sister, and walking while reading — as an individual practice — turns out to have little power: middle sister is ultimately reintegrated into patriarchal and social norms. Similarly, in our society, a dominant narrow idea of democracy — as a set of electoral institutions, norms, and rights — teaches us to see popular participation, action, and movements as signaling a “crisis” in democracy rather than democracy itself. Yet if these dominant ideas help economic and political elites keep their outsize role in the political process, then Taylor’s book invites us to consider how learning to read while walking together may be one way of starting to democratize political power.
Many recent books chart a narrative of democratic decline, then call for the reinstatement of norms or institutions that might re-democratize us. By contrast, Taylor describes democracy as perpetually changing and unfolding; this is “as much a cause for jubilation as despair,” she argues, because it “remind[s] us that we are part of a long, complex, and still-unfolding chronicle, whatever the day’s headlines might be or whoever governs the country.” This idea of democracy powerfully draws on, even as it innovates, a strain of democratic thinking within the academy (by figures like Bonnie Honig, Wendy Brown, and Jason Frank). This strain sees democracy as always imperfect, and constituted by participatory contestation — not for its own sake, but because contestation is how the marginalized are able to challenge an always exclusive consensus and remake their institutions to be more equitable and empowering.
The problem right now, as Taylor shows us in lucid and deep detail, is that we live in a society designed to disempower most people and to render their lives precarious and meaningless. We live, in other words, in a society that works to keep the people from being able to negotiate democratic dilemmas in a democratic way. Our institutions are built, Taylor argues, to segregate and isolate, to enable voter suppression and limit political participation, to train most people for the “servile arts” instead of the liberal arts, to ransack the planet for the sake of the enrichment of a few, and to keep most people in precarious economic situations while some elites become wildly wealthy. In such a de-democratized society, most people are kept from having the tools to think freely, live equally, and exercise power in public affairs. In other words, most people are deprived of the status of citizen, understood as a category that must be enacted, taken, and demanded, not legally conferred. Due to the paucity of opportunities to act democratically, Taylor argues that we also have trouble reflecting on what democracy is or should be.
For Taylor, democratizing our society is thus not just about saving certain liberal procedures, norms, and institutions — indeed, some of those procedures and norms are likely part of the “constraining common sense” that limits our ability to act and think more democratically. For her, democratizing our society demands that we save democracy from capitalism by creating greater economic equality, making public goods like college and health care free, aggressively regulating and taxing fossil fuel companies, and radically reducing popular indebtedness. Looking to the writings, speech, and actions of democratizing movements, she shows that they consistently demand economic equality as necessary to the exercise of free democratic governance. Without it, the economically powerful will inevitably hold disproportionate political power and use it — as history has shown — to favor their narrow interest.
In making this argument, Taylor joins a chorus of recent intellectuals (including Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Corey Robin) who insist that economic equality is vital to freedom, social justice, and democracy. Writers like these are doing important work in this political moment, reinvigorating the leftist intellectual imagination. As Taylor and others show (Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains comes to mind here), the right wing recognized the power of big ideas to shape public life just as the left was turning away from those big ideas toward the end of the ’70s. This was, as Taylor rightly says, a deeply consequential mistake that left a huge void, where the only ideas of “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy” on offer in the public realm were narrowly defined in terms of the market, parties, and electoral institutions. Taylor helps to fill that void by offering a major left rethinking of democracy for a general audience. Her book is complex but also deeply accessible and lucidly written. It is, in other words, a democratic book about democracy.
But Taylor doesn’t just seek to explain democracy to the public; instead, she reimagines democratic thinking from the ground up, looking to social movements and everyday political actors for their philosophical insights. The perennial fear of elites is that if the people really hold power, we will end up with total disorder, but Taylor shows that this fear has always been a product of the elite imaginary, not reality. In The Republic, Plato articulated this fear through the parable of the mutinous ship; Taylor counters by showing that the most democratic of ships, the pirate ship, was actually extremely equitable and well governed. Taking us through histories of democratic movements, and putting the voices of political thinkers on equal footing with democratic citizens, Taylor shows that when we enact democracy democratically, the result is not disorder, but an ongoing practice of “living in tensions.” Democracy, she argues, will always be a mix of inclusion and exclusion, expertise and popular action. For her, the practice of democracy is not about designing ideal democratic institutions (a tendency of most democratic theory), but instead about becoming comfortable with looking to our fellow citizens as we wrestle with political dilemmas and battle for the most democratic society we can.
Taylor’s emphasis on thinking democracy — on democratizing public philosophy — is perhaps the book’s most exciting intervention. Her argument calls to mind the political theorist James Tully’s case for democratizing philosophy in his two-volume Public Philosophy in a New Key. But Taylor is not primarily interested in remaking academic political theory and philosophy (to, as Tully argues, be charged with the task of creating “toolkits” for activists). Rather, she is concerned with making philosophy part of democracy, to be pulled well out of the academy and into the streets (where, she shows, it has always been anyway). Taylor, in other words, wants us to stop seeing thinking as the realm of experts — and thus opposed to democracy — and instead to see democracy as itself a practice of action and thinking, of active reflection and reflective action.
Taylor’s position could appear too close for comfort to those she criticizes. She could be seen as saying that intelligence is necessary to democratic governance, a position that comes close to the argument for a meritocracy that always elevates certain kinds of intelligence over others (e.g., Pete Buttigieg). But Taylor is carving out a distinct position: that thinking and philosophy (not “intelligence,” a 20th-century category that correlates with the sorting techniques of standardized testing and machine learning) are important to democracy. And they are important not because they offer solutions to our problems (although sometimes they might), but because they help us listen to each other, chart new paths, constitute power, and make hard judgments and decisions.
Consider, for example, the ideas of freedom that black children offered during “Freedom Summer” (that Taylor quotes from Eric Foner’s account): “‘going to public libraries’; ‘standing up for your rights’; ‘having power in the system’; a ‘state of mind.’” This more “multidimensional conception of freedom” depends on political power and economic equality, emerges out of democratic reflection, and challenges powerful interests. What might happen if we create economic and political conditions where these views of freedom can be taken as seriously as the voices of professors and pundits? Expert knowledge is always important, but we need, Taylor says, to democratize our concept of expertise, to see everyone as equally capable thinkers and actors, who have different kinds of knowledge and experience to bring to the table.
Yet how can individuals who are segregated, isolated, and disempowered, feel empowered to begin this project, to change the economic and political conditions of our society, to begin walking and reading together? Perhaps I am wishing that Taylor had added one more chapter to talk about this problem, which is, in my view, also endemic to democracy. When people are systematically isolated and disempowered, when the dominant ideas of their society teach them that coming together will endanger or further isolate them rather than empower them, how can they forge associations, collective groups, consciousness-raising groups, or something new to democratize their society? How do disempowered individuals become empowered collectives?
This brings me back to middle sister, who never gets there. Toward the end of the book, Milkman is killed in an explosion (this is not a spoiler, you learn this at the very outset of the novel). Middle sister starts walking again — but not walking while reading — and she is reintegrated into her community. In the final pages, she goes running with “third brother-in-law” who had given her a long lecture on the problems with walking while reading earlier in the novel, and “almost laughs.” But this is not a happy ending. Rather, middle sister’s almost laughter reflects that she has been reabsorbed into communal norms of what feminist thinker Sara Ahmed would call “happiness,” that feeling of almost contentment at having achieved, or being seen as at work achieving, what white bourgeois society portrays as its ideal: being married, having children, owning a home, earning a stable income, et cetera. For Ahmed, the ideal of happiness is deeply depoliticizing. It pulls people away from public life and into the domestic realm, denigrates racialized forms of intimate and public life that do not conform to bourgeois ideals, and teaches us to see any problems we have as signs of a disordered or unhappy domestic life rather than as signs of political problems that need to be democratically addressed. In such a depoliticized society, moving from this isolated disempowerment to collective empowerment can feel dangerous, unpleasant, and sometimes (as Lori Jo Marso argues) perverse.
One way that disempowered people can begin to form collectivity is by noticing that they have already started, that they are actually already in a more collective situation — with more power — than they realized. For example, they might notice that their intimate or workplace conversations are actually about political problems that could be collectively resisted. Taylor’s book moves us toward this condition by writing to us as readers who are already reading while walking. Taylor’s deep and wide examination of democratic movements, conversations, and grassroots institutions makes the reader feel as if they are already part of this conversation, as if by reading the book, they have already started to engage in the practice of being a democratic citizen. She speaks to the reader on the level of an equal, and the reader starts to feel as if they could speak back. To put it differently, reading Taylor’s book makes one think democratically, but this thinking also invigorates one’s everyday movements, and makes one start to feel democracy as a pleasure of thinking and acting.
Taylor’s closing lines offer an image of how we might understand this pleasurable, philosophical practice of democracy. “Instead of founding fathers,” she says, “let us aspire to be perennial midwives, helping always to deliver democracy anew.” In invoking midwives, Taylor draws on a fertile symbol of democratized knowledge and explicitly draws out a feminist impulse that orients the book as a whole. Historically, midwives’ expertise was pushed aside by the rise of professionalized medicine (dominated by men). But Socrates also described himself as a midwife, helping to deliver truth. Taylor’s invocation of midwives at the end is thus nicely fitting: she suggests that democracy is something that demands everyone’s expertise, knowledge, and thinking — even and especially the knowledge of those who have been historically excluded.
Yet ultimately, Taylor does not ask us to — like Socrates — deliver “truth,” but, instead, to create the conditions for a more democratic society and to prepare ourselves to negotiate its inevitable dilemmas. Taylor’s book calls us to read like citizens, but it also shows us that we are already learning this practice from each other. “Democracy may not exist and yet it still might.”
Lida Maxwell is associate professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Boston University. She is the author of Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling (Oxford, 2019) and the co-author of The Right to Have Rights (Verso, 2018).