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” by the Los Angeles 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 plutocrats in the White House to gerrymandering and dark-money compaign contributions, it is clear that the principle of government by and for the people is not living up to its promise.
The problems lie deeper than any one election cycle. As Astra Taylor demonstrates, 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 interviews with such leading thinkers as Cornel West 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 those outcomes, whatever they may be—peace, prosperity, equality, liberty, an engaged citizenry—can be achieved by non-democratic means? In what areas of life should democratic principles apply? If democracy means rule by the people, what does it mean to rule and who counts as the people?
Democracy's inherent paradoxes often go unnamed and unrecognized. Exploring such questions, Democracy May Not Exist offers a better understanding of what is possible, what we want, why democracy is so hard to realize, and why it is worth striving for.
About the Author
Astra Taylor is the author of The People’s Platform (winner of the American Book Award) and made two documentary films, Zizek! and Examined Life. Taylor’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, n+1, and The Baffler, where she is a contributing editor. She lives in New York City.
"Astra Taylor will change how you think about democracy... She unpacks it, wrestles with it, with the question of who gets included and how...she excavates the invisible assumptions that have been bred into our idea of democracy... Taylor's work is alive to paradoxes, ambiguities, and hard questions that don't offer easy answers." —Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show
"We live in an age that demands that we rethink democracy from the roots—and teach ourselves to think again as citizens. Smart and engaging, Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist makes a formidable contribution to meeting those pressing generational challenges." —Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
"A brilliant, deeply learned discourse on democracy, equality, and how the second might save the first, by one of the most incisive thinkers on participatory politics today." —Molly Crabapple, author of Brothers of the Gun
"What a lot of trouble democracy has been! Over the years it’s been hijacked by its enemies, its reforms have backfired, it has evaded challenges, it has refused to heed its prophets. But as Astra Taylor reminds us in this timely and sagacious book, there is no substitute. The fate of the world depends on it." —Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal
"What is this thing called Democracy? Google the question and you will exceed one million hits. But for an honest and illuminating answer, read this book—every single word. Searching, lucid, visionary, Astra Taylor takes a deep oceanic dive into the history, meaning, uses, and promise of democracy—moving from Plato’s Greece to Syriza’s Greece, from the Global South to post-Communist East, from slavery to fascism, liberalism to neoliberalism, Occupy to the Commons. She knows what most political scientists don’t: that democracy is a promise unfulfilled, and in our strivings to achieve it nothing is guaranteed. But we can’t live without it."
—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
"Astra Taylor is a rare public intellectual, utterly committed to asking humanity’s most profound questions yet entirely devoid of pretensions and compulsively readable. Now she plunges deep into the crisis that underlies so many others: the sorry state (and the exhilarating promise) of this thing called democracy. At once richly historical and immediately relevant, this wise, lucid and unflinchingly honest book deserves to be at the center of public debate." —Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough
“Moths never reach the moon, but they navigate by it; we humans may never reach democracy, Astra Taylor tells us, but we navigate by its ideals. This is a beautiful, revelatory book about ideas and how they matter in everyday life, by the only writer who could herself navigate so gracefully among factory workers, contemporary economics, and ancient Athenian history.”
—Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me