- Interview by
- Astra Taylor
Last year, renowned filmmaker and writer Astra Taylor spoke with legendary thinker and radical Angela Davis in an event sponsored by Jacobin and Haymarket Books. The subject: ‘Their Democracy and Ours.’ In their wide-ranging conversation, the two spoke about the relationship between democracy and socialism, the historic role of radicals in democratic struggles, the need for a revived internationalism, and much more.
Astra Taylor is the author of Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone and, most recently, coauthor of the Debt Collective manifesto, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition. Angela Davis is distinguished emerita professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz; the subject of the acclaimed documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners; and the author of many books, including Women, Race and Class.
Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I want to talk about the democracy of the Founding Fathers and about how the political system we’re operating in was founded on so many exclusions: the exclusion of enslaved people, women, and men without property. They wanted to protect the rights of a minority of the opulent, of landlords and slaveholders. The structures they devised are still with us.
I also want to speak toward the horizon of abolition, but I think we need to be aware of the fact that progress that has been made can be rolled back. That’s what Reconstruction teaches us. Or look at the voter suppression happening now in North Carolina. In Florida, felons with debts will not be allowed to vote. How can we operate while keeping these levels of oppression in mind?
If we simply look at democracy as a form of political rule, we exclude a whole range of issues that ought to be attended to in discussions about democracy. Why is it that this myth of the United States as the first democracy continues to command so much attention? As you said, it was actually a democracy of the minority, which ought to be oxymoronic.
It would be interesting to talk about the economic applications of democracy. What would an economic democracy entail? What about the social dimensions of democracy? And how is democracy changed in relation to the particular economic system which constitutes the foundation for that democracy?
What would it be like to imagine a democracy in which everyone got to participate on the basis of economic, cultural, social, and political equality? If we argue that everyone, by virtue of living in a particular region, should be considered a citizen and should be able to participate in governing and the economy, what would that mean?
I love this line of questions. When I was interviewing people for my film What Is Democracy?, and particularly when I was interviewing young conservatives, I expected them to tell me how capitalism was democratic and to use the rhetoric of democracy. But I found, especially in the days after Donald Trump won the election, that they knew they were never going to win majorities. Forget the marriage of capitalism and democracy: they have taken the capitalist part and become self-consciously elitist. [Recently], we saw Republican [Senator Mike Lee] tweet that we’re not a democracy anyway.
On the other side, people are realising that we need to marry socialism and democracy. We need to have an economic underpinning of equality. We don’t have anything approaching the liberal rights and freedoms that we’re supposed to have because there’s so much inequality.
But I don’t think that answers all of our questions. We must think about the democratic conundrums that would come to the fore under socialism. How do we share power? How do we live in a world with common wealth, where we want people to have control over their lives? How do we decide who gets to make what decision? I think the questions of democracy would be much richer and more profound.
I question whether the outcome of the last election might have been different if more attention had been paid to those who are experiencing the impact of global capitalism — the poor white families who now recognise that their children are not going to be better-off than they were. The outcome might have been different if we had developed strategies permitting us to recognise that so many of the existing problems in this country are directly related to the rise and spread of global capitalism.
As a matter of fact, we used to have more economic democracy than we do today. Once, people could expect to be treated at any hospital if they were ill. Hospitals and the whole healthcare system had not been privatised, as they are now, which is one of the reasons why the Covid-19 pandemic has created such a state of emergency — particularly with respect to hospital beds, because empty hospital beds are not profitable.
If one looks at the impact of global capitalism, it is very much an explanation for the rise of the prison industrial complex, as well as the disestablishment of so many institutions that used to serve as an economic safety net for people. The failure to develop more institutions devoted to the public good has created a terrain in which poverty has expanded, not only among communities of colour, but also among white people.
[Donald Trump] called upon those who were suffering, providing false solutions, such as a return to an era in which the industrialised economy in this country responded to people’s needs. And that’s not going to happen. The jobs that have gone all over the world, particularly to the Global South, are not going to return to the United States. It is important to consider the ways in which economic transformations have a direct impact on democracy.
I want to ask about the history of Red-baiting and attacks on the Left, and the role that these have played in undermining democracy. I think it speaks to what you were laying out — the lack of robust unions, the lack of associations where regular people can get a radical political education and be treated as thinking, active participants.
For decades, people involved in socialist and communist struggles referred to the ‘other America’. There was the America represented by those in power, and then there were the unions and struggles against racism and sexism. What we’ve lost in our historical accounts is the role that communists and socialists played in expanding the possibilities of democracy in this country. We have unemployment insurance as a consequence of struggles in the 1930s. Black communists in the South [helped] create the terrain for the Civil Rights Movement.
[Today], as we are engaging in what people are calling a ‘racial reckoning’, our terminology should be broader. It’s not simply a racial reckoning. It’s a reckoning with the history of this country — not only the history of racism and the history of class exploitation, but also a history of the resistance. If we aren’t aware of those whose struggles created democracy as an aspirational notion, not as a given set of affairs—not as simply a way in which government is organised, but as a struggle for a more just, more equal society—then we have nowhere to start. We don’t acknowledge the continuum on which our struggles unfold.
Can you reflect a bit on the connection between incarceration and democracy? We’re heading into an election where voter disenfranchisement in Florida may tip the state Republican. That’s what happened in 2000. But it’s much deeper than that.
You’ve pointed out that Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America only came about after he wrote a paper touring the nation’s prisons. You have said that imprisonment is a negation that liberal democracy required as evidence of its existence. Is this negation—where I’m free if you’re unfree—intrinsic to democracy, or the version we’re living in?
In his book on slavery and social death, Orlando Patterson speculates that Western democracy must have evolved from the yearnings of the enslaved to be free. The very concept of freedom that we work with requires a sense of unfreedom in order to explain its emergence. Slavery was the palpable evidence to those who were not enslaved that they were free. But with the emergence of prisons as punishment, in conjunction with the rise of revolutionary ideals and the emergence of democratic imprisonment, punishment became the underbelly of democracy.
You need capitalist democracy in order to imagine imprisonment as a punishment, because imprisonment entails the divestment of rights. It would make no sense in a society that did not recognise individual rights. It would make no sense outside of the context of a democratic society. I think it’s really important to keep in mind that that constitutive negation of democracy actually constructs a democracy, and therefore it has to be denied those who are in prison.
I want to invite you to speak on the idea of abolitionist feminism. Social feminists, like many others, have thought about the importance of social reproduction, which sometimes involves care work. That has come into relief for me as a democratic issue, as we are ruled by an administration that seems contemptuous of vulnerability. Weakness, sickness, and disability are mocked. I would love to hear your thoughts on feminism, democracy, and the importance of care in a democratic society.
We generally assume that when the subject turns to feminism that we’re going to address issues of gender. And, of course, we have to address issues of gender. But feminist approaches are so much broader than simply engaging with gender. Abolition feminism urges us to think about what might be required to begin to move in a democratic direction — that is to say, what we might need to cast into the dustbin of history.
Let me use an example of gender violence. If we did not have to assume that the institutions of policing and imprisonment were there to solve this problem, we would have to take a much more complex approach. This is what I appreciate about feminism: it troubles our neat analysis. It makes us recognise that the social realities don’t always reflect the neatness of our analytical categories, and that we have to be willing to try to begin to approximate the messiness of social reality. When we say that police and prisons are two institutions that need to be cast into the dustbin of history, how do we address the problems that these institutions pretended to address but could not?
The political constructs the personal, and constructs what we often assume to be ideas that have been generated by our own individualities. A feminist would argue that we cannot achieve abolition without also recognising that we have to adapt a critical stance to our own emotions and to the ideas that we assume are our own. These are often the ideas of the state that work through us.
I think these feminist insights are absolutely essential when it comes to reimagining a democracy that would be more egalitarian and provide more justice for all.
I want to talk about nonhuman animals. Covid-19 is not a natural disaster. It jumps species, because human beings, driven by capitalist imperatives, are devouring the natural world. We use 40 percent of the earth’s surface for food supplies. The next pandemic will probably emerge from an American factory farm, because we cram thousands of animals into these cages. The climate is part of this, too.
It can be very utopian to think about including nonhuman life in our democratic politics. I personally feel like our lives depend on it. With the destruction of the environment, illnesses are increasing in number and virulence. People say we need to prioritise humans as though solidarity is a zero-sum game, but I feel that we have to reject that and expand the circle of concern. I would love to hear your thoughts on that.
I completely agree with you. The prioritising of humans also leads to restrictive definitions of who counts as human, and the brutalisation of animals is related to the brutalisation of human animals. This will be a very important arena of struggle during the coming period.
If we are to engage in ongoing struggles for freedom and democracy, we have to recognise that the issues will become ever more expansive, because initially, the question of democracy only addressed a small subset of white, affluent men. I’m not suggesting that the trajectory of history is automatic. But we have witnessed an ever-expansive notion of the nature of democracy. And I do not see how we can exclude our nonhuman companions with whom we share this planet.
Earlier on during the pandemic, I did a webinar with people in the Brazilian Amazon. They have to address not only issues of racism, but also the burning of the Amazon. This makes me want to suggest that we have to avoid narrow approaches. We have to work against the blinder syndrome, which means we can’t only think about people in this country.
As far as the vote is concerned, immigrants who live in this country ought to be able to vote because they are part of the community. We will also have to address the obsolescence of the nation-state. I’m thinking about issues that will more than likely come up in the future. I don’t know whether I will be around when they become mainstream. I did not think I would be able to witness the mainstreaming of abolition. But here we are.
For all of democracy’s exclusions, there are some municipalities where residency is the only voting requirement. There are other countries where you don’t have to be a citizen to vote. In some states, people in prison used to be able to vote.
And candidates had to go visit the prison.
Our imagination is closed to things that have actually existed before. I love this vision of democracy as an expanding circle — what it conjures is people looking back on us and saying, ‘They lived in democracy’s dark ages.’
Along with Critical Resistance, you’ve done an amazing job getting the radical concept of prison abolition into the mainstream. I want you to say a little about what that feels like.
And can you also talk about your remarkable openness to emerging organisers and your willingness to learn from them?
We must challenge hierarchies, including hierarchies that seem to be set in stone — such as those that guarantee the elderly more power and influence by virtue of age, and those that command the younger generation to follow in the footsteps of the elderly. I think that we should be more egalitarian.
This is one of the ways in which we can enact democratic relationships in the course of struggling for change, not only in relationality of generations, but also in relation to those who are in prison and those who are outside. Oftentimes, those who inhabit the so-called free world assume that they have greater capacity to give leadership than those who are imprisoned. And I am thankful to Critical Resistance, because from the very outset, the organisation insisted on bringing those who were actually in prison into the leadership.
I don’t think that we have enough occasions to create democracy as we struggle for democracy. But I think that it is also a feminist approach. That helps us to not only imagine a new world, but to become worthy of participating in that world in the course of struggling for it.
Brilliant. That’s such a wonderful answer. And I think in the spirit of democracy we will now take some questions from the audience.
What inspires you about Black Lives Matter? Where might it stand to learn lessons from the experience of the New Left and the social movement struggles of the 1960s?
That movement is so exciting. The Ferguson protests and the emergence of Black Lives Matter have had an impact not only all over the country, but all over the world — the grasping of the meaning of ‘black lives matter’, which had been so often misinterpreted as meaning ‘all lives matter’. The tyranny of the universal, as I like to call it, was a way of discounting the impact and the particular experiences of black people in the USA.
I’ve learned so much from the three women who founded the Black Lives Matter network and the Movement for Black Lives. My mentors during this period have been the young people who have taken up the struggles of the past and given them much more substance. It inspires me because I see a generation that doesn’t take for granted how long and hard we struggled. They not only know how to articulate this, but they know how to expand it, and to develop ways of transforming the world that are truly inspirational.
Oftentimes, we learn so much more from our mistakes than from what we did correctly, and the younger generation has to be prepared to experiment in the course of trying to figure out how one builds movements. What is the language that appeals to people? Even though we are living in a world made by racial capitalism, how do we nevertheless create a critical response? How do we encourage people and movements and organisations to recognise that ultimately we are going to have to dismantle this system and move in a socialist direction?
When we think about what sustained the generations from the Old Left to the New Left and beyond, we see that they often had ‘democratic centralist’ organisations that were too rigid. But these organisations had some sense of membership, debate about their programme, and the ability to take the energies of activists and channel it into organisational vehicles. Now, we see the growth of several organisations on the Left, but it seems like we’re far more diffused now. Can you comment on anything we’ve lost and need to find again?
I can talk about a range of things, but I’ll focus for the moment on internationalism. Sometimes I wonder why we have not been able to create a sense of emotional connection with people in other parts of the world. Why is it that black women in this country are not more connected to the Brazilian black women’s movement? There is so much that we can learn from the struggles of black women in Brazil.
I’m yearning for the kind of internationalism that makes us feel strong — that makes us recognise how our desires are desires that animate people all over the world. I’m not suggesting that there is no internationalism today, because Palestine has certainly played a part in pointing the way to our abolitionist struggles in this country. Abolition isn’t about getting rid of prisons; it’s about the whole carceral regime, and we see it in occupied Palestine. So I want internationalism now.