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Democracy is the antidote to capitalism

A new book explains capitalism, insecurity, and why democracy is worth it.

An inverted image of the US Capitol is reflected in a puddle on the east front of the building on May 9, 2023.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The “state of democracy” has been a popular discourse in recent years, to put it mildly. There’s a whole genre of books and think pieces about all the threats to democracy — both here and abroad — and how to save it.

But the majority of that work focuses on the familiar dangers we’ve all come to appreciate, like polarization or authoritarianism or election denialism. That’s all good and very much worth discussing. What you don’t see quite as often are actual defenses of democracy as an idea and a way of life. It’s almost like this is just taken for granted. But if democracy really is in danger, then we could probably use more reminders of why it’s worth defending in the first place.

Enter a new book by Astra Taylor called The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart. Taylor is a writer, filmmaker, and activist, as well as one of the co-founders of the Debt Collective.

In 2019, she wrote one of the best recent books I’ve read about democracy, called Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. It was a defense of democracy to be sure, but it was also honest about the paradoxes and contradictions baked into any democratic experiment. This new book feels a little different. It toggles back and forth between policy, history, and philosophy, and it builds a case for collective action on the basis of our shared human vulnerability.

I am obviously here for this kind of thing, so I invited Taylor onto The Gray Area to talk about the book. Below is a brief excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.

Sean Illing

An interesting point you make in the book is that insecurity is part of the human condition and something we all experience one way or the other, but it can cut both ways: It can be a source of shared struggle or a source of resentment and fear, and which way it goes depends in large part on what stories we decide to tell ourselves—

Astra Taylor

As you know, I organize with debtors. It’s hard to overstate how much blood, sweat, and literal tears I have put into building the Debt Collective, working alongside people who have negative wealth, who are the most economically disenfranchised folks in our society.

This book is saying, Well, there’s something universally fucked up about what’s going on. “Insecurity” is a frame for us to actually have empathy for people who we might not be in total agreement with, and to understand some of the factors that are motivating them even if we don’t like where they’re going with it, and hopefully giving us a way to bridge the gaps and reorient our stories around a common solidarity.

Poverty and debt are objective financial conditions. I mean, you just have to look at numbers on the page to know if somebody’s in the bottom income quintile or owes money to some bank or the government. Insecurity is subjective. It’s always forward-looking. It’s the fear of something coming to pass. Somebody doesn’t have to be at rock bottom to be insecure. In fact, the point I make in the opening chapter of the book is that the way capitalism functions, everybody’s insecure because there’s no floor to catch us. There’s no safety net, and there’s no ceiling. We’re all in this sort of vortex that causes people to feel like they constantly have to scramble, no matter what rung of the economic ladder they’re on.

I try to keep in the book a tight economic critique, to not get too lost in the universalism, but also say that this really does affect everybody. Maybe when we see it that way, we can expand our coalition, we can build new solidarities, we can start building a majoritarian movement for a reimagined security.

Sean Illing

There’s a whole etymology of the word “insecurity” in the book, a word that apparently didn’t enter into common usage until the 17th century. What happened in this period?

Astra Taylor

That insight that insecurity as a term emerged in the 17th century I owe to a British political theorist named Mark Neocleous, who wrote a book called Critique of Security. He’s a left-wing theorist and his position is that the word “security” is corrupt and should be thrown out. It’s a tainted concept. Obviously, in my book, I’m saying security is something we need to rethink, not abandon. But nevertheless, he made this observation about insecurity, and etymologically that’s true. It’s not something that really comes into usage until even later, like the 18th century.

The word “security” is old and a very ancient concept. What happens around the 17th century is the rise of modern market society. Markets existed for a long time. Markets are nothing new. But what capitalism does is it puts markets at the center of human relationships, at the center of government. So you start living in not a society with markets, but a market society. That’s a really different thing.

This happened in a concrete way through something called the enclosure movement, which is essentially the privatization of land in England. Over centuries, it was a very slow process, but a devastating one. Peasants who had traditional rights to what’s called the commons, traditional rights to hunt and fish, and glean for firewood or herbs, or to have some livestock, those rights were taken away. These were longstanding customary rights, communal rights to collectively manage land. Then the wealthy class basically kicked them off and privatized lands. We’re talking about millions of acres, many, many acts of parliament chipping away and chipping away at these customary rights.

This is really the beginning of the creation of the working class. Because once people do not have the customary rights that enabled them to subsist, because they can no longer feed their families, they no longer have fuel for their homes, then they end up having to migrate to cities and become day laborers. We see the rise of urbanization, and slums, and the working class, and the rise of factory work instead of this farming.

That’s not to romanticize life on the commons or feudalism by any means. It’s just to say that insecurity had to be created in order for capitalism as we know it to manifest. People needed to be severed from the land and thus “free” to work for a wage in order for capitalism to gain steam.

So what I’m saying is a capitalism is born of insecurity, it’s not a strange or unfortunate byproduct. Capitalism comes first. People had to be severed from the land and turned into this new worker, and then capitalism has to keep that insecurity going. That’s why I say it’s an insecurity machine.

Sean Illing

I think it’s obvious enough all the ways that poor and working-class people suffer, but I’d say an equally important argument you make in the book is that even the people today who have means, who are “winning” in this economy, also suffer, though in different ways—

Astra Taylor

I’m pretty emphatic about this in the book, that even those who appear to be winning, according to the logic of the capitalist game, have set themselves up to fail and, if some polling and studies are to be believed, they’re pretty miserable and unhappy. I mean, the big factor right now is the climate catastrophe. Nobody is safe on a burning planet and there are so many examples of that.

But I’m really saying, Yes, people might have means in the society, but what does that look like? For example, the people who join the Debt Collective are oppressed by their student loan bills, by their medical bills, by the dream of getting out of debt so they could maybe take on more debt to get a mortgage, to get a house, a fantasy that’s becoming impossible for so many people these days. Then you’ll be paying off your mortgage until you’re 70 or 80.

People are stuck on a treadmill of economic precarity. In this country, one unexpected illness or accident can devastate your financial well-being. We know medical debt is the leading driver of bankruptcy in this country, for example. We’ve also gotten rid of public pensions. Even pensions aren’t secure, but we’ve moved people over into an investment portfolio, 401(k) kind of model. Then, even if you’ve managed to save something up for your golden years to possibly have a retirement, you just have to anxiously watch the stock market.

So, I guess there are two points here. The first is that the mechanisms by which people are promised security are not actually secure. They’re market-driven, and so are subject to an instability. But even worse than that, they often perpetuate the very insecurity that they ostensibly are there to remedy. The stock in your investment portfolio is poisoning the planet and driving climate change. Or your appreciating house value, which you really only care about because you think, Gosh, this might make it so I can actually live with some measure of dignity in old age, but it’s also adding to inflated housing prices that are, naturally, fueling the housing crisis.

I’m just saying, we’re all stuck in these systems. The only way we’re going to be able to remake them is if we work together, if we name the problem—

Sean Illing

Well, part of the problem is that, as you say, the engine of capitalism runs on insecurity and the need to define and measure ourselves through the things we own rather than the relationships that make up our lives, and while that’s very good for business, it’s terrible for the human soul — if that’s a word I can use here. There’s actually a quote in the book from some random corporate executive in 1950 saying something like, “It’s our job to make women unhappy with what they have. We must make them so unhappy that their husbands can find no happiness or peace in their excessive savings.” I mean, damn, there’s a lot going on there—

Astra Taylor

It’s also so telling that that’s from the ’50s. Because what husband has excessive savings anymore now, right? That’s all been sucked dry. But anyway, I think that was probably from The Waste Makers, a 1960 book on consumerism.

In the ’50s, there was a cultural turn and people started saying, Wow. We’re being sold all of this gadgetry and all this stuff that we don’t need. It’s inauthentic, and it laid the groundwork for some of the counterculture of the next decade. I think we need to rekindle some of that indignation. Because every dollar we spend on advertising is a dollar we’re not spending on things that really matter, we’re not spending on public services, we’re not spending on advancing solar and renewable technology. We’re spending it instead on feeding this beast.

You put it really beautifully, actually. It’s nice to have stuff. I have a lot of stuff. But we’re also sold things as surrogates for sources of security that actually can’t be commodified — community, connection with other people, meaning, rest, the ability to get enough sleep, respect, dignity, all of these things. It’s like, Well, what do we really need? And how do we make those more essential pillars of our society’s conception of what a secure life is?

Sean Illing

I see you as a champion of democracy, and I like to believe that I am as well, but sometimes I really struggle with that gap I talked about earlier between the ideal and the reality of democracy. There are moments where some of the great skeptics of democracy, going all the way back to Plato or more contemporary thinkers like Walter Lippmann, and the critiques give me real pause, even though I still very much believe democracy is the best form of political life for lots of reasons. I guess I want to know what gives you the most pause when you think about the challenges to achieving democracy, to mobilizing enough people in defense of this vision?

Astra Taylor

Oh, it’s a total mess. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not having pauses left, right, and center. I think I’m pretty honest about this in my book on democracy. I had to talk myself into the concept. I was actually ready to throw the idea out because it’s so corrupt. I mean, part of this is the problem of language. It’s so hard to pin something down and make it pure.

So you come up with a word like “democracy.” Well, there’s nothing to prevent your enemies from using it, and co-opting it, and distorting it. The language is always going to be messy. The practice is always going to be messier. The thing is, for all the evidence that human beings are really contemptuous creatures, there’s lots of evidence to the contrary. There’s just so much evidence of collaboration, of care, of creativity every day, and so much of it we take for granted.

I do believe in the idea that we’re hardwired to focus on the negative and remember negative things, and maybe it’s an evolutionary trait to keep us safe, but there’s so much good that happens all the time. I think, Well, why not create the conditions that build on that? On a very pragmatic level, I just believe that power sharing is a kind of safety measure.

There’s the famous German sociologist, Robert Michels, and he has the idea of the iron law of oligarchy, which is that in any institution, there’s an oligarchic tendency. He was studying the socialist party in Germany. My question is, Well, how do we guard against that? And you do it by sharing power, by creating systems that allow for some renewal and accountability of leadership. I think these are honestly challenges we haven’t been wrestling with for that long. We haven’t had that much time to try them.

I mean, look at the United States. We ended Jim Crow in the ’60s. Second-wave feminism didn’t happen until the ’70s. We’re pretty new at this whole thing. I’d like to keep trying to give it a shot because the alternatives, I’m pretty convinced, are worse.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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