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Talk To Your Neighbours

Marta Peirano in conversation with Astra Taylor

In 2021 Aksioma | Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana proposed a hybrid festival of conversations curated and led by writer and journalist Marta Peirano entitled (re)programming—Strategies for Self-Renewal. This piece is an excerpt of the reader that collects all the edited transcripts. It is a conversation between the curator Marta Peirano and filmmaker and thinker Astra Taylor with thoughts by Tjaša Pureber, Barbara Rajgelj, Asja Hrvatin, Bernadette Buckley, Zarja, Dejan.


Marta Peirano: In The Nature of Mass Demonstrations, published in May 68, the British thinker John Berger argued that mass demonstrations were rehearsals for revolution and that their main function was not to change the status quo or the rulers, or the world in general, but the demonstrators themselves. I quote: “Those who take part become more positively aware of how they belong to a class. Belonging to that class ceases to imply a common fate and implies a common opportunity.” Astra Taylor is a phenomenal thinker, essayist and documentary filmmaker. But the reason why I wanted so badly to have her in the (re)programming series is because she’s been, on top of all that, a lifelong, persistent, fearless and extremely successful organizer. Also a very good historian and critic of social movements. If you read her last book, a collection of essays titled Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions, you will discover that very quickly. Spoiler alert: in order to remake or reprogram the world, you need collective action and you need to learn to organize. We have learned over the last few months that technology can definitely help us, but it will not save us. Astra, let’s start by celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. It’s been a decade since people decided to sit and stay at Zuccotti Park. You are obviously one of its better known narrators and critics, and you said that, more than anything, Occupy created a space for people to find each other. This, for me, mirrors John Berger’s idea of becoming aware of being part of a class, in this case a very big class, the class of the 99 percent. What do you think made this moment so special? What happened at that park that made people stick together and keep coming?

Astra Taylor: It’s interesting to have these periods of time, these anniversaries to think and reflect. Ten years, what does it mean? If I had been reflecting on Occupy five years later, I’d have a different perception of it. With the benefit of this much hindsight, we can see that Occupy certainly has shifted American politics in critical ways, though not as much as I would like. There was a phrase people used to say at Zuccotti Park in those days, “Occupy changed the conversation”. But I don’t just want to change the conversation, I want to change the economy, I want to change power dynamics. After ten years of intense organizing, I’m realizing how hard that is and how critical it is that we help to change the conversation here. I also want to say Occupy Wall Street was 100 percent inspired by what was happening internationally. There would be no Occupy Wall Street without the Arab Spring, without the Movement of the Squares. The Indignados were a huge inspiration, people came and spoke at Zuccotti Park, they gave solidarity but also warnings and advice from Spain. Also Occupy Syntagma Square in Greece. That international dimension was really critical, and it was part of what felt so unusual about Occupy Wall Street because the United States is a very narcissistic place. Feeling that sense of global connection and the recognition that we’re up against a global system was part of its appeal. To suddenly find that the community was there in the space of the park, but that it was also international. I love that. I do want to acknowledge that you’re quoting one of my favourite writers, John Berger, who is an inspiration to me in intangible and also quite literal ways. My most recent film What Is Democracy? features paintings in a way that is directly inspired by Berger’s Ways of Seeing. The idea that we need to shift our perception and see the world in a political and imaginative way. I love the quote that you started with, but I’d also add that you want to both change participants and change the world. It’s that dialectic of doing both. Because there can be corners of social movements that are quite insular, that are focused only on the internal experiences of the people there, even their purity, their perception or their self-expression. So yes, our experiences as individuals matter, but it’s what we do collectively, we have to get organized. It’s through what we do strategically and through collective action that we actually change ourselves. It’s always intersubjective, always interpersonal. I want us to feel transformed as human beings, but I really do want to remake the world. We are on an absolutely unjust, unsustainable path. Like everyone in the US, I’m overwhelmed by what’s happening, but we’re on a very terrifying trajectory. We need, again, to go beyond the conversation to change those power structures. Urgently.

MP: One of the eternal discussions is whether or not protests are even worth the time and effort. Especially for introverts like me. One of the reasons why this question comes up time and again is that people expect you will go on the street and in three days you will have taken down the government. The narration of this kind of intervention by the people has been “twitterized” in a way. Time suddenly seems to happen very fast. The French Revolution or the Russian Revolution seem to have happened in three days, people go on the street and that’s it. One of the elements that is interesting about this particular time of Occupy is the internet and the digital platforms. I remember there were two things that you did during Occupy. One of them was running the Occupy Magazine, where you were commissioning articles from people from other Occupy movements all over the world, which was a really fascinating thing to follow. The other thing was writing a book, actually one of my favorite books of the time, called The People’s Platform. In it you were reflecting on the paradoxical differences between the way the Arab Spring’s use of Facebook and Twitter had been portrayed in the media and the way this had been portrayed in the United States where these digital platforms, of course, play by the rules. Can you talk about how you discovered the paradox and how your way of seeing these tools as tools for protesting, organizing and maybe tools for the revolution has changed over the last few years?

AT: In 2011, before Occupy Wall Street, I was working on my book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in a Digital Age. That book said things that are now much more common sense. At the time though, the discourse was that social media, connective technologies were democratizing, that people could now speak without gatekeepers, that we didn’t need the traditional media and that this would have a revolutionary impact. American commenters were going around and saying, look at the Arab Spring, look at what happened in Iran. They would say what happened in Iran was a Twitter revolution, what happened in Egypt was a Facebook revolution. Which is then, of course, giving credit to American corporations for the activities of liberation that people on the ground under very harsh conditions were doing. There were just so many flaws in this simplification. It was advertising for the tech companies because it didn’t at all examine their business models, which are a form of corporate surveillance. It didn’t examine the fact that what these companies do is they’re centered not just in the United States but in Silicon Valley, in California. They are global companies that extract value globally and then concentrate it in the hands of technologists and investors, exacerbating inequality. They didn’t talk about the increased power of advertisers, the fact that even if something is free, it’s tied into a larger economy of advertising and targeted marketing, which has all sorts of pernicious effects. Also they never turned around to go, well, what kind of revolution do we need in the United States. So it was this idea that we in the liberal United States are a democracy, and it’s these other countries that need the internet, our technologies, to liberate themselves. Then there was the idea that politics had gone digital. People weren’t supposed to protest in the street, we can do all of this stuff through the internet channels. One interesting thing about Occupy was that what the people who came to Zuccotti Park seemed to take from that moment was less about technology and more about coming together as bodies in space. Yes, we use the tools, we find each other, we livestream, but ultimately we come to a park, we make a kitchen, we start a library, we start a school of democracy where we can meet or talk, where we can finally find others who also feel that this system is broken. It was a very interesting mix of a very embodied experience, but also of using these digital tools. Occupy influenced The People’s Platform in a way that it created space to have a class analysis, it created space to talk about capitalism. In my book, which came out a couple years later, I was able to just be much more direct about economics, about the intersections of digital technology and capitalism, capitalist modes of investment and extraction. That was a huge relief. I shuddered to think about what the cultural environment would have been like when I released my book if Occupy hadn’t happened. It helped people understand that you could have a critique of a system that focused primarily on inequality, because my point in The People’s Platform is that it’s basically just a political economy of social media. These things are not immaterial, the cloud is not just a cloud. Our bits that we are communicating through right now are backed up by atoms, by real material things. We need a materialist class analysis to understand these tools. That is something that in the United States people were not ready to hear before Occupy. But now, what’s interesting for me is how those two experiences have carried over for these ten years. On the one hand, Occupy opened a space where I kept organizing around the question of indebtedness. The 99 percent in the United States are deeply in debt, for student loans, for health care, for housing. The 99 percent have less than zero wealth, they have negative wealth, the one percent has reaped all the rewards. But after writing The People’s Platform, my point is that the problem isn’t the technology itself, it’s the business models, it’s the incentives these technologies are serving. Even though I wrote a critique of the internet, what it did was inspire me to use the internet in my organizing to build new tools, to build better power. We have built digital tools that help people resist and challenge their debts. Debtors do not share a factory floor. Traditional workers in a labor union work in a workplace physically every day, which gives them the ability to connect and to fight the boss. Debtors are very dispersed, and so we need to create a virtual factory floor, a place where people can find each other. Our tools do not belong to the same political economy, they are not there to benefit advertisers. They’re not sucking data up to sell us things; instead, we’re trying to use data for the people to empower our organizing. One of the paradoxes that came out of The People’s Platform is that after critiquing all of these technologists, I was like, what if I became one, and started helping. I didn’t build them myself, but I started collaborating with others to build the tools I want to see empower the 99 percent.

MP: Because the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

AT: [Laughter] You take a bit here and there.

MP: I really liked rereading the book for this interview. Not only did I enjoy it a lot the first time, but I was thinking about how these “democratizing” tools in the Arab Spring had become the undoing of democracy in the States—they were used in the dark campaigns the Russian bots were doing in 2016 and also for organizing the assault on the Capitol in 2020. When you talk about Occupy, you talk about how the thing that glued you to the protest, to that space, was the fact that instead of chanting and waving some banners with things written on them, people were sitting in circles and talking to each other. Telling each other things that were shameful to them, like how much money they owed because they were ambitious and went to university. From physically being together in space and openly talking about these elements of their hidden life, an offshoot of this protest came in the shape of new technologies, new platforms and even new ways of relating to debt. I’m obviously talking about the Debt Collective that you founded and that you’ve been developing over the last ten years. It has been an immensely successful tool for change. Am I mistaken or have you managed to reduce like two billion dollars of debt? 

AT: Ten billion now.

MP: That’s insane and amazing. Can you explain how that happened?

AT: There’s so much to say. I want to speak to your initial point about disinformation and the way these tools are now framed as sabotaging democracy in the United States. There is an apocalyptic amount of misinformation circulating about Covid, climate change, race, all of these things. But the point in The People’s Platform is that these corporate platforms that are “free” but are funded to serve advertisers lie by design. We do not talk about advertising as “truth” or as “journalism” or as “wisdom” or as “education”. It’s advertising, it’s bullshit. When you build tools with this business model driving them, then there should be no surprise when they are used in the ways we’ve seen over the last few years. Similarly, in the United States, our elections are totally corrupt, it’s all legal, but it is absolutely corrupt. We have basically unlimited corporate spending on elections. These sources of corporate dark money are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to confuse people, to persuade them to stay home and not vote, to not engage, to feel cynical. They’re putting their money into the social media platforms and television, there’s just as much untruth on television. We’re not seeing anything very new, but an outgrowth of a business model that was behind cable news and is now behind social media. Advertising, unlimited corporate spending on campaigns, a totally commercialized political and media sphere. In the preface of The People’s Platform, I say we pay too much attention to change. We’re like, wow, I have a computer in my phone and it’s in my pocket, this is so new. My point was that there’s a lot of continuity between your phone and the television they were watching 30, 40 years ago. It’s advertiser driven, there’s corporate consolidation of the networks or of the platforms. Let’s look at continuity as well as change. Everything that’s happening now with tech was totally predictable, the writing was on the wall many years ago. As for the question about the Debt Collective and how that came to be: I was, obviously, a political person. I went to Occupy Wall Street the first day. I was extremely distressed in 2008, when a handful of greedy banks destroyed the global economy. They did that, to simplify, by selling subprime mortgages to low-income people. Not just selling them but lying to people, pushing them on communities, overwhelmingly communities of color, black homeowners, destroying the wealth of the working people. Black and Latino families in the United States lost over half of their collective wealth after the 2008 financial crisis. It was a very different crisis than what we’re having now. Coronavirus is a crisis from an external shock that then shuts down the economy, people have to stay home. The 2008 crisis was caused internally because some people were acting criminally. Rating these mortgages, buying and selling people’s debts and passing them off as quality assets when they were not that. Given the context of the financial crisis, it makes sense that we would start thinking about debt because, again, the 2008 financial crisis was all about debt, it was all about those people’s loans. Yet, it still felt as a surprise and a relief when I got to Zuccotti Park and people were talking honestly about their financial situation. Because there’s so much shame here if you’re struggling, if you’re not able to get the perfect job or the perfect this and that, there’s a lot of stigma. But at Zuccotti Park people felt they could talk about it without that judgment. It was the first place that I ever spoke with strangers about the fact I had defaulted on my student debt and it put it in perspective. Because I thought, I owe 40,000 dollars I can’t pay, but this young woman next to me owed 120,000, this older woman owed all of this student debt and medical debt, somebody else had a house that was under water, which means that they owed more on the mortgage than the house was worth. What happened in that collectivity was we started to say, what if this source of shame, what if these debts we owe are power, what if we reconfigured them. After all, this is money, this is on a corporation’s balance book, they want to make money from our debts. My friend David Graeber, the great anthropologist and writer, had just then published his book Debt. The First 5000 Years. It is a great history of debt and its story ends in the financial crisis. So he invited me and other friends of his to write about the next 50 years. Let’s write the next chapter of this book together, what would happen if debtors fought back. The bankers in that time and still today are very well organized. The creditors who work in the corporate sector, they have their lobbying groups, they write the rules of the economy so that people can never get out from under these debts. They make sure that we don’t have free health care, so we have to put our medical care on credit cards. We thought, debtors need to organize too, we need to engage in what we call economic disobedience. To say, “I can’t pay, I shouldn’t pay, I won’t pay.” Because everyone deserves to have shelter and education, to have access to health care, other countries have these things. Let’s flip this script, let’s turn our shame into solidarity, let’s turn our oppressive obligations into obligations to each other to enact our shared power, to challenge the status quo. Our idea was what if debtors had unions just like workers have unions. We organized the first student debt strike, we built all of these digital tools I mentioned, and we found all sorts of creative ways to win real debt cancellation for people. Some of my collaborators, I wasn’t part of it, organized a protest at Zuccotti Park in early 2012. It was the first time anyone had ever said publicly at a protest, “Cancel student debt, free college in the United States, that’s our demand.” There were articles in the mainstream press laughing, saying it will never happen, the government will never cancel debt, like get a grip, get real. Ten years later, Joe Biden, who is not a left-wing person, campaigned promising to cancel student debt, not all of it but a lot of it. We have fought and gotten over ten billion dollars of student debt, proving that the government can do it. And we’re just a very small group, not a huge group. It’s an example, I hope, for others of what happens if you come together and take your crazy idea seriously, and you just don’t give up. That is it. Because what we’re saying is not that radical. Ultimately, debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid, and free college is a basic fundamental aspect of a democracy, of a decent society. We’re like, no, what we’re saying makes actually more sense than what you’re saying. You’ll drive people into debt and kill the freaking planet and destroy their lives. We are the rational ones here. We’ve insisted, and we’ve done the work to figure out what rights and what power we might have but have been taught not to see.

“Because there’s shame for many people in saying what they earn, and there’s shame for some in saying what they owe and a reluctance in others to say what they earn. Because it reveals their investment in this status quo. When we don’t talk honestly about economics, when we don’t talk about distribution, we always have to ask whose interest does it serve.”

MP: Because we’ve been taught not to talk to each other. You just reminded me of something that happened to me some years ago. The Women’s March was about to happen and I remember how the women at our newspaper were having a meeting and talking about what we were going to do, whether or not we were going to leave the newsroom to be on the street and protest. The men came to us and said, “What can we do for you, we will cover you, we’ll do whatever you need.” So I suggested, “Why don’t you tell us how much money you earn?” [Laughter] Because it occurred to me that the most disruptive and revolutionary thing we could do at that point was to see if our newspaper was paying everybody the same for the same job. Which it wasn’t. [Laughter] Of course, everybody found my proposal totally disgusting, like that would be against the privacy rules etc. Not being able to talk about your debt or how much money you earn or have in the bank, all these taboos are such a powerful tool for this debt scam. I find it amazing that something as simple as sitting down on the floor with a thousand strangers and just sharing the amount of money that you owe can be so incredibly disrupting. And also the beginning not only of a friendship or a long-time relationship but of a whole platform that will help hundreds of thousands of people to get back in shape. 

AT: I just want to say how much I love your story. How disruptive it is to say what you owe but also what you earn. Because there’s shame for many people in saying what they earn, and there’s shame for some in saying what they owe and a reluctance in others to say what they earn. Because it reveals their investment in this status quo. When we don’t talk honestly about economics, when we don’t talk about distribution, we always have to ask whose interest does it serve. It’s not about individuals, it will ultimately reveal the structural inequalities. If you make less on the job because you are discriminated against, because of your race or your gender or your nationality, guess what, you can’t pay your debt. Then that grows faster. There’s lots of research on student debt, that white people in general can pay it off after a few years. Black borrowers end up owing much more than they borrowed in the same amount of time. It’s just a great story to say we have to begin this challenge of opening our mouths, where we are in our daily lives. We took inspiration from the PAH [Platform of Mortgage Victims], the work on mortgages after Indignados, when people were trying to defend their neighbours from eviction. We have a very different legal regime in the United States, but we were always looking at what’s happening internationally, who can we take lessons from. 

MP: Before going to Occupy and starting to work on these tools, you were studying social movements for quite a while. You said that one of the great things about protests like Occupy is that they are replicable, that you can get there and see how they set up a library, how they share space, how they communicate, how they become each other’s speakers. But the other thing you were saying was that if it became viral or successful enough, then it couldn’t be replicated anymore. Like it happened with the Seattle protest. It was such a great event that the police were ready for it, there was nothing to do there. On the other hand, the protests that were on the front pages before the pandemic, the ones in Hong Kong and Santiago de Chile, were growing into something that went beyond Occupy. They were becoming like an everyday thing, a permanent state of things, but were then somehow washed off by the state of emergency of the pandemic. How do you see that the new style or format or structure of protests would be able to push through the new post-pandemic state?

AT: It’s a big question. I don’t know the answer, I’m trying to figure that out. I was studying social movements, but for myself, not in an academic program or as a scholar, just as a young person at the time, wondering why there were no social movements. In the United States, between 2001 and 2011, there were no movements. In the shadow of the War on Terror and the attacks on the World Trade Center there was very little dissent, very little space to protest. If you protested, you would be put into a pen. The police would rope off a little area, and they said, “That’s the free speech zone, protest right there.” If you left it, you’d get arrested. [Laughter] Which is not democracy, right? They cattle you. It was just so demoralizing, something broke. Again, it was the example of the international movements and seeing people in all of these different contexts, whether under a dictatorship or under a parliamentary system that wasn’t responsive, people saying, “We want democracy.” That call got carried into Hong Kong, into Chile. What’s happening right now in Chile is amazing, they’re rewriting the constitution. But in the United States that’s not an avenue for us because of the way that our constitutional system works. It’s just ridiculous, the system we’re in. Countries and citizens have to figure out, where am I, what will work here and how do we get organized. Obviously, the Arab Spring had a very different outcome, it did not democratize. If you look at the example of Egypt, there were other groups that were more organized, more mercenary in their pursuit of power. We’ve learned some really tough lessons. One thing I’m wrestling with in another book I’m writing now is the fact that we’ve had historically huge protests. In the United States, when the Iraq War was beginning, there were massive protests against the war, the biggest in history. But it was just one day and nothing happened. So, we have these huge protests, we have international climate strikes, we had the George Floyd uprisings last year in spring. Twenty-five million Americans participated, a mind-boggling number. I’m thrilled it happened. And yet, my question is what would happen if a million or even a hundred thousand of those people were organized and stayed engaged every day. We just have to think beyond metrics, it’s not just about having a mass parade. We have to think about how people can be committed. There are places where 15 people who are really organized can have more of an impact and do more damage—and I mean that in a good way—than 150,000 people who come out, put on a funny hat, hold a sign and go home. I think the internet has made that worse because the numbers are so crazy. We want everything to go viral, we want everything to be bigger, more clicks, and we forget how much those smaller formations have to offer in the kind of intimacy of those commitments. I don’t want just breath, I want depth, and I’d rather have a few comrades who are really organized than a lot of people on an email list or retweeting something. To answer your question how these formations will evolve: my hope is that we can figure out how to channel this. There is mass interest, 25 million people protested for racial justice and against police violence in the United States. Why aren’t those people in organizations, why aren’t they part of something where their commitment can be expressed every day or every week in a meaningful way? We have to build those structures and those institutions to support people. But those kinds of things are tough to build, they take resources, and they go against the grain of the kind of neoliberal paradigm we’re in. Because it’s not individualist, it’s not profit-driven. We have to build those from scratch. That’s the dilemma we’re facing. There’s the potential for mass protest, the conditions are ripe, inequality is getting more out of control, the tech billionaires are getting more evil, climate change is intensifying, people are frustrated, but where do they go? [Laughter]

MP: You just nailed it when you said that the numbers can be a trap sometimes. Digital media platforms give protests the wrong incentives. This idea that there needs to be a viral wave of exchanging something, the approach to collective action. I was reading Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993. What’s super interesting about this group is that one of the things that made it work was that they were not working towards a consensus. One of the critiques of the Occupy movement was that the lack of structures was an impediment to organizing actual change. You have this tyranny of structure. But the way Sarah puts it, there is also the tyranny of consensus. The example that she uses is how feminists are constantly arguing with each other about what’s the right way to do action, and while they are doing that, they’re just not doing any action. They never quite get in line with the mass movement. I wonder if one of the keys to push forward and reveal a real potential for change has to do with abandoning the idea of 60 million people protesting the one same thing and making sure that there is a clear goal. There are a million ways of action that are more related to the local community and to the cultural and political context of every place.

AT: The internet gives us two incentives that are off for organizing. One is huge numbers, virality, enormous engagement. A video can have millions of views, a tweet can have tens and thousands of retweets. At the other end of the spectrum, it also uplifts the individual, it incentivizes self-promotion, self-branding. There’s these two poles, the mass popularity, virality, and the individual brand, because our platforms are about our personal accounts and our voices. There can be accounts that represent organizations or corporations, but these platforms are really about hooking us as individuals. Those two levels are not the levels of the kind of social movements and organizing we’re talking about. We call it the Debt Collective because it’s about the collective, the we, the community. That is a scale that the internet, as we know it, is not built to support or enhance. It’s this other meso, in-between level that I’m really interested in. The incentives of this mass reach are totally wrong because it’s very shallow. We need a deeper engagement. I also don’t think that individuals make social change. Throughout history we have these wonderful heroes, people like Martin Luther King or Greta Thunberg. They know this isn’t about them but about building mass movements, organizing and uplifting others. It is about that in-between space that the social platforms are not really built to help us with.

MP: I’m a journalist and I work in the media and there is the part that we haven’t talked about yet, which is the role of mass media in either building up or destroying these movements. Right now, we know that it’s Twitter, Google and Facebook that define success for protests. The media is just looking at what’s trending on Twitter to see if something is important. They are run by the same algorithm, they just don’t seem to notice. I wonder if this is the time where we should just renounce the idea of the massive numbers and go back to the idea of building up from our neighbourhood, just talking to our neighbours next door. Your first essay in your last book talks about breathing together. It was a very beautiful introduction to the idea that flows through your book of doing things together and at the same time. It is something we all did during the pandemic without even knowing and without having any other option. But we didn’t use that opportunity in ways that were transformative enough because we were thinking about the big numbers, about what everybody was and should be doing on the balconies outside.

AT: I wrestle with the question of scale in my book on democracy Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. That book was inspired by Occupy and by the movements of 2011 around the world because people were saying, “We want democracy.” The chant in the United States is, “This is what democracy looks like.” You’re marching with your friends and you’re shouting at the police, “This is what democracy looks like”, “Show me what democracy looks like”. But is this what democracy looks like? Each chapter in that book is a paradox that is central to democratic theory and practice. One of them is about the paradox of scale. This is a very ancient debate in political philosophy, what level does democracy work at. Can you only have real democracy with consensus?

MP: In the last few years migrant movements have been turning into a kind of protest. During the last midterm elections, Donald Trump turned the caravan of Central American migrants going towards the border with Mexico into a political protest of its own. If democracy is the power of the people, then what power and what people? How many people can have that power? This number will have to expand as borders become more fluid, as people move around the world. I was thinking a lot about how you explore different ways of expanding the idea of democracy, adding non-human beings and non-national criteria into the equation.

AT: This question relates to the idea that there is the in-between level, the collective, the bounded community. It might be something between the individual and everyone on Earth. If we go back to Ancient Greek, the word “democracy” is “demos” and “kratos”. Of course, Ancient Greece isn’t necessarily the birthplace of democracy in the way that we’re taught to think in schools, but it did give us the word. That word means the people, “demos”, and “kratos” means power or rule. Many people have made this point that the demos is always changing. Meant in the sense of the rules and laws: who legally counts as a citizen, do you have birthright citizenship in the United States if you’re born on American soil? It’s not the same everywhere. The demos is always changing also because people are dying and being born, it’s always in flux. The other thing I like about the demos is that it’s an abstraction, it’s a philosophical idea, it doesn’t just exist there, like something you can point to. We have to imagine it together, we have to decide what it is. This question of who we are. It’s important to always remember that imaginative aspect because people can start to think they know what the demos is. The demos is people like me, who are born here, who have the right heritage, and we’re going to take back control. It’s like, hold on, the demos is always open for debate. It can be contracted in these nationalist, racist, anti-immigrant ways, or it can be expanded. In the United States, you have to be a citizen to have the right to vote. It wasn’t always that way. In the colonial era, non-citizens—aliens in the parlance of the time—people who did not have an American passport could vote. In fact, in some cities here, people who are citizens of other countries can vote in certain elections, elections for the school board etc. I quite like the idea. Other countries do this, New Zealand, for example, has residency requirements for voting in elections. That means if you live somewhere, you’re a member of the community, you’re a member of the demos, you should have democratic rights. In other traditions, especially indigenous traditions, other, non-human entities have rights. This is something I’d really like to see taken seriously. Thanks to some brilliant activists, certain towns and cities in the United States have given ecosystems rights. This might sound very outrageous or bizarre to people, but the fact is that according to our legal regime, corporations have legal personhood, they have rights. So we already have non-humans in our democracy, in our demos. What might seem outlandish is actually quite practical, it’s already happening and is essential to the survival of democracy and survival of life on Earth. If we don’t start expanding the demos to include the more-than-human world, meaning plants, animals, nature, we will continue to treat them as property and destroy them. We can already see where that’s taking us. This seemingly utopian aspect is very pragmatic because our survival is at stake. I’m always trying to jolt people, remind them things have been different in the past, they don’t always have to be the way they are, they can be very different in the future. That imaginative sense of possibility is critical to engaging people in the organizing side, to getting people to come on board with something. Like a campaign to say, “In this town the local river has a right to exist, and we’re going to alter our political relationships so that that can happen.” There’s a famous lake called Lake Erie in Ohio, and the citizens just gave it rights. They granted rights to nature. This, of course, is happening in Ecuador and other countries like New Zealand. These things are important to talk about because we really have to profoundly change what we think of when we think of democracy, of the community, of the demos, of who should be considered in our choices and in our actions.

MP: It’s becoming clear to pretty much everyone that our destiny is profoundly linked to the destiny of our rivers, the ocean, our forests. And yet, we are way more understanding when it comes to companies destroying them. Community thinking is ridiculous for some people, even though we are in the middle of the sixth extinction. Kim Stanley Robinson, who was our first guest in the (re)programming series, is linking all this together into a ministry which is defending not only the rights of the non-human beings on the planet but also the rights of the unborn whose future is being destroyed by the same companies we give entity, place in the community and legal rights to. If a protest like Occupy lasts long enough, it becomes sort of a democracy in itself. Will the next generation of mass protests and social movements develop these new ways of introducing non-humans and other entities into the community and find ways to relate to them and represent them?

AT: I hope so. I’ve never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s books, but I have been sent a page from his new novel by a dozen friends because he writes about a student debt strike. I think we’re definitely on a similar page. Hopefully, that means he’s read about the Debt Collective. There’s many ways to expand our democracy to include the more-than-human world. I write about it a little bit in the book. We have to think about how we treat humans. When we think about infants, young kids in our democracy, for example, they literally don’t have the right to vote, you have to wait till you’re a certain age. But we know how to count people in different ways, we know how to include the interests of people who aren’t necessarily voting or serving as representatives. What’s lacking is both a bit of imagination and also the material power to push a different vision and agenda. The fact is that one of the central aspects of the economic system we’re in is being able to treat the world as a resource to exploit and commoditize so that these corporations that do have legal rights can make products and profits. And so, it butts right up against the capitalist imperatives. Because if you say, hold on, maybe the natural world is not property but something else, it’s in a different category. [Laughter] It should be included on moral grounds, on pragmatic grounds, because we’d like to survive. But it’s going to impinge on your ability to engage in the kinds of production, distribution and exchange that you’re used to. That’s going to be an enormous fight. That’s why I’m so focused on organizing, on how we build power, because these things go right against the imperatives and incentives that are driving the economic order that we live in and that is global. That’s why we can’t just retreat to our communities, that’s why we have to think of this paradox of scale, both the individual and the global, the micro and the macro, we have to think about these systems at once. Our demos has to expand to include people who aren’t here yet. This question of democracy and time is a really interesting one. Democracy takes time, we need to be able to slow down, to deliberate, to be in a space together, to be committed for the long haul. It should be not just global, trans-spatial, but transtemporal. Because we’re building on what our ancestors did, we’re inheriting the world from them, and we want to leave something better for the people who come after us. I love things when they’re complicated. We have to be where we are in space, well connected to people across the world. We’re connected because of carbon dioxide, because of viruses, because of global supply chains. We’re also connected through history, through all of the things that happened to get us where we are today, and we’re connected moving forward. We have to think all of those different scales at once. Paradoxes are everywhere and we just have to deal with them, that’s the nature of life.

Asja Hrvatin: Politics is a lot of times presented to us as a protest or direct action and not as sitting together and building something concrete. What do you see as potentialities and limitations of community organizing in regard to communities of resistance being constituent—building new realities—and at the same time destituent—attacking the existing power relations? How to balance taking a person who doesn’t have papers to the doctor and attacking the unjust health system?

AT: I saw that you’re a social worker. Again, it’s one of the paradoxes that we have to contend with. I don’t think we can come on the side of one or the other. Because I feel a strong conviction that we have to make people’s lives better, people are so abused and mistreated. There’s a political component to that because when we help to improve our circumstances together through forms of mutual aid, to get those papers, to use your example, or get their debts canceled, to use the example from the Debt Collective, I think we build a kind of trust. Hopefully, that helps us build solidarity to be the destituents, to be a force that can then transform things. There’s a way we can make these seemingly opposed aspects of our work operate in tandem to make us stronger. So the Debt Collective provides, as we sometimes call it, legal mutual aid or a kind of service. You can use these tools and you can dispute your debts. What we try to do is to say, you’re not doing this on your own, we’re trying to break out of this idea that you get a service as an individual going to the state. No, let’s collectivize this process. Let’s also use this as a moment of political learning: why is it so hard to exercise your rights, why do they make the website so it doesn’t work, why do they make the paperwork so onerous and impossible to understand, in a language that doesn’t make sense? Those are political questions, so there’s a kind of political education in that. Then, hopefully, we build trust again, we give people some breathing room so that they can engage on a deeper level. There’s lots of precedent for things like this. One example we point to is the example of the Black Panthers, who in the 1960s ran programs that were really about care, providing the care of the state that the state wasn’t providing. Free lunch for kids so that they could eat at school and pay attention in class instead of just being hungry. They did that to build the trust of the community and to ultimately build a radical community that would have a far more critical take on the state and on the economy. We have to do both of those things, but we can’t reduce ourselves to being service providers and doing the cleanup work, to be doing the tasks that the state won’t do. We always have to be doing it with that radical critique and with an eye on a transformative horizon. It’s just a balancing act. Because the question then is: if you’re trying to organize people who are in very stressful conditions, and you’re not actually making material improvements in their lives, why would they join you? The risk is then that you end up only attracting people who want to be part of a subculture and it doesn’t have the ability to appeal.

MP: Organizing is messy. You always say that. [Laughter]

AT: [Laughter] Definitely is.

“Democracy is always risky, it is a dangerous enterprise. The problem is that rule by the rich, rule by ‘technocrats’, ‘the experts who know’, is certainly dangerous. We do have to figure out how to create systems that will help mitigate some of the problems of democracy and create more trust, create more community so that hopefully people will be less inclined to vote for totalitarian outcomes.”

Barbara Rajgelj: My question starts with the thesis that political organization from below is in itself not necessarily a positive thing. People can also organize to harm others. In the last 30 years of Slovenian independence, this has been demonstrated in referenda, which are the most eminent form of direct democracy. At different referenda, people in Slovenia have voted against the equality of single women in access to artificial insemination, against the social and economic rights of the so-called Erased people, and against equal rights of LGBT people. Do you also see the dangers of direct democracy? Aren’t you sometimes scared of totalitarianism from below? How do you see the relationship between representative constitutional democracy and direct democracy?

AT: I absolutely share that concern, it’s something I write a bit about in the book Democracy May Not Exist. Referenda are very blunt instruments. We don’t have them at the national level in the United States, but some states use them. They were part of the Progressive Era reforms. The reformers who initiated referenda thought that if people would vote directly, this would cure democracy. They had no way of anticipating all of the problems with this method. As you say, people can vote for undemocratic outcomes, sometimes for hideously racist policies. There’s also a recent example in California where there was a change at the state level thanks to labour organizing which said that people who work for Uber and other tech jobs are actually workers deserving of rights. Then tech companies spent 200 million dollars on one of these referenda and really confused the public about it. They promoted disinformation, intimidated the drivers and defeated the progressive law. I don’t think democracy is just voting yes or no on a hotly contested issue. It’s fair to say there has to be more choices than this vision of direct democracy and the representative systems we have now. That was part of my problem with Occupy. Marta, you rightly said that I was both a participant and a critic, a loving critic, but a critic. One of my biggest criticisms was the idea of direct democracy and consensus, which I didn’t think was very democratic. Anyone who showed up at a meeting, a general assembly, had an equal vote to everyone else, and things could only progress if there was a very strong majority. It wasn’t a perfect consensus, but it was close. This excluded a lot of people, it meant that people were making decisions, but they weren’t doing the work because they just left, they went home and never came back to the movement. I’m not sure direct democracy exists in those ideas. I don’t think it’s expressed by that model that was at Occupy or by the referenda that you’re talking about. Look at the example of Brexit in the UK. There was the sort of right-wing racist motivation of many voters, and then there were also other voters who were trying to express a protest vote. But they ended up doing it in a forum where it had a totally destructive outcome. Because they didn’t necessarily anticipate that Brexit would actually be successful. We need new models. One thing I look at is how we could break out of these models by using sortition or randomness, randomly selecting citizens into citizens’ assemblies to do some deliberation. To go back to the idea of imagination, these can’t be our only two alternatives because they’re both broken. Democracy is always risky, it is a dangerous enterprise. The problem is that rule by the rich, rule by “technocrats”, “the experts who know”, is certainly dangerous. We do have to figure out how to create systems that will help mitigate some of the problems of democracy and create more trust, create more community so that hopefully people will be less inclined to vote for totalitarian outcomes. We know that all sorts of factors feed into reactionary politics. The big ones are loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, a lack of solidarity, a feeling that we’re operating within scarcity. We need to address those root causes and not expect that just a tweak to the political game is going to do it, because there are deeper things going on.

MP: You pretty much start your Democracy May Not Exist quoting Rousseau, who’s pointing to the paradox of trying to create democracy out of undemocratic people. I remember the interview with Bernie Sanders where he was asked what do we do with all these people that are poor and on the fringes of society, but they insist on voting Donald Trump, voting people that are always going to cause them harm. And he said that we give them money to go to university, we give them health care, we give them better housing. Which is exactly what you just said, that a big part of this problem is people voting out of despair.

AT: People have been told for decades that the reason that they’re precarious or feel downwardly mobile is because of the immigrants and not because of the CEOs of companies. The problem is there are a whole lot of people who are encouraging that and are invested in that interpretation. This goes back to the idea that demos is always evolving. I don’t think that democracy is just a poll, that whatever people want at this moment is democratic. No, we’re engaging in debate, we’re engaging in transformation and we’re trying to bring people to a different perspective. But I love Rousseau’s paradox of democracy, it’s exactly right. How do you create democracy out of an undemocratic people? What do you need first? Democratic institutions that create democratic people or democratic people to create these institutions? We’re stuck in that loop. Transforming ourselves is part of it, and then we want to build structures that will encourage the capacities of others and help shift their politics. But we do always have to be alert to the fact that things can go awry, and that’s okay. Personally, I just don’t think there’s a system where our troubles are going to disappear. I think that’s the human condition. [Laughter]

MP: That’s just very undemocratic. [Laughter]

AT: Exactly. Every generation gets to make their own mistakes, I guess. But hopefully we can impart some good lessons.

Tjaša Pureber: When you mentioned the slogan “This is what democracy looks like”, I always understood it a little bit differently. When it first appeared in and around anarchist movements, it was not so much used to show the empowerment of the people, but rather to show—in clashes with the police that was repressing social movements—how democracy is actually a very violent way of producing social order. Based on the experiences of Occupy and other movements, I think that democracy is oftentimes a tool of the ruling classes to bring people back to the status quo. You mentioned the example of Chile, where the initial protests were extremely anti-capitalist, anti-statist even, but are now being described as a democratic movement dedicated to improving the constitution and the state. In United States the anti-police and anti-racist protest started long before George Floyd was murdered, in 2014 in Ferguson, for instance. These were not movements to improve democracy, they went so far as to demand the abolishment of the police, the end of funding the police, police-free zones etc. Then they were transformed again into sort of democratic processes, into election processes and so on. I think that Occupy was probably the best example of how democracy is sometimes used to describe a process in which some of the social movements who hold the biggest subversive potential are pushed out of that social movement space. Wherever the movements were far more based on direct action rather than consensus making, the Occupiers went further in their anti-capitalist critique. I would really like to hear how you feel about democracy being used as a tool of silencing and neutralizing the movement, of recuperating it into the status quo.

AT: You’re getting at what a slippery word democracy is. One reason why I wrote this book and started working on it at the moment of Occupy is because the word was being invoked by all of my anarchist friends at Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland. When they were saying, “This is what democracy looks like,” I think it had a dual meaning. One, it meant the police beating us for protesting, but it also meant we in the park were “democracy” with a small d. There was an attachment to that word. It meant that everyone’s voice matters, that people participate as equals, that there’s no outside, that there is emphasis on consensus, that people should have a say over the decisions that affect their lives. There was an economic component that you can’t have democracy in a world with the one percent, in a world of extreme inequality under capitalism. At the same time, the word democracy sat poorly with me after ten years of the War on Terror, of discussions of liberal democracy, of hearing George W. Bush say we’re bringing democracy to Iraq, to Afghanistan. I just felt that the word had been totally co-opted and that liberal democracy isn’t democracy in any meaningful way, it’s oligarchic. As I wrote the book though, I came around to the idea that we should reclaim the radical meaning of democracy. Are we just going to keep switching words out because they get co-opted or confused? No, let’s fight for words and fight for the meaning behind them, the intention, the equality, the justice, and use people’s weapons against them. You say you’re for democracy, well, how can you have democracy, which supposedly is based on political equality, under conditions of extreme economic inequality? You say you’re for democracy, well, that lies in direct tension with the world as it exists. If we really mean that we want a system based on equality, then we’re going to have to take that seriously. That’s going to mean transcending capitalism, it’s going to mean totally changing our political and economic structures. The movements on the left in 2011 and today in the United States just aren’t strong enough to have an impact. You can say that democracy or the state has co-opted or de-radicalized these movements, but it’s a question of the radical side of the political spectrum not being very big, not being very well organized. I do think there are a million ways where activists and organizers can get sucked into affirming the system. You believe that you’re going to have an impact this way and ultimately you’re spinning your wheels. People have to resist that, we have to figure out how we engage with the world as it exists in a way that is both adversarial and effective. That brings us back to the point of making a material difference in people’s lives and showing that participating in these efforts has a point. I’m constrained by the fact that I live in the United States where there are all these idiosyncrasies and just absurd elements of the power structure. The right wing is now radicalizing against democracy explicitly. I show this in my book and in my film What Is Democracy? I talk to young conservatives and the point that I’ve heard many times from folks is that they recognize capitalism and democracy are at odds. They think that if there was more democracy, people would tax the rich and want welfare, and so basically they’re like, we want capitalism. [Laughter] I think this is part of the post-Cold War world we’re in. Within the Cold War paradigm democracy and capitalism were presented as married, that was sort of the mythos of the Reagan era and even the Clinton era. Now, they’re decoupling. We are hearing a lot of right-wing politicians and thought leaders saying,”Well, the United States isn’t a democracy, we’re a republic.” Why? Because they know that if they lived up to even this minimum definition of democracy as majority rule, we get policies that they hate. That we have communities defunding the police, spending money on education, health care, all of these things. If they’re going to start being explicit that they hate democracy and they choose inequality, capitalism, white supremacy, then taking the position of democracy is more important than ever. The rhetoric on the right is changing, they’re becoming explicitly and proudly anti-democratic. That was something that really shocked me. This is not new, that is how this country was built and founded, the paradigm of Jim Crow. What we’re seeing is a conservative return to their elitist, anti-democratic roots. So we’re in an “interesting” moment, meaning a scary moment. 

MP: There is also the example of China, which is surpassing the United States as an economy and superpower precisely by way of not being a democracy. I was following the drama with the Evergrande company that didn’t default, and I sometimes wonder if this was almost a propaganda campaign to show that the Chinese government is willing to look after things when they get too bad, to control capitalism precisely because it can because it’s not democracy.

AT: So many guys in Silicon Valley point to that as the model they would prefer. 

Bernadette Buckley: I would like to ask Astra if she could say a little more about the issue around change/continuity, which she alluded to briefly at the start—specifically about the role of “art” in relation to the creation of change. There are huge arguments around this issue, obviously, but it would be useful to hear Astra’s perspective on it.

AT: Reading that question I felt myself making the assumption that art represents the vanguard that pushes us to see the world differently, challenging our preconceptions. Art can do that, but so many of the cultural products we are subjected to don’t. I’m thinking about a conversation I had years ago, just after making the documentary about Slavoj Žižek. I was talking to a peer, he was going to Hollywood to make films and he’s now a very successful Hollywood film director. He said to me, very contemptuously, “Astra, you just make propaganda. You make propaganda for the left, propaganda for philosophy.” I looked at him and said, “No, you make propaganda, you make propaganda for the white middle class, for the consumer society. You make these films that are full of product placement and just stories of people in the suburbs.” It was interesting, because the assumption was that if you’re making something political and you’re saying things should change, you’re somehow going against the grain or making propaganda. Part of why we do need art to push the envelope is because so much of the cultural sphere and art is invested in maintaining things, and it looks very innocuous. It just looks like the movies my friend was making and still is. So we need to be critical and call out all the things that look neutral, but are actually on the side of continuing oppressive dynamics. At the same time, I use filmmaking when I can, I try to engage in creative actions. But if we want change, then we have to go beyond just the realm of culture, of changing narrative, and really think about organizing power. Art can’t be reduced to social movements, but at least we have to use creativity in service of social movements. For me, a big motivation to get involved in Occupy was that I just didn’t want to be engaged in my own creative production as a filmmaker without taking a side and taking a stand. 

Zarja: Astra, in an interview for Another Gaze (2020) you said that your first big project as a child was to make a magazine about ecological issues and animal rights, and to this day you are still a big advocate for both. Besides the obvious ecological reasons, why is fighting for animal rights an important fight to fight?

AT: That’s a deep cut. I would recommend that anyone who is thinking about these issues read a book called Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation by my sister Sonora Taylor. If anyone has seen my film Examined Life, my sister is in it. She uses a wheelchair, and she’s walking with the philosopher of gender and politics Judith Butler, talking about embodiment and her connection to animals. She explores that theme more in depth in the book. My vision of radical democracy includes the non-human world. I think we have to think about animals, because our survival is bound up with theirs. There’s a growing awareness in the US because of the movements for racial justice and the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd that white supremacy is also horrible and deadly for white people. People are literally dying of their attachments to whiteness. Racism means people vote against a more robust welfare state, against their own interests, because they’re trying to keep other people down. I think speciesism has not the same but analogous effect. When we treat other animals, other living beings as mere property, as things we can abuse and exploit, that has consequences that are going to come back and bite us. Covid-19 very likely originated in a bat, it’s a zoonotic illness, meaning it jumped the species barrier. The next big pandemic is probably going to emerge in a factory farm. It’s going to be a form of avian flu or swine flu. Or it might be antibiotic resistance because the animals that are being kept together and tortured in such horrible, abusive conditions on the industrial farms are being fed antibiotics. There’s a self-interest aspect to that, but ultimately, for me, it’s ethics. I just wrote an essay with Sonora about how we can apply the lens of socialist feminism and attention to social reproduction to the question of animals. It builds on the work of Silvia Federici, and it updates our Marxism to include not just production in the factory but reproduction of life. If you’re a feminist, a socialist, a communist, if you want to have intellectual integrity, you just have to be concerned with animals. That essay will be free for anyone to read if they want to engage with this question at a deeper level and, I hope, a very provocative level, because we’ve decided to make our case as strongly and poignantly as possible. My politics are incompatible with treating life as property, that’s what it comes down to for me.

Dejan: I am wondering how to sustain a community? In arts, people are used to project-based communities that last for a week or a month and therefore have a totally fragmented schedule. Long-term communal fights need commitment and physical presence.

AT: I’m wrestling with the same thing. I, too, am used to project-based creative timelines. Let’s come together and make a documentary film together. Or come together and be a band, come together for this burst of creative expression, focus and then it fades away. It has been a real challenge for me, as both an introvert—Marta mentioned being an introvert—someone who can sit and read and write and likes to be alone, and someone who is used to working in this creative project mode to try to build a sustained community of debtors with a radical vision. To have that community that has radical politics, a critique of the status quo, but also doesn’t alienate other people. It invites people in by saying, you too can join us, we’re not exclusive, it’s fine if you’re not totally 100 percent on the same page with us, we can talk it out, we can ask questions together, you’re welcome into this safe space. Maybe you’re not totally convinced that debt should be canceled, maybe you think only some or a bit, you can come here and there’s a space for you. There’s multiple levels to the challenge of building community. One is: what’s the culture of it? Call me a hippie, I want to create a culture that’s pretty kind. We have to not just tell people what to think but listen to them, engage in true democratic dialogue. Then there are the aspects of building a community I’m not as good at, but I try to pull in people who are. Those are the questions of governance: How do we make decisions? Is there a tyranny of structuralists happening, where there’s secret people over here making all the decisions, or are things transparent? Are we actually honest about it? Are there power differentials, are those power differentials legitimate? Maybe this person has more power over here because they have more experience and knowledge, they’ve lived through it, so they know something that the rest of us don’t know because we haven’t lived through it. I think having that all on the table and having a discussion about it helps build community and build trust. A community in the sense that I’m aspiring to build also isn’t dependent on one personality to carry it. The real community has to be resilient enough to let people step back. Even people who seem like core figures, and you think we couldn’t have done this without them. My dream for the Debt Collective and the radical debtors movement I’m trying to build is that one day I’ll be introverting. [Laughter] Not for one day, for years on end, doing some obscure projects, maybe about animals. And I’ll be like, wow, that community is still going without me, they don’t need me anymore, and I can be a well-wisher from afar. The last thing I’ll say is that you do need to have some joy in it. I talked about the need to meet people’s needs, to, ideally, help people with their debts or their papers. But another need we have is to just feel connected. To not feel that loneliness, that isolation that so many people feel. So, another way to build community is helping to meet people’s natural psychological needs. Why have I stayed in the Debt Collective and have been organizing for ten years? Because it makes me feel less alone, which is our slogan, “You are not a loan”. Being part of this makes me feel that I’m in a community, that there are others who have my back, and that is incredibly valuable in this day and age.

“Be tough on systems but kind on people.”

MP: We forget the power of rituals, how they create a strong community by virtue of repetition and prediction. I also like the idea that a community needs to be based on kindness, something that comes only from your kind heart. While reading transcriptions of the conversations of people assaulting the Capitol in January, something that struck me was that they were talking about killing the Vice President, but the way they were talking to each other was extremely sweet. They were asking each other “Are you good?”, “Where are you?”, “Take care”, “You be with God”. There was an intense community and tenderness in their otherwise rabid and destructive conversations. And I thought, this is, obviously, very lonely people that have found each other in this strange cause. This is energy that hasn’t been put to better use by better communities. The kindness that one often finds lacking in arrangements by left-wing political parties that are so based in shame. You may be an ecologist, but you’re just not recycling well enough, or you might be an animal activist, but you’re not vegan enough. All these communities based on shame are unlikely to trigger the same response as these other communities based on destruction, but also on collective tenderness and care.

AT: I think that’s a great point. One good heuristic, if you need it: Would I respond to being treated like this? Do I feel engaged by someone who’s just critiquing or browbeating me? We do need to critique, we do need to call people out, but we also need to call people in and make space for them. And somehow speak to the immense frustration and loneliness and isolation that so many people are experiencing now. A wonderful Nina Turner, who’s part of the Bernie campaign, said, “Be tough on systems but kind on people.” I think that’s a good motto.

MP: Excellent motto. Astra, I’m gonna thank you and ask you that when you leave the Debt Collective in good hands and you start your animal rights hyper-movement, I want to be there with you. Because that’s also my dream.

AT: Thank you. Join me.


Astra Taylor is an international filmmaker, writer, and political organizer. She directed the philosophical documentaries What Is Democracy? (TIFF 2018), Examined Life (TIFF 2008), and Zizek! (TIFF 2005). She wrote American Book Award winner The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age and Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, now out from Metropolitan Books. She is also the co-founder of the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union organizing to renegotiate and resist our debts and defend millions of northamerican households.
Marta Peirano is a journalist specialized in technology and power. She works for main Spanish media outlets and is a well-known public speaker and long-time advocate of free software, digital privacy and the radical decentralization of the critical infrastructure. Her most recent books are The Little Red Book of Online Activism and The Enemy Knows the System. In 2020 she was the technology curator at Barcelona’s Biennale of Thought and a guest researcher at the Spanish Centre for National Defence Studies.