A Letter to Astra Taylor

Michael Bettencourt-Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

Dear Ms. Taylor:

I just finished Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. I’ve also read The People’s Platform and your work in The New Republic.

Reading your words in the midst of this electoral round-and-round and the impeachment tango is invigorating, maddening, saddening and back to inspirational all in one go, but they also can’t help becoming marbled other commentaries about a polarized society, the continuing toxicity of our racial history and the “golden straitjacket” of our Constitution (to use a phrase quoted in your book), among so many other topics, until it becomes difficult to know where and how to begin to conduct one’s life, especially for someone like me who has only two or three decades to go before shuffling off the mortal coil.

Having read books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Richard Thaler’sMisbehaving and other updates on neuroscience about how humans make decisions, I’m not assured that humans over a long stretch of time can perform the delicate juggling acts needed to make democracy work (which you illustrated with Antonio Gramsci)—they just don’t seem built, literally, to do that kind of fine-grained tension-balancing.

Of course, in smaller groupings, as you point out, as with Barcelona en Comú, it may be possible to go against the human neurograin and increase democratic practices in our social lives. But as you also point out, scale is important, and if what is happening in Barcelona can’t expand to counteract the World Trade Organization and the other scaled-up organizations dedicated to the sanctity of mobile capital, then I don’t see how the battle against undemocracy can be won.

Democracy, as you’ve explained, doesn’t seem designed to enlarge itself in the way autocratic institutions can, and clearly, the autocracy of the market shapes our lives and choices far more deeply than culture wars, identity politics or other kinds of distracting performative social media-mediated behaviors that engage people’s emotions but not their rationality or their creativity or their patience. (Also, let us not forget that it is always easier to give over responsibility, and thus any feelings of guilt, to fearless leaders than it is to suffer through the existential ambiguities of human life.)

It’s hard to know in the thick of things if we are at a critical turning point in our history or if we’re just in another phase of muddling through, as we always seem to do, and things will turn out mostly all right for most people (though, as always, with significant blood sacrifice). I think we are at a critical turning point for the country, but even if that could be verified in some way, it still doesn’t give one guidance on what to do and where to go next. Where are the spaces for having the discussions needed to shift understandings and redefine vocabularies? What are the conditions under which we can pledge our fortunes to one another and take the risk of trusting strangers to be our comrades? Or is it just easier, as I said above, to follow the autocrat and keep things simple (which it seems many in this country have no qualms about doing)?

Of course, I have to figure this out myself, but your book offers a solid source for these necessary discussions, which I think I will begin by cooking a good paella and inviting friends over to talk about “living in the tension.” The dinner table may be the quark of democracy, the smallest building block upon which to anchor the transformation which we need to undergo.

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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his “prime mate"
and wife, Maria-Beatriz.
For more of his columns and articles,
check the Archives.

©2020 Michael Bettencourt
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt April 2016 | www.scene4.com





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