From the Sydney Review of Books:
The release of John Keane’s brief history took place between the Australian federal election, the war in Ukraine, and China’s ‘security’ agreement with the Solomon Islands. So, within a few weeks of its publication, The Shortest History of Democracy achieved dramatic salience. Not quite prepared for this new chapter, its tone addressed an earlier Zeitgeist, in which many were disengaged from democracy by Trumpian politics and EU in-fighting.
One of a series of ‘Shortest Histories’ from Black Inc, it follows the format of an amiably-written generalist’s book from a scholarly author – John Keane is professor of politics at Sydney University. At times it is admirably succinct. ‘Democracy heightens awareness of what is arguably the paramount political problem: how to prevent rule by the few, who act as if they are mighty immortals born to rule?’, he writes.
What Keane calls the problem of titanism – ‘rule by pretended giants’– threatens democracy even in peacetime. It’s hard to watch the populace in the Philippines vote in the son of a tyrant; or, in the Solomons, the four-times Prime Minister take his country close to tyranny to shore up his own hold on power.
Democracy has always had rival methods of distributing power. From monarchy and empire to tyranny and despotism, history in Keane’s account is a litany of successive political arrangements. None except democracy retain at heart a principle of egalitarian rule. He writes that ‘democracy is exceptional in requiring people to see that everything is built on the shifting sands of time and place, and so, in order not to give themselves over to monarchs, emperors and despots, they need to live openly and flexibly.’
Democracy, Keane tells us, is the friend of contingency. He provides in 240 pages an instructive taxonomy – from ‘assembly’ to ‘electoral’ and ‘monitory’ democracy, each arrangement a response to different contingency.
Keane writes eloquently of democracy’s beginnings. Early forms of assembly democracy, with public gatherings of citizens debating and deciding matters for themselves, appear first in Syria-Mesopotamia and move east to the Indian subcontinent and west to Phoenician cities. Democracy settles famously in Athens. There, assembly democracy allowed for a direct form of self-government, and citizens made an artform of speaking to the assembly, striving for a political consensus. But Athens, notably, didn’t enfranchise everyone. Women and slaves underpinned the freedom of Athenian citizens without sharing in it. And perhaps this foundational injustice led to the anti-democratic impulse that was Athens’ eventual undoing, according to Keane – the building of Empire. When the Macedonians finally defeated Athens in 260 BCE, they dismantled its democratic ideals and institutions, which had become fatally tainted by the lure of imperial wealth and its attendant militarisation of political life.
Democracy caught on in the Atlantic regions from the twelfth century, as a more ‘electoral’ form of democracy emerged. Church governance and early forms of parliament were seen from Spain to Iceland, instituting the choice of delegates from a constituency who were empowered to make decisions on its behalf. In each case, a solution short of violence was found for sorting different interests and for moderating power.
The electoral method of democracy differed from the assembly method by allowing for the adjustment of differences rather than the determination of consensus. In this lay a great virtue of democracy: the peaceful resolution of conflict while sustaining pluralism. For all the talk of ‘the People’, no such unified will existed in practice. Keane shows that, despite the rhetoric of the People’s sovereignty, the new strength of electoral democracy was in its capacity for finding vectors out of division through power-sharing.
It took until the twentieth century for the theory and practice of electoral democracy to mature and flourish, but after the Second World War it reached a high watermark in the governance of nations, as Keane outlines. There was an explicit belief in the possibility that the democratic form of government, taken as a global precept, could protect the world from the catastrophe of war in an age of weapons of mass destruction.
Ukraine, a modern European democracy, was invaded by its imperialist autocratic neighbour in February this year. It came as a dramatic existential shock to the globalised West, even as Putin had massed troops on the border for months, and even in the wake of earlier aggression like the annexing of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas.
In Europe, the horrible face of war had been shrouded for eighty years. Despite hiding in plain sight, shown nightly on television – ‘and a warning this footage contains images of war’; in no particular order, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Georgia, Syria – it took the conflict in Ukraine for Europe to look its ravaged visage in the eye. People one day sitting in cafes drinking coffee, their children playing on swings in playgrounds, their ageing parents sitting in apartment lounge rooms with the TV on. The next, huge holes blown in those apartments, tearing the windows out, exposing the décor like so many dolls’ houses. Playgrounds dismembered by exploded shells now lying on the ground beside the play equipment.
People shown wearing familiar brand names on their sweatshirts or on their backpacks, in puffer jackets, scrambling onto trains and buses, clasping shopping bags and wheelie suitcases of what possessions they could grab as they run from their homes. Running for their lives. Or worse, unable to leave, stranded in basement bomb shelters and underground railway stations without food and water and power, let alone clean clothes, hot showers, fresh air and creature comforts.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a forcible reminder that the long years of peace following the world wars were not a global default position. There is no ‘end of history’, despite Francis Fukuyama and other political theorists who trumpeted a tale of ‘how the West won’ in the wake of the Cold War.
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Scepticism and cynicism about democracy arise from the evil of centralised and despotic power to the other extreme, the scattering of political will in exaggerated diversity, he argues. In defence of monitory democracy, against the ‘morbid critics’ of democracy no less than the cynical promoters of ‘phantom democracy’, Keane recommends it as the form of government devised for the safeguarding of contingency.
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Keane reflects on a despondency and loss of faith in democracy, especially by younger people and especially in India and South America, as shown in several global studies. He points to the development of an unhealthy ‘managed democracy’ in many places, where corporate industry interests seize control of government with the help of commercial media and demobilise and shepherd the citizenry.
It is obvious to Keane that democracy, at least in the West, has been disfigured by the triumphant power of business, banking and conservative neo-liberal policy. He writes: ‘State policies of “saving capitalism“ have weakened trade unions, promoted deregulation of public services and spread the culture of consumption fuelled by private credit and the belief in the sanctity of the unobliged individual.’
His critique goes further, toward what he warns is a ‘new despotism’. Monitory democracies are facing a new global competitor: the regimes in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and China ‘with top-down political architecture and the capacity to win the loyalty of their subjects using methods unlike anything known to the earlier modern world.’
Link to the rest at the Sydney Review of Books
PG didn’t include parts of the review that objected to capitalism and glorified trade unions, many of which, at least in the United States, are more than a little corrupt and as deeply entrenched in their business niche as any corrupts capitalist.