Friday, December 18, 2009

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy

Well, I finally finished the big new history of democracy I picked up a while ago. Here's my review, exclusive to this site.

Uneven but provocative

A review of John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy

John Keane ends his massive history of democracy with a chapter called New Democratic Rules, in which he discusses his project and why he approached it in the rather odd way that he did.

... I quickly became convinced that my subject demanded a fundamental rethink of what would be required in trying to write a new history of democracy.... I was sure of only one thing: all the existing rules of writing about democracy and its history had to be broken. Crusty silences deeded to be shattered; customary ways of thinking had to be amended, or ditched. New rules were definitely required.

Perhaps the most important innovation that Keane made in writing this book is his simple but necessary rejection of the old consensus that democracy is the product of Athens or the Atlantic world of the 18th century (or somehow both), and that most of the rest of the world has had little to do with producing its ideas and institutions. Keane refuses to tell the same old linear story in the same old critical way. He has a wide view of what democracy is, has been and will be, maybe; as a result he has many stories to tell about places and people who generally do not fit into the usual narrative of democratic origins, successes and failures. This is a book that has much more to say about Martin Van Buren than Thomas Jefferson or Robespierre, lots to say about Nehru and not much about Gandhi. Keane follows a thematic method that sometimes defies chronology, or at least the usual assumptions about priorities. For instance, he has a long chapter on Spanish America through the 19th century that precedes and quite overshadows his discussion of the French Revolution and its consequences. This took me aback, but I could see his point when I had finished the two sections.

To write such a daring and ambitious synthesis, Keane needed to master a great many histories and cultures; it is the great problem with this book that sometimes he seems to have failed to understand or remember accurately some of his chosen material. Erasmus, for instance is generally not considered a Protestant dissenter, and to refer to him simply as a man whom Luther disliked and who regarded women as fools hardly seems either fair or relevant. To say that Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke when he was speaking tour to sell his military strategy to the American people is a rather astonishing error. It makes one wonder how many other errors might lurk in material less familiar to me. (That 100 pages of endnotes were from final text, presumably at the publisher's insistence, may explain some of the unevenness.)

Keane was determined not to write a stuffy and colorless book, and he took a number of stylistic chances. Some of the risks paid off, others did not. The least successful strategy involved Keane's discussion of the most recent events and the problems that they pose for democracy. He puts the discussion into the mouth of a historian fifty years in the future -- or at least says he does, because this historian is nameless, faceless, and lives in a future society we are not allowed to see. This historian's judgments, which are sensible enough, might as well have been expressed by Keane in his proper persona, because the conceit of another narrator adds nothing to our understanding of the recent history of democracy. If Keane had plunged wholeheartedly into a fictional future whose scholars look back on us, much as Margaret Atwood did at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, something much more interesting might have been produced.

I have said quite a bit about a number of flaws I found in the book. Yet there is certainly a lot of good stuff in this book, and here are some of the things I liked about it

Keane believes that the origins of democratic practices come from nearly every place in the world ( East Asia perhaps excepted, since he has little good to say about Chinese culture). He argues this point fairly effectively, discussing for instance what he believes are the Syrian-Mesopotamian origins of government by assembly. Likewise he identifies the Muslim belief in the value of what we would now call "civil society" as an important contribution to global culture. Australia and South Australia in are credited with a number of changes in democratic practice and attitudes that affected people in every hemisphere. Various frontier regions, including Pitcairn Island, are shown to have been on the cutting edge in making enfranchisement of women a necessity for any democratic community. A whole list of more or less obscure people, from John Wilkes of London to Juan Vucetich of Argentina, to Angelina Grimké of South Carolina have their moment in the sun. Again, not all of Keane's interpretations convinced me, but I learned some interesting history from this book, and I find it difficult to imagine a person who knows it all already.

Keane's most important overall analytical idea is that democracy has gone through three stages, or better that there are three types of democracy which have been invented and reinvented various times in various environments. One is assembly democracy, the democracy of Athens many other small communities throughout history. The second is representative democracy, which grew out of undemocratic roots to become the dominant ideal of the 19th century democrats and remain influential in the last century. Keen with a sharp eye critiques representative democracy and its relationship to nationalism and totalitarianism, not an original analysis but very well discussed. One of the most valuable ideas in the entire book is that the so-called "third wave of democracy" that followed the near extinction of representative democracy before and during the Second World War cannot be understood as a mere restoration of the representative idea. Keane argues that the successful democratic countries of today should be understood as "monitory" democracies, in which the flaws of the representational system are at least partially corrected by the existence of local, national, and international organizations that investigate, publicize, and propose solutions for the abuse of the political process. Two examples given are Amnesty International and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. That many of these monitory organizations around the world have been nurtured on the ideal of human rights, is for Keane typical of the ethos of monitory democracy, in which the questions of how the unitary people should be mathematically represented in legislative institutions, or how the populist Leader can be identified and empowered are no longer the sole or even the central issues of democracy. Keane does not think of monitory democracy as being new or some kind of magic bullet. As a perhaps unexpressed ideal it has been around since at least the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has not solved all of the world's problems. There is no magic bullet, no final solution, and democracy is not inevitable. It is not simple either, a point established by the complexities of his own presentation.

Keane is to be congratulated on the accomplishment of his daring project. Sometimes obscure, sometimes inaccurate, sometimes wrongheaded, The Life and Death of Democracy is still a treasure chest of ideas, incidents and personalities. I identified earlier in this review some significant flaws, which I think might confuse or frustrate readers. Perhaps I should say that this book needs and deserves adventurous readers. Maybe it is not primarily for scholars anyway. I say with no condescension whatsoever that this book should be on the shelves of high school and university libraries or anywhere else younger readers can find it and become entranced by the size, variety and importance of the subject. It's certainly far more worthy than the big history I read in high school: Toynbee's A Study of History.

Question: is there any chance that all those missing footnotes could be put online?

Hurried update: The book has a website.

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