August 2009

Arts & Letters

Democratic hubris

By Tim Soutphommasane
John Keane’s ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’

It has been a mixed year so far for democracy. There have been peaceful elections in India and Indonesia, the world’s largest and third largest democracy, respectively. Yet elsewhere, there has been little to celebrate. In the United Kingdom, Westminster – the ‘mother of parliaments’ – has been disgraced by an extraordinary MPs’ expenses scandal. Meanwhile, protests against the dubious re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have raged on the streets of Tehran, only to be met with violent suppression. This is to say nothing of the ongoing and bloody struggle to establish democratic government in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

For anyone seeking some guidance on how to make sense of all this, John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 992pp; $49.99) will seem rather timely. Keane, an Australian-born professor of politics based in London at the University of Westminster, is perhaps better known in Britain than in his native land. He is frequently described as “erudite” and “important” and has been called a “guru of democracy”. With his world-weary eyes, distinctive curly mop of grey hair, askew neckties and British–Australian accent, our ex-pat professor plays the part well.

 Not that much playacting is required: Keane’s oeuvre should speak for itself. His acclaimed 1995 biography of eighteenth-century revolutionary Tom Paine remains a classic of the field. Also highly respected is his authorised 1999 biography of the Czech playwright–statesman Václav Havel (Keane is a friend of Havel and helped to publish his political writings in English when Havel was still a dissident in Prague). As a theorist of democracy, Keane has written extensively on the public role of the media, on violence and democracy, and on the advent of a global civil society.

Such works may well be overshadowed by his latest offering, though, which certainly has the feel of a magnum opus. The culmination of more than a decade’s research, and 900-odd pages, it is not a book for easy reading, but forces the reader to marvel at its breadth of scholarship. Yet this seems only fitting for a tome that boasts it is the first “full-scale history of democracy for more than a century”.

Beginning with Greek and Near-Eastern antiquity, Keane takes us through the development of democracy in the Middle Ages, and its subsequent evolution in modern Europe, North and Latin America and parts of Asia. Along the way, long-held myths are challenged and clinically dispatched. The green shoots of democracy first sprouted not in the Athenian agora, but in the fertile banks of the Tigris and Euphrates in Syria-Mesopotamia as long ago as two millennia BCE. Parliamentary democracy was not the invention of Anglo-Saxon genius, but was the result of a pragmatic compromise between King Alfonso IX of León and his subjects in the northern Iberian Peninsula at the end of the twelfth century. Islam, far from the historical antithesis of democracy, in fact made it possible by spreading literacy and numeracy, and establishing institutions of civil society such as schools (madrasa) and markets.

Keane’s deft narrative means that these are not merely esoteric points of historical clarification, but parts of an engaging journey in which Keane reconstructs moments from democracy’s long and turbulent birth. More importantly, there is bite to the confounding of myths. Keane has his declared ideological purpose: to “democratise” the history of democracy so that we may see it with “fresh eyes”. He rejects the notion that democracy is a purely ‘Western’ achievement or a ‘God-given’ gift to chosen peoples. Such hubris (a favoured word) encourages Western democrats to believe theirs should be a universalising mission, with conversion done at the point of the sword or under the shadow of drone bombers. As Life and Death reminds us, the pursuits of democracy and empire have often gone hand in hand.

The legacy of George W Bush’s neo-conservatism clearly informs Keane’s treatment. Recall Bush’s 2003 declaration that, “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.” However, the story presented also reflects some of Keane’s longer-held preoccupations. This is most apparent in the embrace of “monitory democracy” (exemplified by contemporary India), which emerged during the second half of the twentieth century and superseded both assembly-based and representative democracies. Monitory democracy – defined by the growth of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms – has meant that “democracy is coming to mean more than elections”, breaking the grip of the majority-rule principle. Thus understood, monitory democracy appears to resemble the kind of civil society –  made up of NGOs, think tanks and civil associations – that Keane has endorsed in his previous theoretical works. Democracy becomes a system of interconnected institutions that “pluralises” power and keeps elected officials on their toes.

Keane can’t be faulted for his boldness, but his ideas are unlikely to satisfy the criteria of democracy of many liberal democrats. According to Keane, the public monitoring of power “has the effect of interrupting and often silencing the soliloquies of parties, politicians and parliaments”. While this may resonate with those disillusioned by democracy’s current offerings in the West, the implication is that the essence of democracy can be found in the ongoing scrutiny of power by unelected guardians within, say, the corridors of Oxfam and Amnesty International. If this were the case, democracy would become little more than a quest to secure freedoms from our elected representatives; it would have nothing to do with expressing our collective agency as citizens.

The trouble with the notion of monitory democracy is that it ultimately aspires to separate democracy from politics. Yet, inserting more critical distance between the people and those they elect might serve only to alienate them from democracy. We shouldn’t forget that politics still has the capacity to reignite the imaginations of democratic polities, as in Obama’s presidential campaign last year (though this earns no mention in Life and Death). But Keane is quite right in identifying the fundamental challenge facing democracy today: the dual task of ensuring that governments remain accountable to those who elect them, while accommodating social, cultural and religious pluralism. Democracy cannot delude itself into believing that citizens must conform to the mould of a single truth or ideology.

It is a shame, from an Australian perspective anyway, that there isn’t more in this book about how Australian democratic culture has fared on these counts (although there are vignettes on our invention of the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, the ‘bunyip aristocracy’ and Eureka radicalism). One can surmise, though, that Keane doesn’t think we have done well in recent times. He is quick to denounce John Howard as a populist “überdemocrat” – of the same ilk as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – whose appeals to “the mainstream”, “decent people” and “the nation” amounted to “pathological reactions to monitory democracy”. These flagrant dismissals are only possible, however, because Keane has little time for the idea that democracy must rest on popular sovereignty, and because he believes that distrust rather than solidarity is the basis for democratic deliberation.

Such views highlight the strange ambivalence that pervades Life and Death. For someone who writes so passionately in defence of democracy, there are occasions when Keane doesn’t sound nearly democratic enough: he leaves us in no doubt about his disdain for the proposition that governments should answer to ‘the people’. Yet surely anyone who calls himself a democrat must be willing to concede that democracy is, as the old saying goes, a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. To expect that as democrats we can guarantee anything further would seem to involve, well, hubris.

Tim Soutphommasane
Tim Soutphommasane is a philosopher and political theorist. He is a research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, fellow of St James Ethics Centre and senior project leader at Per Capita think tank. His books include All That's Left and Reclaiming Patriotism. @timsout

Cover: August 2009

August 2009

From the front page

At the gateway to Cape Fear

After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future


Feliks Zemdegs, Rubik’s champion

Meet the world’s fastest cuber

What Price the Pacific?

The environment minister’s gaffe exposes the Australian malaise

Image from ‘The Insult’

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past

In This Issue

Looking west

Australia and the Indian Ocean
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Cafe clairvoyants

‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


More in Arts & Letters

Detail of a painting of Barron Field

Barron Field and the myth of terra nullius

How a minor poet made a major historical error

Still from Christopher Robin

A man and his bear: Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’

Adults will find this new tale of Winnie the Pooh surprisingly moving

Image of Cher in 1979

Eternally Cher

The queen of reinvention turns her attention to the works of ABBA

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

More in Books

Covers of Motherhood and Mothers

To have or not to have: Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ and Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Mothers’

Heti’s novel asks if a woman should have a child; Rose’s nonfiction considers how society treats her if she does

Image of Ronan Farrow

The end of American diplomacy: Ronan Farrow’s ‘War on Peace’

The Pulitzer Prize winner explains how the State Department’s problems started long before Trump

Image of Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris, Sydney, 1989

Patrick White’s immigrant language

White gained from his partner’s Greek Orthodoxy a sensibility that changed how he saw Australia

Image of Rhonda Deans exploring “the Squeeze”, Koonalda Cave, South Australia

‘Deep Time Dreaming’ by Billy Griffiths

This history of archaeology in Australia charts our changing relationship with the past

Read on

Image from ‘The Insult’

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past

Image from ‘A Star Is Born’

Lady Gaga mesmerises in the uneven ‘A Star Is Born’

After a beguiling first act, director Bradley Cooper struggles to maintain momentum

Image of ‘The Arsonist’ by Chloe Hooper

The Detectives

Inside the hunt for the Black Saturday arsonist – an extract

Image of Sydney Opera House

Promo ScoMo and commodifying public space

The crass commercialism of last week’s promotion on the Opera House was a step too far