Zombie Politics

Tim Soutphommasane’s generous assessment of The Life and Death of Democracy (‘Democratic Hubris’, August) rightly criticises my curt treatment of Australian democracy; a full-length, boldly revisionist, problem-centred account of its past, present and Asia–Pacific future is indeed badly needed. Less convincing is his sympathy for ‘liberal democracy’. This fine-sounding phrase is in fact living-dead. It is both a misleading descriptor of present-day realities and a worn-out nineteenth-century Orientalist ideal, at once in love with private property and contemptuous of ignorant, unwashed ‘people’. The term should be banned from the English language. A new political imaginary is needed to grasp the twenty-first century trend that has taken us towards a new historical form of democracy – ‘monitory democracy’ – in which (when things go well) elections undoubtedly matter but group rights also flourish, extra-parliamentary representatives pack a punch and definitions of politics and ‘the sovereign people’ are radically altered. Soutphommasane complains that my whole approach “aspires to separate democracy from politics”. But that’s to suppose that textbook (‘liberal democratic’) definitions of politics – as the struggle for control over government and the state – remain axiomatic. They don’t, simply because in the age of monitory democracy, in Australia as much as in Japan, India and China, cross-border and global power relations are now equally important shapers of citizens’ lives.

John Keane
London, UK