‘The Shortest History of Democracy’ by John Keane

2022, 240 p.

I must confess that this book would not have held much interest for me twenty years ago. But, although at the time I scoffed at Francis Fukuyama’s hubristic claim for ‘the end of history’, I would never have predicted that within thirty years we would see UK and US clutching at clowns, the rise of strong men across the globe and the bald-faced subversion and rejection of what had appeared to be stable democracies. I’m now more conscious of the contingency of democracy, and quite frankly, more fearful for its future. Suddenly, for me, this book is urgent reading.

Part of Black Inc’s ‘Shortest History’ series, this book is just what is claims to be- both short and a history- and although the last section took me from scepticism to despair, it does end with a claim for a radical democracy that can, perhaps, be “wisdom of global value”. This is a history that emphasizes change and contingency, upheavals and setbacks. As Keane notes in his introduction, “Democracy has no built-in guarantees of survival” (p. 6).

The structure of the book is foreshadowed by a very useful ‘Democracy’s Timeline’, where events drawn from across the globe flesh out the book’s three parts: The Age of Assembly Democracy; The Age of Electoral Democracy and The Age of Monitory Democracy. He starts off the book by debunking the misconception that democracy started in Ancient Greece. This idea, he says, was a 19th-century conceit, promulgated by people like George Grote, the English banker-scholar-politician who co-founded University College in London. Instead he looks back 2000 years earlier to early assemblies in Syria-Mesopotamia in 2500BCE, which were seen as an earthly imitation of the assemblies of the gods in a conflict-riven universe. The caravan routes spread the idea of assemblies to India by 1500 BCE, then on to the Myceneans and Phoenicians, taking root among the 200 Greek-speaking citizen states throughout the Mediterranean quite separately from its development in Athens by 507BCE. Not all these assemblies survived, falling victim to conquest, conspiracy or tyranny: threats that have always faced democracy. Although current day fans of direct democracy hark back to Athenian Greece, it too had a degree of deputation. There was a council of 500, for which every (male, free) citizen was eligible for a year’s service, and it in turn had a smaller group of 50 senators for day-to-day administration. As is often the way, those who were satisfied by assembly democracy rarely wrote about it, while the sources are replete with the criticisms of aristocrats with the leisure to write, who saw it as a form of mob rule. The depiction of ‘democracy’ as female that we see to this day in statues and demonstrations could have been a dig at the ‘female trickery’ of democracy. The dalliance of democracy and armed force proved fatal for Athens as a form of ‘democide’ – the self-destruction of democracy- that remains possible and indeed, is playing out, across the world today.

The narrative then jumps ahead 800 years to Electoral Democracy, landing in the 6th century CE with the birth of Islam where the practice of appointing wakil to handle distant legal, religious and commercial matters was customary. After Faroe Island and Icelandic assemblies in 930CE, there is a shift in the 12th century CE to the Atlantic region, starting with the birth of parliamentary assemblies in Northern Spain as a way for King Alfonso IX to gain the support of the nobles, bishops and money citizens to evict the Muslims. The timeline moves on to the Swiss cantons, the Magna Carta, and the British colonies in Virginia, the French Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, secret ballots and female suffrage. While this progression is noted, Keane does not dwell on any of them at length. Instead, he notes that representative democracy was seen as a territorial imperative in a large empire, and it was a way of keeping leadership on a leash. Most importantly, unlike assembly democracy, representative democracy recognized that social disagreements and conflicts were legitimate. “The people” was not a homogeneous body, and there was no longer an attempt to reach the ‘consensus’ of Athenian assembly democracy. There was always anxiety about ‘mob rule’ and universal suffrage, but this had abated by the early decades of the 20th century. Between World War I and II there was talk of ‘international democracy’ but this collapsed under the weight of war, influenza and the collapse of all continental empires. After 1918, hardly any European countries were blessed with governments that lasted longer than twelve months. Electoral democracy was destroyed by ‘purple tyranny’ (i.e. monarchs rolling back universal suffrage), military dictatorship and totalitarianism.

His third phase, Monitory Democracy dates from about 1945. In the wake of political catastrophe, war, dictatorship and totalitarianism, there was a realization that the fetish of elections and majority rule had to be broken, and a new commitment to democracy was understood as the protection of citizens from coercion, a celebration of diversity, a decrease in social inequality as well as free and fair elections. The crowning glory of the 1940s was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By ‘monitory democracy’, he means

a form of democracy defined by the rapid growth of many new kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinizing mechanism: ‘guide dog’, ‘watchdog’ and ‘barking dog’ institutions…Within and outside states, independent and toothy watchdog bodies have begun to reshape the landscapes of power. By keeping corporations and elected governments, parties and politicians permanently on their toes, the new watchtowers question abuses of power, force governments and businesses to modify their agendas- and sometimes smother them in public disgrace.

p. 161, 162

The growth of monitory democracy was not inevitable. Despite Nelson Mandela, Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny Speech,’ JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner declaration, there were often setbacks. By the 1970s 1/3 of the worlds 32 functioning multiparty democracies that had existed in 1958 had become some kind of dictatorship (p.147).

Communication has always been fundamental to democracies. Assembly-based democracies relied on oral communication and messages by foot or by donkey. Electoral democracy required print, and indeed fell into crisis during the advent of early mass broadcasting media like radio. Fundamental to monitory democracy is the role of the multi-media as a way for citizens to track and resist the structures of power. Indeed, he asks, if the digital media ecosystem somehow collapsed, would monitory democracy survive? (personally, I doubt it).

At this point, drawing to the end of the book, he looks around at the health of democracy today. At first he strikes a rather optimistic pose. Even though we know about the manipulation of data, the distortions of algorithms, state surveillance and “other decadent trends”, he says, equally striking is the way that decadence, and the use of armed force breeds stiff public resistance. Environmental action has given the earth a voice again.

Democracy is redefined to mean a way of life that renders power publicly accountable through elected and unelected representative institutions in which humans and their biosphere are given equal footing

p. 181

At this point I found myself raising a skeptical eyebrow. Had the author not seen the kneecapping of climate action at COPs, most recently last year? What about January 6 in America? What about the blatant gerrymandering and attack on voter rights in US? What about the shadowy power of lobbyists? What about the rise of ‘sovereign citizen’ marches throughout the world? Had he not seen these things?

Ah yes- he had, as he goes on to talk about the fears for the fate of global democracy, the shift to executive rule and the use of gag orders and leak investigations, the appointment of heads of US government departments without legislative approval by Trump and the extended lockdowns enforced by governments during COVID. He notes the decline in commitment to democracy amongst younger generations. In India, the majority of citizens (53%) say that they would support military rule; in Latin America only 24% of people are happy with how democracy is working in their countries. New despotic regimes are arising in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Iran and China:

A new type of strong-armed state led by tough-minded rulers skilled in the arts of manipulating and meddling with people’s lives, marshalling their support and winning their conformity…They are masters of ‘phantom democracy’. They do all they can to camouflage the violence they use on those who refuse to conform. Using a combination of slick means, including calibrated coercion masked by balaclavas, disappearances and back-room torture, they manage to win the loyalty of sections of the middle classes, workers and the poor. They labour to nurture their willing subjects’ docility. Voluntary servitude is their thing. And they travel in packs. The new despotisms, led by a newly confident China, are skilled at navigating multilateral institutions to win business partners and do military deals well beyond the borders of the states they rule.

p. 189,190

So, he asks, what then are we to do? Should we just give in? He notes that it is not possible to retrieve and breath life into past justifications of democracy like Christianity, nationality, protection of private property and utilitarianism. Democracy doesn’t always bring peace (look at Israel) or “economic growth”.

Instead, he says, we need to reimagine democracy as the guardian of plurality, freed from the dictates of arrogant, predatory power (p. 195). We need to keep the problem of “abusive power” central to how we think about democracy. (Although at this point, I start thinking about vaccine mandates and those upside-down red Australian flags. Are there circumstances where coercion is justified? Where does the ‘sovereign citizen’ leave society?) But an emphasis on “abusive power”, he argues, is the shape-shifting power of democracy:

Thinking of democracy as a shape-shifting way of protecting humans and their biosphere against the corrupting effects of unaccountable power reveals its radical potential: the defiant insistence that people’s lives are never fixed, that all things, human and non-human are built on the shifting sands of space-time, and that no person or group, no matter how much power they hold, can be trusted permanently, in any context, to govern the lives of others…democracy shows us that no man or woman is perfect enough to rule unaccountably over their fellows, or the fragile lands and seas in which they dwell. Is that not wisdom of global value?

p. 197, p. 201

I must confess that, despite wanting to hold on to the optimism of his closing paragraph, I am still fearful, and am becoming increasingly so as I see COVID-related protests spreading around the world, drawing to themselves both conspiracy theorists and people who are deeply concerned about the over-reach of abusive power. I am grateful for another way of thinking about democracy, albeit an idealistic one, because I find myself backed up against a wall. In this book Keane takes a very long view, going back much further than Athenian democracy, and his three-part frame of analysis is useful for discussing democracy without getting bogged down in detail. The book is engagingly written, it even has illustrations, and it scoots along at pace. If one of the advantages of reading “the shortest history” of a concept is a brisk, informed analysis (as distinct from re-telling) and introducing a new way of scaffolding one’s thinking, then this one is well worth reading.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Review copy from Black Inc.

One response to “‘The Shortest History of Democracy’ by John Keane

  1. Very interesting. You took me back to undergraduate lectures with David Thornley and Basil Chubb many, many decades ago. Things have changed since then, worryingly so, as you rightly say. I even dug out my copy of Niheer Dasandi’s “Is democracy failing?” (2018) which is simple and clear, if also idealistic.

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