Books John Keane's new history shows that democracy is not a uniquely western invention. But this important revision, John Gray argues, does not add up to an argument for its necessity.
The democratic wish
John Keane's new history shows that democracy is not a uniquely western invention. But this important revision, John Gray argues, does not add up to an argument for its necessity The Life and Death of Democracy John Keane Simon & Schuster Dh174 Writing in 1908, the German thinker Max Weber, one of the founding theorists of contemporary social science, observed: "Such concepts as 'the will of the people', 'the true will of the people', have long since ceased to exist for me. They are fictions. All ideas aiming at abolishing the dominance of humans by others are utopian." Weber was a liberal, who never doubted that democracy is better than tyranny. But he was also a realist. Democracy can make governments more responsible, he believed, and ensure they can be changed in a peaceful manner. It cannot abolish the need for rulers.
In this monumental work, the product of over a decade's research and nearly a thousand pages long, John Keane aims to overturn this realist view. Citing Weber's observation only to reject it, he declares "Democracies, understood as forms of government in which no body rules, dispense with the fetish of rulers." A large part of this learned and pugnacious book is an exercise in re-writing the history of democracy, showing that democratic government is in no way a specifically western achievement. Ranging over three millennia and allotting only a small portion of his attention to ancient Greek and modern Anglo-Saxon experience, Keane demonstrates that democracy has been practised in many cultures. Assembly-based forms of government existed in Mesopotamia around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, 2000 years before something similar developed in Greece. One of the first movements towards representative democracy appeared on the Iberian Peninsula in the 12th century - "a gift of Islam to the modern world", as Keane puts it. It was in post-independence India that a third type of "monitory" democracy, in which representative government was supplemented by civil institutions and forms of local devolution, began to develop.
Far from democracy being a one-track development from the Greek polis to Westminster and Capitol Hill, its growth has been shaped by many cultures and traditions. At a time when western-led campaigns to install versions of democracy in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan are having results rather different from those their authors intended, there is something deeply inappropriate, if not ludicrous, in the claim that the West has proprietary rights over democratic government.
In showing that democracy is not a uniquely western invention Keane performs a very useful service, but he goes well beyond this useful revision of history when he contends that democracy is now a global norm. It is one thing to show that democracy is not solely a western mode of government, another to say that it is universally valuable and yet another to claim that humans everywhere value democracy more than any other political good. Yet these very different arguments are run together by Keane to support the highly questionable claim that democracy is a political super-value, encompassing or overriding all others.
Keane quotes the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who states that democracy is "a universal value that people anywhere may have reason to see as valuable". This may be true, but even if democracy were universally desirable it would be only one universal value among others. Human beings want many things from governments: security against crime and foreign invasion, insurance against the worst kinds of hardship, a decent level of prosperity, the opportunity to live according to their beliefs. None of them requires or entails democracy, either in theory or in practice. In fact any of these demands can easily trump popular desire for democracy.
This is what happened in post-communist Russia when Boris Yeltsin's chaotic democratic regime was replaced by Vladimir Putin's authoritarianism. No doubt Putin's emergence was a complicated process, but his popularity is rooted in the fact that he has secured goods that many Russians cherish - not only material prosperity, but national pride. Similarly, the legitimacy of the current regime in China does not depend on whether it embraces democracy, whether assembly-based, representative or monitory. More than anything else, China's future rests on how far the regime can ride out global economic dislocation and continue to deliver rising living standards to the Chinese people.
Keane might object that satisfying material needs is not the whole story - human beings have nobler aspirations, which shape the agenda of governments. There is some truth in this, but the non-material goods people want from government often have little to do with democracy. Perhaps the most important among them is the freedom to live their lives as they please. Democratic rights are curbed in many ways in post-communist Russia and China. But personal freedoms - freedom to practice one's religion and the freedom to travel, for example - are greater than they ever were under communism, which claimed to be and in some ways actually was an ultra-democratic system.
Stalinism and Maoism were types of totalitarianism, in which dictatorial rulers wielded immense arbitrary power. Yet these systems also compelled a much higher degree of popular participation in government than exists in the authoritarian regimes that have replaced them. This illustrates a truth well known to liberals in former times, but nowadays seemingly forgotten: democracy alone does not always promote liberty. Freedom has often been better protected under undemocratic rule than in regimes of popular self-government. Eighteenth-century England was ruled by a self-perpetuating minority; but individuals were freer than they were in revolutionary France or under many later experiments in popular democracy.
Consider the history of Europe between the two wars, a period to which Keane devotes a short section of this very long book. Reasonably enough, he describes it as a time of rampant nationalism, an era of "the brazen herding and murdering of peoples - all in the name of the pseudo-democratic doctrine of national self-determination". Keane is right to point the finger at the dangerous ideal of national self-determination, which lay behind much of the inter-ethnic strife that ravaged interwar Europe. The collapse of the Habsburg Empire - by any comparative standards an extremely civilised cosmopolitan regime - was followed by a proliferation of states initially claiming to practise some version of democracy, and acting to enforce some conception of national identity. What Keane fails to grasp is that the herding and murdering of peoples was not the result of applying any "pseudo-democratic doctrine". It was an unavoidable result of the establishment of democracy in the conditions that prevailed in central and Eastern Europe at the time.
When democracy is established after the break-up of a multi-ethnic state a rash of secessionist movements normally follows. The reason is simple. For communities that fear being permanent minorities in the new democracy, separatism may seem the only way to avoid forever being underdogs. The safest way of protecting themselves is by having their own state; but the divisive process of separation is risky and costly. It fuels the growth of identity politics, in which people find themselves bearers of a univocal identity that is decided by others - rarely an auspicious development. This is what happened in interwar Europe, where the new democratic states all had significant national minorities. With the growth of fascism and Nazism these minorities came under attack from regimes that were virulently anti-democratic; but the division of people into mutually exclusive groups had already taken place.
Sadly, it seems that the spread of democracy and ethnic cleansing go together. Keane tries to explain the ethnic strife of interwar Europe by citing economic conditions, along with the anti-democratic tendencies of leading intellectuals such as HG Wells and the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran. No doubt these factors played a part, but the pattern is too widespread to be accounted for in these circumstantial terms. Similar conflicts have been played out in post-communist Yugoslavia, parts of the former Soviet Union and countries in postcolonial Africa. Keane cites India as having proved "not only that democracy could survive violence and carnage: it proved that democracy could thrive within a society that lacked a homogeneous demos, a civil society shackled by poverty and illiteracy and crowded with all sorts of cultural, religious and historical distortions." The Indian achievement is certainly extraordinary. Yet it cannot be forgotten that it has occurred against the background of partition. In India as elsewhere, democracy and the exclusionary politics of nationalism have been closely linked.
If Keane denies this linkage it is partly because he cannot accept that a form of government he sees as self-evidently good can be accompanied by great evils. A larger reason is the free-floating quality of his ideal of monitory democracy. In its assembly-based and representative varieties, democracy has been unavoidably territorial, and to that extent confined by national boundaries. In contrast, the monitory version - defined by Keane as "a post-Westminster form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order" - is potentially universal in its reach. As Keane describes them, the central institutions of monitory democracy are not mainly governmental - they include "consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, expert reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, 'blogging' and other novel forms of media scrutiny". These forms of monitoring are not limited to nation-states. On the contrary, they are capable - or so Keane believes - of dealing with global problems such as climate change, which older types of democracy have failed to solve.
One need not be a cynic about the virtues of "global civil society" to find Keane's faith in monitory democracy exaggerated. Insofar as anything like it exists, monitory democracy works to stop things happening rather than to initiate new solutions. As an obvious example, dealing with environmental crisis necessarily involves making contentious choices. Are we to include nuclear power among the technologies we use to deal with global warming, or should we put our trust in renewable energy? Or - as might seem the most reasonable course - take advantage of both? Questions of this kind are not best settled by monitory procedures, which typically produce a veto on unpopular options rather than any agreed decision. But decisions have to be taken on urgent questions of this kind, or else everyone's interests will be harmed. If existing types of democracy are inadequate to the environmental challenge, it does not follow that an extension of democracy will improve matters. The logic of the rule of nobody - as Keane himself encapsulates his ideal - is that nothing gets done. To imagine that monitory democracy can succeed where other modes of government have failed is frankly absurd.
Democracy has many valuable features. Not only does it enable governments to be changed without violence, it is also a check on corruption. Competitive elections curb the tendency of political elites to entrench themselves in power and privilege. Beyond representative institutions, monitory democracy may have a useful role in holding governments continuously to account. But democracy is not risk-free, and too much monitoring is a recipe for paralysis. That is why the majority of people in all countries refuse to make a fetish of democracy. More than anything else, they want governments to be effective in protecting their interests. Democracy is only one of these interests, and it is usually valued instrumentally rather than for its own sake. It is only in the seminar room, where costs and risks can be safely ignored, that the idea of rule by nobody can be taken seriously. Where vital practical issues are involved Weber's realism is confirmed on a daily basis. Democracy can achieve many things, but abolishing human dominance is not among them.
John Gray is emeritus professor at the London School of Economics. His latest book is Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings.