The life & death of democracy

Imperfection's friend
David Aaronovitch

.These have been bewildering weeks in the recent history of British democracy. Respectable women call BBC Radio 4 programmes to talk about how they would like to 'string up' their elected representatives; headlines and commentators seem to compete for the most apocalyptic way of describing a crisis in governance.

As in the strange period in 1997 following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a group psychosis seems to have developed, partly independent of the media and partly fed by it. Eleven years ago people 'connected' with their grief, an emotion catalysed by the sudden loss of an iconic figure. In spring this year they have connected with their anger, an anger wholly directed at those who have sought to exercise political power and catalysed by the orchestrated leak of MPs' expenses. The only moment of even transient relief for government came as the result of capitulating to the demands of a popular actress who, in a moment of high comedy, had chased a minister across Westminster.

What a difference a book can make. I had been as confused as any other observer about these events, thrashing around attempting to catch their meaning - and then I read John Keane's The Life and Death of Democracy - his history of Man's attempts to govern in equity. Contained in this massive book was, among many, many other things, the analytical tool that told me why such a period as we have been living through was more or less inevitable. This instrument is Keane's diagnosis that for 50 years - largely unanalysed - a new form of democracy has been superseding the representative democracy that, formally, operates in most of the world.

Keane names this new system 'monitory democracy' and locates it in the growth, now exponential, of systems of checking on, constraining, campaigning towards, goading and humbling those elected to power. In his introduction Keane describes how 'power-monitoring and powercontrolling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments'. This phrase has a double resonance, because 'wrong foot' was exactly the term used last week by the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Steen in a now notorious interview, in which he accused voters of being jealous of his large house. He and other MPs had been 'wrong-footed', he claimed, by Freedom of Information legislation - a classic monitory device - brought in by the Labour Government. Sir John's candour was rewarded by the threat from his party leader to 'have the whip withdrawn so fast his hoof won't touch the ground'.

That Keane, in a book covering the entire history of democracy, as well as a substantial speculation about its future, should so precisely capture the background to such a local scandal is a measure of the brilliance of his accomplishment. He says himself that this is the first such history to be attempted in more than a century, and we can only be grateful that it was Keane - an Australian-born academic and author, and the biographer of Tom Paine - who has filled the growing gap. This work has taken a decade to research and write, and such is its sweep and detail that it sometimes seemed it was taking almost as long to read.

That is not a criticism of its style, but a compliment to its complexity. The width and depth of Keane's erudition are stunning. He seems to be as at home in understanding Mycenaean-era Linear B references to the damos - an early entity that could allocate landholdings - as he is with medieval assemblies, South American caudillos and Tanzanian demokrasi. His book is as detailed, rumbustious, multifaceted and (despite its title) optimistic as the impulse to shared self-government that he so plainly loves. In his commitment he is, as Eric Hobsbawm once described himself, a kibbitzer, a participant observer: his own biases laid out clearly, but not permitted to override his intelligence.

Keane enjoys his discoveries. Departing from the convention that locates the birth of democracy in late 6th-century BC Athens, he finds evidence of citizen assemblies in the ancient Middle East, epitomised by how the men of Nippur were called upon to decide the fate of those accused of killing one Lu-Inanna; four fellow Nippurians, including the dead man's wife, the euphoniously named Nin-dada, were sentenced to death. A little later an Egyptian, Wen Amon, gave an account of a visit to the Phoenician port of Byblos that also furnishes a reference to a deliberative assembly.

But Athens is not neglected by Keane, and his account of the accidental birth of Athenian 'assembly democracy' is brisk and affectionate. One may regret the absence in our own times of anything like the habit of ostracism, named after the shards of pottery upon which citizens inscribed the names of people they wanted to see temporarily exiled from the city. As Keane tells it, the targets for ostracism included those seen as becoming too popular or too hubristic for comfort. The story is told of Aristides the Just, who was accosted by an illiterate farmer soliciting votes to have this same Aristides banished. Had he been wronged by Aristides? 'No,' the farmer replied, 'and I do not even know him, but I am tired of hearing him everywhere called 'The Just'.' At the moment Martin Bell is having a similar effect on me.

One of the many strengths of Keane's enterprise is its challenge to democratic parochialism, and the time it takes to examine democratic forms in the developing and post-colonial worlds. Who cannot benefit from a description of the early 20th-century Uruguayan system of the 'double simultaneous vote', in which you could vote for a party and for a faction within that party? And Keane's primary example of postwar democracy is not European or North American, but the messy miracle of Indian democracy.

Remarkably we live in a world where liberal democracy, or something like it, remains the preferred or desired system among most peoples. But Keane also demands that we understand the fragility of democracy - almost as a precondition of being able to keep it. By 1941, he points out, there were only 11 functioning democracies left in the world, and in many of the countries where it had disappeared - that disappearance accomplished by dictators and demagogues in the name of The People - ordinary people had indeed connived in its destruction. Even now, he warns, 'the enemies of democracy are on the rise, and even pundits and panjandrums halfsympathetic to it are openly cynical about claims that it is a desirable way of life for all the people of the planet'.

But how can we grasp the fragility if we don't even understand the system itself? Our internal model is still the pyramid of representative democracy, born - according to Keane - in the cortes of Leon in 1188, and refined by the American Revolution and parliamentary evolution, to the periodic selection by universal franchise of representatives to rule for us. And this is the system, Keane argues, that has now gradually mutated into something else - mutated into monitory democracy, with its commissions, citizens' action groups (he locates early monitory democracy in the American civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties), human rights organisations and independent review bodies.

The development of monitory democracy has been assisted - no, transformed - by the information revolution, which has taken us into an age of 'communicative abundance' with 24/7 coverage and citizens' media. The old mantra of 'one man, one vote', Keane says, has been replaced by 'one person, many interests, many votes'.

But as this has happened, and the exercise of power has been increasingly subject to public discussion, so life has become harder for politicians, and for parties. The privacy of those in power breaks down, and their whole lives are scrutinised. Nothing much is taken on trust, and the overtly political sphere is dominated by the 'founding principle' of monitory democracy, which is 'the continuous public chastening of those who exercise power'. Keane, as a believer in the necessity for 'humble' government, is mostly encouraged by this psychology, and if his enthusiasm had a name, it might well be that of Shami Chakrabarti, whose work and campaigning in the field of civil liberties exemplifies the monitory impulse.

But what of the dangers? In a long look at the future, led by a mildly irritating invented female muse, Keane examines the threats to democracy. He locates most of these in the inability of the political class itself to adjust to the new reality, or else - as in the case of 'überdemocrats' such as Silvio Berlusconi - their attempts to subvert it. Keane's muse reflects that parties gave themselves over to 'blandly stated policies, vague visionless visions, double standards and non-commitments', and politicians 'seemed less and less representative of anybody, except perhaps themselves and their buddies'.

This sounds familiar. Especially at a moment of extreme vox populi, vox Dei sentiments in which no one really dares tell 'the people' that they may be wrong. True, Keane does call for 'honest public recognition of the dysfunctions of monitory democracy', but without really specifying what these are. He writes that the 'core principle' of monitory democracy is that 'those whose actions adversely affect others should be held publicly accountable for the sake of everybody's wellbeing' but doesn't seem to face the problem of whose job it is to monitor the monitors, many of whom face no form of accountability, beyond the presumption that as 'ordinary' citizens (let's say, perhaps, the families of those killed in a rail accident) they must be right. Let us take the example of the MMR scare, where poor research, poor editorial decision-making, a ruthless pressure group, a handful of scientifically illiterate journalists and widespread middle-class credulity combined to create an entirely unnecessary and potentially lethal health problem.

Yet this is a minor objection to a magnificent work. And in any case it's an argument that adults should have, for as Keane perorates, democracy 'is never more alive than when it senses its incompleteness. It thrives on imperfection ... It is never something that is done and dusted ... it is a thing of action.' Some consolation, perhaps, for 'flipping' Hazel Blears.


This review was originally published in The Times on 27 May 2009 as "The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane questions whether our democracy can survive" and is reproduced with the author's kind permission. The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane was published in the United Kingdom on 8 June 2009. Professor Keane will be in Australia in August (details will be posted on the Evatt site when they come to hand).


The Evatt Foundation's Festival of Ideas: Dialogue on Democracy! was staged in Launceston on 14-15 November 2008. Other related papers on the Evatt Site include:

Suggested citation
Aaronovitch, David, 'The life & death of democracy', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, June 2009.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/life-death-democracy.html>