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.

John Gray in The National:

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.

More here.