23 September 2013

Still the Best of A Bad Lot

The Life and Death of Democracy 
by John Keane

This isn't the kind of book you could honestly call a good read – not unless, perhaps, you had a particular taste for the subject. It's thick and square and crammed with facts, not always as digestibly presented as they might be. The prose is not terribly elegant. And whatever your views on democracy, you will almost certainly, at one point or another, find yourself bemused, repelled or angered by what the author has to say.

Yet this almost impossibly learned history of democracy presents a fresh and challenging way of looking at its subject, and is passionately convinced of democracy's vital importance to mankind. As an educational and thought-provoking read, it deserves full marks. There have, apparently, been very few histories of democracy; the last, we learn, was written in 1874, when democracy was still a relatively new development in modern Western society. So Keane has a clear field and plenty to talk about; and he exploits both to the full.

Keane rejects the arguments for democracy that invoke abstract ethics, divine will or Utopian views of human societies and relationships. He debunks the idea that democratic states are inherently peaceful. He shows that democratic institutions do not necessarily produce fair or effective governments. And he insists that nationalism or restrictive definitions of 'the people' have nothing to do with democracy. His final conclusion is that democracy is necessary because it is the only human institution that allows men and women to live their lives free of bullying and coercive violence, that controls the excesses of power and the hubris of the mighty; but he also points out that democracy is always under threat, never fully realised, never fully delivers on its promises and is constantly in need of repairs and modifications to adapt it to the prevailing conditions of time and place. There is no complete or ideal form of democracy, he says; demoocracy is always a work in progress.

The case he makes for this view of democracy is powerful; it convinced me. I learnt a lot from this book — which traces the growth of democracy back to such unlikely roots as the Code of Hammurabi and the Cortes of Léon — and perhaps it even changed my views a little. Though a convinced democrat, I tend to be somewhat of an elitist and have always interpreted democratic equality as equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; this book has made me think twice about both those attitudes.