The Life and Death of Democracy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Life and Death of Democracy
AuthorJohn Keane
Cover artistJem Butcher
CountryUnited Kingdom and United States
PublisherSimon & Schuster
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)

The Life and Death of Democracy is a 2009 book by John Keane. It was published by Simon & Schuster.[1] Keane claims his book is the first attempt to write a full history of democracy for well over a century - the last such attempt he states on this scale was by the American Nahum Capen, whose first volume was published in 1874. Some have claimed to have already provided such a comprehensive history, but Keane has rejected this claim.[2][3][4]

Keane's book deals with the meaning and institutions of democracy, historical roots and its present-day trends. The starting point in Keane's history is to re-consider democracy's roots. Fifth century BCE Athens (Greece), for many the cradle of democracy, was an important stage of the development process of democracy, but certainly not its point of origin. The origins of the idea of this new way of governing stretch beyond the Peloponnesus' coasts and date back to the ancient civilizations of Syria-Mesopotamia (ca. 2500 BCE).[5]

This and other discoveries that the book unearths are not a merely antiquarian exercise, for it is argued that these are historical facts that force us to rethink some of the core ideas that have influenced historians of the past, and, more importantly, shape the politics of the present. Not only does Keane propose that democratic assemblies have Eastern origins, Keane also strongly questions the old assumption that democracy is a universal norm that reflects Western values; hence, he argues that the future of democracy is not tied neither to the West, nor to representative democracy, its current most widely adopted form. See for instance, the history of India, which shows the possibilities of multiethnic democracies – Keane calls it "banyan democracy", and of Islam, that many consider the antithesis of democracy and instead has a neglected democratic tradition.[6]

Ideally, Keane writes, "the democratic ideal thinks in terms of government of the humble, by the humble, for the humble, everywhere, any time. Its universality, the applicability of this ideal across borders, in a wide variety of settings, whether in South Africa, China, Russia or the European Union, stems from its active commitment to what might be called 'pluriversality'," that is "the yearning of the democratic ideal to protect the weak and to empower people everywhere, so that they can get on with living their diverse lives on earth freed from the pride and prejudice of moguls and magnates, tyrants and tycoons." [7]

But ideals often do not conform to reality, and in this book Keane considers all the ways in which democracies have gone wrong over the course of history.

The book begins with a rather radical examination of the origins of the family of terms to which the word democracy belongs; the author goes onto explore the evolution and mutations of the language and institutions of democracy through the centuries, and its often hotly disputed meanings. Looking beyond the Athens-Runnymede-Philadelphia axis, Keane traces democracy's roots back to Sumeria and follows its tendrils as far afield as Pitcairn Island and Papua New Guinea.

At the core of Keane's book is the author's belief that history is a necessary key for understanding democracy in the present time. Keane's worldwide perspective is an important corrective to the (mainly Western) idea that democracy has one and only distinctive form; one type of model that can be brought as a gift to peoples with different attitudes and histories. There is no such a thing as a singular form of democracy. Following the line of thinking that history is the only way we can make sense of what democracy means, The Life and Death of Democracy provides fresh details of the obscure origins of old institutions and ideals like government by public assembly, female enfranchisement; the secret ballot, trial by jury, and parliamentary representation.

Keane's book shows as well that ideas of democratic governance have flourished in many different places and were often sparked by undemocratic ideas and actions. The road to democracy was often paved by opposite intentions. For instance, Keane shows that one effect of the early Islamic expansion was the creation of self-governing communities that needed to exist independently from the metropolis. The first experiments in female suffrage were made on the fringes of the British Empire: for imperial reasons, women were given the vote on Pitcairn Island in 1838.[8] Furthermore, Keane's historical works shows that those fringes were important laboratories of democracy. Australia is a case in point: "In the colony of South Australia, first settled in 1836 and later called by many the Paradise of Dissent, the spirit of aristocracy was extinguished by settlers who thought of themselves as fair-minded, God-respecting men and women of the improving classes".[9] And Australians were the first to experiment with ideas of proportional representation and the secret ballot.

The book attempts to explain democracy's global spread in modern times, the contrasting criticisms it attracts and the serious, perhaps fatal, problems afflicting it. As the Times of London columnist, David Aaranovitch wrote: "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."[10]

Keane stresses that the idea that people could govern themselves was not a simple one. On the contrary it implied something that continues to have a radical bite in the present time: that humans could invent and use institutions specially designed to allow them to decide for themselves, as equals, is a thought that may seem very common nowadays but was extraordinarily innovative at its conception.[3] Following this line of thinking, the book challenges the common view of democracy as a timeless fulfilment of our political destiny with built-in historical guarantees, emphasising that democracy is not a way of doing politics that has always been with us or will unquestionably be with us forever, but instead it is an evolving, adaptable political form of a rather frail nature, especially at times when there are signs of mounting disagreement about its meaning, its efficacy, and desirability. An important mainstay of Keane's account of the history of democracy is the need to understand the inner fragility of democracy – in fact for the author that is a precondition for the survival of democracy. Democracy is by no means indestructible. By 1941, in fact as Keane points out, there were only 11 functioning democracies left in the world. In less than 50 years the work of many dictators and demagogues in the name of 'the people' had almost succeeded in wiping democracy from the pages of our history books. The present time is no different, Keane warns: "the enemies of democracy are on the rise, and even pundits and panjandrums half sympathetic to it are openly cynical about claims that it is a desirable way of life for all the people of the planet".[11]

From Keane's history, democracy emerges less as a set of fixed principles and much more as a culture and mindset—pragmatic, antiauthoritarian, accepting of change and contingency and the ability of ordinary people to shape them. Democracy is first and foremost a uniquely humble and humbling way of life. "Democracy" writes Keane "thrives on humility" not on the arrogance of first principles. However the humility in this case, the author warns us, should never be confused with "docile meekness or submission". Humility in fact is for Keane "the cardinal democratic virtue, the antidote of arrogant pride: it is the quality of being aware of one's own and others' limits." This is a crucial element of democratic life: "People who are humble try to live without illusions. They dislike vanity and dishonesty; nonsense on stilts and lies and bullshit sitting on thrones are not their scene."[12]

Unyielding, humility is what gives individuals "inner strength to act upon the world". Humility dislikes hubris. For Keane to think "of democracy as a uniquely humble and humbling ideal is to give up on the old-hat idea that democracy rests upon some or other First Principle– the Nation, History, God, Truth, Utility, the Market, the infallible Sovereign People or its Leader." To think of democracy as a uniquely humble and humbling ideal is – Keane remarks – "to see instead that democracy is a precondition of the flourishing of different values and ways of life around the world is to rid democracy of its connotations of moral arrogance, sectional rule, bullying and force." Democracy is therefore a "codeword for humility" that in turns means "to say goodbye to the worn-out nineteenth- and twentieth-century European liberal rejection of democracy as a headstrong and perilous ideal that 'by the help of a demagogue and a mystical faith in "the people" or "the masses" leads to tyranny and the rule of the sword'.[13] Above all, for Keane, it is crucial to "rid democracy of its demons" and speak of it only in terms of humbling, that is a crucial point in our present understanding of democracy: it is "to redescribe the democratic ideal as a potentially universal check against every form of humbug and hubris, as a humble and humbling ideal that gathers strength from the vision that, although citizens and representatives require institutions to govern, no body should rule." [13]


In The Life and Death of Democracy, Keane argues that the history of democracy can be divided in three different phases. These correspond to three different governing models: the assembly, the representative, and the monitory. The first two are quite known, the third is the brainchild of Keane's study of the subject. Accordingly, the book is divided in three different sections. The first section deals with the origins of democracy and the assembly model. It locates the origins of public assemblies not in Athens but in the Middle East two thousands years before Pericles. And from that original cradle in Syria and Mesopotamia, early assembly democracy slowly moved westwards, through Phoenicia into the Greek world, where it was to be claimed as a Greek invention.[14]

"The little word democracy" Keane writes "is much older than classical Greek commentators made out".[15] The author traces its roots to the Linear B script of the Mycenaean period, seven to ten centuries earlier, to the late Bronze Age civilization (c. 1500-1200 BCE) that was centred on Mycenae and other urban settlements of the Peloponnese region. Similarly, Keane adds, contrary to what other scholars have pointed out, "the democratic practice of self-governing assemblies is also not a Greek innovation" but instead its roots are to be found in the 'East' and, more specifically, in Mesopotamia, lands that geographically correspond to contemporary Syria, Iraq and Iran. Keane unearths evidences of citizen assemblies in the ancient Middle East, in the sacred city of Nippur - one of the oldest Babylonian settlements on the Euphrates and the place where Enlil is supposed to have created humanity. Nippur is a striking example of early self-governing assemblies. The example cited by Keane is that of the men of Nippur called upon to decide the fate of four people accused of killing Lu-Inanna, the son of a local priest; the four, including the victim's wife guilty of covering up the murder, were sentenced to death.[16] The custom of popular self-government was later transported both eastwards and westwards, only to arrive later in Athens, where during the fifth century BCE it was claimed as something unique to the West, as a sign of its superiority over the 'barbarism' of the East".[15]

The second part of the book is dedicated to the invention of the representative model. Shaped by forces as varied as the rebirth of towns, the rise (in northern Spain) of the first parliaments, and the conflicts unleashed by self-governing councils and religious dissent within the Christian Church, democracy came to be understood as representative democracy in this second phase. Contrary to what other sources have often suggested, Keane points out that the oldest roots of that democratic model are in fact undemocratic. The first parliament was not English, but Spanish. Keane locates the birth of representative parliaments in the cloisters of San Isidoro Church, in León, Northern Spain - the site where King Alfonso IX convened the first cortes in 1188 CE.[17] Yet it took several centuries before the term representation began to be used in conjunction with democracy. The birthplace of talk of 'representative democracy' – unknown to the Greeks - was late-eighteenth century France, England and the new American republic. To find a common accepted definition of the word and of the actual meaning of representation (who was entitled to represent whom and what had to be done when representatives disregarded those whom they were supposed to represent [18]) was by no means an easy task to accomplish. Much ink and blood was spilled. The representative model of democracy as we know it is for Keane the result of many and different power conflicts, many of them bitterly fought in opposition to ruling groups, whether they were church hierarchies, landowners or imperial monarchies, often in the name of "the people". The concept of the sovereign "people" was one of the most contested in this second phase. The bitter controversies over who "the people" were, along with the common belief of the time that good government was government by representatives, characterised this era of representative democracy, an era which also saw the birth of an abundance of democracy-related neologisms, such as social democracy, liberal democracy and Christian democracy. Often contrasted with monarchy, representative democracy was praised as a way of governing better by openly airing differences of opinion – not only among the represented themselves, but also between representatives and those whom they are supposed to represent while encouraging the rotation of leadership guided by merit.[19]

The third part of the book is dedicated to the evolution of democracy since 1945. In Keane's view, after World War II, democracy has entered a new phase, which he calls monitory democracy. He explains that during the first half of the twentieth century, the representative model faced its deepest crisis.[20] Parliaments proved to be not strong enough to defend democracy from economic collapse and the rise of various forms of dictatorial and totalitarian rule. The system of representative democracy based purely on representation showed its limits and fragility; the use of mass communication media (the press, the radio, and cinema) helped populist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler to gain consensus and almost destroy democracy has it had been hitherto known. The crisis in fact culminated in total war (1939–1945) and 'near-destruction worldwide of democratic institutions and ways of life by the storms of mechanised war, dictatorship and totalitarian rule'.[21] After World War II, alongside parliamentary politics (typical of the representative model), "many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms" emerged. Keane calls these mechanisms "monitory bodies"; they function both from within the state and cross-borders.[22] The emergence of monitory bodies have transformative effects on the core institutions of representative democracy: nation states are still important, but power-holders (representatives) are subject increasingly to unprecedented scrutiny from within and across borders, and outside the conventional mechanism of periodic elections and parliamentary representation.[23]

Since 1945, we have witnessed 'the birth of nearly one hundred new types of power-scrutinising institutions unknown to previous democrats'. Among these are public integrity commissions, judicial review procedures, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' assemblies (to name just a few); and international level (forums, summits, regional parliaments, human rights watch organisations, etc.). Since 1945 "power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order.[24] 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". These mechanisms of power scrutiny tend to make power relations both within and outside government more accountable and more democratic. Keane points out that democracy is no longer simply a way of handling the power of elected governments by electoral, parliamentary and constitutional means, and no longer a matter confined to territorial states. The central grip of elections, political parties and parliaments on citizens' lives is weakening and democracy is coming to mean more than elections, although nothing less. Within and outside states, independent monitors of power begin to have tangible effects. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, they complicate their lives, question their authority and force them to change their agendas– and sometimes smother them in disgrace.[25]

Some examples of these extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions have already been given. Others include public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts' reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, 'blogging' and other novel forms of media scrutiny.

Historically speaking, due to its intricate network of institutions and inner dynamics, Keane considers monitory democracy to be the most complex form of democracy ever. He emphasises that its fruitful evolution is not to be taken for granted. Democracy is in a continuous state of flux. According to the book, democracy is not a done deal or something accomplished but still an unfinished experiment that "thrives on imperfection".[26]


Since its first publication in Britain (June 2009 – in Australia was published July 2009, United States August 2008, and Portugal and Brazil Nov/Dec. 2009) the book has been reviewed by some of the major newspapers and reviews worldwide. On average it has attracted good reviews.

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and wrote Keane's "study's broad sweep, wealth of detailed knowledge, shrewd insights and fluent, lively prose make it a must-read for scholars and citizens alike" [27]

The Times of London columnist David Aaronovitch wrote that Keane's book was a good guide to the politics of the present. "What a difference a book can make. I had been as confused as any other observers about these events" – wrote Aaronovitch in May 2009 referring to the bewildering weeks in the recent history of British democracy, namely, the expense claims scandal surrounding Westminster. "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 …" How to make sense of all this? I was "thrashing around attempting to catch their meaning - and then I read John Keane's The Life and Death of Democracy …. 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." And moreover: "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."[10]

In Summer 2009, The Life and Death of Democracy was selected by the Times among the best history books for 'your holiday reading'. The London paper called the book 'the publishing event of the summer'[28]

The Daily Telegraph ranked The Life and Death of Democracy alongside must-take holiday items, like women's electric shavers.[29]

Ben Wilson from the pages of the Literary Review wrote: It has become something of a fashion to write 'biographies' of inanimate things and ideas: fighter planes, football clubs, numbers, scientific theories, and so on. Despite its title, this is no such thing; rather, it is about the lives and deaths of many different forms of human government, sometimes within very short time periods. Keane's approach is evident from the beginning of this impressive work. […] Keane experiments with a number of voices, from the polemical to the analytical, and from ironic detachment to involved, lyrical narratives. There are jokes, and in one chapter he takes the guise of a future female historian writing of the first decade of the twenty-first century. His aim is to carry the reader through a long and sometimes complex history, and I think he succeeds." [30]

David Runciman from the pages of The Observer writes that Keane's book "is a remarkable book, nearly 1,000 pages long and with something to be learnt from almost every one of them. Still," Runcimans adds "it's longer than it needs to be. Keane has travelled widely and thought deeply about his subject, but his repeated insistence on the originality of what he's doing starts to grate after a while." [2]

Sunil Khilnani from the pages of the Financial Times wrote that "Keane successfully expands our sense of democracy's origins, deftly traces its global reach, and rightly insists on the contingent, historical character of democracy, its emergence and evolution through unintended moves that have enabled its continual reinvention. So sweeping a study must necessarily stand on others' shoulders but here Keane is slack. He fails to provide adequate footnotes for ideas, specific examples and phrases." [31]

In August Keane's book featured among the books recommended by the Daily Beast, the news reporting and opinion website published by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker [32]

Stephen Barber's (Social Europe Journal, August 2009) wrote: "This is an extraordinary book which tells us almost as much about the future of our democracy as it does about the past and the present. It shows us how fragile is democracy and reminds us that, despite its recent shortcomings, we rather like democracy and rather take it for granted." [33]

Paul Pickering from the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: this is ambitious study charts the rise of a political system and ponders its future. A product of a decade of research and writing, this is a work of enduring importance.[34]

Brenton Holmes from the Canberra Times wrote: If democracies and their defenders are "sleepwalking their way into deep trouble", John Keane's latest tome The Life and Death of Democracy delivers the kind of slap that should rouse even the most comatose of them. Or more likely, it would concuss them. Coming in at just under a thousand pages, it is not a book for the faint-hearted. Nor is it a book to be shelved until one has a month free to wade through it. Reading it feels more like surfing than wading, with all the associated plunging and soaring — and the occasional wipe-out.[35]

Sanford Levinson for the History Book Club wrote: John Keane has written an astounding, truly audacious, book. Indeed, it may be the first attempt at a comprehensive survey of "democracy" in well over a century. To describe it as "comprehensive" is no idle gesture. One reason for its 1000-page length is that he has illuminating discussions of societies ranging across time and space from the ancient Near East and Athens—one of his important theses is that we overestimate the "invention of democracy" by Athens by ignoring evidence of the significance of "assemblies" in the Near East well before the Greeks—to contemporary developments in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as more predictable discussions of Europe and North America.[36]

During June and July 2009 the book occupied the number 1 spot in Amazon's bestseller list for books on democracy in Political Science & Ideology section and in the History section.

As a source[edit]

The Life and Death of Democracy provided the key source material for the opening timeline (2500 BCE to 1770 CE) featured at the new Museum of Australian Democracy. Located in the Old Parliament House, in the capital city of Canberra, the museum was officially opened on May 9, 2009 by the former Australian Prime Minister, the Hon R.J.L. Hawke AC.[37]


  1. ^ Keane (2009)
  2. ^ a b David Runciman (7 June 2009). "What a way to run a country". The Observer. Retrieved 15 November 2015.
  3. ^ a b John Keane, Why I wrote this book, Video by the author, Watch it here.
  4. ^ See also John Keane's response to John Dunn
  5. ^ Keane (2009), pp. 107–108
  6. ^ Keane (2009), p. 629 ff
  7. ^ Keane (2009), p. 855
  8. ^ Keane (2009), p. 539
  9. ^ Keane (2009), p. 517
  10. ^ a b David Aaranovitch (27 May 2009). "The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane questions whether our democracy can survive". The Times.
  11. ^ Keane (2009), p. 841
  12. ^ Keane (2009), pp. 855–856
  13. ^ a b Keane (2009), p. 856
  14. ^ Keane (2009), p. xv
  15. ^ a b Keane (2009), p. xi
  16. ^ Keane (2009), p. 118
  17. ^ Keane (2009), pp. 173–174
  18. ^ Keane (2009), p. xviii
  19. ^ Keane (2009), pp. 161–169
  20. ^ Keane (2009), p. 583 f
  21. ^ Keane (2009), p. xvii
  22. ^ Keane (2009), p. 169
  23. ^ Keane (2009), p. 695
  24. ^ Keane (2009), p. xxvii
  25. ^ Keane (2009), p. 689
  26. ^ Keane (2009), p. 866
  27. ^ Publishers Weekly, The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane" 22 June 2009 Read original review here
  28. ^ The Times Online, 27 June 2009 Read the article here
  29. ^ The Telegraph, 31 July 2009, Read the article here
  30. ^ Ben Wilson, "Power to the People - The Life and Death of Democracy" in Literary Review, June 2009, pp. 36-37
  31. ^ Sunil Khilnani, The Life and Death of Democracy, The Financial Times 20 June 2009 Read the article here
  32. ^ The Daily Beast 18 August 2009 Read the article here
  33. ^ Stephen Barber, Social Europe Journal, Volume 4, Issue, 3, Summer 2009, pp. 47-49, Read the article here
  34. ^ Paul Pickering, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 2009, Read the article here
  35. ^ Brenton Holmes, The Canberra Times, 22 August 2009, Read the article here
  36. ^ Sanford Levinson, The History Book Club, August 2009, Read the article here
  37. ^ see the Museum of Australian Democracy website


External links[edit]