Read The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane Online


From Plato to de Tocqueville to Fukuyama—an epic history of the governing philosophy that has defined Western history. In the grand tradition of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers comes this provocative history of world democracy, which begins with the ancient Myceans and ends in our fractious present. Overturning long-cherished notions, John Keane posesFrom Plato to de Tocqueville to Fukuyama—an epic history of the governing philosophy that has defined Western history. In the grand tradition of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers comes this provocative history of world democracy, which begins with the ancient Myceans and ends in our fractious present. Overturning long-cherished notions, John Keane poses challenging questions: Did democracy actually begin in ancient Greece or earlier in Mesopotamia? Do the American and British systems actually live up to their democratic ideals? Why is there a bad moon rising over the world’s democracies? Written by a leading political theorist, this book presents readers with a counterintuitive look at democracy’s past, present, and future, which Keane argues lies not in the West but in the turbulent democracies of the East, especially in India. Keane, avoiding the triumphalism of global democracy’s most boisterous pundits, cautions that democracy today is more fragile than ever and that, unless major corrective measures are taken, we may be sleepwalking our way into even deeper trouble....

Title : The Life and Death of Democracy
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ISBN : 9780393058352
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 992 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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The Life and Death of Democracy Reviews

  • Hadrian
    2018-10-15 23:34

    This is a massive book, one which approaches a familiar topic from a unique perspective.According to the author, there are three stages of democracy: assembly, which is often associated with ancient Greece; representative, which is the form of democracy later espoused in the 18th and 19th centuries and is the foundation of the modern American model, and the current form, the outpouring of the most modern era, and typified through India - monitored democracy.Keane asserts that ancient democracy was not wholly from Athens - he posits that ancient Phoenician city-states and parts of Mesopotamia, as well as other Greek states, had democracy of some form. After this collapsed, democracy waned for a few centuries, save a few thinkers, isolated villages, and merchant republics. Even after the United States came into being as a democratic republic, there were strong and significant undercurrents against it, with totalitarian movements rising to power in the 20th century in Europe, but also caudillos and warlords in South America.The historical analysis is solid here, save a few minor factual errors, which are bound to crop up in a work of this size. When we approach the modern era, though, this moves into the realm of the hypothetical.Monitored democracy, as shown as a case example in India, is where power is decentralized and monitored through NGOs, etc. Democracy has also been implemented in new hybrid forms, combining elements of traditional culture, religion, etc.Also a brief segment on the future of democracy, on 'viral' democracy and the internet, as well as the difficulties of adequate local representation over such large polities.

  • Palmyrah
    2018-09-23 15:35

    This isn't the kind of book you can 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.As a 'good read', this book deserves two stars at best.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 a full five stars. 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 and 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 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; democracy 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 am something 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.Uncertainly and provisionally — that is to say, in the spirit of the book itself — I hereby award it four stars.

  • Abdalhadi
    2018-10-04 15:52

    An amazing book. As a political scientist and researcher from Palestine and the islamic world, I think this is the first modern book that give Muslims and Arabs credits for their historical role in fostering state and its current shape. It refutes the that Islam is not compatible with democracy... This book manifest the whole story of democracy on the mother earth from day one to 2050. I recommend every one to ready this book to learn how our modern political life was developed since Agora.

  • Brook Dixon
    2018-09-28 17:44

    Amazing knowledge and erudition by Keane, and I applaud his great learning, research and passion, which certainly has impressed upon me. But ambition and scope prevailed. This book is at least 400 pages too long, spoiled by repetition and indulgent musing by the author. It reads at times like a set of lecture notes, written over many decades and stapled together to produce this tome.

  • Don
    2018-10-01 19:29

    Keane writes from the perspective of a radical democrat who is worried that the best arguments in favour of democracy have not yet been made. What we get instead is a mess of confused advocacy heavily inflected with the national prejudices of this or that political elite which sees the contribution made by its own country to the cause of representative government as the thing which makes democracy itself truly great.Arguments of this sort are just not good enough, according to Keane, and risk handing all the really good cards over to democracy’s many critics, who see in it just another attempt to impose the values and mindsets of imperial masters on diverse local populations. If this argument is to be countered the pressing need is that we find evidence that democracy is capable of being supported from within a larger portion of the cultures and social systems by which humanity organises its affairs. Keane’s approach is to discount the idea that we will find fully-fledged democracies functioning in communities over which subsequent history has cast dark shadows. The reason for this is that democracies have never been ‘fully-fledged’, but always works in progress; including all the ones we are working with in our own time. Further, the excavation of this history reveals that the assemblage of the components of democracy follows three different models. The first of these is assembly democracy, as practiced not first by the Athens and the Greek city states, but the towns and villages of the Mesopotamian region. Subsequently a toolkit was put together which allowed representative democracy to sustain itself, which in turn was displaced by something he calls ‘monitory’ democracy.He is anxious to avoid grand theories of democracy, which root it in ontological reasoning of necessity and inevitability. It seems that people stumbled on the components of democracy by accident but were then happily relieved that it assisted them in the tasks before them in the times in which they lived. The assemblies which brought together the citizens of a city state addressed the needs of prosperous agrarian and manufactured goods trading societies to hold together the leading groups to reach a consensus on the rules needed to order commerce internally and to maintain relations with neighbouring states and political authorities. Small and homogeneous enough to allow believe that such agreement could be brokered, the assembly provided the means to unify a body of male, free citizens which seldom numbered more than a few thousands of people.The age of the city states gave way to empires and democracy became a memory which was often spoken of in harsh terms by the intellectuals who served the successor regimes. It was remembered as a system of government which restrained the options for action on the part of the strong men of aristocratic temperament who really needed to be given their head. It took the dissolution of their handiwork for democracy in a new guise to begin to find purchase once again.As the energy for building and maintaining empires dissipated, space was created for emergence of entities which, though founded as administrative units of empire, provided a framework which allowed denizens to establish structures in which a new form of democracy could be established. The contours now were national rather than civic and this democracy had to be representative rather than direct.Keane explores the differences at length. Assembly democracy belonged to particularly stage of communicative technology as much as anything, with limits set by the volume of the human voice, or the speed of a messenger travelling on foot or horseback. Representative democracy belonged to the age of the printing press, with a daily press offering its take on events that concerned the life of the nation to its citizens. But representation also allowed for something else to be attempted by democracy. The ancient assemblies had required unanimity, or as close as possible, for their mandate for action: representative democracy provided a form which facilitated the presence of different viewpoints and interests in its parliaments, with the government emerging from voting practices which produced majorities and minorities. How this played out in all the countries which adopted some type of democratic is the subject of a lengthy middle section of the book. The United States provided a strong constitution-based model for its representative democracy, setting out complex ground rules for its various institutions. The enlightened minds which produced this work were careful to provide mechanisms which prevented majorities from turning into tyrannies, through a strict separation of the powers of government and other checks and balances. Representative government became in this way an immensely complex business which reflected the character to the society it ruled.But Keane follows representation down others paths. The Spanish American example after the continent established its independence from Spain and Portugal after 1812 produced a variant called caudillism, which arose when elections produced rulers who operated with the authority of dictators. In Asia a banyan democracy emerged with the establishment of the Republic of India, which sheltered structures intended to provide representation to hundreds of millions of people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.The point here, essential to Keane’s argument, is that democracy evades proscriptions which tie it to particular cultures, presence of a supposed essential class component, or levels of technical and education development of the peoples who live within its system of government. For this author, democracy in some form is always possible whenever the mass of people perceive of the need for the accountability of government to the society it rules over. In the final section of his book, Keane discusses the advent of what he calls ‘monitory’ democracy. In his history, the representative form entered into a crisis at the beginning of the 20th century and this extended right up until the end of the second world war. This was a time when democracy could have been washed away altogether by the rising tide of dictatorships of both communist and fascist varieties. That is didn’t, and in fact staged a remarkable comeback after 1945, was to do the accommodation representative democracy made with a wider civil society, allowing its organisations a monitoring function which embedded its structures more deeply into the activities of ordinary citizens.Effective and efficient monitoring of government was made possible by new developments in communicative technologies associated with the rise of the electronic media – the telegraph, radio, television, and latterly the internet – which increased the rate of flow of information and generated more opportunities for citizens to shape the narrative of national life. More monitoring meant more scrutiny, and more opportunities to check and balance the activities of government through citizens’ action which was at least the equivalent of the constitutionalism which was the hall mark of representative democracy.Monitory democracy is the phase of history in which we currently reside, and on the basis of this story it might seem to be a good place to be. There has been a huge advance in the numbers of countries whose governments are now formed on the basis of periodic elections – in the region of 120 out of around 200 across the world – and everyone with access to a laptop and a mobile phone seems to have the potential to operate as a much more effective citizen than ever they could in the past.But Keane sees problems for democracy which aren’t as far away as the horizon. In apparently empowering the individual citizen monitory democracy has eroded confidence in many of the forms of collectivism which had previously structured political life. Political parties across the world are declining in membership as people cease to see the relevance of perspectives and values forged across decades as being relevant to the fast-moving circumstances of the modern world. Noting this development, the professional political class seeks new relationships with voters which are based on more immediate, popularist approaches. The sheer volume of chatter about possible interpretations of everyday life can induce torpor and indifference to the actions of government, as well as outright cynicism.The book concludes with a discussion with an imaginary historian from the future who is in a position to report on the aspects of our contemporary lives which ought to generate alarms and warnings. Rather than the world having been secured for democracy, the future commentator suggests it again is balanced on a cusp with the danger, just as back in the early 1900s, it might retreat and became extinct once again. That is shouldn’t Keane suggests, has much more to do with the cultures of hope which human society appears to need to keep moving forward and solving problems than with any particular ideological or prejudices based on the special role of special nations.The implication appears to be that if democracy is to be renewed in the 21st century then it will need once again to get closer to the people who would draw most obvious benefits from making sure that the business of government remains accountable to their needs and interests. The political programme which would support this action for the next generation has not yet been written. If it ever is, Keane’s substantial book – nearly 900 hundred pages without the footnotes – will be regarded as a fitting foreword to the project.

  • Nimue Brown
    2018-10-09 22:48

    This is a huge book, in every sense. John Keane lays out the history of democracy from its earliest known routs In Mesopotamia (not Athens!) through to the state of play at the start of the 21st century. Rather than offering some easy, linear progress narrative, this book is full of diversity and divergence, experiments and failures. It is a stunning piece of work.Most history is taught from a perspective of nation and country. As a consequence much of the history in here was unfamiliar to me. It is a history of nations and geopolitical regions, of ideas that cross borders and redefine them. As a consequence, it gives the most awe inducing sense of perspective. Littered with fascinating details and examples, there’s a lot to take in. Much of the content is bloody depressing, both in terms of what the past holds and the implications for our future. There are moments of vision when the writer suggests ways forward, and ways of thinking about democracy that quite literally lifted hairs about my person. For anyone interested in politics or history, there is much to be gained from reading this text.It isn’t an easy or a comfortable read, so not a book for someone who wants a quick jaunt and a simple overview. It is at odds with fashionable, narrative driven history writing that offers clear causality an straight forward meanings. If you like pop-history, it is not the book for you. If you don’t get on with more academic style books, you probably won’t like it, but if you relish complex, detailed history books that you can really get your teeth into and learn something substantial from, I recommend this one.

  • Liz
    2018-10-06 22:24

    this was the worst and now that I've finished the subject it was assigned for I'm putting it down halfway finished. so maybe it gets super great right after the bit I was reading and you should ignore this review. but basically, it's not scholarly in the slightest. (a wishy-washy non-committal tone does not a scholarly work make.) crucially, it's never defined what democracy was or why we should want it, it just assumed that western liberal democracy is The Dream and everything else is Archaic or Not Democracy, not even touching on alternative models -- like modern direct democracies, for example (which exist! just not on the scale of the nation-state). this led to some extremely sketchy and ill-supported conclusions. like, one of the fundamental ideas of the book is that democracy is often achieved through non-democratic means. which is all well and good on the surface, I guess. but what it actually means is that he lumps together anything that led to a liberal democracy that is not itself liberal democracy, conflating (e.g.) popular armed resistance and the imposition of electoral democracy by imperial forces. and the bits where he thinks he's saying something radical are...kind of embarassing? dude, it's not a "new idea" that democracy didn't originate in Athens. maybe in 1850. the final sin: he relies heavily on terrible over-extended metaphors about the saplings of resistance being fostered by the streams of Iberian nationalism running from the mountains of fascism, or whatever the fuck. oh god, terrible terrible book, hopelessly lacking in imagination or critical edge.

  • Timothy Cooper
    2018-09-30 20:50

    Awesome, beginning to end. It demystifies the evolution of democracy across the planet, offering sobering reflections and guarded optimism about its tentative and uneasy presence in a world implicated by political turmoil and vast uncertainty. I had to read it twice to appreciate its breadth and scope. But once will do, however. Read it to witness the past, present and perhaps future of democracy.

  • Daniel Carr
    2018-09-30 17:42

    Note on rating: I'd give 5 stars to Parts 1-2, and 2 Stars to the remainder of the book.This book is a marathon, one that I had to take periodic breaks from in order to sustain my interest, but was ultimately worth it. The book has an important central message: democracy is fragile and is not fated to occur by some underlying evolutionary force as many now believe. As Keane puts it: "That's how it was: no clear-cut laws of motion, no regular patterns, just higgledy-piggledy breakthroughs and setbacks bound together by continuous struggles of people to control publicly the exercise of power through the use of assemblies." The idea links quite closely to Karl Popper's rejection of "inexorable laws of historical destiny" - which he viewed as a dangerous idea that caused complacent thinking and undermines the role individuals play in changing the direction of history (for better or worse). In light of the recent Russell Brand essay on 'revolution' this message is particularly important. We've gotten complacent about democracy and no longer guard it as preciously as we should. The book can really be split into two parts: an in-depth history of democracy in theory and practice, and an argument for the 'monitory democracy' that Keane now sees emerging. The first part is exquisite. Richly researched and well-written, the book details the ebb and flow of proto-democratic and democratic institutions since the dawn of civilisation. There is a lengthy treatment of the development of proto-democratic notions (office-bearing, consultation, etc) outside of the standard Athenian story (touching on advisory councils in early Asia and medieval Spain to name a few). The treatment of office-holding as an idea fundamental to democratic development was particularly intriguing. Keane sees the Catholic Church's use of this, in opposition to inherited and inalienable sovereign power, as a vital piece of proto-democratic DNA. The crisis of the early 15th century, which saw competing Popes struggle for recognition. The crisis was ultimately settled in a meeting of the General Council of clerical delegates, which for the first time recognised that the Pope was the minister, not the sovereign, of the Church (power rested on consent, even if it was consent from a small clique). Further interesting ideas touched upon are the early roots of the idea of taxation requiring some form of consultation, the oddly undemocratic foundation of the US Republic, a stellar history of the contribution of South Australia (with respect to voting methods and mass enfranchisement) to democratic progress, the abolishment of civil service patronage by the US progressive movement, the Chartist movements and Australian parallels (Eurkea Stockade). The second half I found far less interesting. It teases out, in a markedly less coherent fashion, Keane's notion of 'Monitory Democracy'. It takes a long time to actually describe what this is, and it is built up in a way that makes the ultimate revelation a bit of a let down. It's ultimately viewed as the next progression in democracy (from direct democracy, to representative, to monitory) and it's basically all about competing institutions that monitor and mobilise against government. It meshes this with a long-winded and somewhat indulgent critique of modern democracy's many failings - it's a fatiguing end to an otherwise brilliant book.I would not hesitate to recommend reading Parts 1, 2 and the 'Under the Banyan Tree' component of Part 3. These give an excellent (possibly unparalleled, but I'm no authority) account of the history of democracy that isn't Western-centric, and that should be of interest to anyone who is politically active or interested in history in general.

  • Jennifer (JC-S)
    2018-09-18 16:37

    ‘The subject of democracy is full of enigmas, confusions, things that are supposed to be true.’This book is an interesting, illuminating and entertaining look at democracy. It’s also a sizeable read: at just under 1000 pages. John Keane’s purpose in writing this book was to examine and appraise democracy, to look at its origins, its history, its purpose and practice.John Keane traces the roots of democracy to the Myceneans of the Bronze Age, about a thousand years before it appeared in 5th century BCE Athens. He argues that it first arose in the East (Iran, Iraq and Syria) but it was in Athens that a recognisably democratic polis was shaped. In this form of assembly democracy, the communal gathering place (the agora) was critical. It was where, over two centuries, self-government was practised until ended by repeated Macedonian invasions.After assembly democracy, a form of representative democracy began to emerge in Europe during the tenth century CE. ‘The first parliament was born of despair. In March 1188 – Alfonso IX convened the first cortes in Léon.’By the 16th century, many people were still indifferent to the idea of democracy, and even by the 18th century, support for the notion of representative democracy was not widespread. Early European parliaments were often exploited by monarchs, or (in cities like Florence and Venice) dominated by oligarchs and plutocrats. The execution of Charles I in England in the early 17th century changed the political horizon immeasurably. Keane notes that the American revolutionaries warned against an ‘excess of democracy’ and it was James Madison’s talk of ‘refining the popular appointments by successive filtrations’ that pushed the Founding Fathers to accept a lower house based on popular election. There’s discussion of what Keane calls the ‘American Century’, including some interesting insights into the forging of the Constitution as a defence ‘against the perceived vices of democracy’. There is discussion as well of various democratic experiments in South America, as well as of the Indian democratic experience. Keane calls the India ‘democracy’s most compound, turbulent and interesting prototype.’Keane argues that a new form of democracy is developing. He calls this ‘monitory democracy’.‘Monitory democracy is a new historical form of democracy, a variety of ‘post-parliamentary’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra- parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms.’ These differently sized monitory bodies include all sorts of associations, tribunals and non-government organisations (NGOs).The book concludes with John Keane as an ‘imaginary historian writing 50 years from now’, offering a perspective on what democracy then might look like, and an evaluation of some of current trends in democracy.There’s a wealth of fact in this book, well as some interesting speculation about the future of democracy. I can easily believe that it took John Keane over a decade to research and write. It’s a great history, and I know I’ll be referring to it again in future.‘Democracy is never more alive than when it senses its incompleteness. It thrives on imperfection.’ Jennifer Cameron-Smith

  • Oz
    2018-10-12 20:35

    Great history of democracy. Challenges many long standing myths about the origins of democracy and shows that it has been greatly shaped by non-Western, non-secular ideas

  • Bill
    2018-09-21 21:31

    I love how Keane puts the history of the USA into the context of the history of Democracy. The US started out as an undemocratic republic, evolved into "representative democracy" in the Jacksonian period, and became a sham democracy early in the 20 century, run not by the people, but by persuaders, like Edward Bernays, who figured out how to manipulate the masses through advertising, public relations, propaganda, and other dark arts of persuasion informed by modern psychology and an understanding of the power of the unconscious mind.

  • Evelyn
    2018-09-26 15:47

    Enormous book that delves deeply into the origins of democracy and gives a most thorough account of its history. Charts its journey throughout time to modernday and ponders the question of what form of democracy now exists and how it adapts and changes. Mostly accessible and certainly a lot lighter in prose that some of the terribly dry stuff about.

  • Leo Rees-murphy
    2018-09-28 22:43

    One of the most beautifully written non-fiction works that I have read.

  • Matthew da Silva
    2018-10-19 22:36

    My review on my blog:

  • Tom
    2018-09-19 19:31

    Heavy going but well worth the effort to better understand the idea of democracy. And why it matters so much. And why we can't take it for granted. Eternal vigilance.