Camden New Journal
The Review - Books
Published 23 July 2009 (original link here)
Explosive impact of a bout of jealousy?
John Keane’s new book tells the story of democracy – from the racy myth of its origins in Ancient Greece to the shifting model of the post-war world order, writes Dan Carrier
THE assassins saw the brother of their intended victim, and decided that instead of waiting for the sibling whose unwanted sexual advances had prompted the spat, they’d slay a member of his family.
The crime was committed in the bustling central square of Athens: they took their daggers out from beneath their robes and within moments Hipparchus, one of three brothers ruling the Greek city state, was dead. As a new book by Kentish Town-based politics professor John Keane points out, the sex lives and sibling rivalry of a leading Athenian family, followed by this murder, unwittingly kick-started Athenian democracy, 500 years before Christ. “After the death of Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, his three sons squabbled over his legacy, and this squabble had long-reaching effects for democracy,” explains the Australian-born academic who teaches at Westminster University. Hipparchus, Hippias and Thessalus jostled for power at the height of the Panathenic festival, held once every four years in honour of the goddess Athena. As Keane explains, Thessalus had a crush on one of the male assassins but his advances were rebuffed. Out of spite, he banned the sister of his would-be boyfriend from taking part in the festival. In revenge, they slayed his brother. “Jilted homosexual desire was thus a conspirator in the plot, which backfired in yet another way, this time with historic consequences,” says Keane. It saw the regime sign its own death warrant, and the birth certificate of Athenian democracy. Revenge was swift, with the assassins butchered at the scene by bodyguards. But because of the public nature of the incident, wealthy Athenian families feared the bloodletting would lead to unrest and a new political leader, Cleisthenes, won support by promising to acknowledge the “power of the powerless”, or the will of the people.
Keane kicks off his lengthy tome, which took him 10 years to write, with this racy tale of intrigue. But he also states that the belief modern democracy has it roots in Ancient Greece is a myth. He quickly blows out of the water our classical understanding of where modern government comes from. The professor’s research says democracy is much older – and stems from an area that in current times lacks democratic principles – namely Syria, Iraq and Iran. “The belief that democracy is a gift from Europe to the world dies hard,” he states. “The claim put forward within most Greek plays, poems, philosophical tracts, is that fifth-century Athens wins the prize for creating both the idea and the practice of democracy. It continues today – but it is false.” Instead, Keane shows that “the little word democracy is much older than classical Greek commentators make out”. Its origins are from the Mesopotamian region, its roots are in early Islamic societies. “The civil society of the early Muslim period was impressive,” says John. “It was distinguished by its development of private and civil laws that covered the protection of trade and property.” Western historians have falsely peddled an idea that traditionally Muslim states were ruled by “Oriental Despots”. “This is not true,” states Keane. “This was a later development, partly caused by foreign conquest and Western colonisation. The ancient Muslim world was innovative in keeping alive the spirit of representative democracy. It stretched from Morocco to China and then into South-East Asia. It rejected monarchy – to be a monarch was to upstage God.” While undermining what has been taken as fact by academics, the book explains the machinations of Greek democracy, and considers in depth how different countries used different methods of self-government, including the impact of the American Revolution and the growth of Indian democracy.
Keane says he was compelled to start work on the book when he saw a real danger to democracy coming from the country which painted itself as the defender of self-determination – the United States. His conclusion rests on his premise that there was a worldwide re-birth of democratic ideals after the Second World War. “When the conflict ended in 1945, there were only 11 democracies on Earth,” he says. “This has since grown to over 100 – but there is also a new type of democracy that has blossomed.”
Keane calls it “Monitory Democracy” – and its basis can be found in the massive explosion of single interest groups in the post-war period. “There has been the growth of power scrutinising inventions since 1945,” he states. “The old system of representative democracy had almost collapsed. In its place came different ways to check governmental power. This includes human rights networks, cross border bodies, integrity commissions – and theses are inventions from all four corners of the Earth. “These have changed political dynamics,” says Keane. “They keep politicians on their toes – and point to a new form of democracy. It is a post-Westminster model. Elections, parliaments and parties remain fundamental, but with new power scrutinising inventions.”
Keane has agreed to take a post back in his native Sydney next year after 30 years of living in London, partly because he cannot bring himself to face the advent of a Tory government. “I despair of a decade of David Cameron,” he admits, and slams the shadow cabinet for the multiple business interests they pursue, which he believes is dangerous for democracy. “I want to encourage people to think differently about democracy,” Keane adds. “Why it is the best form of government on Earth, and what can be done to improve it?”