The National Interest
Published 23 February 2010 (original link here)
Democracy & Its Discontents
by John Dunn
John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 992 pp., $35.00.
John Kampfner, Freedom for Sale: Why the World Is Trading Democracy for Security (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 304 pp., $27.95.
(READ: John Keane’s response to John Dunn’s review of The Life and Death of Democracy, and John Dunn's response to Keane)
FEW CONTRIBUTIONS to The National Interest can have matched the impact of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 proclamation of “The End of History.” In that trenchant essay he captured a historical moment and launched a stellar career. Rather less gratifying in the longer run, he also did much to set his stamp on America’s national agenda abroad for the next decade and a half. His was a deft inversion of John Locke’s distant vision: “in the beginning all the world was America.” In the End, with the Cold War no more and the dream of socialism vanishing swiftly over the horizon, the world was at last ready to recognize that it had no other eligible destination or option but to do its faltering best to become America. It had to reconcile itself to embracing, on pain of inanition, chaos or barbarism, not America’s distinctive culture and self-assurance or its widely envied levels of material comfort, but its hallowed form of government, and above all, its cherished and endlessly honed diagnosis of the special merits of that form.
It was never clear that this was quite the lesson which Fukuyama himself intended his readers to draw. Its lengthier rendition as a book three years later, The End of History and the Last Man, was a more ambitious, more archaic and less incisive conception, with a distinctly less resolute denouement. But the moral drawn by his audience, both by admirers and open foes, remained simple and triumphalist. America had inherited the earth and done so in the last instance because, through its economic, cultural and eventually military victories, it uniquely deserved to do so. A peculiar and blessed historical privilege had become the inheritance of mankind.
THIS WAS plainly a misjudgment, but it rested on two compelling apprehensions, one central to the argument of article and book alike, and the other implicit in each and widely shared by their American audiences. The first was that the protracted struggle to build a society which preserved all the achievements of capitalism while categorically rejecting the forms of ownership which had made these possible had failed definitively. The second was the intimate historical relationship between the progress of democracy as a political idea on the world stage and the history of the United States as an independent nation-state.
John Kampfner’s Freedom for Sale and John Keane’s far larger and more adventurous volume The Life and Death of Democracy have markedly different purposes, but each is also an attempt to cut Fukuyama’s vision down to size and take the measure of the perturbing decades in between. Amongst their many other sources, each takes the precaution of recording an interview with their renowned predecessor and target. Kampfner’s is a hastier affair. It makes appreciably fewer demands on the reader but offers less to think about in return. Kampfner himself is a successful print and television journalist who can write sharply as well as vividly. A relatively effective editor of the fading London left-wing political weekly the New Statesman, now some decades past its heyday, he can draw on friends and willing interlocutors in every ranking world capital, with enviable access to the powerful as well as the clever and entertaining. His travels here cover Singapore, China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Italy (inevitably Berlusconi), Britain (predominantly surveillance cameras but with plenty of dispraise for New Labour’s insouciance about civil liberties) and the United States. His principal thesis is simple: most people in most places, when offered the choice, will sacrifice most of their own liberty (and virtually all of other people’s) with very little hesitation in return for gratifying levels of personal consumption. Put tersely, this mildly defamatory characterization of the species is plausible enough; but it does little to illuminate the equation of political forces anywhere in particular. If you wish to find a common formula for why most of the British who have even noticed the recent proliferation of CCTV cameras have passively accepted this turn of events, or why most of the Chinese population appears still resigned to the continued rule of the Communist Party, this seems as good a candidate as any. It casts very little light on the circumstances or grounds which might prompt either group, sooner or later, to change its mind. Freedom for Sale is an easy and enjoyable read. It has little to contribute to political judgment.
The Life and Death of Democracy has far grander ambitions and takes itself (and a great deal else) altogether more seriously. Over ten years in the making, it concludes with warm acknowledgements to over two hundred scholars, journalists and political figures, many very eminent, and to libraries, museums, think tanks, universities and funding agencies in over a dozen countries, from Iran and Venezuela to the United States, Germany and Portugal. It has a plethora of theses which come round again and again, like luggage on a carousel, in varying degrees of repair. Its strongest claim, which also gives it its main focus, is to tell, effectively for the first time, the history of democracy as a single, connected global experience with unmistakably global implications. In announcing “The End of History,” Fukuyama very prudently made no attempt to tell any of it, but he did commit himself to peering forward into the future. Keane by contrast is eager to do belated justice to democracy’s long history, and confidently and resolutely extends its conventionally conceived boundaries a very long way in time and space. He is deeply convinced of its continuing weight and value in the present, but has no coherent idea of how to measure that weight, still less to judge what it implies for humanity in the decades to come.
ALAS, WE have made disconcertingly little headway in gauging democracy’s grip on the future, and the citizens of the United States have found it painfully difficult to distinguish its honored role in defining their historical identity from its altogether more elusive bearing on their national interests across the globe. Democracy in America is a long and often exhilarating story of aspiration and achievement, with a remarkable capacity to renew itself across the generations. In the far and often starkly alien abroad, it has frequently proved a distressing hostage to fortune. In ringing the death knell of socialism (and its not-too-distant and far-more-often-implemented cousin, communism) as a world-conquering ideology, Fukuyama was surely right, whether or not his expectations of the political futures of Russia or China were fuzzy or overoptimistic at the time. But there are other—and on the whole, more insistent—means for conquest besides ideology. As Kampfner helpfully underlines, the vector of any durable dominion is a balance between threat and reward. The barrel of a gun is clearly a more comprehensible and compelling signal than ideology. Ideology is at best an expressive medium for some of the threats (“You’re a kulak, or a Jew, or a Tutsi”) and a modest amplifier of such reward as proves available (“You’re an Aryan, or a card-carrying proletarian, or a very poor peasant, or a Hutu, and so have every reason to be proud of it and behave accordingly”). The view that an American understanding of democracy was destined to conquer the world in communism’s place was inherently strained. Conquest by any means breeds resentment far faster and more insistently than it fosters loyalty or appreciation. It is a serious mistake to suppose that the globe abhors an ideological vacuum. Look at Afghanistan. Look at Somalia. Look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ideology is better seen as a precariously constructed imaginative order, permanently dissipating under the weight of its own implausibilities. The question we now face is whether democracy can and will sustain its monopolistic claim to rule legitimately across the world.
FOR THE present at least, democracy does seem fated to serve as our preferred answer to three very different kinds of questions: How should we organize our governmental institutions? Why should we organize them in that way? And why should we give them such authority over our lives? Faced with this unwieldy array of burdens, democracy can scarcely hope to articulate a stable structure of clear beliefs. These questions sound ecumenical enough, but where they are asked seriously outside an academic setting they are always asked of particular groups of human beings, and hence require locally compelling answers. Different groups hear these questions very differently, and set about answering them from very different beliefs and with very different sentiments. Everyone defines their own demos in careful balance against their sense of local right: majoritarian genocide is easier for a Hutu to embrace than it could be for a Tutsi; apartheid was not a compelling interpretation of political justice for black South Africans.
Since democracy has come to be our best answer to this trio of questions, it must be possible to explain why it, and not monarchy, technocracy, theocracy or something completely different has done so. But there is no reason whatsoever to assume that democracy’s current eminence was inevitable, or that its victory in the war of ideas vindicates its superiority as a system of governance. Insofar as democracy has made its long, steep ascent through intense political struggle, it must have done so quite largely through the deep, endless and ultimately impenetrable fogs of politics and war. Insofar as its ascendancy can be justified, it must be seen quite clearly and without a trace of self-deception. You have to be very brave or very stupid (possibly both) to hope to juxtapose democracy’s ascent and justification with any degree of composure.
Both Fukuyama’s and Keane’s books attest to democracy’s power, strangeness and uniqueness. But they see democracy’s unprecedented and bewildering rise in sharply contrasting ways. The former sees it as a stable default position, the outcome of the collapse of more exhilarating, ambitious and fantastical rivals, a belatedly mature accommodation to age-old realities. The latter views it more as a long, slow, very deeply grounded resistance to the abuse of power between humans; tenacious and inspiring, but also irremediably confused. To judge which is closer to the truth and, still more obviously, to see any further, you first need to register more clearly just what democracy is. In the first place, and least contentiously, it is a word, originating in classical Greek and transferred in transliteration or translation across the languages of the world at a pace which has recently accelerated dramatically and on an unprecedented scale. It is the first such unmistakably global term. Like any such appellation, it has faced many rivals every inch of the way. But none of these, thus far, has stood steadily against it and worsted it durably in a free and open encounter.
Fukuyama showed little interest in this etymology, but Keane puts great effort into tracing democracy’s prehistory as a word in earlier languages, notably amongst the Phoenicians and the rulers of Babylon, hoping to chasten orientalist complacencies by recovering an emphatically extra- and pre-European ancestry for it. But he does little or nothing in this part of his book to help his readers to think clearly about the vicissitudes of the word or disentangle these from the political experiences indelibly associated with it in its charismatic Athenian setting. It certainly tells us nothing useful about democracy’s current form.
THE PASSAGE of the word through time and space is the clearest and most determinate aspect of democracy’s long and bitterly contested ascent. But historical etymology cannot tell us why democracy is now considered the correct categorization for certain states, nor why the form of state to which it is now most frequently applied has thrust so many rivals aside across the world. To make any sense of either of these outcomes, you must turn elsewhere. You need to consider democracy’s other two guises and begin to tease out the bemusingly intricate relations between them. Of these two, the first sounds simple enough. Democracy, plainly, is not merely a word; it is also an idea which that word can, and in some sense should, be employed to convey. Besides its incarnations as word and idea, moreover, democracy is now also very much a set of institutions and practices across the countries of the world which purport to exemplify the idea. In the wake of Fukuyama’s proclamation that democracy would rule the day, policing the relations between word, idea and institutions became not merely a widely gratifying pastime for many, but also a prominent goal of the public policy of the United States.
For better or worse, those relations proved not merely highly provocative to interpret and enforce (as they were bound to) but also inordinately difficult. Within the fog of politics (speedily deepened by its wartime counterpart) it was natural to blame the resultant acrimony on the recalcitrance, obtuseness or perversity of political adversaries, often with ample justification. To give the people of Iraq their own democracy was surely to confer a benefit, to dethrone Saddam Hussein, a belated act of justice: two good deeds for the price of one. How could such generosity go so astray?
But the main source of acrimony and confusion in these states lies ultimately in the fact that democracy is an extremely loose and genetically opaque accretion of ideas which fit uneasily and unstably together, and lack any dominating principle of internal ordering to impose clarity or structure upon this motley assemblage. It is without either the sort of authoritative intellectual starting point that either Iran or Plato’s regime laid claim to, or the kind of preestablished intellectual destination that communism so unwisely presumed. It offers no accountable grounds to anticipate arriving anywhere in particular, or even of traveling hopefully. In addition, it is in itself a significantly less clear idea than many of the rivals which it has defeated—distinctly less clear (if not perhaps less implausible) than monarchy, less clear than technocracy (the modern counterpart to aristocracy), arguably less clear even than theocracy, at least until it comes to the practicalities.
Keane attempts to bring order to this confusion between word, idea and government, arguing that democracy has followed a trajectory: from the assembly democracy of the ancient world with its necessarily restricted scale; to the representative structures of the modern constitutional democratic state, grounded in the public decision-making and tax-raising practices of Europe’s feudal monarchies; and finally to a far more recent and altogether more nebulous variant, monitory democracy, which stretches self-righteously beyond state boundaries and purports to bring the exercise of power, wherever it proves to lie, under more or less disciplined surveillance and restraint from a bewildering range of state and nonstate actors, from transnational bodies pledging common cause to democracy, like the European Union, to nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch. There is much to be said for and against each of these conceptions of supposedly legitimate rule, but no obvious reason to regard them as conflicting interpretations of essentially the same idea. Indeed, in the case of monitory democracy, Keane makes only the most perfunctory attempt to justify the judgment that there are compelling grounds to view it in any general way, even as an interpretation of the meaning of the same word.
THE GREATEST strength of Keane’s book is the zest with which he recognizes the global scope and historical depth of the story he tries to tell. On this point at least, he is surely correct. The work’s offsetting weakness on the other hand is the scale of confusion into which it plunges its readers, and the sheer muddle into which it intermittently descends. There is certainly intellectual miscalculation in this outcome; but it is neither deliberate nor gratuitous. To analyze a very confused, extensive and complicated process like democracy’s historical career, you do not need to offer a very confused analysis of your own. You do need calm, patience and some clarity of mind.
You could hardly do so through the historical vignettes with which Keane feels particularly at home. These are some of the book’s best components, but they do little to advance our current understanding. Australia in particular comes out well, with one key episode in its South Australian democratic record featuring almost as an heirloom of the Keane family. Keane also includes a very large number of potted biographies of heroes or heroines (remarkably few villains of either gender), often retailed without apparent concern for their relevance to any particular conclusion. Warm, garrulous, sometimes startlingly indiscriminate, the Life and Death of Democracy is closer to a giant scrapbook of democracy’s splendors and miseries than a sustained exercise in critical thinking. It is not entirely clear why Keane elected to compose it as he has, and the breathless array of methodological precepts asserted at the end give little hint of the answer. What is radiantly obvious throughout is that the style is the man himself.
Yet even if the plain historical method (whatever that would be) were deployed with sufficient patience and cooperative energy throughout the lands of the global North and South, it is far from clear that it could guarantee to show us how to understand democracy’s current ascendancy in all its ambivalent precariousness, let alone assess its prospective potency or vulnerability in different settings in the face of a lengthy future. Giving the past its due is an exercise in imaginative justice, not a sure recipe for illuminating the future or even assessing the present with much precision.
For contrary to Keane’s argument, the period of time over which it makes sense to think of democracy as setting about its global conquest reaches back no further than America’s founding. It certainly does not find itself in the acropolis of the ancient Greeks. The process itself had made very little definite headway before the end of the Second World War. The surge forward which has carried it, apparently under its own impetus, to so many countries in Asia, Latin America and even Africa is still quite recent. To grasp accurately why it reached its high tidemark, you need to follow that sequence of political experiences. And you need to do so in a huge range of countries one by one, most of which have made no effort to summarize that experience adequately even for themselves, let alone express it intelligibly to contemporaries in other lands across the world who lack access to their language.
Even our default understanding of democracy today, in all its bleariness, is taken largely from the experience of the United States. Its passage through the world over the last two-thirds of a century has been closely bound to the exercise of American power, and especially, as Fukuyama saw, to the faltering of its principal rival. The constitutional order and the political system of the United States each has an enviably long past behind it, but each is a conspicuously different item, and neither can plausibly be mistaken for expressions or implications of a single clear idea. It remains no more obvious today than it was to James Madison that democracy is a good name for either. The citizens of the United States do not rule and get ruled by turns like those of ancient Athens. The great bulk of them are governed all the time by a relatively small subset of their fellows, operating in a highly distinctive setting, and often to their considerable resentment. On any sane judgment, the laws and social institutions of the United States recognize a vastly larger proportion of the country’s current population, accord them much-greater protection and even view them for some purposes more like equals than in any democracies of the past. But there is little case for seeing the growing inequality of America’s society as a political miracle, or even a political accident. Perhaps it is better seen as a consequence of its political and economic structures. As Mahatma Gandhi is reputed to have suggested of Western civilization, maybe American democracy would be a good idea.
THOUGH THIS depleted conception of democracy does evince some excellent ideas, at least one of which, the seminal role of legislative (or presidential) elections, features conspicuously in democracy’s recent worldwide journey, elections on their own are no guarantee of any kind of equality or good governance. Even the assembly democracy of Athens certainly did not make its citizens one another’s equals any more than the elective processes of the United States or Russian Republic, or the obsessive charades of public choice enacted in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). But what their extravagantly diverse routines have in common is vital to the deep contrasts between them. In Athens, the citizens made the great public decisions themselves. In the DPRK, all but the most reckless make no attempt to affect any national policy; they do exactly as they are told. In the wide space in between, levels of citizen discretion shade very finely and their impact on public decisions is complex and hard to discern.
The single-biggest contrast lies between regimes in which the rulers openly and unapologetically authorize themselves and those in which, just as unmistakably, they can assume governmental power only because enough of their fellow citizens prefer them to their immediate rivals. The self-authorization of rule has obvious attractions for leaders. In thriving societies with well-organized coercive facilities where the rulers keep their quarrels within bounds, it can continue more or less indefinitely. (Singapore is a much-cited example. Very small, by now quite rich—if quite incapable of protecting itself against any really purposeful enemy—it has been willing thus far to stage a carefully constrained charade of elections.) Few societies thrive without interruption for very long, most groups of rulers fall out sooner or later, and their quarrels readily spread to their military or police subordinates—see most of recorded history. Eventually there are huge advantages in being clearly authorized to do so by those you mean to rule.
It was never wise to assume that this key ultimate advantage of electoral democracy—always precarious in application—could be readily conferred on other countries, and always easy enough to see why the attempt to install it against armed resistance from incumbent states or heavily armed and notably incivil societies was unlikely to succeed, and all but certain to prove prohibitively costly as it already conspicuously has both in Iraq and Afghanistan. And no one could sensibly assume, even were it successfully installed, that electoral democracy would ingratiate itself promptly through predictably gratifying consequences or the general appreciation it could rely on eliciting once firmly in operation. Whatever else it may be, democracy as a regime name is a profession of a particular kind of good intention, and one which it is hard for any possible kind of government to sustain over time in wholly good faith. In political use it can only foment a degree and kind of suspicion which it can never hope to fully allay.
America’s decision to turn its own system of government into a military and political agenda was a great mistake. Several features of its political experience still carry very great appeal over time for any contemporary population—the opportunity to think and speak freely, the protection of the law, the guaranteed chance to dispose at regular intervals of actively resented holders of legislative or executive power. These appeals are strongest and most directive when heard, felt and interpreted within the lives of the populations in question. Once framed in doctrinaire terms by agencies or immediate clients of the American state, they are blurred from the outset. They are further contaminated as soon as they come to be linked at all prominently to the disbursement of financial rewards, and fatally compromised when imposed from outside by force of arms. On the historical record of democracy thus far, no population needs to be bribed into its embrace and none can be threatened into it. America plainly needs its wealth to live as it freely chooses and its military power to protect it in doing so, but for other countries, the United States’ greatest asset is still at heart what is best about the unique society which it has forged. Sustaining and refurbishing that achievement is a permanent challenge for America, but it is also the best-possible strategy for accomplishing the millennial task of dismantling the miscellany of alien threats which continue to haunt it, and lowering the levels of hatred and malignity across the world. Americans have not been either wise or self-knowing in settling for Tiberius’s brutal formula. No one is powerful enough to be safe if they are hated with sufficient intensity.
IN THE end, democracy’s grip on the human future will not turn mainly on the political discernment of America’s rulers, or even on the balance of sympathy and antipathy for their own rulers amongst denizens of other quarters of the world. It will turn principally on the consequences of democratic and far from democratic rule over time. There is no reason whatsoever to anticipate that this harsh selective process will bring monarchy or aristocracy back into favor, though on a very despondent reading it might for a time perhaps revitalize the charms of theocracy. We do know that democracy will continue to be tested, no more so than by itself. The sternest criticism of democracy as a basis for rule rested from the outset on the parlous quality of its judgment and its commitment to expose that dangerous characteristic to the eyes and ears of every citizen. This need not transform it into the inchoate monitorial regime Keane portrays, with self-appointed agencies proliferating to expose the deformities of power and states responding to their molestations with growing ruthlessness and guile. Monitory democracy is a desperate generalization of the distrust and suspicion which every human society struggles to assuage or keep at bay.
Electoral democracy has no coherent basis for remedying the glaring infirmity of its collective judgment, but it does at least distribute responsibility for the consequences of that infirmity at regular intervals to every adult citizen. In the United States, it has also forged an impressive range of facilities for assigning accountability for the internal damage thus inflicted to those best placed to have caused it. Monitory democracy, on Keane’s reading, whatever more fugitive merits it may sometimes muster in detail, offers no coherent basis on which to assign entitlement or competence to judge, no way of rendering its judges or judgments accountable, and no systematic means to align judgment with the control of consequences in the world. This cannot be how to link sound judgment to effective authority.
It is still anyone’s guess whether the human future is more in jeopardy to our incomprehension or denial of the cumulatively disastrous consequences of our past actions, the inherent difficulty of assessing our future capacity to remedy these, or our stunning and exhaustively proven collective political incompetence. As his title hints, Keane himself is of at least two minds over the moral of his epic tale. In one, we can be sure that the life of democracy will go on for as long as any human future with which we can imaginatively connect ourselves. It simply forms our political horizon (roughly what Fukuyama was suggesting, but with added enthusiasm). If it dies, a very large proportion of us will die with it. What we cannot yet know, should that day ever come, is whether democracy will have hastened or impeded our end as a species. If the answer proves to be that it has hastened, is hastening or will hasten our reaching that destination, there must be another possible story. More optimistically, there might also be other possible outcomes: paths back from the brink which we could hope to take, if not quite through democracy, at least on democracy’s terms.
John Dunn is a fellow of King’s College and an emeritus professor in the department of Politics & International Studies at the University of Cambridge.