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on 21 August 2011
This book is a stunning achievement. It almost equates to a history of the world. It is so well balanced and is not euro or USA centric. It challenges many of our prejudices and preconceptions surrounding history. It is a must read for anyone seeking to call themselves "educated".
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Democracy has its origins some three thousand years ago in the small settlements of Asia Minor, where `all' citizens (excluding of course slaves, women and often others!) would meet together in a public forum to discuss and decide matters of interest to the community. Since then it has undergone many transformations, by no means linear, to the form called `representative democracy', where all citizens have the right to periodically vote for representatives, who then make decisions on their behalf. This is probably what most western people understand by 'democracy'. But whatever one's definition, this monumental political history of democracy will undoubtedly have something to say about it, whether it be the parliamentary democracy of Britain, the corrupt party boss system in the 19th century United States of America, the military `peoples' dictatorships' of South America, the enfranchisement of women in the remote Pitcain Islands, or the relatively recent re-emergence of democratic regimes in Eastern Europe as a direct result of `people power'.

In a book of this length, there will necessarily be some parts that a reader will find more interesting than others. For me, the least interesting, even a bit boring (do we really need to know the derivation of so many words in obscure languages?), were the opening chapters on the earliest history of democracy. These seem largely written for the purpose of putting forward the author's theory, based on very limited evidence, that democracy really originated in the region of Syria-Mesopotamia rather than Greece, in particular Athens. Far better are the chapters that keep closer to an account of the facts. Examples are the establishment of various manifestations of democracy in Australia and America, particularly South America, the important role played by the remoter parts of the British Empire in the question of votes for women, and the account of the remarkable, unpredictable, often chaotic, sometimes violent, largest democracy in the world that is India.

In the final part of the book the author advances the idea that democracy is now evolving into a new form, that he calls `monitory democracy'. Unlike representative democracy, which is characterised by a pyramid structure with the government at the apex and `the people' at the base, with power passing in a linear upward line, this new form of democracy has multiple connections into the power structure, with numerous different kinds of extra-parliamentary power-scrutinising mechanisms. Examples are as diverse as watchdog organisations, internet blogs, advisory boards, expert councils, think tanks, focus groups, and others. A particularly well-known case is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established in South Africa following the collapse of apartheid. One manifestation of monitory democracy is the spread of the voting culture to areas of society where previous it was thought inappropriate, even unthinkable. An example given is the International Olympic Committee, which changed from being an unelected `gentleman's club' to become a fully elected body with codes of conduct for its members. The author clearly thinks that he has recognised something of great significance. I remain to be convinced.

Once can only admire the vast range of sources quoted by the author and the numerous detailed accounts he relates based on them, but at times the effect is overwhelming. Are all these observations new? I am not in a position to judge, but the author makes sure the reader knows that he is the first to `recognise the truth' and to point out the `mistakes' of previous authorities. This can be rather irritating at times. The tendency for the author to `intrude' on the subject recurs elsewhere. (Figure 67, for example, could well be a holiday photo of the author taken inside any building just about anywhere, for all the information it conveys.)

Democracy is not only intrinsically interesting, but also very important to understand if we are not to continually repeat the mistakes of the past. But one has to ask, `Who is this book written for?' Presumably the general reader, but if so then it would have been a better book if it had benefited from an editor who would have pruned it, because the author often gets carried away with style, which although frequently striking, it is often unnecessarily repetitive. A good editor might also have curbed the author's too frequent self-indulgence in displaying knowledge, which while admittedly often interesting, is at best peripheral and at worse irrelevant to the story. Overall this book is probably worth reading, but mainly for the facts it contains and not the author's personal interpretations and theories.
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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
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on 15 July 2009
This is quite a weighty tome -- about 850 pages -- so I was expecting a deep analysis of the subject. I was thoroughly disappointed as this book was obviously written for some purpose other than analyzing the history of democracy.

I was a little apprehensive from the beginning when I realized that he apparently wrote his own introduction, which, far from placing the book in context, merely served to emphasize precisely what his book "proved".

His discussion of the Greeks was particularly weak. I think his sole purpose was to put up a straw man -- Athens -- and demonstrate how foolish and western-centric everyone but the author is. He seemed to miss entirely that the reason the Greeks, and Athenians in particular, are so important, is because they wrote about and analyzed all these subjects so thoroughtly that they are still of academic importance 2,500 years later. Frankly, you've got to be deranged to believe that this is all swept away simply because there's a fragment that indicates there was possibly an "assembly" some place in Asia Minor centuries before this. He even goes so far as to argue that "everyone" is wrong in thinking that Athens is of primary importance because other Greeks did some of these things first. Seriously, is there anyone out there thinking about this stuff who believes that Herodotus, Pindar, Polybius (who he introduces briefly as an obscurity) or Aristotle were Athenian? It's the Greeks, centred in Athens, who speak to us still across the centuries. Athens has become the short-form, but we're not all oblivious to these distinctions -- we simply focus on what's actually important. I couldn't help but wonder who he thought he was writing an 850 page book for?

Even more troubling is that there's no serious academic discussion whatsoever with regard to Plato or Aristotle, and a shocking lack of analysis surrounding the most important modern document detailing these issues, the Federalist Papers. Believe me, the author is no Madison or Hamilton.

A few minor examples will give you a flavour for this book. If I recall correctly, he spends about three full pages explaining to obviously incredulous readers, that, contrary to everything they may believe to be right in the world -- wait for it -- there actually were democrats long ago who believed that democracy didn't require secularism!. This isn't a passing note, but a full explanation. Again, who is he writing this book for? If people don't have a grasp of this they're not reading an 850 page book by someone they never heard of.

He also on several occassions throws in a few sentences saying that critics might ask... followed by several grade school-type questions that he then proceeds to condescend to dismiss. Frankly, they were never the questions that I was asking at the time, but I think it puts into perspective the way he views those who disagree with him.

I was reminded repeatedly while reading this book of arguments that Christopher Columbus was more or less irrelevant because he wasn't even the first European to discover the Americas since Leif Ericson (and perhaps others) got there before him. Every serious person knows that the latter are a footnote and have no importance to history and that what changed everything was Columbus. Effectively, that's the Life and Death of Democracy -- all obscure footnotes designed to trash the obviously important things while supplying not even a hint of intellectual analysis of what democracy means to human freedom, the risks it throws up, and how very intelligent people have analyzed these problems in times gone by.

I have to admit that I found myself scanning many pages after the first 300 or so hoping that I could find something to sink my teeth into. In the end, everything seems to be just a set-up so he can unveil his "deep" idea that the world is moving -- progressively, of course -- towards what the author calls "monitory democracy". We're all made safe because the good people who monitor behavior from places like the UN will keep evil people in check. I don't know if he believes this nonsense or whether it's part of his job, but if this is our future then the good Lord -- or someone else -- had better protect us!

If you're not sitting on some UN commission somewhere trying to tell local warlords that they invented democracy then you should probably avoid this book. It's long and brings nothing of interest to the discussion as far as I can tell.
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on 10 February 2015
Extensive, detailed and exhaustive research on the subject, it would benefit non specialized readers like me with if the work had no more than 300 pages. Also, for someone who is not a native English speaker, the wording represents some difficulties
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on 21 September 2009
An outstanding analysis, showing that democracy is a much more multi-faceted concept than is generally held to be the case. My only criticism is that the length of the book will deter many potential readers.
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