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A Vista of Democracy,
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This review is from: The Life and Death of Democracy (Paperback)
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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Initial post: 7 Jun 2012, 10:45:39 BST
One cannot reasonably expect many books to be free of 'the author's personal interpretations and theories.' This author's, at least, are interesting and well-informed and he is after all described as a political theorist. As to the necessarily hypothetical origin of democracy, Baghdad would be a good choice, a very nice contrast in fact with how they are managing today, politcally. Personally, I value the author's linguistic additions; did he really read 'O Propawie Rzeczpospolita' in the original Polish? A very readable history book that will keep all but the pickiest readers amused and informed for a good long time; also a most laudable achievement. Many thanks, Professor Keane!
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