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by John Keane

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-3930-5835-2
Publisher: Norton

A distinguished political scientist takes a broad view of democracy, speculating on both the lineage and the prospects of a cherished doctrine.

In the realm of the ideal, writes Keane (Politics/Univ. of Westminster; Violence and Democracy, 2004, etc.), democracy “was to be the government of the humble, by the humble, for the humble.” It was meant to remove power from the hands of the elite few fortunate enough, by accident of birth or property, to direct the lives of those less fortunate. Ideals, of course, do not often conform to reality, and in this long—indeed, a touch too long, making Karl Popper’s 800-page magnum opus The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) seem slender by comparison—treatise, Keane considers all the ways in which democracies have gone awry over the course of history. The author distinguishes numerous types of democracies, assembly and representative and, now, monitory—those born of movements to correct the ruling class on particular issues, such as civil rights for ethnic minorities. Provocatively, Keane extends the history of democracy beyond the walls of Athens, where, Western legend has it the idea of rule by the demos, the people writ large, was born. The author locates democratic ideas in ancient Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as Mycenae and other Mediterranean locales. Contradictions abound in those ideas: Can a slaveholding state such as Athens be democratic? Can Sparta, with impressed military service? Must a state be democratic to be prosperous? Keane’s explorations should occasion some rethinking—on, for instance, the history of India, which shows the possibilities of multiethnic democracies, and of Islam, which has a neglected democratic tradition. The author also isolates desiderata for fulfilling “the humbling ideal of democracy,” among them access to education, health care and livelihood—the sorts of things that champions of free-market democracy minimize as somehow socialistic.

A significant work, though an abridgement could help spread the word.