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A Book review of John Keane's 'Life and Death of Democracy'
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Review, Conceptions of democracy, Definitions of Democracy, Democracy, Democratic, Democratic Theory, Democratization on April 19, 2020 0 Comments 4 min read
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A Book review of John Keane’s 2009 Life and Death of Democracy

Originally published by Social Alternatives, 29(3), 2010, Pp. 70.

[Stilted and not expressive of how deeply I enjoyed Keane’s book. I’ll need, at some point, to upload pictures of the marginalia from my hardback copy. The thousand or so pages, cover-to-cover, are littered with my notes and affectations. This was the first book review I had written and, I suppose, it shows. John, if ever you read this, please know how dear your book is to me (and how often I cite it!).]

This work has rendered a service to the discourse of political science. Keane has shown that Ancient Athens was not the birthplace of democracy, but rather has come to plagiarise that claim for tourist purposes (2009: 56-58). From whence it was plagiarized, however, is not convincingly mentioned. One of his main arguments to substaintiate this claim is recent linguistic evidence obtained from Linear B Mycenaean tablets dated at about 1200 BCE which discuss ‘assemblies’, ‘people’ (damos) and other terms referring to a wider base of political power (2009: 56-58). It should be noted that these Mycenaean texts were written a full 600 years before the reforms of Solon and much before Cleisthenes.

It is felt that Keane missed a valuable opportunity in the early chapters to link his work with the popular ideas of Jared Diamond (1997, 2005). Diamond points out that early-hominid governing systems resemble certain modern notions of what democracy is.

He also shows that there were a variety of other city-states in Greece, the Levant, North Africa, Mediterranean islands, Central Asia, and the Asian subcontinent that practiced what he termed ‘proto-democracy’ before and during the Athenian democratic polls (2009: 112-113). The key to understand the importance of his point is that several of these proto-democratic states were not (or have yet been) shown to be in contact with Athenian imperialism: meaning that they got this notion of ‘democracy’ elsewhere and that it was not invented by Athenians.

Keane attempts to define democracy but unfortunately does not do it convincingly. He (2009: 160) calls democracy “a form of human action shaped by institutional circumstances… and surprise.” Despite his many publications on the subject of democracy, this definition was not reached empirically and only continues to fuel the debate concerning democracy’s denotation. He does however provide an interesting historical timeline analysis of three distinct periods or styles of democracy: that of the ‘direct’, ‘representative’, and ‘monitory’. The Internet, and other communicative technologies such as cell phones, plays a major role in monitory democracy and his argument that it contributed substantially to the decline of representative styled democracies is valid. Problems of accountability, transparency, anti-corruption, and a growth in representation are all mitigated by ths recent technological circumstance.

His focus on Caudillo-democracy was also welcome and he tied this dark chapter of Latin American democratic efforts witht eh ill-efffects of modern über-democracy (which is a poorly fitting term) used by, for example, the administrations of John Howard, Silvio Berlusconi, and Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to control the media so as to erode the legitimacy of their political opponents (2009: 764-767). This chapter on democracy in India had its interesting moments, specifically its institutional contributions to democratic practice (2009: 630) but was generally descriptive and did not contribute as much as his other arguments.

A striking bit of argument, which is thought to be one of the most enlightening aspects of Keane’s work, is that no other scholarly piece of this nature has been published since the American Civil War – and that book attempted to catalogue the history of democracy up to around 1874 (2009: 874). This highlights the striking lack of scholarship currently focusing on democratic theory as a whole as most scholars focus on institutions and seem to have given up on the definition of democracy debate. The irony that many are writing about democracy without actually knowing what it means seems to still not have struck academics other than Keane.

This book is a discourse-changing effort, and Keane should be commended for his excellence in research – specifically for the original findings he has brought to the fore.

Works Cited:

Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Great Brittain: Chatto and Windus.

Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Toronto: Penguin Books.

Keane, J. 2009. The Life and Death of Democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.

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