Enlivening the Democratic Imagination
[This conversation with John Keane was first published in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Keane: My conjecture is that, in matters of democracy, we are living in a period that resembles the end of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. During that period, something like a Gestalt switch of the democratic imaginary happened, a transformation of democracy as it was understood and inherited from the Greeks. Democracy initially meant the self-government of the people, gathered face-to-face in a physical setting, for instance the Pnyx in Athens, where voting happened with a silent show of hands and/or pebbles deposited in clay jars. Democracy meant the demos ruled; that they decided matters of peace and war and taxes, or who should participate in juries.
At the end of the eighteenth century, we now know in retrospect, a fundamental transformation of the meaning of democracy happened. The assembly system of the Greeks was not practicable for large populations living in large territorial nation states. The Greeks had no word for representation; they could not have known the meaning of representative democracy. What is interesting about that late eighteenth century period, as I say at length in my book The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), is that an entirely new understanding of democracy crystallizes. During the process, there are speakers and writers, for instance Alexander Hamilton during the American constitutional debates, who draw together the two signifiers, representation and democracy, without knowing actually what they are saying. It’s intriguing.
The phrase ‘representative democracy’ would have made no sense to the Greeks. Democracy comes to be fundamentally redefined as self-government of the people through their representatives. The old meaning is preserved but in larger territorial state form. It has newer and more complicated institutions, such as political parties, civil societies and written constitutions, none of which the Greek democracies had. In the American case, James Madison called it a ‘compound republic’: a new political form in which citizens embraced periodic elections, civil society, a written constitution and (later) a multiparty system – all in the name of ‘the people’.
Each of these terms was new. Central is the whole idea that democracy, in contrast to the Greek meaning of deˉmokratia, means self-government of the people through their elected representatives. I think an analogous fundamental shift is happening in our times to the spirit, the meaning and the institutions of democracy. The change has been happening for a generation. It is poorly theorized. We lack a language in which to talk about the changes. But, broadly, I think that what is happening in such places as Taiwan, India and in the Spanish American republics, as in the politically neglected continent of Antarctica and within the European region, is an historic transformation of the meaning of democracy. It continues to mean self-government of the people through elections: nothing less than fair, free and clean elections. Yet democracy is coming to mean much more than that – the permanent public scrutiny and control of power, in whatever fields it is exercised. Democracy is happening not only in the field of territorial states, but also in the domain of the nongovernmental – for example, in transnational business corporations, and within global, regional and domestic settings. This is new in the history of democracy, in that democracy means the public scrutiny of cross-border power relations, struggles to ensure that complex, long-distance chains of power are rendered publicly unaccountable.
Gagnon: Can you tell us more about what this ‘lack of language’ is about?
Keane: The shift in the spirit and dynamics of democracy has preoccupied me for some time. I have been searching for a new language in which to name and to make sense of these changes. Words and symbols count; naming is very important in the history of democracy. At first, I experimented with phrases like ‘complex democracy’ and ‘post-representative democracy’, but settled on a neologism which would not have been understood by the Greeks and, certainly, would not have been understood by the early democrats of the American republic. ‘Monitory democracy’ is what I came to call this new democracy. It means that democracy is an ongoing, never-finished process where flesh and blood people, sometimes through their representatives, seek to humble, rein in, blow the whistle on and publicly restrain arbitrary power, wherever it is exercised.
This term ‘monitory democracy’ captures and incorporates the medieval meaning of ‘monitory’. It’s a term from the Latin, monere – to warn. A monitory is a message, for instance a letter sent within the medieval church from, say, a bishop to someone else in the church. This letter either warned someone not to engage in a certain course of action, or admonished them positively to do something. Monitor is an old term with a long and most interesting subsequent history. We use it to refer to lizards, for instance. A monitor is a lizard that warns humans of the approach of crocodiles and alligators. We use the term in the field of local government when, for example, a local government monitors the quality of drinking water.
This contemporary usage captures but extends the old medieval meaning of the word. Under conditions of monitory democracy, organizations, groups and individuals are chronically engaged in the politics of publicly chastening arbitrary power. They warn publicly of the risks of unaccountable power. They admonish those who make decisions to do so more positively, in support of people considered as equals. Whether monitory democracy in this sense will survive or be stillborn under pressure from dangerous counter-trends is of course an open question.
Elaborating monitory democracy
Gagnon: There are two competing histories of democracy here: the old and the new. The old school, the dominant school, views democracy as unequivocally Greek or American in origin. But the new school, the emergent narrative, sees matters differently. You, Benjamin Isakhan, Phil Paine, Giulia Sissa, Thomas Seeley, Steve Muhlberger and Christopher Boehm among others are key players in what I see as this new school of thought. It’s a school that questions the foundational narrative of democracy in a way that is more capacious, more inclined to look to scarce evidence outside of ancient Hellas, and, importantly, before the times of Solon and Cleisthenes.
This post foundational approach to democracy’s history might seem imaginary. Of course it’s not, but imaginations of democracy do play a role in your philosophy. Could you elaborate about what these imaginations of democracy are in your works? What do they mean for the shift to monitory democracy?
Keane: Every named experiment in democracy takes place within a language and conceptual framework. It comes from within a lived, linguistic and conceptual architecture, a lived imaginary that is in effect, a linguistically mediated experience of the world. This imaginary dimension of democracy is very difficult to theorize. It’s a bit like smelling one’s breath or jumping over one’s shadow. It’s easier to see in retrospect how, for example, Athenian democrats imagined their horizons of the world. For us it’s more difficult. But every known case of democracy supposes an imagining of the world, of its dimensions, of its significance. All this happens in and through language.
It of course comprises sentiments; it comprises thought through concepts. Every recorded example of democracy rests upon these imaginary foundations. This was a point well made by Maruyama Masao, a Japanese analyst of democracy in the 1920s and ’30s. He put pithily the point that every democracy rests upon a fiction. There was then, and still is, a certain fiction of what is democracy or what it is not.
Democracy is not ‘true’ in any old-fashioned philosophical sense. Democracy is not objective. It is not given by God. It is not written in stone. It’s variable. Its practices have a history. It’s time – and space – dependent and it also comes wrapped in worldly horizons. This is not to say that democracy is an ideology in Hannah Arendt’s sense. One of the distinctive qualities of democracy is that it’s an ensemble of processes, mechanisms, dispositions and attitudes that enable people publicly to counter ideologies and to denature the power relations in which they live. When people act democratically, they render these power relations contingent, call them into question, and see that they are capable of transformation.
Democracy nurtures the sense of the contingency of the world. It undermines the conviction that people are always right, that they know everything, and that they are on top of things. Democracies and democratization are the enemy of absolute certainty and unchallenged, arbitrary power. Democracy rests upon a more or less shared world view of flesh and blood people as equals who suppose that nobody is entitled to rule over them without being challenged. This is, roughly, what a democratic imaginary is. To put it more concretely, any existing species of democracy contains presumptions about who people are and of what their best character types may be. Trust, loyalty, solidarity, scepticism, a sense of equality among people, and a fiduciary relationship with the biosphere are becoming increasingly important.
The imaginary of democracy?
Gagnon: You have been calling for a broader understanding of democracy for most of your career – an understanding more capacious than what, for instance, John Dunn, Chantal Mouffe and David Held offered in the mid-2000s. Given your explanation of democracy’s imaginary above, it seems that we have to consider the ethos and telos of individuals in any given democracy to more fully appreciate the nuances of the government and governance systems in question. But how do we use this enlivened imaginary as a methodology for investigation into new democratic theory?
Keane: What’s needed is a twenty-first century version of Tocqueville’s classic De la démocratie en Amérique (1835 and 1840). It was written by an ‘anthropologist’ who toured the young republic of the United States of America. Tocqueville was interested in folk ways, moral customs, attitudes towards the world, and beliefs about the relations between men and women, including their attitudes towards slavery. Even the experience of encountering local attitudes to boarding a steam-powered boat are fascinating for Tocqueville: they are part of this democratic adventure.
Today, I think a number of imperatives are developing in the field of research on democracy. There are things that must be done. One is the questioning of the sacrosanct and axiomatic quality of electoral democracy. What Ashis Nandy and Sheela Reddy (2008) have called psephocracy. In many textbooks, even in armed American interventions in the name of democracy, democracy is understood as essentially a process of periodic elections of representatives to a legislature and formal government within a constitutional framework. This happens within a territorial state setting where citizens have a common sense of obligation to that polity.
Textbooks argue that no democracy can happen unless there is a shared sense of political community within a territorial setting. This axiom – that electoral democracy in representative form within state settings is democracy – needs to be questioned. There’s a growing number, empirically speaking, of things happening that defy this axiom. A case in point: look at the Tibetan government in exile. It is a polity that has its power base in northern India. It is a democracy in the sense that there are periodic elections, but there is no territorial state framework. The imaginary homeland of Tibet is north of the border and democracy rests upon a wish among Tibetans for a territorial state.
More than that, the elections held for the Tibetan government in exile involve constituencies that are global. Elected representatives from North America and Europe can come, for example, into the Tibetan parliament.
The Tibetan government in exile’s adventure with democracy has hit upon a solution to the problem of what will happen when the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, dies. This solution to the succession problem, a series of votes by all Buddhists transnationally, is notable because it demonstrates that democratization has taken place in context where there is a spiritual leader. Finally, to defy the standard axioms, we see that in the Tibetan case a strongly Buddhist ethos affects the citizenry. Individuals composing the Tibetan demos live the presumption that citizens are here temporarily on earth – they are in motion towards another being in the world.
This Tibetan case is not captured in standard accounts of democracy. The growing numbers of anomalous cases, methodologically speaking, is one of the priorities in the search on democracy in the twenty-first century. These exceptions are actually pointers. Methodological imperatives force us to look at cases of the indigenization of democracy in contexts where democracy never previously existed. Indonesia, Taiwan, India, the Tibetan government in exile and so on.
Gagnon: I agree, although I would qualify that I think democracy of some basic form did exist, for example, in ancient Taiwan or Indonesia. So it’s not that democracy had not existed in anomalous places before – but that we are only starting to come to grips with this imaginary. There is for instance the expansion of democracy’s historiography where we see ‘secret histories’ and ‘forgotten democracies’ (Gagnon, 2014) uncovered. Interestingly, these are not necessarily bound to the nation state. Many cases from secret and forgotten democracies actually predate ‘Chinese’ or ‘European’ forms of the nation state. Is this reflected in the search on democracy in the twenty-first century – what I called ‘post-national democracy’ in my talk, within this book, with Fukuyama?
Keane: There is a strong bias within post-1945 political science research on democracy towards its ‘stateness’. The presumption that democracy could not have existed but within a territorial sovereign state framework flies wide of the mark. It misses the growing number of instances where the language, the spirit and actual institutional experiments with democracy are defining that model. So the whole question of global democracy, of international democracy, of cosmopolitan democracy has been put on the table. This is something new in the history of democracy.
One precept is to do with understanding these cross border processes – the chains of interdependence and experiments in democratization beyond territorial state borders. Another precept, important to follow, is a globalized understanding of these cases. One has to become more open minded. The horizons of democracy need stretching. Every group that deals with horizons like airline pilots or people who fish for a living, know that horizons are stretchable. There’s nothing fixed about horizons. The way we think about democracy and the methods we use to analyse it need to be stretched. Horizons need to be expanded.
There are some other rules that I think are important to follow. The first is paying attention to the language through which we analyse democracy. You do not have to be a Heideggerian to grasp that language speaks on our behalf. That is true in the frameworks of analyses of democracy. They have a certain life of their own and there come times when they need to be broken, rejected – questioned. As Umberto Eco would put it: in matters of democracy, there is a need for wild thinking. That means thinking against the prevailing view, against orthodoxy and axioms. So paying attention to language and the possible transformation of the language of democracy is imperative.
Democracy is a way of life. It’s not a norm or a descriptor or a strategic principle that is solely linked to territorial states. So definitions of democracy that run something like ‘democracy is the self-government of the people who control the states in which they live’ misses the point that there is a new history which has been gaining momentum in the last generation. This history extends the category of democracy to forms of power that are nongovernmental, to the world of business, to the most intimate spheres of civil society, within households, within the field of communications and media and, of course, across borders.
Gagnon: Your answer runs directly into arguments made in a recent book of yours: The Future of Representative Democracy (2011) with Wolfgang Merkel and Sonia Alonso. Therein, for example, Robyn Eckersley discusses the representation of nature. You have also been looking at the role of the environment in democracy – it’s a theme in your Antarctica research and you have addressed the topic in your book Democracy and Media Decadence (Keane, 2013b). Could you tell us more about this ‘greening of democracy’?
Keane: I am interested in, and now writing about, a trend that has been unleashed probably since around the time of Rachel Carson’s fabulous, path breaking and shocking work called Silent Spring (1963). In all kinds of contexts, a rethinking of the anthropocentricism of the very idea of democracy started happening. Think about it. From the classical Greek world until today, through three phases of democracy (assembly, representative and monitory), the ongoing principle is that ‘the people’ are the source of authorized power. This supposes that the people living on planet earth are the sources of sovereign power. They are lords and ladies of the world.
The factual difficulty is that their relationship with the biomes in which they live is one of enslavement. This way of thinking is an objection to democracy. It argues that democracy makes a fetish of the people, that it is an anthropocentric category that is having destructive effects in practice on the biomes in which people live and on the whole biosphere (this tissue-thin layer in which the planet earth is wrapped, a layer of biotic and abiotic elements). The objection is that democracy is a carrier of the anthropocentrism of projects for which such forces as the Christian tradition and Newtonian science are heavily responsible.
Seen in this way, democracy is caught up in an old project of human beings attempting to master and conquer nature. What has been happening in a variety of contexts, partly because of the degrading effects in practice of this anthropocentric presumption, is the invention of new monitory institutions. There is a rethinking of the democratic imaginary. The invention of Green parties, ‘wild law’, the development of bioregional assemblies, the development of watchdog organizations, and networks for the protection of certain endangered species are a few examples of these innovations. They are of fundamental significance for what we mean by democracy.
Gagnon: Questioning the anthropocentric emphasis in democratic theory, the fetishization of the sovereign demos effecting the enslavement of nonhumans, is novel – and needed. It will I think change the way we understand the democracy of today, yesterday and tomorrow. But who, other than Carson and those versed in environmental democratic theory, are driving this challenge?
Keane: The politics of indigenous peoples has made a major contribution to this process because indigenous people, for example in Australia or New Zealand or Canada, share a different understanding of human relationships with the biosphere. They didn’t, and do not, think in dualistic terms. They name themselves after rocks and rivers, waterfalls, birds and plants. They think of themselves as caught up in an eternal cycle of interdependence.
By contrast, think of the roots of recent catastrophes, such as Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl. Their combined effect has been to raise in an unprecedented way the need for a new understanding about our relationship with the biosphere. I think the evidence is that democracy, and democratic mechanisms, have enabled that process. It’s not accidental that the first Green Party in the world was born in Tasmania: a democratic state within a democratic federation. Or that there is a flourishing of many of these experiments: of bioregional assemblies, for instance, under democratic conditions. Because it’s the openness, the right of assembly, the ability to set up networks without being arrested that has allowed the greening of democracy to happen.
Democracy enables the representation of the nonhuman. But what is democracy exactly contributing to the rethinking of our relationship with the biosphere? It’s a boomerang effect where the very idea of democracy is being transformed. In my current work on Antarctica, there is a Copernican revolution going on in the way in which democracy is understood. Democracy comes to mean a way of handling power that depends upon elections, but also critically upon the permanent public scrutiny of humans’ exercise of power. We do this not only over each other, but over the modes of power that are exercised over the biosphere itself. And we question those modes of power when they are in destructive form. This I think raises an entirely new problematic. This ‘greening of democracy’ is ill thought through and is, in some ways, deeply puzzling but, politically, publicly and critically important.
Dangers to democracy
Gagnon: Democracy is something needed to prevent the destruction caused by our ill-effects on biospheres. And there’s a transformation occurring – one that questions the sacrosanct power of the human demos over all else. But are there risks in this?
Democracy, for example, can destroy itself. To shift gears and address a long-standing and troubling issue with democracy, namely democide (see for example Chou and Bleiker 2009; Chou 2011, 2011a, 2012, 2013), what can you tell us of anti-democracy coming from within democracy? How does a democracy hijack itself and why is this still a risk in the age of monitory democracy?
Keane: Well, we have now a large literature on the subject. We have many case studies of what I call the autoimmune diseases that a democratic body politic can suffer. If you think that democracy is a good ideal, the best we have, think of it as Churchill did. It might not produce good things always and sometimes it’s terrible, but it’s the best we have so far invented as a way of handling power. If you think along those lines, then there’s a tendency to forget about the dysfunctions that in practice the very language of democracy engenders.
I’m not referring here to the catalogue of allegations that have been hurled at democracy from the beginning. Think of Plato’s critique of democracy as a political form that tends to degenerate into ochlocracy or mobocracy. Ignorance, passionate citizens who quickly fall into squabbles, and the disagreement and disorder that results, prepares the grounds for the return of tyranny. Plato’s thesis had a very long shelf life that lasted well into the twentieth century.
This is not what I have in mind. I am thinking of the most striking instance of an autoimmune disease from which democracy in its various historical forms has suffered. It is to do with the centrality of ‘The People’. The organizing principle of democracy through its three ages is, and there are many variants of it, that the people are entitled to govern themselves. It’s what the people, demos, citizenry and so on mean and do. Democracy when understood in that stripped-down way reveals the quintessence of democracy: it is that we the people should decide. That is the moment in many contexts where democracy degenerated into demagogy.
Demagogy gave birth to the rise of leaders, of parties, of groups claiming to act in the name of the people. What could be more democratic than that? And in contemporary powers, in the literature and in the politics of our times, this is talked about in terms of the problem of populism – the unwanted twin of democracy. It’s just not a kind of accidental phenomenon. Democratization is always prone to the crystallization of an ideology of the people and in some circumstances that fetish of the people can bring great ill to the world. It can damage people’s lives.
Hitler repeatedly talked of himself as a product of the people and so did the Jacobins. There are many Spanish American cases both in the past and in the present. Hugo Chavez was an example: he liked to represent himself as the soldier of the people. So this autoimmune disease, the tendency that political actors will worship ‘The People’, is a problem for democracy. It could even be said that anti-democracy inheres within the very idea and practice of democracy.
The problem then in the history of democracy is how to control or how to rectify that autoimmune disease. It’s interesting to look at the Greek democracies in this way. What mechanisms did they use to combat the dangers of democracy? Within the scores of classical Greek democracies, and certainly within Athens, mechanisms like ostracism (ostrakismos) were applied when a member of the demos gained popularity and began acting like a demagogue. Ostrakismos is the technique of sending, after voting in something like an unpopularity contest, a demagogue into exile for, say, ten years.
As we move nearer to our present time, modern representative democracy in territorial state form introduced other devices for preventing the rise of demagogues. For instance, the whole idea of representation and periodic elections is that you threw the rogues and incompetents out. I think democracy in monitory form is, historically speaking, the most advanced, complicated and clever formula for stopping demagogues in their tracks. But we are living in times where there is a renewal of grand experiments in the worship of ‘The People’. Think of Thaksin Shinawatra, Hugo Chavez and the present rebirth of a whole clutch of populist leaders and parties and governments (Viktor Orban’s in Hungary and the UK Independence Party in Britain) within the European Union. These are testing the institutional mechanisms and processes of democracy in monitory form. We do not yet know what the outcome will be.
Gagnon: So we are facing new troubles – albeit ones carrying the old flavours of populism or nationalismo. There’s a scheming going on by certain executive governments designed to exploit loopholes for reasons typically unfriendly to democracy. And this scheming is not bounded by the territories of states; some say it is happening globally. We might say this is happening with an eye to exploiting the natural resources in, and around, Antarctica. Can you tell us more about your research into the axis of Antarctica and democracy? How can this nexus prove to be a boon for the study of democracy? Is, for example, Australia’s challenge to Japan over whaling in the Antarctic marine sanctuary in the International Criminal Courts an example of one executive challenging the predation of natural resources by another executive? To me it seems that the democratic politics of Antarctica are going to help us resist those powers currently testing the waters, as it were, of global monitory democracy.
Keane: If Alexis de Tocqueville were in the southern summer to travel to Antarctica to observe customs, the environment, the institutions t hat have been set up, and the ways of handling power – what would he report? What would he say? Political thinking about the forms of government in Antarctica is in very short supply. We know that Antarctica is not an empire. And it’s not a territorial state. It is a polity that has set aside sovereignty through the Antarctic Treaty. We know it’s not a federation or confederation. It’s a polity for which we have no name and that is the starting point of my interest intellectually and politically in that southern continent.
There’s a practical reason for my interest. The current Madrid Protocol prevents until the year 2048 the mining and general exploitation of Antarctica’s resources. There are large deposits of iron ore and coal. There are substantial reserves of oil and gas and there are probably other resources too. One can almost hear the beginnings of a new scramble for Antarctica; one egged on by what is happening in the northern hemisphere, in the Arctic region, where the melting of ice is enabling access to all kinds of areas of that polar region where previously it was not technically easy to enter.
So one of the key surfacing political questions is whether Antarctica will be preserved as a global commons controlled by no territorial state for the common benefit of humanity. Will it stand as a model of how our relationship with the biosphere can, or should, radically change? There are some strange things about Antarctica. It is for instance an imagined space where the environment is no longer sitting as terra nullius, a place that is suited for human conquest and mastering.
A sense has been developing for some decades that humans must tread lightly in Antarctica. It’s a highly fragile, complex and delicate biosphere. It’s a complex system of biomes. It’s a continent in which the mechanisms of representing nature, of the environment, have been invented. Polar years, scientific councils, ambassador schemes, the Antarctic treaty system, and the development of radical NGOs like the Sea Shepherd are mechanisms for the ‘greening of democracy’. They are very interesting and important. Antarctica is also a polity where there are no citizens in the conventional sense. Rather, since there are principally between only 1000 and 5000 scientists who live on the continent, it’s a polity in which scientists are the citizens.
Gagnon: Scientists as citizens representing an unpopulated continent – representing biotic and abiotic nonhumans. This surely has raised significant areas for further research in politics, law, international relations and so on?
Keane: Science and scientists have played a critically important role from the 1950s in not only the agreement called ‘the Antarctic Treaty of 1959’, but also in the Madrid Protocol ratified twenty years ago that, according to the global commons principle, preserves Antarctica for posterity. Scientists are shaping the institutional handling of power by, for example, warning against commercial exploitation and advocating the freedom of movement of scientists. What is interesting is that the scientists who behave as experts in their field do not behave for the most part like experts in the old-fashioned sense when expertise was seen as the enemy of democracy. ‘Antarctica scientists’ are often humble people. They are aware of what they do not know: of the great complexity of the objects that they are investigating. Finally I think what is really significant about Antarctica is that it is an experiment in self-government. Taking into account the importance of the biosphere while rejecting the sovereignty principle can be seen in the Antarctic treaty itself.
Strangely, the Antarctic Treaty confirms that the claimant states, originally twelve of them, do not give up their claims to sovereignty of the continent. But in adjoining clauses it proposes that they agree to disagree about sovereignty. We’ll put claimant debates on ice and, well before Europe did it, Antarctica became the cutting edge experiment in a post-sovereign polity where the handling of power was understood to happen better and more accountably, without territorial states.
Putting this all together, what has this got to do with democracy? Well, my point is that many of the arguments made above ought to be internalized within democratic thinking. The re-evaluation of our democratic relationship with the biosphere is a good example. So too is the development of public scrutiny of power in post-territorial settings where there is a sense that accountable government is vital for the future of human beings and our relationship with the biosphere.
To put things simply, Antarctica counts as a new case of the new species I’m calling monitory democracy. That is open to conjecture. It’s wild thinking, but it’s designed to generate a discussion in scholarly terms by those who go politically about the future of Antarctica. And there are serious problems developing. There is not only the great danger of the un-packing and scrapping of the Madrid Protocol, but also all kinds of environmental dysfunctions that are beginning to appear in the continent. There is serious concern about the ozone hole growing larger, not smaller, despite the Montreal Protocol. There is the sense that the western ice shelf of Antarctica might break up. If it did and it fully melted, there is also the catastrophe of sea levels rising 5 metres globally. If the whole lot went, the east shelf being much larger, that would lead to a 50 metre rise to the world’s oceans given that some 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water is frozen on that continent.
There is also a problem with tourism. In 2010, 80,000 tourists went to Antarctica. There are proposals for hotels in Antarctica to be built in highly fragile biomes. A simple footprint, for example, on moss will take decades or more to recover the damage it suffers. Whether these problems will be resolved, whether they can be resolved, whether this polity with no name can survive this process are open questions. It deserves to, for it’s a new species of handling power democratically. It deserves more attention by political thinkers and protection by the friends of democracy.
Horizons of risk and avenues for democratic futures
Gagnon: Antarctica provides us with a model for peaceful democratic decision making on the global scale. Its foreboding ice shelves as well as rich mineral resources in some ways help to foster panicky global summits. Antarctica is a driving force for growth in global democracy and innovations in democratic governance between the demoi of this
world – if only for purely environmental reasons. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If the western or eastern ice shelves collapse, civilization as we know it might disappear. The risks are dire.
There is another area to look at – one arguably as important to the health of democracy as Antarctica and one desperately in need of dramatic reforms. The Fourth Estate, or more plainly the ‘media’, has been re-examined in your work nearly twenty years after the publication of your monograph The Media and Democracy (1991). What lessons can we take away from your innovations in this area?
Keane: In my new book Democracy and Media Decadence (2013b), I try to explain why this language of the Fourth Estate no longer works. Think of things this way. Every historical form of democracy, understood as self-government by people who consider themselves as equals, has depended upon, and been nurtured by, a mode of communication among people. The Athenian and other Greek polities communicated principally through the medium of orality. The spoken word was central for communication, supplemented by writing for example on stone tablets or on papyrus. Laws and messages were also dispatched from the ekklesia by donkey or horse, but principally, all things considered, classical assembly democracy was dependent upon the spoken word: face-to-face public communication.
Representative democracy in territorial state form flourished, as Benedict Anderson and others have pointed out, thanks to the invention of the printing press. The development of print culture was vital in the formation of a reading public. It was vital in the development of printed daily, weekly and monthly newspapers through which political parties nurtured themselves. The age of representative democracy continued into the 1920 and ’30s, when it suffered an almost terminal collapse. It barely survived in Europe. In 1941, for example, there were only eleven electoral democracies left on the face of the earth.
That period principally sustained itself on print culture – on the printing press. It’s true that printed messages were supplemented, helped by the telegraph, by radio and later mass broadcasting. It’s a very complicated relationship. But it’s in the 1920s and ’30s when radio and television and cinema came to be important instruments of mass communication. It’s more than a coincidence that representative democracy in territorial state form was nearly destroyed.
Bertolt Brecht remarked that fascism was unthinkable without the radio. He hit the point. Fascists’ fascination with radio and film is well recorded. We passed through that dark phase and after 1945 it was television that became in many contexts a principal medium of communication in which electoral politics happened. It was the age of Marshall McLuhan, the great Canadian scholar of communications, who was convinced that the age of print culture was disappearing and that something new was being born.
McLuhan, who was in Toronto during the time that I was doing my postgraduate work, never thought through the politics of that historical shift towards the age of television. There are of course his rather offhanded
remarks about a global village and about Vietnam being the first televised war watched from the living room. His observations that leaders were becoming celebrities and the early presidential debates in the United States being a case in point were obviously poignant. But McLuhan did not anticipate something that has been happening since the end of the 1960s: a new digital and networked communications revolution.
Media in digital networked form comprises the first time in the history of communications that text, sound and image have been reintegrated. It is where systems of communication are ultimately global; where the tools of communication are flexible, portable; where copying text, sound and image becomes easy; and where there are declining costs and decreasing barriers of entry of users into this system. This age of communicative abundance, as I call it, has been gaining ground. I think it has an elective affinity, that is Goethe’s term, with monitory democracy. If the age of internet-driven communications, of media in digital form, were to collapse, then monitory democracy as I have been describing it would not last for more than a few hours or days or weeks.
Gagnon: But how does mediation fit in democracy’s historical narrative?
Keane: Putting it simply, there have been three ages of democracy: assembly, representative and monitory which roughly correspond to three different modes of communication: orality, print and digital networks. We have entered an age where every actually existing democracy and authoritarian system of government is feeling the pinch of this new mode of communication. The weird and wonderful things that users do today with the tools and the rules of communication affect every type of government and form of power. They are leading to innovations and new challenges.
It’s a complicated story. There are admittedly many signs of media decadence – the darker side of things, in which arbitrary power flourishes by utilizing state-of-the-art digital media methods. For instance, I ask in Democracy and Media Decadence (2013b) whether it might just be possible, as in China, that powerful authorities manage to harness, to mobilize, the new mode of communications for the purpose of consolidating a form of domination that I call ‘phantom democracy’. We should be aware that misuse and abuse of new digital media is not just a Chinese problem. The new media afford great manipulative potential. They have an invasive quality. They even enable total manipulation of individuals, as can be seen in the Google model of transforming every user of the internet into an object of persuasion, advertising and commodification. It is a model where – thanks to secret algorithms – the most intimate thoughts and habits of individuals are used by Google to link them with advertisers and other organizations.
The Google model can of course be used by governments. It is being used by governments. Yet the unfinished communications revolution of our time is positively feeding the trend towards monitory democracy. It is underpinned and nurtured by this new mode of communication. One good example is the growing number of independent information banks, such as Wikipedia. There is access to information sources from great distances. The ability to read today’s Guardian or the New York Times or the Times of India on the other side of the planet is one instance. So too is the ability to read uncensored diplomatic cables. We also see trends like the ease with which public scandals can be generated. The spaces of privacy are disappearing. Nothing that is private in principle is sacrosanct any more. What a politician does in his or her private life can now be whizzed through the internet and stories can generate great public scandals. They can lose their jobs, or elections. Little wonder that monitory democracy helps trigger corruption scandals on an unprecedented scale, and with an unprecedented intensity. We see, finally, the development of cross-border public spheres in which millions of people witness conflicts over ‘who gets what, when and how’. Global publics with no secure institutional form or representative mechanisms are playing a role in the handling of power globally and are putting pressure on national democracies. What happens in one part of the world in time–space terms happens simultaneously in a domestic setting and it can trigger public disputes about the misuse and abuse of power.
Through communicative abundance, in short, public scrutiny of power on a cross-border basis becomes easier. Symptomatic of the trend is the whole discussion about Wikileaks. It uses all of the cutting edge, technical qualities of this new mode of communication to do something simple but profound: to challenge military secrecy by releasing documents and cablegrams. Huge mountains of information that were meant to be secret now tell us for instance how the United States handles power globally. We found out that an American diplomat regarded the German foreign minister as a loud mouth and not a very competent one (most Germans agreed). Or we find out that Chinese asylum-seeking children in Sweden have gone missing.
On balance, such revelations prompt the thought that we have entered the age of mediated struggles to chasten arbitrary power, for instance by means of whistle blowing, muckraking revelations and clever acts of détournement [turning capitalist or media culture against itself], as Guy Debord long ago predicted. When thinking about their historical significance, it’s just possible that monitory democracy, when it works well, will turn out to be the most robust form of democracy that has ever existed. We’ll see.
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