Review: Robyn Ferrellon John Keane

‘The Friend of Contingency’

The release of John Keane’s brief history took place between the Australian federal election, the war in Ukraine, and China’s ‘security’ agreement with the Solomon Islands. So, within a few weeks of its publication, The Shortest History of Democracy achieved dramatic salience. Not quite prepared for this new chapter, its tone addressed an earlier Zeitgeist, in which many were disengaged from democracy by Trumpian politics and EU in-fighting.

One of a series of ‘Shortest Histories’ from Black Inc, it follows the format of an amiably-written generalist’s book from a scholarly author – John Keane is professor of politics at Sydney University. At times it is admirably succinct. ‘Democracy heightens awareness of what is arguably the paramount political problem: how to prevent rule by the few, who act as if they are mighty immortals born to rule?’, he writes.

What Keane calls the problem of titanism – ‘rule by pretended giants’– threatens democracy even in peacetime. It’s hard to watch the populace in the Philippines vote in the son of a tyrant; or, in the Solomons, the four-times Prime Minister take his country close to tyranny to shore up his own hold on power.

Democracy has always had rival methods of distributing power. From monarchy and empire to tyranny and despotism, history in Keane’s account is a litany of successive political arrangements. None except democracy retain at heart a principle of egalitarian rule. He writes that ‘democracy is exceptional in requiring people to see that everything is built on the shifting sands of time and place, and so, in order not to give themselves over to monarchs, emperors and despots, they need to live openly and flexibly.’

Democracy, Keane tells us, is the friend of contingency. He provides in 240 pages an instructive taxonomy – from ‘assembly’ to ‘electoral’ and ‘monitory’ democracy, each arrangement a response to different contingency.

Keane writes eloquently of democracy’s beginnings. Early forms of assembly democracy, with public gatherings of citizens debating and deciding matters for themselves, appear first in Syria-Mesopotamia and move east to the Indian subcontinent and west to Phoenician cities. Democracy settles famously in Athens. There, assembly democracy allowed for a direct form of self-government, and citizens made an artform of speaking to the assembly, striving for a political consensus. But Athens, notably, didn’t enfranchise everyone. Women and slaves underpinned the freedom of Athenian citizens without sharing in it. And perhaps this foundational injustice led to the anti-democratic impulse that was Athens’ eventual undoing, according to Keane – the building of Empire. When the Macedonians finally defeated Athens in 260 BCE, they dismantled its democratic ideals and institutions, which had become fatally tainted by the lure of imperial wealth and its attendant militarisation of political life.

Democracy caught on in the Atlantic regions from the twelfth century, as a more ‘electoral’ form of democracy emerged. Church governance and early forms of parliament were seen from Spain to Iceland, instituting the choice of delegates from a constituency who were empowered to make decisions on its behalf. In each case, a solution short of violence was found for sorting different interests and for moderating power.

The electoral method of democracy differed from the assembly method by allowing for the adjustment of differences rather than the determination of consensus. In this lay a great virtue of democracy: the peaceful resolution of conflict while sustaining pluralism. For all the talk of ‘the People’, no such unified will existed in practice. Keane shows that, despite the rhetoric of the People’s sovereignty, the new strength of electoral democracy was in its capacity for finding vectors out of division through power-sharing.

It took until the twentieth century for the theory and practice of electoral democracy to mature and flourish, but after the Second World War it reached a high watermark in the governance of nations, as Keane outlines. There was an explicit belief in the possibility that the democratic form of government, taken as a global precept, could protect the world from the catastrophe of war in an age of weapons of mass destruction.

Ukraine, a modern European democracy, was invaded by its imperialist autocratic neighbour in February this year. It came as a dramatic existential shock to the globalised West, even as Putin had massed troops on the border for months, and even in the wake of earlier aggression like the annexing of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas.

In Europe, the horrible face of war had been shrouded for eighty years. Despite hiding in plain sight, shown nightly on television ­– ‘and a warning this footage contains images of war’; in no particular order, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Georgia, Syria – it took the conflict in Ukraine for Europe to look its ravaged visage in the eye. People one day sitting in cafes drinking coffee, their children playing on swings in playgrounds, their ageing parents sitting in apartment lounge rooms with the TV on. The next, huge holes blown in those apartments, tearing the windows out, exposing the décor like so many dolls’ houses. Playgrounds dismembered by exploded shells now lying on the ground beside the play equipment.

People shown wearing familiar brand names on their sweatshirts or on their backpacks, in puffer jackets, scrambling onto trains and buses, clasping shopping bags and wheelie suitcases of what possessions they could grab as they run from their homes. Running for their lives. Or worse, unable to leave, stranded in basement bomb shelters and underground railway stations without food and water and power, let alone clean clothes, hot showers, fresh air and creature comforts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a forcible reminder that the long years of peace following the world wars were not a global default position. There is no ‘end of history’, despite Francis Fukuyama and other political theorists who trumpeted a tale of ‘how the West won’ in the wake of the Cold War.

Keane argues that today more than ever democracy represents the fairest but also most contingent method for governance of power in an uncertain world. Democracy ‘asks people to see through talk of gods, divine rulers and even human nature, to abandon all claims to an innate privilege based on the “natural” superiority of brains or blood, skin colour, caste, class, religious faith, age or sexual preference.’ This, writes Keane, is its leading quality: ‘Democracy denatures power.’ But does this dodge the complexity of power? As was seen in Athens, but arguably more acutely in our own time, the economic can be an internal pressure disrupting and even corrupting democratic political means. Capitalism, while coinciding with much of the modern era of democracy, hasn’t reliably shared its egalitarian spirit.

The latest iteration of democracy, on Keane’s analysis, arises from globalism. Attuned to the trans-national scale of power and wealth, and linked by the digital spheres of communication, surveillance and social media, ‘monitory’ democracy has developed to augment representative elected governments through entities reporting on everything from climate change to human rights. These monitoring efforts can be as informal as citizen journalism and as structured as the bodies of the United Nations. The oversight of rapporteurs and a framework of international laws modify the sovereignty of the nation-state, tying its democratic processes to supranational commitments.

Then there are the special interest groups and lobbyists of social media that amplify or impede the messaging of traditional political representation. Monitory democracy brings a layer of complexity to standard ideals of democracy cherished as ‘liberal’ or ‘social’, and can even create chaos within them. Populism in particular can devolve electoral democracy into more autocratic forms with alarming speed under the pressure of these non-elected, self-selected and powerful mobilisations of political will.

If we value democracy, argues Keane, we must work assiduously to defend it. Keane’s upbeat tone can strike the reader at times as romantic cheerleading. Some of this is an effect of the polemical freehand style he adopts, no doubt to cajole those he believes will need convincing. Ultimately it does the book a disservice, because Keane’s message is one of greater substance.

Scepticism and cynicism about democracy arise from the evil of centralised and despotic power to the other extreme, the scattering of political will in exaggerated diversity, he argues. In defence of monitory democracy, against the ‘morbid critics’ of democracy no less than the cynical promoters of ‘phantom democracy’, Keane recommends it as the form of government devised for the safeguarding of contingency.

The value of democracy is live again. New vocabularies burst into currency – Morrison called out an ‘axis of autocracy’, Biden told the ‘Quad’ that this alliance mattered because now ‘it’s democrats against autocrats’. The walls between peace and war seemed paper-thin.

Keane reflects on a despondency and loss of faith in democracy, especially by younger people and especially in India and South America, as shown in several global studies. He points to the development of an unhealthy ‘managed democracy’ in many places, where corporate industry interests seize control of government with the help of commercial media and demobilise and shepherd the citizenry.

It is obvious to Keane that democracy, at least in the West, has been disfigured by the triumphant power of business, banking and conservative neo-liberal policy. He writes: ‘State policies of “saving capitalism“ have weakened trade unions, promoted deregulation of public services and spread the culture of consumption fuelled by private credit and the belief in the sanctity of the unobliged individual.’

His critique goes further, toward what he warns is a ‘new despotism’. Monitory democracies are facing a new global competitor: the regimes in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and China ‘with top-down political architecture and the capacity to win the loyalty of their subjects using methods unlike anything known to the earlier modern world.’

In purple prose, he writes of ‘vultures picking at rotting flesh, the critics of monitory democracy … enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime feast of cynicism and rejection of power-sharing democracy.’ Strong stuff – and not yet clear whether this is eclipsed in Russia’s blunt reversion to war. Against the ambivalence that seeks to engage democracy in ways that weaken it (including by inference the critique of it as a colonial artefact), Keane directs us to a lateral ideal, somewhere between philosophy and history, of ‘re-imagining democracy as the guardian of plurality’.

Jurgen Habermas argued when it was unfashionable – that is, back before February – that the European Union should be understood ‘as an important step on the path towards a politically-constituted world society.’ While many were questioning why the political project of the European Union should continue, now that (sic) ‘the original motive of making wars in Europe impossible is exhausted’, Habermas’ answer squared up to the challenge of an economic union that is in danger of eclipsing the political.

Governments ‘lack courage and are thrashing around helplessly in the dilemma between the imperatives of the major banks and the rating agencies, on the one side, and their fear of losing legitimacy among their own frustrated populations, on the other’, he wrote. But three components of a democratic polity – ‘the association of free and equal legal persons, a bureaucratic organization for collective action, and civic solidarity as a medium of political integration’ – taken together, Habermas argues, provide a warrant for a renewed enfranchising of democracy, one that would survive beyond the nation state or ethnic territory.

Keane proposes that the problem of the abuse of power is the problem for which democracy is the indispensable solution. This is democracy ‘understood as an unending process of humbling unconstrained power.’ It brings Keane to the words of French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘democracy is not figurable’; it has no fixed form or past justification; it is ‘anarchic, permanently unsatisfied with the way things are’; it is even a ‘shape shifter’.

Nancy outlines two contradictory moments for democracy that ‘blur’ the concept. The first is an originating moment, before law takes effect to legitimate sovereign acts – the point of revolution, when an uprising of popular will asserts itself against an oppressive power. The second is the regulatory moment, when law and sovereignty already apply – the rebellious act is not recognised as democratic, but as a move against democracy, as treacherous or criminal.

Between these two meanings of democracy, he points out, the ideal oscillates and points to the fault line underscoring the insecurity of any democratic moment. It is only a step away from a successful coup d’état (think the January 6 invasion of the US Capitol).

The images of Ukraine’s war were pushed aside by the pantomime of a federal election campaign. As I waited for the tedium to end, I was full of petulant complaint. Why are politicians so ordinary when you would think we’d have the brightest and best stepping up to the plate? Why does the coverage always have to be on gotchas – like Albanese being unable to come up with the unemployment figures, or stunts – like Morrison felling an under-9 soccer player after he’s admitted to being a bulldozer?

For all the hours of coverage, democracy itself was hardly discussed, even when its excesses and distortions were on display like never before. Why was Clive Palmer (or Simon Holmes à Court, for that matter) given the chance to fund the election? Why does the fate of good government hang on a handful of disengaged voters in a handful of outlier seats?

Even in a modern democracy, defending democratic values is a full-time job. What about a federal ICAC? What about equal funding for schools? What about Closing the Gap? What about equal wages for equal work? All preventing rule of the majority becoming rule of the mob.

And there seemed an air of exhaustion around the major parties. Was this a time of risk for Australian democracy, or just a change of gear as voters moved away from a rigid two-party model? Europe has had minority governments and outlandish coalitions for years, pundits pointed out.

The capricious power of social media underlined how things have changed in the era of monitory democracy. Had Labor misjudged the moment by staying with the traditional ‘legacy’ leader? Meanwhile, Morrison might be a ‘buffoon’, and bread and circuses work for a while, but even marketers can’t stay in government forever, surely?

And then I was reminded – watching farmers’ cottages in Ukrainian villages bombed to rubble, and popular politicians imprisoned in Myanmar for life – that Churchill had one thing right; democracy is the ‘least worst’ system. The alternative really is worse. The problem for democracy is everyone else. Inside the charmed circle, all is banality. But outside is horrifying violence – a line of ragged wounded troops crawled out from the Asvol steelworks after weeks of combat having failed to hold a ruined city.

Finally, one Saturday, someone flicked a switch. After ten years of ‘climate wars’, an electorate was persuaded of the need to move forward to clean energy. The Voice to Parliament would go forward, childcare would be cheaper, aged care workers properly paid, there would be an end to wage suppression.

And women winning everywhere, in blue seats turned teal and green. Women, pollsters said, had ‘had enough’, had got fed up with the mates’ rates and the morale-sapping sexist misogyny that passed for public life. There is justice of a kind when a government can change without bloodshed, except for a metaphorical ‘greenbath’.

That’s the proof of democracy – overnight fresh approaches, new energy and determination to bring an end to abuses of power, just by standing in line with a sausage in bread.