Book Review: Democracy: A Life

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books lately, including this review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the idea of ‘people power’ has been treated over the centuries that have elapsed since Athenian democracy. As such, I feel that he (intentionally or unintentionally) made an important contribution to challenging the negative perception that we have of citizen participation by explaining how this view developed over time. Another one to order for the library!

Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later [post-Athens] historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.

The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.

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3 Responses

  1. THE TROUBLE WITH DEMOCRACY

    Democracy is fine, as long as nobody takes the “cracy”, power part to mean the exercise of state power. That members of any community should have the decisive role in deciding the internal affairs of that community is a great ideal, as long as it is coupled with the proviso that each person is free to belong to many communities, none of which is a total community that exercises power over all the others.

    Unfortunately, all existing and past democracies have also been states, and have identified democracy with unitary control of the communities in the interest of “the people”, identified as both citizens and subjects of the state. What they have striven to do has generally been to preserve and expand the power of the state. Athenian democracy both pursued an imperialistic foreign policy and attempted to suppress dissent that it saw as subverting the unity on which the power of the state was thought to depend.

    In a world where the regular practice was for states to use military power to advance whatever they saw as their interests, it is almost inevitable that people should see the security of the state as “trumping” all other considerations. It is a short step from demagogues playing on defensive fears to mobilising the whole community to attack its enemies pre-emptively, in the name of liberating their peoples. The prime necessity for a democracy to function as a regime of freedom is an international order in which the organised violence for which states exist is resisted systematically by all communities.

    That is no longer a utopian idea. In the contemporary world the means of communication and sharing of interests across geographical and ethnic barriers are developing in unprecedented ways. The international communities of science and scholarship, the arts and sciences, commerce, health and air and surface traffic regulations, technologies and ways of thinking are already being entrenched in practical exchanges that closed political regimes can control only at unsustainable costs. The way forward lies not in the individualism of a mythical self-sufficiency, bur in the dissolution of any notion of THE people, whether on a nationalistic, religious or ideological basis, recognising the freedom of us all to participate actively in constructing those communities that enrich the lives of all of us. The emerging society must consist of a community of communities, each devoted to those common goods that arte the focus of its identity as a community, but also aware of the many ways in which it is interdependent with other communities of many sorts.

    Such a regime does not need a single focus of authority, only practices of negotiation and possibly arbitration that are accepted by those directly involved and recognised by all as legitimate, at least pragmatically and provisionally.

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  2. Some interesting points. I actually began researching democracy from an international perspective and still think that an understanding of how national government interacts with the international order is of vital importance. In my original thesis, international disarmament actually figured as a major point in democratization. I am running a conference on Universal Disarmament in Ireland later this year, if anyone is interested in attending. That being said, I think that organizing on non-nation-state lines is decades off, at least, and that the shift over the past few decades has been to build bigger, but tighter blocs (EU, NATO, etc) that are essentially just bigger, more militarized versions of the nation-State.

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  3. Ros

    >the past few decades has been to build bigger, but tighter blocs (EU, NATO, etc) that are essentially just bigger, more militarized versions of the nation-State.

    Yes indeed, this could be seen as an Orwellian development. Add to this the feeling in many nations that their identity is being systematically erased by elite-inspired projects involving the “dissolution of any notion of THE people, whether on a nationalistic, religious or ideological basis”, and I don’t share the optimistic utopianism of John’s anarchistic project.

    John

    >In the contemporary world the means of communication and sharing of interests across geographical and ethnic barriers are developing in unprecedented ways.

    In the 18th and 19th century the cultural elite in Europe was highly cosmopolitan, yet the end result was two world wars. Why do you think it will be different this time?

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