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The Life and Death of Democracy by John…

The Life and Death of Democracy (edition 2009)

by John Keane (Author)

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1072170,325 (3.5)1
Title:The Life and Death of Democracy
Authors:John Keane (Author)
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2009), Hardcover, 992 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:world history, Liberalism, Democracy, ancient history, American history, new, read

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The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane



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This is a massive book, one which approaches a familiar topic from a unique perspective.

According to the author, there are three stages of democracy: assembly, which is often associated with ancient Greece; representative, which is the form of democracy later espoused in the 18th and 19th centuries and is the foundation of the modern American model, and the current form, the outpouring of the most modern era, and typified through India - monitored democracy.

Keane asserts that ancient democracy was not wholly from Athens - he posits that ancient Phoenician city-states and parts of Mesopotamia, as well as other Greek states, had democracy of some form. After this collapsed, democracy waned for a few centuries, save a few thinkers, isolated villages, and merchant republics. Even after the United States came into being as a democratic republic, there were strong and significant undercurrents against it, with totalitarian movements rising to power in the 20th century in Europe, but also caudillos and warlords in South America.

The historical analysis is solid here, save a few minor factual errors, which are bound to crop up in a work of this size. When we approach the modern era, though, this moves into the realm of the hypothetical.

Monitored democracy, as shown as a case example in India, is where power is decentralized and monitored through NGOs, etc. Democracy has also been implemented in new hybrid forms, combining elements of traditional culture, religion, etc.

Also a brief segment on the future of democracy, on 'viral' democracy and the internet, as well as the difficulties of adequate local representation over such large polities.
( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
So I will start off by saying that in tracing the roots of democracy back to Mesopotamia, Keane presents something new and unusual and of some significance to the overall history of the style of governance known as democracy. But beyond that this book is the absolute epitome of a book that is far too long and does not justify its length both in pages and time by its quality.

There are, from what I can tell, three major problems. The first is that there is no clarity. Democracy is not only not clearly defined, it takes so many different forms that it can't be treated as a coherent topic. And when discussing other forms of government--in particular republics--Keane simply ignores several important features which differentiate that from simply representative democracy. One oreason this happens is because he jumps time and space so fast and, while noting the influences that institutions from one place may have on institutions from another place later on, he does not note the differences in culture between, say, Britain and Spain that would make Britain far more conducive to democratic governance in the long-term. The Magna Carta is not mentioned in the chapter where he discusses the beginning of representative government and how kings were forced to in some sense cede power to smaller bodies or councils of nobles. While he does mention Alfonso IX convening councils, and then simply says the rest of Europe's parliamentary councils start there, that does not solve the problem of why Spain never remotely approached democracy until about forty years ago, whereas the American colonies claimed that King George III was violating their prerogative as British citizens two hundred and fifty years ago. He also even gets his history wrong; he claims, for instance, that Milton favored small parliamentary assemblies. Yet Milton was quite overt in favoring a perpetual Senate, as stated in The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. He casts a dubious question-mark on Milton's Areopagitica in implying that because it didn't sell well it may not have been great. And while I have my issues with Milton--he's stuck-up, for one--the sales of the work have absolutely no reference to the greatness of Areopagitica. Of all of his works I'd say that one is by far the best, though obviously most scholars would probably say Paradise Lost is more complete and a better work. Certainly anyone reading Areopagitica for themselves can't help but note how great it really is.

Second, he is politically biased and his political leanings don't guide him well. He equates democracy with freedom--that time-worn misapplication of theory, because democracy ensures but one thing--equality of vote--and has often been responsible for curtailing freedom. In order to do this he has to re-write ancient history so that only Athenian leaders who were growing too powerful were exiled, and Socrates' death was justified because he was importing other gods, rather than state the reality of the case which is that Xenophon, Aristotle, and Thucydides were all exiled and not for noble reasons like that. Anyone who tried to choose for themselves, in ancient Athens, was ousted. At some point he says that a lofty question is raised, that being how conservatives could make such a mark on the world. Oh, Johnny, we conservatives sometimes have a small influence! Pardon me, but any fair-minded inquiry into political theory and history suffers from such overt mischaracterization and pusillanimity. Every writer has his beliefs and those will always play some small (or even large in some cases) part in his work, but conviction only takes a man so far in writing if he doesn't have some sort of fact to back it up (except, maybe, in the case of Rousseau!).

Third, his word choice is extraordinarily poor and at several times and in several places he uses the wrong word. And that bothers me, though many other readers may not notice it. It goes into how he expresses his point, and if he's choosing the wrong words, he's not doing it very well.

How anyone can give this 5 stars if they knew a small amount of political theory is beyond me. This is no 5-star work. ( )
  jrgoetziii | May 31, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393058352, Hardcover)

From Plato to de Tocqueville to Fukuyama—an epic history of the governing philosophy that has defined Western history.

In the grand tradition of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers comes this provocative history of world democracy, which begins with the ancient Myceans and ends in our fractious present. Overturning long-cherished notions, John Keane poses challenging questions: Did democracy actually begin in ancient Greece or earlier in Mesopotamia? Do the American and British systems actually live up to their democratic ideals? Why is there a bad moon rising over the world’s democracies? Written by a leading political theorist, this book presents readers with a counterintuitive look at democracy’s past, present, and future, which Keane argues lies not in the West but in the turbulent democracies of the East, especially in India. Avoiding the triumphalism of global democracy’s most boisterous pundits, Keane cautions that democracy today is more fragile than ever and that, unless major corrective measures are taken, we may be sleepwalking our way into even deeper trouble.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:04 -0400)

"John Keane's The Life and Death of Democracy will inspire and shock its readers. Presenting the first grand history of democracy for well over a century, it poses along the way some tough and timely questions: can we really be sure that democracy had its origins in ancient Greece? How did democratic ideals and institutions come to have the shape they do today? Given all the recent fanfare about democracy promotion, why are many people now gripped by the feeling that a bad moon is rising over all the world's democracies? Do they indeed have a future? Or is perhaps democracy fated to melt away, along with our polar ice caps? [...] Stylishly written, this superb book confronts its readers with an entirely fresh and irreverent look at the past, present and future of democracy [...] It tracks the changing, hotly disputed meanings of democracy and describes quite a few of the extraordinary characters, many of them long forgotten, who dedicated their lives to building or defending democracy." -- Book jacket.… (more)

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