John Keane | Book review of Democracy Kills. What’s So Good About the Vote? By Humphrey Hawksley
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-2181,single-format-standard,do-etfw,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.1.2,vc_responsive


Book review of Democracy Kills. What’s So Good About the Vote? By Humphrey Hawksley

  |   Articles & Essays JK, War, Violence, Fear   |   No comment

Macmillan, London 2009 ISBN 978-0-230-74408-0

This book review first appeared in International Affairs, Chatham House, March 2010, pp. 16-18


download (1)

John Keane’s review:

During the past decade, as ‘democracy promotion’ and military campaigns against enemies dubbed ‘terrorists’ gathered pace, war, violence and democracy have become fashionable publishing topics. Scholarly interest in the ‘realist’ writings of Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt and René Girard is flourishing. Some commentators daringly conclude that democracy is a strange impossibility because it always rests upon founding acts of violence. Others insist that it has a ‘dark side’ (Michael Mann), or that electoral democracy sups with the devils of political violence (Paul Collier). The English journalist Humphrey Hawksley joins the chorus with the eye-catching dust jacket claim that ‘democracy, far from setting us free, might actually kill us’. Drawing upon data gathered by an outsourced research service, Hawksley claims that since 1989 around 10 million people have died as a consequence of American, British and allied efforts to introduce ‘Western-style democracy’. That figure serves to underscore his arresting conclusion : ‘if democracy is not implemented carefully, the process could cause the deaths of a lot of people and fail to deliver dignity and good governance’.

The conjecture is controversial. Although dodging tough questions about what democracy means – the book embraces an electoralist definition of representative democracy – Hawksley adds realism to talk of democratisation by highlighting the entanglement of democratic institutions and ideals in the facts and fantasies of violence and war. The book is a healthy corrective to evolutionist, Fukuyama-style views of democracy, those that see only its ‘world-historical’ tendency to spread freedom and secular, science-induced economic growth across the whole earth, as if democracy is the fulfilment of our destiny. Hawksley’s description of democracy as an engine of violence is nevertheless unconvincing. The credibility problem stems partly from book marketing, and partly from faulty logic.

Hawksley is an intrepid survivor of a declining species, a brave and honest foreign reporter with a strong reputation for questioning shibboleths. It is thus a pity that the book, a set of well-written anecdotes drawn from world-wide assignments during the past two decades, is tempted for the sake of sales to sensationalise its subject. Hawksley certainly offers readers plenty of graphic field material, gathered under difficult conditions. He is in top form when summarising encounters with political figures like Walid Jumblatt and Colonel (Gringo) Gregorio Honasan, or when describing contexts, from the Ivory Coast to Iraq and the Philippines, corrupted by armed thugs, thieving politicians, money and other commodities, like drugs, cocoa and oil.

The difficulty is that the book comprises a string of connected stories in search of a single plausible plot whose shocking thesis – democracy kills – draws on faulty inductivist logic. Hawksley in effect says: if in contexts A,B, C and D efforts are made to hold fair, free and clean elections, and if in the same contexts A,B, C and D there are simultaneous outbreaks of violence that make a mockery of electoral democracy, then it follows that democracy is responsible for the injury and death produced by that violence. The inference does not follow; the logic of induction proves nothing. Several cases discussed (India and Argentina) in fact point to the opposite conclusion. What this book in fact highlights, by default, is the need for a fresh and comprehensive look at both the changing historical meaning of democracy and the exacting conditions that must obtain for transitions to democracy to be successful. The poor success record of democracy building, especially following the intervention of local or outside military forces, does not prove that democracy is suited only to a few lucky peoples, as Hawksley implies, and comes close to saying when admiring the stable prosperity of post-democratic Singapore. The mixed success of democratisation efforts – success in India, South Africa and Poland, failure in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan – rather highlights the point that democracy flourishes only when the most stringent conditions are met.

Hawksley’s random description of democracy failures jumbles together variables (elections, army factions, guerillas, military interventions, black market transactions, ailing health services) that need to be analysed separately, with more care. What then are the vital variables for ensuring that killing does not become confused with power-sharing, constitutional democracy ? Contrary to the textbooks, the experience of EU democracy promotion shows that successful democratisation does not necessarily require a ‘sovereign’ territorial state. Minimally democratisation requires a set of governing institutions capable of exercising authority over a given territory by extracting and distributing revenue, producing public goods and, of course, protecting citizens against violence. Democratic self-government further requires a form of ‘trusteeship’ managed by multilateral institutions that help produce a viable, wider regional settlement (Hawksley calls this ‘mentoring’, but the term is imprecise). Democracies rarely flourish on their own; successful transitions to democracy always depend upon outside help. They thus depend upon finding clever remedies for overcoming the great tension between the promise of self-government by citizens and the reality of outside interference, for instance by an invading democratic power. Since the military power to enforce submission never translates spontaneously into the power of the conquered survivors to form stable democratic governments and law-enforced civil societies, democratisation further requires a clear timetable for withdrawal. Also vital is the cultivation of power-monitoring mechanisms, functioning markets and other institutions of civil society. Finally, real efforts must be made by occupiers and local leaders to nurture people’s trust, not just through respect for local traditions and political aspirations, but especially by encouraging local populations to speak out against those in charge of the transition, to give them a taste of their own medicine by subjecting them to the mechanisms of monitory democracy that this book – with its elections equal democracy bias – wants us to ignore.

Another version of the questionable claim that ‘democracy kills’ is Orlando Patterson’s account of recent Jamaican violence