John Keane | Democracy may be heading for extinction
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Democracy may be heading for extinction

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(An interview with John Keane in The Straits Times , Singapore 28 December 2003)

One of Britain’s leading political thinkers points to the signs that it could be replaced by a mediaeval-style collage of unaccountable governing institutions – and the democracy advocate sees this happening within half a century

By Cheong Suk-Wai

CHEER and fear simultaneously gripped British political don John Keane as he huddled with 40 people in a tiny underground apartment in Poland one chilly day in the mid-1980s.

On the phone with The Sunday Times from his office at London’s University of Westminster, Professor Keane recalls: ‘I remember vividly how passionately we discussed their dreams for freedom despite fear of being arrested by the secret police. Their clear belief in democracy inspired me and still keeps me going today.

Throughout the 1980s, the sinewy professor with the corkscrew curls sneaked in and out of Eastern Europe on travel visas bearing his nom de plume, Erica Blair, an assumed moniker which pays homage to Eric Blair, the real name of the late British writer George Orwell of Animal Farm and 1984 fame.

It was a name which the democracy advocate also used when writing – which he did extensively – for Western newspapers and university journals about the decline of communism in Europe.

Fortunately for him he never did fall into the hands of the communist authorities. Instead, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and with it, over the next few years, communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

He went on to set up the London-based think-tank, the Centre for the Study of Democracy, of which he is still director.

He has also written and edited more than 10 books, including The Media And Democracy (1991; translated into 25 languages), Tom Paine: A Political Life (1995) and Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy In Six Acts (1999).

The Times of London once called the 54-year-old ‘one of Britain’s leading political thinkers and writers whose work is of worldwide importance’.

Late next year, the Australian-born scholar is scheduled to unveil the fruits of his lifetime of research. Called simply The History of Democracy Project, it is being billed as the first comprehensive study on the whys and wherefores of democracy in the past 100 years.

‘I was born in 1949, just after World War II, when there were enormous quantities of violent hubris plaguing the world. Caught between the small south of my world and the big world which was not a pretty picture, I forced myself to think about that tension,’ he says, explaining his love affair with democracy.

That took him at age 16 to the United States, where he spent a year trying to find answers to that
tension, as it were, before he rounded off his formal education at the universities of Adelaide, Toronto and Cambridge.

The same quest for answers fuelled surreptitious forays into Eastern Europe, where he became the
critically-lauded biographer of then Czech political dissident and poet Vaclav Havel, who later became post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first president.

Democracy’s mechanisms, he says, ‘force even the most power-drunk to think twice before making any decision’, which is a good thing because of ‘man’s perennial hubris, or the arrogant belief that one is like God’.

He tells The Sunday Times that, thanks to a good 30 years of research, he can now bring to the table startling, yet not implausible, notions about the birth -and what might well be the impending death – of democracy.

Dealing with the latter first, he sets the stage: ‘I am not by nature a fatalist or a pessimist. But it is utterly realistic: I see a deep-seated hatred for democratic institutions which, if left unchecked, could destroy democracy altogether.’

To back his argument, he cites growing nervousness ‘everywhere’ about the future, as well as a growing awareness of two developments which are threatening the very survival of democracy.

The first is that democrats today are finding it very difficult to build democracy ex nihilo, as witnessed in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and now Iraq.

‘There is much talk in Washington today about the difference between hothousing the plant of
democracy and allowing it to grow naturally,’ he says.

The second is what he calls ‘the fatigue of old democracies’ like Britain, France and Italy, where there are loud and rising complaints about political parties and their lack of responsibility.

A host of other factors have fomented such nervousness, fatigue and a general unparalleled loathing for the idea of democracy, he adds.

One: In the past 200 years, Westerners have been ‘heaping the problem of violence onto others’, much of it committed through the violence of occupation.

The European colonisation of Asia, for instance, was a very big factor in promoting authoritarian institutions in Asia, as nationalist strongmen rode anti-colonial sentiments to power.

Democrats need to see that the history of democracy is a shameful thing, not a pure ideal, because there has been much bloodshed and injustice in its development,’ says Prof Keane.

Another example: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. ‘He was a big friend of the West and was abetted principally by Britain and the United States.’

If the West continues ‘its game of backing despots and shoring up regimes that are not functioning properly’, it is just possible that the world is on the cusp of the end of democracy, he asserts.

The second factor hastening democracy’s demise is none other than the hegemony of the US as a democratic hyperpower.
The US, unlike past powers such as the Roman, Ottoman, Hapsburg and British empires, ‘speaks the language of democracy’.

But events in the last two years – chiefly the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – show that it is ‘constantly contradicting itself’ with its ‘growing involvement in ways not intended’.

US-generated measures may bring about more democracy in Iraq – but then again, they may not. He says: ‘As the 19th century French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville put it, the most dangerous moment in democracy for those who rule and control is the moment when reforms begin. That is because that is the moment when expectations of many rise – and fall. That’s what’s happening in Iraq right now.

And it is ‘a grand irony, a tragic irony’.

That irony is all the thicker for the fact that there has been what he considers a ‘remarkable renaissance’ for democracy since the 1970s.

More countries embraced democracy after 1970 than at any other period in history.

And the third factor heralding the demise of democracy? This is what he calls ‘the triangle of Violence’, with the three flashpoints being:
• nuclear anarchy, including the build-up of atomic potential – in rogue states like North Korea – to blow humanity to bits;
• civil wars like those in the Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone which rend whole societies asunder; and
• the resurgence of what he calls ‘apocalyptic terrorism’, or forms of violence designed to shock the world with maximum injury and death.

This three-cornered threat may kill democracy sooner rather than later, because it is leading to a strengthening of professional surveillance and tightening of civil and political liberties in the name of global security, he argues.

‘History has shown amply that democracy does not thrive under conditions of violence.’

But even before global violence – and the security strategies to curb it -strangle democracies everywhere, Prof Keane says democracy may already be doing itself in with the help of what he calls today’s ‘galaxy of communications’ – the proliferation of communications channels through which people may give feedback to and put pressure on governments.

When criticism from the people you rule is too frequent and intense, ‘rule of the people, by the people and for the people’ loses its allure and fatigue sets in. The temptation for democratic institutions to shut down is great.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger might be shocked to know it, but Prof Keane considers him another threat to democracy. His campaign for the governorship, which he calls ‘stage-managed entertainment politics’ devoid of firm policy, cheapened democracy to a point where it becomes an ideal in name only.

‘This emptying out is deeply worrying as the result is to take the life out of democratic institutions, which are whittled away to nothing more than empty shells,’ he says.

More controversially, Prof Keane takes issue with institutions like the European Union, Asean and the World Bank, which he notes are not directly accountable to the public and have no electoral mechanism.

The EU, he says, is ‘not a superstate, not an empire and not a federation, but a 50-year-old experiment in building up a joined-up institution of government which is publicly unaccountable’, so it may very well be ‘illegitimate’ in terms of being a power sanctioned by its peoples.

So if democracy does go the way of the dodo 50 years from now, as he predicts it will, what could replace it?

Something like a mediaeval collage of governing institutions, he says, which will not be accountable to anyone but will pride themselves on being democratic, at least in name.

Democracy, he says, was after all born in a quadrangle of urban Mesopotamian civilisation, now contemporary Iraq, the corners of which were Iran, Mecca, Athens and Rome.
Documents from that era show that their form of democracy was not violent, but had power-sharing assemblies which exported their democratic ideas to the West, including to the Athenians.

Prof Keane asserts that if democracy is to have a chance of surviving globally, the West should stop thinking of it as ‘Europe’s gift to the world’, so as to curb what he calls ‘tremendous resentment’ of the West, found especially among Muslim societies.

Having just spent the better part of a year traveling in the horizontal band of countries between Morocco and Mindanao, he says he made the trips because he wanted to understand better why it was so difficult for the idea of democracy to take hold in that region – which, ironically, also includes the place of its birth.

The man who also chairs the Middle Eastern Forum at the University of Westminster – which he says has the highest number of Muslim students in Britain, many of whom are from Morocco and Pakistan – shares this insight: There is something special about being a Muslim in this world, because he has a strong sense of decline and humiliation as witnessed in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite having come of one of the first global civilisations with enormous achievements like democracy.

Frequent Muslim-related terrorist incidents notwithstanding, his travels have convinced him that the majority of Muslims around the world have democratic instincts and are in favour of pluralism and power-sharing.

And this is one bright spot in the firmament of his pessimism about democracy’s future – that despite the many threats to its survival, more people around the world are embracing its ideals.

He says: Democracy may be on its knees, but it is still the best tool invented so far by humans to bring humility into the sphere of power.