John Keane | There is confusion in the house of Democracy
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There is confusion in the house of Democracy

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Interview with John Keane published by the Indian Express , the 5th of March 2005

The question is: What is so good about democracy? This deserves urgent revisiting, argues John Keane, professor of Politics at the University of Westminster, because in our times there is no great public discussion about it. Only a quiet self-satisfaction in some quarters that democracy has triumphed globally. In such complacence, lurk dangers of its overuse, its degeneration into a cliche and of it becoming vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy.

In a rich body of work — most recently, Violence and Democracy (2004) and Global Civil Society? (2003) — the distinguished political theorist’s concerns have centred on democracy, civil society and media. In the Capital to deliver the B N Ganguly Memorial Lecture at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, he spoke to Vandita Mishraon attempting a full-scale history of democracy, India’s place in it, and why humility is the democratic value par excellence.

• Why a history of democracy?

For more than a hundred years no comprehensive history of democracy has been attempted. Seven years ago, I decided it was overdue to try my hand at this for various reasons, including to make sense of what is novel about our times. This is the first period in the history of democracy in which the language of democracy has become global. This is also a period when in the old democracies of the north Atlantic region there are anxieties about how well democracy is working.
• Where does India find place in a history of democracy?

At several key points. The first has to do with the origins of assemblies. Archaeological evidence now shows that the birthplace of the assemblies is ancient Mesopotamia, not classical Greece. These were transported further east — India has a long history of these assemblies — and to the west, where the Greeks claimed them as a Greek invention.

The second moment is the near destruction of parliamentary democracy by 1945 in Europe, by two global wars, totalitarianism. The credit for its rejuvenation goes to the lonely experiment in India under Nehru’s leadership.

The formation of a democratic India was historically important because a post-imperial country with many problems made the choice to consolidate itself through democracy. Democracy would not come in at the end. It was a pre-condition of the experiment.

India also continues to be the inspiring exception to the view that the poor and the downtrodden are least interested in multi-party democracy. In India, election outcomes — as in the defeat of the BJP last year — are decided by the comparatively higher turnouts at the bottom of the social scale.

What do you see as the great challenges for Indian democracy?

What responsibilities, if any, does the world’s largest democracy have in global affairs? In a context of the clear violation of democratic principles, in the Middle East, Burma and other zones of what I call ‘‘uncivil wars”, can democracies sit on the fence? The doctrine of territorial state sovereignty and non-intervention is in crisis. The world watches while India comes to terms with it.

Secondly, the loosening of state structures and introduction of internal markets will have an enlivening effect on investment and trade. But it will also produce heightened social inequalities. In this sense, the world of democracies is becoming like India. We all must grapple with this: how to maintain social solidarity, how to invent new forms of social justice.

The third challenge is posed by the resilience of organised criminality and corruption — active disregard of a legal culture, outbreaks of violence. There’s a long history in democracies of trying to deal with them. This process is incomplete in India.

• You coined the term ‘‘communicative abundance”. What are its implications for democracies?

All democracies are beginning to operate within a house of media. The new galaxy of communication media contains democratic possibilities. But as in Philippines, Italy and California, political performers can use the media to transform party politics and democratic government into show business.

The notion that it’s possible to ‘‘carpet bomb” electorates with phone messages, TV advertising, controlled press conferences that involve ‘‘flak packs” whose job is to ensure there is no negative reporting — this media swamping of democratic politics is well underway in India.
• How can it help, talking about democracy and reprising its justifications?

Democracy has no meta-historical guarantees. Even consolidated democracies can lose life, become exhausted. Today, anti-Americanism is sky-rocketing and with it, suspicion of democracy. Therefore the old question about why democracy is a desirable ideal deserves a renaissance.

In my history of democracy, I have noted a striking feature. Through time, a series of justifications of democracy surfaced — a God-given, Christian, ideal; natural right; way of ensuring the greatest happiness of the greatest number. When I look at this repertoire of reasons, what strikes me is how incoherent the idea is.

I am proposing a new understanding of why it is a good thing, namely, that it is possible to think of democracy as a kind of government and way of life that is suspicious of arrogant ideologies, and which is a friend of complexity, of pluralism.

Humility, to me, is the democratic virtue par excellence. It is not to be misunderstood as weakness, incompetence, powerlessness. We know by Gandhi’s example that humility is fearlessness, self-confidence, generosity to others. But humility also requires a form of government which can humble the arrogant. And what else is a constitutional democracy but this — a set of institutions which allows the sacking of the arrogant, the placement of time limits on their rule.


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