John Keane | The strange origins of representative democracy
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-2444,single-format-standard,do-etfw,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.1.2,vc_responsive


The strange origins of representative democracy

  |   Audio, Democracy in the 21st Century, Media, Podcasts, Videos and Interviews   |   No comment

Summary: On the 7th of November, AKU-ISMC hosted a lunch-hour seminar entitled: The strange origins of representative democracy, led by John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Westminter and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). During the seminar, Keane explored the role of a 12th- century institution born in the northern part of modern-day Spain – the cortes – and its vital role in the later formation of representative democracy.

Keane also explored the contribution made indirectly by Muslim cultures to the invention of the cortes. Keane explained that by the 10th century, although the goal of Islam to become a universal way of life had begun to disintegrate, many elements of Islamic society had endured. From this period onwards, as many institutions developed, Islam managed to live on – including through Sufi networks and the madrasas. Quoting the eminent scholar of Islam, Montgomery Watt, Keane noted for instance that the seeds of the whole idea of universities in Europe came, in fact, from Islam; madrasas from this period were later mimicked by the first European universities, which were intended to be physical and intellectual spaces guided by an agreed set of curricula, separated from government and acting at a distance from power. Keane referred to the emergence among Christians of a “zone of anxiety” in 12th century Northern Spain. This anxiety stemmed from the feeling among many, that Christianity was in terminal decline. This perception sparked a movement of re-conquest of lands that were supposed to rightly belong to Christians – despite the fact that many people of the region considered themselves Mozarabs with cultural customs that were deeply indebted to Islam. Keane suggested that the cortes of the Kingdom of Léon was the first-ever parliament in the genuine sense of the term. Its founding principle was that a government is only really legitimate when it has been sanctioned by the governed themselves, specifically by the representatives (procuradores they were called) of the clergy, the nobility and the urban commercial interests who sat within the cortes in the presence of the monarch. The cortes, Keane proposed, is a “strange gift” from the world of Islam, a child of the strategy of re-conquest in this region. The key figure in the development of the cortes, Keane pointed out, was King Alfonso IX, who, at the age of 17, avoided a succession plot by fleeing to Portugal. “In 1188, he agreed to come back to Léon to assume the crown … at the age of 17, he was advised that something dramatic must be done. Many of his competitors were filled with the sense that in that part of Spain things were being lost, fast.”

In response to this anxiety, the King took a surprising step, based on the principle that the re-conquest of lands deemed to be Christian required a new peace agreement within the Kingdom. In March 1188, in the church of San Isidoro, the King convened the first cortes or parliament, during which various decisions were agreed, including the promise by the King that he would permanently seek the advice and consent of three estates – the bishops, the nobility, and the ‘good men [buenos hombres] of Leon’. In addition, it was agreed that matters of property and of residence would not be violated by the King, and that the representatives would meet again. Keane noted that this meeting was highly unusual for its time. Instead of being a consultative or advisory council, which was the prevailing custom, it was instead a meeting of equals, whereby the King was bound to the mutual agreement of the three estates. In this regard, the cortes became a condition of possibility of what would later be called a representative assembly, in that the various parties had to compromise non-violently in order to come to a working agreement. “The cortes was a new way of understanding politics as a permanent process of deciding who gets what, when and how, and ensuring that the process is fair.” In this regard, the cortes did not presume a kind of close-knit communitarian solidarity; instead, it introduced the notion of long distance government by consent. This is illustrated, Keane said, by the willingness of those from the three estates to travel to the cortes in order to present their case. The cortes was a harbinger of a new political form in its own right, one to which our notions of representative government are deeply indebted. “What is striking and deeply implicit in this ‘world historical’ event in Léon,” Keane said, “is that representation is seen as the condition of possibility of the disembodiment of political power. It is typically contrasted with monarchy, and if you think about it, monarchy is an embodied form of political power.” Representative government, Keane said, breaks down concentrated political power, and according to scholars, including J.S. Mill and Guizot, introduces the possibility of freedom from the fear that political power associated with a monarch degenerates into retribution, violence and tyranny. Added to this, representative government introduces the possibility of pluralism because the whole point of government by representatives is that representation is necessary because there is no straightforward or ‘natural’ unity of interests within the body politic. Explaining the relevance of the cortes to the modern notion of representative democracy, Keane concluded by saying that representative assemblies of the kind prefigured in the Léon cortes highlight the principle that the body politic is permanently fragmented, and that a key condition of politics is the quest for reconciliation. Further, he suggested that out of the cortes sprang the political ethos of compromise. The cortes was in this sense a basic institution of what later came to be called democracy. Keane concluded by noting that many institutions of democracy have pre-democratic origins. His forthcoming history of democracy, The Life and Death of Democracy, sees this point as axiomatic, as a basic methodological research tool for thinking in new ways about the history of democracy and the strange origins of many of its contemporary institutions.