On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, by Alan Ryan, Allen Lane, RRP£40/Liveright, RRP$75, 1,152 pages
Look around, or beyond the borders where you live. You’ll probably have noticed that disquiet and disaffection are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Political parties and legislatures are not exactly in favour. Public disenchantment with politicians and official “politics” is rising everywhere, fed by corruption and power-grabbing, factional infighting and mischief-making populists. There are widening gaps between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. The rich are hyper-rich. Middle-class citizens fear for the future. A new precarious class of semi-employed or permanently unemployed people has meanwhile been born. And xenophobia and bigoted nationalism are on the rise.
Now ask the citizens of Greece, Spain or Portugal what they think about democracy: a clear majority say it’s a fine ideal that feels corrupted and practically broken. Significant minorities of citizens in democracies otherwise as different as Slovenia and Chile, Italy, Japan and India say much the same thing. Some parliamentary democracies – Hungary, Israel and Ukraine among them – are breeding active disillusionment with democratic ideals. In the US, polls regularly show that more than half of Americans think their own imperial democracy is in decline. Many of its citizens meanwhile ask: has democracy come to Iraq, or to Afghanistan? Will it come to Egypt or Syria?
Answers to such questions seem redundant. Little wonder that the doubters of democracy – radicals such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek – feel encouraged, or that public defenders of democracy are on the move. Alan Ryan’s epic thousand-page defence of the political ideals of “liberal democracy” is best read in this context. More than three decades in the making, it’s a brave and clever book. Eloquence, erudition, brio and vivacity: these are justifiably some of the fine-spun words advertising its publication. But when judged as a diagnosis of the present miseries of democracy or as a riposte to its critics, On Politics, for all its weighty brilliance, is out-of-season, a disappointingly old-fashioned book.
Ryan is an English political thinker known and respected for previous books on John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, and for his excellent writings in the New York Review of Books. Here he spreads his scholarly wings to fly through the “classics” of political thought in search of an answer to a single pressing question: “How can human beings best govern themselves?”
Ryan’s reply is blunt: “the only morally acceptable form of democracy is liberal democracy”. By that he means a “decent” state, a type of policy that supposes we are “destined to be ruled by elites” but nevertheless checks top-down tyranny through periodic elections and the protection of citizens through written constitutions and law enforcement mechanisms that guarantee the equal right of individuals to pursue their “private economic, literary, or religious concerns without having to answer to anyone else”. Like Francis Fukuyama before him, Ryan regards these ideals of liberal democracy as morally and politically universal. They represent a triumph of European modernity, a net advance over all previous political thinking.
In support of this position, On Politics comes crammed with smart observations and wise advice. Readers unfamiliar with figures such as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu and Marsilius of Padua, or with scores of lesser-known political writers, will profit from its clear explanations and well-crafted prose. There’s one trouble: the crisp narrative is framed throughout by a reductive teleology. In other words, the history of political thought from Herodotus to the present is told for the sake of a single end, a telos or final cause: persuading the reader that liberal democratic ideals are the touchstone of political progress.
Just as latter-day liberals often credit John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) as the founding statement of liberalism – even though it knew nothing of the term or its present meanings – so Ryan lines up past political thinkers for the purpose of assessing their liberal credentials. Here there’s an odd paradox: despite its avowed liberal openness, the text is much too closed. Every mentioned thinker, from Aristotle and Aquinas to Alexander Hamilton, Karl Marx, Joseph Schumpeter and John Dewey, is subject to the Liberal Democracy Likeness Test. Some get high marks. Others are graded less generously. More than a few critics of liberalism, figures including Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche, are given short shrift or ignored, reduced to silent victims of the exclusionary impulses of a single-minded grand narrative.
The story gets off to an unpromising start. “Political thought as we understand it began in Athens,” he writes, before repeating the standard point that Athenian democracy was born of struggles against Persian despotism. The political ideal of democracy as citizenship among equals subsequently flourished, he says, but self-government in Athens was constantly prone to demagogy and intolerance of minority opinions. It was founded on slavery and the subjugation of women. It knew nothing of liberalism, which gives “the ordinary person a degree of intellectual, spiritual, and occupational freedom the ancient world never dreamed of”.
Ryan here ignores recent research findings that highlight (for instance) the rich significance of the fact that Athenian democrats regularly sought political advice from female muses and worshipped a goddess of democracy; or that they worried their heads about slavery because they feared the disease of political hubris. Ryan neglects the pre-Greek origins of the vital term demokratia, which has roots in the Mycenaean language of Linear B, first decoded in the early 1950s. And he says nothing about the origins of the basic political unit of early Greek democracy, the assembly, which was an eastern import, through Phoenicia from ancient Syria-Mesopotamia, where archaeological evidence confirms that cities such as Nippur and Babylon were sites of assembly-based politics.
These opening slips tinge Ryan’s global history of political thinking with shades of old-fashioned Orientalism. The west is reckoned the measure of all things; by implication, the east is deemed its inferior appendage. Hence his silence about the historical contributions of Islamic civilisation to the political identity of “the west” – Muslim gifts that included the university, sustained reflection (around 950 CE by al-Farabi) on the merits of democracy, a new type of assembly (the mosque), deep ambivalence about monarchy and the nation state and, possibly, the principle and practice of political representation.
Missing from this book, and much-needed in our troubled times, is a more capacious, globally sensitive understanding of freedom, citizenship and democracy. Even its sense of recent history is distorted by liberal democratic blinders. Consider its shallow engagement with the fundamental rethinking of democracy during the 1940s. Ryan sees this period as the point of triumph of liberal democracy against its Fascist and Stalinist opponents. Closer attention shows this decade was instead a moment of what physicists call dark energy: the universe of meaning of democracy underwent a dramatic expansion, in defiance of the cosmic gravity of contemporary events. The ideal of monitory democracy was born.
Championed in different terms by political writers as diverse as Thomas Mann, Jacques Maritain and (in the English context) George Orwell and JB Priestley, what I call monitory democracy was a new historical form of democracy, one much more sensitive than its predecessors to the evils of arbitrary power. The new ideal wasn’t nostalgic for Greek participatory democracy; and it wasn’t blindly in love with modern parliamentary democracy, liberalism or sovereign territorial states. Monitory democracy implied nothing less than free and fair elections of parliamentary representatives, but it also promised something much more: democracy now meant the continuous public scrutiny, chastening and control of power, wherever it is exercised, including the world of big business, according to standards “deeper” and more universal than the old reigning principles of periodic elections, majority rule and popular sovereignty in constitutional form.
Fed by post-1945 inventions such as human rights networks, truth and reconciliation tribunals, citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting and Indian-style secularism, monitory democracy has brought new vigour to the old democratic ideals of freedom and equality. Whether it will survive is another matter, but what is clear is that it’s not just a “western” phenomenon; in fact, talk of “the west” and references to an east-west divide are unhelpful in grasping both its origins and its current dynamics, which have taken root in a variety of global settings, often well beyond the shores of the Atlantic region.
India, with its unique mix of power-checking mechanisms, from quota-based reservation and citizen satyagraha (non-violent action) to railway courts, water consultation schemes, Lok Adalat dispute resolution and public interest litigation, is the world’s biggest and most dynamic monitory democracy. Whatever is said about its present dysfunctions, it’s not a liberal democracy in Ryan’s sense.
The same is true of Taiwan, whose polity continues to defy the liberal rule that democracy can survive only in a “country” defined by strong feelings of national unity and sovereign territorial borders. Its brave people showed long ago that democracy with “Asian” characteristics was possible; even that democracy (min zhu) had distinctively indigenous “Asian” roots. They demonstrated, against their Chinese Communist party critics, that democracy was not a synonym for western liberal conceit, class domination and selfish “bourgeois” individualism.
Ignoring these and other anomalies, the final part of On Politics moves to explain and justify the continuing relevance of liberalism in the face of many novel 21st-century challenges. It’s the least convincing part of the book. Ryan tries hard to blow the liberal trumpet of openness, equality and individuality, but the sounds are strained. He grows lugubrious. “Only the slow implementation of better governance by weeding out corruption and ignorance will save us, if anything can,” he writes, typically, as if to confirm the old adage that when under pressure broad-minded liberalism is too feathery to stand its own ground.
Ryan says not a word about the present economic crisis or what it teaches us about the dangers to democracy of bubble-prone markets. He’s instead cheered by the improbability of “major wars”, vexed by the dilemmas of “humanitarian intervention”, but weighed down by a long list of political dangers. “Globalisation”, “failed states” and “terrifyingly uninformed” opinions circulated by mass media are among his concerns. So, too, are “sectarian strife”, “old-fashioned nationalism” and our limited “ability to govern a shrinking world”.
Who will read this thousand-page defence of liberal democracy? Busy young people will probably not find it attractive, especially those with a healthy sense of fast-changing realities, a democratic attachment to new social media and a strong sense of disaffection with parliamentary politics. With jobless figures high and rising within their ranks (30 per cent in Italy, 50 per cent in Spain, 5.5m in the European Union alone), many young citizens now feel excluded from the democratic game. Their cynicism flourishes. Dropping out is their new norm.
Who can blame them? Young citizens see few intelligent political leaders who speak their language, actively represent their interests and work for equitable political change. For many, “liberal democracy” is phantom democracy, a game played by rich and powerful men trading in broken promises. They see that Big Money and Big Lobbying disproportionately win votes, and that the rhythms of parliamentary government are out of whack with environmental catastrophes such as Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. Parliamentary democracy seems reactive, dragged down by its inability to address large domestic and cross-border issues. Especially worrying, many young people say, is the growing resort to executive rule. From drones and nuclear weapons to imposed fiscal austerity and environmental policy, decisions of basic importance to the lives of millions of people are being decided (or blocked) arbitrarily, behind closed doors, often in remote cross-border settings.
Is it possible that these youthful complaints are early warning signals, sirens sounding worse things to come? Are we perhaps entering times comparable to the great crisis that brought democracy to its knees during the 1920s and 1930s? Nobody knows. “Human beings are historical creatures, moved by reminiscence as much as by hopes for a far future”, Ryan writes – but what exactly this rule means in our times remains unclear: “All we know is that what happens will come as a surprise.”
What we do know from the history of democracy is that bold new political thinking never comes easily in periods of crisis. Political drift and mental confusion often get the upper hand – which is why, in a wonderfully curious way, this long, learned but strangely antiquarian book is so important. Yes, it’s too tame, too bound up with western presumptions and too blinded by its own liberal precepts. But we should thank Ryan for reminding us that in this crisis political thinking really matters, that the new dangers to democracy cannot be undone without the help of political thinkers who strive to jump over their own shadows, who seek fresh ways of spelling out visionary alternatives to the public, with a strong sense of urgency, backed by premonitions of what might happen if democracy were to be hollowed out, emptied of meaning, turned into something useless or perhaps even dangerous.
John Keane is professor of politics at the University of Sydney and director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. He is author of ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ (Simon & Schuster)
Pictures are taken from ‘Magnum Revolution: 65 Years of Fighting for Freedom’, the photo co-operative’s anthology of revolutionary moments from the 1956 Hungarian uprising to the Arab Spring of 2011-12