Tuesday, January 11, 2005

What's wrong with democracy?

Next week, openDemocracy is likely to publish Open Parties? A Map of 21st Century Democracy by Paul Hilder. This follows an argument for an open political party by George Papandreou, leader of the PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party.

Paul's piece includes a diagramme of democratic options in the 21st century which I really like, and have called the psychedelic daisy of open politics. Groovy.

Among several things that help me realise how little and how superficially I have thought about some of the issues here is Loren Samon's new book What's Wrong With Democracy? - From Athenian Practice to American Worship (see book details here).

Samon, an associate professor of classical studies at Boston University, says his purpose is to present and foster criticism of modern democracy. He emphasises that he means criticism and not simply "debate about" or "discourse concerning" democracy. He writes:

"Once we have reached the point where we not only call our government by a misleading name, but also look to the ancient creator of that name in order to justify or to better understand our misnamed government, the situation has become perverse. But it is also possible that the current situation presents dangers more threatening than merely the semantic cloud surrounding the word democracy. For although Americans now suffer from a kind of national delusion, in which we live in a constitutional representative republic but believe we live in a democracy, we also have come to act, and to expect our political leaders to act, as if our government is a democracy (as traditionally defined) and as if the popular will represents a moral ' good' in society. Like any patient suffering from a psychosis, American society perhaps needs to be put on the analyst's couch and force to confront the realities of its own nature and democracy's sordid past".

Samon's introduction continues:

"Many Athenians, like most [ancient] Greeks, did admire liberty (eleutheria) and equality (isonomia), but they did not conceive of them in the same way moderns do, and neither were these ideals the fundamental or distinctive features of Athens or even Athenian democracy. So far as we can determine, [they] were more or less universal Greek values...[emerging] with the independent, property-owning yeoman farmer and the polis ('city-state') form of regime that dominated Hellas after about 800BC".

And on Athens as model:

"The modern desire to look to Athens for lessons or encouragement for modern thought, government or society must confront this strange paradox: the people that gave rise to and practiced ancient democracy left us almost nothing but criticism of this form of regime...What is more, the actual history of Athens in the period of democractic government is marked by numerous failures, mistakes and misdeeds - most infamously, the execution of Socrates - that would seem to discredit the ubiqituous modern idea that democracy leads to good government".

One of the targets in Samon's introduction is what Mark Mazower calls pick'n'mix history. In an article for the Financial Times (online 9 Jan), Mazower (professor of history at Columbia University) warns against the dangers of selecting an historical analogy that suits political expediency but has unsound analytical foundations:

"How nice it would be if the success and tranquility of the post-1945 Allied occuptions had really offered reliable pointers to Iraq's post-invasion. Yet this parallel, frequiently drawn by think tanks and policy insiders, is little more than wishful thinking. Taking occupation seriously would have meant pondering the French experience in Algeria, the Russians in the Caucasus or the Italians in Ethiopia. History is not a pick'n'mix box, in which you can pick only the sweet ones".

So what use is history?

"As a discipline it is neither predictive, nor a practical guide to action: its lessons are not so specific. Yet it remains an essential tool for scrutinising the easy moralising, the idealogical certainties and expansive claims that batter our ears...Two centuries ago, Friedrich Schlegel, the German critic, suggested that the study of the past gives us 'a calm, firm overview of the present [and] a measure of its greatness or smallness'. "

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